“Where is Allah?”

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The issue of “Where is Allah?”

This is something that was never debated or made a matter of dispute among the Muslims throughout the ages and eras. Unfortunately, due to immense ignorance about our deen, certain Muslims spend and waste their precious time arguing about petty and trivial issues and forget about their real duties and responsibilities.

What is obligatory for a human being to know is that Allah is ghaniyy or “absolutely free from need” of anything He has created. He explicitly says in surat al-Ankabut of the Qur’an

“Verily Allah is absolutely free of need of anything in the worlds” (Qur’an 29:6).

The Heads Of Salafs

Imam Ahmad Ibn Salamah, Abu Ja^far at-Tahawiyy, who was born in the year 237 after Hijrah, and was one of the Heads of Great Salaf wrote a book called Al-^Aqidah at-Tahawiyyah. He mentioned that the content of his book is an elucidation of the creed of Ahl as-Sunnah wal Jama^ah, which is the creed of Imam Abu Hanifah, who died in the year 150 after al-Hijrah, and his two companions, Imam Abu Yusuf al-Qadi and Imam Muhammad Ibn al-Hasan ash-Shaybaniyy and others.

He said in his book:

“Allah is supremely clear of all boundaries, extremes, sides, organs and instruments. The six directions do not contain Him–these are attributed to all created things.

Such is the saying of Imam Abu Ja^far who is among the heads of as-Salaf. He explicitly stated that Allah is clear of being contained by the six directions. The six directions are above, below, in front of, behind, right, and left.


– Allah has attributes that do not resemble the attributes of others (Surat an Nahl Verse 60)

Do not attribute to Allah the attributes of his creation (Surat an Nahl Verse 74)

Do you know anything which is similar to Him? There is none (Surat Maryam Verse 65)

Nothing is like the likeness of Allah in any way and He is attributed with Hearing and Seeing (Surat ash Shura verse 11)

There is nothing which is equal to Him (Surat al Ikhlas verse 4)

Sayings of the Salaf -Where is Allah

The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him) said: < (adh-Dhahir is a name of Allah which means that His Existence is definite and further confirmed by proofs and logic) and there is nothing above You, and You are al-Batin (al-Batin is a name of Allah which means that the reality of Allah is not conceivable in the mind) and there is nothing beneath You>>.

In the book al-Asma’ was-Sifat’ (The Names and Attributes of Allah) the Imam and Hafidh, Ahmad Ibn al-Husayn al-Bayhaqiyy (died 458 AH) said: “Some of our companions used the saying of the Prophet: <> as evidence to refute the allocation of the concept of place to Allah, they concluded that since there is nothing above Him and nothing beneath Him, therefore, He exists without a place”.

The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him) also said: <>.

In the book “al-I^tiqad” (The Creed) Imam al-Bayhaqiyy said when elucidating the meaning of this Hadith: “This indicates that eternally nothing existed other than Allah; no water, no ^Arsh (The Throne) and no other creation, they are all classified as other than Allah”

Scholars of the 1st Century

Imam ^Aliyy Ibn Abi Talib (died 40 AH), may Allah raise his rank, the eminent and renowned companion and one of the most distinguished in teaching Tawhid (Islamic Creed) said: “Allah is eternally existent and place is not, and He still exists as He eternally was (i.e. without a place)”. Narrated by Abu Mansur al-Baghdadiyy in his book ‘al-Farqu baynal-Firaq’.

In the book ‘as-Sahifah as-Sajjadiyyah’ Imam Zaynul-^Abidin ^Aliyy Ibnul-Hussayn (died 94 AH), may Allah raise his rank, a great successor of the companions (Tabi^iyy) said: “You are Allah, the One who is not confined to place”.

Imam Ja^far as-Sadiq (died 148 AH), may Allah raise his rank, said: “He who claims that Allah is in anything or on anything or from anything commits shirk (type of blasphemy). Because, had He been on anything, He would have been carried, had He been in anything, He would have been contained, and had He been from anything, He would have been a creation”. Narrated by Imam al- Qushayriyy in his book ‘ar-Risalah’.

In the book ‘Al-Fiqh al-‘Absat’ the great Imam and Mujtahid Abu Hanifah an-Nu^man Ibn Thabit (died 150 AH), may Allah raise his rank, said: “Allah is eternally existent and eternally place did not exist. Allah eternally exists before creating the creation. Allah eternally exists and eternally there was no place or any other creation and He is the Creator of everything”

Scholars of the 2nd Century

The great Imam and Mujtahid Muhammad Ibn Idris Ash-Shafi^iyy (died 204 AH), may Allah raise his rank, said: “Allah, the Exalted is eternally existent and eternally place did not exist. Allah created the place while He is still attributed with Eternity as He was before creating the place. It is intellectually impossible for change to occur in His Self or for alteration to happen in His Attributes.” Related by Imam az-Zabidiyy in his book ‘Ithaf as-Sadatil-Muttaqin’.

“Imam Ahmad Ibn Hambal (died 241 AH) never attributed directionality to Allah.” Related by Imam Ibn Al-Jawziyy in his book ‘Daf^ Shubhatit-Tashbih’

Scholars of the 3rd Century

In the book ‘al-^Aqidah at-Tahawiyyah’ the great Faqih and Imam Abu Ja^far at-Tahawiyy (born 237 AH, died 321 AH), said: “Allah is utterly clear of all boundaries, extremes, sides, organs, and instruments. The six directions do not contain Him, as they contain all created things”.

In the book ‘Sahih Ibn Hibban’ Al-Hafidh Muhammad Ibn Hibban (died 354 AH) said: “Allah is eternally existent and eternally no time or place did exist”.

Scholars of the 4th Century

In the book ‘Mushkilul-Hadith’ Imam Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn al-Hussayn, also known as Ibn Furak (died 406 AH) said: “It is intellectually impossible for Allah, the Exalted, to occupy places, by reason of the impossibility of limits and ends applying to Him, which is in turn due to the impossibility that Allah is created”.

In thes book ‘Al-‘Isharah ila madhhab ahlil-Haqq’ (the guide to the methodology of the people of truth) imam and Faqih Abu Ishaq ash-Shiraziyy (died 476 AH), a great Shafi^iyy scholar said: “Allah is eternally existent and eternally place did not exist. Allah created the place, and He is still existent as He eternally was (i.e. without a place)”.

Scholars of the 5th Century

In the book ‘Qawa^idul-^Aqa’id’ Shaykh Abu Hamid Muhammad Ibn Muhammad al-Ghazaliyy (died 505 AH), a great Shafi^iyy scholar said: Allah The Exalted is clear from containment by the place, and is clear from restriction by time. Rather, He is eternally existent before creating time and place, and He is still existent as He eternally was (i.e. without a place)”.

In the book ‘al-Qabas fi sharh Muwatta’ Malik Ibn Anas’ al-Qadi (The Judge) Abu Bakr Ibn al- ^Arabiyy (died 543 AH), a great Malikiyy scholar from Andalusia (presently known as Spain) said: “Allah, Who is ‘Al-Bari’ (The Creator) is clear from the limitation of the six directions or the envelopment of places”.

