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Al-Ghazal on Accidental Identity and

the Attributes
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Taneli Kukkonen*
University of Jyvskyl

l-Ghazals (10561111) Al-maqsad al-asna f sharh maan asma Allah


al-husna, hereafter referred to as the Beautiful Names, is widely regarded as
having ushered in a new phase in the tradition of commenting on the names of
God. The ontological status of the divine attributes had been probed by kalam
theologians over the past two centuries; for their part, Sufi writers had been keen to
exploit the famous Prophetic saying according to which the believer who recounts the
divine names will one day enter Paradise.1 But before al-Ghazal no-one had attempted
to wed a theoretical analysis of the names and attributes to that devotional focus which
their remembrance (dhikr ) is meant to evoke. It is this dual emphasis that lends
al-Ghazals work its particular character and force, and yet it also proved a difficult model
to emulate. For the centuries following al-Ghazal it is hard to find examples of treatises
that would replicate all the features of his writing. If anything, al-Ghazals Beautiful
Names provided later writers with a toolkit upon which they could draw, with some of its
lessons being absorbed while others went largely unheeded. The situation in this respect
does not differ substantially from what happened with al-Ghazals other mature works.
In a previous study I have argued for the distinctiveness of al-Ghazals approach
when it comes to establishing the parameters for accurate God-talk. What is novel in an
Islamic context is how explicitly al-Ghazal relies on the commentary tradition on
Aristotles On Interpretation when it comes to resolving the question of how the divine
names are supposed to signify. The issue of whether the meaning of divine names can

* Parts of this essay have been rehearsed in seminars and colloquia in Helsinki, Cambridge, Seattle,
Winnipeg, New Haven, and Boston. The article was completed during a fellowship at the Swedish
Collegium for Advanced Study. I wish to thank the Collegium and the European Research Council for
their support of my research, and all the kind people who have improved it through questions and
comments.
1
For al-Ghazals version of this hadth, attested to by Muslim, see al-Maqsad al-asna f sharh maan
asma Allah al-husna, ed. F. Shehadi (Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 2nd ed. 1982), 63.46. All
references to the Arabic text are to this edition, hereafter abbreviated as Maqsad. As regards the actual
list of 99 names, al-Ghazal professes to follow in the footsteps of Abu Hurayra.
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Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148
USA.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-1913.2011.01367.x

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Al-Ghazali on Accidental Identity and the Attributes

properly be explicated is resolved through the application of Peripatetic semantics, even


as al-Ghazal flags up some of the problems that this raises for his own designs on a
meditation upon the names.2
In this small companion piece I will argue that al-Ghazals indebtedness to the
Peripatetic tradition extends beyond issues of signification to the way in which the divine
attributes are said to reside in the divine essence. Specifically, al-Ghazal suggests that
the issue of how contradictory qualities can be predicated of God can be resolved by
recourse to the Aristotelian notion of accidental identity or unity (wahda bi al-ard).
What looks to be a throwaway comment in al-Ghazals Beautiful Names is in actuality
anything but: the notion of accidental identity puts a particular spin on the whole
question of the attributes, which by that time had become a well-worn topic in kalam
theological manuals. Al-Ghazals explanation of the relation of the attributes to the
essence also allows us to understand what he means when he says that our aim is to
approximate God and to strive to be close to Him.3

1. Names and Signification


One needs first to give a brief account of how al-Ghazal frames the initial problem.
The question, al-Ghazal avers, is whether (a) the name is the same as that which is
named or (b) whether the name should rather be identified with the act of naming. These
are customary descriptions of the traditionalist and Mutazilite positions as regards the
attributes: the first formulation emphasizes that there is something real and distinct (the
named) to which each divine name refers, while the second sees the names and
attributes merely as so many descriptions of Gods actions, as perceived from the point
of view of the creature. A third party, which according to al-Ghazal was famed for its
skills in the art of dialectic and speculative theology,4 had claimed that (c) a more refined
position could be staked out that would retain aspects of each solution while rejecting
the extremity of both. This attempt at mediation, which is found in numerous Asharite
2

See Taneli Kukkonen, Al-Ghazal on the Signification of Names, Vivarium 48/12 (2010): 5574.
Notice the way the aim of the treatise is framed by its title: what al-Ghazal intends to stake out is the
highest pinnacle in explicating the meaning of the names. Each word here carries weight.
3
For the limited purposes of this essay I disregard the discussion of the divine attributes in al-Ghazals
Mean in Belief (al-Iqtisad f al-i tiqad) as well as his so-called Jerusalem Letter (reproduced in the
Revivification of the Religious Sciences, bk. 2). Although Michael Marmura, above all, has managed to
extract much that is interesting from the discussion of the attributes in the Mean in Belief, I am not sure
that there is much of a connection with the specific issues that I discuss. A fuller assessment of how the
presentations of the attributes in the three works cohere must await a further occasion.
4
sinaa al-jadal wa-kalam: notice the singular form here, as it appears to indicate that for al-Ghazal
kalam and dialectical disputation are at heart one and the same art. This squares with what is said, e.g.,
in al-Ghazals autobiography (see the section on kalam in al-Munqidh min al-dalal ) and puts
al-Ghazal in the corner of the philosophers when it comes to describing the ultimate limitations of the
kalam theological project. Al-Ghazals understanding of kalam accordingly differs from the
self-understanding of the mutakallimn, for whom see Richard M. Frank, The Science of kalam,
Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 2/1 (1992): 737.
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manuals from the classical period, seeks to distinguish those attributes which denote
the divine essence from those that merely describe Gods actions (sifat al-dhat, sifat
al-af al ). But while the latter can easily be explained away as mere relational
descriptions, that still leaves untouched the former. Accordingly, there would be little
choice but to say that the essential attributes are neither identical with nor different from
the divine essence. (Maqsad, 17.510) This neither-nor is perhaps an appropriately
humble way to signal our incomprehension in the face of the divine mystery or secret
(sirr ), but is not especially helpful in terms of logical analysis. Al-Ghazal therefore
moves that the proponents of the third position, even if they put on the airs of enjoying
greater sophistication, in fact are the most confused of all, since their position is the most
confusing. (Maqsad, 25.810; cf. 29.11ff.) It is nonetheless in their musings that he
purports to find a kernel of the truth as he sees it.
Given the muddy state of the earlier discussion (especially when it comes to
mixing linguistic with ontological terminology why should names and attributes be
treated as convertible terms in the first place?) it is not surprising that al-Ghazal
should seek to clear the ground before attempting his own resolution of the issue.
What is remarkable is how decisively al-Ghazal moves in the Beautiful Names
towards an appropriation of Peripatetic semantics as the instrument of choice for
cutting through the thicket. This means at the same time an acceptance of the
attendant metaphysical framework of the Aristotelian tradition, and again what is
remarkable is how unblinkingly al-Ghazal does just that. Even in this unquestionably
dogmatic and hortative work, then, one that stems from al-Ghazals mature period
and is presented very much in his own voice, al-Ghazal, without hesitation or
apology, makes full use of the conceptual resources mapped out in the earlier
Intentions of the Philosophers and Criterion of Knowledge. The finding confirms for the
domain of semantics what, e.g., Griffel, Janssens, al-Akiti, myself, and above all
Richard Frank have on previous occasions suggested when it comes to al-Ghazals
cosmology and psychology. These are all Avicennian at heart in the way that they are
grounded, argued for, and represented, with certain important revisions put in place
so as to emphasize some theological point or another, but nothing so drastic as to set
into question their ultimate theoretical provenance.5
5

See, e.g., Richard M. Frank, Creation and the Cosmic System (Heidelberg: Carl
Winters-Universittsverlag, 1992); Frank Griffel, Ms. London, British Library Or. 3126: An Unknown
Work by al-Ghazal on Metaphysics and Philosophical Theology, Journal of Islamic Studies 17/1
Concept of Prophecy: The Introduction of Avicennan
(2006): 142; Frank Griffel, Al-Gazals
Psychology into Asarite Theology, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 14 (2004): 101144; Jules Janssens,
Ibn Sna and His Influence on the Arabic and Latin World (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), chs. VIII-XI;
, Tahafut, and
M. Afifi al-Akiti, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Falsafa: Al-Ghazals Madnun

