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Last Updated: 2013/02/16
Summary of question
What does it mean to say that divine attributes are the same as the essence?
question
When it comes to divine attributes (for example when the discussion revolves around “Bismillahir-Rahmanir Rahim”), sometimes it is said that the attributes (names) are the same as the named or the essence. It is asked whether or not the names are really the same as the essence? What does it mean to say that divine attributes are the same as the essence? What is the argument of those who say that the attribute is not the same as the essence? What is the argument based on?
Concise answer
One of the important theological, mystical, exegetical and philosophical discussions revolves around unity of attribute and the essence or name and the named. Since the point of dispute is not completely clear, often inconclusive and fruitless disputes and debates have taken place over this issue. Those who, like mystics believe in the unity of the name and the named (essence), mean to say that the name annihilates in the essence. According to them, the objective realities of the world as well as the concrete external phenomena are expressions, manifestations and signs of God’s essence. Hence, since what is apparent is united with the essence and the name is annihilated in the named, the essence becomes manifest in one of the attributes whereas those (theologians) who believe that the name and the named are different, they mean the verbal difference between the name and the named. Obviously, such a statement is right in its place.
 
Detailed Answer
One of the important discussions regarding divine attributes is the discussion about unity or disparity of the attribute with the essence. This is an issue discussed in mystical, theological and philosophical sources. The exegetes of the Holy Quran have also made reference to it. What the Ash’arite theologians have stated about unity of attribute and the essence, and as Shaykh Bahai[1] have written and spoken unnecessarily at length and which indeed relates to the verbal name, is definitely wrong and baseless. Because the verbal name can never be the essence since words are from the category of quality whereas the essence is from the category of substance. They cannot be the same thing. That is why, even in the traditions, unity of the attribute and the essence (in the above sense) has been completely rejected.
When it comes to the concept of unity between the attribute and the essence, it is something different from what has been assumed and underscored by theologians. It has to do with another reality and that is annihilation of the attribute in the essence and the dissolution of the former in the latter.
Faiz Kashani says in this regard: “In terms of nature and existence, the attribute is the same as the essence but in terms of the concept, the is different from the essence.”[2]
Arif Qaisari also says: “All the realities of the attributes are the same as the Unique Oneness but the One God is (in terms of existence) is the same as the essence and He is different from another aspect (in terms of concept and definitions).[3]
This discussion has also been the focus of Imam Khomeini’s attention. Referring to union of the attribute and the essence, he says: “The attribute is the same as the essence, the form the attribute is the same as the attribute and the essence; the shadow which extends from the essence is the same as the divine essence; it is annihilated in it and has no independence.”[4]
Else where he has said: “The attribute is identical with the essence yet it is also the veil of the essence.”[5]
Hence, it becomes clear that Imam Khomeini (r.a.) is seeing eye to eye with gnostics and other men of knowledge saying that the attribute is united with the essence.
Now, we should further explain as to what union of attribute and essence (or name and named) means from the perspective of gnostics and great men of knowledge. Some gnostics like Qaisari having interpreted the named as being tantamount to particular manifestation and expression have said: “It has now become clear as to what sameness of attribute and essence means.”[6] Qaisari aims to say that since divine attribute is the manifestation and expression of the essence through the attribute, so it is considered to be identical with the essence.
Some scholars like Imam Khomeini (may Allah bless his soul) have said that identity (union) of the name with the named is in the annihilation of the name in the named. The name is passed away in the named. Imam Khomeini writes in this regard:
Everything is the name of Allah, and the name has passed away in the named. We think that we have an independent existence, but that is not a fact. If that Being, who has brought everything into existence by means of His will and the reflection of the light of His glory withdrew His light for a moment all the existing things would be annihilated immediately and return to their pre-existing state. Allah has created the whole world by the light of His glory which is the true nature of existence and the name of Allah.
Everything is illuminated by His light. Everything has appeared by dint of His light. This appearance itself is a reflection of His light. Man's appearance is also a light. Therefore man himself is a light. Animals are also a light of Allah's glory. The existence of the heavens and the earth is a light from Allah. This light has so passed away in Allah that the Qur'an has said: Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.  It has not said that the heavens and the earth are illuminated by the light of Allah. The reason is that the heavens and the earth are a nonentity. Nothing in our world has an independent existence of its own.[7]
Therefore, by union of the name and the named gnostics and men of knowledge mean to say that the objective realities of the world and concrete phenomena are manifestations and signs of the named (divine essence). Hence, since what is apparent is united with the essence and the attribute is annihilated in the named, the essence becomes manifest in one of the attributes.