Scholars of the 6th Century

In the book authored on interpreting the Qur’an known as ‘At-Tafsirul- Kabir’ Imam Fakhr ar-Raziyy (died 606 AH), said: “Regarding the Ayah { وهو العلي العظيم } it is impossible for the meaning of the word ‘^Aliyy’, when attributed to Allah, to refer to aboveness in terms of an upward direction or place, as evidence confirms the fallacy therein. Hence, this mandates that the meaning of the word ‘^Aliyy’ is that Allah is clear of resembling all intellectual possibilities and of any similarity to the creation”.

In the book ‘Mulhatul-I^tiqad’ Shaykh ^Izzud-Din Ibn ^Abdis-Salam (died 660 AH), in reference to Allah said: “Allah is not a body and thus Has no form, He is not an entity and thus Has no measured limits. He does not resemble anything and nothing resembles Him. The six directions do not surround Him, nor do the earths and skies enclose Him. He is eternally existent before creating the creations. He created time, and He still exists as He eternally was (i.e. without a place)”.

 Scholars of the 7th Century

In the book, Idahud-Dalil’ Al-Qadi Badrud-Din Muhammad ibn Ibrahim known as Ibn Jama^ah ash- Shafi^iyy (died 733 AH) said: “Allah is eternally existent and eternally no time or place did exist. He still exists as He eternally was (i.e. without the need for place or time)”.

In the book ‘al-Bahrul-Muhit’ explaining verse 19 of Surat al-Anbiya’ the great linguist and interpreter and reciter of the Holy Qur’an, Muhammad Ibn Yusuf known as Abu Hayan al- Andalusiyy (died 745 AH) said: “The word ‘^inda’ in this Ayah does not have the function of an adverb of place because Allah is clear of occupying places. Rather, it is used in the context of honourable status and high standing”.

 Scholars of the 8th Century

In the book ‘Tarhut-Tathrib fi Sharhit-Taqrib’ when explaining the saying of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam: in reference to the Book positioned above the Throne which has the >>فهو عنده فوق العرش<< following words: ‘Inna Rahmati sabaqat Ghadabi’, which means that the matters Allah approves of, far exceed in number those He does not, the Hafidh and Muhaddith Waliyyud-Din Abu Zur^ah Ahmad Ibn ^Abdir-Rahim al-^Iraqiyy (died 826 AH) said: “Allah is clear from the acts of sitting, occupying space and directionality. Therefore, the word ‘^inda’ in the aforementioned context does not infer place, rather, it infers honourable status. Consequently, the true meaning of the Prophet‟s saying is that this book is positioned in a place Allah awarded high status and honour”.

In the book ‘Fathul-Bari’ the great Hafidh Ibn Hajr al-^Asqalaniyy, the well-known Shafi^iyy scholar (died 852 AH) said: “Although it is impossible for the upward and downward directions to apply to Allah, it does not entail He cannot be attributed with ‘Al-^Uluww’ (Aboveness in a metaphorical sense). This is so because attributing Him with ‘Al-^Uluww’ (Aboveness) is from the point of status, which is impossibly applicable in a physical sense when in reference to Allah. Hence, it has been related that among the names of Allah are Al-^Ali, Al-^Aliyy, and Al-Muta^ali”.

Scholars of the 9th Century

In the book ‘Al-‘Iklil fis-tinbatit-Tanzil’ Al-Hafidh Jalalud-Din ^Abdur-Rahman ibn Abi Bakr As- Suyutiyy Ashafi^iyy (died 911 AH) said: “The Ayah: {ليس شىء كمثله} holds within it a refutation to the creed of the Mushabbihah (those who liken Allah to the creation) and a confirmation that He (Allah) is not a mass, a body, a colour, a taste, and that He does not occupy a space or conform to time”.

In the book ‘Irshad as-Sari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhariyy’ Shaykh Abul-^Abbas Shihabud-Din Ahmad Ibn Muhammad al-Qastalaniyy al-Misriyy (died 923 AH) said: “The Self of Allah is clear from the notions of place and direction”.

 Scholars of the 10th Century

In the book ‘Ar-Rawdul-‘Azhar fi Sharhil-Fiqhil-Akbar’ Shaykh Mulla ^Aliyy al-Qari (died 1014 AH), the well-known Hanafiyy scholar said: “The ‘^Uluww’ of Allah over His creation embedded in the meaning of verse 61 of Surat al-‘An^am is indeed an aboveness in status and domination, as mandated by Ahlus-Sunnah wal Jama^ah and not a physical aboveness”.

In the book ‘Al-Futuhat Ar-Rabbaniyyah’ Al-Muhaddith ash-Shaykh Muhammad Ibn ^Aliyy known as Ibn ^Allan as-Siddiqiyy ash-Shafi^iyy (died 1057 AH) said: “Indeed Allah is above His creation in status and domination, and not in place and direction”.

 Scholars of the 11th Century

In his elucidation to the book ‘Muwatta’ of Imam Malik’ Shaykh Muhammad ibn ^Abdil-Baqi az- Zarqaniyy (died 1122 AH), a well-known Malikiyy scholar said: “Imam al-Baydawiyy said:

In the well-known poem called ‘Kifayat al-Ghulam’ Shaykh ^Abdul-Ghaniyy an-Nabulusiyy (died 1143 AH), a great Sufi Hanafiyy scholar from Damascus, Syria said: “Contained not He (Allah) is by place, certainly not, nor His reality can be grasped by the minds, He is in status above all the creations and is clear of all their characteristics”.

 Scholars of the 12th Century 

In the well-known poem called ‘al-Kharidah al-Bahiyyah’ relating to the attributes of Allah the great Malikiyy Scholar, Shaykh Abul-Barakat Ahmad ibn Muhammad ad-Dardir (died 1201 AH) from Egypt said: “Allah is clear from occupancy, directionality, attachment, detachment and recklessness”.

In the book ‘Sharhul-^Aqidah at-Tahawiyyah’ (The explanation of at-Tahawiyyah) Shaykh ^Abdul- Ghaniyy al-Ghunaymiyy al-Maydaniyy (died 1298 AH), a great Hanafiyy scholar from Damascus, Syria said: “Allah, the Exalted, is not a body, therefore to see Allah is different than to see the created bodies. Any seeing must be in accordance with the attributes of what is seen. Therefore, the creation which is in a certain place and direction cannot be seen except in that place and direction as part of its attributes. Furthermore, seeing a creation involves reciprocal proximity, connective optical beams and a set distance. However, seeing Allah, the One Who does not exist in a place or a direction and is not a bodily entity is just as well, without Him existing in a place or in a set direction”.

 Scholars of the 13th Century

In the book ‘Ta’iyyat as-Suluk’ Shaykh ^Abdul-Majid ash-Sharnubiyy al-‘Azhariyy (died 1348 AH) said: “Allah, the Exalted is not subject to time limitations nor is carried over a certain place. In reality, He is eternally existent and eternally no place or time did exist, and now He exists as He eternally was (i.e. without being subject to place and time)”.