Maqasid
, with Particular Attention to Their falsafi, Treatments of Gods Knowledge
of Temporal
 in Y. Tzvi Langermann (ed.), Avicenna and His Legacy: A Golden Age of Science and
Events,
Philosophy (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), 51100; M. Afifi al-Akiti, The Three Properties of Prophethood
in Certain Works of Avicenna and al-Gazal, in Jon McGinnis (ed.), Interpreting Avicenna: Science and
Philosophy in Medieval Islam (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 189212;Taneli Kukkonen, Possible Worlds in the

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In my earlier article I have laid out the most salient features of al-Ghazals theory of
signification as it comes across in the Beautiful Names, with a special emphasis on the
degree to which al-Ghazal relies on the commentary tradition building on Aristotles
Organon (the Categories, the Posterior Analytics, but above all On Interpretation).6 The
results may be summarized as follows:
1. Consistent with both the theological and philosophical traditions, al-Ghazal
subscribes to a basic conceptual framework of conception and assent (tasawwur
wa-tasdq). Only once a proposition has been understood can it be accepted or rejected,
and this in turn presupposes an understanding of the constituent terms. What merits note
here is how high the bar is set for conception in the proper sense of the term: nothing
less than a knowledge of the definition and the true nature (hadd, haqqa) of both the
subject and predicate terms will secure an adequate understanding for an informed
granting, or for that matter withholding, of assent to take place. This is what knowing a
name amounts to, properly speaking. (Maqsad, 17.1718.2)
2. Al-Ghazal holds to a metaphysical doctrine according to which extramental
entities, concepts or mental impressions, and linguistic items all can be said to enjoy a
kind of existence (wujud). Extramental existents are primary, while conceptual and
linguistic entities ordinarily derive their existence from our encounter with the world:
our senses and our minds naturally come to extract formal features of the sensible world,
which we then learn to signify by means of conventional linguistic signs. (Maqsad,
18.819.20)
3. Al-Ghazal reproduces many features of Aristotles On Interpretation having to
do with nouns, verbs, and particles, simple vs. compound expressions, natural vs.
conventional language, and the like. At the same time he appropriates elements from the
commentary tradition going back to Porphyry, such as the doctrine of primary and
secondary imposition (al-wad al-awwal, al-wad al-than). Some of these find use in
al-Ghazals own project of explicating how the divine names work, while others do
notal-Ghazal sticks close to the Peripatetic playbook. The most crucial feature from the
commentary tradition, one that assuredly does find application in al-Ghazals own
doctrine of signification, derives from the school of Alexandria. Like the philosophers
from Ammoniuss school, and indeed al-Farab and Ibn Sna in the Arabic tradition,
al-Ghazal says that words refer to things by means of concepts. Another way to put the
matter is that words refer to concepts directly and primarily and to extramental existents
Tahafut al-falasifa. Al-Ghazal on Creation and Contingency, Journal of the History of Philosophy 38/4
(2000): 479502; Taneli Kukkonen, The Self as Enemy, the Self as Divine: A Crossroads in the
Development of Islamic Anthropology, in Ancient Philosophy of the Self, eds. P. Remes and J. Sihvola
(Dordrecht: Springer Verlag, 2008), 205224. I was unable to consult al-Akitis larger doctoral thesis,
The Madnun of al-Ghazal: A Critical Edition of the Unpublished Major Madnun with Discussion of
His Restricted Philosophical Corpus, DPhil diss., 3 vols. (University of Oxford, 2008), which claims to
situate al-Ghazals Mishkat al-anwar in a broader corpus of Madnun works clearly and indisputably
reliant on Ibn Sna.
6
Kukkonen, Signification of Names, 5968.
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in a secondary manner (even if language should have developed as a tool to


communicate about extramental reality). These concepts are what al-Ghazal refers to as
the meanings (maan) of names, and the overwhelming impression is that what are
meant thereby are universals.
4. Finally, consistent with an Aristotelian as well as an Asharite outlook, an analysis
of propositions reveals the underlying metaphysical reality as being one of beings
(substances) and their properties. The basic assertoric sentence consists of a subject
term, a predicate term, and a relation of either affirming or rejecting the latter of the
former. (Maqsad, 18.27) In line with Aristotelian metaphysics, and in contrast to the
Asharite picture of reality, all qualifying features of substances are described as forms or
common natures. Crucial to al-Ghazals purposes is this notion of a true nature or inner
reality (haqqa) that each being has, whether this be the whiteness of white or the
equinity of a horse. There is an obvious affinity here with Ibn Snas quiddity (mahiyya)
and indeed, al-Ghazal on occasion slips into talk of quiddities.

2. Identity and Difference


With the basics of the Peripatetic semantic scheme accounted for and out of the way,
al-Ghazal can move on to the next order of business, which is to explain the meanings
of identity and difference. In point of fact, difference (ghayriyya) does not get so much
as a look-see, whereas the notion of identity is explored in quite some detail. This is
understandable, given how it is the putative identity relations holding between the
name, the thing named, and the act of naming which had provided the grounds for the
central controversy between the Mutazilites and the Asharites.
Al-Ghazal distinguishes between three senses in which two things may be said to
be one and the same (huwa huwa), i.e. identical. The first of these is strict synonymity.
When two conventional linguistic signs carry the exact same meaning, the mental
referent is the same for both, and what one does when positing an identity relation is
point out this very fact.7 Al-Ghazal considers this to be the only case of true identity,
with all other forms of sameness derivative and dependent upon it. (Maqsad, 21.1720,
24.1725.3)
Nevertheless, people do speak of identity in other ways as well. In a second,
looser sense one may say that the sabre is the same as the sword, for everything that
is a sabre is thereby of necessity also a sword. Notice how at this point, the
perspective has shifted from an account of mental referents to one involving extramental existents, at least if the notion of identity is to be taken literally: for clearly, we
would not say that what is meant by a sabre is the same as what is meant by a sword.
What is more, even the scope of the extensional identification remains limited, for
7

This corresponds to Alexander of Aphrodisiass description of numerical sameness, in which the


names are many but the thing named one: see In Top. (Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca 2.2) ed. M.
Wallies (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1891), 58.1014.

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while we would say that anything corresponding to the notion of a sabre may also
be referred to as a sword, plainly the converse does not hold. In Aristotelian terms,
the relationship is one between species and genus. If the former is predicated of a
thing, then so is the latter, but the opposite need not be the case. There is a
supplement (al-ziyada) that goes into being a sabre that sets it apart from merely
being a sword, and this constitutes its differentia. (22.17)
And what of the third type of identity relation? This seems purely incidental:
The third way is to say: Snow is white and cold. [In this case] the white and the
cold are one, so that that which is the white is the same as that which is the cold
(al-abyad huwa al-barid ). [As a means of denoting identity] this is the most
far-fetched of all: it comes down to the unity of the subject described by the two
attributes, meaning that one specific [thing] is characterized by whiteness and
coldness. (Maqsad, 22.811)

What this puts us in mind of is Aristotles notion of accidental identity: white and
musical may be accidents of the same thing, just as what is sitting and musical may be
one and the same thing as what is referred to by the proper name Socrates.8 The
distinction is reproduced in Ibn Sna under the rubric of something being one by
accident (wahid bi-l-ard), and al-Ghazal makes note of it in his Intentions of the
Philosophers.9 Yet the notion seems to bring us no closer to establishing an identity
relation between the name, the named, and the act of naming: indeed, none of the three
kinds of identity does.
Al-Ghazals protest, raised again and again in one form or another, is that the
proponents of an identity relationwhether of type (a) or type (b) routinely commit
one sort of category mistake or another. For instance, even if one were to substitute the
quiddity of the thing named where one customarily reads the named in Asharite
textbooks, still one could not claim that the former is the same as the name itself. For a
name is a linguistic entity, whereas a quiddity is a feature of an outward existent.10

