God

(Allah)
   The rich, impressionistic portrait of God that emerges in the Qur’an looms large over all subsequent discussions of the divine within the Islamic tradition. There Allah is pictured as absolutely unitary and unique, the one true reality and the ultimate source of all value, as well as the creator, sustainer and sovereign of everything that exists. This anticipates later philosophical concepts of the divine, as do the traditional Qur’anic attributes of eternity, omnipotence and omniscience. But the God of the Qur’an is no mere abstract explanatory principle; He is a person in the most robust sense, and His great character comes across powerfully through the many ‘beautiful names’ attributed to Him in the Qur’an: He is living, willing, hearing, seeing, speaking, grand, majestic, terrible, sometimes even haughty, but also just, merciful, generous, patient, etc. In spite of His radical otherness and transcendence, He is also intimately concerned with the affairs of His creatures and intervenes when necessary in the course of human history. The most important of these miraculous interventions is the revelation of the Qur’an itself, which sets forth the divine law according to which human beings should live and according to which they will ultimately be judged and rewarded or punished.
   The kalam theologians attempted to defend and clarify this revealed idea of God by means of reason. They thus offered a more systematic, philosophical reconstruction of the poetic portrait found in the Qur’an, albeit one still deeply rooted in, and answerable to, revelation. The two major theological schools, the Mu‘tazilites and the Ash‘arites, both followed scripture in maintaining a creatio ex nihilo cosmology, as well as the world’s radical contingency upon God. However, they emphasized diverse aspects of the Qur’anic portrait. The Mu‘tazilites privileged God’s transcendent unity and justice above all else, interpreting the Qur’an’s anthropomorphic verses figuratively, denying the existence of God’s attributes as something distinct from His unitary essence, and insisting upon the power of free will in human beings. The Ash‘arites’ particular idées fixes were divine omnipotence and freedom: while remaining cautiously agnostic about the true significance of the Qur’an’s anthropomorphic descriptions, they posited God as a radically free agent – the only real agent, in fact – and fashioned an occasionalist metaphysics which eliminated horizontal causality altogether, casting all events (even human choice and volition) as the direct effect of God’s will. The Isma‘ilis furthered the theologians’ move away from a personalized conception of the Divine towards the increasingly abstract and intellectual. They adopted the Mu‘tazilites’ rationalism and penchant for allegorical interpretation, as well as their obsession with God’s absolute transcendence, infusing it with a Neoplatonic emanationist metaphysics. From this matrix they developed a negative theology of sorts, which recast the divine attributes as hypostases or emanations, while maintaining the inscrutable mystery of God Himself. The ultimate unknowability of God would remain a common theme among many philosophers and mystics.
   The Hellenistic falasifa creatively appropriated Neoplatonic emanationism as well, along with Aristotle’s metaphysics/theology. They cast God variously as the Unmoved Mover, First Cause and Necessary Existent, i.e. the self-sufficient ontological ground of the universe which sustains all otherwise merely possible beings. According to this account, God and the created universe are co-eternal, the latter arising necessarily and automatically through God’s nature, rather than having been created ex nihilo through an act of divine free choice. Further, the God of the philosophers seemed to have no interest in – nor any real epistemological access to – the concrete particularities of human history. The falasifa claimed that their demonstrative arguments had revealed the true import of the Qur’an’s revelations, stripped of their figurative garb, and that the truths of philosophy and religion were essentially in harmony. Traditionalists remained unconvinced, however, denouncing the philosophers’ conclusions as a heretical departure from the implicit theology of the Qur’an. And yet one could argue that the worldview of the philosophers was in its own way just as theocentric as that of the Qur’an and the theologians: for them, knowledge of God constituted the apex and culmination of metaphysics or knowledge of ‘divine things’ (ilahiyyat), the most diffi- cult and important of all sciences. They touted its conclusions as therapeutic and even soteriological, effecting the transformation, actualization and perfection of the human soul.
   If the philosophers tempered and even rejected the Qur’an’s personalistic conception of God, the Sufi mystics embraced it wholeheartedly. Without necessarily denying the veracity of the philosophers’ theoretical claims, they set aside discursive reasoning and focused instead on achieving an intimate, first-person experiential knowledge of God by means of various spiritual practices. Although the content of such mystical experiences is by definition ineffable and incommunicable, they were often interpreted as disclosing some kind of fundamental unity with the Divine in which created things have no real ontological density apart from the existence of God (e.g. the ‘oneness of existence’). The school of Illumination (ishraq) articulated their own particular version of this monistic ontology, casting God as the ‘Light of Lights’ and all created beings as continuous and co-eternal with the divine, insofar as they receive luminosity from this one original source.
   Further reading: Burrell 1986; McAuliffe 2001–6; Netton 1989/95; Rahman 1980/94; Shehadi 1964

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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