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In addressing the question of divine essence and attributes, the Mu'tazilites typically stressed the equivalence between sifa (attribute), wasf (description) and ism (name). Based on this principle of sameness, the Mu'tazilites held that if we converse about divine attributes we ultimately describe divinity. The Hanbalites, and most Ash'arites, opposed this claim by drawing a thoughtful distinction between sifa and wasf, positing the former as being ''what is intrinsically in something'', while taking the latter to denote ''what is given as a descriptive report (khabar) about something''.1 However, any account of the attributes has to pass by a hermeneutic or exegetical position with regard to scripture.

Given that the Qur'an (as God's Word) mentions the divine attributes in conjunction with His ''most beautiful names'' (asma' Allah al-husna), one could easily assert that this entails an affirmation of the ontological reality of these attributes. However, this will require a particular method of reading the Qur'an that affirms the attributes without undermining transcendence and unity, or implying anthropomorphism. Inevitably, one wonders how successfully anthropomorphism can be avoided when accounting for verses like ''your Lord's Face ever remains'' (55:27), or ''I created with My own hands'' (38:75). In addition, it is hardly evident how the multiplicity which is implied by any affirmation of the attributes might be reconciled with the idea of God's absolute unity.

From a religious perspective, the Qur'an sets canonical measures for the human condition, while being the locus of textual hermeneutics. Hence, faith is grounded by textuality along with its determining semantics and semiotics. Yet the Qur'an, as God's Word, is manifested in a ''language'' that is grasped religiously as being unlike any human idiom. As a divine ''language'', revelation is not part of the created world of composite substances or contingent beings that are subject to generation and corruption. Any account of the question of God's essence and attributes thus requires some uneasy meditations on the reality of divine speech (kalam). Centrally, the essence-attributes question calls for thinking about the nature of the Qur'an as God's Word. Historically, this tension soon broke surface in the radical disputes that occurred between the Mu'tazilites and the early Sunni theologians.

To defend the divine transcendence and unity against misreading the divine attributes in anthropomorphic terms or unguardedly hinting at multiplicity, the Mu'tazilites concluded that the Qur'an had been created (makhluq). The argument may be reconstructed as follows: if the Qur'an is God's speech, then it is either coeternal with God, and thus uncreated, or it is not coeternal with God. To maintain pure monotheism one must concede that it is created. On this inference, if the Qur'an is coeternal with God, then in order to eschew plurality in the divine oneness, one has to say that the scripture, as God's speech, is one with God. To avoid affirming contraries (unity and multiplicity), a Mu'tazilite would assert that it is not coeternal with God and must therefore be created. This argument is seconded by qur'anic proof-texts that point to the descent of revelation in the Arabic tongue that is constrained by place and time, as to its accessibility to finite human apprehension.

This reasoning, however, is problematic, since it begs a further question: if the Qur'an is created, does this then entail that it is no longer God's Word? The Sunnis radically opposed this controversial thesis. Yet if they refuted it on the basis of arguing that the Qur'an was not created, would this not entail that the Qur'an is coeternal with God? And, hence, would it not compromise the all-important principles of unity and transcendence?

The Mu'tazilite thesis regarding the creation of the Qur'an appears as ill founded on the same grounds that it presupposes, namely, the radical observance of God's transcendence. By stressing transcendence, the belief in the scripture's created status implies that the divine attributes are not real, but are rather revealed in a worldly language for the convenience of human comprehension. The reality of divinity seems to be determinable by the judgements of human reason, which see fit to reject multiplicity even to the point of refuting the attributes and affirming that God's Word was created. The Mu'tazilites censored, through rational directives, the classes of meaningful propositions that could be uttered about the divine. However, by believing that ''human reason'' sufficiently measures what is applicable to God, transcendence became paradoxically delimited by a negation of the attributes. Furthermore, the unfolding of this rationalist impetus resulted in picturing the Qur'an as a creature.

