“Vision comprehendeth Him not…”:  Ismaili Doctrine of God Beyond Being and Non-being

​“God is completely different to whatever you imagine; He neither resembles anything nor can imagination [ever] attain Him,for how could imagination ever attain Him while He is totally different to what is bound by reason and [also] different from what can be pictured in imagination?He can be imagined only as an entity beyond reason and beyond [ any] limitation. ”

-Imam al-Baqir (Early Shi’i Thought, Arzina R. Lalani, p.94)

The Quran describes God in this way:

“Vision comprehendeth Him not, but He comprehendeth (all) vision. He is the Subtile, the Aware.” (al-Quran, alAnaam; 103) 

Tawhid is declaration of the absolute oneness of God. A very fundamental of the Islamic donctrine,  accepted unanimously by all schools whether they are of theologians or philosophers. What Ismaili philosophy makes it unique in this doctrine is that in Ismaili approach, there is no compromise to the God’s unique integrity in any way. God is seen such that He is absolutely beyond any description or definition. 

Looking back to medieval times in Islamic history, one observes it is not only Ismailis who have tried to refine the the concept of tawhid, but there have also been many other attempts by different groups of theologians and philosophers and it has been a topic of much debates between philosophers and theologians, the study of which is full of extensive and complex analysis.

For Ismaili thinkers, God is an all transcendent Reality which cannot be described with a simile, analogy or definition. God is beyond all ranks, grades and degrees (maratib ) and totally transcends unity and plurality, perfection and imperfection, and in Ismaili metaphysics there is no way to tolerate human perception of Him. It is impossible for human mind to grasp the understanding of Him because human mind is able to understand, describe or elaborate only that which has been created or originated by God while He, Himself is totally beyond under our comprehension, perception and description. There is neither the way of thought to grasp His understanding nor there is any room for a speaker to speak about Him. He is beyond human description by use of language, as Human speech and speaker are both dependent on what has been created by Him.

“Speech (or reason, Nutq) is powerless, unable to penetrate the true realities and understanding (haqa’iq wa basa’ir) of His ipseity (huwiyyat)”

-Sayyidina Nāsir Khusrāu (Shish fasl, trans. Ivano ,The First Chapter, on the Recognition of the Oneness of God)

Associating God attributes of creatures: Entails Polytheism?

In Ismaili system of thought, God holds the position of an unknowable Reality whose Ipseity (essence) cannot be perceived through senses and is totally beyond human perception and comprehension. So, God cannot be the object of discursive thought, because our brains cannot deal with Him in the way that they deal with everything else.

“The veracity of those who profess tawḥīd is confirmed when they attest that He cannot be expressed neither by an outward speech, nor by an interior thought. How could letters refer to an entity that brings into existence all things created, emanated and produced?”

– Sayyidina Hamid uddin al-Kirmānī, ( Rāḥat al aql, 145) .

Because God is absolutely unique in His Essence, He cannot be compared to any of the things that exist in the normal, contingent sense. To associate with God the attributes of his creatures entails polytheism and interferes with the sanctity of the tawhid, as Nāsir Khusrāu says:

“This group who keep claiming to uphold oneness are in fact polytheists. They ascribe creaturely traits to God. This entails granting partnership to man with God in the form of knowledge, hearing, seeing, a face, limbs, and motion from place to place. This group’s belief is an admission of polytheism.”

– Sayyidina Nasir khusrau , [Kitāb-i Jāmiʿ al-ḥikmatayn, trans. Ormsby 50]

It is thus a radical error to seek to explain God in rational terms, not simply because of the limitations of the human mind but also because any natural idea we form about God is bound to be flawed, and therefore, to worship such a God is simple idolatry and entails polytheism.

“Nor can it be true tawḥīd to ascribe creaturely qualities to God. On the contrary, that is anthropomorphism.”

-Sayyidina Nasir khusrau , [Kitāb-i Jāmiʿ al-ḥikmatayn, trans Ormsby 67]

For Ismaili thinkers, God can also not be described with the attributes of His creatures. It is not true for us to ascribe God attributes that are characteristic of those things that exist because of His Command. It is not proper for us to ascribe Him any quality that belongs to his creatures. All attributes and qualities that human mind can think of, exist due to His Divine Will; and to associate with Him anything that human mind can think of, according to Nāsir Khusrāu, is to associate with Him a lie.

God is Himself is beyond being a Cause yet His Command is Cause of Everything:

In contemporary times, we can find many thinkers who have termed such a concept of God flawed and baseless. Paul Tillich, a 20th century christian theologia, being a leading opponent of natural theology, writes :

“The concept of a ‘Personal God’ interfering with natural events, or being ‘an independent cause of natural events’, makes God a natural object beside others, an object among others, a being among beings, maybe the highest, but nevertheless a being. This indeed is not only the destruction of the physical system but even more the destruction of any meaningful idea of God.”

