Istiwâ’ [al-Qur’an 7:54; 13:2; 20:5; 25:59; 32:4]is one of the Attributes of acts (min sifât al-af‘âl) according to the majority of the explanations.” Al-Qurtubi.
“The establishment of His Throne in the heaven is known, and His Throne in the earth is the hearts of the People of Pure Monotheism (ahl al-tawhîd). He said: (and eight will uphold the Throne of their Lord that day, above them) (69:17), and [concerning] the throne of the hearts:
[We carry them on the land and the sea] (17:70).
As for the throne of the heaven: the Merciful established Himself over it (‘alayhi istawâ); and as for the throne of the hearts: the Merciful conquered it(‘alayhi istawlâ). The throne of the heaven is the direction of the supplication of creatures, while the throne of the heart is the locus of the gaze of the Real. Therefore, there is a huge difference between this throne and that!” – Al-Qushayri.
“We believe that [the Merciful established Himself over the Throne] (20:5), and we do not know the reality of the meaning of this nor what is meant by it (lâ na‘lamu haqîqata mi‘na dhâlika wa al-murâda bihi), while we do believe that [There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him] (42:11) and that He is exalted far above the most elevated of created things. That is the way of the Salaf or at least their vast majority, and it is the safest because one is not required to probe into such matters.” – Al-Nawawi.
Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari said:
“The establishment of Allah on the Throne is an action He has created named istiwâ’ and related to the Throne, just as He has created an action named ityân (coming) related to a certain people; and this implies neither descent nor movement.” Al-Bayhaqi confirms this: “Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali al-Ash‘ari said that Allah effected an act in relation to the Throne, and He called that act istiwâ’, just as He effected other acts in relation to other objects, and He called those acts ‘sustenance’ (rizq), ‘favor’ (ni‘ma), or other of His acts.” This is also the interpretation of Ibn Hazm (d. 456) – although a vehement enemy of Ash‘aris – who explains istiwâ’ as “an act pertaining to the Throne”.
Abu al-Fadl al-Tamimi mentioned that two positions were reported from Imam Ahmad concerning istiwâ’: One group narrated that he considered it “of the Attributes of act” (min sifât al-fi‘l), another, “of the Attributes of the Essence” (min sifât al-dhât).” Ibn Battal mentions that Ahl al-Sunna hold either one of these two positions: “Those that interpreted istawâ as ‘He exalted Himself’ (‘alâ) consider istiwâ an Attribute of the Essence, while those who interpreted it otherwise consider it an Attribute of act.”
Al-Tamimi further related that Ahmad said:
[Istiwâ’]: It means height/exaltation (‘uluw) and elevation (irtifâ‘). Allah is ever exalted (‘âlî) and elevated (rafî‘) without beginning, before He created the Throne. He is above everything (huwa fawqa kulli shay’), and He is exalted over everything (huwa al-‘âlî ‘alâ kulli shay’). He only specified the Throne because of its particular significance which makes it different from everything else, as the Throne is the best of all things and the most elevated of them. Allah therefore praised Himself by saying that He (established Himself over the Throne) , that is, He exalted Himself over it (‘alayhi ‘alâ). It is impermissible to say that He established Himself with a contact or a meeting with it. Exalted is Allah above that! Allah is not subject to change, substitution, nor limits, whether before or after the creation of the Throne.
The Maliki scholar Ibn Abi Jamra (d. 695) said something similar in his commentary on the hadith “Allah wrote a Book before He created creation, saying: Verily My mercy precedeth My wrath; and it is written with Him above the Throne”:
It may be said from the fact that the Book is mentioned as being “above the Throne” that the divine wisdom has decreed for the Throne to carry whatever Allah wishes of the record of His judgment, power, and the absolute unseen known of Him alone, in order to signify the exclusivity of His encompassing knowledge regarding these matters. This makes the Throne one of the greatest signs of the exclusivity of His knowledge of the Unseen. This could explain the verse of istiwâ’ as referring to whatever Allah wills of His power, which is the Book He has placed above His Throne.”
Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161) interpreted istiwâ’ in the verse (The Merciful established Himself over the Throne) (20:5) as “a command concerning the Throne” (amrun fi al-‘arsh), as related by Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni and quoted by al-Yafi‘i in the latter’s book Marham al-‘Ilal al-Mu‘dila fi Daf‘ al-Shubah wa al-Radd ‘ala al-Mu‘tazila (“Book of the Resolution of Difficult Problems for the Removal of Doubts and the Refutation of the Mu‘tazila”):
The understanding of istiwâ’ as the turning of Allah to a particular command concerning the Throne is not far-fetched, and this is the ta’wîl of Imam Sufyan al-Thawri, who took as corroborating evidence for it the verse: (Then turned He (thumma istawâ) to the heaven when it was smoke) (41:11), meaning: “He proceeded to it” (qasada ilayhâ).
Al-Tabari said, in his commentary on the verse (Then turned He (thumma istawâ) to the heaven, and fashioned it as seven heavens) (2:29):
The meaning of istiwâ’ in this verse is height (‘uluw) and elevation… but if one claims that this means displacement for Allah, tell him: He is high and elevated over the heaven with the height of sovereignty and power, not the height of displacement and movement to and fro.
The above position is exactly that of the Ash‘ari school, as shown by Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi’s and Ibn Hajar’s numerous comments to that effect directed against those who attribute altitude to Allahn their interpretation of His ‘uluw such as Ibn Taymiyya. The latter stated: “The Creator, Glorified and Exalted is He, is above the world and His being above is literal, not in the sense of dignity or rank.” This doctrine was comprehensively refuted by Ibn Jahbal al-Kilabi (d. 733) in his Radd ‘ala Man Qala bi al-Jiha (“Refutation of Ibn Taymiyya Who Attributes A Direction to Allah “) and Shaykh Yusuf al-Nabahani (1265-1350) in his Raf‘ al-Ishtibah fi Istihala al-Jiha ‘ala Allah (“The Removal of Doubt Concerning the Impossibility of Direction for Allah”).
Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597) in the introduction of his Daf‘ Shubah al-Tashbih said of the anthropomorphists: “They are not content to say: ‘Attribute of act’ (sifatu fi‘l) until they end up saying: ‘Attribute of the Essence’ (sifatu dhât).” Ibn Hazm also said: “If the establishment on the Throne is eternal without beginning, then the Throne is eternal without beginning, and this is disbelief.”
Al-Bayhaqi quotes one of the companions of al-Ash‘ari, Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Mahdi al-Tabari (d. ~380) as saying in his book Ta’wil al-Ahadith al-Mushkalat al-Waridat fi al-Sifat (“Interpretation of the Problematic Narrations Pertaining to the Attributes”): “Allahs in the heaven above everything and established (mustawin) over His Throne in the sense that He is exalted or elevated (‘âlin) above it, and the sense of istiwâ’ is self-elevation(i‘tilâ’).” This is the most widespread interpretation (ta’wîl) of the issue among the Salaf: al-Baghawi said that the meaning of the verse ( The Merciful established Himself over the Throne) (20:5) according to Ibn ‘Abbas and most of the commentators of Qur’an is “He elevated Himself” (irtafa‘a). This is the interpretation quoted by al-Bukhari in his Sahih from the senior Tâbi‘i Rufay‘ ibn Mahran Abu al-‘Aliya (d. 90). Al-Bukhari also cites from Mujahid (d. 102) the interpretation “to rise above” or “exalt Himself above” (‘alâ). Ibn Battal declares the latter to be the true position and the saying of Ahl al-Sunnabecause Allah described Himself as “the Sublimely Exalted” — ( al-‘Alî) (2:255) and said: ( exalted be He (ta‘âlâ) over all that they ascribe as partners (unto Him)!) (23:92).
In complete opposition to the above Ibn Taymiyya said in his Fatawa: “The establishment of Allah over the Throne is real, and the servant’s establishment over the ship is real” (lillâhi ta‘âlâ istiwâ’un ‘alâ ‘arshihi haqîqatan wa li al-‘abdi istiwâ’un ‘alâ al-fulki haqîqatan). “Allahs with us in reality, and He is above His Throne in reality (Allâhu ma‘ana haqîqatan wa huwa fawqa al-‘arshi haqîqatan).. . . Allahs with His creation in reality and He is above His Throne in reality (Allahu ma‘a khalqihi haqîqatan wa huwa fawqa al-‘arshi haqîqatan).”
Another interpretation commonly used by later Ash‘aris for istiwâ’ is that of istîlâ’ and qahr, respectively “establishing dominion” and “subduing.” Ibn ‘Abd al-Salam said:
His establishment (istiwâ’) over the Throne is a metaphor for establishing dominion (istîlâ’) over His kingdom and disposing of it, as the poet said:
qad istawâ Bishrun ‘ala al-‘Irâq
min ghayri sayfin wa damin muhrâq
Bishr established mastery over Iraq
without sword and without shedding blood.
It is a metaphor of similitude with kings, who dispose of the affairs of their kingdoms while sitting among the dynastic princes. The throne may also express rank, as in ‘Umar’s t saying: “My throne would have toppled if I had not found a merciful Lord.”
Ibn Battal and Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi attribute the interpretation as istîlâ’ chiefly to the Mu‘tazila. Ibn Hajar said:
The Mu‘tazila said its meaning is “establishing dominion through subjugation and overpowering” (al-istîlâ’ bi al-qahr wa al-ghalaba), citing as a proof the saying of the poet:
Bishr established mastery over Iraq
without sword and without shedding blood.
The anthropomorphists (al-jismiyya) said: “Its meaning is settledness (al-istiqrâr).” Some of Ahl al-Sunna said: “Its meaning is He elevated Himself(irtafa‘a)” while others of them said: “Its meaning is He rose above (‘alâ),” and others of them said: “Its meaning is sovereignty (al-mulk) and power (al-qudra).”
