The Five levels of Knowing the Most Exalted Allah [according to the teaching of Imam Ali(as)]

By S. M. Husayn Tabatabai

Imam Ali, peace be upon him, has said:

‘The foremost in religion is knowing Allah, and the perfection of this knowledge is His acknowledgement, and the perfection of His acknowledgement is to believe in His Oneness, and the perfection of believing in His Oneness is to regard Him Pure, and the perfection of His purity is to deny Him attributes. For every attribute is a proof that it is different from that to which it is attributed, and everything to which something is attributed is different from the attribute. Therefore, whoever attaches attributes to Allah recognizes His like, and who recognizes His like regards Him two; and who regards Him two recognizes parts for Him; and who recognizes parts for Him mistakes Him; and who mistakes Him points at Him; and who points at Him admits limitations for Him; and who admits imitations for Him numbers Him’ [1].

This is a comprehensive explication of the levels of knowing Allah, and, in technical terms, an explanation of the levels of the contemplation that investigates Divine Philosophy, beginning with the simple and the easy and coming ultimately to the depth of the matter and its subtle points, as is the case with man’s other scientific studies. He begins with the easy and the insignificant, and then, to the limits of his intellectual and mental powers, gradually advances up the scale of precision and skill. The levels of knowing the most Exalted Allah, as Imam Ali has explained, are five:

First, knowing Allah and admitting His divinity, that is, the speculative belief that the world has a God. The monotheists and the pagans alike, the idol worshippers, the dualists, the people of the Books, and the Muslims share this speculative belief.

Moreover, this definition includes everyone who believes in God, accepts His existence, acknowledges Him and surrenders to Him, even if he limits his belief, to mere speculative knowledge, remaining arrogant and abstaining from worshipping the Exalted God. So in his speech, “The foremost in religion is knowing Allah,” by ‘religion’ Imam intends absolute religion, which comes in contrast with atheism and heresy.

Second, is acknowledging Him, and it is this acknowledgement that leads to man’s humility in his worship. Faith is strengthened and is made permanent by this acknowledgement, and, therefore, this belief is thought to be the perfection of knowledge. In this relation, Imam Ali says: “Do not turn your knowledge into ignorance or your certainty into doubt. Once in possession of knowledge practice it, and if you are certain of a thing, then take action.”[2] He also says: “Knowledge is accompanied by practice” [3] Thus, by practice the worshipping monotheist is distinguished from the arrogant atheist.

Third, knowing the Exalted God as one and unique, that is, holding that the Exalted God is One and has no associate. By this the religion of monotheism is distinguished from the religions of polytheism, which associate other gods with Allah-far is He above such association. Monotheism is the perfection of His acknowledgement, and as Imam Ali says: ”the perfection of His acknowledgement is to believe in His Oneness.”

Fourth, regarding Him Pure by turning aside, in both consciousness and practice, from everything other than Him, and by confining and restricting the real existence to His Exalted existence, and also by holding that all that they call other than Him is false. Once this is achieved, all practiced, imagined or supposed limits attributed to Him will be negated, and He will be One in all the meanings implied in this term, and no associate could be assumed for Him, for that would be “an impossible supposition, and not supposing the impossible.” It is repeatedly mentioned in the sermons of Imam Ali that God is One, not in the numerical sense of oneness, which entails the supposition that if we can find another one of His kind then He will be two; rather, His Oneness is such that even if we suppose a second for Him, no multiplicity will be there, but the second supposed being will be exactly the same as the first supposed being.To explain that further, once the existence of the Exalted God is assumed, the intellect will necessarily confirm His existence in all the supposed conditions. So, if He is supposed to exist alone with no other thing, then He will really be unique and confirmed in His existence. However, if he is supposed to be associated with another, still His existence will be established. Even if only the existence of other than Him is supposed, and nothing else along with that, His Sublime existence nevertheless will be affirmed. He is the Manifest, the Evident, the Exalted, and the Real and in any way which is supposed is confirmed in His existence. A being like this accepts no limit or condition whatever for its real existence, otherwise once that restriction is removed and that limit or condition is lifted it would not be confirmed in its existence.

Therefore, His Exalted existence is the very real confirmation that it is not accompanied by any intellectual, imaginary or external restrictions. He is the unbounded Real, and whatever other than Him is necessarily restricted, otherwise it should have existed by all suppositions, and this means that its existence is necessary by itself. If the Exalted Allah is the very Real whose existence has no restriction and whose essence has no ending, reason then should not assume another being of His kind to be the second for that first, for “the pure essence of a thing cannot be repeated.” This is something other than the numerical one which can be supposed by intellect to have a second and thus to become two, though it does not have an external existence [4]. Imam precisely means this in his speech, “The reflection of the believing in His Oneness is to regard Him Pure.” He makes this clear demonstratively at the end of his discourse.

After this comes the fifth level: if the Exalted Allah is the Absolute Real, and is non bounded in His existence, then He cannot be encompassed by intellectual concepts nor can they be applied to Him exactly, since these concepts are limited in themselves.

