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Faith, Spirituality

Understanding Tawhid: The divine simplicity of the Lord

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Compassionate

هو نور لا ظلمة فيه ، وحياة لا موت فيه ، وعلم لا جهل فيه ، وحقّ لا باطل فيه’

“He is light with no darkness in Him, and life with no death in Him, and knowledge with no ignorance in Him and truth with no falsehood in Him.” (Imam Ja’far al Sadiq (as) describing God)

The narration above are one of many by the infallible Imams (peace be upon them) that help to elucidate a key concept in our knowledge of God; namely divine simplicity! What does it mean to say God, exalted be He, is simple? How does this relate to His attributes?

“The doctrine of divine simplicity holds that God is in no way composed of parts. Not only is God incorporeal and immaterial, and thus not composed of form and matter, He is also not composed of essence and existence. Rather, His essence is His existence. There is also no distinction within God between any of the divine attributes: God’s eternity is His power, which is His goodness, which is His intellect, which is His will, and so on. Indeed, God Himself just is His power, His goodness, etc., just as He just is His existence, and just is His essence. Talking or conceiving of God, God’s essence, God’s existence, God’s power, God’s goodness, and so forth are really all just different ways of talking or conceiving of one and the very same thing. Though we distinguish between them in thought, there is no distinction at all between them in reality.” – Edward Feser.



How does divine simplicity affect the attributes of God?

To say that God is simple is to negate any composition from him. This means that His attributes are at the core of His essence (صفاته عين ذاته) and there can be no separation between his attributes! This has been mentioned by Imam Ja’afar al Sadiq (as) in another narration that says, “And Knowledge is His Essence, and so are Power, Hearing, and Sight His Essence.”

To explain these concepts further, one can contrast this with the example of human beings. A human being can have the attribute of sight but this does not necessitate that they must possess the ability to hear. Similarly, an individual can be knowledgeable but this does not mean that the individual possesses any power. Thus, when we observe the human being, we realise that part of the human is hearing, another part is for seeing and another part is for power, etc. The attributes are distinct from each other and the presence of one does not affect the presence of another attribute. Thus the human essence is a composite made up of many parts.

In contrast, God’s attributes are not distinct from one another. They do not form one part of His essence. Rather the attribute is the essence! All His essence is knowledgeable! All His essence is goodness! All His essence is light! Moreover, His knowledge is His goodness and His goodness is His power and His power is His mercy His mercy is His sight and so on!

Were it the case that God, exalted be He, were a composite it would mean that part of Him has the attribute of power whilst the other parts lack power; one part is knowledgeable whilst the other parts devoid of knowledge, etc. Such a notion is impossible to entertain and thus there can be no separation between His attributes.

Why is Divine Simplicity so important?

‘One reason is that  nothing less than what is absolutely simple could possibly be divine, because nothing less than what is absolutely simple could have the metaphysical ultimacy that God is supposed to have. For anything which is in any way composed of parts would be metaphysically less fundamental than those parts themselves, and would depend on some external principle to account for the parts being combined in the way they are. In that case, either the external principle itself (or perhaps some yet further principle) would have to be simple, and thus ultimate, and thus the truly divine reality; or there is no simple or non-composite first principle, and thus no metaphysically ultimate reality, and thus nothing strictly divine. In short, to deny divine simplicity is, for the classical theist, implicitly to deny the existence of God.’ (http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/classical-theism.html)

Ayatollah Sayed Khomeini says in his book, ‘Forty Ahadith,’ that: “That which is simple in all aspects is the totality of perfections in one and a single aspect. And in the same aspect that It is existent, It is also Knowing, Powerful, Living, and Willing and all the other names and Attributes of beauty and glory. are true of It. He is Knower in the [same] aspect that He is Powerful, and Powerful in the [same] aspect that He is Knower, without there being any difference of consideration (i`tibar) even on the plane of the intellect. And as to the difference of the concepts of the Names and the words that are used to represent them, which are unconditioned (la bi shart) intellectual concepts, it does not correspond to a difference in concrete reality, and it has been clearly established that numerous concepts of perfection are abstracted from one thing. Rather, that which is implied by the foregoing explanation is that all the concepts of perfection are abstracted from a single aspect (haythiyyat-e wahidah).

That that which is perfect in all aspects and is absolute perfection and goodness must be simple in all aspects. And from these two, another principle is inferred, that that which is composite, in whatever manner, is not perfect in all aspects and is subject to deficiency and nonexistence as well, and that which is deficient is not absolutely simple.

Therefore, as God, the Exalted, is completely simple, and composition, which implies contingency,poverty, and dependence on another, does not affect Him absolutely, He is perfect in all aspects and possesses all the Names and Attributes, and He is the very ground of reality and the essence of being, without His existence bearing any taint of non-existence, and without His perfections bearing any taint of. imperfection. Hence-He is sheer being, for were non-existence to find way into Him; the evil of composite things, which consists of the composition of existence and non-existence, would find way into Him. Thus He is the sheerness of Knowledge, the sheerness of Life, the sheerness of Power, the sheerness ‘of Sight,’ of Hearing and all other perfections.”

 إلهِي قَصُرَتِ الأَلْسُنُ عَنْ بُلُوغِ ثَنآئِكَ، كَما يَلِيقُ بِجَلالِكَ، وَعَجَزَتِ الْعُقُولُ عَنْ إدْراكِ كُنْهِ جَمالِكَ، وَانْحَسَرَتِ الأَبْصارُ دُونَ النَّظَرِ إلى سُبُحاتِ وَجْهِكَ، وَلَمْ تَجْعَلْ لِلْخَلْقِ طَرِيقاً إلى مَعْرِفَتِكَ إلاَّ بِالْعَجْزِ عَنْ مَعْرِفَتِكَ

My God, tongues fall short of attaining praise of Thee proper to Thy majesty, intellects are incapable of grasping the core of Thy beauty, eyes fail before gazing upon the glories of Thy face, and Thou hast assigned to Thy creatures no way to know Thee save incapacity to know Thee!

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