Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Great Divorce:

Allah and His Attributes

By Anthony Rogers

Since the Qur’an states many times over that Allah is above/established upon his throne,

Lo! Your Lord is Allah Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days, then MOUNTED He the Throne. He covereth the night with the day, which is in haste to follow it, and hath made the sun and the moon and the stars subservient by His command. His verily is all creation and commandment. Blessed be Allah, the Lord of the Worlds! (S. 7:54, Pickthall – cf. S. 10:3, 13:2, 20:5, 25:59, 32:4, 57:4.)

which is surrounded and supported or borne up by angels,

And thou wilt see the angels SURROUNDING the Throne (Divine) on ALL SIDES, singing Glory and Praise to their Lord. The Decision between them (at Judgment) will be in (perfect) justice, and the cry (on all sides) will be, “Praise be to God, the Lord of the Worlds!” (S. 39:75, YA)

Those who SUSTAIN the Throne (of God) and THOSE AROUND IT Sing Glory and Praise to their Lord; believe in Him; and implore Forgiveness for those who believe: “Our Lord! Thy Reach is over all things, in Mercy and Knowledge. Forgive, then, those who turn in Repentance, and follow Thy Path; and preserve them from the Penalty of the Blazing Fire! (S. 40:7, YA)

And the angels will be ON ITS SIDES, and eight will, that Day, BEAR the Throne of thy Lord ABOVE them. (S. 69:17, YA)

and since the Qur’an also says that the throne is above the seven heavens,

Allah! There is no god but He,-the Living, the Self-subsisting, Eternal. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there [that? (since this is rather non-elegant, maybe you want to use a different translation? The printed edition I have is even worse, reading: Who is thee)] can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures as) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth. His Throne doth EXTEND OVER the heavens and the earth, and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory). (S. 2:255, YA – cf. S. 23:86.)

and that it is to Allah who is mounted/established on the throne that various agents or things are said to rise or ascend,

Behold! Allah said: "O Jesus! I will take thee and RAISE THEE TO MYSELF and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection: Then shall ye all return unto me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute. (S. 3:55, YA)

(A Penalty) from Allah, Lord of the Ways of Ascent. The angels and the spirit ASCEND UNTO HIM in a Day the measure whereof is (as) fifty thousand years: (S. 70:3-4, YA)

it is the view of many Muslims that Allah is not personally present everywhere at all times with his presumed creatures, for this idea is thought to be precluded by Allah’s transcendence as enunciated in the above verses.

While this interpretation of the above passages might seem to contradict or run aground on texts like the following:

He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in Six Days, and is moreover firmly established on the Throne (of Authority). He knows what enters within the earth and what comes forth out of it, what comes down from heaven and what mounts up to it. And He is WITH YOU WHERESOEVER YOU MAY BE. And Allah sees well all that ye do. (S. 57:4, YA)

It was We Who created man, and We know what dark suggestions his soul makes to him: for We are NEARER TO HIM than (his) jugular vein. (S. 50:16, YA – cf. S. 2:249, 9:40, 20:46, 58:7)

many Muslims see it differently. For them, verses like the ones immediately above refer to Allah’s knowledge or hearing or seeing or power to help being present with man, and not to his personal presence (which is above the throne, the angels, the seven heavens, etc.). This view may be seen in the following translation of the above passages:

He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days and then Istawa (rose over) the Throne (in a manner that suits His Majesty). He knows what goes into the earth and what comes forth from it, what descends from the heaven and what ascends thereto. And He is with you (by His Knowledge) wheresoever you may be. And Allah is the All-Seer of what you do. (S. 57:4, Hilali-Khan)

And indeed We have created man, and We know what his ownself whispers to him. And We are nearer to him than his jugular vein (by Our Knowledge). (S. 50:16, Hilali-Khan)

Aside from the fact that this explanation means that Allah so conceived is not omnipresent and thus lacks an attribute of the true God proclaimed by all the prophets (e.g. Genesis 28:15-16; Deuteronomy 4:39; Joshua 2:11; Psalm 139:7-12; Jeremiah 23:23-24), an attribute believed in by Jews and Christians from ancient to modern times, it also raises several questions that in turn point up several theological and philosophical problems: How is an attribute of Allah, whether his knowledge, or hearing, or seeing, etc., said to be present with creation if Allah himself is not? Is there a separation between Allah and his attributes? If so, would not this bifurcation between the essence (dhat) and attributes (sifat) of Allah undercut the notion of Allah’s unity (tawhid) as Muslims perceive it? And if Allah’s essence can be thus separated from Allah’s attributes, doesn’t this entail that Allah in his essential being is a mere blank, an indefinable and therefore unknowable being? And if Allah’s attributes can dwell in creation among men, which already implies a kind of incarnation, what objection could Muslims have against something like an incarnation of Allah’s attributes in a human being?