In an archetypal Mu'tazilite move, Wasil ibn 'Ata' (d. 748) is believed to have rejected the affirmation of the attributes of knowledge ('ilm), power (qudra), will (irada), and life (hayat), in order to negate a ''plurality of eternals''. Some later Mu'tazilites restricted the totality of the attributes to knowledge and power, while others reduced them to unity. According to the sources, Abu'l-Hudhayl al-'Allaaf considered the attributes and the essence to be identical, al-Nazzam denied that God has power over evil, Mu'ammar refuted will and knowledge in order to free God's essence from multiplicity, while al-Jubba'a and Abu Hashim asserted that God possesses a knowledge that is identical with His essence and not subsisting beside it. In principle, the Mu'tazila believed that God's 'ilm (omniscience), hayat (life), qudra (power), irada (will), basar (sight), sam' (hearing), and kalam (speech), are all reducible to the dhat (essence). To account for these attributes they stated that God is 'alim bi- 'ilm huwa huwa (knowing by a knowledge that is Him), qadir bi-qudra hiya huwa (powerful by a power that is Him), hayy bi-hayat hiya huwa (living by a life that is Him) and so on.

One of the major difficulties that confronted Mu'tazilism was manifested in the denial of the personal, intimate and uncanny ''relation'' of the worshipper with God, as what grounds the realities of religious experience. By reducing the attributes to the essence, the Mu'tazila seemed to deny worshippers the object of their praise, exaltation and piety. On their view, God is no longer truly seen as the Beneficent, Ever-Merciful Almighty, to whom believers turn in their supplications and invocations in seeking mercy and salvation. Unlike the traditionalists, the Mu'tazilites might even have subverted the obligatory nature of prayer by indirectly emptying it of its content. By replacing the personal character of the Exalted One with a neuter qualification, their opinions became unintentionally closer to the outlook of the pagan Greeks than to the fundamental perspective of monotheism. One wonders how some qur'anic verses would be meaningfully interpretable if God's attributes and names were reducible to His essence. How would a believer heed, with intimacy, fear and hope, verses like: ''He is the Beneficent (al-barr), the Ever-Merciful (al-rahman)'' (52:28), ''God warns you against His Chastisement'' (3:28), ''All praise belongs to God'' (17:111), ''Ask forgiveness of God, surely God is Most Forgiving'' (4:106)?

the hANBALItE position

The Hanbalites believed that God's revelation is there to be recited, and that no interpretations will exhaust its sense. The ontological status of the attributes will remain concealed, and the most that one can affirm about them is their existence, on the grounds that they are mentioned in the Qur'an. Nonetheless, in the eyes of many this does not entail that believers must not exercise a pious effort to comprehend their meaning. It is in this sense that Ash'arites progressed further than Hanbalites in terms of establishing the affirmation of the attributes on theological grounds. Their typical line of interpretation avoided placing believers in a constraining position which stripped them of any say regarding matters of their faith; particularly with respect to their religious experience and its implicitly presupposed conceptions of divinity. The divine attributes are thus not submissively affirmed on the basis of mere imitation (taqlid) or dogma. While conceding that human understanding is restricted whenever it attempts to elucidate the essence-attributes question, they held that this need not entirely disrupt rational inquiry. Consequently, kalam speculative theology was positively endorsed by Ash'ari on the basis that human reason exists to be celebrated despite its ''limited'' nature.

Prior to the concretisation of the Ash'arite school the Hanbalites opposed speculation in religious matters. However, with Ash'arism, theological inquiries were encouraged, although there was no presupposition that they necessarily yielded definite clues about the nature of the divine essence or readily facilitated the acquisition of real knowledge about God. Yet the Hanbalite line continued to maintain that any such moves would be mere linguistic, grammatical or conceptual verbiage, which might well lead to repugnant errors in matters of faith. The truth of the divine essence is veiled, and the principle of transcendence is not to be compromised by speculation. Even if attributes are disclosed in a language accessible to humans, their meaning is not exhaustible by reasoned explications. Given that the divine names and attributes are revealed through God's words in the Qur'an, it becomes religiously obligatory to affirm their reality with conviction and sincerity in belief.

Returning to the polemics posited by the Mu'tazilite thesis concerning the creation of the Qur'an, God's words are pictured as being expressions of a sensory language (''We made it an Arabic Qur'an'', 43:3), which is heard, seen and recited, and, despite its superlative subtleties, can be rationally assessed from the standpoint of human linguistics, grammar and logic. In this sense, whatever is mentioned about the divine attributes, or names, forms part of a spatial-temporal idiomatic structure whose intricate significance may potentially be brought to light by human understanding. According to this doctrine, the attributes and names are reducible to the essence, which remains veiled in its transcendence, even though what can be uttered about divinity is ultimately apportioned by human reason.

