God, the First and the Last; the Manifest and the Hidden
Of the many issues discussed by the Nahj al-balaghah is the notion that God is the First and the Last, the Hidden and the Manifest. Of course this, too, like other notions, has been deduced from the Holy Quran; though here we are not going to quote the verses from the Quran. God is the First, but His precedence is not temporal so as to be in contradiction with His being the Last. He is the Manifest, but not in the sense of being physically visible or perceptible to the senses; His Manifestness does not contradict His Hiddenness. In fact His Firstness is identical with His Lastness and similarly His Manifestness and Hiddenness are identical; they are not two different things:
Praise be to Allah, for whom one condition does not precede another, so that He may he the First before being the Last or may be Manifest before being Hidden ... (Sermon 65)
Time is not His accomplice, nor does He need the assistance of tools and agents His Being transcends time. His Existence transcends nothingness and His pre-eternity transcends all beginning. (Sermon 186)
The Divine Essence's transcendence over time, nothingness, beginning, and end is one of the most profound concepts of al-hikmah philosophy. God's pre-eternity does not mean that God has always existed. Certainly God has always existed but Divine pre-eternity (azaliyyah) is something greater in meaning than 'existence at all times'; because, 'existing at all times' assumes existence in time; but God's Being has not only been at all times, It precedes time itself. This is the meaning of Divine pre-eternity. This shows that His precedence is something other than temporal precedence.
Praise be to God, whose creation bears testimony to His Existence; temporality (huduth) of whose creation is the evidence of His preternity the similarity and likeness amongst whose creation proves that He is unique. The senses do not perceive Him and nothing can conceal Him. (Sermon 152) That is, God is both Hidden and Manifest. By Himself He is Manifest but is Hidden from the human senses. His Hiddenness from the senses is due to man's own limitations and not on account of Him.
It needs no proof that existence is synonymous with manifestation; the more powerful the existence of a being, the more manifest it would be. Conversely, the weaker its being is and the more intermingled it is with non-being, the less manifest it is to itself and others. For everything, there are two modes of being: its being-in-itself (wujud fi nagsih), and its being-for-others. The being of every thing for us depends upon the structure of our senses and certain special conditions. Accordingly, the manifestation of a thing is also of two kinds: its manifestation-in-itself (zuhur fi nafsih) and its manifestation-for-others.
Our senses, on account of their limitations, are able to perceive only a limited number of finite objects possessing the characteristics of similarity and opposition. The senses can perceive colours, shapes, sounds, etc., which are limited temporally and spacially; that is, their existence is confined within a particular time and place. Now if there existed a uniform light, always and everywhere, it would not be perceptible. A continuous monotonous sound heard always and everywhere would not be audible.
The Being of God, which is absolute being and absolute reality, is not confined to any particular time and place, and is hidden from our senses. But God in Himself is absolutely manifest; the perfection of His manifestness, which follows from the perfection of His Being, is itself the cause of His hiddenness from our senses. The two aspects of His manifestness and hiddenness are one and the same in His Essence. He is hidden because He is perfectly manifest, and this perfect manifestness conceals Him.
Thou, who art hidden on account of Thy perfect brilliance, Thou Art the Manifest, hidden in Thy manifestness. The veil on Thy face is also Thy face, So manifest Thou art, Thy manifestness conceals Thee from the world's eyes.
An appraisal however brief of the approach of the Nahj al-balaghah and its comparison with that of other schools of thought is essential for discovering the true worth of its views on the problems of theology. We shall confine ourselves to the brief, though not quite sufficient, examples quoted in the foregoing pages and proceed to evaluate them.
The subject of the Divine Essence and Attributes is one which has been discussed a lot by the ancient and modern philosophers, mystics and Sufis of the East and the West. But in general their method and approach is totally different from that of the Nahj al-balaghah, whose approach is highly original and unprecedented. Only in the Holy Quran can be found a precedent for the Nahj al-balaghah. Apart from the Holy Quran, we do not find any other source that provides some ground for the discourses of the Nahj al-balaghah.
As pointed out earlier, some scholars, because of their failure to trace back to some earlier source the notions elaborated in the Nahj al-balaghah, have questioned the authenticity of ascription of these discourses to 'Ali ('a). They have supposed that these discourses appeared in a later period, after the appearance of the Mu'tazilites and assimilation of Greek thought, heedless of the saying:
The mean earth with the sublime heaven does not compare!
What ignorance to compare the Mu'tazilite and Greek ideas with the teachings of the Nahj al-balaghah !