The developed doctrine of the person of Allah in Islam
Islamic theology developed in the interchange of views with the Eastern Church with its emphasis on the person of God rather than the Latin church’s doctrine of sin and the Reformed doctrine of scripture. The elaborate doctrine of God had been established by John of Damascus and this led Muslims to the simple questionings as to what were Allah’s qualities (sifaf). Muhammad had called them this and that but what did he mean? They did not wish to follow the Christian Trinity doctrine of hypostatised persons in their understanding of the 99 names of Allah. There was a growing belief that one of Allah’s qualities, although not expressed in a name must be speech (kalam) but they wanted to avoid to hypostatise this term into a Logos teaching. So at all points there was need of careful definition. Another influence was Greek philosophy as students of Islam went to the roots of all things as a guide. In seeking to protect the unity of Allah they reduced the nature of Allah to a bare un-definable something, described in negatives.
Difficult questions then, were asked by Muslims of their own faith in the early days and so arose the Murdiji’te sect with their doctrine of irdja ‘postponing’ for they wanted to postpone such questions until the Last Day. Yet, overall three tendencies persistently appear.
Such followers were called the people of tradition (ahl-al-hadith); they followed the evidence derived from the Quran, the Sunna and the agreement (idjima) of the Muslim people. For them reason must not be used to question, criticise or expand; the statement must be accepted as it stands.
For example when Allah settles on his throne (Ta-Ha 20:5) it must not be asked how he sits, or compare his sitting with mankind and so developed the phrase bi-la-kaifa wa-la-tashbih “without enquiring how and without making comparison.” There also developed the doctrine of mukhalafa ‘difference’ – everything in Allah is different from the similarly named thing in men; we must not think of it as like. In this connection there is also the doctrine called tanzih – that is removing Allah from any danger of confusion or association with his creatures. It was conceded he was different but yet he must be thinkable for his names give expression of what he is. Traditionalism therefore, could not find out who Allah is but only something like what he is.
Others argued that we could get no real conception of Allah’s real nature – it will always remain a mystery and we should not think the names give us any additional light. He is the most merciful of them that show mercy (Al-A’raf 7:151, Yusuf 12:64,92, Al-Anbiya 21:83) but that cannot mean that he has the human quality of mercy, or of anything in a similar way. He has given that name and what that name means we cannot know nor should we enquire. We can neither admit or reject the possibility of discovering on any discovery of the nature of Allah, other than the purely negative – he is not this and not that. In this category many subdivisions have arisen varying from the simple exhortation to hold the faith of the Fathers (al-salaf) and not enquire too closely into the sacred mysteries to a sweeping application of the thesis that the absolute is the unknowable. In Islam this latter position does not lead to agnosticism, but back to a dependence on authority. The main tendency seems to be towards the latter position as formal theology at the present day is more and more tanzih. He is different from any thought we can possibly have, for even our thoughts are perishing and transitory.
2 Rationalism (aql)
The Mu’talazaites, following Greek philosophy, believed that by reason they could reach ultimate truth.
On the question of Allah they objected to his qualities asserting that they were contrary to his unity so they tended to reject them altogether reducing Allah to a vague unity. They further objected to the doctrine of predestination as contrary to Allah’s justice and also rejected the Beatific Vision of Allah maintaining his spirituality. In opposition, orthodox Islam assured itself that reason could never grasp the nature of Allah stating that he is unknowable to human powers and asserting that the things received and taught must be accepted and believed. In the fourth century of Hijra, al-Ash’ari’s view was accepted by orthodox Islam in the phrase “without enquiring how and without making comparison.” The system was finally formulated by al- Baqillani (d 403/1012-3) and this became the ultimate Muslim conception of the nature and relationship of Allah and his world. Amongst the orthodox rationalism was used principally to defend a position already established and was used only against heretics and unbelievers.
Rationalists, through their philosophy and theology established the Aristotelian position of a necessary being. This God had absolute free-will working without any material matter and unaffected by any laws and necessities. He creates and annihilates atoms and their qualities and by that means, brings to pass all the motion and change of the world. These, in our sense, do not exist. When a thing to us seems to be moved, that really means that God has annihilated, or permitted to drop out of existence, by not continuing to uphold. Or another view, is that the atoms that made up the original position has been created again and again along the line over which it moves.
With regard to cause and effect, a man writes with a pen and a piece of paper, God creates in his mind the will to write; at the same moment he gives the power to write and brings about the apparent motion of the hand, of the pen and the appearance on the paper; no one is the cause of the other. God has brought it about, by creation and annihilation of atoms, the requisite combination to produce these appearances. The free-will of the scholastics then is simply the presence, in the mind of man, of this choice created there by God.
This system completely annihilates the machinery of the universe. There is no such thing as law, and the world is sustained by a constant, ever-repeated miracle. The world and the things in it could have been quite different. The only limit on God is that he cannot produce a contradiction. There is no such thing as a secondary cause for it is only illusional. God is the producer as well as the ultimate appearance of effect. There is no nature belonging to things. Fire does not burn, and a knife does not cut. God creates in a substance a being burned when fire touches it and a being cut when the knife approaches it.
3. Mysticism (kashf unveiling).
If there is no intellectual understanding of Allah there must be a supernatural basis for understanding. Mysticism taught that resident in the individual human soul there resided a power of reaching and knowing (irfan knowing or awareness) directly, a supplementation of what was taught by the prophets and messengers. This was apprehended in degrees and forms varying from simple, devout meditation to high ecstasy, union with God and essential Pantheism. Yet, this doctrine struggled as a private opinion although it was held by the great majority and was approved explicitly by many outstanding theologians. It failed to be assimilated into the general body of Muslim truth partly because of taking extreme antinomian and pantheistic positions. In its form it was partly ascetic, and partly speculative; it sought Allah be exercises of devotion or by devout imagination. It has drawn from Christian mysticism, Neo-platonism and Buddhism and primitive monism. Rather than finding Allah as the ‘necessary existent’ wajib al-wajud as in philosophical Islam he was to be found as ‘one existent’ wahid al-wajud in mysticism.
It was the work of al-Ghazzali (d 1111) to construct a mystical system and to weave it into the fabric of Islamic theology. He used reason to demonstrate that we can have no absolute knowledge of Allah and used tradition to discipline, guide and restrain the devout imagination of the mystic. In his view of Allah, he followed closely the conception of Muhammad. For him, Allah was will; he saw everywhere around him the touch and working of Allah. Man was kin to Allah, especially in this fact of Will. For Allah had breathed into man his spirit: “When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit” (Al-Hijr 15:29 c/f Sa’d 38:72). The soul of man, therefore, is different from everything else in the world; a spiritual substance, created but unshaped, not subject to dimension or locality. It is in exile here and seeks the divine. For Ghazzali, there is a likeness between the spirit of man and that of Allah in essence, for just as man rules his body, so Allah rules the world. In spite of all the pantheistic dangers this view seems very close to the mind of Muhammad.
According to al-Ghazali “There is nothing in existence (wujud) except God. Wujud Existence(wujud) only belongs to the Real One.” He explains that the fruit of the spiritual ascent of the Sufi is to “witness that there is no existence in the world save God.
While any of these three tendencies of the Muslim faith is received with respect by all Muslims except extreme traditionalists and anthropomorphists like the Wahhabites. Broadly speaking, today, the aspect of removing any comparison of Allah to man through tanzih ‘removing’ and ‘tashbih’plus the mystical vision exist in varying proportions. The use of reason has gone, except to prove a doctrine while Aristotelian-Neoplatonic philosophy rules in mysticism.