The Divine Being


Handbook of Islam, abridged edition of The Religion of Islam by Maulana Muhammad Ali

5. The Divine Being

Section 1: The Existence of God

Material, inner and spiritual experience of humanity

In all religious scriptures the existence of God is taken almost as an axiomatic truth. The Holy Quran, however, advances numerous arguments to prove the existence of a Supreme Being Who is the Creator and Controller of this universe. These are, broadly speaking, of three kinds. Firstly, there are the arguments drawn from the creation, which relate to the lower or material experience of humanity; secondly, the evidence of human nature, which concerns the inner experience of humanity; and thirdly, there are arguments based on Divine revelation to man, which may be called the higher or spiritual experience of humanity.

It will be seen, from what is said further on, that as the scope of experience is narrowed down, so the arguments gain in effectiveness. The argument from creation simply shows that there must be a Creator of this universe, Who is also its Con­troller, but it does not go so far as to show that there is a God. The testimony of human nature proceeds a step further, since there is in it a consciousness of Divine existence, though that consciousness may differ in different natures according to whether the inner light is bright or dim. It is only revelation that discloses God in the full splendour of His light, and shows the sublime attributes which man must emulate if he is to attain perfec­tion, together with the means whereby he can hold communion with the Divine Being.

The law of evolution as an evidence of purpose and wisdom

The first argument, drawn from the creation, centres round the word Rabb. In the very first revelation that came to the Prophet, he was told to “read in the name of the Rabb Who created” (96:1). The word Rabb, generally translated as ‘Lord’, combines two senses, that of fostering, bringing up or nourishing, and that of regulating, completing and accomplishing.[1] Thus its underlying idea is that of fostering things from the crudest state to that of highest perfection, in other words, the idea of evolution. According to Raghib,[2] Rabb signifies the fostering of a thing in such a manner as to make it attain one condition after another until it reaches its goal of perfection. There is, thus, in the use of the word Rabb, an indication that everything created by God bears the impress of Divine creation, in the characteristic of moving on from lower to higher stages until it reaches perfection. This argument is expanded in another very early revelation as follows:

“Glorify the name of your Rabb, the Most High, Who creates, then makes com­plete, and Who measures, then guides.” — 87:1–3

The full meaning of Rabb is explained here: He creates things and brings them to perfection; He makes things according to a measure and shows them the ways whereby they may attain to perfection. The idea of evolution is fully developed in the first two actions, the creation and the completion, so that every­thing created by God must attain to its destined completion. The last two actions show how the completion or evolution is brought about. Every­thing is made according to a measure, that is to say, certain laws of deve­lopment are inherent in it; and it is also shown a way, that is to say, it knows the line along which it must proceed, so that it may reach its goal of completion. It thus appears that the creative force is not a blind force but one possessing wisdom and acting with a purpose. Even to the ordinary eye, wisdom and purpose are observable in the whole of the Divine creation, from the tiniest particle of dust or blade of grass to the mighty spheres moving in the universe on their appointed courses, because everyone of them is travelling along a certain line to its appointed goal of completion.

One law prevails in the whole universe

A further point upon which the Holy Quran lays special stress is the fact that, despite its immensity and variety, there is but one law for the whole universe:

“[Allah is He] Who created the seven heavens alike. You see no anomaly in the creation of the Beneficent God. Then look again: can you see any disorder? Then look again and again — your sight will return to you confused, while it is fatigued.” — 67:3–4

Here we are told that there is in creation neither incongruity, whereby things belonging to the same class are subject to different laws, nor disorder, whereby the law cannot work uniformly; so that the miraculous regulari­ty and uniformity of law in the midst of the unimaginable variety of con­flicting conditions existing in the universe is also evidence of a Divine purpose and wisdom in the creation of things.

From the smallest particle to the largest heavenly body, everything is held under control and is sub­ject to a law; no one thing inter­feres with the course of another or ham­pers it; while, on the other hand, all things are helping each other on to attain perfection. The Quran stresses this fact frequently:

“The sun and the moon follow a reckoning. And the herbs and the trees adore [Him].” — 55:5–6

“And the sun moves on to its destination. That is the ordinance of the Mighty, the Knower. And the moon, We have ordained for it stages till it becomes again as an old dry palm branch. Neither is it for the sun to overtake the moon, nor can the night outstrip the day. And all float on in an orbit.” — 36:38–40

“Then He directed Himself to the heaven and it was a vapour, so He said to it and to the earth: Come both, willingly or unwillingly. They both said: We come willingly.” — 41:11

“Allah is He Who made subservient to you the sea that the ships may glide in it by His command, and that you may seek of His grace, and that you may give thanks. And He has made subservient to you what­soever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth, all from Him­self. Surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.” — 45:12–13

“And He created the sun and the moon and the stars, made subservient by His command; surely His is the creation and the command.” — 7:54

All these verses show that, inasmuch as everything is subject to command and control for the fulfilment of a certain purpose, there must be an All-Wise Controller of the whole.