In the book ‘Furqan al-Qur’an’ Shaykh Salamah al-Quda^iyy al-^Azzamiyy (died 1376 AH), a great Shafi^iyy scholar said: “The truthful righteous Salaf (Scholars who lived in the first three centuries after the Prophetic Migration) and Khalaf (Scholars who lived after Salaf) unanimously agree to clear al-Haqq (a name of Allah which means: The One Whose Existence is beyond doubt) the Exalted, from existing in any direction or place”.

Scholars of the 14th Century

In the book ‘al-Ayat al-Muhkamat’ Shaykh Muhammad ibn Ahmad known as ad-Dah ash- Shanqitiyy (died 1404 AH), former Imam of al-Khatmiyyah Mosque in Sudan said: “The scholars of Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jama^ah have all unanimously agreed that Allah does not need anything and that everything is in need of Him. He exists deservedly without the need to an allocator or place. He created time and place, and He still exists as He eternally was”.

In the book ‘Idhhar al-^Aqidah as-Sunniyyah’ (The Elucidation of the Sunniyy Creed) Shaykh and Muhaddith ^Abdullah al-Harariyy (died 1429 AH) known as al-Habashiyy said: “The righteous people of knowledge have stated that Allah is not firmly affixed in any place meaning that it is intellectually impossible for Allah to become in contact with a particular place and rest over it”

Scholars of Qur’anic Explanation and its related sciences

In the book ‘Al-Jami^ li‘ahkam al-Qur’an’ Shaykh Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-‘Ansariyy al-Qurtubiyy (died 671 AH), a well-known Malikiyy scholar and explainer of the Holy Qur’an said: “The name of Allah ‘Al-^Aliyy’ refers to His greatness in status, and does not refer to an elevated place because Allah is clear of occupying space”.

In his explanation, Shaykh ^Abdullah ibn Ahmad an-Nasafiyy (died 701 AH), also a renowned interpreter of the Holy Qur’an said: “He (Allah) is eternally existent and eternally place did not exist, and He still exists as He was before creating place, He did not change”.

Scholars of Hadith and its related sciences

In the book ‘Daf^ Shubahit-Tashbih’ Hafidh ^Abdur-Rahman ibn ^Aliyy known as Ibn al-Jawziyy (died 597 AH), a great Hambaliyy scholar said: “It is obligatory upon us to firmly believe that the Self of Allah is not confined to place nor attributed with change or moving”.

In the book ‘Al-Maqasidul-Hasanah’ Hafidh Muhammad ibn ^Abdir-Rahman as-Sakhawiyy (died 902 AH) said: “Our Shaykh (meaning Ibn Hajar al-^Asqalaniyy) said: “The Knowledge of Allah encompasses all things, and Allah The Exalted is clear of occupying places, for He is eternally existent before places were brought into existence”.

Scholars of Islamic Jurisprudence according to the Hanafi School

In the book ‘Ithafus-Sadatil al-Muttaqin’ the great Hafidh, Faqih and well-known linguist, Muhammad Murtada az-Zabidiyy (died 1205 AH) of the Hanafiyy School said: “Allah, the Exalted, is clear of changing from one state to another, moving from place to place and physical attachment and detachment, for they all are attributes of the creations”.

In praising the Prophet peace be upon him Shaykh and Faqih Muhammad ‘Amin ibn ^Umar known as Ibn ^Abidin (died 1252 AH), the famous Hanafiyy scholar from Damascus – the author of the well-known commentary – said: “And Muhammad (peace be upon him) was awarded ‘al-qurb’ (greater status) by ar-Rahman (Allah), not ‘al-qurb’ that refers to closeness in distance or place”.

Scholars of Islamic Jurisprudence according to the Maliki School

In the book ‘Al-Insaf fima yajibu^-tiqaduhu wa la yajuzul-jahlu bihi’ (the just ruling regarding what one is obligated to believe in and cannot be ignorant of) Al-Qadi (Judge) Abu Bakr al-Baqillaniyy, a renowned Malikiyy scholar (died 403 AH) said: “We do not state that the Grand ^Arsh (Throne) is a residence or a location for Allah, due to the fact that Allah, the Exalted, is eternally existent and place is not, hence when place was brought into existence by His Creating He did not change”.

In the book, Al-Ajwibah al-Fakhirah’ Shaykh Ahmad Ibn Idris al-Qarafiyy (died 684 AH), an Egyptian Malikiyy scholar said: “And He (Allah) is not in any direction, and when we are admitted to Paradise Allah will grant us the honour of seeing Him without Him being in any direction”.

Scholars of Islamic Jurisprudence according to the Shafi School

In the book ‘Ash-Shamil fi ‘Usulid-Din’ Shaykh Abul-Ma^ali ^Abdul-Malik al-Juwayniyy (died 478 AH), a great Shafi^iyy scholar known as Imam al-Haramayn said: “Know that the creed of the righteous people is that the Almighty Lord is clear of engaging a space as He is clear of pertaining to any direction”.

In his explanation of ‘Sahih Muslim’ Hafidh Abu Zakariyya Muhyid-Din Yahya Ibn Sharaf an- Nawawiyy ash-Shafi^iyy (died 676 AH) said: “Verily Allah, the Exalted, does not resemble any of the creations and is clear of bodily concepts, moving, occupying any direction and of all the creation‟s characteristics”.

Scholars of Islamic Jurisprudence according to the Hambali School

Shaykh Abul-Wafa’ ^Aliyy Ibn ^Aqil al-Baghdadiyy (died 513 AH), the head of the Hambaliyy School at the time, was quoted in a book called ‘Al-Bazul-Ashhab’: “Allah is clear of having the attribute of occupying places, for this is exactly the blasphemous belief of tajsim (attributing Allah with bodily concepts)”.

In the book ‘Mukhtasar al-Ifadat’ Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Badrid-Din Ibn Balban (died 1083 AH), a Damascan Hambaliyy scholar said: “Whosoever believes or says that Allah exists in all places or in one particular place is certainly a non-believer (kafir). It is obligatory to believe that Allah, the Exalted, does not resemble His creation, for Allah’s Existence is eternal and the existence of place is not. Allah created the place, and He still exists as He eternally did before place was created”.

Scholars of the Arabic Language

In the book ‘Lisan al-^Arab’ the African Egyptian scholar and linguist, Muhammad Ibn Mukarram known as Ibn Mandhur (died 711 AH) said: “The meaning of the Qurb of the slave to Allah‟ refers to the acquisition of a higher rank due to the slave‟s engagement in performing good deeds and frequently mentioning designated statements of praise to Allah. Undoubtedly, the Qurb of the slave to Allah‟ does not refer to physical closeness to Allah neither in distance nor in location, since physical closeness is among the characteristics of objects and Allah is verily clear of that”.

In the book ‘Basa’ir dhawit-Tamyiz’ The linguistic scholar Majdud-Din Muhammad Ibn Ya^qub al- Fayruz Abadi (died 817 AH) said: “The Qurb of Allah’ to His slave‟ refers to the endowments of Allah bestowed upon the pious slave and does not refer to closeness in distance”.