The latter Sunni interpretation is evidently similar to that of istîlâ’ and qahr. However, because the Mu‘tazila claimed that the divine Attributes were originated in time rather than uncreated and beginningless, their interpretation was rejected by the scholars of Ahl al-Sunna. Ibn Battal said: “The Mu‘tazilaposition is null and void, for Allahs qâhir, ghâlib, and mustawlî without beginning.” Ibn Battal is referring to the Ash‘ari position whereby the Attributes of acts such as creation, although connected with created objects, are without beginning in relation to Allah. To those who object to istawlâ on the grounds that it necessarily supposed prior opposition, Ibn Hajar similarly remarked that that assumption is discarded by the verse: (Allah was (kâna) ever Knower, Wise) (4:17), which the scholars explained to mean “He is ever Knower and Wise.”
Thus Dawud al-Zahiri’s objection that istîlâ’ necessitates a wresting from an adversary is not absolute among Ahl al-Sunna. The Ash‘ari grammarian al-Raghib al-Asfahani (d. 402) said that istawâ ‘alâ has the meaning of istawlâ ‘alâ (“He overcame”) and cited the verse of istiwâ (20:5) as an example of this meaning: “It means that everything is alike in relation to him in such manner that no one thing is nearer to Him than another thing, since He is not like the bodies that abide in one place exclusively of another place.” In this sense, both the Mu‘tazili position of origination for the Attributes and the literalist requirement of conquest-after-struggle are dismissed, and istawlâ can be safely admitted among the interpretations of Ahl al-Sunna. As Ibn Battal alluded, “establishing dominion and sovereignty,” “subduing,” and “conquering” no more suppose prior opposition in the face of the Creator than do His Attributes of “All-Victorious” (Zâhir) “All-Compelling” (Qahhâr), “Prevailer” (Ghâlib), or “Omnipotent” (Qâhir) presuppose resistance or power on anyone’s part. This is confirmed by the verses: (He is the Omnipotent (al-qâhir) over His slaves) (6:18, 6:61) and (Allah prevails (ghâlib) in His purpose) (12:21). Al-Raghib said: “It means that everything is alike in relation to him” and he did not say: “became alike.”
Ibn al-Jawzi mentions another reason for permitting this interpretation: “Whoever interprets [and He is with you] (57:4) as meaning ‘He is with you in knowledge,’ permits his opponent to interpret istiwâ’ as ‘subduing’ (al-qahr).”
As for the linguistic precedent of the meaning istawlâ for istawâ, it is provided by the poet al-Akhtal (d. <110) who said: “Bishr established mastery over(istawâ ‘alâ) Iraq without sword and without shedding blood.” Some “Salafis” reject this linguistic proof on the ground that al-Akhtal was a second-century Christian. This shows ignorance of agreed-upon criteria for the probative force of Arabic poetry in the Shari‘a, which extends at least to the year 150 and applies regardless of creed.
Dr. Muhammad Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti said:
The consensus in place regarding these texts is the refraining from applying to them any meaning which establishes a sameness or likeness between Allah and His creatures, and the refraining from divesting their established lexical tenor.
The obligatory way to proceed is either to explain these words according to their external meanings which conform with divine Transcendence above any like or partner, and this includes not explaining them as bodily appendages and other corporeal imagery. Therefore it will be said, for example: He has established Himself over the Throne as He has said, with an establishment which befits His Majesty and Oneness; and He has a Hand as He has said, which befits His Divinity and Majesty; etc.
Or they can be explained figuratively according to the correct rules of language and in conformity with the customs of speech in their historical context. For example: the establishment is the establishment of dominion (istîlâ’) and that of authority (tasallut); the hand of Allahs His strength in His saying: (The hand of Allahs over their hand) (48:10) and His generosity in His saying: (Nay, both His hands are spread wide, and He bestows as He wills)(5:64).
As for the interpretation of istiwâ’ as sitting (julûs), it is asserted in the book attributed to ‘Abd Allahbn Ahmad ibn Hanbal under the title Kitab al-Sunna (p. 5, 71): “Is establishment (istiwâ’) other than by sitting (julûs)?” “Allah sits on the kursî and there remains only four spans vacant.” Al-Khallal in his ownKitab al-Sunna (p. 215-216) states that whoever denies that “Allah sits on the kursî and there remains only four spans vacant” is an unbeliever. ‘Uthman al-Darimi went so far as to say in his Naqd al-Jahmiyya: “If He so willed, He could have settled on the back of a gnat and it would have carried Him thanks to His power and the favor of His lordship, not to mention the magnificient Throne.” Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim endorsed these views. Al-Kawthari wrote in his Maqalat: “Whoever imagines that our Lord sits on the kursî and leaves space at His side for His Prophet to sit, he has followed the Christians who believe that ‘Isa u was raised to heaven and sat next to his Father – Allahs elevated above the partnership they ascribe to Him!”
Al-Munawi quotes the following conclusion on the verse of the Throne upon the water:
Al-Tunisi said that the verse (And His Throne was upon the water) (11:7) contains a clear proof that direction is impossible for Allah because the Throne settled (istaqarra) upon the water, therefore, since natural custom was broken by the settlement of that huge mass (jirm) – the largest of all masses – upon the water, contrary to the habitual fact that such a mass – or, rather, much less than it! – does not usually settle upon the water: it becomes known with certitude that istiwâ’ over it is not an istiwâ’ of settledness nor fixity.
The above proof is similar to the proof derived from Imam Malik’s statement: “The establishment is known, the ‘how’ is inconceivable, and to ask about it is an innovation!” Shaykh al-Islam Taqi al-Din al-Subki pointed out that the inconceivability of the modality of istiwâ’ proved that it precluded the meaning of sitting.
In his Qur’anic commentary entitled Lata’if al-Isharat (“The Subtle Signs”), Imam Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465) – together with Imam al-Haramayn Ibn al-Juwayni and al-Khatib al-Baghdadi the main figure in the fourth generation-layer of al-Ash‘ari’s students – sums up the position of Ahl al-Sunnaconcerning istiwâ’:
(He established Himself over the Throne) (7:54; 13:2; 20:5; 25:59; 32:4), however, the One without beginning has no limit (al-qadîm laysa lahu hadd). He “established Himself over the Throne,” however, it is impermissible to attribute to Him proximity with His Essence nor remoteness. He “established Himself over the Throne,” however, the Throne would be the most needful of all things to an iota of connection (al-wisâl) [with Him] if it were only alive! But it is a lifeless solid, and when did solids ever possess volition? He “established Himself over the Throne,” however, He is the Everlasting Sovereign (al-Samad) without rival, the Unique without limit.
(The writer (1915-1978) was an English convert to Islam who became a Shaykh of the Tariqa Chishtiyya, living a life of simplicity in Karachi, Pakistan, where his holiness gained him the love and devotion of thousands of Muslims from all walks of life. May Allah show him His mercy, and grant him light in his grave. Amin.)
It is mistakenly imagined by some that belief in a Supreme Being as the Creator and Controller of the universe is a mere emotional aspiration, a superstition of ancient times, irrational and illogical, and exploded by modern science. It is believed that scientists (physicists, biologists and others) have erected some theory which both refutes and replaces the traditional belief in God. Such ideas have only a very superficial grounding, and are the result of ignorance or an indifference to both the fundamentals of religious faith and the scope of the physical sciences. It is a significant fact in the history of world thought that very few people have ever made it their business to refute the existence of God. The views of the universe which are considered to be anti-religious are almost all agnostic, not atheistic, that is to say, they attempt to ignore the existence of God instead of denying it. This is true of certain views of modern science as well as of the ancient non-religious theories. The universe in which we live comprises an evident system of causes and effects, of phenomena and their results, and it is possible to discuss them indefinitely and construct theories about them, giving a superficial appearance of completeness. This is done, however, only at the expense of ignoring fundamentals or claiming that they cannot be known. If one were to search for a convincing statement based on firm principles that the existence of a Supreme Being is impossible, one would not be able to find it.
The reason for this state of affairs is that belief in God is at once instinctive, rational, evidential and intuitional, and it is only by deliberately neglecting to consider it that the non-religious attitude is maintained. It is instinctive in that man has an innate feeling of his own inadequacy and helplessness, which accompanies him from the cradle to the grave, a feeling accompanied by the complementary desire to seek refuge and support with a being who controls all those forces before which he feels himself inadequate. We put this feeling forward as instinctive, although it will immediately be perceived that it is also evidential. The weakness of man before all the uncountable influences over which he has no control is a fact so obvious as to require no discussion.
What is less well grasped by some who have claims to intelligence is that belief in God is fully supported by reason and logic, the principles on which all human intelligence stands. For instance, it is a basic requirement of reason that an effect cannot exist without a cause. However hard we press our mental faculties, we cannot conceive rationally of a causeless effect, and if we wish to postulate one we can only do so by temporarily putting our reason on the shelf. Reason leads us to the conclusion that just as the elements which compose the universe are effects of certain causes, the universe itself must be the effect of a cause, a cause which is itself mightier than and outside the universe. Non-religious thinkers have to ignore the origin of the universe and postulate something existing in the beginning without any known cause. This postulate is essentially non-rational and therefore unscientific, but it is a necessity for those thinkers who have unconsciously or deliberately decided not to consider fundamentals. Of these there are even some who openly proclaim their refusal to discuss or admit any metaphysical concept. This kind of attitude, however, can only be upheld by abandoning reason. Reason itself guides us inexorably to the conclusion that there is an ultimate cause, the Cause of causes, beyond this universe of time, space and change; in fact, a Supreme Being.