By asserting that ''whatever is sensory is created'', Ash'arism occupied an approximately median theological ground between Hanbalism and Mu'tazilism. Consequently, what is recited, heard, read and copied of God's words is created without this entailing that the Qur'an is itself a ''creature''. It may thus be said that the sensible pronunciation (lafziyya) in the recitation (qira'a) of the divine words is created, while divine speech, as what is recited (maqru'), is uncreated. God's attributes can thus be affirmed without being reducible to the essence or being separate from it, and unity is not undermined by the ''semblance'' of multiplicity. One notices here a clear departure from the Mu'tazilite refutation of the reality of the attributes coupled with a simultaneous avoidance of the pitfalls of anthropomorphism. It is nonetheless still the case that in general the Ash'arites adhered in broad terms to the Hanbalite credo, while being moderately open to the use of reasoned discussion in its defence. For the strict Hanbalite fringe, however, God's words are brought forth by way of ''letting them be without how''; namely, without speculating about what they mean whenever confusion or dissent might arise from speculation. One has to submit to the words in faith even where no sufficient explanation is available. Hence, the controversies of kalaam may well run the risk of bordering on heretical innovation (bid'a). Hanbalites typically affirm that the Qur'an is not created, and caution that anyone who holds that the scripture or its utterance (lafz) is created will be an infidel (kafir).2 For instance, Ibn Hanbal held that one could not think that there would be someone other than God who would say to Moses, ''I am your Lord.''3 This is the case given that the Hanbalites hold that God speaks with an uncreated voice (sawt) or letter (harf).4 In this regard, they reject the Ash'arite claim that the qur'anic lafziyya (enunciation) is created. Although Hanbalites emphasise the literal and apparent (zahir) meanings of the Qur'an, they also stress that one must ground them by exegesis (tafsar) based on the canonical tradition of the Prophet and his Companions.5

According to the Hanbalite scholar Ibn Badraan, a modest form of ratiocination in ''representation'', called tamthal, may be used, under restricted circumstances, in rejecting the arguments of the dialecticians (ahl al-jadal). However, he adds that those curious about the nature of the divine attributes should reverently recognise that such matters are necessarily veiled from the workings of reason. In addition, no questions like ''why?'' (lima?) or ''how?'' (kayf?) may apply in this context. When asked about divine speech, one should reply that God spoke to Moses in a way that befits His divine essence; hence, one must restrict one's answer to this: ''And to Moses God spoke directly'' (4:164). God's speech, what He uttered, what is written in the ''Preserved Tablet'' (al-lawh al-mahfuz), what is manifest in the earthly codices of the Qur'an (al-masahif) and is recited by humans, all point to non-creation. Ibn Badraan adds that ''whosoever believes that any of these aforementioned matters are created, should be charged with infidelity, and whoever does not declare that person infidel, shall himself or herself be an infidel''.6 In the same thrust of strictures, it is also mentioned that Ibn Hanbal was once asked: ''What ought we do with the one who [even] holds that the enunciation (lafziyya) of the Qur'an is created?'' He replied: ''You are not to pray behind him, nor to sit next to him, nor talk to him or salute him.''7 In another Sunni traditionalist context, the Maturidi school associated with the legacy of Abu Hanifa permitted a greater use of specu-lation,-although the Maturidis continued to uphold the belief that God is known ''without qualification'' (bi-la kayf).8 Maturidis also objected to the Mu'tazilite claim that ''God is everywhere'', by saying that this formulation, which is not mentioned in the Qur'an, undermines the divine exaltedness, given that God is ''on the Throne'' (al-'arsh) and does not commingle with worldly profanities.9 The remark is also seconded by later more philosophically oriented Ash'arites of the calibre of al-Amida, al-Ija and al-Sharaf al-Jurjana, who argued that God does not join worldly beings nor is He infused in the universe. Maturada also asserts that the divine attributes are ''neither Him nor other than Him'' (la huwa wa-la ghayruh), adding that God is pre-eternally qualified by all His attributes (mawsuf bi-jami' sifatih fi'l-azal).10 It is impossible for the attributes not to be coeternal with God, for that would entail deficiency. However, the coeternal status of attributes does not imply that they are the same as the essence. As Abu al-Muntaha al-Maghnisawa put it, the attributes are not the same as the essence nor are they other than it. He furthermore cautions that ''we should not inquire about such matters''.11 Moreover, when considering the attributes any talk about ''howness'' is to be avoided, since speculations in this regard may result in repugnant innovations. All the divine names are equal in greatness without distinction in rank, since they are attributable to God in His words, while being neither Him nor anything other than Him.12 This is also confirmed in the Hanbalite position, which according to Ibn Batta is best defined by attributing to God what He attributed to Himself in the Qur'an, and following what the Prophet attributed to Him in the hadith, without asking lima (why?) or kayf (how?). One thus ought to submit to God's qudra (power) by way of having simple faith in what is absent and unseen (al-ghayb):13 ''sights cannot attain Him; He can attain sights'' (Qur'an 6:103). The Hanbalite tradition ultimately affirms a belief in all that is mentioned in the Qur'an, be it in its definite (muhkam) senses or its equivocal ambiguities (mutashabih),14 while fundamentally consigning (tafwid) the ''meaning and howness'' of the attributes to God alone.


