What is in the name ‘kalam’? How the word kalam came to be the name of the science of Islamic theology reveals interesting findings regarding both the unique function and scope of the science itself, on the one hand, and its wider relation to other Islamic sciences, on the other. The word kalam literally means speech, discourse or conversations. Its meanings also include discourse, discursiveness, argumentation, or disputation. As a name of a religious science kalam covers the theological productions and discourses of different Islamic denominations, including Sunnism, Shi`aism, and Mu`tazlim, and Zaydism. Although there are numerous names designated to this science, the word kalam came to be most commonly used among experts and practitioners over other names, as will be further explained below.
One of the most interesting—and sometimes confusing, for some—is that, unlike other Islamic sciences which have had one consistent name since their formulation, the science of kalam has had several names. Understanding the conceptual and historical reasons of what’s in the name of science of kalam is relevant to the study of kalam whether in traditional or academic settings. Traditionally, acquiring knowledge of the different aspects of a science, including its name, subject-matter, founders, among other aspects, has always been part of traditional pedagogical methodology[i]. Historically there were numerous names of kalam, including: (1) al-fiqh al-akbar (lit. the grand understanding), which is chronologically the oldest known name, as it was used as a title for a theological manual by Imam Abu Hanifa al-Nu`man (d. 80/699); (2) `ilm al-kalam, the most common especially among experts; (3) `ilm usul al-din (lit. the foundations of religion), in contrast to the science of Legal Methodology (usul al-fiqh), and together, these two sciences constitute the core of Islamic intellectualism; (4) `ilm al-`aqa’id (doctrines, or `ilm al-`aqida, using the singular); (5) `ilm al-tawhid or`ilm al-tawhid wa al-sifat (the science divine unity and attributes), and this name refers to its cardinal and focal subject matters; and finally (6) `ilm al-nazar wa al-istidlal (the science of theory and inference)[ii]. Whether by signifying the importance of the science (like in previous names 1 and 3), its scope (names 4 and 5), or methodological and logical modes (2 and 6), the previous names surely reflect the core aspects and mode Islamic theology.
As a science, kalam is traditionally defined as “A science which enables the affirmation of religious doctrines by presenting arguments and getting rid of misconceptions”, to use one of the most cited definitions.[iii] As a word, however, kalam, connotes the fluidity and circularity of dialects and debates. Applying such a word to what should naturally be as fixed and anchored as tents and doctrines of faith, makes this combinatory relation worthy of engaging with and attempting to unfold.
The most extensive account of why this science came to be called `ilm al-kalam can be found in Imam al-Taftazani’s seminal commentary on the famous theological manual of Al-`aqaid al-Nasafiyya, in which he starts by listing the eight common reasons why kalam can be so called:
Imam al-Taftazani also mentions five additional and original reasons about the naming of kalam in the same work, arguing,
If thought about inversely, it is probably this very expansive nature of the mode and scope of Islamic theology that have caused the emergence of so many names for it. This echoes the famous mystical aphorism of Imam al-Nifarri; ‘the more the scope of the vision is expanded, the more confined the utterance of expression becomes’ (idha itas`a al-ma`na ḍaqat al-`ibara).
No wonder then that in the English academic literature the science of kalam enjoys a wide gamut of translations: from ‘the science of dialectics’[v], to ‘dogmatic theology’[vi], or a speculative system of philosophical thought[vii], to ‘Islamic speculative theology’[viii], and to natural theology or philosophical theism[ix]. It was even argued to be equivalent to the Greek meaning of “logos” in the various senses of this word, despite the limitations this imposes on the expansive nature of the science.[x] Surely the above wide range of translations affects perceptions with the regard to the contents and the dynamics of the science.
Practitioners and experts of kalam operated within a complex and multifaceted scope of functions. To shed light on the wider epistemological context related to this scope, and in ways that correspond to the justifications previously listed by Imam al-Taftazani, the scope of kalam is best understood in the following light:
Since the subject-matter of `ilm al-tawhid is what is ‘known’ (al-ma`lum) by virtue of its connection to affirming doctrines, no one then should object when they see the scholars of tawhid engaging in natural science, mathematics, medicine, even philosophy, as well as other sciences, since this falls within the core of their mandated mission… The upshot is that this science investigates the fixed judgments for divine essence, His attributes, the states of the contingent beings (mumkinat) in the ‘here-now’ and hereafter according to the ‘law of Islam’ (qanun al-Islam). What is meant by the ‘laws of Islam’ is the means to knowledge in Islam, in the same way it is well known that every comprehensive overarching principle and comprehensive [epistemological] system has its own criteria and measurements with which it weighs and assesses matters. These measurements are the epistemological tools. Known subjects must then be in-line with Islamic epistemological theory. Every epistemological means whose validity has been definitely established is an Islamic epistemological means”[xi]
Certainly, however, the adoption of the name kalam and the association of the discipline and engagement with philosophical argumentation did not come without a price[xii]. This very naming became a tool used by scholars who criticized Islamic theology’s deployment of and engagement with the philosophical method. The word was used as a pun in both statements and book titles criticizing these aspects of the science, by dismissing kalam scholarship as mere hollow talk or speculation.[xiii] Modern anti-kalam Sunni movements use the science of tawhid and `aqida instead for Islamic theology. On the other end of the spectrum, interestingly enough, many reformist theological movements, both Sunni and Shi`a, cling to the word and instead call for a ‘new kalam’ (`ilm al-kalam al-jadid).[xiv]
Finally, one of the most interesting aspects of Islamic sciences is that if one juxtaposes their names in one cluster, one can find that there is a shared link between the linguistic and intellectual[xv]. The names of the core Islamic sciences starting from the Quran (a word whose literal meaning denotes reading, reciting as well as differentiation), Prophetic tradition or hadith (denotes telling, narrating, tradition, and reporting), scriptural exegesis or tafsir (lit. explaining, interpreting, or unveiling a meaning), jurisprudence or fiqh (a word means to acquire a subtle understanding), and logic or mantiq (lit. utterance) as well as the previous explication of the meaning of kalam, suggest an epistemic relation. Although the context here does not allow for adequate expanding, but this epistemic relation can be best understood in the light of the centrality of knowledge in Islam[xvi] and the sciences of Shari`ah, chief among which is theology, and that such a knowledge is to be lived, breathed, embodied and certainly practiced rationally, physically, and spiritually; in the same way ideas are spoken and conversed.
As expressed by Wael Hallaq, Shari`ah, within which kalam, with its wide scope, operates, is essentially a discursive practice.
Shari`ah represented a complex set of social, economic, moral and cultural relations that permeated the epistemic structures of the social and political order. It was a discursive practice in which these relations intersected with each other, acted upon each other and affected one another in a multiple ways…Indeed, the theological substrate encompassed the muddily mystical, the esoterically pantheistic and rationally philosophical. thereby creating complex relations between the Shari`ah and the larger spiritual and intellectual orders in which, and alongside which, it lived and functioned…[A] discursive practice that structurally and organically tied itself to the world around it in ways that were vertical and horizontal, structural and linear, economic and social, moral and ethical, intellectual and spiritual epistemic and cultural and textual and poetic, among much more.[xvii]
The naming of the science of kalam has a particular significance; from the uniqueness of having numerous different names, the particularity and the different denotations and connotations of the term kalam, and the linguistic and historical reasons for how the discipline of Islamic theology came to be known as such, and the linguistic relation with the names of other Islamic disciplines. As erudite scholar of kalam Hasan al-Shafi`i argues, studying the importance of this special name “sheds light on the development of the history of the science [of kalam] and its developments, increases one’s readiness and preparedness to study it, and makes the initial study of it an insightful one.”[xviii]
[i] This is embodied in what is known as the ‘ten principles’ (al-mabadi’ al-`ashra) which are conventionally taught as an introduction at the outset of learning any of the Islamic sciences in traditional circles. These ten principles are combined in famous verses of poetry by Imam al-Sabban on his supra-commentary the famous logical text of Al-sullam. These ten principles compromise: (1) The definition of the science, (2) its subject-matters, (3) the outcome of studying it, (4) the virtues of significance of studying it, (5) its relation to other sciences, (6) its founder(s), (7) its name, (8) its foundational resources, (9) the religious ruling of studying it, and finally (10) its main questions. Al-Sabban, Hashiyya `ala Sharh al-Sullam lil-Mallawi. Cairo; Maṭabi` al-Halabi al-Babi, 2nd edition, 1938, p. 35.
[ii] In his commentary on Al-sanusiyya, Imam al-Bajuri states that some scholars mentions that there are as many as eight different names for this science. However, he only mentions two; `ilm al-tawhid and `ilm al-kalam. Al-Bajuri, Hashiyya `ala matn al-sanusiyya. Al-Matba`a al-Milijiyya, Cairo; 1907; p. 8.
[iii] This is the definition used by Imam al-Iji, from the commentary of Al-Jurjani on his famous book Al-mawaqif, Beirut; Dar al-Kutub al-`Ilmiyya, v. 1, p. 40.
[iv] Al-Taftazani, Sharh al-Nasafiyya. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Arabiyya, p. 10-11.
[v]Fakhry, Majid. “Philosophy and Theology: From the Eighth Century C.E. to the Present.” In The Oxford History of Islam, edited by John L. Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 277.
[vi] Chittick, William. Faith and Practice of Islam: Three Thirteenth Century Sufi Texts. New York: SUNY Press, 1992, p. 1.
[vii] Goldziher, Ignac, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, trans. Andras Hamori and Ruth Hamori, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
[viii] Marmara, Michael. “God and His creation: Two Medieval Islamic Views. In Introduction to Islamic Civilization edited by R. M. Savory. Cambridge University Press,1976, p. 47.
[ix] Craig, William Lane, The Kalam Cosmological Argument. London: Macmillan Press, 1979, p. 4.
[x] Wolfson, Harry Austryn. The Philosophy of Kalam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976, p. 1.
[xi] Fouda, Said. Buhuth fi `ilm al-kalam. Amman, Dar al-Razi, 2004; p. 24, 27.
[xii] For more on the interaction between Islamic theology and philosophy, see “Islamic Philosophy (falsafa)” by Hossein Ziai, in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology edited by Tim Winter. Cambridge, 2008.
[xiii] Books from the genre include Dhamm al-kalam wa ahluh by al-Harawi, and Sawn al-mantiq wa al-kalam `an fan al-mantiq wa al-kalam. The latter work, however, is mainly dedicated to criticizing the use of mantiq or Islamic logic, due to it is adoption of Aristotelian concepts, and it serving as an auxiliary science to the field of Islamic theological investigations.
[xiv] From Sunni theology, see the work of the famous later Indian scholar al-Shibli al-Nu`mani in this, and the important book Fi usul al-hiwar wa tajdid `ilm al-kalam (On the Foundations of Dialogue and the Revival of the Science of Kalam). In Shi`a tradition, the reformist contributions of Haydar Huballah under the very title `Ilm al-kalm al-jadid and works of Abd al-Jabar al-Rifa`I on this subject.
[xv] For more on tradition-guided rationality read Alasdair MacIntyre’s work, especially Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. In relation to the inherent philosophical dimension of Islamic theology and its relationship to linguistic, as naturally embodied in the name kalam, this following argument can be read from Whose Justice? Which Rationality? “tradition-constituted and tradition-constitutive enquiry, what a particular doctrine claims, is always a matter of how precisely advanced, of the linguistic particularities of its formulation, of what in that time and place had to be denied, if it was to be asserted, of what was at the time presupposed by its assertions, and so on.” (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988, p. 10).
[xvi] The first chapter of Imam al-Ghazali’s Ihya `ulum al-din certainly important in this regard. An important work in the English language that investigates this relation is Rosenthal, Franz. Knowledge Triumphant. The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam. Leiden: Brill, 1970.
[xvii] Hallaq, Wael. Shari`ah, Theory, Practice and Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 543-544.
[xviii] Al-Shafi`i, Hasan. Al-madkhal ila dirasat `ilm al-kalam. Cairo: Maktabat Wahba, 1991, p. 25.
Feature image courtesy of Sohail Nakhooda https://snakhooda.smugmug.com/
Muhammad Zahid ibn Hasan al-Kawthari al-Hanafi al-Ash‘ari (1296-1371), the adjunct to the last Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Caliphate and a major (mujaddid) of the fourteenth Islamic century. He studied under his father as well as the scholar of Qur’an and hadith Ibrahim Haqqi (d. 1345), Shaykh Zayn al-‘Abidin al-Alsuni (d. 1336), Shaykh Muhammad Khalis al-Shirwani, al-Hasan al-Aztuwa’i, and others. When the Caliphate fell he moved to Cairo, then Sham, then Cairo again until his death, where the late Shaykhs ‘Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghudda and ‘Abd Allah al-Ghumari became his students. Following is his prestigious chain of transmission in fiqh:
Imam al-Kawthari (d. 1371) took fiqh from his father, and also from the hadith master Ibrahim Haqqi (d. 1345) and from Shaykh Zayn al-’Abidin al-Alsuni (d. 1336).
Al-Kawthari’s father took fiqh from the hadith master Ahmad Dya’ al-Din al-Kamushkhanawi al-Naqshbandi (d. 1311) the author of the hadith index Ramuz al-Ahadith.
who took fiqh from Sayyid Ahmad al-Arwadi (d. 1275)
who took fiqh from the hadith master Muhammad Amin, Ibn ‘Abidin (d. 1252), whose chain is given elsewhere.
