Attributes Of God: Islamic Concepts

This article covers the Attributes Of God: Islamic Concepts.

The word ṣifah (“attribute”; pl., ṣifāt ) is not found in the Qurʾān, but the verbal noun waṣf does appear there one time (6:139), and the imperfect of the first form of the verb thirteen times in the sense of “to ascribe or uphold a description, to attribute, with the idea of falsehood.” This meaning is associated with Allāh (God) in 6:100, 23:91, 37:159, 37:180, and 43:82; these verses seem to indicate that every description of God is bound to fail.

In order to avoid certain confusions, one must remember that the Arabic grammatical categories do not correspond to those of Western languages. Arab grammarians divided words (kalimah; pl., kalām ) into three categories: the verb (fiʿl), the ism, and the particle (ḥarf). But the term ism does not cover the term noun in Western grammar. In fact, the word ism includes, among other things, the maṣdar (verbal noun), the present and past participles, and the “attribute” (al-ṣifah al-mushabbahah), which is the adjective or participle of adjectival value—a situation that could hardly fail to produce a certain variation in the use of the terms “attributes” and “divine names.” To cite only one example, E. H. Palmer, in the introduction to his translation of the Qurʾān (The Qurʾān Translated, Oxford, 1900, p. lxvii), writes: “His attributes are expressed by ninety-nine epithets in the Qurʾān, which are single words, generally participial forms.… The attributes constitute the asmāʾ al-ḥusnā, the good names.…”

Theologians have worked hard to distinguish between the ism and the ṣifah by saying that the ism designates God insofar as he is qualified—for example, the Powerful or the Knowing—whereas the attribute is the entity in the essence of God that permits one to say that he is powerful or knowing—the Power, the Knowledge. In the course of the development of theology and following discussions among different schools, the mutakallimūn (scholastic theologians) refined the notion of the attribute by attempting to distinguish the various relations between the divine essence and the attributes. We shall encounter some of these distinctions below.

Early Creedal Statements

The first dogmatic creeds scarcely allude to the problem of the attributes. Historical conditions easily explain this absence: several years after the death of Muḥammad, the expansion of the new religion, with its political and social ramifications, led the heads of the community to express the essential traits of Islam and to condense them into a formula of faith easy to remember. Some of these formulas are found in the ḥadīth collections. Their common trait is the absence of any distinction between the ritual obligations and man’s relationship to God. Little by little emerges the definition of the five pillars of Islam and then the formula of the Shahādah (“There is no god but God, and Muḥammad is the Messenger of God”) by which the convert is integrated into the community. Already, in a way that was not philosophical but real, the unity of God was affirmed: God is one and he is unique. This was the point of departure for what would soon become the problem of the attributes in God.

Dissensions within the nascent Muslim community quickly gave rise to definite points of view, and those who did not accept them were anathematized. One of the first professions of faith, the eighth-century Fiqh akbar I, does not yet mention the unity of God, which is not questioned, nor for that matter does the Waṣīyah attributed to Abū Ḥanīfah (d. 767). However, with the Fiqh akbar II, the problem of the attributes begins; there one finds, in fact, affirmations such as these: God is one; he has no associates; nothing resembles him; God will be seen in heaven; God is “a thing” (shayʾ), without body, without substance, without accidents; God is the Creator before creating (art. 16); it is permissible to use Persian to designate the attributes of God except for the hand (art. 24); the proximity and distance of God are not material (art. 26); all the names of God are equal (art. 27); the Qurʾān is the word of God (art. 3).

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Extremist Views: The ḤashwĪyah and the ḤanĀbilah

The ḥashwīyah, the all-too-strict traditionalists, take literally the anthropomorphic passages of the Qurʾān, refusing any interpretation and taking refuge in the mystery of God, in whom the apparent contradictions are resolved.