Guidance afforded by human nature

The second kind of argument for the existence of God relates to the human soul. In the first place, there is in it the consciousness of the existence of God. There is an inner light within each one telling him that there is a Higher Being, a God, a Creator. This inner evidence is often brought out in the form of a question. It is like an appeal to man’s inner self. The question is sometimes left unanswered, as if one is called upon to give it a deeper thought:

“Or were they created without a [creative] agency? Or are they the creators [of their own souls]? Or did they create the heavens and the earth?” — 52:35–36

Sometimes the answer is given:

“And if you ask them, Who created the heavens and the earth, they would say: The Mighty, the Knowing One, has created them.” — 43:9

On one occa­sion, the question is put direct to the human soul by God Himself:

“And when your Lord brought forth from the children of Adam, from their loins, their descendants and made them bear witness about themselves: Am I not your Lord (Rabb)? They said: Yes, we bear witness.” — 7:172

This is clearly the evidence of human nature which is elsewhere spoken of as being “the nature made by Allah in which He has created mankind” (30:30).

Sometimes this consciousness on the part of the human soul is mentioned in terms of its unimaginable nearness to the Divine Spirit:

“We are nearer to him than his life-vein.” — 50:16

“We are nearer to it [the soul] than you, but you do not see.” — 56:85

The idea that God is nearer to man than his own self only shows that the consciousness of the exis­tence of God in the human soul is even clearer than the consciousness of its own existence.

If, then, the human soul has such a clear consciousness of the existence of God, how is it, the question may be asked, that there are people who deny the existence of God? Here, two points must be borne in mind. In the first place, the inner light within each person, which makes him cons­cious of the existence of God, is not equally clear in all cases. With some, as with the great divines of every age and country, that light shines forth in its full glory, and their consciousness of the Divine presence is very strong. In the case of ordinary people, this consciousness is generally weaker and the inner light more dim; there may even be cases in which that cons­ciousness is only in a state of inertia, and the inner light has almost gone out. Secondly, even the atheist or the agnostic recognizes a First Cause, or a Higher Power, though he may deny the existence of a God with particular attributes; and occasionally that consciousness is awakened in him, and the inner light asserts itself, especially in times of distress or affliction. It looks very much as though ease and comfort, like evil, cast a veil over the inner light of man, and the veil is removed by distress — a fact to which the Quran has repeatedly called attention:

“And when We show favour to man, he turns away and withdraws himself; but when evil touches him, he is full of lengthy supplications.” — 41:51

“And when harm afflicts people, they call upon their Lord, turning to Him.” — 30:33.

“And when a wave like awnings covers them they call upon Allah, being sincere to Him in obedience. But when He brings them safe to land, some of them follow the middle course.” — 31:32

“And whatever good you have, it is from Allah; then when evil afflicts you, to Him do you cry for aid.” — 16:53

There is in the human soul something more than mere consciousness of the existence of God; there is in it a yearning after its Maker — the instinct to turn to God for help;[3] there is implanted in it the love of God for Whose sake it is ready to make every sacrifice.[4] Finally, it cannot find complete contentment without God.[5]

Guidance afforded by Divine revelation

The third group of arguments found in the Holy Quran, to prove the exis­tence of God, relates to Divine revelation — the clearest and surest evi­dence — which not only establishes the truth of the existence of God but also casts a flood of light on the Divine attributes without which the exis­tence of the Divine Being would remain mere dogma. It is through this disclosure of the Divine attributes that belief in God becomes the most important factor in the evolution of man, since a knowledge of those at­tributes enables him to set before himself the high ideal of imitating Divine morals; and it is only thus that man can rise to the highest moral emi­nence. God is the Nourisher of everything in the creation, so His wor­shipper will do his utmost to serve the cause not only of humanity but of all creation. God is Loving and Affectionate to His creatures, so one who believes in Him will be moved by the impulse of love and affection towards His creation. God is Merciful and Forgiving, so His servant must be merciful and forgiving to his fellow-beings. A belief in a God possessing the perfect attributes made known by Divine revelation is the highest ideal which a human being can place before himself; and without this ideal there is a void in his life, a lack of all earnestness and every noble aspiration.

In another way, Divine revelation brings man closer to God and makes His existence felt as a reality in his life, and that is through the example of the perfect man who holds communion with the Divine Being. That God is a Reality, a Truth — in fact, the greatest reality in this world; that man can feel His presence and realize Him in each hour of his every­day life, and have the closest relations with Him; that such a realization of the Divine Being works a change in the life of man, making him an irresistible spiritual force in the world, is not the solitary experience of one individual or of one nation, but the universal experience of people in all nations, all countries and all ages. Abraham, Moses, Christ, Con­fucius, Zoroaster, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Muhammad, each and every one of these luminaries brought about a moral, and in some cases also a material, revolution in the world, which the combined resources of whole nations were powerless to resist, and lifted up humanity from the depths of degradation to the greatest heights of moral, and even material, prosperi­ty. This only shows to what heights the human soul may rise if only it works in true relationship with the Divine Being.