Both Haqqi and Alsuni took fiqh from the hadith master Ahmad Shakir (d. 1315)
who took fiqh from the hadith master Muhammad Ghalib (d. 1286)
who took fiqh from Sulayman ibn al-Hasan al-Kraydi (d. 1268)
who took fiqh from Ibrahim al-Akhiskhawi (d. 1232)
who took fiqh from Muhammad Munib al-’Aynatabi (d. 1238)
who took fiqh from Isma’il ibn Muhammad al-Qunawi (d. 1195)
who took fiqh from ‘Abd al-Karim al-Qunawi al-Amidi (d.1150)
who took fiqh from Muhammad al-Yamani al-Azhari (d. 1135)
who took fiqh from ‘Abd al-Hayy al-Shurunbulali
who took fiqh from Abu al-Ikhlas al-Hasan al-Shurunbulali (d. 1069)
who took fiqh from ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad al-Nuhrayri
and from Shams al-Din Muhammad al-Muhibbi al-Qahiri (d. 1041)
who both took fiqh from ‘Ali al-Maqdisi (d. 1004)
who took fiqh from Ahmad ibn Yunus al-Shalabi (d. 948)
who took fiqh from ‘Abd al-Barr ibn al-Shahna (d. 921)
who took fiqh from Imam al-Kamal ibn al-Humam (d. 861)
who took fiqh from Siraj al-Din ‘Umar ibn ‘Ali Qari’ al-Hidaya (d. 829)
who took fiqh:
1) from ‘Ala’s al-Din al-Sirami (d. 790)
who took fiqh from Jalal al-Din al-Karlani
who took fiqh from ‘Abd al-’Aziz al-Bukhari (d. 730) [the author of Kashf al-Asrar, a manual of Usul al-Fiqh]
who took fiqh from Hafiz al-Din Imam ‘Abd Allah ibn Ahmad al-Nasafi (d. 701)
who took fiqh from the Sun of Imams Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Sattar al-Kardari
2) from Akmal al-Din Muhammad al-Babarti (d. 796)
who took fiqh from Qawwam al-Din Muhammad al-Kaki (d. 749)
who took fiqh from al-Husayn al-Saghnaqi (d. 711)
who took fiqh from Hafiz al-Din al-Kabir Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Nasr al-Bukhari (d. 693)
who also took fiqh from Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Sattar al-Kardari (d. 642)
Al-Kardari took fiqh from the author of the Hidaya, Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Bakr al-Marghinani (d. 593)
who took fiqh from al-Najm Abu Hafs ‘Umar al-Nasafi (d. 537)
who took fiqh from the two Pazdawi brothers, Fakhr al-Islam (d. 482) and Sadr al-Islam (d. 493),
the first of whom took fiqh from the Sun of Imams al-Sarkhasi (d. 483) the author of the Mabsut,
who took fiqh from the Sun of Imams al-Halwa’i (d. 448)
who took fiqh from al-Husayn ibn Khidr al-Nasafi (d. 423)
who took fiqh from Muhammad ibn al-Fadl al-Bukhari (d. 381)
who took fiqh from ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad al-Harithi (d. 340)
who took fiqh from Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Hafs (d. 264)
who took fiqh from his father Abu Hafs al-Kabir (d. 217)
who took fiqh from the Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani (d. 189) the companion of Imam Abu Hanifa,
while Sadr al-Islam took fiqh from Isma’il ibn ‘Abd al-Sadiq
who took fiqh from ‘Abd al-Karim al-Pazdawi (d. 390)
who took fiqh from the Imam of Guidance Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 333)
who took fiqh from Abu Bakr al-Jawjazani
who took fiqh from Abu Sulayman Musa ibn Sulayman al-Jawjazani
who also took fiqh from the Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani.
Al-Shaybani took fiqh from the founder of the madhhab Imam Abu Hanifa al-Nu‘man (d. 150)
who took fiqh from Hammad ibn Abi Sulayman (d. 120)
who took fiqh from Ibrahim ibn Yazid al-Nakha‘i (d. 95)
who took fiqh from  ‘Alqama ibn Qays (d. 62),  al-Aswad ibn Yazid (d. 75), and  Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman ‘Abd Allah ibn Hubayyib al-Sulami (d. 74 or 73)
‘Alqama and al-Aswad took fiqh from ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud (d. 32),
while al-Sulami took fiqh from Sayyiduna ‘Ali who was martyred in Kufa in the month of Ramadan of the year 40.
Both Ibn Mas‘ud and Sayyiduna ‘Ali took from the Seal of Prophets and Leader of the Radiant-faced ones, the Master of the First and the Last among angels, jinn, and human beings including Prophets and Messengers: who was taken to the Highest Company in the late morning of the Second Day of the week, the 13th of the month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal in the year 11, the blessings and greeting of Allah upon him, honor, generosity, and mercy, and upon his excellent and chaste Family as well as his pure and Godfearing Companions.
A tireless scholar, there is apparently no field of the Islamic sciences in which al-Kawthari did not have a well-founded claim to authority. He edited and brought back into circulation countless classical books of fiqh, hadith, and usûl after he moved to Cairo. A staunch Ash‘ari, he held an extremely critical view of anti-Ash‘aris, considering Ibn Taymiyya an unmitigated anthropomorphist. Among the books he authored as listed by his student Ahmad Khayri:
Bulugh al-Amani fi Sira al-Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani, a biography of the foremost Hanafi authority after Imam Abu Hanifa.
Al-Fara’id al-Wafiya [or: al-Fawa’id al-Kafiya] fi ‘Ilmay al-‘Arud wa al-Qafya (“The Abundant Peerless Matters in the Two Sciences of Prosody and Rhyme”), published without the name of the author.
Fiqh Ahl al-‘Iraq (“The Jurisprudence of the Iraqi Scholars”), less than a hundred pages in length, it is one of the great works on the remarkable character of Hanafi fiqh and its school and contains useful definitions of key concepts such as analogy (qiyâs), scholarly exertion (ijtihâd), and discretion (istihsân) as well as biographical notices on the most eminent figures of the Hanafi school. It was meticulously commented upon by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghudda. Excerpts:
(In praise of al-Zayla‘i) “If the students of fiqh find one among the hadith masters who is profoundly learned and truly insightful without being taken over by vain lusts – let them hold onto him tooth and nail, for such a type is, among them, as rare as red sulphur.”
The ‘Aqida Tahawiyya received several commentaries, among them that of Najm al-Din Abu Shuja‘ Bakbars al-Nasiri al-Baghdadi – one of Sharaf al-Din al-Dimyati’s shaykhs –, that of Siraj al-Din ‘Umar ibn Ishaq al-Ghaznawi al-Misri, that of Mahmud ibn Ahmad ibn Mas‘ud al-Qunawi, that of Sharh al-Sadr ‘Ali ibn Muhammad al-Adhra‘i, and others. A commentary was published, authored by an unknown [“Ibn Abi al-‘Izz”] spuriously affiliated with the Hanafi school, but whose handiwork proclaims his ignorance of this discipline and the fact that he is an anthropomorphist who has lost his compass.
• Bid‘a al-Sawtiyya Hawl al-Qur’an (“The Innovation of Asserting Pre-Existence for Qur’an-Recitation”) in which he states: “It is a fact that the Qur’an as found on the Tablet, on Gibril’s tongue and that of the Prophet e , as well as the tongue of all those who recite it, their hearts, and their tablets, is created, originated, and necessarily brought to be. Whoever denies this is a sophist who is unworthy of being heard. The pre-existent is only the concept that subsists in Allah I in the sense of Allah’s own self-discourse (al-kalâm al-nafsî) within His Knowledge, as expressed by Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Ibn Hazm.”
• Hadith Man Tashabbaha bi Qawmin fa Huwa Minhum (“The Hadith: ‘Whoever Outwardly Imitates A People, He is One of Them’”) in which he says: “This hadith is one of the pithy statements of the Prophet e . Al-Najm al-Ghazzi – one of the great Shafi‘i scholars of the eleventh century – authored a large volume titled Husn al-Tanabbuh li Ahkam al-Tashabbuh (“The Excellent Awakening to the Rulings That Pertain to Outward Imitation”) in which he examines at length the rulings inferred from this hadith. This volume is in Damascus’ Zahiriyya library and deserves to be published.” In the corollary article entitled Mansha’ Ilzam Ahl al-Dhimma bi Shi‘arin Khassin wa Hukmu Talabbus al-Muslimi bihi ‘Inda al-Fuqaha’ (“The Origin of the Imposition of a Distinctive Vestimentary Sign on Non-Muslim Citizens and the Juridical Status of Its Donning by a Muslim”) – written in response to Muhammad ‘Abduh’s fatwa permitting the donning of fedoras and top hats by Muslims – he cites the hadith of the Prophet e : “Dye your white hair and do not imitate the Jews” and mentions that Ibn Taymiyya adduced it as evidence that tashabbuh may take place passively on our part and without specific intention. This is a proof against beardless Muslims that wear a suit and tie “without intending to imitate non-Muslims” let alone those who endorse their fashions.
• Hijab al-Mar’a (“Woman’s Veil”) in which he adduced the report of Ibn ‘Abbas and ‘Ali’s companion ‘Abida al-Salmani – narrated by al-Tabari in hisTafsir – whereby the meaning of the verse [ they [women] should cast their outer garments (jalâbîb) over their persons] (33:59) included the face but for one eye. Ibn Rushd said that this verse has been adduced as proof that all of woman’s body constitutes nakedness while al-Qurtubi in his commentary on the verse said that the jilbâb is the cloak that conceals all of the body including the head. Another verse states [ And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their headcovers (khumûrihinna) over their bosoms] (24:31), “only that which is apparent” meaning their face and hands according to most jurists, provided they pose no risk of enticement. The Hanbalis include the hands and face among the limbs that must be covered, as they read the above verses in the light of the Prophet’s e statement: “Woman is nakedness (al-mar’atu ‘awra), so when she goes out the devil is facing her, and the nearest she is to her Lord’s countenance is in the privacy of her house.” ‘A’isha defined the headcover as follows: “When a woman reaches puberty she must cover whatever her mother and grandmother must cover,” their khimâr being “nothing short of what covers both the hair and skin,” “without transparency.” She also said: “By Allah, I never saw any better women than the women of the Ansar nor stronger in their confirmation of the book of Allah! When Sura al-Nur was revealed [and to draw their khumûr over their bosoms] (24:31) – their men went back to them reciting to them what Allah had revealed to them in that [sura or verse], each man reciting it to his wife, daughter, sister, and relative. Not one woman among them remained except she got up on the spot, tore up her waist-wrap and covered herself from head to toe (i‘jtajarat) with it. They prayed the very next dawn prayer covered from head to toe (mu‘tajirât).” The two interpretations of the order to [draw their headcovers over their bosoms] among the women of the Companions and the generation that immediately succeeded them – on which are based the two views of the Four Schools, to cover everything or leave out the face and hands – stem from the fact that some women drew from the top down, some from the sides and over. The result for the first category was to cover the face, while the second category left the face uncovered.
• Khutura al-Qawl bi al-Jiha (“The Gravity of the Doctrine That Attributes Direction [to Allah I ]”) in which he reports al-Bayadi’s explanation of Imam Abu Hanifa’s statement: “Whoever says, ‘I do not know whether my Lord is in the heaven or on earth’ is a disbeliever and, similarly, whoever says, ‘He is on the Throne and I do not know whether the Throne is in the heaven or on earth’ is a disbeliever.” Al-Bayadi said in Isharat al-Maram: “This is because he implies that the Creator has a direction and a boundary, and anything that possesses direction and boundary is necessarily created. So this statement explicitly attributes imperfection to Allah I . The believer in [divine] corporeality and direction is someone who denies the existence of anything other than objects that can be pointed to with the senses. They deny the Essence of the Deity that is transcendent beyond that. This makes them positively guilty of disbelief.”
• Al-Lamadhhabiyya Qantaratu al-Ladiniyya (“Anti-Madhhabism is the Archway of Atheism”).
• Layla al-Nisf Min Sha‘ban (“The Night of Mid-Sha‘ban”) in which he cites the hadith whereby the Prophet e said: “The night of mid-Sha‘ban let all of you spend in prayer and its day in fasting, for Allah descends to the nearest heaven during that night beginning with sunset and says: ‘Is there no-one asking forgiveness that I may forgive them? Is there no-one asking sustenance that I may grant them sustenance? Is there no one under duress that I may relieve them? Is there not such-and-such, is there not such-and-such, and so forth until until dawn rises.’” Al-Kawthari commented: “The meaning of descent is His opening the gate of response to His servants, and this is true Arabic usage. As for explaining it as His displacement from top to bottom, it is ignorance of what is permissible and impermissible to apply to Allah I . Therefore, one has to explain it metaphorically as Allah’s sending down a herald sounding out this call, as indicated by al-Nasa’i’s narration; or, also metaphorically, as His ‘turning toward’ (yuqbilu ‘alâ) those who ask forgiveness etc. as related from Hammad ibn Zayd and others. Also, sunset and the last third of the night differ for each region, so both go on continuously according to each different region of the world. It cannot be imagined that a sensory descending is meant in all the formulations of the hadith of descent, and the hadith of mid-Sha‘ban is in the same category.”
• Ma Hiya al-Ahruf al-Sab‘a? (“What Are the Seven Wordings?”) in which he expressed the positions that the ahruf al-sab‘a were not dialects but synonyms, most of which were either abrogated or retained in their known current form.
• Mahq al-Taqawwul fi Mas’ala al-Tawassul (“The Eradication of Gossip Concerning the Use of Intermediaries”), a seminal article on the question.