Unlike the Hanbalite view, the distinctive position of al-Ash'an is best expressed by way of his support of kalaam methods in elucidating the essence-attributes question. After all, he disapproved of unreflective deference to doctrinal dogmas by way of mimetic assent (taqlid), given his firm belief that Muslims have the duty to reason about what it means to know God, since knowing God amounts to knowing the truth (al-h aqq).15

In response to the Mu'tazilite reductive overemphasis on transcendence, Ash'ari argued that God's words about God, as manifested in the Qur'an, set up the directives by virtue of which reasoned judgements about the essence-attributes question are to be measured. The affirmation of God's attributes should be coupled with the negation of implied anthropomorphic determinations. Analogy is problematic when it hints at any form of similitude between God and anything in His world of creation. Authentically to believe that ''nothing is like Him'' (42:11) obligates a refutation of tashbah and tamthll. If the attributes are examined through a radically literal reading, heretical innovation may ensue, as exemplified in the unsustainable doctrines of anthro-pomorphists (mushabbiha) and corporealists (mujassima). Yet some attributes retain the semblance of carrying anthropomorphic meanings when judged from the standpoint of generic resemblances.

Ash'arism established a refined nuance between attributes of action (sifat al-fi'l), which come to be when God intends something and acts, and those of essence (sifat al-dhat or sifat al-nafs). The contraries of the attributes of action are permissibly attributable to God. For instance, it is admissible to state that God is forgiving of repentant believers (as a reward; thawab), while also affirming that He may be unforgiving of unrepentant transgressors who break the covenant of God after its binding (as retribution;'iqab). Forgiveness is thus an attribute of action that admits negation without its resulting contrary being unattributable to God. As for attributes of essence, their contraries are repugnant: the negation of omniscience entails ignorance, while the denial of power results in weakness. Hence the attributes of action are ''negational'' (salbiyya), while the attributes of essence are classed as ''existential'' (wu/udiyya). In this regard, it was commonly held that the sifat al-dhat consisted of the following seven attributes: 'ilm (omniscience), hayat (life), qudra (power), irada (will), basar (sight), sam' (hearing), andkalam (speech). An internal controversy emerged over ''willing'', some holding that it is unlike the other essential attributes, given that it hints at action or intention rather than being everlasting and unchanging


Strict literal exegesis (tafsir), or excessive hermeneutics (ta'wil), may result in groundless extremisms. In emphasising the literal exoteric meaning (zahir), the exegete might present anthropomorphist accounts that compromise transcendence (tanzih), while the stress on the esoteric hidden sense (batin) might lead the hermeneutic interpreter to accord with the outlooks of the various batiniyya sects. Moderation in scriptural readings is to be situated between two extremist poles in interpretation that might lead to heresies, in the form either of a literal anthropomorphism or of the overcoming of its entailments through an excessive allegorical overemphasis on transcendence. This semantic tension characterises the reception of revealed texts and their multi-layered readings.

