“For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the Unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” – The APOSTLE Paul
Paul Williams has recently claimed that “The Qur’an is the perfect cure for this polytheism,” by which he means it is the cure for the Biblically based Christian confession that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are co-essential, co-equal, and co-eternal. On Paul’s view the persons of the Godhead cannot be numerically identical to the divine essence and yet numerically distinct from each other, which is just to say in Paul’s eyes God’s essential unity rules out any personal diversity. Paul also doesn’t like the fact that it is impossible to find any perfect analogy for the Trinity in creation, and that the doctrine is in some regards mysterious and not fully penetrable by the human mind. But to be consistent with his underlying assumption that God cannot be both one and many, Paul would also have to deny that his deity has a multiplicity of attributes, and he would have to eschew all appeals to mystery in attempting to say otherwise.
While Paul may not have reflected on the assumption that underlies and drives his argument, it so happens that what his argument assumes was in point of fact the explicit position of many Muslims, then known as Mu‘tazilites, who were more or less dominant from the eight to tenth centuries. According to the Mu‘tazilites, Allah’s absolute oneness, transcendence, and dissimilarity from all created reality precluded the idea that he had distinguishable and knowable attributes. Indeed, for the Mu‘tazilites, not only was such an idea inconsistent with the teaching of the Qur’an and sound reason, but the very idea that Allah had a plurality of attributes was not in principle different from the Christian belief that God is tri-personal. As Hamza Yusuf points out:
The Mu‘tazilah synthesized a complex theology that, while grounded in the Qur’an, was heavily influenced by Hellenistic rationalism. At its simplest level, their creed involved five “fundamentals.” The first was “unity,” by which the Mu‘tazilah meant more than simply the tawhid that Sunni Muslims understood: One God as opposed to many. The Mu‘tazilah insisted that God’s attributes had no existence distinguishable from His essence, but rather they emanated from the essence of God: God willed from His essence, and He knew from His essence. Their negation of God’s attributes arose from their concern regarding the Sunni position. The Sunnis, in turn, responded to the Mu‘tazilah, arguing that the attributes were in addition to the essence in such a way as to be neither the essence nor other than the essence; this was a suprarational attempt at avoiding the polytheism of which the Mu‘tazilah accused them. For the Mu‘tazilah, this affirmation of “hypostatic” attributes approximated the Orthodox Christian argument of a triune God that was closer to polytheism than monotheism. It is arguable that the debate is not simply semantic, but, in the eyes of the more conservative Sunni scholars, it accomplished little more than an immense exchange of talk (kalam) about God that the pristine understanding of the early community would never have accommodated. (The Creed of Imam Al-Tahawi (al-Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah), Translated, Introduced, and Annotated by Hamza Yusuf [Zaytuna Institute, 2007], p. 20).
An example of a non-Muslim scholar who points this out is Harry Wolfson, who tells us that:
The belief in the reality of divine attributes was characterized by those who were opposed to it as being analogous to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Abul-faraj, also known as Bar Hebraeus, speaking of the Mu'tazilites, who denied the reality of divine attributes, says that thereby they steered clear of "the persons (akanim) of the Christians,"3 the implication being that the belief in the reality of divine attributes indirectly steers one into the belief of the Christian Trinity. 'Adad al-DIn al-Iji similarly reports that the Mu'tazilites accused those who believed in the reality of divine attributes of having fallen into the error of the Christian belief in the Trinity.4 And prior to both of them, among the Jews, David al-Mukammas,5 Saadia,6 Joseph al-Basir,7 and Maimonides,8 evidently reflecting still earlier Muslim sources, whenever they happen to mention the [Sunni – AR] Muslim doctrine of the reality of divine attributes, compare it to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. (Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Kalam [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976], p. 112f.)
3 Cf. E. Pocock, Specimen Historiae Arabum sive Gregorii Abul Farajii Malatiensis de Origine et Moribus Arabum (1650), p. 19, 1. 12, referred to by Munk, Guide des Egares, I, p. 180, n. I.
