The Attributes of God
The Absolute, in and of itself, is completely beyond human comprehension. It is the divine essence, which is known only to itself. To admit that one cannot know the divine essence is an important part of faith. As the first caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq رضي الله عنه said, “The inability to realize [the divine essence] is a realization.” Traditionally, God is said to have ninety-nine names relating to different aspects of the divine. The all-encompassing reality of the Essence is conveyed by names such as the Holy (al-Quddus), meaning that which is beyond all else; the Peace (al-Salam), meaning the one beyond all disequilibrium; and the Self-Sufficient (al-Ghani), meaning the one who is free of all need and limitation. The next level of names contains those pertaining to the divine attributes, such as the Knower (al-‘Alim), the Alive (al-Hayy), the Powerful (al-Qawi), the Hearing (al-Sami’), and the Seeing (al-Basir). These names pertain to the aspects of God about which we can have some understanding, for we too share in these attributes, though they are on loan to us from God. The third level includes the names of God’s acts. These names describe the relation of the divine to creation and include names such as the Creator (al-Khaliq), the Originator (al-Bari’), the Life-Giver (al-Muhyi), the Causer of Death (al-Mumit), and the Forgiver (al-Ghafur). These names have no meaning without an agent toward whom God performs the actions implied by such attributes.
The divine names are the means by which God brings the whole of creation into existence. From one perspective, the universe is a panorama of divine names manifest in a manner that both reveals and conceals. But whereas a creature may be alive, knowing, seeing, and powerful, God is the Alive, the Knowing, and the Powerful. These qualities are thereby relative as manifest in the human being but absolute in relation to God. They are, in fact, on loan from God to all of existence. Whereas God’s knowledge and power are unlimited, the knowledge and power of any human being has inherent limitations.
In relation to creation, the divine names are again divided into two categories: names of beauty (jamal) and names of rigor or majesty (jalal). Names of beauty include the Merciful (al-Rahman), the Compassionate (al-Rahim), the Beautiful (al-Jamil), the Kind (al-Latif), the Loving (al-Wadud), and the Clement (al-Halim). These manifest what could be called the feminine side of the divine. Names of rigor include names such as the Conqueror (al-Qahhar), the Vengeful (al-Muntaqim), the Subduer (al-Jabbar), the Slayer (al-Mumit), and the Abaser (al-Mudhill). These manifest what could be called the masculine sie of the divine. Although the divine essence is beyond all duality and gender specification, the names of beauty and of majesty display a complementarity from which derives the duality inherent in creation. As God says,
And of each thing We created a pair. (51 : 49)
On the level of the names of the attributes, there exists a multiplicity that cannot be present in the divine essence itself. Nonetheless, it is still a multiplicity within unity wherein all the names refer to the attributes of a single unique and absolute Essence.
Just as God is beauty and rigor, mercy and vengeance, so too is God near and far, ever present, while also being transcendent and incomparable. The transcendence of God is referred to by the term tanzih, which means “making or declaring something to be free of all else”. Tanzih is emphasized in both theology and daily discourse; for example, the mention of God is often followed by the phrase “Glorified is He and Transcendent” (subhanahu wa ta’ala).
The Qur’an affirms that God is incomparable and that God is eternal while all else is fleeting:
Nothing is like unto Him. (42 : 11)
All is perishing save His face. (28 : 88)
All that is upon the earth fades,
but the face of your Lord remains. (55 : 26)
But at the same time, the omnipresence of the divine is attested to in several Qur’anic verses that tell of God’s presence around us and with us:
Wheresoever you turn there is the face of God. (2 : 115)
If My servant asks about Me, surely I am near. (2 : 186)
He is with you wherever you are. (57 : 4)
We have created the human
and We know what whispers in his breast,
and We are closer to him than his jugular vein. (50 : 16)
There is no group of three but that He is their fourth,
nor of five but that He is their sixth,
nor lesser nor greater than that,
but that He is with them wherever they are. (58 : 7)
The concept of God’s uniqueness provides a more complete understanding of the relation of the Absolute to the relative. At all times God is both infinitely far and indescribably near -near because nothing can exist without being sustained by God and far because God infinitely transcends all creation.
The Measuring Out
God is omnipotent, and this omnipotence is emphasized by the ability to create and then to ordain, or measure out, all things associated with creation; hence, all good and evil that is associated with God’s creation is also created by God. As the Qur’an states,
God gave everything its creation. (20 : 50)
Thus the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said that faith is to believe in “the measuring out, both the good of it and the evil of it.” For although we may not see the wisdom or reason behind something, God does.
The Arabic word translated here as “measuring out” is qadar and is related to the word for power (qudrah) and the divine name the Powerful (al-Qadir). Qadar can also be translated as power, but in the Qur’an it specifically refers to the manner in which God exercises His power by measuring out the proper portion of life, power, knowledge, and all the characteristics for each created thing. It is through a wisdom that is seldom apparent to us that the limitations upon all things have been established by determining the measure granted to them, be it a rock or a human, an elephant or a gnat. As God says in the Qur’an,
Indeed We have created everything through a measuring out. (54 : 49)
He created everything and measured it precisely. (25 : 2)
These precise measurements are taken from God’s storehouses:
There is nothing whose storehouses are not with Us,
and We do not send it down
except with an established measure. (15 : 21)
From one perspective, these storehouses contain the meanings of divine names and qualities which belong to God and are always with Him, and which He manifests to His creation in various measures. On the one hand, they belong only to God. On the other, all that we see around us is a tapestry of the divine names and qualities measured out in different proportions so each thing as God has willed. This can also be seen as the manifestation of God’s sustaining nourishment (rizq). In numerous verses throughout the Qur’an, God speaks of “spreading out” and “measuring out” the nourishment for His servants or for whomsoever He wills. Although we may think that one person should be nourished with more power than another, that one should have more knowledge than another, or conversely, that God should have provided equally for all His creatures, all such assumptions stand against the dictates of faith. The following Qur’anic verse addresses this common human error:
Had God expanded His provision to His servants,
they would have been insolent in the earth.
But he sends down whatsoever He wills
through a measuring out. (42 : 27)
 Muslim, p. 65, no. 8