• Tahdhir al-Umma Min Du‘at al-Wathaniyya (“Warning the Community About Those Who Call to Idol-Worship”), written in 1942, in which he lambasts al-Azhar for allowing the publication of ‘Uthman ibn Sa‘id al-Darimi’s al-Radd ‘ala al-Jahmiyya which contains phrases like “[Allah I ] moves if He wishes, descends and ascends if He wishes… stands and sits if He wishes”; “Allah I has a limit… and His place also has a limit, as He is on His Throne above His heavens, and these are two limits”; “if He wished, He would have settled on the back of a gnat” and other enormities. This is identical to Ibn Karram’s doctrine whereby “Allah has a body unlike bodies, and a limit.” Yet Ibn Taymiyya ardently defends al-Darimi’s views, citing them time and again in his attack on Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s Asas al-Taqdis – a refutation of anthropomorphism – entitled al-Ta’sis Radd Asas al-Taqdis, even claiming that Imam Ahmad upheld the doctrine of that Allah I possesses a limit. At the same time he admits that Ahl al-Sunna did hold the opposite view: “The position that He is above the Throne but has no limit (hadd) nor dimension nor body is that of many of the upholders of the Divine Attributes (al-sifâtiyya) among the followers of Ibn Kullab and the Ash‘ari Imams including their early authorities and whoever agrees with them among the jurists … and the hadith scholars and the Sufis… among them Abu Hatim, Ibn Hibban, and Abu Sulayman al-Khattabi.” Then he states: “Al-Qadi [Abu Ya‘la] said that Ahmad asserts in absolute terms that Allah I had a limit but he negates it in Hanbal’s narration, saying: ‘We believe that Allah is on the Throne in the manner He wishes and however He wishes, without limit nor description anyone could give or define Him by.’ So he negated the limit that pertains to the description he mentioned, meaning the limit known by creatures… And that is the meaning of Ahmad’s statement: ‘Allah I has a limit that only He knows.’” The latter is in blatant contradiction of what is authentically reported from Imam Ahmad by his the major authorities of his school.
Among the books al-Kawthari edited or forwarded:
is criticized for what is perceived by some as excessive partisanship for the Hanafi school and a contentious style in refuting or attacking opponents. Shaykh ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn al-Siddiq al-Ghumari (1328-1413) wrote in Bida‘ al-Tafasir (p. 180-181):
We admired al-Kawthari for his knowledge, wide reading, and modesty, just as we hated his bias for the Hanafis. This bias of his exceeded al-Zamakshari’s bias for the Mu‘tazili school to the point that my brother, the hadith master Abu al-Fayd [Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Siddiq al-Ghumari] used to call him “Abu Hanifa’s madman!” (majnûn Abi Hanifa).
When he offered me his espitle entitled Ihqaq al-Haqq [bi Ibtal al-Batil fi Mughith al-Khalq] (“Making Truth Prevail in Exposing the Falsehoods of Mughith al-Khalq“), a refutation of Imam al-Haramayn’s [Abu al-Ma‘ali ‘Abd al-Malik ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Juwayni] epistle on the preferability of the Shafi‘i school [entitled Mughith al-Khalq fi Tarjih al-Qawl al-Haqq in which the Imam attacked the Hanafi and Maliki schools], I found him casting aspersions [cf. Ihqaq p. 19-20] on the [Qurayshi] lineage of Imam al-Shafi‘i, citing [the trustworthy hadith master Zakariyya ibn Yahya ibn Dawud] al-Saji’s statement [in his book Manaqib al-Shafi‘i]. I criticized him for this aspersion and said to him: “Questioning lineages does not constitute a scholarly refutation.” He replied: “A sectarian refuting a sectarian.” He said this verbatim, so he acknowledges his sectarianism.
I visited him in his house once, together with the noble Sharîf, al-Sayyid Muhammad al-Baqir al-Kattani, and as we discussed certain scholarly issues the name of the hadith master Ibn Hajar came up. Al-Sayyid al-Baqir showed his admiration of Ibn Hajar’s memorization and his commentary on al-Bukhari, and I echoed his opinion. Whereupon he deprecated that commentary and said: “Ibn Hajar used to depend upon hadith indexes (al-atrâf) when collating the different routes of the hadith,” which is untrue. Then he said that he – Ibn Hajar – used to follow women in the streets and make passes at them, at one time following a woman thinking that she was beautiful, until she arrived at her house with him in her tracks; when she removed her face-veil (burqu‘), she turned out to be an ugly black woman, so he turned back, frustrated.
Now, the reason behind this attack, is that al-Hafiz used to assail some of the Hanafis in his books of biography, such as al-Durar al-Kamina and Raf‘ al-Isr[‘an Qudat Misr]. He said of the Hanafi al-‘Ayni that he used to take the manuscript pages of Fath al-Bari from one of his students and use them in his commentary [on Sahih al-Bukhari, entitled ‘Umdat al-Qari]. When al-Hafiz found out, he prevented the distribution of these pages to students.
Worse than this, al-Kawthari imputed senility to Anas bin Malik for relating a hadith that contradicts the school of Abu Hanifa. Worse yet is his attempt to pass a fabricated hadith as authentic because it might imply the tidings of Abu Hanifa, namely, the hadith: “Were knowledge (al-‘ilm) to be found at the Pleiades, certain men from among the Persians would go there to obtain it.” The hadith is in the two Sahihs with the word “belief” [“Were belief (al-îmân)to be found at the Pleiades, a man from those people would go there to obtain it”], and when the Prophet e said it he put his hand on the shoulder of Salman al-Farisi t . Some forger then changed the word “belief” to “knowledge” as pointed out by my brother, the hadith master Abu al-Fayd, in al-Mathnuni wa al-Battar, who said: “Even if it were authentic there would not be in it any reference to Abu Hanifa but to the hadith masters who came out of Persia, such as Abu al-Shaykh and Abu Nu‘aym, for ‘ilm in the terminology of Islamic law means the Book and the Sunna, not juridical opinion (ra’î) and analogy (qiyâs).” Al-Kawthari took him to task in Ta’nib al-Khatib for saying this and replied to him with some harsh words, whereupon my brother wrote a reply to him in which he collected his scholarly blunders and the self-contradictions caused by his odious fanaticism, with some harshness, at the same time acknowledging his knowledge and learning. That reply was not submitted for publication out of deference for their friendship.The difference of opinion between two scholars does not break up their friendship and, like two lawyers differing in a court of justice, they meet as friends outside of it…. May Allah have mercy on my brother and on al-Kawthari, the two major scholars of their time without contest, and may Allah gather us with them in the Abode of His Mercy.
Following is Imam Abu Zahra’s eulogy of al-Kawthari after the latter’s death:
I do not know of any scholar who has departed and left his position vacant these past years such as the position Imam al-Kawthari has left vacant. He was the Remnant of the Pious Predecessors, who did not take knowledge as a source of income, nor as a stepping-stone to a worldly goal.
He was – Allah be well-pleased with him! – a scholar of learning who personified the transmitted report, “The ulamas are the inheritors of the Prophets.” He did not consider this inheritance a mere title of honor by which to pride himself and dominate others. Rather, he considered it a jihad for the purpose of announcing Islam, showing its truths, and banishing the illusions that conceal its essence. He would show it to people pristine and radiant so that they rose to its light and were well-directed by its guidance. He considered such an inheritance demand of the scholar that he strive just as the Prophets strove, standing firm against hardships and tribulations just as they did, remaining patient like them when faced by the stubbornness of those he called to the truth and guidance. Such inheritance is not an honor except to those who practice the means that lead to it, give it its due rights, and know the duties that come with it. Imam al-Kawthari did all of the above.
That distinguished Imam was not an adherent of a new school of thought, nor was he an inviter to a novel matter with no precedent, nor was he one of those whom people label nowadays as reformers. Nay, he used to shy from that, for he was a follower (muttabi‘) and not an innovator. Yet, in spite of that, I say that he was one of the Renewers (al-mujaddidîn) in the true sense of Renewal. For Renewal is not what people today commonly think, namely, casting off the noose and a return to the beginnings of Prophecy; rather, it consists in returning to the religion its splendor and dispelling the confusions that were cast over it, so that it will be shown to people in the purity of its essence and in its original pristine state. Renewal consists in giving life to the Sunna, causing innovation to die, and for the column of Religion to stand among mankind.
That is real and true Renewal and, indeed, Imam al-Kawthari undertook the revival of the Prophetic Sunna. He uncovered what had lain hidden in the alcoves of history out of the books of the Sunna; clarified the methods of its narrators; and made known to the people the Sunna of the Prophet e in its sayings, its deeds, and its tacit rulings through his epistles and his books. Then he devoted himself entirely to the efforts of the past ulamas who upheld the Sunna and gave it its due right. He published the books in which they compiled their works for the purpose of reviving the Sunna at a time when souls were imbued with love of the Religion, hearts had not yet been corrupted, and the scholars were not swayed by the world away from the hereafter nor spent time at the beck and call of rulers.
Imam al-Kawthari was a true scholar; the scholars knew his knowledge. I knew him years before meeting him. I knew him through his writings in which the light of truth shone forth. I knew him through his commentary of manuscripts which he undertook to publish. By Allah! My amazement at the manuscript did not match my amazement at the commentary of the editor. Even when the original manuscript was a brief epistle, yet the Imam’s commentary on it would turn it into a major work that should be read. Truly one’s insight and wide erudition show plainly in such commentaries. All this he did with an elegant style, subtle allusions, forceful analysis, accomplished accuracy, and total mastery over his own thought and writing technique. It could not occur to the mind of the reader that he was a non-Arab writer and not patently Arab. … Yet it is not really astonishing, for he was Turkish in ancestry, education, and everyday life at the time he lived in Istanbul (al-Astana) but his scholarly life was purely Arabic, for he read nothing but Arabic, and nothing filled his head but the shining light of Muhammadan Arabic. …
He came from a family in the Caucasus, as reflected in his vigor, strength, handsome body and spirit, and the quality and depth of his thought. His father moved to Istanbul where he was born in surroundings of guidance and truth. He studied the Islamic sciences until he attained the highest rank in them at around twenty-eight years of age. Then he ascended the ladder of teaching positions until he reached their highest level quite early. He reached the point when he was confronted by those who wanted to separate the world from religion in order to rule the world by other than what Allah has revealed, but he stood in ambush for them despite the fact that he was yet without experience, with everything that a young man at the beginning of his career could hope for. But he chose his Religion over their world. He chose to defend what is still left of Islam rather than have a pleasant life. He preferred to face continuous enmity while obtaining the good pleasure of Allah I rather than pleasure and comfort amidst people’s approval and the good pleasure of those who held the keys of the lower world. Obtaining the good pleasure of Allah is truly the goal of faith.
He fought the promoters of atheism (al-ilhâdiyyîn) in power when they tried to shorten the period of study for the religious curriculum when he saw that to shorten it would jeopardize its preliminary and final parts, so he left no stone unturned until he did away with their wish and even lengthened the period that they were trying to cut short, so that students would be able to absorb and digest all the disciplines they needed, especially for non-natives learning in a patent Arabic tongue. …
He strove with all his might and effort – may Allah be well-pleased with him – on the loftiest paths until he became Deputy of the Office of Shaykh al-Islam in [Ottoman] Turkey. He was among those known to give such a post its due. He never exceeded bounds so as to please someone high-placed, no matter how great their power over him, eventually preferring to be expelled from his position for the sake of upholding the public good. It is better to be expelled for the sake of truth than to implement falsehood. …
Then the lofty-minded, abnegating, Godwary scholar was put to the severest test when he saw his dear country – the Great Land of Islam, the pivot of his strength, the locus of hopes for Muslims – overshadowed by atheism and taken over by those who do not wish any honor for this Religion. The one who clings to his Religion in such a place soon becomes like one clasping a burning coal. Then he finds himself targeted by persecution so that unless he escaped, he would be thrown into some forlorn prisons and blocked from all that is knowledge and teaching. At that point, the Imam faced three choices. Either to remain a prisoner in chains, his knowledge put out in the deep gaol; a harsh fate for a scholar of learning accustomed to teach and guide others, extracting the treasures of the Religion and bringing them to light for the benefit of humankind. Or grovel and flatter and kowtow, short of which he would remain in fetters or even risk losing his life. Or emigrate – and vast are the lands of Allah. He remembered the saying of Allah, [Was not the earth of Allah spacious that you could have migrated therein?] (4:97).
So he emigrated to Egypt then moved to Syria. He then returned to Cairo, then went back to Damascus again, until he finally settled in Cairo.
During his trips to Sham and his residence in Cairo he was a beacon of light. His residence expanded into a school to which flocked the students of true knowledge – not the students of schoolish knowledge. Those students were guided to the sources of knowledge through the books that were written when the marketplace of the Islamic sciences was vibrant and the souls of the ulamas thriving with Islam. He coached the minds of those searching students with those sources and directed them to them. At the same time he would explain whatever they found obscure and pour out the abundance of his learning and share the fruits of his thought. …
I bear witness that I have heard the praise of eminent personalities and scholars, but I never prided myself with any of it as much as I prided myself with the praise of this magnificent shaykh – for such is a scholarly badge from someone who is truly able to give it. …
That noble man who suffered many trials and overcame them, was also afflicted with the loss of loved ones, for he lost his children during his own lifetime, death taking them one after the other. By virtue of his knowledge, he was able to be patient, uttering the statement of the Prophet Ya‘qub, Patience is beautiful, and the help of Allah must be entreated (12:18). … He passed on to his Lord, patient, thankful and praiseful, as the sincere and righteous pass on. May Allah be pleased with him and make him pleased!
“Truly, hadith pleases the virile among men,
while the effeminate among them hate it.”
Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn ‘Ali ibn Thabit ibn Ahmad ibn Mahdi al-Shafi‘i (392-463), with Abu al-Ma‘ali Ibn al-Juwayni and Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri the third most important figure in the fourth generation-layer of Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari’s school, praised by al-Dhahabi as “the most peerless imam, erudite scholar and mufti, meticulous hadith master, scholar of his time in hadith, prolific author, and seal of the hadith masters.” Al-Qinnawji said: “He was a jurist whose preference went to hadith and history.” His father – a memorizer of Qur’an and the main preacher (khatîb) in Darzijan Southwest of Baghdad – sat him at the age of eleven in the class of Ibn Razquyah al-Bazzar (d. 412), after which he travelled first to Baghdad then Naysabur around 415, back to Baghdad, then Asbahan for two years, Ray, Hamadhan, Dinawar, back to Baghdad, then al-Sham and Mecca for pilgrimage, then Baghdad or his nearby native Darzijan until 451, then Damascus until 459, then Tyre (Sûr) until 462, then Baghdad again where he died.