See Aristotle, De int. 11; Top. 1.7; Met. 5.6, 5.7, 5.9. Aristotelian scholarship for the most part has
concentrated on the question of identity over time: see N. White, Aristotle on Sameness and Oneness,
Philosophical Review 80 (1971): 177197; F. D. Miller, Jr., Did Aristotle Have the Concept of Identity?
Philosophical Review 82 (1973): 483490; F. A. Lewis, Accidental Sameness in Aristotle, Philosophical
Studies 42 (1982): 136; G. B. Matthews, Accidental Unities, in Language and Logos. Studies in ancient
Greek philosophy presented to G. E. L. Owen, eds. M. Schofield & M. C. Nussbaum (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1982), 223240.
9
Ibn Sna, al-Shifa: al-Ilahiyyat, bk. 3, ch. 2, 74.7ff. Marmura (also bk. 7, ch. 1 passim); al-Ghazal,
Maqasid al-falasifa, ed. S. al-Kurd (Cairo: al-Mahmudiyya al-tijariyya bi-l-Azhar, 1936), 3739. I owe
the latter reference to Frank Griffel.
10
It is to be noticed that al-Ghazal pays no heed here to Ibn Snas famous ruminations regarding the
quiddity not qua extramental essence or qua universal, but simply qua quiddity: on the topic see
Michael E. Marmura, Quiddity and Universality in Avicenna, in Neoplatonism and Islamic Thought,
ed. P. Morewedge (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 7787.
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Neither will the equation of the name and the act of naming get us anywhere; nor again
will any of the more convoluted formulations posited by previous Muslim theologians.
The details of al-Ghazals refutations, clever as they are, need not concern us here.
What is important for our purposes is the concession he is willing to make to the
Asharite party. If and only if two crucial conditions are met, then it becomes possible to
say that the name is one and the same as the (essence of the) thing named. This is when
(1) the name is taken to denote the meaning of the name and when (2) by the thing
named one understands its essence in the special sense of its quiddity (mahiyya), i.e.
that which makes a thing what it is. With this shift from linguistic to conceptual existence,
on the left-hand side of the equation, and from any chance universal characteristic to a
designation of a things one and only true essence on the right, a formal unity of the
required strength is attained to allow one to posit a true identity relation between the
name and the thing named. (See Maqsad, 27.14.) Now, clearly this is a very special sort
of identity; equally as clearly, if this is to be our principal tool in accounting for how the
revealed names of God name Him, then we have a rocky road ahead of us. Nevertheless,
for the present moment this brief affirmative statement is all we have to go on. Let us
therefore forge ahead.
The emphasis which al-Ghazal puts on the commonality and indeed formal identity
between quiddity and conceptual content is starkly reminiscent of the celebrated Scotist
concept of common nature, whose reliance on the Avicennian notion of the quiddity
considered in itself has been noted in the recent literature.11 His emphasis on how
knowledge of the quiddity is key to any successful act of naming likewise echoes the
way in which Ibn Sna distinguishes between different uses of the term essence.
According to Ibn Sna, the question of the person who asks What is it? corresponds to
What is its essence? or What is the comprehension of its name? For such a
comprehension to take place one must know not only what a thing has in common with
other things, but also what is proper to it.12 Or again, to point out the properly
Aristotelian roots of Ibn Snas mahiyya (the Latin quidditas): a definition is an account
(logos) that discloses what it is to be some specific kind of thing (to ti n einai: Top. 1.5,
101b38 as well as Met. Zta and ta passim.) For Aristotle, the name is a sign (semeion)
and can be replaced by a truthful account (logos) of it, which is to say its definition
(horismos).13

11

See D. Perler, Duns Scotuss Philosophy of Language, in The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus,
ed. T. Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 161192, at 168; G. Pini, Signification
of Names in Duns Scotus and Some of His Contemporaries, Vivarium 39/1 (2001): 2051.
12
See Ibn Sna, al-Isharat wa-l-tanbhat, ed. S. Dunya (Beirut, 4 vols. 1993), 1:174177 (= al-Mantiq,
nahj 1, fasl 15); al-Shifa: al-Madkhal, 3741; al-Ghazal, Maqasid, 5051, where talk is of the reality
of the essence (haqqa al-dhat).
13
Aristotle, Met. 4.7, 1012a2224 and Top. 8.13, 163b37. The case with homonyms or equivocal names
is more complicated (Top. 5.2, 129b3035): see T. H. Irwin, Aristotles Concept of Signification, in
Language and Logos (n. 7 above), 241266.

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On this normative account of naming, denoting the substance of a thing by calling


it by some name indicates that the true essence of the thing is just what its definition
states and nothing else.14 But this presents us with a challenge as concerns the revealed
names of God. Can any one of these be said to name God to the exclusion of others, that
is to say, to point to the quiddity of that which is named? Based on Aristotles contention
that the Prime Movers life consists in a kind of thinking thinking thinking (nosis
noses nosis: Met. 12.9) some Aristotelian philosophers had claimed that it is Gods
knowledge that is His distinguishing characteristic. In keeping with this tradition, and
counteracting Platonic trends which had threatened to push the One beyond all
intellection and even being, the Muslim falasifa had re-established (self-)knowledge and
being itself as essential components in any true conception of divinity.15 In the treatise
on the Beautiful Names al-Ghazal identifies this equation of Gods essence with His
intellection as a Mutazilite as well as philosophical position;16 and while he indicates that
a more forceful rejection will have to await another occasion, he cannot resist taking a
subtle dig at it here.
The truth requires precision: one should say that by the expression man
something other is understood than by the expression knower, since man
denotes rational animal, whereas by knower [one may] understand anything
that has knowledge. Moreover, one expression differs from the other, and by the
one something different is understood than by the other. (Maqsad, 29.1114)

Although the point is supposed to have general applicability picking out a quiddity
differs from correctly signifying a universal feature, or even the differentia when
considered in isolation the example is far from being arbitrary. For al-Ghazal, it is
unacceptable that Gods knowledge should define His being, lest the possibility be
admitted of a real likeness coming to obtain between God, the angels, and possibly even
human beings. The difference between creature and Creator in that case would merely
be one of degree, not one of kind: in coming to know, man would in essence become
divine.17 This will not do: consequently, not even Gods knowledge can be identified
14

See Aristotle, Met. 4.4, 1007a2627, and cf. section 1.1 above.
See, e.g., al-Farab, On the Perfect State, ch. 1, paras. 68, ed. and tr. R. Walzer (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1985), 7075; Ibn Sna, al-Shifa: al-Ilahiyyat, bk. 8, chs. 67; in an explicitly
Peripatetic vein, Ibn Snas comments on Aristotles On the Soul, printed in A. Badaw, ed., Aristu inda
al-arab (Cairo: Maktaba al-nahda al-misriyya, 1947), 108; Isharat, 2:419420 (= al-Tab iyyat, namat
3, fasl 19) and 3:53 (= al-Ilahiyyat, namat 4, fasl 28); on this aspect of the transition from ancient to
Islamic Neoplatonism, P. Adamson, The Arabic Plotinus (London: Duckworth, 2002), 115117 and
124137; C. DAncona, Linfluence du vocabulaire arabe: Causa Prima est esse tantum , in
Llaboration do vocabulaire philosophique au Moyen Age, eds. J. Hamesse and C. Steel (Turnhout:
Brepols, 2000), 5197.
16
Maqsad, 176.16177.12. A fuller refutation is given in Discussions 1113 of the Tahafut al-falasifa:
text and translation in The Incoherence of the Philosophers. A parallel English-Arabic text, ed. after.
Bouyges, tr. M. E. Marmura (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1997).
17
For the principle of like knowing like see n. 37 below; for a case in post-Avicennian philosophy
where the same principle is used to argue for a positive likeness between intellect and the divine, Hayy
15

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with His innermost reality. (Maqsad, 30.34) Nor can the fact that God exists be used as
a basis for a positive account of divinity.18