Another of the basic demands of reason is that diversity cannot exist without a fundamental unity. Whenever the human mind is confronted with diversity, it immediately sets to work to synthesise it into unities, then to synthesise these unities into higher unities and so on until it can go no further. The ultimate result of a rational consideration of diversity is to arrive at a unity of unities, a Supreme Unity, the producer of all diversities, but itself essentially One. Whichever fundamental of reason we select, if we follow its path we are led inevitably to the same goal – belief in God, the Supreme Being.
Besides the conclusion arrived at by purely rational processes, man is led to the belief in God by observation and experience. One of the principal reasons for man’s refusal to recognize the existence of God is the intellectual arrogance produced by his appreciation of his own powers of analysis and synthesis, of harnessing physical forces by his ingenuity, and of constructing complex machines to do his work for him. But pride is caused by concentrating too much attention on one’s own virtues and blinding oneself to one’s defects. What are the best of man’s mechanical inventions but a poor and crude imitation of what already exists in an infinitely finer form in nature? By copying in an elementary fashion some of the functions of the human eye, he has been able to evolve the camera; but what comparison has this machine, made out of lifeless materials, to the living stuff of the eye, and to the refinement, brightness, clarity, flexibility and stability of its vision, its immediate connection with the mind which sifts and appreciates all it sees, all without a complicated system and controls, and directly under the command of the human will? Take any organ of the body and study it – the heart, the brain – and it will immediately be obvious that it is quite outside the scope of man’s ability to conceive and fashion such an instrument. The petty imitations of man are attributed to his great cunning, artistry and intelligence. Is it then reasonable, logical or scientific to attribute the infinitely finer and more perfect instruments of nature to such vague and blind energies called by names such as the ‘life force’, or ‘matter in evolution’, and leave them undescribed and unexplained? If logic has any validity (and if it has not we had better stop thinking altogether and become animals), the intelligence which conceived and wrought myriads of such delicate and astonishing devices must be infinitely superior to the human intelligence (even the human intelligence is one of its products), and have control of all the materials and workings of the universe. Such an intelligence can only be possessed by a Supreme Being, the Creator, Fashioner and Sustainer of all things.
If we ponder our own place in the world, we find that we (as well as all other beings) are kept in being by a most intimate combination of forces and conditions, which is so delicate that even a small dislocation would cause our total destruction. We live, so to speak, continually on the brink of annihilation, and yet are enabled to carry on our complex existences in comparative immunity. We cannot live, for instance, without daily rest; both the human body and the human mind are constructed to need it. This fact is not in itself surprising, but what is surprising is that the solar system collaborates with us in our human frailty and provides us with a day and a night exactly suited to our needs. Man cannot claim to have compelled or persuaded the solar system to do so; nor can the solar system claim to have modelled human physical and mental energy to conform to its own movements. Both man and the solar system are evidently linked in a total organisation in which man is the beneficiary; the organiser of these inexplicable concordances can only be a Supreme Controller of the universe and mankind. Sweet water is a necessary condition of human existence; it is equally necessary for those plants which produce man’s staple foods, which themselves depend on each other. If sea water were to invade our rivers and wells or rain down from the sky, is there any doubt that we should all die of hunger and thirst in a few days and the whole world become an empty desert? Yet sea water is only held back by an invisible barrier over which we have no control, and the sun and the clouds co-operate in order to desalinate our water for us and so give us life. This linkage of interdependence and concurrence could be extended indefinitely by taking examples from the physical world, and to describe it as ‘fortuitous’ is only begging the question; moreover it is a contradiction in terms. Fortuity is the name for something which does not come within any known system or regulation, an apparently meaningless and haphazard occurrence. To call a system which is a balanced and cohesive organization fortuitous is obviously self-contradictory and fallacious. A ‘fortuitous system’ is, simply, an absurdity. If we observe carefully we can see that the whole of the universe is interdependent and interlinked and therefore not fortuitous but planned. Belief in God means, precisely, belief in a Planner of the universe.
A basic element in human consciousness – a suprarational element – is a sense of value and purpose in respect to life. Even the worst of men is prevented from becoming completely bestial by this feeling, and in the best of them it dominates their whole existence. The senses of good and evil, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, fitness and unfitness, truth and falsehood are such that however attacked by the missiles of constructive analysis, they remain intact within their intuitional fortress. In all ages and conditions, man has not been able to divest himself of the idea that behind its external effect, every action possesses a quality by which it may be judged and graded in the scale of final values. In addition to the consciousness of the existence of these values, there is the feeling that it is the purpose of man’s life to attain those qualities which reflect the highest of them, that not only are they excellent in themselves and worthy of being acquired, but that they must be acquired, and that he has been created to acquire them. The natural sense of qualitative purpose, if allowed to develop freely without the cramps of agnostic prejudice, leads him to the conception of an absolute good and an absolute truth as the ultimate standard of human existence, and from there (for a quality cannot exist except in a being who is qualified by it) to a being who is the possessor and author of these qualities, the Supreme Purposer.
The decisive vindication of the existence of God is evidential. At various junctures in world history and in widely distant places, certain men have arisen and proclaimed that they have been inspired by God to give His message to mankind. These men were not mad; we have historical records of several of them, including all or part of the message they insisted that they were called to deliver, and it is obvious that they were men who were intellectually and morally highly impressive. They did not come all at once so that we could attribute them to a sort of historical fashion. They came spaced throughout history usually at a time of great moral degeneration. If we examine their message, we find that apart from differences of expression, attributable to the milieu in which they lived, they not only bear remarkable similarities but are basically identical. They have stated that God had conversed with them in some inspirational manner, and had ordered them to proclaim His Existence as the Creator, Maintainer, Controller and eventual Destroyer of the world, to describe His Mercy and Justice, and to warn mankind that it is only by remembering and worshipping Him and following the moral and practical principles that He has laid down for them that they can achieve success and happiness here and hereafter. The last of these prophets was Muhammad of Mecca, who stated that there would be no prophet after him, and it is a demonstrable historical fact that no-one has been able to establish a claim to prophethood since. Now those who discuss or refuse to discuss the existence of God almost invariably rely on rational or anti-rational arguments and rarely, if ever, consider the evidential factor. The two basic elements in human knowledge are, firstly, our own observations and conclusions, and secondly, the evidence of others. Among the branches of knowledge the whole of history, for example, and most of the average man’s acquaintance with science, are only known from the evidence of others, unless he himself is a specialist in the subject. When specialists in a certain branch of knowledge continuously assert that a certain thing is a fact, it becomes a necessity for the rest of mankind, who are unable to acquire this knowledge directly, to accept it as such. In the field of direct inspiration from God, and knowledge of His qualities and works, we have the repeated evidence of people in history who have affirmed their apprehension of Him and that they have been charged with conveying His message; not only that, the realities of the divine and spiritual realism as described by these prophets have in various degrees been corroborated and confirmed by the spiritual experiences of an uncounted number of their followers right up to the present day. These corroborators have been the saints and mystics of their various communities. This continuous and widespread evidence of the existence of God, the central and original evidence of prophets, and the derivative and confirmatory evidence of their followers, all based on modes of direct and intuitional perception of His Being, cannot with any reasonability be denied or ignored. To deny or ignore them is patently illogical and unscientific, and against the basic principles of the acquirement and dissemination of human knowledge. In addition to being instinctive, intuitional, and logical, belief in God has irrefutable evidence to prove its verity.
The words ‘Kalām’ and ‘Qur’ān’ are very closely related terms. In their original legal applications they are distinct in meaning. But in another way they are synonymous.
In other words, the word ‘Kalām’ is usually applied to the beginningless attribute of Allah present with His being referred to as His ‘Speech.’ But sometimes when it is used, it means the ‘Qur’ān,’ which is the revelation sent to Muhammad who proclaimed it to humanity.
On other hand, the word ‘Qur’ān’ is usually applied to refer to the Holy Book revealed by Allah to Muhammad. But it is sometimes used to refer to the beginningless attribute of the Creator known as His ‘Speech.’
This is all supported by the comments of Shaykh Ibrāhīm ibn Muhammad Al-Bayjūrī. He says:
“And know that the phrase ‘Kalām Allah’ (Allah’s Word or Speech) is applied to the beginningless unuttered speech (kalām nafsī qadīm), which happens to be a quality (sifah) present with His being (dhat) – High is He; just as it is a phrase applied to the uttered speech (kalām lafzī), which happens to be a reference to His creation (i.e. the physical book) while no one has played a part in the origin of its composition. And according to this (second) application, the statement of Our Lady ‘Āisha is understood when she said:
“All between the two covers of the book (mushaf) is Allah’s word (kalām Allah) – High is He.”
And it (i.e. the expression) is applied to both meanings (i.e. the Book and to the eternal quality of Allah). It has also been stated that the phrase is a homonym (ishtirāk); just as it has been said that it literally applies to the unuttered (uncreated) speech, while it is metaphorically applied to the uttered (created) speech.
(At any rate) All who deny that all that is between the two covers of the book (mushaf) is the word of Allah (kalām Allah) are guilty of unbelief unless one means that it is not the quality present with His divine essence – High is He. And in spite of the fact that the words (lafz) we recite happen to be emergent, it is still only permitted to say “The Qur’ān is emergent (or created)” in a classroom setting, because it sometimes applies to the quality present with His divine essence even though only metaphorically according to the strongest view. And it might be imagined from stating in a general fashion that “The Qur’ān is emergent (or created)” that (one is saying that) the quality present with His divine essence – High is He – is emergent (or created).”
Due to the similarities between these two terms, scholars found difficulty in saying things like, ‘The Qur’ān is created” as well as “The Qur’ān is not created.”
The reason was that the one who heard such a statement might confuse the two entities to which this word was applied – i.e. Allah’s attribute and His revealed scripture, and he might assume that it was being applied to the former. If so, this would mean that an attribute of the Creator is created.
