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"There is nothing like unto Him": How have Muslim theologians reconciled the apparently conflicting verses of the Qur’an which speak of God’s attributes?

Say: ‘He is God, the One and Only;
God, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begetteth not, nor is he begotten;
And there is none like unto him’
1

Thus is the whole of Islamic theology summarized, in perhaps the neatest possible nutshell. Through literary analysis alone, one might discover all the information tucked a priori into the secret dimensions of the kind of poetic language used throughout the Qur’an. A certain amount of inductive work will have to be employed on the part of the reader in order to open up the dimensions obscured by the face value meanings that Words present us with (inductive since poetry does not work as neatly and unequivocally certain as, for example, geometry). One could almost treat the remainder of the Qur’an as an exegesis of this one chapter, as far as its theological information goes.

So there is none like unto Him, until there is a need to provide a description of Him, and although there are a lot of things on the list of what God has been compared to in the Qur’an, I do not believe there is anything of a conflict here at all. Of course there has been a conflict (of an entirely different kind however, one involving people and not insentient words) and it is still playing out to this day, but it seems to me that regardless of any of this, it has been made crystal clear in the Qur’an itself how the author must have intended it to be understood- that metaphor has been employed very liberally throughout, making humanly unknowable concepts possible to grasp, to at least some extent: ‘And We have explained to man, in this Qur'an, every kind of similitude.. 2’ Earlier on, there had been laid out some quite unambiguous guidelines for reading for optimum benefit: ‘In it [the Qur’an] are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical.. but those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah’3.

These verses of ‘established meaning’ and those which are ‘allegorical’ are technically known as the explicit (muhkam) and implicit (muttashaabih) verses, respectively. The implicit verses have been designated as unknowable by humans and other created beings as ‘no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah’, and according to some scholars of the Qur’an (in and out of the mainstream of Islam), exegesis is only possible on the explicit verses as, presumably, even direct revelation would not be sufficient to make what by definition cannot be understood, understood. One might make the obvious objection to such a treatment of the Qur’an that surely a Supreme Being would have both the absence of the kind of vanity that would lead somebody to try to prove their superior intellect by demonstrating how it can comprehend what nothing else can, and the power/skill in authorship, to compose a wholly comprehensible book.

Mohamad Shahrour quite ingeniously avoids this mire of argument, attempting to ‘link the Absolute, comprehensive knowledge, which is in Allah, and the relative, partial knowledge, which humans have'4, by inventing a timeline based on a view of the evolution of human theology which would support his idea. The idea is that as a collective, Mankind is a slow learner, and it has fallen and been falling short of the ultimate Truth throughout its history. Therefore, suggests Shahrour, the Qur’an is eternally relevant, and this it would not have been without the ambiguous verses, as a volume that is entirely and eternally explicit and obvious could not, by definition, be flexible enough to remain relevant to all humans at all times5.

Allama Tabatabi’i’s road towards the reconciliation of apparent opposites has far fewer bends in it than Shahrour’s. Taking the verse which describes the explicit verses as the ‘foundation’ (or ‘source’) of the Qur’an to mean ‘..the theme of the rest of the verses is secondary and dependent upon them.. the meanings of the implicit are illuminated by referring them back to the source.. verses’6, which eventually means that the Qur’an is, potentially, entirely knowable by all humans, but to various degrees according to individual levels of intelligence and spiritual development- ‘He sends down water from the skies, and the channels flow, each according to its measure’7.

There have been other attempts at this kind of reconciliation, for instance the Mu’tazilite school in particular will recommend pursuing an allegorical or analogical interpretation of scripture where a literal understanding would have been misleading or deceptive (departing slightly from the view of the Qur’an as it is generally understood, and is by its own declaration, a perfectly straightforward book, immediately accessible to the common man: ‘We have made it a Qur'an in Arabic, that ye may be able to understand’8.). They fully appreciate that there is a humanly impenetrable barrier dividing language and the concepts it is used to convey, and consequently will never speak of God in positive terms. The Shi’ites, while not as strict followers of this negative way, nevertheless also try to avoid, as far as it is possible or relevant, positively describing God.

To give a brief literary analysis of the above chapter (112 Al-Ikhlas) before I continue: firstly, it is composed entirely of explicit terms, nothing is ambiguous and there ought to be no room for confusion. It is presented as a direct and verbatim report of Divine revelation, as if nothing is omitted- the command to ‘say’, (or 'recite', 'repeat') is included with the message. This chapter is also an interesting display of the symmetry of opposites archetype (though this is probably merely incidental). The first half lists some of what one might presume are essential attributes of God: ‘Wahad’ (an extremely Singular being), ‘samad’ (eternal and absolute- or, to use Rahman’s rather bizarre definition, ‘an immovable and indestructible rock, without cracks or pores, which serves as sure refuge from floods’9): both positive descriptors. The latter half works from the opposite direction, taking the via negativa and illustrating what God is not and does not. The opening verse is all inclusive and the ending verse is unequivocal. This pertinent final verse might be read as ‘He is nothing like anything any of you have ever seen, or can ever possibly dream of’- of course He’s not, if we think that anything we could ever rightly worship as a higher power can be understood by mere human intelligence we might as well also try to teach bacteria to appreciate Beethoven (I’ll save you some time and tell you right now that this will not work, we can’t seem to be able to teach bacteria anything).