Al-Khatib wrote abundantly on the science of hadith and became the undisputed hadith authority in his time according to his student, the Hanbali hadith master Ibn ‘Aqil. He heard countless hadith masters, among them Abu Bakr al-Barqani (who also narrated from him), Abu Nu‘aym al-Asbahani, al-‘Abdawi, and the pious centenarian virgin scholar Karima bint Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Marwaziyya (d. 463) – one of al-Kushmihani’s students – from whom al-Khatib took al-Bukhari’s Sahih in five days during his pilgrimage trip at age fifty-two. He took Shafi‘i fiqh from Abu al-Hasan ibn al-Mahamili and the qadi Abu al-Tayyib al-Tabari, whom he frequented for several years. Among his famous students: al-Nasr al-Maqdisi, Ibn Makula, al-Humaydi, Abu Mansur al-Shaybani – who transmitted his Tarikh – and the Hanbali Abu Ya‘la.
Ibn Makula and al-Mu’taman al-Saji said that the people of Baghdad never saw anyone such as al-Khatib after al-Daraqutni. Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Suri ranked al-Khatib far above Abu Nasr al-Sijzi. Abu ‘Ali al-Baradani said: “It is probable al-Khatib never met his equal.” Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini said: “Al-Khatib is the Daraqutni of our time.” Ibn Makula said:
He was one of the foremost scholars whom we witnessed in his science, precision, memorization, and accuracy in the hadith of the Messenger of Allah e . He was an expert in its minute defects, its chains of transmission, its narrators and transmitters, the sound and the rare, the unique and the denounced, the defective and the discarded. The people of Baghdad never had someone comparable to Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn ‘Umar al-Daraqutni after the latter, except al-Khatib.
Sa‘id al-Mu’addib asked al-Khatib: “Are you the hadith master Abu Bakr?” He replied: “I am Ahmad ibn ‘Ali; hadith mastership ended with al-Daraqutni.”
About hadith mastership al-Khatib wrote:
He does not excel in hadith science nor is able to peruse its complexities and shed light on its hidden benefits except he who has gathered its variants, collated its loose ends, brought it all together, and worked assiduously to compile it under its topical subheadings, organizing its different types. This activity strengthens competence, cements memorization, purifies the heart, hones the personality, expands the tongue, greatly improves language, unveils ambiguities and clarifies them. It also earns memorability and immortality, as the poet said:
Some die then knowledge keeps alive their memory,
While ignorance joins the dead with the dead.
‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Ahmad al-Kattani said: “Al-Khatib followed the [doctrinal] school of Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari – Allah have mercy on him.” Al-Dhahabi reports this and comments: “This is true. For al-Khatib explicitly stated, concerning the reports on the Divine Attributes, that they are passed on exactly as they were received, without interpretation.” Ibn al-Subki comments: “This is al-Ash‘ari’s position, yes. But al-Dhahabi is the victim of his lack of knowledge of Shaykh Abu al-Hasan’s position just as others were also victims: for al-Ash‘ari also has another position allowing for figurative interpretation (al-ta’wîl).” Al-Dhahabi does go on to relate al-Khatib’s precise disowning of both nullification (ta‘tîl) and anthropomorphism (tajsîm) of the divine Attributes:
Abu Bakr al-Khatib said: “As for what pertains to the divine Attributes, whatever is narrated in the books of sound reports concerning them, the position of the Salaf consists in their affirmation and letting them pass according to their external wordings while negating from them modality(kayfiyya) and likeness to things created (tashbîh). <A certain people have contradicted the Attributes and nullified what Allah I had affirmed; while another people have declared them real then went beyond this to some kind of likening to creation and ascription of modality. The true objective is none other than to tread a middle path between the two matters. The Religion of Allah I lies between the extremist and the laxist.> The principle to be followed in this matter is that the discourse on the Attributes is a branch of the discourse on the Essence. The path to follow in the former is the same extreme caution as in the latter. When it is understood that the affirmation of the Lord of the Worlds [in His Essence] is only an affirmation of existence and not of modality, it will be similarly understood that the affirmation of His Attributes is only an affirmation of their existence, not an affirmation of definition (tahdîd) nor an ascription of modality. So when we say: Allah I has a Hand, hearing, and sight, they are none other than Attributes Allah I has affirmed for Himself. We should not say that the meaning of ‘hand’ is power (al-qudra) nor that the meaning of ‘hearing’ and ‘sight’ is knowledge (‘ilm), nor should we say that they are organs (lâ naqûlu innahâ jawârih)! Nor should we liken them to hands, hearings, and sights that are organs and implements of acts. We should say: All that is obligatory is  to affirm them because they are stated according to divine prescription (tawqîf), and  to negate from them any likeness to created things according to His saying (There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him) (42:11) ( and there is none like Him) (112:4).”
Our teacher Dr. Nur al-Din ‘Itr comments al-Khatib’s position thus:
This is a vulnerable spot where feet tread a slippery path. Many are those who fell into likening Allah to His creatures because of it, or into something like it – our refuge is in Allah! – while believing that this was the position of the pious Salaf y but Allah has exonerated the latter from holding it. … Imam al-Khatib passed the obstacle at which point pens lapsed and illusions flared, for he refuted the Mu‘tazila and their likes who contradict the divine Attributes, and he understood the position of the Salaf as it truly is by affirming those Attributes with a kind of affirmation that commits to Allah I the knowledge of their reality, not an affirmation of dimensionality and modality (athbata tilka al-sifât ithbâtan yufawwidu ‘ilma haqîqatihâ ilâ Allâhi ta‘âlâ lâ ithbâta tahdîd wa takyîf). He thereby asserted the school of the Salaf as it really was, not as some erratic people in our time understand it to be. The latter are in fact arrogant wranglers who cannot tell the difference between the Salaf’s committal of the actual knowledge of these matters to Allah, their holding His Transcendence above whatever anthropomorphism the terms may suggest, and the anthropomorphism of the ignorant Karramiyya!
Abu al-Faraj al-Isfarayini said: “Al-Khatib was with us in Hajj, and he used to conclude an integral recitation of Qur’an outloud every day. People would gather around him as he was mounted, saying: ‘Narrate hadith to us,’ and he would narrate to them.” ‘Abd al-Muhsin al-Shihi said: “I was al-Khatib’s travelling companion from Damascus to Baghdad, and he used to recite the entire Qur’an once every day and night.”
Ibn al-Abanusi reported that al-Khatib used to read while walking. This is a common habit among hadith masters. Al-Khatib himself narrated that ‘Ubayd ibn Ya‘ish said: “For thirty years I never ate at night with my own hand. My sister would spoonfeed me while I wrote hadith.”
Al-Khatib wrote in his Tarikh Baghdad in the entry devoted to Isma‘il ibn Ahmad al-Naysaburi al-Darir: “He went to pilgrimage and narrated hadith, and what a wonderful shaykh he was! When he went to Hajj he took with him a load of books, intending to reside in Mecca or Madina for a while. Among them was al-Bukhari’s Sahih which he had heard from al-Kushmihani. I read it before him entirely in three sittings. The third session lasted from the beginning of the day until night, and it ended with the rising of dawn.” Al-Dhahabi comments: “This was – by Allah! – the kind of reading faster than which no-one ever heard.”
Abu al-Qasim ibn al-Muslima, al-Qa’im bi Amrillah’s vizier – nicknamed Ra’is al-ru’asa’ – and a hadith scholar, patronized al-Khatib with a small fortune which enabled the latter to devote himself to teaching and writing. He passed an edict that no teacher nor preacher in Baghdad narrate a hadith without authenticating it with al-Khatib first. He once asked the latter to verify a document which some Jews produced claiming that it was the Prophet’s e exemption of the tax on non-Muslims (jizya) for the Jews of Khaybar written, they said, in the hand of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib t . Al-Khatib looked at the document then declared it a forgery on the grounds that it was witnessed by Mu‘awiya – who entered Islam in the year of the conquest of Mecca, whereas Khaybar was conquered in the year 7 – and Sa‘d ibn Mu‘adh who died during the battle of Banu Qurayza two years before Khaybar.
Al-Khatib came to settle in Damascus, fleeing Baghdad in Safar 451 in fear for his life during the Fatimi-leaning Turk Arslan al-Basasiri’s (d. Dhu al-Hijja 451) attempted coup against al-Qa’im bi Amrillah (422-467) and the Abbasid caliphate, although Damascus itself was under Fatimi rule. He then fled Damascus again in 459 to go to Tyre until 462, whence he returned to Baghdad, visiting Syrian Tripoli, Aleppo, and all the main cities on his way. Ibn Nasir narrated: “When al-Khatib read hadith in the mosque of Damascus, his voice could be heard from one end of the mosque to the other and he spoke in pure Arabic.” He is also noted for his accurate and elegant handwriting.
Al-Mu’taman narrated that al-Khatib said: “Whoever authors books puts his mind on a plate for display to people.” He fled from Damascus to Tyre because of enmity from the Rafidi governor of Damascus and accusations that he was a Nasibi or enemy of Ahl al-Bayt on grounds of narrating Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s book on the merits of the Companions and Ibn Rizquyah’s book on the merits of al-‘Abbas. “At that time the call to prayer in Damascus included the phrasehayya ‘alâ khayri al-‘amal.”
Abu Mansur ‘Ali ibn ‘Ali al-Amin narrated that when al-Khatib returned from al-Sham he was wealthy in garments and gold but without heir. So he wrote to al-Qa’im bi Amrillah: “My property will go back to the public treasury (bayt al-mâl), so give me permission to distribute it among those I choose.” He then distributed it – two hundred dinars – to the scholars of hadith.
Ibn Tahir said: “I asked [the Sufi hadith master] Hibat Allah ibn ‘Abd al-Warith al-Shirazi: ‘Was al-Khatib like his books in memorization?’ He said: ‘No, if we asked him of something he might take days to answer us and if we pressed him he would get angry. He was abrupt and his memorization was not on a par with his books.’” This assessment is belied by the scholars’ comparison of al-Khatib to al-Daraqutni and by the example of his extemporaneous response cited below. Furthermore, al-Dhahabi relates from al-Sam‘ani that Hibat Allah (d. 486) entered Baghdad in 457 when al-Khatib was away, and the latter did not return until 462, one year before his death.
Al-Khatib frequented Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini’s classes for three years at a time when Abu Ishaq was the unchallenged headmaster of the Shafi‘i school in his time. One day he mentioned the narrator Bahr ibn Kaniz al-Saqqa’ then turned to al-Khatib and asked: “What do you say concerning him [i.e. his reliability]?” Al-Khatib replied: “If you give me permission then I shall mention his state.” Al-Isfarayini then sat back like a student before his master, while al-Khatib gave a lengthy and detailed account of the narrator’s grading on the spot. Abu Ishaq was one of those who carried al-Khatib’s bier to his grave.
Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Malik al-Hamadhani said in his Tarikh: “The science died at the time of al-Khatib’s death.”
Ibn ‘Asakir narrated: “When al-Khatib first drank Zamzam water he asked Allah I for three petitions [according to the Prophetic narration “Zamzam water makes good whatever [need in the world and the hereafter] it is drunk for”]: to be able to narrate the history of Baghdad in that city, to dictate hadith in the mosque of al-Mansur [in Baghdad], and to be buried near Bishr al-Hafi. He obtained all three.”
Abu al-Barakat Isma‘il ibn Abi Sa‘d al-Sufi said:
Shaykh Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn ‘Ali al-Turaythithi, known as Ibn Zahra’ al-Sufi, was in our ribât and had prepared for himself a grave next to Bishr al-Hafi’s grave. He used to go there once a week to sleep in it, reciting the entire Qur’an at that time. When Abu Bakr al-Khatib died after stipulating that he be buried next to Bishr al-Hafi, the scholars of hadith came to Ibn Zahra’ asking permission to bury him in Ibn Zahra’s grave and cede his place to him. He refused, saying: “How can I allow a spot I have prepared for myself to be taken away from me?” They came to my father [Abu Sa‘d al-Sufi] who invited Ibn Zahra’ and told him: “I do not say to you to give them your grave, but I ask you: if Bishr al-Hafi were alive and you were at his side, then al-Khatib came and sat farther away, would it be fit for you to sit higher than him?” He replied: “No, I would make him sit in my place.” He said: “It is the same in this situation.” Ibn Zahra’s heart was happy with this and he gave his permission.
Al-Khatib was an ascetic, industrious scholar given to worship, a trustworthy hadith master withdrawn from the courts of princes, generous, grave and earnest in his manners, and both tireless and meticulous in his work. He wrote 10,000 pages totalling 104 books, many of them remaining to our time authoritative manuals in hadith science noted for their insight and wide compass. Ibn Hajar said in his introduction to Sharh Nukhba al-Fikar: “There is hardly a single discipline among the sciences of hadith in which al-Khatib did not author a monograph.” Then he cited the hadith master Ibn Nuqta’s praise: “Whoever gives credit where credit is due knows that hadith scholars, after al-Khatib, all depend on his books.” Among them:
Al-Amali (“The Dictations”) of which three volumes exist in the Zahiriyya collection.
Al-Asma’ al-Mubhama(“Anonymous Mentions”), identifying those mentioned anonymously in hadiths or hadith chains.
Al-Bukhala’ (“The Misers”) in three volumes.
Al-Faqih wa al-Mutafaqqih (“The Jurist and the Student of the Law”).
Al-Fasl li al-Wasl al-Mudraj fi al-Naql (“The Decisive Statement On Attributions Inserted Into Transmission”).
Al-Fawa’id al-Muntakhaba (“The Select Benefits”).