Scholars of Islamic History and Biographies of Muslim Scholars

In the book ‘Tabyinu kadhibil-Muftari’, Hafidh Abul-Qasim ^Aliyy ibn al-Husayn ibn Hibatillah known as Ibn ^Asakir ad-Dimashqiyy (died 571 AH) on the subject of the Attributes of Allah, the Exalted, said: “He (Allah) is eternally existent and eternally place did not exist, He created the ^Arsh and Kursiyy without the need for place. He still exists, after place was brought into existence, as He was before creating the place (i.e. without a place)”.

In the book ‘Tarikhul-‘Umam wal-Muluk’ (The History of Nations and their Kings), Imam, Hafidh and Mujtahid Abu Ja^far Muhammad Ibn Jarir at-Tabariyy (died 310 AH) said on the subject of the Attributes of Allah said: “Delusions cannot grasp the Reality of Allah, places do not contain Him, sights do not attain Him, rather He knows about them all. Verily He is The One Whose Reality cannot be grasped by delusions and Whose Knowledge encompasses all”.

Scholars who authored books on the subject of various sects

In chapter 15 of his book ‘At-Tabsir fid-Din’ (The Guide to the Religion) for the purpose of elucidating the creed of Ahlussunnah wal-Jama^ah, the Faqih and well-known scholar of Tawhid Abul-Mudhaffar al-‘Asfarayiniyy (died 471 AH) said: “The slave must know that anything which dictates creationism such as limits, extremes, place, direction, stillness and movement is impossible to apply to Allah, the One clear of all the creations‟ attributes”.

In the book ‘Nihayat al-‘Iqdam’, Shaykh Muhammad ibn ^Abdil-Karim ash-Shahrastaniyy, a great Shafi^iyy scholar (died 548 AH) said: “The creed of the People of Truth is that Allah, the Exalted, does not resemble any of the creations, and none of them resembles Him in any sort of similarity or equivalence. Verse 11 of Surat ash-Shura means: [There is absolutely nothing that resembles Allah, and He is attributed with Hearing and Sight]. Hence Allah is not a constituent part of an object, a mass, a bodily characteristic, nor is He located in any place or subject to time”.

The True Sufi Scholars

In the book ‘At-Ta^rruf li-Madhhab Ahlit-Tasawwuf’ (The Guidance to the methodology of the true sufis), Shaykh Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Kalabadhiyy, a Hanafiyy scholar (died 380 AH), said: “The sufi scholars unanimously agree that Allah is not contained by place nor is He subject to time”.

In the book ‘Al-Burhan al-Mu’ayyad’ (The Substantiated Proof), the prominent Shaykh and Imam of true sufis, Shaykh Ahmad Ar-Rifa^iyy ash-Shafi^iyy (died 578 AH) said: “Clear your beliefs from interpreting the Arabic term, “Istiwa‟‟, when in reference to Allah, as physical establishment in a way similar to the „istiwa‟‟ of bodies upon other bodies which dictates the act of occupation because Allah is clear of that. And do not sanction attributing to Allah a directional above or below, a location, a physical hand or an eye or interpreting the word ‘Nuzul’ as physically descending or moving”.

Dhu-n-Nūn Al-Misriy rahmatullahi alayh was asked about the saying of Allāh: Al-Rahmān ‘alā Al-‘Arsh istawā He answered: “He affirmed His existence, and denied that He has a place. So He Himself exists independently, while other things exist by His Wisdom as He Wills.”

What is istawā?

Abu Mansūr Al-Baghdādīy said in his book Usūlu-d-Dīn, in summary: “Our colleagues differed regarding this āyah. Some said that it is among the āyahs that are Mutashābihāt and its meaning is not known by other than Allāh, and this is the saying of Mālik. Others said that istawā is something that Allāh did to the ‘Arsh that He called istawā, and this is the saying of Abu-l-Hasan Al-Ash’arīy. Others again said that istawa means that He is attributed with aboveness over the `Arsh without contact (i.e. in status, not physical aboveness.) The correct saying in our view, is that Al-‘Arsh in this Āyah means the Dominion and istawā is its action, meaning that the Dominion did not settle in equilibrium for anyone but Him.”

In case anyone is wondering who Abū Mansūr is, Al-Dhahabīy described him in his book Sīyar A’lām Al-Nubalā’ as: “the great, outstanding, and encyclopedic scholar…. He used to teach 17 different subjects and his brilliance became the source for proverbs.” Al-Dhahabīy said further that he would have liked to write a separate, more complete article about him, and quoted Abū ‘Uthmān Al-Sābūnīy saying: “Abū Mansūr is by scholarly consensus counted among the heads of the scholars of belief and the methodology of jurisprudence, as well as a front figure of Islām.”

Is ALLAH In the sky?

Allah mentions this attribute of ghina or “freedom of need for anything whatsoever” in some seventeen verses in the Qur’an. It is a central point of Islamic `aqida or faith, and is the reason why it is impossible that Allah could be Jesus (upon whom be peace) or be anyone else with a body and form: because bodies need space and time, while Allah has absolutely no need for anything.

This is the `aqida of the Qur’an, and Muslim scholars have kept it in view in understanding other Qur’anic verses or hadiths. 

Muslims lift their hands toward the sky when they make supplications (du’a) to Allah because the sky is the qibla for du’a, not that Allah occupies that particular direction–just as the Kaaba is the qibla of the prayer (salat), without Muslims believing that Allah is in that direction. Rather, Allah in His wisdom has made the qibla a sign (ayah) of Muslim unity, just as He has made the sky the sign of His exaltedness and His infinitude, meanings which come to the heart of every believer merely by facing the sky and supplicating Allah. 

It was part of the divine wisdom to incorporate these meanings into the prophetic sunna to uplift the hearts of the people who first heard them, and to direct them to the exaltedness and infinitude of Allah through the greatest and most palpable physical sign of them: the visible sky that Allah had raised above them.

Many of them, especially when newly from the Jahiliyya or “pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance”, were extremely close to physical, perceptible realities and had little conception of anything besides–as is attested to by their idols, which were images set up on the ground. Umar ibn al-Khattab mentions, for example, that in the Jahiliyya, they might make their idols out of dates, and if they later grew hungry, they would simply eat them.

The language of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) in conveying the exaltedness of Allah Most High to such people was of course in terms they could understand without difficulty, and used the imagery of the sky above them. Imam al-Qurtubi, the famous Qur’anic exegete of the seventh/thirteenth century, says: 

The hadiths on this subject are numerous, rigorously authenticated (sahih), and widely known, and indicate the exaltedness of Allah, being undeniable by anyone except an atheist or obstinate ignoramus.

Their meaning is to dignify Allah and exalt Him above all that is base and low, to characterize Him by exaltedness and greatness, not by being in places, particular directions, or within limits, for these are the qualities of physical bodies (al-Jami li ahkam al-Qur’an. 20 vols. Cairo 1387/1967. Reprint (20 vols in 10). Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d.,18.216). 