One example may be considered in greater detail — that of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. A solitary man arose in the midst of a whole nation which was sunk deep in all kinds of vice and degradation. He had no power at his back, not even a man to second him, and without any preliminaries at all, he set his hand to the unimaginable and apparently impossible task of the reforma­tion, not merely of that one nation but, through it, of the whole of humanity. He started with that one Force, the Force Divine, which makes possible the impossible:

“Read in the name of your Lord!” (96:1); “Arise and warn, and your Lord do magnify [Him]” (74:2–3).

The cause was Divine, and it was on Divine help that its success depended. With every new dawn the task grew harder, and the opposition waxed stronger, until, to an on­looker, there was nothing but disappointment everywhere. Nonetheless, his determination grew stronger with the strength of the opposition and, while in the earlier revelation there were only general statements of the triumph of his cause and the failure of the enemy, those statements be­came clearer and more definite as the prospects, to all outward appear­ance, grew more hopeless.

Some of these verses in the order of their revelation are:

“By the grace of your Lord you are not mad. And yours is surely a reward never to be cut off.” — 68:2–3

“Surely We have given you abundance of good.” — 108:1

“Surely with difficulty is ease.” — 94:5

“And surely the later state is better for you than the earlier, and soon will your Lord give you so that you will be well pleased.” — 93:4–5

“Surely it is the word of an honoured Messenger, the possessor of strength, having an honourable place with the Lord of the Throne”. — 81:19–20

“And during a part of the night, keep awake by it [i.e., the Quran]… maybe your Lord will raise you to a position of great glory.” — 17:79

“O man! We have not revealed the Quran to you that you may be unsuccessful”. — 20:1–2

“And on that day the believers will rejoice in Allah’s help.” — 30:4–5

“We certainly help Our messengers, and those who believe, in this world’s life and on the day when the wit­nesses arise.” — 40:51

“Blessed is He Who, if He please, will give you what is better than this: Gardens in which flow rivers. And He will give you palaces.” — 25:10

“Allah has promised to those of you who believe and do good that He will surely make them rulers in the earth as He made those before them rulers, and that He will surely establish for them their religion, which He has chosen for them, and that He will surely give them security in exchange after their fear.” — 24:55

“He it is Who has sent His Messenger with the guidance and the Religion of Truth that He may make it prevail over all religions.” — 48:28

In like manner, the end of opposition is described more clearly in the later revelations than in the earlier, although that opposition grew more and more powerful as days went on. The following three verses belong to three different periods:

“…till when they see what they are promised, they will know who is weaker in helpers and smaller in number.” — 72:24

“Or do they say: We are an army allied together to help each other? Soon shall the armies be routed, and they will show [their] backs.” — 54:44–45

“Say to those who disbelieve: You shall soon be defeated…” — 3:12

And all this did happen a few years after these things had been foretold, though at that time there was nothing to justify such prophecies and all the circumstances were against them. No man could possibly have fore­seen what was so clearly stated as certain to come about, and no human power could have brought to utter failure the whole nation with all its resources ranged against a solitary man and determined to destroy him. Divine revelation thus affords the clearest and surest testimony of the ex­istence of God, in Whose knowledge, past, present and future are alike and Who controls both the forces of nature and the destiny of human beings.

Section 2: The Unity of God

The Unity of God

All the basic principles of Islam are fully dealt with in the Holy Quran, and so is the doctrine of faith in God, of which the corner-stone is belief in the Unity of God (tauḥīd). The best-known expression of Divine Unity is that contained in the declaration of lā ilāha ill-Allāh. It is made up of four words: (no), ilāh (that which is worshipped), illā (except) and Allāh (the proper name of the Divine Being). Thus these words, which are commonly rendered into English as meaning “there is no god but Allah” convey the significance that there is nothing which deserves to be worshipped except Allah. It is this confession which, when combined with the confession of the prophethood of Muhammad (Muḥammad-ur Rasūl-ullāh) admits one into the fold of Islam.