Iqtida’ al-‘Ilm al-‘Amal (“Knowledge Necessitates Deeds”),
a collection of narrations on this topic, which he prefaced with the words:
O student of knowledge, I exhort you to purify your intention in pursuing knowledge and to strive to make your soul act according to knowledge’s dictates. For the science is a tree of which deeds are the fruit, and he is not counted learned, who does not put his learning into practice…. And did those of the Salaf of the past reach whatever high levels they reached, other than by purified beliefs, righteous deeds, and renouncing most of the refinements of the world? And did the wise people of the past attain greater felicity except through hard work and diligence, contentment with little, and spending of their superfluity to meet the need of the needy and destitute? Surely, he who gathers books of knowledge is no different than he who gathers gold and silver. Surely, the devourer of books is no different from the greedy miser. Surely, the bibliophile enamoured with books is no different from the hoarder of gold and silver. Therefore, just as wealth does not benefit except through its spending, likewise do the sciences not benefit except those who put them into practice and observes their requirements.
Al-Jahr bi Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim (“Pronouncing the basmala Outloud”), listing – as al-Daraqutni did in his Sunan – the proof-texts of the Shafi‘i school on this practice. Ibn al-Jawzi in al-Sahm al-Musib stated that all of the hadiths adduced by al-Khatib in al-Jahr – as is the case with al-Daraqutni’s proofs for the basmala in his Sunan – are either weak or very weak. Al-Dhahabi also wrote a critique of al-Khatib’s book, as did the Hanbali Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Hadi.
Al-Jami‘ li Akhlaq al-Rawi wa Adab al-Sami‘ (“The Compendium on the Ethics of the Hadith Narrator and the Manners of the Auditor”) in two volumes, the continuation of Sharaf Ashab al-Hadith. It contains the following chapters:
1: Intention in the Pursuit of Hadith
2: The Characteristics That Must Distinguish the Narrator and Auditor of Hadith (3 sections)
3: “High” (= short) Chains of Transmissions (4 sections)
4: Choosing One’s Shuyûkh Once Their Attributes Are Known (9 sections)
5: The Etiquette of Study (4 sections)
6: The Etiquette of Asking Permission to Enter the House of the Hadith Master (7 sections)
7: The Etiquette of Entering the House of the Hadith Master (9 sections)
8: The Veneration and Honoring of the Hadith Master (6 sections)In the section entitled “Kissing the Hand of the Hadith Scholar, His Head, and His Right [Shoulder]” al-Khatib narrates the following three hadiths among others:
a) From ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar: “I was in one of the Messenger of Allah military detachments, and we came up to him until we kissed his hand.”
b) From Usama ibn Sharik: “We rose up approaching the Prophet, and kissed his hand.”
c) From ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Ka‘b al-Ansari or ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Razin: “We came and greeted Salama ibn Akwa‘. He brought out his hands and said: ‘I pledged loyalty with these two hands to the Messenger of Allah e .’ He brought out a hand as big as a camel’s paw. We rose up approaching him, and kissed it.”
9: The Etiquette of Hadith Audition
10: The Etiquette of Interrogating the Hadith Master (5 sections)
11: How to Memorize What Comes From the Hadith Master (2 sections)
12: The Encouragement to Lend the Books of Audition and the Blame of Those Who Go the Way of Avarice and Refusal (2 sections)
13: The Recording of Hadiths in Books and the Etiquette Pertaining Thereunto
14: Beautifying One’s Calligraphy (8 sections)
15: The Obligation to Check Against the [Hadith Master’s] Book For Verification and the Elimination of Doubt and Misgivings
16: Reading To the Hadith Master and Its Etiquette (7 sections)
17: Mention of the Morals and Ethics of the Narrator and What Manners He Must Use With His Disciples and Companions (4 sections)
18: It is Offensive to Narrate to Those That Do Not Seek It And It is A Waste to Give It to Other Than Those Who Are Qualified (8 sections)
19: The Hadith Master’s Giving of High Respect to the Students of Knowledge and His Keeping the Best Opinion of Them and A Mild Disposition (8 sections)
20: The Hadith Master Must Exempt Himself From Accepting Remuneration For Narrating (3 sections)
21: His Caring For His Appearance and Looking to His Adornment Before Narrating Hadith (28 sections:)
2. Paring Nails
3. Clipping the Moustache
4. Grooming the Hair
5. Wearing Clean Clothes
6. Avoiding Foods That Cause Bad Breath
7. Dyeing One’s White Hair [with Henna], Contrary to Jews and Christians
8. It is Fine to Use Saffron or Memecylon (wars) To That Effect
9. The Dislike of Dying One’s Hair Black
10. The Preferred Garments For the Hadith Master
11. His Shirt
12. The outer headcover (qalansuwa) and turban (‘imâma)
13. The unstitched head-shawl (taylasân)
14. Wearing a Ring
15. Combing His Beard
16. Incensing and Perfuming Himself
17. Looking At Himself In the Mirror
18. Wearing Sandals
19. His Composure in Walking
20. His Initiating Salâm With Whomever He Meets Among the Muslims
21. Entering His Gathering of People
22. The Desirability of His Sitting Square-Legged and In A Humble Manner
23. Using Gentle Speech and Keeping Composure In Discourse
24. Avoiding Jesting With the People In the Gathering
25. The Desirability of Being Gentle In His Rebukes Without Acrimony Nor Breach
26. The States In Which Narrating Is Offensive
27. Those Who Disliked Narrating Other Than In A State of Purity
28. Those In A State of Impurity Who, Wishing to Narrate, Perform Dry Ablution (tayammum)
34: The Hadith Master’s Care To Share His Company Equally Among His Companions (5 sections)
35: His Care to Be Absolutely Truthful in His Speech Regardless of His Concerns and Situation (9 sections, of which the third, seventh, and eighth examine the question of narrating hadith according to meaning rather than precise wording
36: The Ruling Concerning Whoever Narrated a Hadith From Memory Then Was Contradicted In It (4 sections)
37: Dictating Hadith And Dictation Sessions (7 sections)
38: Employing A Repeater (mustamlî) (33 sections)
39: Competition Over The Hadith Among Its Students And Mutual Secretiveness So As To Withhold Its Benefit
40: The Obligation of Mutual Faithful Counsel and Benefit With Regard to Narrations
41: Picking and Choosing Hadith By Those Who Are Unable To Write All Its Chains Comprehensively (6 sections)
42: Concerning the Writing of Hadith In Detail and In Its Totality And the Need For This Endeavor In the Compilation of Books Related To Its Various Sciences (15 sections)
43: Travelling In Pursuit of A Hadith To Far-Off Countries So As To Meet the Hadith Masters There And Obtain Short Chains of Transmission (13 sections)
44: The Memorization of Hadith and the Penetration of Insight Concerning It (12 sections:)
1. Emphasis on the Memorization of Hadith
2. Those Who Described Themselves as Memorizers
3. Hadith Learning is Not By Mere Instruction For It Is None Other Than a Type of Knowledge Allah I Creates in the Heart
4. The Means That Facilitate Hadith Memorization
5. A Supplication For the Memorization of Qur’an, Hadith, and the Various Disciplines
6. Types of Preferred Foods and Those Recommended Against For the Improvement of Memory
7. The Requisite Schedule of Night Study of Hadith For the Student
8. Repeating What is Memorized To Master It By Heart:
Al-Zubayr ibn Bakkar said: “My father came in and saw me reading silently in a notebook, reading it back to myself. He said to me: ‘Your only aid in your type of narration is whatever your sight conveys to your heart. If you want narration then look at it and read it outloud also. For then, your aid comes from both what your sight conveys to your heart and what your hearing conveys to your heart.’” Dr. M. ‘Ajaj al-Khatib commented on this narration: “These are fine and true words, for this is what the authorities in education and psychology say: the more senses participate in the absorption of a subject or its learning, the faster and easier its memorization.”
‘Ilqima said: “Repeat the hadith at length and it will never be erased from memory.”
One time a pail of water was placed before Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri. When he placed his hand in it, he happened to remember a hadith. He did not remove his hand from the water until fajr rose and until he had completely mastered the hadith.
Sufyan al-Thawri said: “Make the hadith your own discourse to yourself and the very thought of your hearts, and you will then memorize it.”
Ja‘far al-Maraghi said: “I went into a cemetary in Tustar, and I heard someone shouting: ‘And al-A‘mash, from Abu Salih, from Abu Hurayra; and al-A‘mash, from Abu Salih, from Abu Hurayra,’ for a long time. I began to look for the source of this voice until I saw Ibn Zuhayr, studying al-A‘mash’s narrations alone, from memory.”
9. Rehearsing Hadith With All Types of People
10. Rehearsing Hadith With Disciples And Friends
11. Rehearsing Hadith With Spouses And Companions
12. Rehearsing Hadith With Older People
Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri said: “Review (tadhâkarû) hadith with each other, for one hadith brings out another.”
‘Ilqima said: “Rehearse the hadith to one another, for its life is its remembrance.”
Ibrahim al-Nakha‘i said: “Whoever is pleased with memorizing hadith let him narrate it to others, even to those who have no inkling for it. When he does this, the hadith will be like a book in his breast.”
Al-Zuhri used to read back the hadiths he had memorized to his slave-girl and the beduins in his land.
Ibn ‘Abbas would say to Sa‘id ibn Jubayr: “O Sa‘id! Narrate.” Sa‘id replied: “I, narrate in your presence?” Ibn ‘Abbas replied: “If you make a mistake I will let you know.”
‘Ali ibn al-Madini said: “Six men would almost take leave of their minds upon hadith repetition: Yahya [ibn Ma‘in], ‘Abd al-Rahman [ibn Mahdi], Waki‘ [ibn al-Jarrah], [Sufyan] Ibn ‘Uyayna, Abu Dawud, and ‘Abd al-Razzaq – due to their ardent love of it. One night, Waki‘ and ‘Abd al-Rahman rehearsed hadith together in ths Holy Sanctuary and did not stop until the caller to prayer raised the adhân of fajr.”
‘Ali ibn al-Hasan ibn Shaqiq said: “I was with ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Mubarak in the mosque on a cold winter night and we rose to leave. When we reached the door he reminded me of a hadith and I reminded him of another. We did not stop reminding each other until the caller to prayer came and raised the morning adhân.”
45: The Exposition and Definition of the Immense Merit of Compiling And Authoring Books (15 sections)
Abu Zur‘a was asked about the [final] number of those [Companions] who narrated hadith from the Prophet. He replied: “Who can compute it? Those who witnessed with the Prophet e the Farewell Pilgrimage were 40,000 and those who witnessed the campaign of Tabuk with him were 70,000.” In another narration someone asked him: “O Abu Zur‘a! Is it not said that the hadith of the Prophet e is 4,000 narrations [in all]?” He replied: “And who said that – may Allah untooth him! – ? This is what heretics say (hâdhâ qawlu al-zanâdiqa). Who can circumscribe the totality of the hadith of the Messenger of Allah e ? When he died there were 114,000 sahâbawho narrated and had heard from him.
46: Ceasing Narration In Old Age Lest Memory Is Affected And the Mind Becomes Confused:
Abu Muhammad al-Hasan ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Khallad said: “If the hadith scholar lives a long life, I find it preferable that he stop transmitting narrations at the age of eighty, for it is the period of senility. Making glorification, asking forgiveness, and reciting Qur’an is all more appropriate for eighty-year-olds. But if his mind is crystal-clear and he has perspicuity, knowing the narrations in his possession and in full mastery of them, and he purports to narrate for the obtainment of reward, then I hope all the best for him.”
Al-Khayl (“Equestrianism”). Al-Khatib relates from his father that their origin was of a Beduin Arab tribe specializing in raising horses in al-Jasasa, bordering the Euphrates.
Al-Kifaya fi ‘Ilm al-Riwaya (“The Sufficiency in the Science of Hadith Narration”) in about 170 chapters in which al-Khatib “exhaustively listed the codes of hadith narration, expounding its principles and universal rules as well as the schools of the experts wherever their opinions differed; it remains, in our time, the greatest book on the subject.”
Manaqib Ahmad ibn Hanbal (“The Immense Merits of Imam Ahmad”).
Manaqib al-Shafi‘i (“The Immense Merits of Imam al-Shafi‘i”).
Al-Mudih li al-Jam‘ wa al-Tafriq (“The Clarifier of Collation and Dispersion”), listing the different names under which the same person may be identified in transmission chains.
Musnad Abi Bakr al-Siddiq ‘ala Shart al-Sahihayn (“Narrations Related by Abu Bakr According to the Criterion of al-Bukhari and Muslim”).
Al-Muttafaq wa al-Muftaraq (“Similar-Looking Narrators’ Names”).
Nasiha Ahl al-Hadith (“The Faithful Counsel of the Masters of Hadith”)
Poetry, in which he declaimed:
If your quest is for true direction
In the twin matter of your world and the hereafter,
Then dissent with your own soul in its lusts;
Truly lust is the meeting of all corruption.
Al-Qunut wa al-Athar al-Marwiyya Fih (“The qunût and Its Proof-Texts”) according to the Shafi‘i school.
Al-Rihla fi Talab al-Hadith (“Travel in Pursuit of A Hadith”), published by Dr. Nur al-Din ‘Itr who termed it “a vast demonstration and signal proof establishing the rank reached by our great scholars in their high energies, lofty pursuits, noble goals and means… by which we hope to sound the wake-up call for our cultivated youth and students of knowledge, that they may tread the path of their first masters, the immortal ulema of their Community.”
Riwaya al-Sahaba ‘an al-Tabi‘i (“Narration of the Companions From a Tabi‘i”), listing examples of this occasional case.
Al-Sabiq wa al-Lahiq (“The Precursor and the Subsequent in Chronology”) in ten volumes.
Salat al-Tasbih wa al-Ikhtilaf Fiha (“The Prayer of Glorification and the Difference of Opinion Concerning Its Status”), an authoritative presentation of its proof-texts that goes together with Ibn Nasir al-Din al-Dimashqi’s al-Tarjih li Hadith Salat al-Tasbih, al-Mundhiri’s documentation in the first volume ofal-Targhib wa al-Tarhib, and Ibn al-Salah’s discussion in his Fatawa. Sharaf Ashab al-Hadith (“The Eminence of the Masters of Hadith”) in which he narrated Abu Dawud’s saying: “Were it not for this band of people we would not be studying Islam.” The narrations al-Khatib gathered in this precious book list the attributes used by the Imams of hadith for the scholars of the Prophetic narrations:
“Those Who Command Good and Forbid Evil” [Ibrahim ibn Musa]
“The Substitute-Saints” [Sufyan al-Thawri, Yazid ibn Harun, Ahmad ibn Hanbal]
“The Pillars of the Shari‘a” [al-Khatib]
“The Nearest of People to the Prophet e ” [because of the hadith: “Truly the nearest of people to me on the Day of Resurrection are those who invoked the most blessings upon me”].