Faced with the difficulty of interpreting expressions like ''God's hand'' (''I created with My own hands'' [38:75]) or ''God's face'' (''your Lord's Face ever remains'' [55:27]), Ash'ari does not question the realities to which they point, since these are qur'anic statements. However, he again seeks a middle path, refusing to affirm that the referents of God's ''hand'' or ''face'' are either corporeal members or mere metaphors. Again he is guarding against excess in literal exegesis, while being suspicious of allegorical hermeneutics. Despite this desire for a median position, however, he proclaims that any departure from literal readings must be based on valid reasons. When any form of resemblance, similitude or analogy between God and anything in the world of His creation is refuted, this applies to linguistic, ontological and logical reflections on the essence-attributes question. There is an unbridgeable existential-essential gap between creator and created. To hint that God resembles worldly beings is absurd. A semblance of linguistic affinity in reference to attributes does not affirm a similitude in signification. As Ash'ari holds, ''God is not in His creatures nor are His creatures in Him.'' In his Letter to the Frontiersmen (Risala ila ahl al-thaghr), he refutes any mode of equivalence between the divine essence and the divine attributes.16 Yet while the attributes are not reducible to the essence, they are not accidents that are other than it. This ontological difference is not simply a mode of separation in being. In elaborating his thesis, Ash'ari considered with care and thoughtfulness the conditions by virtue of which inferences may be drawn with respect to what is absent and transcendent, on the basis of what is phenomenally experienced; following in this the classical method known as ''al-istidlal 'alii al-gha'ib bi'l-shahid''.

In his Exposition of the Fundamentals of Faith (al-Ibana 'an usul al-diyana), Ash'ari's views seem to come nearer to the apologetics of the Hanbalites. Here he affirms that God does indeed possess a face, eyes and hands. He adds that the divine words are not created and that God will be seen in the afterlife. This latter proposition, derived from a number of hadith, continued to exercise scholars perplexed by the paradoxical nature of this visualising experience. After all, if physical bodies are the only visible entities in the phenomenal universe, what sort of "vision" (ru'ya) is implied in affirming that God will be seen in the afterlife? And if this "visual" experience is not sensory, and hence does not accord with the science of optics ( 'ilm al-manazir), what might its nature be? In response, Ash'ari's affirmation of visibility in the hereafter is coupled with the assertion that its "nature" remains inexplicable and beyond human grasp.

In contrast with the text-based position that Ash'ari advocates in his Exposition, the arguments of his Concise Remarks (Kitab al-Luma') proceed by way of rational evidences (adilla 'aqliyya) and systemic kalam speculations. Moreover, in refuting tashbih (anthropomorphism) and tajsam (corporealism) he offers statements such as ''The face is an attribute that God ascribed to Himself and only God knows its significance.''17 The Arabic utterance wajh (''face''), may thus be posited as an allegory that does not undermine tanzih. In this specific case, hermen-eutics must be exercised to shield the principle of transcendence. In the Remarks Ash'ari asserts that God is unlike anything else and that it is irreverent to imply any analogy, resemblance or similitude in connection with His exaltedness.18 He also argues that corporeity (jismiyya) entails composition (tarkib) and multiplicity (kathra), which contradict the principles of simplicity and unity, and this rational argument is strengthened by the traditionalist point that since God has not referred to Himself as being a ''body'' (jism), we ought not to ascribe any name to Him that He has not applied to Himself, nor should we utter propositions in this regard that are not conformable to the Muslim consen-sus.19 Ash'ari thus affirms God's attributes, while rejecting the attribution to Him of qualities associable with created beings.20 Moreover, all attributes are coeternal with the essence without being marked by otherness (ghayriyya) or privation ('adam).21

Furthermore, Ash'ara asserts in his Remarks that ''God's speech is uncreated and is coeternal with His essence.'' However, as noted earlier, he posits a controversial problem regarding the actual enunciation (lafziyya) of the divine words. He consequently differentiates the cre-atedness of utterances (huduath al-alfaaz) from the beginninglessness of their meanings (qidam al-ma'arn). God's speech is inherent in Him, and in itself it is neither a sensory sound (sawt) nor a graphical trace that is manifested in the form of a letter (harf). Being of the order of human doings, sounds and letters are created expressive traces of the uncreated divine word.

Ash'ari proposes a further argument. Reflecting on the qur'anic verse 16:40, ''For to anything which We have willed, We but say ''Be!'', and it is'', it might be said, based on the generative command ''Be!'' (kun!), that if the Qur'an were created, then it was commanded to come into being by the saying ''Be!'' This would imply that God's words are themselves generated by His word ''Be!'' and that redundantly, the command ''Be!'' itself is generated by another command ''Be!'', ad infinitum. Yet would this not imply that we are faced with a purposeless infinite regress, which is inapplicable in reference to divinity? Therefore, God's words must be coeternal with Him, and He is the exalted eternal speaker who possesses the creative command.


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