In fact, just to run with the latter problem for a moment to illustrate the point, we know of at least one human being that the Islamic sources do teach was vested with Allah’s wayward attributes, namely Muhammad, Allah’s partner.

For example, while the Qur’an everywhere states that Allah is “full of kindness” (raoofun) and “Most Merciful” (raheemun),

“… Allah is full of kindness (raoofun) to (His) devotees.” (Surah 2:207)

“… And Allah is full of kindness (raoofun) to those that serve Him.” (Surah 3:30)

“… For my Lord is indeed full of mercy (raheemun)…” (Surah 11:90)

“… For Allah is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful (raheemun).” (Surah 49:12)

it makes an exception among human beings when it says in what many authorities take to be the final verses of the Qur’an, i.e. the last verses to be revealed (and also the last ones to be included in the collection of the Qur’an), that Muhammad has these attributes as well:

Now hath come unto you a Messenger from amongst yourselves: it grieves him that ye should perish; ardently anxious is he over you: to the believers is he MOST KIND AND MERCIFUL (raoofun raheemun). (S. 9:128, YA)

Hence the reason Islamic scholar Neal Robinson can speak of the objectification of Muhammad in the Qur’an reaching its peak in the second to last verse when it ascribes to Muhammad some of Allah’s own qualities:

… the objectification of Muhammad reaches its peak in Surah 9, which is indubitably one of the latest Madinan surahs. It repeatedly refers to ‘Allah and His Messenger’ (9.1, 3, 7, 16, 24, 29 etc.) and the penultimate ayah (9.128) describes the Messenger as ‘all-pitying all-merciful’, qualities which are elsewhere ascribed to Allah. (Discovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text, 2nd edition, [Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003], p. 244)

Not only are these qualities of Allah also predicated of Muhammad, but nowhere else do we find these names or attributes, either individually or in tandem with each other, used of anyone other than Allah and Muhammad. The boast found in the following hadith, evidently based on the lofty claim that Muhammad is a co-sharer in the attributes of Allah mentioned in Surah 9:128, means little by way of showing Muhammad’s eminence if it does not indicate something that is supposed to be special about Muhammad over all other individuals:

Jubair b. Mut'im reported on the authority of his father that he heard Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: I have many names: I am Muhammad, I am Ahmad, I am al-Mahi through whom Allah obliterates unbelief, and I am Hashir (the gatherer) at whose feet people will be gathered, and I am 'Aqib (after whom there would be none), and Allah has named him as compassionate and merciful. (Sahih Muslim, Book 30, #5811) (emphasis mine)

In light of this, it is hardly surprising to find the following source that is much esteemed by Muslims admitting that Muhammad was singularly given and clothed with Allah’s own names and qualities, thus constituting him a fit and absolutely pure go-between or mediator between Allah and creatures who fall short of the perfection of the Islamic deity and what he requires, a fact that is believed to ground not only Muhammad’s ability to mediate between Allah and impure creatures but which also entails that he is to be praised and that the obedience and service given to Allah is also appropriately and necessarily to be given to Muhammad:

One of the men of knowledge, Al-Husayn ibn al-Fadl, said, “He honored him with two of His own names: THE COMPASSIONATE AND THE MERCIFUL (rauf, rahim).” The same point is made in another ayat: “Allah was kind to the believers when He sent among them a Messenger from among themselves.” (3:164) …