And if one of His attributes can be created, then what prevents us from believing that more of His attributes are created to the point that we even conclude that the Creator Himself has a Creator. And if He has a Creator, how are we to be sure that the one we call our Creator is actually who we believe He is?
Contrarily, the one who hears someone say ‘The Qur’ān is not created,” might be led to believe that the actual book with all of its pages, the ink, etc. are things that have no creator or manufacturer. But we all know such an assumption to be contrary to reality, especially were one to strike a match to the pages of the book.
For these reasons, much controversy has occurred in the past over this issue, especially among the Arabs. As for non-Arabs – viz. speakers of English, this should not be a point of dispute, since ‘Qur’ān’ has only one connotation for us in the English language.
Ibn Hazm reports about the different schools of Islam in his Al-Milal Wa al-Nihal. He says:
The People of Islam have unanimously agreed that Allah – High is He – spoke to Musa, and that the Qur’ān is Allah’s word/speech (kalām). Similar is what is applied to the other revealed books and scriptures… Beyond that they differed. The Mu’tazila said that ‘Allah’s kalām (word/speech) is the attribute of an action that is created, and that He spoke to Musa with speech that He produced in the tree.’ Ahmad and those who followed him said ‘Allah’s kalām is his knowledge. It is beginningless (lam yazal) and it is not created.’ The Ash’aris said ‘Allah’s kalām is an attribute of essence. It is beginningless and it is not created. It is not Allah’s knowledge. And Allah has only one kalām (speech)…
As for the Kullābiyya, he states:
The Kullābiyya said ‘The kalām (word/speech) is one single attribute, beginningless in essence (qadīma al-‘ayn), inseparable from Allah’s being (dhāt), like life, and (they said) that He doesn’t speak by His will and power. And His speaking to the one He spoke to was merely Him creating for him comprehension (idrāk) by which he heard the speech. And His summoning (nidā) of Musa was prior to creation (lam yazal). However, He made him hear that summons when He spoke to him in secret.’ And the like of it (i.e. this statement) has been narrated about Abū Mansūr Al-Māturīdi of the Hanafis. But he said: ‘He created a sound when he summoned him. Then He made him hear His speech…
Then he said:
And Al-Qābisī, Al-Ash’arī, and his followers adopted the view of Ibn Kullāb. They said ‘If the kalām is without beginning (qadīm) by its essence, inseparable from the being of the Lord, and it is established that it isn’t created, then the letters are not beginningless, since they follow one another in sequence (muta’āqiba). And whatever is preceded by something else is not without beginning, while the beginningless speech (al-kalām al-qadīm) is a characteristic (ma’nā) present with the divine essence (qa’im bi al-dhat) that is not multiple in number and is indivisible. Rather, it is a singular characteristic (ma’nā wāhid). If it is expressed in Arabic, it is Qur’ān, or (if expressed) in Hebrew, it is Taurāh for example…
Then Ibn Hazm says about the Hanbalis:
And some of the Hanbalis held the view that the Arabic Qur’ān is Allah’s kalām (speech), and the same goes for the Taurāh, and (they said) that Allah has incessantly without beginning been one who speaks (mutakkalim) whenever He pleases, and (they say) that He spoke with the letters of the Qur’ān, and He made those that He pleased from the angels and the Prophets to hear His voice.’
[T] What this actually means is that they believe that Allah’s speech is two, not one attribute. It is as some of them stated today, “an attribute of the divine essence as well as an attribute of action.”  This is because they believe that to state that His actions are created would be tantamount to saying that He is created . But an act is time-specific, which necessarily means that it cannot be without beginning. These same people also believe that by saying that His speech is one and beginningless would mean that He doesn’t have the will and power to speak when He pleases. The Ash’aris, on the other hand, hold that His power and will are two separate attributes by which Allah does whatever He pleases when He pleases. As for His speech, it pertains to all things spoken regardless of if they are possible, impossible, or necessary. And by Allah’s power He can allow anyone He pleases to comprehend His eternal beginningless and endless speech whenever He pleases by His will.
Ibn Hazm continues:
And they (i.e. these Hanbalis) said ‘These letters and sounds are without beginning in essence, inseparable from the divine essence. But they do not follow one another in sequence (muta’āqiba). Rather, they have always been present with His being without following one another in a sequence (muqtarina) without one preceding another. For following in succession to one another (ta’āqub) happens with respect to the created, not the Creator. And most of them held the view that the sounds and letters are those heard from those who recite.
But many of them refuse to accept this, and said ‘They are not those heard from those who recite.’
And some of them held the view that He (Allah) utters the Arabic Qur’ān by His will and power with the letters and sounds that are present with His being, but that it is not created. However, He – prior to creation – didn’t speak due to the impossibility of the existence of a finite matter (hādith) before the existence of time and space (azal). So His kalām [to them] is emergent (hādith) with His being, not uttered anew (muhdath)…
All of this can be found in Ibn Hazm’s ‘Al-Milal wa al-Nihal’ and Ibn Hajar quotes from it in Fath Al-Bārī [Volume 15/p 421 Dar al-Fikr 1415/1995 edition].
Ibn Hajar Al-‘Asqalāni then quotes a scholar by the name of Ibn Al-Tīn [v. 15/p.450] as saying,
The speculative theologians (mutakallimūn) differed about hearing Allah’s speech. Ash’arī said: “Allah’s speech is present with His being. It is heard during the recitation of every reciter and the reading of every reader.” Al-Baqillānī said: “Merely the recitation is heard, not the thing recited. And the reading (is heard), not the thing that is read.”
In other words, when a person recites, he is not actually listening to a sound or voice coming from Allah. Rather, the sound is coming from the person doing the reading or recitation, while the words and meanings expressed in that are Allah’s verbatim. This is like if someone was to write a letter to be announced to an audience written by a third person. The one reading may say, ‘So and So said such and such.’
But no one can claim that the voice or sound of the author of the document has become incarnate in the reader, so that it can be said the author is the actual speaker/reader. Consequently, the recitation is created and the sound and voice are created. But the meanings transmitted through the Arabic language are not created, in spite of the fact that the paper, ink, cover, and Arabic language are all created with all obviousness to all rational human beings.
Then Ibn Hajar said the following on p. 465 about the issue of the ‘lafz’ (the wording),
This issue is well-known as the issue of the ‘lafz’ (wording/utterance). The delvers into it are referred to as the ‘Lafziyya.’ Imam Ahmad’s objection as well those who followed him was severe against those who said ‘My wording/utterance of the Qur’ān is created.’
Here we must understand that ‘lafz’ can be taken to mean both ‘wording’ and ‘utterance’. For this reason Imam Al-Dhahabī stated about the person who makes the statement ‘My lafz of the Qur’ān is created’:
If he meant by saying, “Allah’s speech is uncreated. And my lafz of it is created” (if he means) “My utterance” (talaffuz), this is good. For surely our actions are created. But if he means the thing that is uttered (malfūz) is created, this is the one that Ahmad objected to… And they (the scholars) considered it to be a sign of being a Jahmī. [Al-Mīzān: 1/544]
Ibn Hajar continues,
It is said that the first to make this utterance was Al-Husayn ibn ‘Alī Al-Kurābisī, one of the disciples of Shāfi’ī, one of the transmitters of his book that comprised his former school (qadīm). So once that reached Ahmad, he declared him to be an innovator and he boycotted him. Then Dāwūd ibn ‘Alī Al-Asbahānī, the chief of the Literalists (Zāhiriyya), became known for that next. And he was at that time in Nisapur. So Ishāq (Ibn Rahuwiyah) objected to him. And that reached Ahmad. So when he (Dāwūd) reached Baghdad, he (Ahmad) didn’t allow for him to come into his presence.
And Ibn Abū Hātim collected the names of those who were referred to as ‘The Lafziyya’ who were labeled as Jahmiyya. And they reached a large number of the Imams. He also dedicated a chapter to that in his book entitled ‘Al-Radd ‘alā al-Jahmiyya.’
And what results from the comments of the expert legal critics (muhaqqiqūn) is that they (Ahmad and others) wanted to bring closure to the matter as a protection for the Qur’ān from being described as being created, and that once the truth of the matter was brought to light, no one would express that the movement of his tongue when he recited was without beginning (qadīma).
Al-Baihaqī says in Kitāb al-Asmā wa al-Sifāt:
“The view of the Salaf and the Khalaf from Ahl al-Hadith wa al-Sunnah is that the Qur’ān is the speech of Allah. And it is one of the attributes of His being (dhāt). As for the recitation (tilāwa), they follow two different approaches: Some of them make a difference between the recitation (tilāwa) and the thing recited (matluw). And others preferred to give up speaking about it. As for what has been conveyed about Ahmad ibn Hanbal that he made no distinction between them (the recitation and the thing recited), he merely desired to bring closure to the matter so that none would find a means to say that the Qur’ān is created.”
Then he (Al-Baihaqī) produced two chains going back to Ahmad that (in one) he objected to those who said: “My lafz of the Qur’ān is uncreated.” And (in the other) he objected to those who said: “Mylafz of the Qur’ān is created.” And he (Ahmad) said: “The Qur’ān – however it is dealt with (and referred to) – is uncreated.” So he adopted the apparent meaning of this (statement). “The second [statement ‘My lafz of the Qur’ān is created’] has those who misunderstood the intent while it is clear in the first [declaration that ‘My lafz of the Qur’ān is uncreated’]. Likewise, it has been conveyed from Muhammad ibn Aslam Al-Tūsī that he said:
“The sound coming from the one who produces sound (when reciting the Qur’ān) is Allah’s speech.”
