Contrary to common Muslim perception, Islamic tradition does not hold a unanimous conception of God; furthermore, being able to believe in an omnipotent, perpetually creative and law giving Deity demands clarity of conception, which is intellectually laborious and demands extraordinary dedication.
The foremost act in religion is the acknowledgment of Him. The perfection of acknowledging Him is believing in Him; the perfection of believing in Him is acknowledging His oneness; the perfection of acknowledging His oneness is pledging loyalty to Him and the perfection of pledging loyalty to Him is denying attributes pertaining to Him, because of the qualities of His creation that could be attributed to humans. Everyone of them is a proof that it is different from that to which it is attributed and everything to which something is attributed is different from the attribute. Thus whoever assigns attributes to Allah recognizes His like, and who recognizes His like regards Him as dual, and who regards Him as dual recognizes parts of Him, and who recognizes parts of Him has mistaken Him.
The above statement by Ali ibn abi Talib, recorded in the very first sermon of Nahj al Balagha, is perhaps the earliest recorded pointer towards the problematic of conception of God in Islamic theology at personal as well as academic level. While characterizing the boundaries of this conception for an ordinary believer, this statement carries the historical burden of metaphysical and dialectic issues that are now an important part of Muslim tradition of Kalam. In a subtle way, it also depicts the textual obscurity that has become an inherent part of Muslim discourse regarding essence and attributes of the Divine.
Interestingly, Quran already acknowledged this abstrusity in the seventh verse of the third Chapter when it says that there are clear as well as allegorical verses in it and only those who have deviation in their hearts attempt to interpret the latter; an admonition that at least served well initially and earliest interpreters of Quran after the time of Prophet placed all the statements (may it be Quran or Hadith) regarding essence and attributes of Allah under the ambit of allegorical verses. An often quoted example is of Imam Malik, who when asked about God’s rise above the Throne replied:
God’s rising above the throne is well known but how it occurs is not understandable, the belief in it is obligatory, and asking questions about it is innovation.
Nevertheless, Quran is still a text and had to be accessed by an unbiased reader through usual discursive methods of textual criticism. Hence, with the influx of Greek philosophy and logic, formalization of interpretive disciplines and academic (as well as polemical) exchanges with Christian and Jewish scholars, speculation regarding ultimate nature of God slowly got formalized under the ambit of a separate theological discipline.
According to all well known historical accounts, originators of this speculative tradition – besides raising other theological and eschatological issues – first negated the eternal attributes of God almighty on the pretext that attributes belonging to the creation cannot be ascribed to God as this would lead to negation of God’s unity. In the past, lot of orthodox criticism has been directed against Mutazilites (for their alleged innovation); but many modern scholars – for instance Fazlur Rahman – have asserted that the primary motivation behind Mutazilite discourses was to guard Muslim faith against the onslaught of Christian and Jewish criticism of the time.
Mutazilite conception of God entailed specific stands regarding creativity, nature and will of God which were reacted strongly by Asharites who represented the mainstream orthodoxy of that time. But Asharite doctrine, though momentarily successful in countering naturalism of Mutazilites, eventually resulted in extreme determinism, thereby constructing a belief paradigm in which God, with his absolute will, seemed totally indifferent to individual human morality.
Besides historically less noted opinions of Sufis, orthodox Shi’a and Illuminationists, there were some highly audible solitary voices who tried to bridge gaps between medieval rationalistic trends and orthodox religion. One such individual was Spanish jurist and humanist Ibn Hazm who claimed that foremost sources of all human knowledge are sense perception, faculty of reason and correct understanding of language. Ibn Hazm aptly realized the contemporary trends of his time and differentiated between the methods of accessing revelation between the earliest generation of Muslims and later. The most interesting original observation by him was that the relations between causes and effects as experienced in this world cannot have a direct import in Divine realm. As noted by James Palvin, the synthesis which Ibn Hazm sought to achieve was not realized fully till the time of Ghazali who formalized the principles of Sunni Kalam to full extent.
Iqbal was the first one to comment upon major classical views of medieval times in the light of philosophical and scientific theories of early 20th century. In particular, Iqbal focused on four elements of Quranic conception of God – namely Creativeness, Knowledge, Omnipotence and Eternity – and rendered a reinterpretation within the framework of modern realm of time and space. Iqbal’s primary aim was to frame a set of right questions which can lead towards a coherent understanding of God and the nature of His attributes; an understanding not susceptible to perturbation by modern understanding of the universe. For instance, commenting upon the nature of Divine creativity, he wrote:
The real question which we are called upon to answer is this: Does the universe confront God as His ‘other’, with space intervening between Him and it? The answer is that, from the Divine point of view, there is no creation in the sense of a specific event having a ‘before’ and ‘after’. The universe cannot be regarded as an independent reality standing in opposition to Him.
Despite having profound implications for classical Asharite atomism and traditional discourses of predestination / determinism, Iqbal clearly showed proclivity towards mystic unity of self which he tried to deconstruct afresh. Albeit premature and speculative, he tried to present a road map for future development of Islamic theological discipline and his musings were really illuminating and thought provoking.
In recent times scholars like Karen Armstrong have erroneously observed – perhaps inadvertently – that Muslim conception of God, on the whole, has historically remained symbolic. An indirect import of Armstrong’s thesis – which is primarily focused on Christian and to some extent Jewish discourse – on Muslim theology is that “Unknowing” is an inherent part of Muslim conception of God. Quoting Paul Tillich, a 20th century Prussian military chaplain, she makes her concluding point:
The concept of a ‘Personal God’, interfering with natural events, or being ‘an independent cause of natural events’ makes God a natural object besides others, an object among others, a being among beings, may be the highest, but nevertheless a being. This indeed is not only the destruction of the physical system but even more the destruction of any meaningful idea of God.
One can hurriedly infer similarities among Tillich’s statement, Ali’s sermon and Iqbal’s description of the problem; yet the actual import of Tillich’s argument necessitates realization of God as a distant abstract symbol whose essence or existence cannot be commented upon, a concept which is quite contrary to classical as well as modern Muslim discourse.
The single most important cornerstone is the value of Divine revelation as a common denominator running across various shades of Islamic theology throughout history. The understanding of Quran as a unique metaphysical phenomenon – being authentically originated from the Divine Self – automatically establishes basis to envision an always communicating, guiding God. Therefore, in its incessant endeavor to make sense of God, the intellect must proceed further from this single starting point.