The Arabic word Allah is most likely derived from the article al- (the) and ilah (god), thus referring to the almighty God. Allah is the creator of the universe who has complete authority over all that exists. Other titles for the Divine Being used in the Qur’an include Rabb (Sustainer and Cherisher) and Ilah (God). Despite the close association of the word Allah with Islam, it is not exclusive to the Muslims; the word Allah was in use among the Arabs long before the revelation of the Qur’an, and continues to be used today by the Arab Christians and some other non-Muslim cultures.
Being the sole creator and master of the universe, Allah is the only Deity worthy of worship and unconditional obedience. While Allah has given humanity the choice whether to obey Him or not in this life, other creations and objects such as the animals, plants, mountains, oceans, and planets, are all in submission to the will of Allah. Allah is thus the sole master of the heavens and the earth, and He alone sustains all creation. Allah has no associate – no parents or children or predecessor or successor. His attributes are perfect, and He is free of animal needs. He sustains all, and needs none to support Him. He is the Supreme Being, accountable to none. He has no beginning and no end; He has always been, and always will be.
According to Islam, Allah is present “above the heavens” – with His Throne (which may be thought of symbolically or as a physical object) encompassing all that exists. The physical nature of Allah is beyond human perception – and hence indescribable. However, to give us an indication of His unique physical nature, Allah has likened Himself to a beautifully glowing light that could illuminate the universe:
“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things.” (Qur’an 24:35)
Since no human eye has seen Allah, the Qur’an urges people to seek their Lord through His attributes, which have been detailed in the Qur’an. These attributes are also referred to as the names of Allah. The most celebrated name of Allah in the Qur’an is al-Rahman – rendered commonly as the Beneficent, the Gracious. Another oft-repeated divine attribute is al-Raheem, meaning the Merciful. Indeed, there are several names of Allah that signify His mercy and willingness to forgive others for their sins and wrongdoings. While anyone may be merciful, Allah exceeds everyone in His mercy, for which reason, al-Raheem is sometimes translated as the Most Merciful or the Ever Merciful.
Allah is al-Khaaliq – the Supreme Creator. Yet, His manner of creation is unlike that of any other. He is also al-Baari – the one who evolves things and completes His perfect order in stages. Allah is al-Musawwir – the shaper of beauty, and the one who fashions His creation in the most intricate design. His creativity is evident all around us and, as the Qur’an points out, within our own selves too.
Although Allah cannot be seen in this life, He is very close to us and knows our inner thoughts, desires, intentions, and even fantasies. Allah reveals in the Qur’an that He is closer to a human than his or her “jugular vein” (Qur’an 50:16). He is al-Wali – the Friend of those are righteous and devoted to Him; He is al-Wadud – the Loving; and Al-Salaam – the Peace. He responds to His servants when they sincerely call out to Him, provides for them, and helps them find their way in life.
Many of Allah’s attributes signify His exalted status: His majesty, sovereignty, unmatched power, and absolute control over everything. Yet, Allah allows things to proceed the way they do in this world, choosing only to help His servants through subtle means and without making His intervention obvious, and guiding them through His revealed messages. On the Day of Judgement, however, His presence shall be witnessed by all: He shall impart justice on every soul, and shall even be seen by those who serve Him well in this world.
Some of Allah’s attributes may seem contradictory at first glance: for example, He has been described in the Qur’an as both the Granter of honour and Humiliator. This is because while some of His attributes are universal and unconfined, others are more restricted to circumstance. He has universally granted honour to humanity by making us “of the best stature” (Qur’an 95:4); however, those who deny God, associate others with Him, or work corruption, invite His humiliation in the afterlife. This explains how He grants honour and humiliates at the same time. Similarly, Allah’s attributes of being the Avenger and the One who subdues are limited to certain circumstances, whereas, His attributes of being the Forgiving, Merciful, Compassionate, and Relenting, are universal and all-encompassing, as also evidenced by the following words of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ:
“When Allah completed the creation, He wrote in His Book which is with Him on His Throne, ‘Verily, My mercy overpowers My anger.’” (Reported in Bukhari)
There are other universal attributes of Allah that may seem contrasting at first, but exist simultaneously. For example, the Qur’an describes Him as being both al-Zaahir (the Manifest) and al-Baatin (the Hidden). Allah is Hidden because He is not physically visible to His creation; yet, His nature is Manifest through His perfect design, unparalleled creation, and His revelations to the messengers throughout the passage of time.
According to the Qur’an, Allah has a one-to-one relation with each human being; He does not need us to go through any intercessor or facilitator to approach Him. One can simply communicate with Him anytime by remembering Him in one’s heart, and calling out to Him with earnestness. Hence, no religious authority or angel or departed soul is needed to get through to God or to seek atonement for any sin; in fact, a recurring theme of the Qur’an is to denounce, in strictest terms, the attitude of the pagan Arabs who used to call on idols to intercede for them with Allah. The Qur’an thus prescribes direct and meaningful communication with Allah, enabling the supplicant to admit his or her shortcomings and express one’s wishes whole-heartedly, in a manner the supplicant finds most appropriate.
“He is Allah, other than whom there is no deity, Knower of the unseen and the witnessed. He is the Beneficent, the Merciful. He is Allah, other than whom there is no deity, the Sovereign, the Pure, the Peace, the Inspirer of Faith, the Guardian, the Exalted in Might, the Compeller, the Superior. Exalted is Allah above whatever they associate with Him. He is Allah, the Creator, the Inventor, the Fashioner; to Him belong the best names. Whatever is in the heavens and earth is exalting Him. And He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.” (Qur’an 59:22-24)