In this connection, a hadith has been related by Malik in his Muwatta’ and by Muslim in his Sahih, that Muawiya ibn al-Hakam came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and told him, “I am very newly from the Jahiliyya, and now Allah has brought Islam,” and he proceeded to ask about various Jahiliyya practices, until at last he said that he had slapped his slave girl, and asked if he should free her, as was obligatory if she was a believer. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) requested that she be brought, and then asked her, “Where is Allah?” and she said, “In the sky (Fi al-sama)”; whereupon he asked her, “Who am I?” and she said, “You are the Messenger of Allah”; at which he said, Free her, “for she is a believer” (Sahih Muslim, 5 vols. Cairo 1376/1956. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1403/1983, 1.382: 538). Imam Nawawi says of this hadith: 

This is one of the “hadiths of the attributes,” about which scholars have two positions. The first is to have faith in it without discussing its meaning, while believing of Allah Most High that “there is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11), and that He is exalted above having any of the attributes of His creatures. The second is to figuratively explain it in a fitting way, scholars who hold this position adducing that the point of the hadith was to test the slave girl: Was she a monotheist, who affirmed that the Creator, the Disposer, the Doer, is Allah alone and that He is the one called upon when a person making supplication (du’a) faces the sky–just as those performing the prayer (salat) face the Kaaba, since the sky is the qibla of those who supplicate, as the Kaaba is the qibla of those who perform the prayer–or was she a worshipper of the idols which they placed in front of themselves? So when she said, In the sky, it was plain that she was not an idol worshipper (Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi. 18 vols. Cairo 1349/1930. Reprint (18 vols. in 9). Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1401/1981, 5.24). 

It is noteworthy that Imam Nawawi does not mention understanding the hadith literally as a possible scholarly position at all.

This occasions surprise today among some Muslims, who imagine that what is at stake is the principle of accepting a single rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadith as evidence in Islamic faith (`aqida), for this hadith is such a single hadith, of those termed in Arabic ahad, or “conveyed by a single chain of transmission”, as opposed to being mutawatir or “conveyed by so many chains of transmission that it is impossible it could have been forged”. 

Yet this is not what is at stake, because hadiths of its type are only considered acceptable as evidence by traditional scholars of Islamic `aqida if one condition can be met: that the tenet of faith mentioned in the hadith is salimun min al-muarada or “free of conflicting evidence”. This condition is not met by this particular hadith for a number of reasons:

First, the story described in the hadith has come to us in a number of other well-authenticated versions that vary a great deal from the “Where is Allah?–In the sky” version. One of these is related by Ibn Hibban in his Sahih with a well-authenticated (hasan) chain of transmission, in which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) asked the slave girl, “‘Who is your Lord?’ and she said, ‘Allah’; whereupon he asked her, ‘Who am I?’ and she said, ‘You are the Messenger of Allah’; at which he said, ‘Free her, for she is a believer'” (al-Ihsan fi taqrib Sahih Ibn Hibban, 18 vols. Beirut: Muassasa al-Risala, 1408/1988, 1.419: 189). 

In another version, related by Abd al-Razzaq with a rigorously authenticated (sahih) chain of transmission, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said to her, “Do you testify that there is no god but Allah?” and she said yes. He said, “Do you testify that I am the Messenger of Allah?” and she said yes. He said, “Do you believe in resurrection after death?” and she said yes. He said, “Free her” (al-Musannaf, 11 vols. Beirut: al-Majlis al-Ilmi, 1390/1970, 9.175: 16814). 

In other versions, the slave girl cannot speak, but merely points to the sky in answer. Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani has said of the various versions of this hadith, “There is great contradiction in the wording” (Talkhis al-habir, 4 vols. in 2. Cairo: Maktaba al-Kulliyat al-Azhariyya, 1399/1979, 3.250).

When a hadith has numerous conflicting versions, there is a strong possibility that it has been related merely in terms of what one or more narrators understood (riwaya bi al-ma’na), and hence one of the versions is not adequate to establish a point of `aqida. 

Second, this latter consideration is especially applicable to the point in question because the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) explicitly detailed the pillars of Islamic faith (iman) in a hadith related in Sahih Muslim when he answered the questions of the angel Gabriel, saying, True faith (iman) is to believe in Allah, His angels, His Books, His messengers, the Last Day, and to believe destiny (qadr), its good and evil (Sahih Muslim, 1.37: 8)–and he did not mention anything about Allah being “in the sky”. If it had been the decisive test of a Muslims belief or unbelief (as in the “in the sky” hadith seems to imply), it would have been obligatory for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to mention it in this hadith, the whole point of which is to say precisely what “iman is”. 

Third, if one takes the hadith as meaning that Allah is literally “in the sky”, it conflicts with other equally sahih hadiths that have presumably equal right to be taken literally–such as the hadith qudsi related by al-Hakim that Allah Most High says, “I am with My servant when he makes remembrance of Me and his lips move with Me” (al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn. 4 vols. Hyderabad, 1334/1916. Reprint (with index vol. 5). Beirut: Dar al-Marifa, n.d., 1.496), a hadith that al- Hakim said was rigorously authenticated (sahih), which al-Dhahabi confirmed. Or such as the hadith related by al-Nasai, Abu Dawud, and Muslim that “the closest a servant is to his Lord is while prostrating” (Sahih Muslim, 1.350: 482)–

Whereas if Allah were literally “in the sky”, the closest one would be to Him would be while standing upright. Or such as the hadith related by al-Bukhari in his Sahih, in which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) forbade spitting during prayer ahead of one, because when a person prays, “his Lord is in front of him” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 1.112: 406). Finally, in the hadiths of the Mir’aj or “Nocturnal Ascent”, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was shown all of the seven heavens (samawat) by Gabriel, and Allah was not mentioned as being in any of them??

Fourth, the literal interpretation of Allah being “in the sky” contradicts two fundamentals of Islamic `aqida established by the Qur’an.

The first of these is Allah’s attribute of mukhalafa li al- hawadith or “not resembling created things in any way”, as Allah says in surat al-Shura, “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11), whereas if He were literally “in the sky”, there would be innumerable things like unto Him in such respects as having altitude, position, direction, and so forth. The second fundamental that it contradicts, as mentioned above, is Allah’s attribute of ghina or “being absolutely free of need for anything created” that He affirms in numerous verses in the Qur’an. It is impossible that Allah could be a corporeal entity because bodies need space and time, while Allah has absolutely no need for anything. 

Fifth, the literalist interpretation of “in the sky” entails that the sky encompasses Allah on all sides, such that He would be smaller than it, and it would thus be greater than Allah, which is patently false. 