3. Accidental Unity in the Divine Mind


According to al-Ghazal, there is but one way in which an identity relation can be
said to obtain between varying descriptions in general, and between the divine names
in particular. This is
when one considers a single essence which is described by [saying both] that it is
a man and that it knows. What is named by man is the same as what is described
as being a knower, just as the thing named by snow was the same thing that was
described as being cold and white. According to this kind of consideration and
interpretation one is the same as the other, while on the first interpretation it is
something else. (Maqsad, 29.1619)

What this passage confirms once and for all is something hinted at earlier, namely,
that names name, while attributes merely describe. One names a man in the full sense
of the word by identifying him as precisely what he is, a man: this kind of naming is
impossible in the case of God, except perhaps by simply calling Him God. (More on
this later.) But even while admitting that each thing has one and only one proper name,
it may still be perfectly legitimate to characterize a single subject in multiple ways to
indicate that a thing falls under one or more class of existent according to the properties
that it has.19 Such descriptions can succeed in signifying their subject in this broader
sense even when the subjects quiddity (or, as al-Ghazal would have it, its own inward
reality or haqqa) remains unknown. We find al-Ghazal unexpectedly evoking the third
kind of identity outlined at the beginning of his treatise on the Beautiful Names: the
divine names are identical in the accidental sense that they are used to refer to the same
subject (Maqsad, 34.1218), not because they would enjoy any semantic overlap
(Maqsad, 3638).
This calls to mind a formulation encountered earlier in the Beautiful Names: what a
given expression denotes is the thing signified in so far as it is thereby signified (min
haythu anna-hu madlul alay-hi: Maqsad, 21.2, emphasis mine). We are now in a
Ben Yaqdhan. Roman philosophique d Ibn Thofal, ed. L. Gauthier (Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 2nd.
rev. ed. 1936), 105106 and 118119. I have treated the similarites and differences between Ibn Snas,
al-Ghazals, and Ibn Tufayls views on this point elsewhere: see Taneli Kukkonen, Ibn Tufayl and the
Wisdom of the East: On Apprehending the Divine, in Late Antique Epistemology, eds. S. R. L. Clark and
P. Vassilopoulou (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 87102.
18
For further comments on this aspect of negative theology in al-Ghazal see Kukkonen, Al-Ghazal
on the Signification of Names, 6874.
19
This principle is later used to resolve the question of whether God might have more than the 99
names established by tradition. The short answer is no only the names announced by God can safely
be regarded as names, that is, as signs referring to autonomous quiddities in the Godhead but that
is not the whole story: many additional designations may accurately describe God, so long as they refer
to positive aspects and are regarded as perfections. See Maqsad, 181ff.

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position to make sense of this claim. If a builder happens to heal, then surely he can be
alluded to as a healer (cf. Maqsad, 28.111). Nevertheless, the predication will only have
limited utility, since it only spotlights an incidental feature of its subject, which may
prove more or less helpful when one is charged with pinpointing that framework in
which the agents attributes and actions find their proper (one might say substantial)
context and meaning. The observation, broadly Aristotelian in character, ties in with the
Peripatetic predilection that allows for the study of a single subject under multiple
different aspects. On an aspect theory of predication, a single thing may have multiple
essences or selves (dhawat) in the broad sense of simultaneously falling within several
classificatory schemes.20 A human being may be examined under the guises of animal,
two-footed, and political, for instance, and there can be no principled objection to
describing a man both qua biped and qua knower. Each characterisation may hit upon
one or several features of a persons existence, more or less pertinent as these may be:
as animals we have to hunt and gather, as bipeds we share certain peculiarities of poise
and movement with ostriches and hens, while as rational creatures we belong to another
community still.21 In an analogous manner, one may very well describe God by saying,
e.g., that God is Merciful or that He is Mild even while maintaining that neither
characterisation fences off the kind of life that sets God apart from created reality. This
type of knowledge
touches upon God, great and glorious. What is known thereby are names derived
from attributes. These, however, do not enter into the reality of the essence and its
quiddity. We have demonstrated that when someone points to a thing and asks
What is it? to mention derived names is no answer at all. [. . .] A true
understanding (marifa) of a thing equals an understanding of its reality and its
quiddity, not an understanding of the derived names that may pertain to it. Thus,
when we say the hot we mean one thing or another that is characterised by
hotness, and similarly with the powerful and the knowing: these mean one
thing or another that is characterised by knowledge and power. (49.1450.4)

In al-Ghazals somewhat tortured phrasing, even if the divine names do not touch upon
the divine quiddity (what it is for God to be divine), they do succeed in denoting the
divine essence in their own fashion: What is understood by the Creator , for instance,
is not the reality of the essence (haqqa al-dhat), but that essence in so far as (min
haythu) it has a certain relational attribute (Maqsad, 27.1011). In what looks to be an

20

Cf. Aristotle, Met. 7.4 for the telling remark that calling a thing white, though it captures no things
substantial nature, does nonetheless denote an essence of sorts, viz. the essence of whiteness; and
compare (in admittedly a rather different context) al-Ghazals Faysal al-tafriqa, where it is said that
one may allow (yajuz) that one thing has multiple names according to different perspectives (itibarat,
following Sherman Jacksons translation). Faysal al-tafriqa bayna al-islam wa-l-zandaqa, ed. M. Bejou
(Damascus, 1993), 38.12.
21
On the aspect theory of predication see A. Bck, On Reduplication (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996).
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intriguingly Aristotelian analysis of the matter, al-Ghazal says that the various attributes
are said to reside in the divine essence, even as none are predicated of it.22
How are we to conceive of such an inherence relation? An obvious possibility would
be to suggest that the various divine names designate divine perfections, i.e. the various
ways in which God relates either to Himself or to the world.23 These will have to be
perfect Gods mercy will capture the essence of what it is to be Merciful, etc.
because we will not allow for any imperfection to taint the divine reality. They will be
really distinct from one another and from the divine essence, since none of them will
have been revealed in vain and none of them can be allowed to comprehensively name
the divine.
Now, if the expression name denotes by second imposition and the names
themselves by first imposition, then minimally we would expect the referents of the
divine names to enjoy stronger than mere verbal existence. If all should proceed
according to the standard theory of reference outlined at the beginning of al-Ghazals
treatise, the names would have as their primary referent some kind of conceptual
existence. So the divine names will refer to meanings first and foremost, which is to say,
to formal objects of knowledge something many will have suspected all along.
However, this conceptual content for the divine names cannot have arisen out of our
cognition of individuals in the world, since all we encounter in the world are more or less
imperfect created beings. As we have seen, ordinary human cognition depends on prior
concrete existents (Maqsad, 18.1214): these existents, however, are mere shadows, or
else mirrors or signs of the transcendent spiritual reality.24 Human cognition on its own
therefore remains unable to secure the true meaning of the names.

22

Tahafut, 100102; cf. what Abu l-Wald Muhammad Ibn Rushd (the Latin Averros, 11261198) has
to say about the Asharite view in his chapter on the attributes in Kitab al-kashf an manahij al-adilla
f aqaid al-milla, in Philosophie und Theologie von Averroes, ed. M. J. Mller (Munich: Die knigliche
bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1859), 5157.
23
In a rather lengthy footnote I must register my disagreement with Shehadi, who in his introduction
to the Arabic edition of the Beautiful Names (Maqsad, xlviixlviii) makes out that al-Ghazal still
subscribes to the traditional distinction between attributes of essence and those of action. On Shehadis
picture the attributes of the essence (sifat al-dhat) describe the divine essence in a strong sense: on
the picture that I am drawing, by contrast, to call God the Hearing is simply to make reference to the
existence of perfect knowledge of all that can be heard in the Godhead, just as reference to God as the
Fashioner (al-Musawwir ) is to refer to the fact that God knows everything, whether actual or potential,
according to its form. When al-Ghazal insists that none of the divine names not even the supposedly
essential seven capture anything of the meaning of the divine quiddity, he either establishes the
semi-autonomous reality of all the attributes or none of them: my interpretation is that he wishes to
secure them all, with an emphasis on divine knowledge as the locus for the rest (see below). Al-Ghazal
himself indicates that his theory effectively erases the distinction between essential and relational
attributes: the attributes are divided into relational and non-relational, and all of them describe essences
[of some sort] (al-mawsuf bi-jam i-ha al-dhawat: Maqsad, 27.1415, my emphasis).
24
See, e.g., Mishkat al-anwar, ch. 2: text and translation in The Niche of Lights, ed. based on Aff,
tr. D. Buchman (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1998), 25.927.11.