“The Owners of Transmission Chains [to the Prophet e ]” [Yazid ibn Zuray‘]
“The Owners of Frayed Garments and Inkwells” [Caliph al-Ma’mun]
“The Best of All Scholars” [al-Khatib]
“The Best of All People” [al-Awza‘i]
“The Best of Those Who Spoke About Knowledge” [Ahmad]
“The Trustees of Allah Over His Religion” [Abu Hatim al-Razi]
“The Messenger’s Trustees” [al-Khatib]
“The People of Belief” [because of the hadith: “Do you know who of those who possess belief is the best in belief?” They said the angels. He replied: “This is true, and it is right that they should be so, but nothing stands in their way because of the position in which Allah I has placed them. I mean others.” They said: “The Prophets whom Allah honored with Prophetship and Messengership.” He replied in the same way. They said the martyrs. He replied: “This is true, and it is right that they should be so, but nothing stands in their way because of the honor Allah bestowed upon them with martyrdom. I mean others.” They asked: “Who then, O Messenger of Allah?” He said: “Generations yet in the loins of men who shall come after me; they shall believe in me without seeing me and confirm me without seeing me. They shall see the suspended leaves [of the Law] and put them into practice.”
“The People of Truth” [al-Khatib]
“The People of Righteousness” [‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz]
“The Vessels of Knowledge” [al-Khatib]
“The People Most Meritorious of Salvation in the Hereafter” [because of the hadith: “Truly the safest among you against the disasters of the Day of Resurrection on that day are those of you who invoked the most blessings on me in the world”].
“The Friends of Allah” [al-Khalil ibn Ahmad]
“The Massive Throng” [al-Khatib]
“The Guardians of the Earth” [Sufyan al-Thawri]
“The Guardians of the Religion” [al-A‘mash]
“The Implanters of the Religion” [Ibn al-Mubarak]
“The Party of Allah” [al-Khatib]
“The Preservers of the Pillars of the Law” [al-Khatib]
“The Preservers of the Prophet’s Sunna” [al-Khuraybi]
“The Custodians of the Faith” [Kahmas]
“The Protectors of the Faith” [al-Khatib]
“The Repellers of False Imputations to the Prophet” [Ibn Ma‘in]
“The Carriers of Knoweldge” [al-Khuraybi]
“The Storehouses of the Religion” [al-Khatib]
“The Successors of the Messenger e ” [al-Khatib]
“The Elect Among Tribes” [Hafs ibn Ghyath]
“The Elect Among People” [Abu Bakr ibn ‘Ayyash]
“The Elect Among Worshippers” [Abu Muzahim al-Khaqani]
“The Virile Among Men” [al-Zuhri]
“The Trustees Who Preserve the Reports of the Messengers” [Abu Hatim al-Razi]
“The Strangers” [‘Abdan]
“The Knights of this Religion” [Yazid ibn Zuray‘]
“The Caretakers of the Matter of Shari‘a” [al-Khatib]
“The Strivers In the Preservation of the Faith” [al-Khatib]
“Mankind” (al-nâs) [Ahmad ibn Hanbal]
“Those Who Belong to No Tribe” [‘Abdan]
“The Intermediaries Between the Prophet e and His Community” [al-Khatib]
“Muhammad’s Inheritors” [Ibn Mas‘ud]
“The Inheritors of the Prophets” [al-Fudayl ibn ‘Iyad]
“The Beneficiaries of the Messenger of Allah” [Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri, according to the hadith of the Prophet: “There shall come after me a people <from the East/from the regions of the world> who shall ask you about me. When they come to you, treat them kindly and narrate to them <, make them memorize the hadith and make room for them in gatherings>”].
Al-Tabyin li Asma’ al-Mudallisin (“The Exposition of the Names of Those Who Concealed Their Sources”).
Taqyid al-‘Ilm (“The Fettering of Knowledge”), an important book gathering all the proofs that large-scale writing of hadith began in the time of the Prophet e , together with particular caveats against it.
Al-Tatfil wa Hikayat al-Tufayliyyin (“Sponging and Spongers”).
Tali Talkhis al-Mutashabih, an addendum to Talkhis al-Mutashabih.
Talkhis al-Mutashabih fi al-Rasm (“Summary of the Similarities in Spelling”), on hadith narrators commonly confused with one another due to the similar spelling of their names.
Tarikh Baghdad (“History of Baghdad”), his most important work. Ostensibly a history of Baghdad, it is more specifically a reference work in narrator-authentication (‘ilm al-rijâl) and a valuable compendium of 4,385 hadiths narrated with their full chains, over half of them (2,253) not found in the two books of Sahih and the four Sunan. In this respect al-Khatib’s rank as an independent narrator is comparable to that of al-Bayhaqi (d. 458), Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (d. 463), and Ibn ‘Asakir (d. 571).
Concerning al-Khatib’s authentication method in Tarikh Baghdad, al-Sam‘ani narrated that he said: “Whenever in the Tarikh I mention a man concerning whom opinions vary in commendation and discreditation, then the preferred position concerning him is placed at the conclusion of his biographical notice.”
Makki ibn ‘Abd al-Salam al-Maqdisi said: “I was sleeping in the house of Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al-Za‘farani when I saw in a dream, shortly before dawn, as if we had gathered in al-Khatib’s house to read the Tarikh as usual. To his right was the jurist, Shaykh Nasr al-Maqdisi, and to the latter’s right was a man I did not know. So I asked who he was and was told: ‘This is the Messenger of Allah e who came to hear the Tarikh.’ I thought to myself: ‘This is a huge honor for Shaykh Abu Bakr, that the Prophet e himself should attend his gathering.’ I also thought: ‘This is also a refutation of those who blemished the Tarikhsaying that it contains undue criticism of certain people.’”
It remains true that the Tarikh contains undue criticism of Imam Abu Hanifa t in the form of an assemblage of glaringly weak and forged reports from known liars, although it also contains authentic reports to the Imam’s praise. Among the scholars who refuted the negative reports were the king al-Malik al-Mu‘azzam ‘Isa al-Ayyubi, the Hanafis Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi in the two-volume al-Intisar li Imam A’imma al-Amsar and al-Kawthari in Ta’nib al-Khatib ‘ala Ma Saqahu fi Tarjimati Abi Hanifata Min al-Akadhib and its follow-up al-Tarhib bi Naqd al-Ta’nib; the Maliki Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr with al-Intiqa’; the Shafi‘is al-Suyuti and al-Haytami respectively with Tabyid al-Sahifa and al-Khayrat al-Hisan, and the Hanbali Ibn al-Jawzi with al-Sahm al-Musib fi al-Radd ‘ala al-Khatib. Al-Dhahabi said: “Would that al-Khatib had not set upon the great figures nor narrated anything against them.” However, a case has been made to exonerate al-Khatib from having included these reports in his Tarikh, and some scholars, such as Dr. ‘Itr and Dr. Mahmud al-Tahhan, consider them later interpolations.
Ibn al-Jawzi’s assessment of al-Khatib is ambiguous. On the one hand he praises his works with the words: “Whoever looks into his books knows his great standing.” At the same time he takes him to task for what he terms his fanatic denigration of Hanbalis, citing, for example, al-Khatib’s description of Imam Ahmad as “the leader of hadith scholars” (sayyid al-muhaddithîn) as opposed to al-Shafi‘i’s as “the diadem of jurists,” his weakening of Ibn Batta, and his citing al-Karabisi’s barb about Imam Ahmad over the issue of the uncreatedness of the Qur’an. Added to this charge is Ibn al-Jawzi’s singular claim that al-Khatib began his career as a Hanbali, then switched to the Shafi‘i school, when both early and contemporary historians concur that he began his career as a Shafi‘i and was never a Hanbali. He also states that al-Khatib took the material of most of his books “except that of the Tarikh” from those of the hadith master al-Suri, a claim flatly rejected by al-Dhahabi. Perhaps Ibn al-Jawzi’s most ironic criticism is his complaint that al-Khatib included forgeries and very weak hadiths in his books, as their number is negligible in proportion to those found in Ibn al-Jawzi’s works.
Abu al-Fadl ibn Khayrun said: “A righteous person told me that when al-Khatib died he saw him in his sleep and asked him: ‘How are you?’ Al-Khatib replied: ‘I am in [breath of life, and plenty, and a Garden of delight] (56:89)’.” ‘Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Jadda said: “I saw in my sleep, after al-Khatib’s death, a person standing next to me whom I tried to ask about al-Khatib. Before I could say anything he said to me: ‘Go to the middle of Paradise where the pious meet one another.’” Muhammad ibn Marzuq al-Za‘farani narrated from the pious jurist Hasan ibn Ahmad al-Basri: “I saw al-Khatib in my sleep wearing beautiful white clothes and a white turban, looking joyful and smiling. I do not remember whether I asked him first: ‘What did Allah do with you?’ or whether he spoke to me first but he said: Allah has forgiven me – or: granted me mercy. And whoever comes to Him – in my heart I thought: meaning, with tawhîd – He grants him mercy or forgives him. Therefore, be happy!’ This took place a few days after his death.”
Main sources: Ibn ‘Asakir, Tabyin Kadhib al-Muftari (Saqqa ed. p. 263-266); al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala’ (Dar al-Fikr ed. 13:590-603 #4210) andTadhkira al-Huffaz (3:1135-1145); Ibn al-Subki, Tabaqat al-Shafi‘iyya al-Kubra (Hajr ed. 4:29-39 #259); ‘Itr, introduction to al-Khatib’s al-Rihla (p. 37-59); and Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Muntazam (8:265-270).
Many people today like to classify themselves as belonging to the Saved Sect (Firqatun-Najiyyah) – Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah; but do these people really know which is the Saved Sect, from the many sects we have today? The following is an attempt to clarify some misconceptions by way of definitive proofs from the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as quotes from the profoundly learned Classical Scholars of Islam. Know that there is only one Saved Sect in Islam, and this is the original pristine form of Islam that has been transmitted to us by Allah Subhana Wa Ta’ala in his Qur’an, his Rasul (Peace and blessings be upon him), the blessed Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all) and the great scholars of Islam (Allah’s mercy be upon them all) who have been following their Straight Path for more than one thousand years of Islam’s history. The first question that should be raised is: “What differentiates one sect from another sect?” The answer to this is simple and definitive! Know that the chief characteristic that distinguishes one sect from another, lies not in the differences of opinion that its scholars have attained by making ijtihad from the sources of the Shari’ah (this leads to the formation of the Madhhabs), but rather the actual belief (aqid’ah or i’tiqad in Arabic) that the scholars and laity of the sect in question are clinging onto – since the founding of their respective sect.
According to the unknown author of the book Belief and Islam (pp. 78-9), the faith of the People of the Sunnah and Jama’ah was spread as follows:
“Nowadays, some mouths frequently use the name of ‘Salafiyya’. Every Muslim should know very well that in Islam there is nothing in the name of the Madhhab of Salafiyya but there is the Madhhab of the Salaf as-salihin who were the Muslims of the first two Islamic centuries (i.e; the Companions, their successors and the followers of the successors) which were lauded in a Hadith sharif. The ulama of Islam who came in the third and fourth centuries are called Khalaf as-sadiqin. The i’tiqad (belief) of these honourable people is called the Madhhab of Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah. This is the Madhhab of Iman, tenets of faith. The Iman held by the Sahaba al-Kiram (may Allah be pleased with them all) and by theTabi’un (Allah’s mercy be upon them all) was the same. There was no difference between their beliefs. Today most Muslims in the world are in the Madhhab of Ahl as-Sunnah (i.e; most Muslim’s claim to be Sunni’s). All the seventy-two heretical groups (see later for the actual Hadith and its commentary) of bid’ah appeared (mainly) after the second century of Islam. Founders of some of them lived earlier, but it was after the Tabi’unthat their books were written, and that they appeared in groups and defied the Ahl as-Sunnah.
Rasulullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) brought the beliefs of Ahl as-Sunnah. The Sahaba al-kiram (may Allah be pleased with them all) derived these teachings of Iman from the source (the Qur’an and Sunnah). And the Tabi’un (successors), in their turn, learned these teachings from the Sahaba al-kiram. And from them their successors learned, thus the teachings of Ahl as-Sunnah reached us by way of transmission and tawatur (through many undeniable chains of transmission). These teachings cannot be explored by way of reasoning. Intellect cannot change them and will only help understand them. That is, intellect is necessary for understanding them, for realizing that they are right and for knowing their value. All the scholars of Hadith held the beliefs of the Ahl as-Sunnah. The Imams of the four Madhhabs in deeds, too, were in this Madhhab. Also, al-Maturidi and al-Ashari (Allah’s mercy be upon them), the two Imam’s of our Madhhab in beliefs, were in the Madhhab of the Ahl as-Sunnah. Both of these Imams promulgated this Madhhab. They always defended this Madhhab against heretics and materialists, who had been stuck in the bogs of ancient Greek philosophy. Though they were contemporaries, they lived in different places and the ways of thinking and behaving of the offenders they had met were different, so the methods of defence used and the answers given by these two great scholars of Ahl as-Sunnah were different. But this does not mean that they belonged to different Madhhabs (rather they were both from the Ahl as-Sunnah). Hundreds of thousands of profoundly learned ulama and awliya (friends of Allah) coming after these two exalted Imams studied their books and stated in consensus that they both belonged to the Madhhab of the Ahl as-Sunnah. The scholars of the Ahl as-Sunnah took the nass (Qur’an and Sunnah) with their outward meanings. That is, they gave the ayats and Hadiths their outward meanings, and did not explain away (ta’wil) thenass or change these meanings unless there was a darura (necessity) to do so. And they never made any changes with their personal knowledge or opinions. But those who belonged to heretical groups and the la-Madhhabi (those who do not belong to one of the four Madhhabs) did not hesitate to change the teachings of Iman and Ibadat (worship) as they had learned from (the books of) Greek philosophers and from sham scientists, who were Islam’s adversaries.”