The Unity of God, according to the Holy Quran, implies that God is One in His person, One in His attributes and One in His works. His Oneness in His person means that there is neither plurality of gods nor plurality of persons in the Godhead; His Oneness in attributes implies that no other being possesses one or more of the Divine attributes in perfection; His Oneness in works implies that none can do what God has done, or what God may do. The doctrine of Unity is beautifully summed up in one of the shortest and earliest chapters of the Holy Quran:

“Say: He, Allah, is One. Allah is He on Whom all depend. He has no offspring, nor is He born [of anyone]; and none is like Him.” — ch. 112

The gravity of shirk

The opposite of Unity is shirk,[6] implying partnership. In the Holy Quran, shirk is used to signify the associating of gods with God, whether such association be with respect to the person of God or His at­tributes or His works, or with respect to the obedience which is due to Him alone. Shirk is said to be the gravest of all sins:

“Surely shirk is a grievous wrong.” — 31:13

“Allah does not forgive that a partner should be set up with Him,7 and forgives all besides that to whom He pleases.” — 4:48

This is due to the fact that shirk demoralizes man, while Divine Unity brings about his moral ele­vation. According to the Holy Quran, man is God’s vicegerent[8] on earth, and this shows that he is gifted with the power of controlling the rest of the earthly creation:

“Allah is He Who made subservient to you the sea that the ships may glide in it by His command, and that you may seek of His grace, and that you may give thanks. And He has made subservient to you whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth, all from Himself. Surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.” — 45:12–13

If, then, man has been created to rule the universe and is gifted with the power to subdue everything and to turn it to his use, does he not degrade himself by taking other things for gods, by bowing before the very things which he has been created to conquer and rule? This is an argument which the Holy Quran has itself advanced against shirk. Thus the words, “Shall I seek a lord other than Allah, while He is the Lord of all things” (6:164), are followed in the next verse by: “And He it is Who has made you successors in the land”. And again: “Shall I seek for you a god other than Allah, while He has made you excel all created things?” (7:140). Shirk is, therefore, of all sins the most serious because it degrades man and renders him unfit for attaining the high po­sition destined for him in the Divine scheme.

Various forms of shirk

The various forms of shirk mentioned in the Holy Quran are an indication of the ennobling message underlying the teaching of Divine Unity. These are summed up in the verse:

“…that we shall serve none but Allah and that we shall not set up any partner with Him and that some of us shall not take others for lords besides Allah.” — 3:64

These are really three forms of shirk — a fourth is mentioned separately. The most palpable form of shirk is that in which anything besides God is wor­shipped, such as stones, idols, trees, animals, tombs, heavenly bodies, forces of nature, or human beings who are supposed to be demi-gods or gods or incarnations of God or sons or daughters of God. The second kind of shirk, which is less palpable, is the setting up of partners with God, that is, to suppose that other things and beings possess the same attributes as the Divine Being. The beliefs that there are three persons in the Godhead, and that the Son and the Holy Ghost are eternal, Om­nipotent and Omniscient like God Himself, as in the Christian creed, or that there is a Creator of Evil along with a Creator of Good, as in Zoroas­trianism, or that matter and soul are co-eternal with God and self-existing like Himself, as in Hinduism — all come under this head. The last kind of shirk is that in which some people take others for their lords, mean­ing that they blindly obey their religious leaders in what they declare as right or wrong, or as commanded or forbidden by God.

The fourth kind of shirk is referred to in the verse:

“Have you seen him who takes his low desires for his god?” — 25:43, 45:23

Here the blind submission to one’s own desires is described in words used for shirk. Thus belief in the Unity of God means that true obedience is due to God alone, and whosoever obeys either any­one else, or his own low desires, in preference to the Divine commandments, is really guilty of shirk.


Of the different forms of shirk, idolatry is cited more frequently than all the others, and is denounced in the most scathing terms in the Holy Quran. This is because idolatry is the most heinous form of shirk and also was the most rampant throughout the world at the advent of Islam. Not only is idolatry condemned in its gross form, which takes it for granted that an idol can cause benefit or do harm, but the idea is also contro­verted that there is any meaning underlying this gross form of worship:

“And those who choose protectors besides Him [say]: We serve them only that they may bring us nearer to Allah. Surely Allah will judge be­tween them in that in which they differ.” — 39:3

It is sometimes said, in explanation of idolatry, that an idol is used only to enable a worshipper to concentrate his attention, and become more deeply engrossed in Divine contemplation. This idea is controverted in the verse quoted above — “that they may bring us nearer to Allah”. But even in this case the worshipper must believe that the idol on which he centres his attention is a symbol of the Divine Being, which is a gross­ly false notion; and, moreover, it is the idol on which the worshipper’s attention is centred, not the Divine Being. It is also wrong to suppose that a material symbol is necessary for concentration, for attention can be just as easily concentrated on a spiritual object, and it is only when the object of attention is spiritual that concentration helps the development of will-power. Along with idol-worship, the Holy Quran also prohibits dedication to idols (6:137).

