The distinction between the human and the divine is fundamental to religion. In the Abrahamic tradition, man is fashioned from clay and infused with the breath of divine spirit. In ancient Chinese mythology, heaven and earth once intermixed: it took the work of the mother-goddess Nüwa to repair the cosmos and provide a stable inhabitance for mankind.
Modern conceptions of religion are characterized by a fixed interpretation of the divine. We understand God’s dominion in terms of Christopher Hitchens’ famous analogy of a ‘celestial North Korea’: God is the absolute overlord of the Universe, and we are merely pawns in his cosmic game. This leaves sparsely any room for the role of God in one’s personal experience and growth, relegating him instead to a far-off reality whose manifestation is only apparent after death.
But historically speaking, this is not how God has been experienced. In order to return to a more authentic understanding, we will need to elaborate on the ways in which God can be understood in a more personal sense: as an universal being whose form is, paradoxically, influenced by particular circumstances.
The source: the 99 names of God
The Quran is filled with descriptions of God. He ‘sits on his thrown’, he loves certain things and hates others, and he appears to speak in dialogue with Mohammad. But most of all, he is addressed by his epithets: the great, the wise, the all-powerful, and so on.
The 99 names of God are a collection of these attributes compiled after the Quran’s revelation. The following verse is commonly interpreted as providing a scriptural basis for such a list:
Invoke Allah or invoke the most merciful [ar-Rahman] — whatever you invoke, to him belong the best names.Quran (17:110)
The phrase ‘best names’ — asma’ al-husnah — has come to refer to the 99 names of God which were later compiled by scholars. This verse is particularly interesting because it appears to reference Rahmanism: a pre-Islamic, monotheistic religion that resisted the dominant polytheism of its time.
The attribution of these adjectives to God has caused a minor theological debate in Islam. If God is the eternal, absolute, and independent, how could it be that he is associated with words that are strictly part of the human experience: wisdom, forgiveness, rank, and so on?
Moreover, what is the relationship between a word like hakim (wise) when it is used to describe a person as opposed to describing God? It appears blasphemous to say that both a person and God are embodying the same attribute. Even if we distinguish humanity’s imperfect wisdom from God’s perfect wisdom, does that mean that a wise person is partaking — to some extent — of the divine?
Hegel’s dialectic triad
In order to resolve these problems, we will need to introduce some ideas from Hegelian philosophy. Hegel encourages us to think in terms of the ‘concept’, which he distinguished from classical notions of the ‘judgement’.
For example, the ancient Greeks would have been content with the 3 judgements of this syllogism:
- apples are fruits,
- this object in my hand is an apple,
- therefore this object in my hand is a fruit.
But Hegel understood syllogisms as less of a progression of static judgements and more of a development: for him, a concept evolves dynamically. This development he calls the dialectic, and it follows three modes: universality, then particularity, then individuality.
For Hegel, then, the syllogism of the apple is best described in the following way. Fruit-ness, as a universal essence, posits itself as pear, orange, apples, and so on: in so far as ‘this object in my hand’ is one of these particulars, but is distinct from others, it is individual.
We can also use the image below as a rough visual analogy for these three modes:
Here, the universal is what all 9 tiles have in common: their abstract design. But we could not come to know this design unless it was embodied in a tile, which represents its particularization. Finally, each tile is individual in so far as it is nonetheless different than the others: there is a central one, a corner one, and so on.
What’s crucial here is that in the progression of these three modes, a certain contradiction arises and is then resolved. This is because, whereas the universal is undifferentiated and timeless, the particular is constrained. From here, it is known as individual in so far as it is distinguished from other particular forms. Another way of saying this is that individual forms are ‘self-differentiations’ of the universal: particular manifestations of a single universal essence which are, paradoxically, distinct from one another.
Ibn Arabi on God’s particular and universal forms
The Sufi tradition bears a striking homology with the philosophical system of Hegel. Let’s start with some theological sources that are of particular note here:
“We have created man and know what his soul whispers to him; and we are closer to him than his own jugular vein”Quran (50:16)
“He who knows himself, knows his lord”Al-Maqāsid al-Hassana, Vol. 2, pp. 657
We are also reminded of the Christian mystical scholar Meister Eickhart quote that “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
What these sources have in common is that they attest to an existence of God as particular: a way of understanding God that is, paradoxically, constrained by the individual’s experience, socio-historical conditions, and so on.
Ibn Arabi spoke of this relationship in his chapter The Wisdom of Divinity in the Word of Adam, part of his work The Bezels of Wisdom. For him, Adam (as the archetype of humanity) represents mankind’s ability to reflect God’s essence “back to Him”. In the same way that a metallic mirror can be made more perfect by being polished and smoothened out, so too does the spiritual refinement of humanity enhance his reflective capacity for God.
Here, Ibn Arabi relies on one of the most prominent Sufi hadiths: that God “was a hidden treasure and wanted to be known”. This posits the spiritual development of man in a cosmic teleology, beginning with material substance and ending with humanity, which is capable of self-reflection and comprehension of God.
For the Sufi, then, individual human consciousness — although it is unique and distinct in every case — is nonetheless a particular form of the divine essence. Crucially, we can only come to know about this essence by observing its particular form in other individuals, and in ourselves.
We can now return to the theological mystery provided by the 99 names of God. The diversity of God’s names does not contradict God’s singular essence: they represent, instead, embodiments of his particular form which all point to the same universality.
Additionally, it does not contradict God’s absolute transcendence to say that we need interpersonal interactions, social conditions, and other worldly-realities in order to understand him, as he himself can only be understood by deriving the universal qualities from all these particular manifestations.
That is why, for the Sufi, it is not heretical to suggest that our understanding of God’s universal wisdom (God as al-hakim) is mediated by our understanding of humanity’s particular wisdom, because human wisdom itself is a particular form of God’s essence.
This is also why Sufism places such an emphasis on self-development and knowledge of self in the quest for understanding God. This is once again intimately related to Hegel’s notion of the ‘Concept’. Not only does the concept’s development follow the 3 modes of the dialectic, he argues, but it is also vitally linked to self-realization. The universal ‘comes to know itself’ through its embodiment in individual forms. Once again, we find that both Sufism and Hegelian thought undermines our intuitive notions of universality and particularity.
We will continue this interplay between Islamic theology and philosophy next week by going through some homologies between Islam and Greek thought. Stay tuned!
Meister Eckhart, The Essential Sermons (Paulist Press: 1981)