Such is a repugnant expression. He didn’t intend its apparent meaning. He merely intended to negate the thing recited (matluw) as being a created thing [since its meanings are eternal without beginning]. And something similar happened to the Imam of the Imams, Muhammad ibn Khuzayma who then later retracted. And he has a well-known account in that regard with his pupils. The jurist, Abū Bakr Al-Dab’ī, one of the Imams among his pupils, dictated to Ibn Khuzayma his creed. And in it he stated:
“Allah has from before creation been one who speaks (mutakallim). And there is no equal (mithl) to His speech, because He negated the equal from His attributes just as He negated the equal from His being. And He negated depletion from His speech just as He negated ruin from His self. He said: ((…The sea would be depleted before the words of my Lord would be depleted)). And He said: ((Every thing is perishing save His face)).”
So Ibn Khuzaima considered that to be correct and he was pleased with it.”
Then Ibn Hajar speaks about Imam Bukhārī. He says,
“And others say: Some of them thought that Bukhārī had opposed Ahmad. But that isn’t so. Rather, those who deeply reflect on his comments will not find any difference in meaning (between what the two of them said). However, the scholar – part of his norm – when he is tried in refuting a heresy is that most of his comments will relate more to its refutation than its opposite. So when Ahmad was tried by those who said ‘The Qur’ān is created’, most of his comments related to the refutation of them until he went overboard, and then objected to those who maintained neutrality and didn’t say that it is created or uncreated as well as those who said ‘My lafz of the Qur’ān is created.’ (He did this) so that those who say ‘The Qur’ān with my lafz is created’ would not find a means to (saying) that in spite of the fact that the difference between the two of them wasn’t hidden from him, although it might he hidden from others.
As for Bukhārī, he was tried by those who said ‘The voices of the slaves (of Allah) are uncreated’ until some of them went overboard and said,
“The same goes for the ink and the paper after being written (i.e. they are also uncreated).”
So most of his comments related to the refutation of them. But he went too far in advancing proof that the actions of the slaves (of Allah) are created based on the verses and hadiths. And he spoke at length about that until he was accused of being one of the ‘Lafziyya’ in spite of the fact that the statement of those who say ‘Verily what one hears from the reciter is the beginningless voice (of Allah)’ isn’t known from the Salaf. Ahmad didn’t say it. And neither did the Imams among his disciples (make any mention of it). And the only reason that that was ascribed to Ahmad was because of his saying
“Whoever says ‘My lafz of the Qur’ān is created’ is a Jahmi.’”
So they thought that he equated between the lafz (wording) and the sawt (sound). But there isn’t anything conveyed about Ahmad concerning the ‘sawt’ (sound/voice) as has been conveyed about him concerning the ‘lafz’ (wording, utterance). Rather, he expressly declared in a number of places that the sound heard from the reciter is the sound/voice of the reciter. The hadith “Decorate the Qur’ān with your voices” supports it… The difference is that the ‘lafz’ is attached to the one who utters it initially. For instance, it is said about the one who relates a hadith with its wording (lafz), “This is its wording” (hādhā lafzuhu). And (it is said) of one who has related it without its wording (lafz), “This is its meaning. It wording is such and such” (hādhā ma’nāhu wa lafzuhu kadhā). But it isn’t said of any of that, “This is its sound” (hādhā sawtuhu). So the Qur’ān is Allah’s speech, (both) its wording, and its meaning (lafzuhu wa ma’nāhu). It is not the speech of another. As for His saying: ((Verily it is the statement of a noble messenger)) – while there is disagreement about whether the intent is Gabriel or the Messenger – may Allah be pleased with both of them, the intent (from the word ‘statement’ in the verse) is ‘the conveyance’ (tablīgh), since Gabriel is conveying from Allah – High is He – to His messenger (pbuh). And the messenger (pbuh) conveys to mankind. And it hasn’t been conveyed about Ahmad ever that the action of the slave is beginningless and not about his voice. He merely objected to the general application of the word ‘lafz’ (to the Qur’ān). And Bukhārī expressly stated that the voices of the slaves are created, and that Ahmad does not oppose that. He said in Kitāb Khalq af’āl Al-‘Ibād’:
“What they claim about Ahmad, most of it isn’t clear. However, they didn’t understand his intent or his opinion. And what is known from Ahmad and the people of knowledge is that Allah’s speech – High is He – is uncreated while all other than it is created. But they disliked spreading news about obscure matters. And they avoided indulging in them and disputing with one another unless it is something that the Messenger (pbuh) clarified…”
Then Ibn Hajar said,
“And a summary of what has been conveyed about the speculative theologians (ahl al-kalām) in this issue are five different views: The first: is the view of the Mu’tazila that it is created. The second: is the view of the Kullābiyya that it is beginningless present with the being of the Lord. It is not letters and sounds, while what is found in the midst of people is an expression of it, not it itself. The third: is the view of the Sālimiyya that it is letters and sounds that are beginningless in essence. And it is actually these written letters and sounds heard. The fourth: is the view of the Karrāmiyya that it is newly uttered (muhdath), not created (makhlūq)… And the fifth: is that it (the Qur’ān) is the speech of Allah, uncreated, and that He has been – since before creation – speaking whenever He pleases. Ahmad expressed that in Kitāb al-Radd ‘ala Al-Jahmiyya. But his disciples have split into two factions: One of them says: that it is inseparable from His being while the letters and sounds are on an even plain (muqtarina), not following one another in a sequence (muta’āqiba). And he allows whomever He pleases to hear His speech. However, most of them said: ‘Verily He is one who speaks (mutakallim) with what He pleases and when He pleases. And when he summoned Musa (pbuh) when He spoke to him He had not summoned him prior to that time [in pre-eternity].” And what the view of the Ash’aris has become established upon is that:
‘The Qur’ān is the speech of Allah, uncreated, inscribed on pages, guarded in hearts (or minds), and recited on tongues.’ Allah – High is He – said ((…Then grant him asylum so that he may hear Allah’s speech)). And He – High is He – said ((Rather, it is verses made clear [found] in the breasts of those who have been given knowledge)). And in the hadith agreed upon (by Bukhārī and Muslim) on the authority of Ibn ‘Umar as has preceded in (The Book of) Jihad, (the Prophet said): “Do not travel with the Qur’ān to the land of the enemy out of dislike for having the enemy reach it.” And it doesn’t mean ‘what is in the breasts.’ Rather, it means ‘what is in papers.’
And the Salaf have unanimously agreed that all between the two covers (of the book) is Allah’s word (kalām). And some of them said: “The Qur’ān is mentioned and it is a reference to ‘the thing read’ (maqrū), which is the beginningless quality (of Allah). It is also mentioned while being a reference to ‘the reading’ (qirā’a), which are the words that point to (the existence of) that (quality). Due to that, disagreement occurred. As for their statement that ‘Verily it is exonerated from letters and sounds,’ their intent is the unuttered speech (kalām nafsī) present with the divine essence (of Allah). For it is one of the beginningless existing attributes (of Allah).
Then Ibn Hajar makes clear what his position is on the matter. He says,
“As for the letters – if they happen to be the movements of tools, like the tongue and lips, they are non-essential characteristics and accidents [indicative of createdness] (‘arād). And if they (the letters) are in writing, they are composite bodies and objects (ajsām). But the existence of composite bodies and accidents in Allah’s being – High is He – is impossible. And it is a necessary result of those who affirm that [they can be present with His essence] that he adopts the view that the Qur’ān is created while (in the same breath) denying such a thing and fleeing away from it. So that compelled some of them to claim the uncreatedness of the letter as the Sālimiyya adopted. And others adopted the view that they (the letters) are present in His being. And resulting from the extreme confusion that happened in the issue, the Salaf’s prohibition against indulging in it happened much. And they found it sufficient to believe that the Qur’ān is Allah’s word uncreated (al-Qur’ān kalām Allah ghayru makhlūq). And they didn’t add anything to that. And it is the safest of all views. And Allah is the One sought for aid.”
So it becomes clear that the true position of the Salaf was to limit themselves to saying, ‘The Qur’an is Allah’s word uncreated.’ As for stating that they are composed of letters and sounds or not, this was a later development in Islamic history. So it is sufficient for one to limit his/her statements to the same that the Salaf limited themselves to. [Fath Al-Bārī 15/465-467].
 Tuhfah Al-Murīd Sharh Jawhara Al-Tawhīd: p. 84.
 Salafis likely don’t realize what their view necessitates in that it results from it that Allah has two attributes of speech as opposed to one. One of them is an attribute of His divine essence, which is without beginning as His essence is. And the other is an attribute of action or just an act of creation done by the Creator, which must be created, since it is something that occurs outside of His being. Unfortunately, the Salafis insist that sounds, letters, and words can be without beginning in spite of the fact that one letter precedes another, which clearly indicates that they are time-specific.
Shaykh Muhammad ibn Sālih Al-‘Uthaymīn says after mentioning that Allah has two types of attributes, which are those of the divine essence (dhāt) and those that are actions (f’il):
“Additionally, the attribute may happen to be of the essence and an action [dhātiyya fi’liyya] at the same time from two different regards, like speech (kalām). It is while considering its origin an attribute of the essence, since Allah has everlastingly and continues to be one who speaks (mutakallim). And while considering the individual incidents of speech (āhād al-kalām) it is an attribute of action, since speech pertains to His will. He speaks when and with what He pleases”
[Al-Qawā’id al-Muthla: Idārāt al-Buhūth al-‘Ilmiyya wa al-Iftā wa Al-Da’wa wa al-Irshād p. 25].
Upon close reflection, it is revealed that the opinion of the Salafis is not much different from what the Mu’tazila say in that ‘Allah’s speech is one of His acts, not a quality of His essence.’ The only difference is that the Mu’tazila are shown to be more reasonable by denying that Allah has an eternal attribute found with His being referred to as ‘speech,’ since they deny the possibility of something being without beginning and created at the same time.