For these reasons and others, Islamic scholars have viewed it obligatory to figuratively interpret the above hadith and other texts containing similar figures of speech, in ways consonant with how the Arabic language is used. Consider the Qur’anic verse “Do you feel safe that He who is in the sky will not make the earth swallow you while it quakes(Qur’an 67:16), for which the following examples of traditional tafsir or “Qur’anic commentary” can be offered: 

(al-Qurtubi:) The more exacting scholars hold that it [“in the sky”] means, “Do you feel secure from Him who is over the sky”–just as Allah says, “Journey in the earth” (Qur’an 9:2), meaning journey over it–not over the sky by way of physical contact or spatialization, but by way of omnipotent power and control.

Another position is that it means “Do you feel secure from Him who is over (‘ala) the sky,” just as it is said, “So-and-so is over Iraq and the Hijaz”, meaning that he is the governor and commander of them (al-Jami li ahkam al-Qur’an, 18.216). 

(al-Shirbini al-Khatib:) There are various interpretive aspects to “He who is in the sky,” one of which is that it means “He whose dominion is in the sky,” because it is the dwelling place of the angels, and there are His Throne, His Kursi, the Guarded Tablet; and from it are made to descend His decrees, His Books, His commands, and His prohibitions. A second interpretive possibility is that “He who is in the sky” omits the first term of an ascriptive construction (idafa)–in other words, “Do you feel safe from the Creator of him who is in the sky”; meaning the angels who dwell in the sky, for they are the ones who are commanded to dispense the divine mercy or divine vengeance (al-Siraj al-Munir. 4 vols. Bulaq 1285/1886. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Marifa, n.d., 4.344). 

(Fakhr al-Din al-Razi:) “He who is in the sky” may mean the angel who is authorized to inflict divine punishments; that is, Gabriel (upon whom be peace); the words “cause the earth to swallow you” meaning “by Allah’s command and leave” (Tafsir al-Fakhr al-Razi. 32 vols. Beirut 1401/1981. Reprint (32 vols. in 16). Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1405/1985, 30.70). 

(Abu Hayyan al-Nahwi:) Or the context of these words may be according to the convictions of those being addressed [the unbelievers], for they were anthropomorphists. So that the meaning would be, “Do you feel safe from Him whom you claim is in the sky?–while He is exalted above all place” (Tafsir al-nahr al-madd min al-Bahr al-muhit. 2 vols. in 3. Beirut: Dar al-Janan and Muassasa al-Kutub al-Thaqafiyya, 1407/1987, 2.1132). 

(Qadi Iyad:) There is no disagreement among Muslims, one and all–their legal scholars, their hadith scholars, their scholars of theology, both those of them capable of expert scholarly reasoning and those who merely follow the scholarship of others–that the textual evidences that mention Allah Most High being “in the sky”, such as His words, “Do you feel safe that He who is in the sky will not make the earth swallow you,” and so forth, are not as their literal sense (dhahir) seems to imply, but rather, all scholars interpret them in other than their ostensive sense (Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi, 5.24). 

We now turn to a final example, the hadith related by Muslim that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: 

Your Lord Blessed and Exalted descends each night to the sky of this world, when the last third of the night remains, and says: “Who supplicates Me, that I may answer him? Who asks Me, that I may give to him? Who seeks My forgiveness, that I may forgive him?” (Sahih Muslim, 1.521: 758). 

This hadith, if we reflect for a moment, is not about `aqida, but rather has a quite practical point to establish; namely, that we are supposed to do something in the last third of the night, to rise and pray. This is why Imam al-Nawawi, when he gave the present chapter names to the headings of Sahih Muslim, put this hadith under “Instilling Desire to Supplicate and Make Remembrance of Allah (dhikr) in the Last of the Night, and the Answering Therein”. As for the meaning of “descends” in the hadith, al-Nawawi says: 

This is one of the “hadiths of the Attributes”, and there are two positions about it, as previously mentioned in the “Book of Iman”. To summarize, the first position, which is the school of the majority of early Muslims and some theologians, is that one should believe that the hadith is true in a way befitting Allah Most High, while the literal meaning of it as known to us and applicable to ourselves is not what is intended, without discussing the figurative meaning, though we believe that Allah is transcendently above all attributes of createdness, of change of position, of motion, and all other attributes of created things. 

The second position, the school of most theologians, of whole groups of the early Muslims (salaf), and reported from Malik and al-Awzai, is that such hadiths should be figuratively interpreted in a way appropriate to them in their contexts. According to this school of thought, they interpret the hadith in two ways. The first is the interpretation of Malik ibn Anas and others, that it [“your Lord descends”] means “His mercy, command, and angels descend,” just as it is said,  “The sultan did such-and-such,” when his followers did it at his command. The second is that it is a metaphor signifying [Allah’s] concern for those making supplication, by answering them and kindness toward them (Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi, 6.3637). 

The hadith scholar Ali al-Qari says about the above hadith of Allah’s “descending”: 

You know that Malik and al-Awazai, who are among the greatest of the early Muslims, both gave detailed figurative interpretations to the hadith. . . . Another of them was Jafar al-Sadiq. Indeed a whole group of them [the early Muslims], as well as later scholars, said that whoever believes Allah to be in a particular physical direction is an unbeliever, as al-Iraqi has explicitly stated, saying that this was the position of Abu Hanifa, Malik, al-Shafi’i, al-Ashari, and al- Baqillani (Mirqat al-mafatih: sharh Mishkat al-masabih. 5 vols. Cairo 1309/1892. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d., 2.137). 

It is worth remembering that al-Iraqi was a hafiz or “hadith master”, someone with over 100,000 hadiths by memory, while Ali al-Qari was a hadithauthority who produced reference works still in use today on forged hadiths. In other words, each had the highest credentials for verifying the chains of transmission of the positions they relate. For this reason, their transmission of the position of the unbelief of whoever ascribes a direction to Allah carries its weight. 

To summarize what I have said in answer to your question above, scholars take the primary texts of the Qur’an and sunna literally unless there is some cogent reason for them not to. In the case of Allah “descending” or being “in the sky”, there are many such reasons. First, a literal interpretation of these texts makes it impossible to join between them and the many other rigorously authenticated texts about Allah being “with” a servant when he does dhikr, “closer to him than the jugular vein” (Qur’an 50:16), “in front of him” when he prays, “closest” to him when he is prostrating, “in the sky” when a slave girl was asked; “with you wherever you are” (Qur’an 58:4), and so on. These are incoherent when taken together literally, and only become free of contradictions when they are understood figuratively, as Malik, al-Awzai, and al-

Nawawi have done above. Second, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) detailed the beliefs that every Muslim must have in the Gabriel Hadith in Sahih Muslim and others, and did not mention Allah being “in the sky” (or anywhere else) in any of them. Third, Allah’s being “in the sky” as birds, clouds, and so on are in the sky in a literal sense contradicts the `aqida of the Qur’an that there is “nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11). Fourth, the notion of Allah’s being in particular places contradicts the `aqida expressed in seventeen verses of the Qur’an that Allah is free of need of anything, while things that occupy places need both space and time. 

These reasons are not exhaustive, but are intended to answer your question by illustrating the `aqida and principles of traditional ulama in interpreting the kind of texts we are talking about.

They show just how far from traditional Islam is the belief that Allah is “in the sky” in a literal sense, and why it is not permissible for any Muslim to believe this. And Allah alone gives success. 