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Lucky for us, then, that divine cognition operates along different lines. Gods
knowledge of a thing can and indeed must precede its coming into existence on the
physical plane (see Maqsad, 93; cf. 79.1880.10). It forms the blueprint for the way in
which a thing will eventually take shape.25 The true concepts for the divine names will
accordingly refer to God as God knows Himself, or as He has chosen to name and
thereby reveal Himself. (See Maqsad, 54.1320 and ff., 47.1648.2.)
This brings us to the way in which Gods knowledge is afforded pride of place
among the divine attributes after all. In the Revivification of the Religious Sciences
al-Ghazal states that knowledge is an essential and absolute, not a relative perfection;
divine knowledge is likewise said to describe divine perfection without any qualification.26 Compare this to what is posited regarding the eternality of the divine attributes in
the Beautiful Names:
By things known we mean things [whose existence is] affirmed by minds
(adhhan): and in relation to God these are eternal, since God has existed and
known from all eternity,27 and known that He exists and knows. His existence is
affirmed in Himself and in His knowledge as well, and similarly known by Him are
the names which He will inspire in His servants and create in their minds and in
their speech. This interpretation allows [us] to say that there are names in eternity.
(Maqsad, 31.813)

I propose that this passage be read quite literally: the names are eternal because God
knows them from eternity.28 God knows their significance and that their true meanings
are attributable to Him, whether in actuality or in potentiality (cf. Maqsad, 31.1432.10;
138.36). The ontological basis for the names (ideal inward) reality, then, lies in their
meaning being known to God. The relational attributes, specifically, can be forever real
only if one construes them as intelligibles, just as they can only be intelligible if they are
taken to enjoy a measure of reality (haqqa) all their own, independent of any outward
instantiation. Al-Ghazals theory skilfully balances the Asharite and Mutazilite/
philosophical viewpoints; and while its inspiration may be essentially Plotinian,29 its
25

Accordingly, in the Revivification, bk. 21, ch. 9 existence is expanded into four categories: existence
in the Preserved Tablet (al-lawh al-mahfuz) precedes concrete embodied existence, which is followed
by sensory and imaginary existence, which again is followed by intelligible (aql) existence in the
human heart (qalb). See Ihya ulum al-dn (Beirut: Dar al-kutub al-ilmiyya, 5 vols. 2002), 3:20.57.
26
Knowledge is a fad la f dhati-hi wa-ala l-itlaq min ghayr idafa: Ihya, 1:20.16. One detects here a
weak parallel to Ibn Snas theory according to which Gods perfection (kamal ) is best understood in
terms of His acting as a final cause to be cognized and imitated: for this see R. Wisnovsky, Avicennas
Metaphysics in Context (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 181195.
27
F l-azal: on the distinctions relating to eternity (which for al-Ghazal appears to equal sempiternity)
see Maqsad, 159160.
28
On the eternality of the attributes in post-Avicennian Muslim thought see R. Wisnovsky, One Aspect
of the Avicennian Turn in Sunn Theology, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 14/1 (2004): 65100.
29
According to the Theology of Aristotle Intellect contains all the attributes, and these in turn are
associated with names: see Aflutn ind al-arab, ed. A. Badaw (Cairo: Maktaba al-nahda al-misriyya,
1955), 71.
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justification in the context of Peripatetic semantics is provided by the Aristotelian notion


of accidental identity. Ibn al-Arab (11651240) deftly captures the essence of this theory
when he writes, evidently drawing on al-Ghazal: Every [divine] name denotes both the
essence and its own reality with respect to itself. The [thing] named is one, so the Exalter
is the Abaser with respect to what is named (al-Rafi huwa al-Khafid): still, the Exalter
is not the Abaser with respect to itself and its own reality.30
A further suggestive parallel may be pointed out here between al-Ghazals solution
to the problem of the attributes and Peter Abelards roughly contemporary remarks on
the divine persons. Responding to certain Trinitarian controversies, Abelard recommends that all statements along the lines of The Father is the same as the Son be read
as follows: That which is the Father is the same as that which is the Son. Instead of an
intensional identification (an idem qui relation), that is to say, what we have here is a
case of purely extensional identity (idem quod). Abelards remarks have led L. M. De Rijk
to detect the germs of an identity theory of predication in his Trinitarian logic:31 that
particular promise was borne out later, in the fourteenth century, when the extensionalist interpretation became one of the accepted ways to construe all instances of
successful predication.32 An intriguing thread for further study would be to see whether
a similar systematic treatment arose anywhere in the later Islamic literature in response
to the hints al-Ghazal sows here. Al-Ghazals own remarks, as is often the case with
him, remain rather undercooked and underdeveloped. The most that we find al-Ghazal
saying is that what is meant by accidental identity is a distinction in postulated qualities
together with a common logical subject (mawdu, corresponding to the Latin positum).
On the metaphysical level, this is equivalent to postulating a single metaphysical subject
(mahall ) with numerous distinct attributes.33 This is all consistent with an idem quod
approach, but does not yet take us very far.
Still, at a minimum the interpretation of al-Ghazal that I have put forward prompts
a reassessment of his purpose in writing the Beautiful Names, that of outlining a practical
programme as well as a theoretical justification for the goal of imitating the divine names.
Al-Ghazal envisions the ultimate resting place for the felicitous soul as being similar to
that occupied by the angels, who get to reside undisturbed in the proximity of God (qurb
Allah) and in His presence. Since the angels are described by al-Ghazal as being
Ibn al-Arab, Fusus al-hikam, ed. A. Aff (Cairo: Dar al-kutub al-arabiyya, 1946), 93; cf. al-Ghazal,
Maqsad, 165.35.
31
Introduction to Abelard, Dialectica, ed. L. M. De Rijk (Assen: Van Gorcum Corp., 1956).
32
See Abelard, Logica Ingredientibus, ed. L. Geyer (Munich: Aschendorff, 1919), 6061; Theologia
Christiana, ed. E. M. Buytaert (Turnhout: Brepols, 1969), 281283 and 288; for comments, S. Knuuttila,
Philosophy and Theology in Twelfth Centure Trinitarian Discussions, in Medieval Analyses in
Language and Cognition, eds. S. Ebbesen & R. Friedman (Copenhagen: The Royal Academy of
Sciences and Letters, 1999), 237249.
33
yakuna mana huwa huwa ittihad al-mawdu maa al-qat bi-tabayun al-sifatayn (Maqsad, 24.14);
this is an ittihad al-mahall maa taaddud al-sifat (Maqsad, 24.8). The Greek commentator John
Philoponus explains unity by subject in his commentary on the Physics used by Ibn Sna: In Physicorum
libros tres priores (CAG 16), ed. H. Vitelli (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1897) 50.711.
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intellectual immaterial substances, the natural inference is that the afterlife of those
blessed with the divine countenance will similarly be spent in blissful and uninterrupted
contemplation. The Book of Knowledge, which opens the Revivification of the Religious
Sciences, puts the matter in unambiguous terms. The highest share belongs to those who
get to reside in the nearness of God, and the associated bliss is of the contemplative
sort.34 What is said of the eye of the intellect in the Niche of Lights proceeds in similar
fashion: although al-Ghazal purposely avoids entering into an exegesis of the prophetic
tradition, Verily God created Adam according to His form, what is advanced in this
context is at least compatible with the understanding that what is designated by the
appellation Gods form is the intelligible domain itself. It is to this realm, the human
hearts true home, that the spirit desires to ascend through contemplation and through
practice.35