Nature worship

Another form of prevailing shirk denounced in the Holy Quran is the worship of the sun, the moon, the stars, in fact of everything which might appear to control the destinies of man. This is expressly forbidden:

“And of His signs are the night and the day and the sun and the moon. Do not adore the sun nor the moon, but adore Allah Who created them…” — 41:37

The argument advanced against the worship of the sun and the moon not only applies to all heavenly bodies but also, and equally well, to all the forces of nature, which are in fact again and again mentioned as being made subservient to man.


The Trinity is also denounced as a form of shirk:

“So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, Three. Refrain [from it], it is better for you. Allah is only One God.” — 4:171

It is sometimes alleged that the Quranic conception of the Tri­nity is a mistaken one, because it speaks of Jesus and Mary as having been taken for two gods:

“O Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people, Take me and my mother for two gods be­sides Allah?” — 5:116

The reference here is not to Trinity but to Mariolatry. That Mary was worshipped is a fact, and the Quran’s reference to it is significant, but it should be noted that neither the Holy Quran nor the Holy Prophet has any­where said that Mary was the third person of the Trinity. Where the Quran denounces the Trinity, it speaks of the doctrine of sonship but does not speak of the worship of Mary at all; and where it speaks of the worship of Mary, it does not refer to the Trinity.[9]

Doctrine of sonship

Another form of shirk, refuted in the Holy Quran, is the doctrine that God has sons or daughters. The pagan Arabs ascribed daughters to God while Christians hold that God has a son. Though the doctrine of ascribing daughters to God is mentioned in the Quran several times,[10] yet it is against the Christian doctrine that the Holy Book speaks with gravest emphasis:

“And they say: The Beneficent God has taken to Himself a son. Certain­ly you have made a detestable assertion! The heavens may almost be torn apart at it, and the earth split, and the mountains crumble down in pieces, that they ascribe a son to the Beneficent God!” — 19:88–91

The doctrine is denounced repeatedly, even in the earliest re­ve­lations,[11] which shows that from the very first the Holy Quran set before itself the correction of this great error. It will be observed that a mention of the doctrine of sonship is often followed by the word subḥāna-hū (“glory be to Him”), which is used to indicate the purity of God from all defects. The reason for this is that the doctrine of sonship is due to the supposition that God cannot forgive sins unless He receives some satisfaction therefor, and this satisfaction is supposed to have been afforded by the crucifixion of the Son of God, who alone is said to be sinless. The doctrine of sonship is thus practically a denial of the quality of forgiveness in God, and this amounts to attributing a defect to Him. It is for this reason also that a most forcible denunciation of the doctrine of sonship, quoted above, is followed by the words:

“And it is not worthy of the Beneficent God (Raḥmān) that He should take to Himself a son.” — 19:92

The word Raḥmān signifies originally the Lord of immeasurable mercy Who requires no satisfaction or compensation for a display of the quality of mercy which is inherent in Him, and the attribute of being Raḥmān negatives the doctrine of sonship.

Significance underlying the doctrine of Unity

The various kinds of shirk mentioned in the Holy Quran show that, in the doctrine of Unity, it gives to the world an ennobling message of advance­ment all round, physical as well as moral and spiritual. Man is freed not only from slavery to animate and in­animate objects, but also from sub­servience to the great and wondrous forces of nature which, he is told, he can subdue for his benefit. It goes further and delivers man from that greatest of slaveries, slavery to man. It does not allow to any mortal the dignity of Godhead, or of being more than a mortal; for the greatest of mortals is commanded to say:

“I am only a mortal like you; it is revealed to me that your God is One God.” — 18:110

Thus all the bonds which fettered the mind of man were broken, and he was set on the road to progress. A slave mind, as the Quran plainly says, is incapable of doing anything good and great (16:75–76), and hence the first condition for the advancement of man was that his mind should be set free from the tram­mels of all kinds of slavery, which was accomplished in the message of Div­ine Unity.

Unity of human race underlies Unity of God

The doctrine of the Unity of God, besides casting off the bonds of slav­ery which had enthralled the human mind, and thus opening the way for its advancement, carries another significance equally great, if not great­er, namely, the idea of the unity of the human race. God is Rabb al-‘ālamīn — the Lord of all the nations. This signifies that all the nations of the world are, as it were, the children of one Father, and that He takes equal care of all, bringing all to their goal of completion by degrees.[12] Hence God is spoken of in the Quran as granting not only His physical but also His spiritual sustenance, His revelation, to all the nations of the world:

“And for every nation there is a messenger.” — 10:47

“There is not a people but a warner has gone among them.” — 35:24

We further find that the Holy Quran upholds the idea that God, being the God of all nations, deals with all of them alike. He hearkens to the prayers of all, whatever their religion or nationality. He is equally merciful to all and forgives the sins of all. He rewards the good deeds of the Muslim and the non-Muslim alike; and not only does He deal with all nations alike, but we are further told that He created them all alike, in the Divine nature:

“…the nature made by Allah in which He has created man­kind.” — 30:30

And this unity of the human race, which is thus a natural coro­l­lary of the doctrine of the Unity of God, is further stressed in the plain words that “Mankind is a single nation” (2:213) and that humanity is “but a single nation” (10:19).