All of this must be considered with regard to the similarities between the two sects, since if – as ‘Uthaymīn said – “…speech pertains to His will. He speaks when and with what He pleases,” then the true attribute of Allah is not speech. It is His will, while speech is merely an action that originates from Allah’s will.
Another Salafi shaykh known as Muhammad Khalīl Harrās states after declaring that Allah’s attributes are of two different categories (attributes of the essence and attributes of action); he states about the latter:
“The second (category) is ‘Attributes of Action’ to which His will and power pertain at all times. And the individual incidents of those attributes of actions occur by His will and power, even though He has always been characterized as doing them without beginning; meaning that their general category (naw’) is without beginning (qadīm), while their individual occurrences (afrād) are created and emergent (hāditha). So He – Glory to Him – has everlastingly been a doer of whatever He wants. And He has everlastingly and continues to say, speak, create, and manage all affairs. And His actions occur one by one in accord with His wisdom and His will.”
[Sharh ‘Aqīda al-Wāsitiyya li Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taimiyya: Dār al-Fikr]
So here, Harrās, acknowledges the created and uncreated act of Allah by stating that “…their general category (naw’) is without beginning (qadīm), while their individual occurrences (afrād) are created and emergent (hāditha).”
This conclusion was adopted from Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taimiyya who borrowed the idea from the Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian philosophers who believed that the universe has no origin. They said, “Its general category is without beginning. But its individual occurrences and particulars are emergent (hādith) and created.”
This is like saying, the general category of ‘man’ is uncreated even though each individual person born in history came to being in a later time. So man is without beginning from one regard and with beginning from another.
And it is surprising that both Ibn Taimiyya and Harrās would use this type of argument to justify their belief in the uncreated-created (qadīm-hādith) speech of Allah in spite of the fact that the scholars of Islam have declared the philosophers with this type of thinking to be unbelievers.
Abdullah bin Hamid Ali
This article is reproduced courtesy of Lamppost Productions
I received a letter in Jordan not too long ago from a British Muslim, asking me questions about modern calls to replace traditional Islam with an ostensible “return to the way of the Salaf, or ‘early Muslims.’” When I answered one of these questions, I realized that many other people might be wondering the same thing, and thought that presenting the question to you tonight in a wider forum might be of greater benefit to the British Muslim and non-Muslim audience.
The letter asked me:
Are the Hanbali Mujtahid Imams al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm considered Ahl al-Sunna? And was Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal an anthropomorphist—meaning someone who ascribed human attributes to Allah? Can you provide me examples of the sayings of Imam Ahmad that show he did not have anthropomorphic ‘Aqida?
The questions proved to be related in ways unsuspected by their author. What unites them is literalism as an interpretive principle, which is the subject of my talk tonight. We will look at it first in respect to ijtihad, meaning the ‘qualified deduction of Islamic legal rulings from the Qur’an and hadith.’ But we will look at literalism also, and most carefully, from the point of view of ‘aqida or Islamic belief, in understanding the Qur’anic verses and prophetic hadiths that are called mutashabihat or ‘unclear in meaning’—such as the verse in Surat al-Fath that says,
“Allah’s hand is above their hands” (Qur’an 48:10)
—termed ‘unclear in meaning,’ mutashabih, because linguistically hand can bear multiple interpretations, and its ostensive sense seems to imply ‘belief in a God with human attributes,’ that is, anthropomorphism, an understanding categorically rejected by the Qur’anic verse in Surat al-Shura,
“There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11).
We shall see that literalism was a school of thought in Islamic jurisprudence, though not considered a very strong one by traditional scholars. But in tenets of faith, and particularly in interpreting the relation of the mutashabihat to the attributes of Allah, literalism has never been accepted as an Islamic school of thought, neither among the Salaf or ‘early Muslims,’ nor those who came later.
In answer to the first question, “Are the Hanbali Mujtahid Imams al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm considered Ahl al-Sunna?” Dawud ibn ‘Ali al-Dhahiri of Isfahan, who died 270 years after the Hijra, and Abu Muhammad ibn Hazm, who died 456 years after the Hijra, were not followers of Ahmad ibn Hanbal but Dhahiris or ‘literalists’ in jurisprudence. Whether Dawud al-Dhahiri was a mujtahid—meaning qualified to issue expert Islamic legal opinion—has been disagreed upon by Muslim scholars, not only for reasons we will discuss, but also because little that he wrote has come down to us.
As for Ibn Hazm, traditional Islamic scholars have not accepted his claims to be a mujtahid, the first qualification of which is to have comprehensive knowledge of the Qur’an and hadith. Scholars point to his many substantive mistakes in hadith knowledge, and adduce, for example, that if someone doesn’t even know, as Ibn Hazm did not, about the existence of the Sunan of al-Tirmidhi, who died nearly a hundred and fifty years before Ibn Hazm did, it is not clear how he can be considered a mujtahid. But aside from their qualifications, what interests us tonight is their Dhahirism or ‘textual literalism’ as an interpretive method.
What the Dhahiris are most famous for is their denial of all qiyas or analogy. It is recorded, for example, that Dawud held that the Qur’anic prohibition of saying “Uff” in disgust to one’s parents did not prove that it was wrong to beat them, since the literal content of the verse only concerned saying “Uff,” and no analogy could be drawn from this about anything else. Similarly, Ibn Hazm seems to have believed the prohibition in hadith of urinating into a pool of water did not show that there is anything wrong with defecating in it. These are two examples of denials of what is called in Arabic aqiyas jaliyy meaning an a fortiori analogy.
Denying the validity of the a fortiori analogy is so counterintuitive, that Imam al-Juwayni, who died 478 years after the Hijra, has said:
The position adopted by the most exacting of scholars is that those who deny analogy are not considered scholars of the Umma or conveyers of the Shari‘a, because they oppose out of mere obstinacy and exchange calumnies about things established by an overwhelming preponderence of the evidence, conveyed by whole groups from whole groups back to their prophetic origin (tawatur).
For most of the Shari‘a proceeds from ijtihad, and the uniquivocal statements from the Qur’an and hadith do not deal [n: in specific particulars by name] with even a tenth of the Shari‘a [n: as most of Islamic life is covered by general principles given by Allah to guide Muslims in every culture and time], so they [the literalists] are not considered of the learned” (al-Dhahabi, Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’ [Beirut: Mu’assasa al-Risala, 1401/1984], 13.105).
From Juwayni’s remark that “the uniquivocal statements from the Qur’an and hadith do not deal with even a tenth of the Shari‘a,” we can understand a main impetus of Dhahiri thought by which it differed from the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence; namely, that it radically truncated the range and relevance of the Shari‘a to nothing more than those rulings established by the literal wording (dhahir) of hadiths or verses. And this is perhaps one reason today for renewed interest in the long-dead school, namely, that it frees people from having to learn and follow the large part of the Shari‘a deduced from the general and comprehensive ethos of the Qur’an and sunna.
But secondly, if one reflects for a moment on the fiqh questions we hear urged today by youthful reformers in our mosques, it is plain that a great many of what are termed “Salafi ijtihads” are not salafi (early Muslim) at all, but mere Dhahiri or literalist interpretations of hadiths. To their credit, the movement we are speaking of has revived interest in hadith among Islamic scholars across the board. But it has also given rise to a bid‘a or ‘reprehensible innovation’; namely, that the emphasis on hadith and its ancillary disciplines to the exclusion of other Islamic sciences equally necessary to understanding the revelation, such as fiqh methodology, or the conditioning of hadith by general principles expressed in the Qur’an, has created a false dichotomy in many Muslims’ minds of either fiqh or hadith, where what is needed is fiqh or ‘understanding’ of hadith.
For example, a young man, after leading us at salat al-fajr prayer in Chicago a few months ago, told a latecomer to the first rak‘a (who had been finishing his sunna prayer when the iqama (call to commence) was made): “If the prescribed prayer begins, you don’t finish the sunna, but quit and join the group. Don’t listen to Abu Hanifa, or Malik, or Shafi‘i; the hadith is clear: La salata ba‘da al-iqama illa al-maktuba ‘There is no prayer after the iqama except the prescribed one.’”
Now, the dhahir or ‘literal meaning’ of the hadith was as he said, but the Imams of Shari‘a have not understood it this way for the very good reason that Allah says in Surat Muhammad of the Qur’an, “And do not nullify your works” (Qur’an 47:33), and to simply quit an act of worship—namely, the sunna rak‘as before fajr—is precisely to nullify one of one’s works.
Scholars rather understand the hadith to mean that one may not begin a sunna (or other nafila) prayer after the call to commence (iqama) is given. And this is very usual in human language: to use a general expression, in this case, “There is no prayer” to mean a specific part or aspect of it; namely, “There is no initiating a prayer.” Consider how the Qur’an says, “Ask the village we were in, and the caravan that we came with” (Qur’an 12:82), where the dhahir or literal meaning of village and caravan; namely, the assemblage of stone huts and the string of pack animals, are not things that can be asked—but rather a specific aspect or part of them is intended; that is, the people of the village and the people of the caravan, or rather, just some of them. There are many similar expressions in every language, “Put the tea on the stove,” for example, not meaning to heap the dried leaves on the stove, but rather to put them in a pot, add water, and light the stove, and so on. It is all the more surprising that anyone, Dhahiri or otherwise, could have ever imagined that Arabic, with its incomparable richness in figures of speech, could be so impoverished as to lack this basic expressive faculty.
In reference to modern re-formers of Islam, such literalism necessarily forces itself upon someone trained in hadith alone, as most of them are, when they try to deduce Shari‘a rulings without mastery of the interpretive tools needed to meet the challenges that face the mujtahid, for example, in joining between a number of hadiths on a particular question that seem to conflict, or the many other intellectual problems involved in doing ijtihad. This has made some contemporary Muslims seriously believe that it is a matter of either following “the Qur’an and sunna,” or one of the schools of themujtahid Imams.
