By Mahmood Jawaid
When George Harrison of the Beatles expressed his desire to see and know the Lord ("I really want to see you," "I really want to know you") in his song titled "My Sweet Lord," could it have been possible? While growing up, I always thought of God as a man with long white hair and a beard, sitting up in heaven, looking down on us, and watching every move of ours. As I grew up, I realized that I was wrong. We cannot think of Him in terms of humans. In fact, we cannot think of Him in the form of anything we know, since He is unlike anything. While reading William Chittick's books on Sufism, especially on Ibn Arabi, a Sufi mystic, I came to realize my problem.
There is a saying that a person who knows himself knows God. Of course, there are many dimensions of this statement, but I will just focus on one aspect. From, at least a monotheistic perspective, the real me is the soul that resides in my body. My body is only a vehicle to negotiate this world. It is true that we are recognized by our facial features, but this is only for identification purposes. The driver of my actions, my creativity, and my behavior all stem from my soul. The body only does the bidding of the soul. That is why it is ultimately the soul that will be responsible for our actions. It is the soul that feels the pain and the joy of the fruit of our actions. The soul is invisible, imperceptible, and cannot be measured by scientific tools. That is why science does not recognize the soul. But we know that a live human body has a soul and a dead body does not. The soul is the real person in me, and I am recognized by my face. My traits and personality are defined by my actions and show others what kind of person I am.
Just like the soul is the real me, the essence of God is the real God. Just like the soul is invisible and imperceptible, the essence of God is invisible and imperceptible. Since God does not have a body, that does not come into play. Just as a person is known by his actions, God can only be known by His actions that define His traits and are called His attributes. For example, since God is the one who created the heaven and the earth, He is called "The Creator." The Koran has cited ninety-nine attributes of God. According to Ibn Arabi, "The whole cosmos is locus of the manifestation of divine names (i.e. attributes)." Just as any living organisms can be mapped genetically, the Universe and everything in it can also be mapped in terms of God's attributes. For example, iron exhibits a high level of "The Most Strong" attribute of God in it. Other attributes are either exhibited at a lower level or are absent. Only humans exhibit all the attributes of God, though its mix is different in various people. People who are compassionate exhibit a high level of "The Compassionate" attribute of God. People who are ruthless exhibit a high level of "The Subduer" attribute in them. People who are generous exhibit a high level of "The Generous" in them. The compassionate people also exhibit a low level of "The Subduer" otherwise they may not even be able to kill a fly. The ruthless people also exhibit a low level of "The Compassionate" in them, at least for their family members. While everything is stuck with the degree of each attribute they are bestowed by God, only humans have the ability to enhance or minimize some of God's attributes in them. Only God exhibits the highest level of all the attributes, which no one can exhibit.
Before the creation of the universe, only the essence of God existed, His attributes only existed as potentials. Since nobody was in existence then, nobody, except God, knew of those attributes. Only when He created the Universe in its primordial form out of nothing did His attributes start to manifest. The creation of the primordial Universe showed that God is the Originator. Since other things were created from this primordial soup, His other attributes, the Creator, the Evolver, and the Fashioner, manifested later. Since it is God who is sustaining and nourishing the content of this Universe, we recognize that being the Provider and the Sustainer are also His attributes. No matter which attribute of God we ponder, it is manifested through His creation or in relation to His creation. For example, His attribute of being the first and the last. He was the first before there was anything (His creation), and He will be the last after all of His creation ceases to exist. He becomes manifested (the Manifest) through His creation and remains un-manifested (The Hidden) without His creation. When we say He is the mighty, the powerful, the strongest, the all knowing, the loving, the just, the beautiful, the forgiver, the all forgiving, the merciful, the beneficent, the compassionate, the compeller, the majestic, or the most high, or the holy, it is all in relation to His creations. That is why it is said that He created the universe so that He will be known.
As I mentioned earlier, we cannot see the essence of God, which has always existed, which was in existence before he created the universe, and which will remain in existence after this universe ceases to exist. We can only know God through His acts, which are manifestation of His attributes. Although we cannot see His essence, we can see His attributes. When we look at a canvass, all we see is the painting. The essence of God is the canvass on which we see His attributes through His creations. The essence remains hidden from our eyes. When we look at heaven, all we see is the light emanating from the stars. We do not see the huge dark space in which these stars are scattered. If there were no stars in heaven, we would be staring in the dark space; we would see nothing. The essence of God is like a huge space in which His attributes are emanating from His creations. We can only know Him through His attributes that are manifested all around us and inside us. Without His creations, we would have seen nothing. Though we cannot see God, we can know Him by pondering over His attributes manifested in His creations. So George, you really cannot see God, but you can know Him for sure.
Jawaid is a chemical engineer and the author of books such as "Atom to Adam -- How, When and Where in the Light of Quran, Bible and Science (A Study of Human Origin)." His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.