Jafar ibn Muhammad [as-Sadiq] said, “Allah knew that His creatures would not be capable of pure obedience to Him, so He told them this in order that they would realize that they would never be able to achieve absolute purity in serving Him. Between Himself and them He placed one of their own species, CLOTHING HIM IN HIS OWN ATTRIBUTES OF COMPASSION AND MERCY. He brought him out as a truthful ambassador to creation and made it such that when someone obeys him, they are obeying Allah, and when someone agrees with him, they are agreeing with Allah.” Allah says: “Whoever obeys the Messenger has obeyed Allah.” (4:80)

As-Samarqandi explains that the words a mercy to all the worlds mean for both the jinn and mankind. It is also said that it means for all creation. He is a mercy to the believers by guiding them, a mercy to the hypocrites by granting them security from being killed, and a mercy to the unbelievers by deferring their punishment. Ibn Abbas said, “He is a mercy to the believers and also to the unbelievers since they are safe from what befell the other communities who cried lies.” It is related that the Prophet said to Jibril, “Has any of this mercy touched you?” He replied, “Yes, I used to have fear about what would happen to me, but now I feel safe because of the way Allah praised me when He said, ‘Possessing power, secure with the Lord of the Throne, obeyed, then trusty.’” (81:21) (Qadi Iyad Ibn Musa al-Yahsubi, Kitab Ash-shifa bi ta'rif huquq al-Mustafa (Healing by the recognition of the Rights of the Chosen One), translated by Aisha Abdarrahman Bewley [Madinah Press, Inverness, Scotland, U.K., third reprint 1991, paperback], pp. 4-6; capital, bold and underline emphasis mine)

And later the same source states:

Section 14. On Allah honouring the Prophet WITH SOME OF HIS OWN BEAUTIFUL NAMES and describing him with some of HIS OWN SUBLIME QUALITIES

… He has preferred our Prophet Muhammad [above other prophets - AR] since He has adorned him with a wealth of His names in His Mighty Book and on the tongues of His Prophets…

One of His names is the Praiseworthy (al-Hamid). This means the One who is praised because He praises Himself and His slaves praise him. It also means the One who praises Himself and praises acts of obedience. The Prophet is called Muhammad and Ahmad. Muhammad means praised, and that is how his name occurs in the Zabur of David. Ahmad means the greatest of those who give praise and the most sublime of those who are praised. Hassan ibn Thabit indicated this when he said:

It is taken for him from His own name in order to exalt him.

The One with the Throne is praised (Mahmud) and he is Muhammad.

Two of Allah’s names are the Compassionate, the Merciful (ar-Ra’uf, ar-Rahim). They are similar in meaning. He calls him by them in His Book when He says, “Compassionate, merciful to the believers.” (9.128) (Qadi Iyad Ibn Musa al-Yahsubi, Kitab Ash-shifa bi ta'rif huquq al-Mustafa (Healing by the recognition of the Rights of the Chosen One), translated by Aisha Abdarrahman Bewley [Madinah Press, Inverness, Scotland, U.K., third reprint 1991, paperback], pp. 126-127; capital and bold emphasis mine)

And so Muslims who believe this belie their own claims to be adherents of the religion of pure monotheism or the unadulterated unity of Allah and at the same time reveal that they subscribe to a religion that also turns a man into a god. They do this by separating Allah from his attributes, teaching that the former is transcendent while the latter can enter into creation, and when they say that Allah’s qualities or attributes were vested in one who is otherwise a mere man rather than inhering eternally and natively in a divine person who became flesh. That is, whereas Christians believe that Jesus always has been and always will be God and that He took into union with Himself a human nature, these Muslims believe that Muhammad was merely a man and that their deity conferred on him his own names and attributes thereby elevating his status to that of a man with divine qualities. And so the great contrast that results from this between Christianity and Islam as these Muslims conceive it is that Christians believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man, who is one person with an eternal divine nature and a human nature that he took on Himself in time, whereas Muslims believe in Muhammad, a man-god, a creature who was infused or imbued or clothed with divine properties, qualities or attributes, in order thus to become a source of universal mercy, the fit recipient of praise and the absolute obedience that belongs to Allah.    

May the Lord forgive them for such blasphemy, and may He turn their hearts in repentance and faith to the Lord Jesus Christ.

For more on some of the things touched on in this post, see the following articles and video:

To the Believers Is He Most Kind and Merciful
Allah & Mo., Inc. – Islam’s Foundational Partnership
Are Muslims Monotheists?