4 Ibid., quoted from al-Iji’s al-Marwakif fi ‘Ilm al-Kalam; referred to in Munk, Guide, p. 181, n. I.
5 Quoted from his ‘Ishrun Makalat in Judah b. Barzillai, Perush Sefer Yesirah, p. 79.
6 Emunot II, 5, p. 86, ll. 2 ff.
7 Cf. P. F. Frankl, Ein Mu’tazilitischen Kalama us dem ioten Jahrhundert (1872), pp. 15 and 28.
8 Moreh I, 50.
To give a Jewish example of this line of thinking, we may read such as the following from the famed medieval Rabbi Moses ben Maimonides:
If, however, you have a desire to rise to a higher state, viz., that of reflection, and truly to hold the conviction that God is One and possesses true unity, without admitting plurality or divisibility in any sense whatever, you must understand that God has no essential attribute in any form or in any sense whatever, and that the rejection of corporeality implies the rejection of essential attributes. Those who believe that God is One, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their thoughts. This is like the doctrine of the Christians, who say that He is one and He is three, and that the three are one. Of the same character is the doctrine of those who say that God is One, but that He has many attributes; and that He with His attributes is One, although they deny corporeality and affirm His most absolute freedom from matter; as if our object were to seek forms of expression, not subjects of belief. For belief is only possible after the apprehension of a thing; it consists in the conviction that the thing apprehended has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true. Renounce desires and habits, follow your reason, and study what I am going to say in the chapters which follow on the rejection of the attributes; you will then be fully convinced of what we have said: you will be of those who truly conceive the Unity of God, not of those who utter it with their lips without thought, like men of whom it has been said, "Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins" (Jer. xii. 2). (Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed – Translated From the Original Arabic Text by M. FRIEDLÄNDER, PHḌ, 2nd edition [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1904], Ch. L, pp. 67-68.)
Although the Mu‘tazilite position was eventually displaced by the “suprarational” (i.e. mysterious, paradoxical, etc.) idea that God does have attributes “in addition to the essence in such a way as to be neither the essence nor other than the essence,” as pointed out in the quote from Hamza Yusuf above, a number of Muslims continue to hold that Allah has no knowable, definable, essential attributes. A case in point is the late Muhammad Asad (1900-1992), a man that Paul Williams often holds forth as a worthy source of Islamic doctrine, a fact that makes perfect sense given Paul’s misguided attack on the revealed doctrine of the Trinity. According to Asad, Allah has no essential attributes that circumscribe, define, or describe him; rather, Allah is named from his actions, which, being rooted in his will rather than any definite nature, are necessarily arbitrary and fickle. Some choice examples of this kind of thinking from Muhammad Asad follow:
“…. The very concept of ‘definition’ implies the possibility of a comparison or correlation of an object with other objects; God, however, is UNIQUE, there being ‘nothing like unto Him’ (42:11) and, therefore, ‘nothing that could be compared with Him’ (112:4) – with the result that any attempt at defining Him or His ‘attributes’ is a LOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY and, from the ethical point of view, A SIN. The fact that He is UNDEFINABLE makes it clear that the ‘attributes’ (sifat) of God mentioned in the Qur’an do not circumscribe His reality but, rather, THE PERCEPTIBLE EFFECT OF HIS ACTIVITY on and within the universe created by Him.” (The Message of the Qur’an – Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad, Surah 6, fn.88. See also Surah 13, fn.21; Surah 76, fn.73.)
The preceding allusion to the God-willed function of sex and, hence, to the polarity and multiplicity evident in all animated nature – man and animal alike – is meant to stress the above statement of the ONENESS and ABSOLUTE UNIQUENESS of God. The phrase “there is nothing like unto Him” implies that He is fundamentally – and not merely in His attributes – “different” from anything that exists or could exist, or anything that man can conceive or imagine or DEFINE…; and since “there is nothing that could be compared with Him” (112:4), even the “how” of His being “different” from everything else is beyond the categories of human thought. (ibid., Surah 42, fn. 10. See also: Surah 42, fn.21; Surah 43, fn.10.)