Let us now see what the definition of Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah was according to the classical scholars of this aided, Victorious sect (Tai’fatul-Mansoorah) of Islam.
(1) Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad ibn Hajar al-Haytami (d. 974/1567; R.A.)
Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Haytami defined the Sunni Muslims as follows in his book Fath al-jawad:
“A mubtadi (innovator) is the person who does not have the faith (aqid’ah) conveyed unanimously by the Ahl as-Sunnah. This unanimity was transmitted by the two great Imam’s Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari (d.324/936; Rahimahullah) and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d.333/944; Rahimahullah) and the scholars who followed their path.” Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Haytami also said in his book al-Fatawa al-Hadithiyya (pg. 205): “Man of bid’ah means one whose beliefs are different from the Ahl as-Sunnah faith. The Ahl as-Sunnah faith, is the faith of Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari, Abu Mansur al-Maturidi and those who followed them. One who brings forth something which is not approved by Islam becomes a man of bid’ah.”
(2) Imam Ahmad Shihab ad-Din al Qalyubi (d.1069/1659; R.A.)
Imam al-Qalyubi wrote on the fourth volume of his marginalia to the book Kanz ar-raghibin:
“One who departs from what Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (Allah’s mercy be upon them) reported is not a Sunni. These two Imam’s followed the footprints of Rasulullah (Peace be upon him) and his Sahaba (may Allah be pleased with them all).”
(3) Imam Abdullah ibn Alawi al-Haddad (d. 1132 AH; Rahimahullah)
Imam al-Haddad stated in The Book of Assistance (pg. 40):
“You must correct and protect your beliefs and conform to the pattern of the party of salvation, who are those known from among the other Islamic factions as the “People of the Sunnah and Jama’ah” (Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah). They are those who firmly adhere to the way of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him), and of his Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all).
If you look with a sound understanding into those passages relating to the sciences of faith in the Book (Qur’an), the Sunnah, and the saying of the virtuous predecessors, whether they be Companions or followers, you will know for certain that the truth is with the party called the Ashari (NB-the Maturidi’s are also upon the truth), named after the Shaykh Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari, may Allah have mercy on him, who systematized the foundations of the creed of the people of the truth, and recorded its earliest versions, these being the beliefs with the Companions and the best among the followers agreed upon.”
(4) Imam Abdal Ghani an-Nablusi (d. 1143/1733; Rahimahullah)
Imam an-Nablusi stated in his book al-Hadiqat an-Nadiyya (vol. 2, pg. 103):
“Jama’ah is rahma, that is, the union of Muslims on truth brings Allahu ta’ala’s Compassion. Tafriqa is adhab, that is, separation from the Community of Muslims brings about punishment from Allahu ta’ala. Hence, it is necessary for every Muslim to unite with those who are on the right path. He must join and believe like them even if they are only a small group. The right path is the path of as-Sahaba al-Kiram. Those who follow this path are called Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah. It should not confuse us that many heretical groups appeared after the time of as-Sahaba al-Kiram. Al-Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066; Rahimahullah) said, ‘When Muslims go astray, you should follow the right path of those who came before them! You should not give up that path even if you are left alone on the path!‘ Najm ad-Din al-Ghazzi (d. 1061/1651; Rahimahullah) wrote: ‘Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah are those ulama who keep on the right path of Rasullullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) and as-Sahaba al-Kiram. As-Sawad al-Azam, that is, the majority of Islamic scholars, have followed this right path. The Firqatun-Naajiyyah which was defined to be the group of salvation among the seventy three groups is this true Jama’ah.‘ The Qur’an al-Karim declares, ‘Do not disunite!‘ This ayat means ‘Do not disunite in i’tiqad, in the teachings of beliefs!‘ Most ulama, for example, Abdullah ibn Masood (may Allah be pleased with him), interpreted this ayat as above and said that it meant, ‘Do not deviate from the right path by following your desires and corrupt ideas.‘ This ayat does not mean that there should be no disagreement in the knowledge of fiqh. It forbids separation which causes discord and dissension in the knowledge of i’tiqad (see Imam al-Qurtubi’s opinion later). The disagreement in the knowledge (of fiqh) derived through ijtihad in the field of practices (amal) is not a discord, because such disagreement has brought to sight the rights, the fards and the subtle teachings in amal andIbadah (worship). As-Sahaba al-kiram (Allah be pleased with them all), too, differed from one another in those teachings that explained the daily life, but there was no disagreement among them in the knowledge of i’tiqad.”
(5) Allamah Sayyid Ahmad at-Tahtawi (d. 1231/1816; Rahimahullah)
Allamah Sayyid Ahmad at-Tahtawi, a great Hanafi fiqh scholar of Egypt, wrote on the subject of ‘Zabayih‘ in his Hashiya al-Durr al-Mukhtar:
“According to the majority of scholars of tafsir, the ayat, ‘They parted into groups in the religion,‘ referred to the people of bid’ah who would arise in this Ummah. In a Hadith reported by Umar (may Allah be pleased with him), Rasulullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) said to Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her), ‘The ayat about the partitions into groups in the religion refers to the people of bid’ah and to the followers of their nafs who would arise in this Ummah.’ Allah declared in the 153rd ayat of Surah Al-An’am, ‘This is My Straight path, so follow it! Follow not other ways, lest you be parted from His way!‘ (that is, Jews, Christians, and other heretics departed from the right path; you should not part like them!). In the 103rd ayat of Surah Al-Imran, Allah declares, ‘And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah, and do not separate!‘ (see later for a brief commentary). Some scholars of tafsir said that Allah’s rope meant Jama’ah, unity. The command, ‘Do not separate‘, shows that it is so and the Jama’ah are the possessors of fiqh and ilm (knowledge). One who descents from fuqaha (scholars of fiqh) as much as a span falls into heresy, becomes deprived of Allah’s help and deserves Hell, because the fuqaha have been on the right path and have held on to the Sunnah of Rasulullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) and on to the path of al-Khulafa ar-Rashideen, the Four Khaliphs (may Allah be pleased with them). As-Sawad al-Azam, that is, the majority of the Muslims, are on the path of fuqaha. Those who depart from their path will burn in the fire of Hell. O believers! Follow the unique group which is protected against Hell! And this group is the one that is called Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah. For, Allah’s help, protection and guidance are for the followers of this group, and His wrath and punishment are for those who dissent from this group. Today, this group of salvation comes together in the Four Madhhabs, namely the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali.”
It is very important to have unity in the Ummah, and to achieve this goal of unity it is incumbent that the whole Ummah has the correct and preservedaqidah of the Salaf as-salihin (may Allah be pleased with them all); since Allah will no doubt ask us about our aqidah if it is not in conformity with the divine revelation and what his Messenger (Peace and blessings be upon him) transmitted to us. The way of the Salaf as-salihin is the way of the saved sect of the Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah. And we should all know that the Jama’ah is the sect which has the most correct and united aqid’ah out of all other Jama’ahs. To know what is the real Jama’ah, one must look into the Qur’an and Hadith for evidence. If one was to look deeply in to this matter with an open and scholarly mind, one will come to the conclusion that this great Jama’ah is the one which is composed of the foremost scholars of Qur’anic commentary, Hadith, fiqh and other Islamic sciences; it is no doubt the Jama’ah which has had the greatest following throughout Islamic history in terms of scholars and laity, and this alone is the main body of Islam which represents the views of the great mass of believers (as-Sawad al-Azam) as we shall see from the Hadith evidence below. Let us now see what Allah ta’ala has said about unity and schism in the Holy Qur’an.
(1) Surah al-Imran (3:103):
“And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah and be not divided.”
Imam Sayf ad-Din al-Amidi (d. 631/1233; Rahimahullah) said in his al-Ihkam fi usul al-ahkam (The proficiency: on the fundamentals of legal rulings, pg. 295) with regard to the above Qur’anic verse:
“Allah has forbidden separation, and disagreement with consensus (ijma) is separation.”
Hence, if Allah has forbidden separation then surely we must all unite on the unanimously accepted aqid’ah of our pious predecessors. And I have already quoted Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (Rahimahullah) as saying: “This unanimity (in aqidah) was transmitted by the two great Imam’s Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (Allah’s mercy be upon them) and the scholars who followed their path.”
Mahmoud Ayoub wrote in The Qur’an and Its Interpreters (vol. II, 275-6):
“Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373; Rahimahullah) interprets the ‘rope of God‘ in verse 103 as ‘The covenant of God,‘ citing in support of this interpretation verse 112 below (in Surah al-Imran). Another view, he adds, is that ‘The rope of God‘ here refers to the Qur’an, as reported on the authority of Ali (Allah be pleased with him) who said that ‘The Qur’an is God’s strong rope and the straight way.‘ He cites another Hadith, on the authority of Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (Allah be pleased with him), where the Prophet (Peace be upon him) declared, ‘The book of God is God’s rope stretched from heaven to earth.‘ Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud (Allah be pleased with him) reported -that the Messenger of God (Peace be upon him) said, ‘Surely this Qur’an is God’s strong rope, manifest light, and beneficial source of healing. It is protection for those who hold fast to it, and a means of salvation for those who abide by it.‘
Ibn Kathir interprets the injunction, ‘and do not be divided‘ to mean strict adherence to unity among Muslims. He reports on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘God will be pleased with three acts from you, and wrathful with three others. He wishes that you worship Him alone without associating any thing with Him; that you hold fast all together to the rope of God and be not divided; and that you show loyalty to those whom God has set in authority.‘ (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, II, pp. 83-4)
Qurtubi (d. 671/1273; Rahimahullah) agrees with Tabari (d. 923 CE; Rahimahullah) and Ibn Kathir regarding the meaning of ‘the rope of God‘ in verse 103. He cites with approval the famous traditionist Ibn al-Mubarak (d. 181/797; Rahimahullah) who said, ‘Surely unity is God’s rope; therefore hold fast all together to ‘its firm handle‘ (see Qur’an 2:256).’ Qurtubi adds that ‘God enjoins concord and forbids dissension, for in disunity is perdition, and in unity salvation.‘
Qurtubi offers two possible interpretations of the phrase ‘And be not divided‘:
‘Be not divided in your religion as were the Jews and Christians divided in their religions‘ and ‘Be not divided in following different false opinions and purposes. Rather, be brothers in God’s religion.‘
As a jurist, Qurtubi observes that, ‘There is no indication in this verse of the prohibition of disagreement in the branches (furu’) [of fiqh] as this in reality is not dissension. This is because true dissention is one wherein concord and unity become virtually impossible. As for disagreement in judgements based on personal effort (ijtihad), it is due to differences in deducing obligations (fara’id) and the minutiae of law.‘ On page 279, Imam al-Razi (d. 606/1210; Rahimahullah) was quoted as saying in conclusion to his commentary on the above ayat:
‘If a person going down into a well must hold fast to a rope in order that he may not fall in, so also the Book of God, His covenant, religion and obedience to Him, as well as unity and harmony among the people of faith are means of security for anyone who holds fast to them from falling into the bottom of Hell.'”
(2) Surah al-Imran (3:105):
“And be not like those who separated and disputed after the clear proofs had come unto them: For such there is an awful doom.”
(3) Surah al-Imran (3:110):
“Ye are the best community that has been raised up for mankind. Ye enjoin the good and forbid the evil; and ye believe in Allah”
(4) Surah Al-An’am (6:159):
“As for those who divide their religion and break up into sects, thou has no part in them in the least: Their affair is with Allah: He will in the end tell them the truth of all that they did.”
(5) Surah Al-Mu’minun (23:52-53):
“And verily this Ummah of yours is a single Ummah and I am your Lord, so keep your duty unto Me. But they have broken their religion among them into sects, each sect rejoicing in its tenets.”
(6) Surah Al-Rum (30:32):
“Those who split up their Religion, and become Sects, each sect exulting in its tenets.”
(7) Surah Al-Nisa (4:115):
“He that disobeys the Apostle (Muhammad) after guidance has been made clear to him and follows a way other than that of the believers, We appoint for him that unto which he himself hath turned, and expose him unto Hell – a hapless journey’s end!”
(8) Surah Al-An’am (6:153):
“This is My Straight path, so follow it. Follow not other ways, lest ye be parted from His way. This has he ordained for you, that ye may ward off (evil).“
(1) Imam Abu Dawood (Rahimahullah) has quoted the well known Hadith concerning the division of the Muslim Ummah into seventy-three sects in his Sunan (3/4580, English edn):
Abu Amir al-Hawdhani said, “Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan (may Allah be pleased with him) stood among us and said, ‘Beware! The Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) stood among us and said’: ‘Beware! The People of the Book before (you) were split up into 72 sects, and this community will be split up into 73, seventy-two of them will go to Hell and one of them will go to Paradise, and it is the majority group (Jama’ah).’