In one passage of al-Juwaynī (d. 1037), reported by Ibn Asākir (Tabyīn, Damascus, 1928–1929, pp. 149ff.; cf. Gardet and Anawati, 1948, pp. 58–59), the author indicates the respective positions of the ḥashwīyah, the Muʿtazilah, and the Ashʿariyah with regard to the principal points of doctrine. The ḥashwīyah sin through excess: for them the attributes of God are like human attributes. In heaven, God will be seen in the same way sensory things are seen; God is “infused” (hulul) in the throne, which is his place; the hand and the face of God are real attributes like hearing and life: the hand is an actual body part; the face is a face in human form; the descent of God to the nearest heaven is a real descent. The eternal Qurʾān is the uncreated word of God, eternal, unchangeable; the individual letters, the ink with which it has been written, are created.

These extreme positions are also those of Ibn Ḥanbal and his disciples. His most important ʿaqīdah, or creed (translated by Henri Laoust in La profession de foi d’Ibn Baṭṭa, Damascus, 1958, p. 88, and by Allard as cited below), numbers no fewer than twelve pages. The problem of the divine attributes, which is to say, the ensemble of questions concerning God himself, is dealt with toward the end of the dogmatic exposition before the refutation of heretics. Briefly recalling the traditional cosmology, Ibn Ḥanbal continues:

The throne of the Merciful is above the water, and God is on his throne. His feet rest upon the stool. God knows all that exists in the seven heavens and the seven earths, as well as all that exists between them.… He knows what is under the earth and at the bottom of the seas. The growth of trees and that of hair is known to him, as is that of every seed and every plant; he knows the place where each leaf falls. He knows the number of words and the number of pebbles, the number of grains of sand and grains of dust. He knows the weight of the mountains; he knows the actions of human beings, their traces, their words, and their breaths; God knows everything. Nothing escapes him. God is on his throne high above the seventh heaven, behind the veils of lights, of shadows, of water, and of everything that he knows better than anyone. If an innovator or heretic relies upon the words of God such as: “We are nearer to him than the jugular vein” (50:16); “He is with you wherever you are” (57:4); “Three men conspire not secretly together, but he is the fourth of them, neither five men, but he is the sixth of them, neither fewer than that, neither more, but he is with them, wherever they may be” (58:7); or if he bases himself on similarly ambiguous verses, one must say to him: What that signifies is knowledge, for God is on the throne above the seventh heaven and his knowledge embraces everything. God is separate from his creation, but no place escapes his knowledge. The throne belongs to God, and the throne is supported by those who carry it. God is on the limitless throne. God is understanding without being able to doubt, seeing without being able to hesitate, knowing without being able not to know, generous without avarice, long-suffering without haste; he is mindful without forgetting; he is alert without negligence; he is near without anything escaping him; he is in movement, he speaks, he looks, he laughs, he rejoices, he loves and he detests, he displays ill-will and kindness; he becomes angry and he forgives; he impoverishes, gives or gives not. Every night he descends, in the manner he wishes, to the nearest heaven. “Like him there is naught; he is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing” (42:11). The hearts of humankind are between two fingers of the Merciful: he turns them over as he desires and engraves on them whatever he wants. He created Adam with his hands and in his image. On the day of resurrection, the heavens and the earth will be in his palm; He will put his feet in the fire and he will disappear, and then he will make the people of the fire come out with his hand. The people of Paradise will look at his face and see it; God will honor them; he will manifest himself to them and give them gifts. On the day of resurrection, humankind will draw near to him and he will be in charge of the reckoning of their actions; he will not confide that to anyone else. The Qurʾān is the word of God, that which he uttered; it is not created. He who claims that the Qurʾān is created is a Jahmī and an infidel. He who says that the Qurʾān is the word of God, but goes no further and does not say that it is uncreated, is of an opinion worse than the preceding one. He who claims that our pronunciation of the Qurʾān and our recitation are created, whereas the Qurʾān is the Word of God, is a Jahmī. And he who does not treat all of those people as infidels is like them. (Qādī Abū al-Husayn, Ṭabaqāt al-ḥanābilah, Cairo, 1952, vol. 1, p. 29; trans. Allard, 1965, pp. 99–100)

The Muʿtazilah

The first essential thesis of the Muʿtazilah concerns the unity of God and thus the problem of the attributes and their relationship with the essence of God. It is the most important thesis of their doctrine, for it is the source of the others and has served to characterize the Muʿtazilah themselves: ahl al-ʿadl wa-al-tawḥīd (“the partisans of justice and unity”).