Allah’s Descending

Imam Ahmad was asked about the hadiths mentioning “Allah’s descending,” “seeing Allah,” and “placing His foot on hell”; and the like, and Ahmad replied: “We believe in them and consider them true, without ‘how’ and without ‘meaning’ (bi la kayfa wa la ma‘na).” 

And he said, when they asked him about Allah’s istiwa’ [translated above as established]: “He is ‘established’ upon the Throne (istawa ‘ala al-‘Arsh) however He wills and as He wills, without any limit or any description that be made by any describer (Daf‘ shubah al-tashbih, 28).

This demonstrates how far Imam Ahmad was from anthropomorphism, though a third example is even more explicit. The Imam and hadith master (hafiz) al-Bayhaqi relates in his Manaqib al-Imam Ahmad [The memorable actions of Imam Ahmad], through his chain of narrators that:

Ahmad condemned those who said Allah was a “body,” saying, “The names of things are taken from the Shari‘a and the Arabic language. The language’s possessors have used this word [body] for something that has height, breadth, thickness, construction, form, and composition, while Allah Most High is beyond all of that, and may not be termed a “body” because of being beyond any meaning of embodiedness. This has not been conveyed by the Shari‘a, and so is rebutted” (al-Barahin al-sati‘a, 164). 

These examples provide an accurate idea of Ahmad’s ‘Aqida, as conveyed to us by the hadith masters (huffaz) of the Umma, who have distinguished the true reports from the spurious attributions of the anthropomorphists’ opinions to their Imam, both early and late. But it is perhaps even more instructive, in view of the recrudescence of these ideas today, to look at an earlier work against Hanbali anthropomorphists about this bid‘a, for the light this literature sheds upon the science of textual interpretation, and I will conclude my talk tonight to it. 

As you may know, the true architect of the Hanbali madhhab was not actually Imam Ahmad, who did not like to see any of his positions written down, but rather these were conveyed orally by various students at different times, one reason there are often a number of different narratives from him on legal questions. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the real founder of the Hanbali madhhab was the Imam and hadith master (hafiz) ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi, who died 597 years after the Hijra, and who recorded all the narratives from Imam Ahmad, distinguished the well-authenticated from the poorly-authenticated, and organized them into a coherent body of fiqh jurisprudence. 

Ibn al-Jawzi—who is not to be confused with Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya—took the question of people associating anthropomorphism with Hanbalism so seriously that he wrote a book, Daf‘ shubah al-tashbih bi akaff al-tanzih [Rebuttal of the insinuations of anthropomorphism at the hands of transcendence], refuting this heresy and exonerating his Imam of any association with it.

One of the most significant points he makes in this work is the principle that al-Idafatu la tufidu al-sifa, meaning that an ascriptive construction, called in Arabic an idafa, ‘the x of the y’ or in other words, ‘y’s x’ does not establish that ‘x is an attribute of y.’ This is important because the anthropomorphists of his day, as well as Ibn Taymiyya in the seventh century after the Hijra, used many ascriptive constructions (idafa) that appear in hadiths and Qur’anic verses as proof that Allah had “attributes” that bolstered their conceptions of Him. 

To clarify with examples, you are doubtless familiar with the Qur’anic verse in Surat al-Fath of the Sahaba swearing a fealty pact (bay‘a) to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), that says, 

“Allah’s hand is above their hands” (Qur’an 48:10). 

Here, with the words yad Allahi ‘the hand of Allah,’ Ibn al-Jawzi’s principle means that we are not entitled to affirm, on the basis of the Arabic wording alone, that “Allah has a hand” as an attribute (sifa) of His entity. It could be that this Arabic expression is simply meant to emphasize the tremendousness of the offense of breaking this pact, as some scholars state, for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) placed his hand on top of the Sahaba’s, and the wording could be a figure of speech emphasizing Allah’s backing of this action; and classical Arabic abounds in such figures of speech. The Prophet himself (Allah bless him and give him peace) used hand as a figure of speech in the rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadith, Al-Muslimu man salima l-Muslimuna min lisanihi wa yadih “The Muslim is he who the Muslims are safe from his tongue and his hand,” where handmeans anything within his power to do to them, whether with his hand, his foot, or by any other means. As Imam al-Ghazali says of the word hand:

One should realize that hand may mean two different things. The first is the primary lexical sense; namely, the bodily member composed of flesh, bone, and nervous tissue. Now, flesh, bone, and nervous tissue make up a specific body with specific attributes; meaning, by body, something of an amount (with height, width, depth) that prevents anything else from occupying wherever it is, until it is moved from that place. 

Or [secondly] the word may be used figuratively, in another sense with no relation to that of a body at all: as when one says, “The city is in the leader’s hands,” the meaning of which is well understood, even if the leader’s hands are missing, for example (al-Ghazali, Iljam al-‘awam ‘an ‘ilm al-kalam [Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1406/1985], 55).

We have already mentioned the school of thought of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Shafi‘i, and other early Muslims of understanding the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning,’ scriptural expressions about Allah by tafwid or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah.’ But secondly, we have seen from the example of the hand, that because of the figurative richness the Arabic language, and also to protect against the danger of anthropomorphism, many Muslim scholars were able to explain certain of the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning’ expressions in Qur’anic verses and hadiths by ta’wil, or ‘figuratively.’ 

This naturally drew the criticism of neo-Hanbalis, at their forefront Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, as it still does of today’s “reformers” of Islam, who echo these two’s arguments that figurative interpretation (ta’wil) was a reprehensible departure (bid‘a) by Ash‘aris and others from the way of the early Muslims (salaf); and who call for a “return to the sunna,” that is, to anthropomorphic literalism. Now, the obvious question in the face of such “reforms” is whether literalism is really identical with pristine Islamic faith (‘aqida). Or rather did figurative interpretation (ta’wil) exist among the salaf? We will answer this question with actual examples of mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning’ Qur’anic verses and hadiths, and examine how the earliest scholars interpreted them:

1. Forgetting. We have mentioned above the Qur’anic verse,

“Today We forget you as you have forgotten this day of yours” (Qur’an 45:34),

which the early Muslims used to interpret figuratively, as reported by a scholar who was himself an early Muslim (salafi) and indeed, the sheikh of the early Muslims in Qur’anic exegesis, the hadith master (hafiz) Ibn Jarir al-Tabari who died 310 years after the Hijra, and who explains the above verse as meaning: “‘This day, Resurrection Day, We shall forget them,’ so as to say, ‘We shall abandon them to their punishment.’” Now, this is precisely ta’wil, or interpretation in other than the verse’s ostensive sense. Al-Tabari ascribes this interpretation, through his chains of transmission, to the Companion (Sahabi) Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be well pleased with him) as well as to Mujahid, Ibn ‘Abbas’s main student in Qur’anic exegesis (Jami‘ al-bayan, 8.202). 