Section 3: The Attributes of God

Nature of the Divine attributes

In the Holy Quran, God is plainly stated to be above all material conceptions:

“Vision cannot comprehend Him, and He comprehends all vision.” — 6:103

And He is not only above all material limitations but even above the limitation of metaphor:

“Nothing is like a likeness of Him.” — 42:11

To indicate His love, power, knowledge and other attributes, the same words had to be used as are in ordinary use for human beings, and therefore God is spoken of in the Holy Quran as seeing, hearing, speaking, being displeased, loving, being affectionate, possessing control, etc.; but the conception is not quite the same. God sees and hears, but that does not mean He has eyes and requires light to see things, or has ears and requires some medium, such as air, to convey sound to Him. God creates, but that does not mean He has hands like a man and needs material with which to make things. The “hands” of God are spoken of in the Holy Quran (5:64), but it is simply to give expres­sion to His unlimited power in bestowing His favours on whom He will, and this is in accordance with the Arabic idiom.

God’s Throne (‘arsh) is spoken of in the Holy Quran, but it does not signify any place, rather representing His control of things as a monarch’s throne is a symbol of his power to rule. The phrase “He is established on the Throne”[13] is used after mentioning the crea­tion of the heavens and the earth, and in relation to the Divine control of creation, and the law and order to which the universe is made to sub­mit by its great Author. It is nowhere said in the Quran that God sits on the ‘arsh; it is always His controlling power that is mentioned in connection therewith. Similarly, His kursī,[14] literally ‘chair’, means His knowledge.

Proper name of the Divine Being

Allāh is the proper or personal name of the Divine Being, as distinguished from all other names which denote His attributes. It is also known as the greatest name of God (ism a‘ẓam). Being a proper name it does not carry any significance, but being the proper name of the Divine Being it comprises all the attributes which are contained separately in the attributive names. Hence the name Allah is said to gather together in itself all the perfect attributes of God.

The word Allāh is not derived from any other word. Nor has it any connection with the word ilāh (god or object of worship). It is sometimes said that Allāh is a contracted form of al-ilāh, meaning ‘the god’, but that is a mistake, for if al in Allāh were an additional prefix, the form yā Allāh for addressing Him (“O Allah”), which is a correct form, would not have been permitted, since yā al-ilāh or yā al-Raḥmān are not correct. Moreover, this supposition would mean that there were different gods, one of which became gradually known as al-ilāh (the god) and was then contracted into Allāh. This is against facts, since Allāh has ever been the name of the Eternal Being. Nor has the word Allāh ever been applied to any but the Divine Being, according to all authori­ties on Arabic lexicology. The Arabs had numerous ilāhs or gods but none of them was ever called Allāh, while a Supreme Being called Allāh was recognized above them all as the Creator of the universe,[15] and no other deity, however great, was so regarded.

Four chief attributes

Among the attributive names of the Divine Being occurring in the Holy Quran, four stand out prominently, and these four are exactly the names mentioned in the opening chapter al-Fātiḥah, which by a consensus of opinion, and according to a saying of the Holy Prophet, is the quintessence of the Book. The chapter opens with the proper name Allah, and then follows the greatest of all attributive names Rabb which, for want of a proper equivalent, is translated “Lord”. Its real significance, accord­ing to the best authority on Quranic lexicology, is the Fosterer of a thing in such a manner as to make it attain one condition after another until it reaches its goal of completion (see p. here). Rabb, therefore, means the Lord Who brings all that is in this universe to a state of perfection through various stages of growth, and as these stages include the lowest and the remotest, which, as we go back farther and farther, dwindle into noth­ingness, the word Rabb carries with it the idea of the Author of all exis­tence. Rabb is thus the chief attribute of the Divine Being, and hence it is that prayers are generally addressed to Rabb, and begin with the words Rabba-nā, that is, “our Lord”. Indeed after the proper name Allah, the Quran has given the greatest prominence to the name Rabb.

The order adopted by the Holy Quran in speaking of the Div­ine attributes is quite logical. Allah, the proper name, comes first of all in the opening chapter, and this is followed by Rabb, the most important of the attributive names. While the name Allah is found in the Holy Quran some 2800 times, Rabb occurs about 960 times, no other name being so frequently mentioned.