We have already seen that the Qurʾān contains verses describing God in an anthropomorphic manner (6:52, 7:52, 55:27). There are others that insist on the differences between God and all that is created: “Like him there is naught” (42:11, 6:103). The first generations, mostly fideists, had accepted both groups of verses, taking refuge, by way of reconciling them, in the mystery of God and refusing to give any explanations. Contrary to the “corporealists” “whose extreme views we have seen, they were content to say that God had a hand, ears, and face, but not like ours” (see al-Bājūrī, Ḥāshi-yah … ʿalā Jawharat al-tawḥīd, Cairo, 1934, p. 76, and the satirical verse of Zamakhsharī, the Muʿtazī).

The Muʿtazilah were radical: in their view, the via remotionis, or tanzīh, was to be applied in all of its rigor. The Qurʾān itself invites us to do so: in regard to God one must reject all that is created. The anthropomorphic verses? They will be “interpreted” symbolically; if necessary, they will be denied. Similarly, ḥadīth that go the wrong way will be rejected. It is necessary to maintain, at whatever cost, the absolute divine unity, strict monotheism. Against the anthropomorphisms of “the people of the ḥadīth ” and the ʿAlids, they affirmed their agnosticism in regard to the nature of God (see their creed as reported by al-Ashʿarī in his Maqālāt al-Islāmīyīn, ed. Ritter, Istanbul, 1929, p. 155). Without going as far as the Jahmĩyah, who completely denied the attributes of God, they affirmed that all these attributes were identical with the essence, that they had no real existence. Against the Dahrīyah (materialists), they affirmed a personal creator God.

Likewise, if God is absolutely spiritual, he cannot be seen by the senses; hence the negation of the “vision of God” in the future life, the ruʾyah of the traditionalists (see al-Jurjānī, Sharḥ al-Mawāqif, Cairo, 1907, bk. 8, pp. 115ff.). The absolute transcendence of God in relation to the world leads them to distinguish rigorously between the preeternal (qadĩm) and that which has begun to be (muḥdath) and makes them reject energetically all notion of ḥulūl (the infusion of the divine in the created).

The affirmation of a God distinct from the world poses the problem of the relations of God with this world. The Muʿtazilah ask themselves if God’s knowledge of things precedes them in existence or is born with them; on the whole they conclude in favor of a “contingent” or “created” divine knowledge of free future things and of the possible in general (see al-Ashʿarī, Maqālāt, p. 222 and passim, and al-Khayyāt, Kitāb al-intiṣār, ed. Nyberg, Cairo, 1925, p. 126). They study the object, the limits of divine power; they analyze man’s power over actions and affirm that he creates them by “generation” (tawallud; on which, see Aḥmad Amīn, Duha, vol. 3, p. 59; and Ibn Ḥazm, Fiṣal, vol. 5, Cairo, 1899/1900, p. 52).

Finally, always with the same concern to suppress every shadow of associationism, they affirmed the created character of the Qurʾān, the word of God. In the history of the Muʿtazilah, this thesis has drawn the greatest attention because of its political repercussions. The reasoning of the Muʿtazilah was very simple: God, identical with his attributes, admits of no change; it is thus impossible that the Qurʾān, the word of God in the sense of an attribute, is uncreated, for it is essentially multiple and temporal. The Muʿtazilah did not fail to find texts in the sacred book itself to support their thesis. They concluded that the Qurʾān is a “genre” of words, created by God; it is called “the word of God” because, contrary to our own words, the Qurʾān was created directly.