…The fact that God is ONE and UNIQUE in EVERY respect, without beginning and without end, has its logical correlate in the statement that “there is nothing that could be compared with Him” – thus precluding any possibility of describing or defining Him… Consequently, the quality of His being is beyond the range of human comprehension or imagination: which also explains why any attempt at “depicting” God by means of figurative representations or even abstract symbols must be qualified as a blasphemous denial of the truth. (ibid., Surah 112, fn.2.)
Commenting on this idea, Geisler and Saleeb point out some of the many problems that follow in its wake:
At the very basis of the classical Islamic view of God is a radical form of voluntarism and nominalism. For traditional Islam, properly speaking, God does not have an essence, at least not a knowable one. Rather, he is Will. True enough, God is said to be just and loving, but he is not essentially just or loving. And he is merciful only because “He hath inscribed for Himself [the rule of] Mercy” (6:12). But it is important to remember that since God is Absolute Will, had he chosen to be otherwise he would not be merciful. There is no nature or essence in God according to which he must act.
There are two basic problems with this radical form of nominalism: a metaphysical one and a moral one.
The orthodox Islamic view of God claims, as we have seen, that God is an absolutely necessary being. He is self-existent, and he cannot not exist. But if God is by nature a necessary kind of being, then it is of his nature to exist. In short, he must have a nature or else he could not be by nature a necessary kind of being. In this same regard, orthodox Islam believes that there are other essential attributes of God, such as self-existence, uncreatedness, and eternality. But if these are all essential characteristics of God, then God must have an essence, otherwise they would not be essential attributes. For this is precisely how essence is defined, namely, as the essential attributes or characteristics of a being.
Furthermore, there is a serious moral problem with Islamic voluntarism. For if God is Will, without any real [i.e. definable – AR] essence, then he does not do things because they are right; rather, they are right because he does them. In short, God is arbitrary about what is right and wrong. He does not have to do good….
Since God has no essence, at least not one that the names (or attributes) of God really describe, the Islamic view of God involves a form of agnosticism. Indeed, the heart of Islam is not to know God but to obey him. It is not to meditate on his essence but to submit to his will. As Pfander correctly observed of Muslims, “If they think at all deeply, they find themselves absolutely unable to know God….Thus Islam leads to Agnosticism.”12
Islamic agnosticism about God is due to the fact that they believe God caused the world by extrinsic causality. Indeed, “the Divine will is an ultimate beyond which neither reason nor revelation go. In the Unity of the single Will, however, these descriptions co-exist with those that relate to mercy, compassion, and glory.” God is named from his effects, but he is not to be identified with any of them. The relation between the ultimate cause (God) and his creatures is extrinsic, not intrinsic. That is, God is called good because he causes good, but not because goodness is part of his essence.
….As we have seen, according to traditional Islamic teaching, God is not essentially good but only called good because he does good. He is named from his actions. If this is so, then why not also call God evil, since he causes evil? Why not call him faithless, since he cause people not to believe? It would seem consistent to do so, since God is named from his actions….
At the root of medieval views of God is an entrenched Neo-Platonism, springing from the second-century philosopher Plotinus. He believed that the Ultimate (God) was absolutely and indivisibly one, a position that heavily influenced Muslim monotheism. Further, Plotinus held that the One is so utterly transcendent (above and beyond all) that it cannot be known, except by mystical experience. This, too, heavily influenced not only orthodox Muslim agnosticism but Sufi mysticism. The fundamental reason there can be no similarity between the One (God) and what flows from it (the universe) is because God is beyond being and there is no similarity between being and what is beyond it. (Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent In the Light of the Cross [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1993], pp. 136-137). (Emphasis original)
12 C. G. Pfander, The Mizanu’l Haqq (Villach, Austria: Light of Life, 1986), 187.