4. The name of God and the Names of God


This sketch of the nature of the divine names and their imitation leaves important
questions unanswered. First and foremost, can a real likeness to the divine be achieved
thereby? To be sure, al-Ghazal talks about becoming Godlike already when passing
counsel on the imitation of the very first divine name, that is, God (Maqsad, 65.2). What
is equally as certain is that al-Ghazal rarely passes on an opportunity to remind his
reader of the fact that the servants knowledge of, as well as share in, any of the
established names will remain sorely lacking even in the best of cases. There is a
rhetorical thicket here through which it has proven remarkably difficult for commentators to cut a contradiction and a paradox, indeed, that one suspects has been put in
place deliberately. What, after all is said and done, are the limits to imitation?
We may start from the divinity of God. We have seen al-Ghazal claim that each of
the divine attributes attaches to some placeholder (x) and that the names thereby share
an accidental connexion. What is this mysterious (x)? The alternative that most readily
suggests itself is that it would be the divine quiddity, perhaps signified by the very name
God. This hypothesis finds confirmation in what al-Ghazal has to say about the noun
Allah in the second part of the work. According to al-Ghazal, this singular term refers
to the divine essence itself. As a consequence, it functions in a way more akin to a proper
name than a descriptive noun.36 To provide one illustration of the fact, all the other
names are said to be names of God, yet God is not said to be a name, e.g., for the
Merciful.
Ihya, bk. 1, 1:56; cp. Maqsad, 44.1846.13.
See Mishkat, 6.1011; the same hadth is also referenced in al-Ghazals account of love (hubb) and
desire (shawq) for the divine in the Ihya, bk. 36, 4:268.
36
Maqsad, 64; al-Ghazal uses the term khass, which evokes Abu Hashims contention that Gods
divinity is the mode most proper (al-akhass) to him: see Harry Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Kalam
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976), 174. However, this would make of Gods divinity
a property in the Aristotelian sense of Top. 1.5, 102a1730 rather than a quiddity.
34
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Such an understanding points towards a view according to which the sole divine
perfection strictly off limits would be Gods very divinity. Here is the crucial passage from
the Beautiful Names, quoted at length:
Once you properly understand the meaning of that likeness (mumathala) which
is denied in regards to God, you will understand that He has no likeness. Nor
should one presume that a share in every attribute necessitates a likeness. Would
you take two opposites (didd ) to be like one another if between them there was
a distance so extreme that none greater could be conceived, [provided only that]
the two shared many attributes (as blackness shares with whiteness being an
accident, being a colour, being something perceived by sight, and other [similar]
things)? And would you consider it an anthropomorphizing statement and an
affirmation of likeness if someone were to say that God exists but not in a subject
and that He is hearing, seeing, knowing, willing, speaking, living, powerful, and an
agent, and that a human being is like this as well? Surely not! That is not how things
are: if such were the case, then every created being would [enjoy] a likeness [to
God]. For at a minimum there is an affirmation of [that things] share in existence,
which would lead to an imagining of a likeness. Likeness should rather be
interpreted as a sharing in a kind and a quiddity. For even if a horse should be most
graceful, this would still not make it like a human being, since it differs from [a
human] in species. [The horse] only resembles [the human] by virtue of its grace,
which is an accident falling outside the quiddity constitutive of the essence of
humanity. (Maqsad, 46.1647.11)

The main point, surely familiar by now, is that as long as the attributes are considered to
be something distinct from the divine quiddity, we can avoid the unwanted implication
of an actual divinization occurring when one imitates the names. A monkey does not
become a man merely by being clever, indeed, even learning to laugh will not suffice to
bring about the desired assimilation: shared accidents, whether separable or inseparable, do not suffice to bring about a resemblance in this distinctive understanding of the
word. The only thing that would make a created being really like God would be a share
in divinity but such a thing none in their right mind would suggest. In the same
manner that Gods quiddity protects Him from getting crowded out by the numerous
attributes, so it also shields Him from the acquisitive pursuit of erotically charged created
nature. Should one wish to analyze the situation in terms of attributes and their
descriptions, one might perhaps say that taken adjectivally, God signifies a property
that attaches to God alone, namely, divinity. If one were in turn pressed to characterise
this property, one might make a start by saying that God is a being absolutely necessary
of Himself, not through another. This is an Avicennian doctrine to which al-Ghazal
alludes on occasion (see, e.g., Maqsad, 4750, 137138).
Yet one must exercise caution here, for al-Ghazal foresees a number of objections.
Out of these, the most pressing concerns the semantic content of the name God itself.
If God is what is necessary of existence (wajib al-wujud), may we then say that this
description conveys what it means to be God in an unproblematic and immediate
manner? Does the formulation, so to speak, capture the essence of God in a bottle? In

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some respects this would seem a desirable conclusion, yet on balance al-Ghazal finds
it untoward. The reason is that in al-Ghazals view, a true cognition of something
implies a degree of familiarity between the knower and the thing known.37 According to
these precepts, any true conception of divinity would lead to the divinisation of the
conceiver, something al-Ghazal deems unacceptable.
The simplest way around the difficulty would be to deny that any created thing can
achieve the kind of substantial autonomy required of anything necessary of existence;
and indeed al-Ghazal takes it. Even if necessity of existence should be considered a
genuine description of Gods quiddity, still this ascription will not succeed in communicating any positive information to the created being, for, after all, self-sufficiency and
necessity of existence constitute the one thing the servant of God can never aspire to,
already by definition. (See Maqsad, 7073, 124125, 137139, 143.) Yet curiously,
al-Ghazal does more: he goes on to insist that the only content we can legitimately
assign to the designation necessary of existence is a denial of a cause or an agent to that
thing, which only amounts to a kind of denial (Maqsad, 50). The notion that necessity of
existence can be defined only as causelessness derives from an earlier work, the
Incoherence of the Philosophers, and as such it represents another instance of al-Ghazal
making creative use of a key Avicennian resource.38 In al-Ghazal the concept is pressed
to serve the purposes of apophatic theology. The chosen definition serves to secure the
conviction that even when we purport to talk about God as He is (not only about His
attributes), still we do not comprehend God in his essence. God is too Eminent for us to
gain access to His presence, and too Tremendous for us to comprehend Him truly.
(Maqsad, 7778, 113)
This contention flies in the face of the warnings of at least one contemporary scholar.
According to Macierowski, if we are to take a God such as Ibn Snas to have a quiddity,
a possible inference would be that we could have a sort of mystical union with God,
perhaps even in this life; or again, one might draw pantheistic conclusions.39 Al-Ghazal
seems unperturbed by either possibility. Even if God should have a quiddity and a
defining characteristic that distinguishes divinity from all other types of existence, then
by definition this will be the one thing in which created existence can have no share
(hazz).
Note that this is not true of existence as such: as we have seen, al-Ghazal is willing
to allow for created being to have a share in existence.40 There is some reason to suspect
37
See, e.g., Maqsad, 52.78; the contention goes back to the Platonic Seventh Letter (344a) and is
attributed by Aristotle to Empedocles.
38
See Tahafut, 82.1415, 86.34, 95.34, 120.1217; for the Avicennian background, Wisnovsky,
Avicennas Metaphysics in Context, ch. 13.
39
E. M. Macierowski, Does God Have a Quiddity According to Avicenna, The Thomist 52 (1988):
7987. Ibn Sna denies that the Necessary Existent possesses a quiddity in Isharat, 3:4952 (= Ilahiyyat,
namat 4, fusul 2425).
40
See Maqsad, 70, 119122, 137, 143, 148149, and 157158 for reminders that only God is truly existent
and for the all-important qualification that everything perishes except His face (Q. 28:88).