In his Lawāmiʿ al-bayyināt fī al-asmāʾ wa-al-ṣifāt (Cairo, 1914, pp. 24ff.), Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1209) expounds the different groupings of the attributes in accordance with the schools. He sets forth those of the Muʿtazilah in the following manner: For Abū Ḥashim, the attributes are “modes” (aḥwāl), intermediate entities between the existent and the nonexistent. What ensures the reality of these modes is either (1) the divine essence, whether initially (ibtidāʾan) or by the intermediary of other modes, for in all this it is a matter of essential attributes; or else it is (2) the maʿānī found in the divine essence, in which case it is a matter of entitative attributes or of qualification (maʿnawīyah), such as ʿālim (“knowing”) or qādir (“able”). As for operative attributes, they do not constitute a stable state (ḥālah thābitah) of the divine essence, nor of the maʿānī, but they are made up of the pure emanation of effects starting from God.


It was left to Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 935), a deserter from the Muʿtazilah, to give to it the hardest and one might say the most decisive blows. The doctrine he elaborated would become that of orthodox Islam itself.

A native of Basra, he was for forty years the disciple and then the collaborator of al-Jubbāʿī, the chief of the Muʿtazilah in that city, until one day, suddenly made aware of the dangers that the Muʿtazilah were bringing to Islam, he was “converted” to the true doctrine. He broke publicly with them and consecrated the rest of his life to the refutation of their doctrine.

But at the same time that he attacked his former companions, he took care to put himself in the good graces of the fervent traditionalists, the Ḥanbalī zealots. Their inquisitorial attitude was allied—among the most exalted of them, the ḥashwīyah —with a materialization of doctrine that did not fail to disquiet the intelligent believers. And it was precisely to fend off their misdeeds that al-Ashʿarī, upon arriving in Baghdad, decided to write his Ibānah, or “elucidation” of the principles of religion. In an apostolic captatio benevolentiae, he expressed his admiration for Ibn Ḥanbal out of a desire to show the latter’s disciples that one could be a good Muslim without falling into the exaggerations of literalism.

What was al-Ashʿarī’s method, and on what bases did this doctor, only yesterday a fervent Muʿtazī, ardent promoter of reasoning, construct his “defense of dogma”? First of all, regarding exegesis of the Qurʾān, he thrust aside the much too drastic tanzīh of the Muʿtazilah, which led to taʿṭīl, the total stripping away of the notion of God (Ibānah, Cairo, 1929/30, p. 46; Ibn Ḥazm, Fiṣal, vol. 2, pp. 122–126). He had in mind to keep himself within a literal interpretation of the text and thus clearly seems to present himself as a faithful disciple of Ibn Ḥanbal. One should not be too surprised that the creed opening the short treatise of the Ibānah explicitly refers to the severe imām, covering him with eulogies. This is a literalism peculiar to al-Ashʿarī, for the later Ashʿarīyah were to move away noticeably from the rigid literalism of their founder and thereby draw upon themselves the fire of an Ibn Ḥazm and of the Ḥanābilah themselves (Henri Laoust, Essai sur … Takī-d-Dīn Aḥmad BTaimiya, pp. 81–82). Likewise, on the question of “the vision of God,” on that of anthropomorphic expressions and attributes (Ibānah, p. 45), he entertains opinions that Ibn Ḥanbal would have subscribed to without fear.

That is the al-Ashʿarī of our direct sources, but there is another one: the figure whom his disciples have in mind. For al-Juwaynī (eleventh century), who would become al-Ghazālī’s teacher, al-Ashʿarī is not a theologian who rallied to the opinions of Ibn Ḥanbal but a reconciler of two extreme positions. We have a clear testimony in the long extract from al-Juwaynī that Ibn ʿAsākir gives us in his Tabyīn (pp. 149ff.). The famous judge shows how his master, in the principal questions, has followed a middle way between the exaggerations of the Muʿtazilah and those of the ḥashwīyah who, in truth, were recruited among the Ḥanbalī extremists (see Gardet and Anawati, 1948, pp. 58–59).

