The Divine Essence and Attributes

In this section we shall cite some examples of the Nahj al-balaghah's treatment of the problems of theology related with Divine Essence and Attributes. Later we shall make a brief comparative study of the issue in various schools and conclude our discussion on this aspect of the Nahj al-balaghah.

However, before proceeding further, I ask for the reader's pardon that the discussion in the last three sections became a bit technical and philosophical, which is not very welcome for those not used to it. But what is the remedy? Discussion on a book such as the Nahj al-balaghah does entail such ups and downs. For this reason, we shall limit ourselves to giving only a few examples from the book on this subject, and refrain from any elaborate discussion. Because, if we were to comment on every sentence of the Nahj al-balaghah, the result will be, as is said: My mathnawi requires seventy maunds of paper.

The Divine Essence

Does the Nahj al-balaghah have anything to say about the Divine Essence and how to define it? The answer is, Yes, and a lot. However, much of the discussion revolves around the point that the Divine Essence is Absolute and Infinite Being, without a quiddity. His Essence accepts no limits and boundaries like other beings, static or changeable, which are limited and finite. A changeable being is one which constantly transcends its former limits and assumes new ones. But such is not the Divine Essence.

Quiddity, which may qualify and confine Him within limits of finitude, is not applicable to Him. None of the aspects of being are devoid of His Presence, and no kind of imperfection is appllicable to Him, except absence of any imperfection whatsoever: the only thing amiss in Him is absence of defect or inadequacy of any kind.

The sole kind of negation applicable to Him is the negation of all negations. The only kind of non-being attributable to Him is the negation of any kind of imperfection in relation to Him. He is free from all shades of non-being which characterize the creatures and effects. He is free from finitude, multiplicity, divisibility, and need. The only territory that He does not enter is that of nothingness and non-being. He is with every thing, but not in any thing, and nothing is with Him. He is not within things, though not out of them. He is over and above every kind of condition, state, similarity, and likeness. For, these qualities relate to limited and determinate beings characterized by quiddity:

He is with everything but not in the sense of [physical] nearness. He is different from every thing but not in the sense of separation. (Sermon 1 ) He is not inside things in the sense of physical [pervasion or] penetration, and is not outside them in the sense of [physical] exclusion [for exclusion entails a kind of finitude]. (Sermon 186)

He is distinct from things because He overpowers them, and the things are distinct from Him because of their subjection to Him. (Sermon 152) That is, His distinctness from things lies in the fact that He has authority and control over them. However, His power, authority and sovereignty, unlike that of the creatures, is not accompanied with simultaneous weakness, subjugation, and subjection.

His distinction and separateness from things lies in the fact that things are totally subject to His power and authority, and that which is subject and subordinated can never be like the one who subjugates and commands control over it. His separateness from things does not lie in physical separation but is on account of the distinction which lies between the Provider and the provided, the Perfect and the imperfect, the Powerful and the weak.

These kind of ideas are replete in 'Ali's discourses. All the problems which shall be discussed later are based on the principle that Divine Essence is Absolute and Infinite, and the concepts of limit, form and condition do not apply to it.

Divine Unity an Ontological, not a Numerical Concept

Another feature of tawhid (monotheism) as propounded by the Nahj al-balaghah is that Divine Unity is not numerical, but something else. Numerical unity means the oneness of something which has possibility of recurrence. It is always possible to imagine that the quiddity and form of an existent is realizable in another individual being. In such cases, the unity of an individual possessing that quiddity is numerical oneness and stands in opposition to duplicity or multiplicity.

'It is one,' means that there is not another like it, and inevitably this kind of unity entails the quality of being restricted in number, which is a defect; because one is lesser in number as compared to two or more of its kind. But, if a being be such that assumption of recurrence with regard to it is impossible, since it is infinite and unlimited, and if we assume another like it to exist, it will follow that it is the same as the first being or that it is something which is not similar to it and therefore cannot be called a second instance of it. In such a case, unity is not numerical. That is, this kind of unity is not one opposed to duplicity or multiplicity, and when it is said 'It is one,' it does not mean that 'there are not two, three or more of its kind,' but it means that a second to it is unconceivable.

This notion can further be clarified through an example. We know that the astronomers and physicists are not in agreement about the dimensions of the universe, whether it is limited in size or infinite. Some scientists have favoured the idea of an unlimited and infinite universe; others claim that the universe is limited in dimensions so that if we travel in any direction, we shall reach a point beyond which there is no space. The other issue is whether the universe in which we live is the only universe in existence, or if there are other universes existing besides it.

Evidently, the assumption of another physical world beyond our own is a corollary to the assumption that our universe is not infinite. Only in this case it is possible to assume the existence of, say, two physical universes each of which is limited and has finite dimensions. But if we assume that our universe is infinite, it is not possible to entertain the assumption of another universe existing beyond it. For, whatever we were to assume would be identical with this universe or a part of it.

The assumption of another being similar to the Being of the One God-like the assumption of another physical universe besides an infinite material universe-amounts to assuming the impossible, for the Being of God is absolute: Absolute Selfhood and Absolute Reality.

The notion that Divine Unity is not a numerical concept, and that qualifying it by a number is synonymous with imposing limits on the Divine Essence, is repeatedly discussed by the Nahj al-balaghah:

He is the One, but not in a numerical sense. (Sermon 152)

He is not confined by limits nor counted by numbers. (Sermon 186)

He who points to Him, admits for Him limitations; and he who admits limitations for Him has numbered Him. (Sermon 1)

He who qualifies Him limits Him. He who limits Him numbers Him. He who numbers Him denies His pre-eternity. (Sermon 152)

Everything associated with unity is deficient except Him. (Sermon 65)

How beautiful, profound, and full of meaning is the last sentence. It states that everything except the Divine Essence is limited if it is one. That is, every thing for which another of its kind is conceivable is a limited being and an addition of another individual would increase its number. But this is not true of the Unity of the Divine Essence; for God's Unity lies in His greatness and infinity, for which a like, a second, an equal or a match is not conceivable.

This concept that Divine Unity is not a numerical notion is exclusively an Islamic concept, original and profound, and unprecedented in any other school of thought. Even the Muslim philosophers only gradually realized its profundity through contemplating the spirit of the original Islamic texts and in particular the discourses of 'Ali ('a), and ultimately formally incorporated it in the Islamic metaphysical philosophy. There is no trace of this profound concept in the writings of the early Islamic philosophers like al Farabi and Ibn Sina. Only the later philosophers ushered this concept into their philosophic thinking calling it "Really True Unity," in their terminology.