This idea has only gained credibility today because so few Muslims understand what ijtihad is or how it is done. I believe this can be cured by familiarizing Muslims with concrete examples of how mujtahid Imams have derived particular Shari‘a rulings from the Qur’an and hadith. Such examples would first show the breadth of their hadith knowledge—Muhammad ibn ‘Ubayd Allah ibn al-Munadi, for example, who died in 272 years after the Hijra, heard Ahmad ibn Hanbal say that having memorized three hundred thousand hadiths was not enough to be a mujtahid—and second, would show the mujtahids’ mastery of the deductive principles that enabled them to join between all the primary texts.
Until this is done, the advocates of this movement will probably continue to follow the ijtihad of non-mujtahids (the sheikhs who inspire their confidence), under the catch phrase “Qur’an and sunna” just as if the real mujtahids were unfamiliar with these. The followers perhaps cannot be blamed, since “for someone who has never travelled, his mother is the only cook.” But I do blame the sheikhs who, whatever their motivations, write and speak as if they were the only cooks.
Finally, if the shortcomings of Dhahiri interpretation is plain enough in fiqh, in ‘aqida, it can amount to outright kufr, as when someone reads the Qur’anic verse,
“Today We forget you as you have forgotten this day of yours” (Qur’an 45:34),
and affirms that Allah forgets, which is an imperfection, and not permissible to affirm of Allah. Of this sort of literalism, Dawud al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm were innocent, for this is anthropomorphism, meaning to believe Allah has human attributes, and as such is beyond the pale of Islam.
Regarding the second question that I received in my letter, of whether Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal was an anthropomorphist, this is something that has been asked since early times, particularly since someone forged an anthropormorphic tract called Kitab al-sunna [The book of the sunna] and put the name of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s son Abdullah on it. It was published in two volumes in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, by Ibn al-Qayyim Publishing House, in 1986.
I looked this book over with our teacher in hadith, Sheikh Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, who had examined it one day, and said that at least 50 percent of the hadiths in it are weak or outright forgeries. He was dismayed how Muhammad al-Qahtani, the editor and commentator, could have been given a Ph.d. in Islamic faith (‘aqida) from Umm al-Qura University in Mecca for readying for publication a work as sadly wanting in authenticity as this.
Ostensibly a “hadith” work, it contains some of the most hard-core anthropomorphism found anywhere, such as the hadith on page 301 of the first volume that “when He Most Blessed and Exalted sits on the Kursi, a squeak is heard like the squeak of a new leather saddle”; or on page 294 of the same volume: “Allah wrote the Torah for Moses with His hand while leaning back on a rock, on tablets of pearl, and the screech of the quill could be heard. There was no veil between Him and him,” or the hadith on page 510 of the second volume: “The angels were created from the light of His two elbows and chest,” and so on.
The work also puts lies in the mouths of major Hanbali scholars and others, such as Kharija [ibn Mus‘ab al-Sarakhsi], who died 168 after the Hijra, and who on page 106 of volume one is quoted about istiwa’ (sometimes translated as being ‘established’ on the Throne), “Does istiwa’ mean anything except sitting?”—with a chain of transmission containing a liar (kadhdhab), an unidentifiable (majhul), plus the text, with its contradiction (mukhalafa) of Islamic faith (‘aqida). Or consider the no less than forty-nine pages of vilifications of Abu Hanifa and his school that it mendaciously ascribes to major Imams, such as relating on page 180 of the first volume that Ishaq ibn Mansur al-Kusaj, who died 251 years after the Hijra said, “I asked Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, ‘Is a man rewarded by Allah for loathing Abu Hanifa and his colleagues?’ and he said, ‘Yes, by Allah.’” To ascribe things so fatuous to a man of godfearingness (taqwa) like Ahmad, whose respect for other scholars is well attested to by chains of transmission that are rigorously authenticated (sahih), is one of the things by which this counterfeit work overreaches itself, and ends in cancelling any credibility that the name on it may have been intended to give it.
The ascription of this book to Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s son ‘Abdullah fails from a hadith point of view, since there are two unidentifiable (majhul) transmitters in the chain of ascription whose names are given as Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Simsar and Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Harawi, of whom no other trace exists anywhere, a fact that the editor and commentator, Muhammad al-Qahtani, on page 105 of the first volume tries to sweep under the rug by saying that the work was quoted by Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya.
But the fact that such a work even exists may give one an idea of the kinds of things that have been circulated about Ahmad after his death, and the total lack of scrupulousness among a handful of anthropomorphists who tried literally everything to spread their innovations.
Another work with its share of anthropomorphisms and forgeries is Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s Ijtima‘ al-juyush al-Islamiyya [The meeting of the Islamic armies], published by ‘Awwad al-Mu‘tiq in Riyad, Saudi Arabia, in 1988, which on page 330 mentions as a hadith of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the words “Honor the cow, for it has not lifted its head to the sky since the [golden] calf was worshipped, out of shame (haya’) before Allah Mighty and Majestic,” a mawdu‘ hadith forgery apparently intended to encourage Muslims to believe that Allah is physically above the cow in the sky.
On page 97 of the same work, Ibn al-Qayyim also mentions the hadith of Bukhari, warning of the Antichrist (al-Masih al-Dajjal), who in the Last Days will come forth and claim to be God; of which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Allah has sent no prophet except that he warned his people of the One Eyed Liar, and that he is one-eyed—and that your Lord is not one-eyed—and that he shall have unbeliever (kafir) written between his two eyes” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 8.172). Ibn al-Qayyim comments, “The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) negated the attribute of one-eyedness [of Allah], which is proof that Allah Most High literally has two eyes.” Now, any primer on logical fallacies could have told Ibn al-Qayyim that the negation of a quality does not entail the affirmation of its contrary, an example of the “Black and White Fallacy” (for example, “If it is not white, it is therefore black,” “If you are not my friend, you must be my enemy,” and so on), though what he attempts to prove here does show the kind of anthropomorphism he is trying to promote. Forged chains of hadith transmission in Ibn al-Qayyim’s Ijtima‘ al-juyush al-Islamiyya are the subject of a forthcoming work by a Jordanian scholar, In Sha’ Allah, which those interested may read.
For all of these reasons, the utmost care must be used in ascribing tenets of faith to Ahmad ibn Hanbal or other Imams, especially when made by anthropomorphists whose concern is to create credibility for the ideas we are talking about. Many would-be revivers of these ideas today have been misled by their uncritical acceptance of the statements and chains of ascription found in the books of Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, which they cite in print and rely on, and from whence they get the idea that these were the positions of the early Muslims and prophetic Companions or Sahaba.
Umbrage has unfortunately been taken at the biographies I appended to my translation Reliance of the Traveller about Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, which detail the gulf between Ibn Taymiya’s innovations and the ‘aqida of the early Muslims, though anyone interested can read about it in any number of other books, one of the best of which has been published in Cairo in 1970 by Dar al-Nahda al-‘Arabiyya, and is called Ibn Taymiya laysa salafiyyan [Ibn Taymiya is not an early Muslim], by the Azhar professor of Islamic faith (‘aqida) Mansur Muhammad ‘Uways, which focuses primarily on tenets of belief. Another was written by a scholar who lived shortly after Ibn al-Qayyim in the same city, Taqi al-Din Abu Bakr al-Hisni, author of the famous Shafi‘i fiqh manual Kifaya al-akhyar [The sufficiency of the pious], whose book on Ibn Taymiya is called Daf‘ shubah man shabbaha wa tamarrada wa nasaba dhalika ila al-sayyid al-jalil al-Imam Ahmad [Rebuttal of the insinuations of him who makes anthropomorphisms and rebels, and ascribes that to the noble master Imam Ahmad], published in Cairo in 1931 by Dar Ihya’ al-Kutub al-‘Arabiyya. Whoever reads these and similar works with an open mind cannot fail to notice the hoax that has been perpetrated by moneyed quarters in our times, of equating the tenets of a small band of anthropomorphists to the Islamic belief (‘aqida) of Imam Ahmad and other scholars of the early Muslims (al-salaf).
The real (‘aqida) of Imam Ahmad was very simple, and consisted, mainly of tafwid, that is, to consign to Allah the meaning of the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent meanings’ of the Qur’an and hadith, accepting their words as they have come without saying or claiming to know how they are meant. His position is close to that of a number of other early scholars, who would not even countenance changing the Qur’anic order of the words or substituting words imagined to be synonyms. For them, the verse in Sura Taha,
“The All-merciful is ‘established’ (istawa) upon the Throne” (Qur’an 20:5)
does not enable one to say that “Allah is ‘established’ upon Throne,” or that “The All-merciful is upon the Throne” or anything else besides “The All-merciful is ‘established’ (istawa) upon the Throne.” Full stop. Their position is exemplified by Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayna, who died 98 years after the Hijra, and who said, “The interpretation (tafsir) of everything with which Allah has described Himself in His book is to recite it and remain silent about it.” It also resembles the position of Imam Shafi‘i, who simply said: “I believe in what has come from Allah as it was intended by Allah, and I believe in what has come from the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) as it was intended by the Messenger of Allah.”
It should be appreciated how far this school of tafwid or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah’ is from understanding the mutashabihator ‘unapparent in meaning,’ scriptural expressions about Allah as though they were meant literally (‘ala al-dhahir). The Hanbali Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Khallal, who died in Hijra year 311, and who took his fiqh from Imam Ahmad’s students, relates in his book al-Sunna through his chain of narrators from Hanbal ibn Ishaq al-Shaybani, the son of the brother of Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s father, that
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 thetremendousness 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 thesalaf? 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 preciselyta’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.
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995
This is the Text of a lecture given at Islamic Cultural Center (Regents Park Mosque) 28th January 1995.