Al-Ashʿarī was not the only one to fight the good fight for the triumph of traditional doctrine. One of his contemporaries, al-Māturīdī, propagated in the eastern provinces of the empire the ideas that the author of the Ibānah fought for in Baghdad. After epic struggles against the old conservatives on the one hand and the Muʿtazilah on the other, Ashʿarism ended up in triumph. It won its case definitively when the famous Seljuk minister Niẓām al-Mulk created chairs for the new theological doctrine in the schools he founded at Nishapur and Baghdad.

This triumph was marked by the successive development of doctrine; three names indicate the principal stages: the qādī al-Bāqillānī (d. 1013), al-Juwaynī (Imām al-Ḥaramayn, d. 1085), and finally al-Ghazālī (d. 1111).


Among al-Bāqillānī’s numerous works, it is in his Kitāb al-tamhīd that we find the most information on the problem of the attributes and the divine names. He deals with it especially in the chapter on tawḥīd, written explicitly against the Muʿtazilah, “for they all affirm that God has no life, no knowledge, no power, no hearing, no vision” (ed. R. C. McCarthy, Beirut, 1957, p. 252).

At the beginning of his treatise, al-Bāqillānī speaks only of the active participles such as ʿālim (“knowing”), qādir (“able”), and ḥayy (“living”), whereas in the chapter on the attributes he seems to affirm that only the substantives employed in language about God designate attributes properly speaking.

In the chapter on the name and the named (al-ism wa-al-musamma), a distinction is made between the names of God, encompassing all the active participles, and the divine attributes, which are substantives characterizing the essence of God or his action. The attribute is of two sorts: that of essence or that of action. From the divine names one deduces logically the existence of the attributes. To what degree are they really existent in God? To respond in precise fashion to this question, he distinguishes two series of terms: waṣf (“description”), ṣifah (“attribute”), and mawṣūf (“described”), on the one hand, and tasmiyah (“nomination”), ism (“name”), and musammā (“named”), on the other. He defines the attribute (ṣifah) as “the thing found in the being described [mawṣūf] or belonging to it; that which makes this thing something acquired is the act of description [waṣf], which is the quality [naʿt] deriving from the attribute [ṣifah] ” (p. 213). Much later he will say: “The act of describing is the speech of the person who describes God or someone else as ‘being,’ ‘knowing,’ ‘living,’ ‘able,’ giving favor and kindness. This act of describing is speech that is heard and its expression; it is different from the attribute subsisting in God and the existence of which entails that God is knowing, able, willing” (p. 214).

In a parallel way al-Bāqillānī gives the following precise details: “The doctrine of the partisans of the truth is that the name [ism] is the named [musammā] itself, or an attribute tied to it, and that it is other than the fact of giving a name [tasmiyah] ” (p. 227).

Thus, to explain the realism of the divine names and attributes, al-Bāqillānī distinguishes between the plane of language and that of reality. “Language affects the reality of the speaker, but the moment that speech [name or attribute] is uttered, it refers only to the one spoken of” (Allard). This distinction presupposes a theory of the divine origin of language that allows humans to enter into reality directly, as it is.

In the chapter dealing with name and denomination, al-Bāqillānī gives a classification of the names and attributes, which can be summarized as follows (p. 235, 5–15; Allard, 1965, p. 308):

  1. Names that express the named—for example, “thing” (shayʾ), “existent” (mawjūd) ;
  2. Names that express that the named is different from the rest—for example, “other” (ghayr), “different” (khilāf) ;
  3. Names that express an attribute of the named, an attribute that is the form, the composite; an attribute that is an exterior aspect; an attribute that is found in the being itself; an attribute that is an action of this being; an attribute that is not an action.