2. Hands. In the verse,

“And the sky We built with hands; verily We outspread [it]” (Qur’an 51:47),

al-Tabari ascribes the figurative explanation (ta’wil) of with hands as meaning “with power (bi quwwa)” through five chains of transmission to Ibn ‘Abbas, who died 68 years after the Hijra, Mujahid who died 104 years after the Hijra, Qatada [ibn Da‘ama] who died 118 years after the Hijra, Mansur [ibn Zadhan al-Thaqafi] who died 131 years after the Hijra, and Sufyan al-Thawri who died 161 years after the Hijra (Jami‘ al-bayan, 27.7–8). I mention these dates to show just how early they were.

3. Shin. Of the Qur’anic verse,

“On a day when shin shall be exposed, they shall be ordered to prostrate, but be unable” (Qur’an 68:42),

al-Tabari says, “A number of the exegetes of the Companions (Sahaba) and their students (tabi‘in) held that it [a day when shin shall be exposed] means that a dire matter (amrun shadid) shall be disclosed” (Jami‘ al-bayan, 29.38)—the shin’s association with direness being that it was customary for Arab warriors fighting in the desert to ready themselves to move fast and hard through the sand in the thick of the fight by lifting the hems of their garments above the shin. This was apparently lost upon later anthropomorphists, who said the verse proved ‘Allah has a shin,’ or, according to others, ‘two shins, since one would be unbecoming.’ Al-Tabari also relates from Muhammad ibn ‘Ubayd al-Muharibi, who relates from Ibn al-Mubarak, from Usama ibn Zayd, from ‘Ikrima, from Ibn ‘Abbas that shin in the above verse means “a day of war and direness (harbin wa shidda)” (ibid., 29.38). All of these narrators are those of the sahih or rigorously authenticated collections except Usama ibn Zayd, whose hadiths are hasan or ‘well authenticated.’

4. Laughter. Of the hadith related in Sahih al-Bukhari from Abu Hurayra that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said,

Allah Most High laughs about two men, one of whom kills the other, but both of whom enter paradise: the one fights in the path of Allah and is killed, and afterwards Allah forgives the killer, and then he fights in the path of Allah and is martyred,

the hadith master al-Bayhaqi records that the scribe of Bukhari [Muhammad ibn Yusuf] al-Farabri related that Imam al-Bukhari said, “The meaning of laughter in it is mercy” (Kitab al-asma’ wa al-sifat, 298).

5. Coming. The hadith master (hafiz) Ibn Kathir reports that Imam al-Bayhaqi related from al-Hakim from Abu ‘Amr ibn al-Sammak, from Hanbal, the son of the brother of Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s father, that 

Ahmad ibn Hanbal figuratively interpreted the word of Allah Most High,

“And your Lord shall come . . .” (Qur’an 89:22), 

as meaning “His recompense (thawab) shall come.”

Al-Bayhaqi said, “This chain of narrators has absolutely nothing wrong in it” (al-Bidaya wa al-nihaya,10.342). In other words, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, like the Companions (Sahaba) and other early Muslims mentioned above, sometimes also gave figurative interpretations (ta’wil) to scriptural expressions that might otherwise have been misinterpreted anthropomorphically. This was also the way of Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari, founder of the Ash‘ari school of Islamic belief, who had two views about the mutashabihat, the first being tafwid, or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah,’ and the second being ta’wil or ‘figurative interpretation’ when needed to avoid the suggestion of the anthropomorphism that is explicitly rejected by the Qur’an.

In light of the examples quoted above about such words about Allah as ‘forgetting,’ ‘hands,’ ‘shin,’ ‘laughter,’ ‘coming,’ and so forth, it is plain that Muslims scholars of ‘Aqida, whether of the Ash‘ari school or any other, did not originate ta’wil or figurative interpretation, but rather it had been with Muslims from the beginning, because that was the nature of the Arabic language. And if the above figures are not the salaf or ‘early Muslims,’ who are? Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, who died more than seven centuries after the Hijra? 

In view of the foregoing examples of figurative interpretation by early Muslims, we have to ask, Whose ‘early Islam’ would today’s reformers of ‘Aqida have us return to? Imam Abu Hanifa first noted, “Two depraved opinions have reached us from East, those of Jahm [ibn Safwan], the nullifier of the divine attributes, and those of Muqatil [ibn Sulayman al-Balkhi, the likener of Allah to His creation” (Siyar a‘lam al-nubala,’ 7.202). 

These are not an either-or for Muslims. Jahm’s brand of Mu‘tazilism has been dead for over a thousand years, while anthropomorphic literalism is a heresy that in previous centuries was confined to a handful of sects like the Hanbalis addressed by Imam Ibn al-Jawzi in his Daf‘ shubah al-tashbih, or like the forgers of Kitab al-sunna who ascribed it to Imam Ahmad’s son ‘Abdullah, or like the Karramiyya, an early sect who believed Allah to be a corporeal entity “sitting in person on His Throne.” 

As for Islamic orthodoxy, the Imam of Ahl al-Sunna in tenets of faith, ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi says in his ‘aqida manual Usul al-din [The fundamentals of the religion]:

Anyone who considers his Lord to resemble the form of a person [. . . ] is only worshipping a person like himself. As for the permissibility of eating the meat he slaughters or of marriage with him, his ruling is that of an idol-worshipper.

. . . Regarding the anthropomorphists of Khurasan, of the Karramiyya, it is obligatory to consider them unbelievers because they affirm that Allah has a physical limit and boundary from underneath, from whence He is contact with His Throne (al-Baghdadi, Usul al-din [Istanbul: Matba‘a al-Dawla, 1346/1929], 337).

In previous Islamic centuries, someone who worshipped a god who ‘sits,’ moves about, and so forth, was considered to be in serious trouble in his faith (‘aqida). Our question should be: If anthropomorphic literalism were an acceptable Islamic school of thought, why was it counted among heresies and rejected for the first seven centuries of Islam that preceded Ibn Taymiya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim, and condemned by the scholars of Ahl al-Sunna thereafter? 

To summarize everything I have said tonight, we have seen three ways of understanding the mutashabihat, or ‘unapparent in meaning’ verses and hadiths: tafwid, ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah,’ ta’wil, ‘figurative interpretation within the parameters of classical Arabic usage,’ and lastly tashbih, or ‘anthropomorphic literalism.’ 

We saw that the way of tafwid or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah,’ was the way of Shafi‘i, Ahmad, and many of the early Muslims. A second interpretive possibility, the way of ta’wil, or ‘figurative interpretation,’ was also done by the Companions (Sahaba) and many other early Muslims as reported above. In classical scholarship, both have been considered Islamic, and both seem needed, though tafwid is superior where it does not lead to confusion about Allah’s transcendence beyond the attributes of created things, in accordance with the Qur’anic verse,

“There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11).

As for anthropomorphism, it is clear from this verse and from the entire history of the Umma, that it is not an Islamic school of thought, and never has been. In all times and places, Islam has invited non-Muslims to faith in the Incomparable Reality called Allah; not making man a god, and not making God a man.

Wa jazakum Allah khayran, wa l-hamdu li Llahi Rabbil ‘Alamin.

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