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that what al-Ghazal has in mind is not the univocal existence of the Asharite school,
since in the Criterion of Knowledge he sees fit to illustrate the notion of amphibolous or
analogous predication with the aid of the term existent (mawjud ). According to
al-Ghazal, existence is predicated of the necessary and the contingent according to the
prior and the posterior; moreover, what we have here is not a mere conceptual divide,
but an accurate representation of outward reality.41 But even if this be so that is, even
if existence is an ambiguous and not a univocal concept not even analogous
predication will accomplish enough in separating divine nature from the created nature.
As far as the divine essence is concerned, orthodox Islamic belief will not countenance
any hint of a thoroughgoing analogy of being.
The conclusion that no real likeness can exist between created and Creator has the
added corollary of making the notion of gaining access to a direct line of vision into the
Godhead not only impossible, but futile and meaningless as well: for after all, if there is
no way of making sense of that which is entirely unlike ones self, then no created thing
can enjoy a truthful perception of His essence except in confusion and perplexity. As for
[what] understanding does encompass, this [consists] in an understanding of His names
and attributes. (Maqsad, 54.1820; cf. Ihya, 4:377.1821.) So Abu Bakr the Faithfuls
(al-siddq) plea of ignorance should really be construed in positive terms: the
recognition that ones cognitive capacities simply are not suitably calibrated for the
reception of the divine reality as it really is can serve as a first step towards the reception
of those facets of the divine as are fit for disclosure.42

5. Coming to Terms with the Attributes


So what of the other divine names? May we conceive of these as being analogously
predicated across all reality, whether among divine, angelic, or worldly existents? And if
so, will this suffice to secure for us a path of ascent to the angelic nature by way of
adorning ourselves with the divine perfections? The latter is an avowed goal for
al-Ghazal (cf. Maqsad, 45.1646.19) and yet it seems to be undermined by his own
epistemological principles. Earlier, we stipulated that human apprehension as a rule
starts from sensible particulars. Given these constraints, can the divine attributes ever be
grasped for what they are? And if not, can our purported proximity to God ever be more
than illusionary?
The issue may once again be framed in terms of philosophical semantics. The
difference this time lies between predicating something of God and of His servant
ambiguously or equivocally. According to the first interpretation, God would possess all
the perfections in an unqualified manner (Gr. hapls, Ar. mutlaq), whereas created
beings could come to share in them in a secondary, derivative sense. According to the
second interpretation, by contrast, there would be no real comparison between the
Mi yar al-ilm, ed. S. Dunya (Cairo: Dar al-maarif bi-misr, 1961), 375.3ff.
See Maqsad, 54.1314; in this context, compare also the opening words of the Beautiful Names
(Maqsad, 11.26) with Philo, De mut., ch. 2.

41
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divine and human modes of perfection at all: the two would share only the name, not
the reality. Perplexingly, the evidence in the Beautiful Names seems to point in both
directions at once. The conundrum of how God can be called, e.g., knowing or
powerful, insofar as it is resolved at all, is resolved either (a) cryptically, by retorting that
this is done in exactly the same way that one refers to ones own attributes; or else (b)
in apophatic fashion, by exclaiming that Gods attributes are too exalted to be likened
to ours.43
In the Criterion of Knowledge, the work that contains al-Ghazals lengthiest
treatment of predication, al-Ghazal says of equivocal terms that their meanings differ
both in their definition and in their essential reality (bi al-hudd wa-al-haqqa). And his
example of choice is to point out that God, the human being, and the plant are all said
to be alive. Does this not speak clearly in favour of a strictly equivocal interpretation of
44
the divine names, of which the Living (al-H
ayy) assuredly is one? Such an inference
can hardly be avoided: and yet I think Fadlou Shehadi goes too far when he so forcefully
pursues an unremittingly apophatic interpretation of al-Ghazal.45 Shehadis contention
that the divine names more especially, the positive attributes have no informative
value at all seems to me excessive, given the many positive attributive statements
al-Ghazal makes in the Beautiful Names and elsewhere. For one thing, such an
interpretation would seem to fly in the face of the important Muslim principle that God
and His Prophet are reliable and trustworthy (sadiq) witnesses to the truth that they
announce. Also, al-Ghazals rule of thumb is that in the absence of an explicit
contradiction in Revelation its proclamations should be taken to be true in the literal
sense.46 An exaggerated scepticism concerning the literal veracity of the Quranic
statements and prophetic traditions (about the divine attributes, among other things)
would erode the foundations of al-Ghazals project, which I take it rest on foundationalist grounds.47
What is clear from al-Ghazals statements is that one can never come to adorn the
attributes of Lordship (al-sifat al-rububiyya) to the extent of becoming a lord oneself, let
alone the Lord (Maqsad, 52.1653.3). Yet I believe that al-Ghazals epistemology leaves
the door open for a weaker but no less real imitation that is, an analogical predication
of the divine perfections and correspondingly a deepening knowledge of the divine.
Even if it is not possible for us to recognise or exemplify the divine perfections as God
Himself knows them, still this does not preclude us from knowing them at all, or from
drawing closer to their reality. Here is a passage from the Niche of Lights which is put
forward as a summary of the findings of the Beautiful Names:
43

Cp. Maqsad, 52.311 with 52.1115 and 72.1014.


Maqsad, 142; on equivocity, Maqsad, 39.911 on the different meanings of the term eye; also
Maqasid al-falasifa, 10.12ff.
45
F. A. Shehadi, Ghazals Unique Unknowable God (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1964).
46

On trustworthiness (sidq) and veracity in al-Ghazal and Asharite thought see Griffel, Al-Gazals
Concept of Prophecy, 122126.
47
For al-Ghazals adherence to a correspondence theory of truth see Maqsad, 138.13.
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The meaning of God is most great is to say that God is too great for any relation
or comparison. He is too great for anyone other than He whether it be a prophet
or an angel to perceive the innermost meaning of his magnificence. Rather,
none knows God with true understanding (marifa) save God. Or rather, every
object of knowledge enters the power and mastery of the one who comprehends
it (arif ) after a fashion. Otherwise, that would contradict Gods majesty and
magnificence. (Mishkat, 17.912; tr. Buchman, modified.)

Key here is the expression after a fashion. What is being denied in the first instance is
human comprehension of Gods essence and the true meaning of divinity when
considered in isolation from the attributes by now a familiar and (one hopes)
uncontroversial reminder.48 But when it comes to denying that the servant of God could
ever genuinely come to know anything, in the normative sense that God knows
everything, this is meant in a very specific sense. It results from the relative orders in
which human and divine cognition proceed, as well as from weighing the finitude of
human existence against Gods infinity. Al-Ghazals argument in the Beautiful Names,
reproduced and expanded from a passage in the Revivification detailing the possibilities
and limits of our love for God, runs as follows. If (1) Gods knowledge knows no limit; if
(2) His perfection comes to be mirrored in full in created reality; and if (3) our knowledge
has to take its start from this world; then (4) without special divine intervention the book
of nature is inexhaustible, and human meditation on the divine names never attains its
desired end.49 Thus, it is true that starting from signs and proceeding to what is signified
we will never reach an adequate conception of what the archetypal reality is really like.
But this does not mean that the effort will have been for nothing. Though there may
be an infinite amount of steps to take, each of them represents an authentic forward
movement. As concerns the sensible universe, this in its entirety is Gods creation;
consequently, it reflects His attributes and can be used to acquire indirect knowledge
regarding them where direct vision is impossible. This is the meaning which al-Ghazal
attaches to the prophetic saying, Meditate upon Gods creation, not on God (see Ihya,
4:378.1113). A heightened understanding of the various forms that perfection can take
will have the effect of a human coming to exemplify these archetypal perfections better
and better, even as the converse also holds: the one who strives to instantiate the divine
perfections in life will come to understand their meaning in a deeper and purer manner.
As al-Ghazals comments on love for the divine (hubb aw shawq Allah) in the Ihya
make clear, even an endless progression is nothing to be scoffed at. It will eventually lead
to the qualities of God becoming the qualities of the servant (again, to the extent that this
is conceivable) and to the latter attaining a real proximity to, if not quite an actual
inherence in, His attributes.50
48