On the question of the anthropomorphism of the Qurʾān, al-Bāqillānī remains very close to al-Ashʿarī: he affirms that God really has a face, and hands, that he is really on his throne. He refuses to interpret these expressions either in a realistic fashion (like the Ḥanābilah) or in an allegorical fashion (like the Muʿtazilah). Similarly, for the “vision of God” (pp. 266–279), al-Bāqillānī insists on God’s transcendence: there is no possible explanation for the way that vision will take place any more than there is for the way that divine speech is to be understood.


With al-Juwaynī a distinction among the divine attributes was made with reference to the notions of the necessary, the possible, and the impossible. In his treatise Al-irshād, which became a classic of kalām, after an introduction consecrated to the study of the character of reasoning and its nature, the author deals with tawḥīd : he proves the existence of God, in particular by the contingency of the world and a novitate mundi; then he establishes two large categories: (1) what exists necessarily in God—the attributes, and (2) what is possible—in which he deals with the visibility of God, the creation of human acts, justifica-tion and reprobation, prophetology, eschatology, and the imamate.

As regards the attributes, al-Ashʿarī spoke of bi-lā kayf (lit., “without how”): affirmation of the existence of the attributes while refusing to ask about their mode (kayf) so as to safeguard, at one and the same time, the divine transcendence and the explicit assertions of the Qurʾān. Al-Juwaynī goes further: he divides the attributes into nafsī (“essential”) and maʿnawī (of quality, or “entitative” [Allard]). The “essential” attribute is every positive attribute of the subject that resides in the subject so long as it lasts and that does not come from a cause. The qualitative attribute comes from a cause that exists in the subject (Irshād, ed. and trans. Jean Dominique Luciani, Paris, 1938, pp. 17–18; trans. p. 39). Next al-Juwaynī sets down the different attributes of God: existence, eternity, subsistence, dissimilarity to all things—in particular the absence of extent, hence the obligation to interpret allegorically those passages of the Qurʾān that presuppose extent.

Then al-Juwaynī affirms that God is not a substance (jawhar), which implies extent, and thus he refutes the Christian doctrines on the Trinity. After that he shows the unicity of God by the argument of “the natural obstacle”: if there were two gods, their wills could be discordant. Finally, the seventh chapter is dedicated to the qualitative attributes: God is powerful; he is willing, living, and so forth.

Contrary to most of the mutakallimūn, he preserves the system of the “modes” (aḥwāl), which in his opinion resolves the rather delicate problem of the relations of the essence of God with the attributes, the mode being an attribute attached to an existing thing but which is qualified neither by existence nor by nonexistence (pp. 47–48/81–83).

To know the divine attributes we cannot but start with that which is known to us: the invisible can only be known by starting with the visible. The bonds that unite the two are of four kinds: the law of cause (to be knowledgeable in the visible world is a result of knowledge), the law of condition (to be knowledgeable presupposes that one is alive), the law of essence (the essence of the knowing person is to have knowledge), and finally the law of proof (the action of creating proves the existence of the Creator, p. 49/83–84).


Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali

Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali

Of the works of the great theologian al-Ghazālī, I shall confine myself here to only two: the Iqtiṣād fī al-Iʿtiqād (The just mean in belief) and Al-maqṣad al-aqṣã: Sharḥ asmãʾ Allãh al-ḥusnã (The further goal: Commentary on the most beautiful names of God).

In the first book, al-Ghazālī devotes the first four chapters to establishing the nature of kalām, its social function, its method, and the category of people it addresses. Then he divides the ensemble of the questions envisaged into four main parts, expressed precisely: since God is the object of kalām, one should first of all study him in his essence (first part), then in his attributes (second part); one then should consider God’s action, that of his personal acts (third part) and those of his envoys (fourth part). The whole of the work may be summarized as follows:


The nature of kalām ; its importance; its methodology.

I. The Divine Essence. (1) God exists. (2) He is eternal. (3) He is permanent. (4) He is insubstantial. (5) He is incorporeal. (6) He in nonaccidental. (7) He is undefined. (8) He is not localized. (9) He is visible and knowable. (10) He is one.