Next in importance to Rabb are the names Raḥmān (Beneficent), Raḥīm (Merciful) and Mālik (Master), which follow Rabb in the opening chapter. These three names in fact show how the attribute of bringing to perfection by fostering, is brought into play. Both Raḥmān and Raḥīm are derived from the same root, conveying the ideas of love and mercy. Raḥmān signifies that love is so predominant in the Divine nature that He bestows His favours and shows His mercy even though man has done nothing to deserve them. The granting of the means of subsistence for the development of physical life, and of Divine revelation for man’s spiritual growth, are due to this attribute of unbounded love in the Divine Being. Then follows the stage in which man takes advantage of these various means which help the development of his physical and spiritual life, and turns them to his use. It is at this stage that the third attribute of the Divine Being, Raḥīm, comes into play, whereby He rewards every effort made by man in the right direction; and since man is making constant and continual efforts, the attribute of mercy conveyed in the name Raḥīm is also displayed continually. This is true both as regards the physical and spiritual development of man.

As submission to the law results in the advancement of man which brings reward, disobedience to the law must result in retard­ing his progress or bringing down punishment upon him. In fact, punishment is only a different phase of the exercise of the attribute of fostering; for ultimate good is still the object. Therefore, just as Raḥīm is needed to bring his reward to one who does good or submits to the law, there must be another attribute to bring about the requital of evil. Hence in the opening chapter of the Quran, Raḥīm is followed by Māliki yaum-id-dīn or “Master of the Day of Recompense”. The adoption of the word Mālik, or Master, in connection with the requital of evil, is significant, as ordinarily it would be expected that there should be a judge to mete out the requital of evil. The essential difference between a judge and a master is that the former is bound to do justice and must punish the evil-doer for every evil, while the latter, the master, can exercise his discretion, and may either punish the evil-doer or forgive him and pass over even the greatest of his iniquities.

This idea is fully developed in the Quran, where we are repeatedly told that while good is rewarded ten times over or even more, evil is either forgiven or requited with its equivalent. In one place, in­deed, the unbounded mercy of the Divine Being is said to be so great that “He forgives sins altogether” (39:53). Hence the attributive name Mālik is introduced to link the idea of requital with that of forgive­ness. That is why, while the opening chapter mentions the name Mālik as the next in importance to Raḥīm, in the body of the Quran it is the name Ghafūr (Forgiving) which occupies that place of importance, as in its various forms it is the next, in frequency of occurrence, after Raḥmān and Raḥīm in their various forms. Hence it will be seen that the Quran gives prominence to the attributes of love and mercy in God to an extent the parallel of which is not to be found in any other revealed book.

Other names of God

From their mention in the opening chapter of the Quran, and the frequency of their mention in the Holy Book, to which no approach is made by any other name, it is clear that the four names Rabb, Raḥmān, Raḥīm and Mālik are the chief attributive names of the Divine Being, and all His other attributes are only offshoots of these four essential attributes. In a Hadith report, which is regarded as weak, ninety-nine names of God are generally men­tioned, the hundredth being Allah; but while some of them occur in the Quran, others are only inferred from some act of the Divine Being, as finding expression in the Holy Book. There is, however, no authority what­soever for the practice of repeating these names on a rosary or otherwise. Neither the Holy Prophet nor any of his Companions ever used a rosary.

In the Holy Quran, it is said:

“And Allah’s are the best names, so call on Him thereby, and leave alone those who violate the sanctity of His names.” — 7:180

Calling on God by His excellent names only means that nothing derogatory to His dignity should be attributed to Him, and the violation of the sanctity of the Divine names has been clearly explained to mean either ascribing to God attributes which do not befit His high dignity, or ascribing Divine attributes to that which is not Divine. Hence calling on God by His excel­lent names merely means that only those high attributes should be ascribed to Him which befit His dignity.

Among the names of God mentioned in the Holy Quran are the following:

Predominance of love and mercy in Divine nature

It will be seen that the attributes of God given above have nothing to do with the autocracy, inexorability, vengeance and cruelty which Western critics of Islam have generally associated with the picture of Him as drawn in the Holy Quran. On the contrary, the qualities of love and mercy in God are emphasized in the Quran more than in any other sacred book. Not only does every chapter open with the two names Raḥmān and Raḥīm, thus showing that the qualities of love and mercy are predominant in Divine nature, but the Holy Book goes further and lays the greatest stress in explicit words on the immeasurable vastness of the Divine mercy. The following may be taken as examples:

“He has ordained mercy on Himself.” — 6:12, 6:54

“Your Lord is the Lord of all-encompassing mercy.” — 6:147

“And My mercy encom­passes all things.” — 7:156

“Except those on whom your Lord has mercy, and for this did He create them.” — 11:119

“O My servants who have been reckless against their own souls, do not despair of the mercy of Allah, surely Allah forgives sins altogether.” — 39:53

“Our Lord! You em­brace all things in mercy and know­ledge…” — 40:7

So great is the Divine mercy that it encompasses believers and un­believers alike as the above verses show. Even the enemies of the Holy Prophet are spoken of as having mercy shown to them:

“And when We make people taste of mercy after an affliction touches them, lo! they devise plans against Our messages.” — 10:21