(13) The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “When two vituperate each other, [the sin of] what they say is borne by the one who first began, as long as the one wronged does not transgress [the bounds of merely defending himself, by answering back with worse]” (Muslim, 4.2000: 2587. S). And when a group of Jews covertly cursed the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) by using a play on the words “as-Salamu ‘alaykum,” ‘A’isha noticed it and gave them a rounding, and he said, “Enough, ‘A’isha; for Allah does not like vulgarity or making a display of it” (ibid., 1707: 2165(4). S). And in another version, “O ‘A’isha, always have gentleness, and always shun harsh words and vulgarity” (Bukhari, 8.15: 6030. S). This is the adab of Islam with hardened enemies, so how should it not apply to our fellow Muslims, let alone family and loved ones?
(14) It is of the adab of the high path of Islam to be honest when one speaks. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Honesty certainly leads to goodness, and goodness leads to paradise. Truly, a man keeps speaking the truth until he is inscribed as being true through and through. And lying leads to going wrong, and going wrong leads to hell. Truly, a man lies and lies until he is inscribed as being a liar through and through” (Muslim, 4.2012–13: 2607. S).
(15) It is of the adab of the high path of Islam to completely abandon and shun guile, deceit, scornfulness, or sarcasm because these are unlawful. Allah Most High says, “O you who believe, let no men scorn other men, for they might well be better than they are. And let no women scorn other women, for they might well be better than they. And do not find fault with one another, or give each other insulting nicknames” (Qur’an 49:11). And Allah Most High says, “Woe to whoever demeans others behind their back or to their face” (Qur’an 104:1). And the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Let there be no harming another, or harming him back. Whoever harms another Allah shall harm, and whoever gives trouble to another Allah shall give trouble to” (Hakim, 2.58. Hg).
(16) It is of the adab of the high path of Islam to abandon lying, for it is unlawful. Allah Most High curses liars by saying, “May liars be slain” (Qur’an 51:10), in which slain means “cursed” according to the Arabic idiom likening the accursed, who loses every good and happiness, to the slain, who loses life and every blessing. The Qur’anic exegete al-Khazin notes that “May liars be cursed” originally referred to those who sat on the various roads outside Mecca warning people against the words of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to keep them from becoming Muslim. The verse, however, like other Qur’anic verses, is not limited to the original circumstances in which it was revealed, but applies universally, to the end of time. Those who lie, except in circumstances in which Sacred Law permits it, are cursed by Allah.
(17) It is unlawful to lie, except when making up between two people, or lying to an enemy in war, or to one’s wife. It is also unlawful to praise or blame another with an untruth. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Lying is wrong, except in three things: the lie of a man to his wife to make her content with him; a lie in war, for war is deception; or a lie to settle trouble between people” (Ahmad,6.459. H). Ibn Jawzi has said, “The criterion for it is that every praiseworthy objective in Sacred Law that cannot be brought about without lying is permissible to lie for if the objective is permissible, and obligatory to lie for if the objective is obligatory.” When lying is the only way to attain one’s right, one may lie about oneself or another, provided it does not harm the other. And it is obligatory to lie to if necessary to protect a Muslim from being murdered. But whenever one can accomplish the objective by words that merely give a misleading impression with actually being false, it is unlawful to tell an outright lie, because it is unnecessary.
(18) If one needs to swear a false oath in order to save a person whose life is unlawful to take from being killed, then one must swear it, for saving such a person’s life is obligatory, and if doing so depends on an oath, it is obligatory. Suwayd ibn Handhala (Allah be well pleased with him) said: “We set out to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) and Wa’il ibn Hajar was with us, and he was captured by an enemy. The group was forced to swear an oath [that all were of the same clan, which was under a protection agreement], so I swore that he was my brother, and they released him. We reached the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) and I told him that the group had been forced to swear, and that I had sworn he was my brother, and he said, “You told the truth: the Muslim is the bother of the Muslim” (Abu Dawud, 3.224:3256. S).
(19) The “Farewell Sermon” of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) at hajj:All praise is Allah’s. We praise Him, seek His help, ask His forgiveness, and we repent unto Him. We seek refuge in Allah from the evils of our selves and our bad actions. Whomever Allah guides none can lead astray, and whomever He leads astray has no one to guide him. I testify that there is no god but Allah alone, without any partner, and I testify that Muhammad is his slave and messenger. I enjoin you, O servants of Allah, to be godfearing towards Allah, I urge you to obey Him, and I begin with that which is best.
To commence: O people, hear me well: I explain to you. For I do not know; I may well not meet you again in this place where I now stand, after this year of mine.
O people: your lives and your property, until the very day you meet your Lord, are as inviolable to each other as the inviolability of this day you are now in, and the month you are now in. Have I given the message?—O Allah, be my witness. So let whoever has been given something for safekeeping give it back to him who gave him it.
Truly, the usury of the Era of Ignorance has been laid aside forever, and the first usury I begin with is that which is due to my father’s brother ‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib. And truly the blood-vengeance of the Era of Ignorance has been laid aside forever, and the first blood-vengeance we shall start with is that which is due for the blood of [my kinsman] ‘Amir ibn Rabi‘a ibn Harith ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib. Truly, the hereditary distinctions that were pretensions to respect in the Era of Ignorance have been laid aside forever, except for the custodianship of the Kaaba [by Bani ‘Abd al-Dar] and the giving of drink to pilgrims [by al-‘Abbas].
A deliberate murder is subject to retaliation in kind. An accidental death from a deliberate injury means a death resulting from [something not usually used or intended as a deadly weapon such as] a stick or a rock, for which the indemnity is one hundred camels: whoever asks for more is a person of the Era of Ignorance.
O people: the Devil has despaired of ever being worshipped in this land of yours, though he is content to be obeyed in other works of yours, that you deem to be of little importance.
O people: postponing the inviolability of a sacred month [claiming to postpone the prohibition of killing in it to a subsequent month, so as to continue warring despite the sacred month’s having arrived] is a surfeit of unbelief, by which those who disbelieve are led astray, making it lawful one year and unlawful in another, in order to match the number [of months] Allah has made inviolable. Time has verily come full turn, to how it was the day Allah created the heavens and the earth. Four months there are which are inviolable, three in a row and forth by itself: Dhul Qa‘da, Dhul Hijja, and Muharram; and Rajab, which lies between Jumada and Sha‘ban. Have I given the message?—O Allah, be my witness.
O people: verily you owe your women their rights, and they owe you yours. They may not lay with another men in your beds, let anyone into your houses you do not want without your permission, or commit indecency. If they do, Allah has given you leave to debar them, send them from your beds, or [finally] strike them in a way that does no harm. But if they desist, and obey you, then you must provide for them and clothe them fittingly. The women who live with you are like captives, unable to manage for themselves: you took them as a trust from Allah, and enjoyed their sex as lawful through a word [legal ruling] from Allah. So fear Allah in respect to women, and concern yourselves with their welfare. Have I given the message?—O Allah, be my witness.
O people, believers are but brothers. No one may take his brother’s property without his full consent. Have I given the message?—O Allah, be my witness. Never go back to being unbelievers, smiting each other’s necks, for verily, I have left among you that which if you take it, you will never stray after me: the Book of Allah. Have I given the message?—O Allah, be my witness.
O people, your Lord is One, and your father is one: all of you are from Adam, and Adam was from the ground. The noblest of you in Allah’s sight is the most godfearing: Arab has no merit over non-Arab other than godfearingness. Have I given the message?—O Allah, be my witness. —At this, they said yes.
He said, Then let whomever is present tell whomever is absent.
O people:, Allah has apportioned to every deserving heir his share of the estate, and no deserving heir may accept a special bequest, and no special bequest may exceed a third of the estate. A child’s lineage is that of the [husband who owns the] bed, and adulterers shall be stoned. Whoever claims to be the son of someone besides his father or a bondsman who claims to belong to other than his masters shall bear the curse of Allah and the angels and all men: no deflecting of it or ransom for it shall be accepted from him.
And peace be upon all of you, and the mercy of Allah.
(20) ‘Ata’ ibn Abi Rabah, Mufti of Mecca (d. 114/732), of the generation that followed that of the prophetic Companions (Sahaba) said of them, “They used to dislike talking more than necessary, and considered “more than necessary” to mean more than your reciting the Qur’an, enjoining the right, forbidding the wrong, or speaking about making a living, in the amount strictly necessary.”
(21) The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should say something good or else be quiet” (Bukhari, 8.13: 6019. S). He also said (Allah bless him and give him peace) “Whoever is silent is saved” (Ahmad, 2.159. S). And the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Verily the slave will say a word he thinks nothing of that Allah loves, for which Allah raises him whole degrees. And verily the slave will say a word he thinks nothing of that Allah detests, for which he plummets into hell” (Bukhari, 8.125: 6478. S).
(22) It is of the adab of Islam to know the value of one’s word, not to give unless one intends to keep it, and to keep it once it has been given. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “The signs of a hypocrite are three: when he speaks he lies, when he promises he breaks it, and when entrusted with something he betrays it” (Bukhari, 1.15: 33. S).
When Abu Bakr was dying, he sent for ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (Allah be well pleased with both of them), and told him, “O ‘Umar, if you are given authority over the people, fear Allah and hold fast to what is right. For the balance of those whose scale pans are heavy on Resurrection Day [with good deeds] shall only be heavy for their having followed what is right and its heaviness upon them; and it befits the balance scale when what is right is placed in it tomorrow to be heavy. And the balance of those whose scale pans are light on Resurrection Day [because of few good deeds] shall only be light for their having followed what is wrong and its ease upon them; and it befits the balance scale when what is wrong is placed in it tomorrow to be light. And know that there are works for Allah at night that He does not accept during the day, and that there are works during the day that He does not accept at night. And that He does not accept a supererogatory work of worship until the obligatory has been done.”