II. The Attributes of God. (1) The attributes in themselves: life, knowledge, power, will, hearing, sight, speech. (2) The “status” of the attributes: (a) they are not the essence; (b) they are in the essence; (c) they are eternal; (d) the divine names.

III. The Acts of God (what God can or cannot do). (1) God can choose (is free) to impose no obligation on his creatures. (2) Or he can choose to impose on them what they cannot do. (3) God does nothing in vain. (4) He can make innocent animals suffer. (5) He can fail to reward one who obeys him. (6) The obligation of knowing God comes from revelation alone. (7) The sending of prophets is possible.

IV. The Envoys of God. (1) Muḥammad. (2) Eschatology (and faith). (3) The caliphate. (4) The sects.

The Maqṣad al-aqṣā is a small treatise numbering about a hundred pages in the Cairo edition (n. d.), on the attributes and the divine names. A long introduction contains an analysis of the nature of the name and its relations with the named, along with its meaning in reality and in the spirit. Al-Ghazālī distinguishes among the different categories of names—univocal, synonymous, equivocal—and shows how the pious man finds his happiness in this world in attempting to pattern his life on the “divine morality” expressed by the attributes and the names. In the second part, a more or less lengthy account is given to each of the ninety-nine names of God.

(For the development of the doctrine of the divine attributes and the place it occupies in the later theological treatises of al-Shahrastānī, al-Rāzī, al-Bayḍāwī, al-Ījī, al-Jurjānī, al-Sanūsī, and, for the contemporary period, al-Laqānī, al-Bājūrī, and Muḥammad ʿAbduh, see Gardet and Anawati, 1948, pp. 160–174.)

The FalĀsifah

In the wake of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophy, al-Fārābī (d. 950) and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna; d. 1037) elaborated a metaphysical notion of God that attempted to return to the Qurʾanic data. For al-Fārābī as for Ibn Sīnā God is the necessary Being as such; in him essence and existence are identical; he is without cause and the cause of everything; he belongs to no genus nor to any species; he has no contrary in any respect; nothing resembles him. He is the Truth, the pure Good, the pure Intelligence; he is generous; he is life; he is blissful. He knows because he knows himself, and so forth.

But what becomes of the divine attributes in this conception, and what degree of reality do they have outside of the divine essence? In referring more or less explicitly to Aristotelian principles, al-Fārābī, and after him Ibn Sīnā, consider the attributes as properties of the essence, but expressed negatively. The principle is as follows: Certain terms, although applied to creatures, can also be applied to God, but only by taking into account the manner in which one would make the attribution. Insofar as they are applied to creatures, they are accidents of different kinds, but, applied to God, they should be considered properties expressing only action. Moreover, terms that, when applied to created things, are positive in both their form and signification, when applied to God have a negative sense while retaining their positive form. Al-Fārābī would say of the divine attributes, for example, that they fall into two groups: (1) those that designate what belongs to God by virtue of himself and (2) those that designate what has a relation to something else outside of him, that in fact designate an action. As examples of the latter, al-Fārābī mentions justice (al-ʿadl) and generosity (al-jūd) ; as an example of the former, he would say that God is not wise through wisdom that he would have acquired by knowledge of something outside his essence, but rather it is in his own essence that he finds this knowledge. In other words, the nonrelational predicates, such as wisdom, are affirmed of God as if belonging to him in a negative sense: the qualities they express were not acquired from something external to his essence.

In the same manner, Ibn Sīnā explains that the attributes are properties that reveal not the essence of God, but only his existence. Even then they only reveal it in describing the actions of God or his dissimilarity to other things. So much so is this the case that even when the predicates are adjectives of positive form one must interpret them as signifying actions or negations.

One can understand that, under these conditions, al-Ghazālī had a good chance to show that the falāsifah (he had in mind al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā above all) were practically denying the reality of the distinction between the essence and the attributes; see his exposition of the doctrine of the falāsifah on this point and his criticism in Tahāfut al- falāsifah (Incoherence of the Philosophers).