The idol-worshippers are repeatedly spoken of as calling upon God when in distress, and God as removing their distress. The picture of the Divine attributes portrayed in the Quran is, first and last, a picture of love and mercy, and while these are mentioned under many different names and repeated hundreds of times, His attribute of punishment — Exactor of retribution — occurs but four times in the whole of the Quran.[16] It is true that the punishment of evil is a subject on which the Quran is most emphatic, but its purpose in this case is simply to im­press upon man that evil is a most hateful thing which ought to be shunned; and, by way of set-off, not only does it lay great stress on the reward of good deeds, but goes further and declares over and over again that evil is either forgiven or punished only with the like of it, but that good is rewarded tenfold, and hundredfold, or even without measure.

At the same time it must be borne in mind that punishment itself, as described in the Holy Quran, is of a remedial nature, and has in it nothing of vengeance — it is the treatment of a disease which a person has brought upon himself. It is still love, for its object is still to set a person on the road to spiritual progress by healing the disease. God does bring about distress, but this is only in the limited sense that it is a punishment for wrong-doing with the underlying object of reformation: “We seized them with distress and affliction in order that they might humble themselves” (6:42, 7: 94).

Divine attributes as the great ideal to be attained

Just as belief in the Unity of God is a source of man’s uplift, making him conscious of the dignity of human nature, and inspiring him with the grand ideas of the conquest of nature and of the equality of human beings, so the numerous attributes of the Divine Being, as revealed in the Holy Quran, are really meant for the perfection of human character. The Divine at­tributes really serve as an ideal to which man must strive to attain. God is Rabb al-‘ālamīn, the Fosterer and Nourisher of the worlds; keeping that as an ideal before himself, man must endeavour to make the service of humanity, even that of dumb creation, the object of his life. God is Raḥmān, conferring benefits on man and showing him love without his having done anything to deserve it; the one who seeks to attain to per­fection must do good even to those from whom he has not himself received, and does not expect to receive, any benefit. God is Raḥīm, making every good deed bear fruit; man must also do good for any good that he receives from another. God is Mālik, requiting evil, not in a spirit of vengeance or even of unbending justice, but in a spirit of forgiveness; so must man be forgiving in his dealings with others, if he will attain to perfection.

So it is with all His other attributes. As to love and mercy, God is Affec­tionate, Oft-returning to mercy, Forbearing, Pardoner, Multiplier of rewards, Author of peace, Granter of security, Restorer of loss, Benign, Bestower of sustenance and so on; all this man must also try to be. Again let us take His attributes of knowledge. God is Knowing, Wise, Aware, Seeing, Knower of hidden things; man must also try to perfect his knowledge of things and acquire wisdom. In fact, where man is spoken of as having been made a vicegerent of God, his chief characteristic, that which marks him out as the ruler of creation, is stated to be a knowledge of things.[17] Then there are His attributes of power and greatness and control of all things. Man is told again and again that everything in the heavens and in the earth has been made subservient to him.

It is true that man’s love, mercy, knowledge, wisdom, and control of things are all insignifi­cant as compared with their Divine models, but however imperfectly he may achieve it, the fact remains that he has before him the ideal of Divine morals, which he must try to imitate.


1. Lane’s Lexicon.

2. The famous classical lexicologist of the Quran in his dictionary Al-Mufradāt fī Gharīb al-Qur’ān.

3. The Quran, 1:4.

4. The Quran, 2:177, 76:8.

5. The Quran, 13:28.

6. Properly transliterated, the word shirk should be shirk.

7. Editor’s Note: Those who set up partners with God themselves believe that He does not have the power to forgive them without the mediation of such partners. How can He forgive them when they do not believe that He alone possesses that power?

8. The term in the Quran is khalīfa. See 2:30.

9. Deism is another doctrine refuted in the Holy Quran: “And Allah has said: Do not take two gods. He is only one God” (16:51).

10. See the Quran, 16:57, 17:40, 37:149.

11. See the Quran, 2:116, 6:102–104, 10:68, 17:111, 18:4–5, 19:35, 19:91–92, 23:91, 37:151–152, 112:3. Of these, ch. 112 is undoubtedly one of the earliest revelations, while the 17th, 18th and 19th chapters also belong to the early Makkah period.

12. See the meaning of Rabb on page here.

13. The Quran, 7:54, etc.

14. The Quran, 2:255.

15. The Quran, 29:61.

16. The Quran, 3:4, 5:95, 14:47, 39:37.

Editor’s Note: In the above verses, the name of God as “Exactor of retribution” is Dhu-ntiqām. A related name of God is muntaqim, taken from muntaqimūn (“We shall exact retribution”), which occurs three times in the Quran, in 32:22, 43:41 and 44:16.

17. The Quran, 2: 30–31.