Any worlds ‘beyond’ the immediately obvious are very difficult to describe in any human language- indeed the ‘outer’ (or, if you prefer, ‘inner’) dimensions are famous for this, at least to those who can honestly claim to believe to have experienced something numinous, who tend to take this property of God, (‘ineffability’), for granted (‘outer dimensions’ is another term like god, heaven and so on that is highly difficult to define, as there is no consensus on what the things which we don’t know how to see look like.. but ‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful [unfortunate word he used, pay it no attention] tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”’- it would be missing the point, not to mention also causing a loss of time, to start splitting hairs on irrelevancies.)

One way to treat theology is in a positive direction, i.e. as an exploration of God’s sifat-e-Thubutiyya, his positive attributes. The other direction one might move in when studying God is from his sifat-e-Salbiyya, his negative/privative descriptors, e.g. that ‘..there is none like unto Him’, &c. As for the former category of God’s attributes, imam Al-Ghazali has compiled a list in his ‘Kimya-yi Sa’adat’: Hayat (life), ‘Ilm (in this context, omniscience), Sam’ (hearing), Basar (seeing), Qudra (omnipotence), Irada (will), Kalam (speech), and Takwin (creativeness). Although these are all basically human or super-human characteristics, Ghazali continues: ‘Though He does not resemble any of His creatures, it is possible to know Him in this world as much as He makes Himself known and to see Him in the next world. In the present world He is known without [the subject] realizing how He is, and in the Hereafter, He will be seen in an incomprehensible way’10.

Metaphor is about the only tool Man has at his disposal for understanding God (and heaven, visions of or experiences of visitations from angels/saints/ancestors/EBEs, all of which are usually very conveniently presented as visual metaphors; also communion with nature, blissful transcendence and so on) and it is, if not strictly so, practically impossible to move any closer. How does one accurately describe an intuition, or a feeling? It cannot and has not been done, never precisely and to the fact anyway, but there have been attempts at such a compromise: as an example, take the many faces of God in India. Cluster together sufficient concepts and corners and a cataphatic, mechanical, blocky understanding of the whole will eventually emerge. And as the Indians have identified and described in stone and clay &c. the various aspects of what they have understood God to be, so too is the Qur’anic God analogically deconstructed and his characteristics positively described- for instance mercy, wisdom and so forth. And even this particular system of description, explicit as it is as what it is, seems to be engineered such that it should leave no doubt as to the irreconcilability of that which is familiar to human experience and that which is not: tradition has given ninety-nine names to God- a full hundred would have implied immediate unlimited access to unknown knowledge. This taken in combination with the final verse of Surat 112 (al-Ikhlas) above, should make perfectly clear to anybody the idea that these words do not completely present the intended concepts behind them, but in stead function as filters to reduce what the human mind cannot comprehend to a size and shape that it can.

Or consider the instance (removed from the point though useful as an analogy nonetheless) of the Arabic ‘wahad’, translated ‘the One and Only’ above (or alternatively take a look at any word in any foreign language). This translation, of course, is imprecise, as there is no perfect English equivalent to this, or any, foreign concept symbolized in vocalizations and their corresponding glyphs. Cultures evolve depending on the interaction of a huge range of variables, many different systems working in opposition or in harmony: geography, climate, wealth of resources and so forth. The values and order of priorities held by people will vary between places and as a result so will the range of concepts dressed in each of their various symbolic noises. One cannot expect the languages spoken in places as far removed from one another as Britain and the Arabian peninsular to have pinned down exactly the same concepts. A slightly more proximate analogy would involve a low-resolution television screen and how faithfully it can describe the external world: the television in this illustration represents the human mind.

The Qur’an may be described as many things, but one thing it certainly is not is a book of mere catechisms which the reader is expected to accept unquestioningly. The attentive reader will find constant exhortations made on him to ‘reflect’ and ‘think’- ‘..Thus doth Allah Make clear to you His Signs: In order that ye may consider..’11- this does not, of course, mean to conjure and invent interpretations for the ambiguous muttashaabih verses, as this would itself be a direct violation. As Fazlur Rahman put it, ‘..this reflecting.. has nothing to do with.. “inferring” God’s existence, but by “discovering” God.. and.. “lifting the veil” from the mind’12, recalling Ghazali’s concern for pure Gnosis in stead of our limiting/limited human knowledge. And so to conclude: the Muslim theologians of course had little difficulty achieving this as they knew enough to be confident that any inconsistency or contradiction found anywhere between the covers of the Qur’an is the result of the comparably pathetic weakness of the human intellect- it took the occasional towering giant to teach the rest of us to comprehend what we didn’t know we could.


Bibliography

Abdullah Yusuf Ali (trans.) The Noble Qur’an
Andreas Christmann, ‘”The Form is Permanent, but the Content Moves”: the Qur’anic text and its interpretation(s) in Mohamad Shahrour’s al-Kitab wal-Qur’an’, in Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an, ed. Suha Taji-Farouki (Oxford University Press, 2004)
Allamah Muhammad Husayn Ṭabataba’i, The Qur'an in Islam: its impact and influence on the life of Muslims (Kegan Paul, 1988)
Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1994)

Notes and references

[1] Qur’an, Surah 112 Al-Ikhlas the Unity, (Makka), Abdullah Yusaf Ali’s translation. I will be referring to his translation of the Qur’an throughout, unless stated otherwise
[2] Qur’an 17:89
[3] Qur’an 3:7
[4] Christmann 2004: 281
[5] Christmann 2004: 282
[6] Tabatabi’i 1988: 35-36
[7] Qur’an 13:17
[8] Qur’an 43:3
[9] Rahman 1994: 11
[10] http://www.naqshbandi.org.uk/Articles/creed.html
[11] Qur’an 2:219-220
[12] Rahman 1994: 11