With certain reservations, Ibn Rushd (Averroës) adopted Ibn Sīnā’s position on the divine attributes and attempted to refute al-Ghazālī’s attacks in his Tahāfut al-tahāfut (The Incoherence of [al-Ghazālī’s] Incoherence).

In conclusion one may say that, from early times down to the present, the divine attributes and names have played an important role in Muslim piety among the educated and the common people alike. The faithful need to address themselves to God, to a living God, and they can only reach him through those descriptions that the Qurʾān has offered, precisely in order to make him accessible to those who invoke him. The Muslim prayer beads (subḥah) serve to remind those who hold them while reciting the “most beautiful names of God” that their creator is among them and that he is enveloping them in his protection and mercy. It is no exaggeration to say that the quintessence of Muslim piety finds its best sustenance in this fervent meditation on the attributes and the divine names.

See Also


For the general development of Islamic theology, see Louis Gardet’s and my Introduction à la théologie musulmane (1948; 2d ed., Paris, 1970); J. Windrow Sweetman’s Islam and Christian Theology, 2 vols. (London, 1942–1947); Harry A. Wolfson’s The Philosophy of the Kalām (Cambridge, Mass., 1976); and A. J. Wensinck’s The Muslim Creed (1932; reprint, New York, 1965).

There are many studies on the divine attributes in Western languages. In my article “Un traité des Noms divins de Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, le Lawāmiʾ al-bayyināt,” in Arabic and Islamic Studies in Honor of HARGibb, edited by George Makdisi (Leiden, 1965), pp. 36–52, I discuss al-Rāzī’s seminal work on the subject. For al-Ashʿarī’s approach to the question of the attributes of God, Otto Pretzl’s Die frühislamische Attributenlehre (Munich, 1940) is an important study based on al-Ashʿarī’s Maqālāt al-islāmīyīn. Other works to be consulted include J. W. Redhouse’s “The Most Comely Names,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12 (1880): 1–69; Youakim Moubarac’s “Les noms, titres et attributs de Dieu dans le Coran,” Le Muséon 68 (1955): 93–135; Jacques Jomier’s “Le nom divin ʾal-Raḥmānʾ dans le Coran,” in Mélanges Louis Massignon (Damascus, 1957), vol. 2, pp. 361–381; Denise Masson’s Le Coran et la révélation judéo-chrétienne, 2 vols. (Paris, 1958), especially chapter 21, “Les attributs de Dieu,” pp. 15–82; and Michel Allard’s Le problème des attributs divins dans la doctrine d’al-Ašʿari et de ses premiers grands disciples (Beirut, 1965).

Abraham S. Halkin’s “The Hashwiyya,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 54 (1934): 1–28, is a useful introduction to the doctrines of that group. For more details on the Muʿtazilah, see Richard M. Frank’s very technical study, Beings and Their Attributes: The Teaching of the Basrian School of the Muʿtazila in the Classical Period (Albany, N.Y., 1978). The doctrines of the falāsifah and al-Ghazālī’s criticism of them are discussed in Harry A. Wolfson’s “Avicenna, Algazali and Averroes on Divine Attributes,” in Homenaje a Millás-Villicrosa, vol. 2 (Barcelona, 1956), pp. 545–571, and in Ibn Rushd’s Tahāfut al-tahāfut, which has been translated by Simon van den Bergh as The Incoherence of the Incoherence, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1954). On Gnostic and mystical elaborations of the attributes of God, see A. E. Affifi’s The Mystical Philosophy of Muhyid Din Ibnul ʿArabī (Cambridge, 1939), index 2, and Reynold A. Nicholson’s Studies in Islamic Mysticism (1921; reprint, Cambridge, 1976), pp. 77–148.

By Georges C. Anawati (1987)

Translated from French by Mary Ann Danner

This article is borrowed from the Encyclopedia of Religion.