Cf. Maqsad, 56.910 (reading with Shehadi: see his n. 4 to the text).
Maqsad, 5559; Ihya, 4:265.34266.8; for contemporary theologians on the theme, T. A. Carlson,
Indiscretion: Finitude and the Naming of God (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999).
50
See Ihya, 4:267.26268.4; Maqsad, 162171. The sentiment is close to that expressed by Gregory of
Nyssa, who writes in the following manner when talk is of approximating a certain archetype and thus
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It is in this way that the inseparability of theory from practice, a programmatic aspect
of al-Ghazals Revivification of the Religious Sciences and his mature thought as a whole
(see, e.g., Ihya, 1:60, 1:6465) comes to be reflected in the very structure of the Beautiful
Names. In the second part, as we recall, each description of some particular divine
perfection is conjoined to a counsel (tanbh) offering guidance in how to bring this
perfection to bear in the wayfarers soul. (See also Maqsad, 4244.) The notion again is
of Platonic provenance: the sensible comes to resemble the intelligible through a double
movement, with the former being modelled on the latter but also desiring to imitate its
perfection to the extent that it can.51

6. Conclusion
To sum up: the emerging picture is one of the divine attributes occupying a kind of
Platonic heaven. Each name refers to an intelligible meaning, one that in the context of
the divine mind (Gods pre-eternal knowledge) exists in its purest and most perfect form;
each of these perfections acts as an exemplar in which created beings may come to
share; and this unity which underlies the many can finally be grasped by the human
mind, thereby effecting a conversion in the contemplating soul and its drawing closer to
its source.52
Inspiration for such a doctrine can be found in Ibn Snas remarks concerning the
threefold existence of the universals (first as pure intelligibles antecedent to the many,
then in the many, then finally in the synthesising mind) in the latters Introduction to the
study of philosophy. About this theory, whose first application is in logic, Ibn Sna says
that it will find its proper context and explanation in first philosophy or metaphysics
under its guise of theology (ilahiyyat).53 But Ibn Snas presentation itself finds
precedent in al-Farab and Yahya Ibn Ad;54 and all of these build on a tradition that is
much older, one that goes back to the late ancient commentaries on Porphyry. A
sixth-century Alexandrian commentator of the likes of David can thus recount the three
phases as a routine part of an introduction to the philosophical curriculum: universals are
something prior to the many in Gods knowledge, and as such act as templates for His
becoming Godlike: Although on the whole my argument has shown that what is sought for is
unattainable, one should not disregard the commandment of the Lord which says, Therefore be perfect,
just as your heavenly father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). For in the case of those things which are good
by nature, even if men of understanding were not able to attain to everything, by attaining even a part
they could yet gain a great deal. Vita Moysis, 1, para. 9; English translation by A. J. Malherbe and E.
Ferguson in The Life of Moses (New York: The Paulist Press, 1978), 31.
51
This is correctly ascertained already in S. Van Den Berghs otherwise often misleading The Love of
God in Ghazals Vivification of Theology, Journal of Semitic Studies 1 (1956): 305321, at 318.
52
Two passages crucial for sketching out this view are Maqsad, 7982 and Ihya, bk. 21, 3:19.3120.30;
the topic as a whole merits a separate study.
53
See al-Shifa: al-Madkhal, 6572.
54
See K. Gyekye, Arabic Logic. Ibn al-Tayyibs Commentary on Porphyrys Eisagoge (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1979), 180; on Ibn at-Tayyib, who was Ibn Snas contemporary,
op. cit., 38.
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demiurgic activity; they then exist in the many as embodied forms; finally, they come
to be posterior to the many in our knowledge as a result of our discursive thought
(dianoia).55 This intellectual perfectibility of humankind represents the pre-eminent
instance of conversion (epistroph), which is a systematically recurrent feature throughout created reality.
Even without postulating the existence of a discernible line of influence, it is enough
to recognize how al-Ghazal reproduces a familiar Platonist trope. As an ensouled
creature inhabiting both the physical and the intellectual domains, the human being
represents the nexus of all realities. And it is in human activityin virtuous acts as well
as mindful contemplationthat the timeless supernal verities can come to be reflected
and applied through and through.56 At its heart, the regimen prescribed by al-Ghazal
echoes the creative activities described as well as prescribed in the Timaeus. As
intermediary principles, the Demiurge and the soul at once cast their eyes on the
intelligible model while at the same time attempting to mould the sensible world in its
image, and theirs.57
What is unique about al-Ghazals Beautiful Names of God is the precise way in
which Aristotelian semantics is pressed to serve this Platonically inspired vision. In
this tightly argued work, conceptual concerns and practical precepts coincide in a
way that is scarcely found in either the philosophical or the theological literature,
whether subsequent or preceding. But then, as we noted in the opening words to this
essay, that is one of the treatises most striking features from the very start. The main
purpose of this article has been to show that there is nothing accidental about this
characteristic to the contrary, the structure of the work both stems from and reflects
some of its authors most deeply seated philosophical convictions. The one piece
missing from al-Ghazals Beautiful Names, meanwhile, is an explanation (whether
emanative or otherwise) of how exactly Gods original act of creation proceeds from

55

David, In Porphyrii Isagogen (CAG, 18.2 & 18.3), ed. A. Busse (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1904), 113.1518,
120; cf. e.g., Ammonius, In Porphyrii Isagogen (CAG, 4.3, 4.4, & 4.6), ed. A. Busse (Berlin: G. Reimer,
1891), 68f.; Philoponus, In Categoriarum (CAG, 13.1), ed. A. Busse (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1898), 58f.; Elias,
In Porphyrii Isagogen (CAG, 18.1), ed. A. Busse (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1900), 48; similarly on the
common (ta koina), Simplicius, In Categoriarum (CAG, 8), ed. K. Kalbfleisch (Berlin: G. Reimer,
1907), 82f.; for discussion, E. Tempelis, The School of Ammonius, Son of Hermias, on Knowledge of the
Divine (Athens: Ekdoseis filologikou syllogou Parnassos, 1998).
56
See, e.g., Mishkat, 31.1318. For al-Ghazal, it is only in human activity that conversion through love
can take place, since of the inhabitants of the sensible world it is only humans that can come to perceive
the divine: see Ihya, 4:259260. In this respect, al-Ghazal stands opposed to later Platonists such as
Plotinus, for whom even nature contemplates: see Enneads 3.8 and J. Deck, Nature, Contemplation,
and the One (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967); also Ibn Sna, Risala al-ishq, ch. 7, in A. F.
Mehren, ed., Traits mystiques dAbu Al al-Hosain b. Abdallah b. Sna ou dAvicenne, fasc. 3 (Leiden:
E. J. Brill, 1894), 22.89.
57
The ethical reading of Platos cosmology has gained currency in recent years: for one example out of
many see T.-A. Druart, The Timaeus Revisited, in Plato and Platonism, ed. J. M. Van Ophuisjen
(Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1999), 163178.

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perfect exemplar to imperfect sensible image.58 Ibn al-Arab (11651240) will later fill
this lacuna by supplying a creation myth that recounts the way in which Gods
creation occurs through the divine names. Its terminology recalls Ibn Sna and
al-Ghazal in equal measure.59
It is with Ibn al-Arab that a sustained meditation of the divine names begins to
occupy centre stage in a certain strand of mystically tinged philosophical theology.60 My
suggestion is that we should return to the source of this tradition in al-Ghazal for a
properly philosophical specifically, Peripatetic understanding of the theoretical
underpinnings of some of its central precepts.

58

Emanation ( fayd) is mentioned in the Beautiful Names at the very end of the first part (see Maqsad,
58.1419), but the term need not be taken in the technical sense, since an everyday comparison is
drawn here with the suns radiance (the simile of course is an old Platonic standby). On the contested
question of al-Ghazals emanationism see the measured response in Frank, Creation and the Cosmic
System.
59
Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya (Cairo, 4 vols. 1911), 322ff.: for materials on Ibn al-Arab and the divine
names, W. C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989),
3346.
60
Compare Ibn Barrajans (d. 1141) rather perfunctory and theoretically barren introduction to his work
of the same name, written no more than a few decades after al-Ghazals and ostensibly independently
of it: Sharh asma Allah al-husna (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientifics Agencia
Espaola de Cooperacin Internacional, 2000), 114.
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