The Unknowability of God in Al-Ghazali: DAVID B. BURRELL

Religious Studies 23 (2):171-182 (1987)
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Abstract

The main lines of this exploration are quite simply drawn. That the God whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship outstrips our capacities for characterization, and hence must be unknowable, will be presumed as uncontested. The reason that God is unknowable stems from our shared confession that ‘the Holy One, blessed be He’, and ‘the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth’, and certainly ‘Allah, the merciful One’ is one ; and just why God's oneness entails God's being unknowable deserves discussion, though that will occur as we move along. The issue facing us is the one which preoccupied al-Ghazali: how does a seeker respond to that unknowability? The root meaning of the Arabic word for ‘student’ means ‘seeker’, and that attitude of ‘seeking the face of God’, along with the indescribability of the face, will be presumed throughout our discussion. That's why we are struck with the clumsy term ‘unknowable’ rather than its more euphonious Greek form ‘agnostic’. For Western agnostics are such largely because they cannot find God sufficiently compelling, while they ‘would not have the impudence to claim to be atheists’ – as one contemporary seeker puts it. So theologians feel it necessary to enclose the term in quotation marks when discussing, say, Aquinas' ‘agnosticism’ regarding divinity. Yet a genuine unknowing does lie at the heart of the inquiry of the Jew, Christian or Muslim seeking after God; indeed, it is the unknowing which distinguishes a search for God from lusting after idols. So let us follow al-Ghazali in an effort to discover the lineaments of both search and seeker after an unknowable God

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David Burrell
University of Notre Dame

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