Thus we see that the concept of Allah’s knowledge is different from the concept of power; it does not have anything of the other in it, or even any awareness of it. Nor can the concept of power correspond with that of life, and the concept of life is separate from that of knowledge. Thus each concept contains itself only, and other concepts have no knowledge or trace of it. Although the referents of one concept can be united or may correspond with the referents of another concept, nevertheless our discussion is not related to the referents. Moreover, if the Glorified Allah by all suppositions is not restricted by any existing limit, and He is the Absolute Real, then the intellectual concepts, which are used by the mind whenever it tends to know or introduce anything, cannot access or encompass or be applicable to Him. Thus we see how contemplating the meaning of Purity leads to denying Him attributes. It will be correct then to say that denying Him attributes is the perfection of regarding Him Pure, which, as is said earlier, is the fifth level of knowing the Exalted Allah, and which is intended by Imam Ali in his saying: “And the perfection of His Purity is to deny Him attributes, because every attribute is a proof that it ‘is different from that to which it is attributed and everything to which something is attributed is different from the attribute.”[5]

As is narrated, to His Exalted being belong the most beautiful Names and the loftiest likeness, and had not He had these He could not have conferred them on others, and others could not have had them. But He is far above the fact that others could perceive Him by attributes or be encompassed by description. He who tries to describe Him by an attribute is indeed ignorant of Him. Once this Purity is achieved, the speculative intellect will understand its deficiency and weakness in perceiving the Exalted Allah or encompassing Him. For the only means that intellect has at its disposal for describing things are intellectual concepts and meanings, and we have already said that these concepts are essentially different from each other, and by nature limited. Thus when intellect confers an attribute to the Exalted Allah, by its very conviction of the unity of the two, will affirm by way of description and attribution that they are different.

Therefore, when it attaches attributes to Him it will associate Him with the attribute, and this association is done through dualism, and dualism in turn is done through division, and division is done through intellectually pointing to this or that, and pointing can be done once a separating barrier between the two is established, by which one will be differentiated from the other, and finally the distinction is made through incurring the numerical Oneness and the negation of the real unity. At this point intellect will wonder at its judgment, as it will find no way to exalt Allah above description, or on a second look to deny that by which it had described Him at first, or even to deny inevitably this denial, which is somehow a description. This is exactly what Imam Ali hints at, in his speech: “The height of intellectual courage cannot appreciate Him, nor can the diving of understanding reach Him. He is the One for Whose description no limit has been laid down, no eulogy exists, no time is ordained and no duration is fixed.” [6]

One of the most beautiful and interesting of his statements on this subject is the following: “He is not encompassed by a boundary, nor estimated by counting; rather things limit themselves, and tools point at other tools similar to them.” [7] The intellect, concerning the knowledge of Allah, the Glorified, is like a man scooping up ocean water in his hands. In the scooping, his hands want nothing more than water without limit. However, they can only hold a limited amount of water. Imam Ali counts this deficiency of intellect as knowledge, as it begins by knowledge and ends in this stage.



[1] Nahjul Balaghah, sermon n.1.

[2] Nahjul Balaghah, vol. 2, p. 212.

[3] Op. cit.

[4] His intention is that the conceptions of the attributes are not applicable to Him truly, but the referents ofthe conceptions indeed are the proof that they are the subjects of the attributes, and vice versa

[5] Majlisi, may God bless his soul, relates a similar incident in Bihar ul Anvar vol. 3, pp. 206-207. He writes that one day an Arab asked the commander of the faithful on the Day of the Camel, “0 commander of the faithful! Do you claim that God is one?” People attacked the Arab verbally, and said to him, “O Arab! Do not you see how the commander of the faithful is busy?” Then the commander of the faithful said, “Leave him alone, for the thing which the Arab wants is the same that we want from the people (the enemy).” Then he said: “O Arab! Saying that Allah is one is capable of four interpretations.

Two of them cannot be true in relation to Allah, the Glorious and the Exalted, and two of them can be true of Him. The two that are not applicable to Him are these. First, when a person by saying one intends the category of numbers. This is not permissible to be used for God, for a thing that has no second cannot enter the category of numbers. Don’t you see that those who have said that God is the third of the three have blasphemed? Second, when one is used in the sense it is used in a sentence like “He is one of the people,” by which one intends the species or kind. This is also not permissible, for it denotes similitude, and our Lord is Exalted and far above that. The two interpretations which are true of Him are these: the saying of a man that God has no similitude among things, and so is our Lord. And the saying of a man that the Exalted and Glorious God is unique in meaning, that is, He is indivisible in His existence, and no intellect or imagination can reach Him, and so is our Lord

[6] Nahjul Balaghah, sermon 1; see also Al-Ghllrar wal Durar, vol. 4, p. 389, “The diving of understanding does not reach Him, and the height of intellectual courage cannot appreciate Him.”

[7] Nahjul Balaghah, vol. 1 p. 376

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