The Path to “Understanding God”

In the previous section, we discussed the superiority and perfection of Islamic theology and afterwards we briefly discussed the methods of realizing God, which is the first stage in understanding Him. Now we shall examine the second stage, which involves identifying divine attributes and actions. We call this step “Understanding God” as opposed to “Realizing God”.
We all know very well that each religion and ideology including Islam attributes certain characteristics to their God and ascribes certain actions to Him. As we have previously mentioned, the difference of opinion between various theists regarding the attributes and actions of God have resulted in contrasting theologies and diverse portrayals of their object of devotion. Indeed, the most significant method of understanding God is by understanding His attributes and actions. A more comprehensive and in-depth insight into these issues results in a more perfect theology. Therefore, it is morally and intellectually imperative that all believers increase the depth and caliber of their understanding of God through correct and penetrating studies of God’s attributes.
All of us may have seen believers who do not have an accurate understanding of God’s attributes and have sufficed themselves with superficial and fallacious knowledge. It may even be true that we too are such believers. We may have seen many people who albeit unwittingly tend toward “corporealization of God” [jism ingārī]. For example, they may visualize God as a great being who lives in the skies. Many of us are also affected by a kind of “anthropomorphism of God” [insānvār ingārī]; in other words, we regard God—at least with respect to some attributes—similar to humans, or we consider the source of divine acts as humanlike feelings and emotions!
We must also bear in mind that superficial or fallacious understanding of divine attributes and actions is not merely an intellectual problem without any effect on our daily lives; the truth is the complete opposite. Persons who believe in God and His power and sovereignty but do not correctly understand the boundlessness of His mercy and clemency may completely lose all hope in attaining paradise after committing a great sin and may regard themselves eternally damned and suffer from mental anguish throughout their lives because they believe that God will never forgive them. In addition, when faced with apparently unsolvable problems in their lives, those who incorrectly understand the power and generosity of God easily give up and instead of practicing patience, perseverance, and trust in God, become debilitated and weak.
In short, the endeavors of believers to continually correct and perfect their theology is not simply a struggle to attain a worthy set of beliefs and knowledge; rather, these efforts have phenomenal, practical and sometimes decisive effects upon one’s life. This is why Islam has a special regard for theological issues and has presented comprehensive teachings about divine attributes and acts. Throughout the centuries, the detailed teachings of Islam have presented mutakalimūn, philosophers, mystics and other Moslem thinkers with an invaluable legacy, which, through interpretation and development, has brought order to Islamic theology. In the following discussions, we shall attempt to illuminate briefly some of the most important Islamic theological beliefs.
Understanding the Nature of God and His Attributes
One of the basics of Islamic theology is recognition and differentiation between the nature of God and His attributes and actions. Understanding Divine Nature is not possible for any being other than God, including humanity. A short and clear proof of this claim is that the nature of God is illimitable and infinite while all other beings are limited and finite and, self-evidently, a limited being cannot understand the unlimited nature of God.1
The intellect can understand the depth of His nature,
If a whirligig can reach the depth of the sea.2
This fact can also be extracted from various Qur’anic verses such as this:
“He knows that which they have before them, and that which they have left behind, while they do not comprehend Him in knowledge.”3
According to a tradition, as an interpretation of this verse Imam‘Alī (‘a) stated:
“Creations cannot comprehend God in knowledge.”4
The impossibility of understanding Divine Nature does not mean that we are deprived of any knowledge of God whatsoever; rather, humanity has been given access to a different sort of knowledge that comes through appreciation of divine attributes and actions. Therefore, humanity’s desire for understanding their Lord is not out of proportion. On the contrary, comprehension of God—in the way we have explained—is not only possible but also ideal. Divine prophets have also endeavored to familiarize humans with divine attributes and reveal unto them their mistakes and obstacles in the path of understanding God.
The Holy Qur’an has mentioned the attributes of God in many verses. For example, regard the following verse:
“He is Allah besides Whom there is no god. He is the King, the All-holy, the All-salutary, the Granter of security, the Guardian over all, the Almighty, the All-dominating, the All-sublime. Allah is pure of those they associate with Him. He is Allah the Creator, the Maker, the Shaper. To Him belong the Names [and attributes] Most Beautiful [asmā’ ul-husnā]. All that is in the Heavens and earth glorify Him. He is the Almighty, the All-wise.”5

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