-Paul Tillich, Theology and Culture (New York and Oxford,) 1964, P.129

Other Muslim philosophers of medieval times (like Ibn-e-Sina ) use a term to describe God as Wajib ul Wajood (existence of which is necessary), the Cause of causes or the First mover. For them cause of the First Intellect was God himself. But for Ismaili philosophers, this kind of notion no longer preserves the absolute transcendence of God. In Ismaili metaphysics the Cause of all causes is His Divine Will, not God Himself.

Ismaili Muslim Approach of Double Negation: Beyond Ta’atil and Tashbih

The methods of attribution of God, popular among other orthodox schools of theologians, have been very utterly and strongly discouraged by Ismaili thinkers and they have termed it as a total anthropomorphism (mushabida ). But at the same time Ismaili thinkers also reject the most radically anti-anthropomorphic doctrine of the rationalist Mu‘tazila who had sought path of going too far in their negation of attributes from God.

“Even if all beings (hast-ha) disappear, He will not suffer any loss (nuqsan) in His oneness, because it is the Ipseity (huwiyyat) of God which has brought them into being. The categories of cause and caused, property and being in possession of property, limit and being limited, cannot be either attributed to Him, or denied to Him, or have any likeness to Him. In fact, these categories never possessed such likeness, that He might become greater with the addition of them, or suffer a loss without them. He is beyond being or not-being.”

-Sayyidina Nasir khusrau (Shish fasl, Ivano trans.The First Chapter, on the Recognition of the Oneness of God)

As it would be an act of sheer denudation of the Divine Essence, if we merely repudiate God of His existence,or of Him being Merciful – a term used for this act is Ta’til that is to negate God of His attributes as opposed to Tashbih which means to ascribe God with creaturely attributes. Since the mere negation of God’s attributes is not enough to consider him absolutely transcendent Reality, Ismaili thinkers, thus, have tried to solve this paradox by taking another approach in the form of double negation.

“…transcendentiation (mujarrad kardan) of the Creator is not achieved completely except through the elimination of that which opposes these eliminations, eliminating the first in order for is to avoid tashbih and in elimination the latter to avoid ta’til.”

-Sayyidina Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani ( Kashf-al-Mahjub, p 14–15)

“There is no more sublime and more noble form of denudation than the way we denudate our Creator by those statements which juxtapose two negations: a negation and the negation of this negation”

-Sayyidina Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistānī ( Kitāb alIftikhār,88).

According to this approach of double negation, we should begin, firstly, by talking about God in negatives, saying, for example, that He is ‘non-being’ rather than ‘being’, not in space rather in space, not limited rather than limited and so forth. But then this rather lifeless and abstract negation should immediately be negated, saying that God is ‘not non-being’ or that He is not ‘No-thing’ and so on. By a repeated use of this linguistic discipline, anyone would become aware of that He is totally different from His creatures and that He shares not the slightest quality with them; and such a double negative approach to God does nothing more than making one realize the inadequacy of human language when it tries to convey the mystery of God. That is what indeed the ultimate aim of tawḥīd: professing the absolute unity of God by removing from Him all that implies multiplicity (including the number ‘one’ which refers to the Intellect)

In Ismaili thought it is firmly established that God is above all attributes that human mind can think of. Ismaili thinkers even excluded God from the attribute of being and non being. As for God is beyond the attribute of Being and Non Being, it is essential here to understand what does ‘being’ means and how do Ismaili thinkers have explained it. For Sijistani, as he says in the first chapter of his Kashf-al-majub , Being ( hasti ) only applies to that entity that can be imagined as non being ( nisti ), or by relating it to anything that that precedes it or dominates it. As in both ways, the notion of being cannot be applied to God, so it can be understood that being itself comes into existence as a result of God’s command, and can only be characteristic of creatures not God, Himself.

We cannot call God that He exists, for anything that exists,it means it is either a substance and the existence of a substance depends upon anything else that serves as its cause .That simply means is if He were a substance then He would not be exempted from the aspects of need and multiplicity that are inseparable from the substance. God, in His complete transcendence, is above being preceded by something else.There is no cause for him, so He is excluded from being existent.But at the same time we also exclude idea of God from being non-existent, in order to avoid the notion of His denial.

“It is not befitting for God to be either the cause or the effect, and it is therefore not appropriate to say that God is an existent. It should be known that the Absolute Existent [the Command of God] is originated by Him, and His ipseity transcends existence [and] its opposite which is nonexistence.”

-Sayyidina Nasir khusrau ,(Gushayish wa Rahayish, trans.Hunzai, 42)

Thus God’s Ipseity must be assumed above being existent because everything that exits,its existence comes under His Command. Existence is the result of His Command which manifests itself through originating Intellect. We shall close our post by citing two sayings of Imam Ali ibn-e- Talib – the first Imam of Shia tradition.

“Praise be to Allah. He is such that senses cannot perceive Him, place cannot contain Him, eyes cannot see Him” (Nahjul Balagha: Sermon 185)

“He who assigns to Him (different) conditions does not believe in His oneness, nor does he who likens Him grasp His reality. He who illustrates Him does not signify Him” (Nahjul Balagha: Sermon 186).

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