Is It Absurd to Believe That God’s Attributes Are Not Identical to God’s Essence?

Answered by Ustadh Salman Younas

Question: Is this belief: “the attributes of Allah are not the essence of Allah, but they are not other than Allah” illogical?

Answer: assalamu alaykum

This formulation is not illogical.

At the outset, you should note that a number of discussions concerning the attributes of God are not from the fundamentals of faith. For this reason, scholars have had extensive and heated debate on the issue without this effecting the Islam of any of them.

The classical position of Sunni scholars is that the attributes of God, such as power, will, and knowledge, are not identical to God’s essence nor are they separate from it. Their being non-identical returns to the manner in which each is rationally conceptualized in the mind: the reality of an essence is not the same as the reality of an attribute. The attribute of power that subsists through the essence of X is not identical to the essence of X. Rather, the mind conceives of a particular meaning for an attribute that is distinct to that which it conceives for an essence. It is from this perspective of how the meaning of an attribute and essence is conceptualized in the mind that scholars formulated the statement that an attribute is not the same as an essence.

At the same time, an attribute is not other than the essence in the sense of being separate from it, which refers to:

(a) an attribute not subsisting on its own i.e. it always requires an essence through which it subsists.

(b) an attribute being innate to the essence i.e. in the external realm of existence an essence cannot exist without attributes.

In conclusion, the phrase “the attributes of God are distinct to His essence” relates back to the manner in which the mind conceives of an ‘attribute’ and an ‘essence’, while the phrase “the attributes of God are not other than His essence” refers to attributes always requiring an essence to subsist through and the fact that attributes/essence are inseparable in the external realm of existence as opposed to purely rational conceptualization.

(Note: Technically, it is not accurate to state that the attributes of God are “not other than God”. Rather, the correct expression is that the attributes of God are “not other than the essence.” This is because the expression God does not refer merely to an essence but to an essence ascribed with specific attributes as Shaykh Saeed Fawda clarifies.)

[al-Dardir, Kharida al-Bahiyya (90); al-Bajuri, Jawhara al-Tawhid (91-2)]

قال الشيخ سعيد فودة في تعليقاته على الدرة الفاخرة: وكثير من الناس يطلقون اسم [الله] على مجرد الذات العارية عن الصفات، فيقولون: الله وصفاته كما يقولون الذات والصفات، فيقيمون [الله] مقام الذات المجرد فقط، ولكن هذا الاستعمال عندي غير صحيح وعارٍ عن الدقة، بل الله هو الذات الموصوفة، وليس مجرد الذات المرادة من المفهوم من الذات عند إطلاقها عقلا. وقد سبق توضيح ذلك

[Ustadh] Salman Younas

Checked and approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Ustadh Salman Younas graduated from Stony Brook University with a degree in Political Science and Religious Studies. After studying the Islamic sciences online and with local scholars in New York, Ustadh Salman moved to Amman. There he studies Islamic law, legal methodology, belief, hadith methodology, logic, Arabic, and tafsir.