However, there are people who consider the name and the named as different from each other. For instance, Abul Fotuh Razi says: “The name and the named are different from each other and the argument that the name is identical with the named should be considered as weak and insubstantial. Because different suppositions can be made and assumed regarding the name and the named such as the following: 1. Name without the named (essence), 2. The named without name, 3. One named and several names, 4. One name and several named.
An example for the first supposition where name is without the named is the following verse:
«انا نبشرک بغلام اسمه یحیی»
“We give you good news of a boy whose name shall be Yahya.”[8]
This glad tiding is given before Yahya was born or even conceived. The name was given and introduced in the world of interpretation or words when there was no ‘named’ at the time of tiding.
An example for the second supposition where the named is without a name is a part of the phenomena or entities of the world which are still without a name.
An example for the second supposition is where there are several names of God for one essence (named). That is because God has more than one thousand names in the Quran and tradition.
An example for the fourth supposition is when there are several ‘named’ (manifestations) for one name which is used to refer to different realities on the ground. Just as the word ‘Ayn (Arabic word) has as many as seventy two meanings. Therefore, according to the third supposition, should the name and the named be identical and the same thing or every name be a named, in that case there should be more than one thousand gods.
Another reason which proves disparity between the name and the named is that the name can be heard, written and read but the ‘named’ is never so. Also, the named can be at one place whereas his name can be spread far and wide across the world. In addition, if a name were to be the same as the named, then he whose pronounces the word ‘fire’, his tongue should burn or he who pronounces the word ‘honey’, his mouth should taste sweet.”[9]
Some theologians like Abul Fotuh Razi maintain that the name and named are different and we see that they have taken ‘name’ for the written and spoken name.
Conclusion:
It is clearly understood from mystical and theological discourses that mystics and jurisprudents look at the issue quite distinctly and differently. If mystics believe in the union of the name and the named, they mean the epiphany and annihilation of the name in the named. And if the theologians believe in disparity between the name and the named, they refer to the written and verbal name which is obviously different from the name. Haaji Sabzevari considers this dispute as being verbal.[10]
At the end, it is pertinent to mention a narration from Imam Sadiq (a.s.) addressed to one of his brilliant students named Hisham.
Hisham bin al-Hakam asked Imam Sadiq (a.s) about God’s names or attributes. The Imam answered: “O Hisham, the name is separate from the named, so whoever worships the name without meaning (essence), has disbelieved and he does not worship anything. And he who worships the name and the meaning together, he has worshipped two things and committed shirk (associated someone else with God) but if he worships the meaning without the name, he indeed has worshipped the One God. Did you understand, Hisham?”
“Tell me more,” Hisham said.
Imam Sadiq (a.s.) said: “Verily, Allah has ninety nine names. If every name was the thing for which it was used, every one of those names would have been divine but “Allah” is the meaning which these names are used to argue for it and all those names are different from it. O Hisham, bread is a name referring to an edible, water is a name referring to something which we drink, clothe is a name referring to something which we wear and fire is a name referring to something which burns. Did you understand Hisham?  You should understand it so as to be able to overpower our enemies who disbelieve in God, the Exalted.”[11]
Obviously in this holy narration the Imam ascertains through the explanation he provides that he refers to the verbal or spoken name not to divine attributes.
 

[1] Shaykh Bahair, Kashkol, Qom, Tab’a wa Nashr Publications, Copy 5, p. 459.
[2] Faiz Kashani, Mohsen, Ilm-ul Yaqin, Qom, Beidar 1358, vol.1, chap. 6, chap.1, p. 97.
[3] Qaisari Dawood, Muqaddemah Sharh Fosus al-Hekam, Qom, Beidar, Chap. Mankind, p. 62.
[4] Imam Khomeini, Sharh Dua Sahar, p. 263.
[5] Imam Khomeini, Tafsir Surah Hamd, p. 79.
[6] Dawood Qaisari, ibid, Sh. Fosus al-Hekam, 2, p. 13.
[7] Imam Khomeini, Tafsir Surah Hamd, p. 103.
[8] Chap. Maryam, 7.
[9] Razi, Abul Fotuh Hasan bin Ali bin Muhammad, Rowzul Jenan wa Rohul Jenan, vol.1.
[10] Haadi Sabzevari, Sharh al-Maa wa Sharh Dua al-Jawshan al-Kabir, University of Tehran, 1372.
[11] Al-Kafi, vol.1, p. 87.
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