Another version of the above Hadith has been reported by Hafiz Ibn Kathir (Rahimahullah) in The signs before the day of Judgement (pg. 14):
“Awf ibn Malik reported that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘The Jews split into 71 sects: one will enter Paradise and 70 will enter Hell. The Christians split into 72 sects: 71 will enter Hell and one will enter Paradise. By Him in Whose hand is my soul, my Ummah will split into 73 sects: one will enter Paradise and 72 will enter Hell.’ Someone asked, ‘O Messenger ofAllah (Peace be upon him), who will they be?’ He replied, ‘The main body of the Muslims (al-Jama’ah).’ Awf ibn Malik is the only one who reported this Hadith, and its isnad is acceptable.” And in another version of this Hadith the Prophet (Peace be upon him) goes onto say that the saved sect, “…Are those who follow my and my Sahaba’s path” (Tirmidhi, vol. 2, pg. 89)
Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad al-Sirhindi (d. 1034/1624; Rahimahullah) who is regarded by many people in the Indian sub-continent as a great renovator of the Tenth Islamic Century (Mujaddid alf Thani) wrote in his Maktubat (Vol. 3, Letter 38):
“It was declared in a Hadith that this Ummah would part into 73 groups, 72 of which would go to Hell. This Hadith informs us that the 72 groups will be tormented in the Fire of Hell. It does not inform us that they will remain in torment eternally. Remaining in the torment of Hell Fire eternally is for those who do not have Iman. That is, it is for disbelievers. The 72 groups, on account of their corrupt beliefs, will go to Hell and will burn as much as the corruptness of their beliefs. One group, the 73rd, will be saved from Hell Fire because their belief is not corrupt. If among the members of this one group there are those who committed evil deeds and if these evil deeds of theirs have not been forgiven through repentance or intercession, it is possible that these, too, will burn in Hell as much as their sins. All of those who are in the 72 groups will go to Hell. But none of them will remain in Hell eternally. Not all of those who are in this one group will go to Hell. Of these only those who have committed evil deeds will go to Hell. The 72 reported groups of bid’ah, which will go to Hell, should not be called disbelievers, because they are Ahl al-Qibla (people of the Qibla in prayer). But, of these, the ones who disbelieve those facts in the Deen that are indispensably required to be believed, as well as those who deny the rules of the Shari’ah which every Muslim has heard and knows, become disbelievers.”
In another letter (vol. 1, letter 80) he said:
“There is no doubt whatsoever that the sect that made conforming to the conduct of the Prophet’s Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all) necessary, that alone is the Ahl as Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah.”
Shaykh Abdal Qadir al-Jilani (d. 561/1166; Rahimahullah) stated in his commentary to the above Hadith in Ghunyat at-Talibin (pg. 90),
“The Believer should adapt himself to the Sunnah and to the Jama’ah. The Sunnah is the way shown by Rasulullah (Peace be upon him). The Jama’ah is composed of the things done unanimously by the Sahaba al-Kiram who lived in the time of the four caliphs called Khulafa’ ar-Rashidin (and others in their path). A Muslim must prevent the multiplication of the men of bid’ah and keep away from them, and should not greet them (as given in many Hadith on this issue). Ahmad ibn Hanbal (rahimahullah), the Imam of our Madhhab, said that greeting a man ofbid’ah meant loving him since it had been declared in a Hadith, ‘Disseminate (your) greeting (salaam)! Love one another in this way!” He also said (pg. 143): “The title, Ahl as-Sunnah, which the innovators have expressed for themselves is not appropriate for them.“
Although Ibn Taymiyya was accused of holding certain corrupt points in his aqid’ah, which led so many scholars to denounce him for his heresy, he never the less hit the right point when he described those who are the real Sunni’s in his Aqeedat-il-Wasitiyyah (pg. 154):
” Their creed is the religion of Islam which was sent to the world by Allah through the Prophet (Peace be upon him). But the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘My Ummah will get divided into 73 sects and each one will go to Hell save one and that one is the Jama’at.’ Also in one Hadith he said, ‘They are those people who will follow this path which I and my Sahaba follow today.’ Therefore they have caught hold of Islam unalloyed from every adulteration and these are the people of Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah. This group includes the truthful, the martyrs and the virtuous; it includes the minarets of guidance, lamps in the darkness and owners of such superiorities and virtues who have been already mentioned. It includes the saints and also those Imams on whose guidance Muslims are unanimous. It is this successful group about which the Prophet (Peace be upon him) has said: ‘One group from my Ummah will always remain dominant with truth; the opponents will never be able to harm its members or afflict them upto the Doomsday.'”
(2) Imam Muslim (Rahimahullah) has collected a number of variant Hadith on the saved sect. He has related a longer version of the last Hadith quoted above:
“Abdal Rahman ibn Shamasa al-Mahri said: ‘I was in the company of Maslama bin Mukhallad and Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-Aas (may Allah be pleased with them).’ Abdullah said, ‘The Hour shall come only when the worst type of people are left on the earth. They will be worse than the people of pre-Islamic days. They will get what ever they ask of Allah.‘ While we were sitting Uqba ibn Amir came, and Maslama said to him, ‘Uqba, listen to what Abdullah says.‘ Uqba said, ‘He knows, so far as I am concerned, I heard the Prophet (Peace be upon him) say: A group of people from my Ummah will continue to fight in obedience to the Command of Allah, remaining dominant over their enemies. Those who will opose them shall not do them any harm. They will remain in this condition until the Hour over takes them.‘ (At this) Abdullah said, ‘Yes. Then Allah will raise a wind which will be fragrant like musk and whose touch will be like the touch of silk; (but) it will cause the death of all (faithful) persons, not leaving behind a single person with an iota of faith in his heart. Then only the worst of men will remain to be overwhelmed by the Hour.’” (Sahih Muslim, 3/4721, English ed’n, see also Sahih al-Bukhari, 9/414, English ed’n)
Imam Nawawi (d. 676/1277, Rahimahullah) said in his Sharh Muslim (vol. 2, pg. 143):
“The group of people (mentioned in the above Hadith) consists of scholars, jurisprudents, authorities on Hadith, those who enjoin Good (Maroof) and forbid Evil (Munkar) and all such persons who do good deeds. Such righteous persons may be found spread all over the world.”
Imam al-Tirmidhi (Rahimahullah) said:
“The explanation of al-Jama’ah according to the people of knowledge: They are the people of fiqh, knowledge and Hadith.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi, 4/2167; Ahmad Shakir ed’n)
Imam Bukhari (Rahimahullah) stated in his Sahih (vol. 9, chapter. 10, English ed’n),
“The statement of the Prophet (Peace be upon him): ‘A group of my followers will remain victorious in their struggle in the cause of the Truth.’ Those are the religious(ly) learned men (Ahl ul-Ilm).”
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Rahimahullah) said about this group:
“If it is not the people of Hadith, then I do not know who they may be.” (Sahih Muslim Sharif-Mukhtasar Sharh Nawawi, vol. 5, pg. 183, W. Zaman)
Qadi Iyad (Rahimahullah) said in ash-Shifa (pg. 188):
“In a Hadith from Abu Umama (Allah be pleased with him), the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, `A group of my community will remain constant to the truth, conquering their enemy until the command of Allah comes to them while they are still in that condition.‘ He was asked, ‘Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him), where are they?‘ He replied, `In Jerusalem.‘”
(3) Imam Muslim (Rahimahullah) has related in his Sahih (3/4553) under the chapter heading ‘Instruction to stick to the main body of the Muslims in the time of the trials and warning against those inviting people to disbelief‘, a Hadith on the authority of Hudhaifa ibn al-Yaman (Allah be pleased with him), who said:
“People used to ask the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) about the good times, but I used to ask him about (the) bad times fearing lest they overtake me. I said, ‘Messenger of Allah, we were in the midst of ignorance and evil, and then God brought us this good (time through Islam). Is there any bad time after this good one?’ He said, ‘Yes’. I asked, ‘Will there be a good time again after that bad time?’ He said, ‘Yes, but therein will be a hidden evil.’ I asked, ‘What will be the evil hidden therein?’ He said, ‘(That time will witness the rise of) the people who will adopt ways other than mine and seek guidance other than mine. You will know good points as well as bad points.’ I asked, ‘Will there be a bad time after this good one?’ He said, ‘Yes. (A time will come) when there will be people standing and inviting at the gates of Hell. Whoso responds to their call, they will throw them into the fire.’ I said, ‘Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him), describe them for us.’ He said, ‘All right. They will be a people having the same complexion as ours and speaking our language.’ I said, `Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him), what do you suggest if I happen to live in their time?’ He said, ‘You should stick to the main body of the Muslims and their leader’ I said, ‘If they have no (such thing as the) main body of the Muslims and have no leader?’ He said, ‘Separate yourself from all these factions, though you may have to eat the roots of trees until death comes to you and you are in this state.'”
(NB-It is not likely that there will be an absence of a Jama’ah, since I have already quoted the Prophet, peace be upon him, as saying: ‘A group of people from my Ummah will continue to fight in obedience to the command of Allah, remaining dominant over their enemies. Those who will oppose them shall not do them any harm. They will remain in this condition until the Hour overtakes them.‘)
(4) Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) reported the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“Who (ever) defected from the obedience (to the Amir) and separated from the main body of the Muslims – then he died in that state – would die the death of one belonging to the days of Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic ignorance). And he who is killed under the banner of a man who is blind (to the cause for which he is fighting), who gets flared up with family pride and fights for his tribe – is not from my Ummah, and whoso from my followers attacks my followers (indiscriminately) killing the righteous and the wicked of them, sparing not (even) those staunch in faith and fulfilling not his obligation towards them who have been given a pledge (of security), is not from me.” (Sahih Muslim, 3/4557 & 4555; English ed’n)
Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066; Rahimahullah) stated in his: The Seventy-Seven Branches of Faith (pg. 42-3), under the fiftieth branch of faith (50 – Holding firmly to the position of the majority): “God Most High has said: Hold fast, all together, to the rope of God, and do not be disunited. [3:103]. Muslim (Rahimahullah) relates on the authority of Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘Whoever is disobedient, and departs from the majority, and then dies, has died in a state of Jahiliyya.‘ He also relates the following Hadith on the authority of Ibn Shurayh (Allah be pleased with him): ‘After I am gone, there will come days of corruption and turmoil. When you see people damaging the unity of the Community of Muhammad (Peace be upon him), you must fight them, whoever they may happen to be.‘
Abdal Hakim Murad (the translator of the above book) said in the footnote to the fiftieth branch of faith: ‘Orthodoxy in Islam is defined as the doctrine of ahl al-sunna wa’l jama’a, the People of the Sunna and the Community. To know whether a doctrine or practise is orthodox or heretical, the Muslim is required to find out whether it is recognised by the majority of Muslim scholars (see later for Imam al-Munawi’s commentary). Thus even without looking into their theology, he will know that sects such as the Isma’ilis, the Khariji’s, the Wahhabi’s, the Twelver Shi’a and others (not to mention anti-Islamic groupings such as the Ahmadiya and the Bahais) are to be repudiated.'”
(5) Ibn Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“One who found in his Amir (the ruler of the true Islamic state; which is absent today) something which he disliked should hold his patience, for one who separated from the main body of the Muslims even to the extent of a handspan and then he died, would die the death of one belonging to the days of Jahiliyya.” (Sahih Muslim, 3/4559; English ed’n & Sahih al-Bukhari, 9/257; English ed’n)
(6) Imam’s Ahmad and Abu Dawood (Allah’s mercy be upon them) said that Abu Dharr (Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“He who separates from the main body (of the Ummah) by even a hand’s breadth from the Community he throws off Islam from his neck.” (Mishkat-ul-Masabih, 1/185 & Sunan Abu Dawood, 3/4740)
NB-The following five Hadith have been mentioned by the great scholar of Hadith, Hafiz Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201; Rahimahullah) in hisTalbis Iblis (section entitled: Adherence to the Sunnah and Jama’ah). A section of the above work has been translated by Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips in to English, under the title: The Devil’s Deception of the Shee’ah (pp. 4-5). Bilal Philips has put footnotes to the five Hadith that I will be quoting below (to declare some of the Hadith to be Da’eef), but one thing that should be mentioned is that he has mainly relied upon al-Albani’s classification of the Hadiths in question; hence these ‘classifications’ of al-Albani need re-verifying! I say this because it is a well known fact that Hafiz Ibn al-Jawzi was noted for his exceptional stringency in accepting Hadith, and he has been known to have declared some of the Hadith in Bukhari/Muslim to be Da’eef, as well as declaring some sound Hadith to be fabricated! Nevertheless, I would like to make it clear to those readers who are unaware of the status of Bilal Philips, that he has heavily depended on the classifications of al-Albani in most of his books! If the esteemed reader is convinced that the errors of al-Albani are most apparent, then one should beware of the status of those Hadiths that have been used by Bilal Philips (on account of his accepting al-Albani’s classifications). Bilal Philips seems to be a leading critic of Taqleed who has been swept away by the tide of modern day “Salafiyyism”; and it seems that he has ‘blindly’ accepted the classifications of al-Albani without himself reverifying al-Albani’s classifications! I ask you, is this not a clear cut example of Taqleed? If it has been proven that al-Albani’s classifications are unreliable, would it not be just for Bilal Philips to re-verify all the Hadiths that have been authenticated by al-Albani and correct any misclassifications in his books? Allah know’s best.
(7) ‘Umar (Allah be pleased with him) reported that on one occasion Allah’s Messenger (Peace and blessings be upon him) stood up among them and said, “Whoever among you desires the centre of paradise should keep close to the Jama’ah for the Devil closely accompanies the solitary individual and is more distant from two.” (Collected by Imam Tirmidhi)
(8) And ‘Arfajah (Allah be pleased with him) reported (Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, as saying): “that Allah’s hand is over the Jama’ah and the Devil is with whoever deviates from the Jama’ah.” (Collected by Imam al-Tabarani)
(9) ‘Abdullah ibn Masood (Allah be pleased with him) reported that once Allah’s Messenger (Peace be upon him) drew a line in the dust with his hand and said, “This is the straight path of Allah.” Then he drew a series of lines to the right of it and to the left and said, “Each of these paths has a devil at its head inviting people to it.” He then recited (Qur’an 6:153), “Verily this is my straight path so follow it and do not follow the (twisted) paths.” (Collected by Ahmad, Nisai and Darimi; see Mishkat ul-Masabih, 1/166)
(10) Mu’adh ibn Jabal (Allah be pleased with him) reported that Allah’s Messenger (Peace be upon him) said, “The Devil is like a wolf among humans as a wolf is among sheep; it snatches the stray sheep. So beware of the paths which branch off and adhere to the Jama’ah, the masses and the masjid.” (Collected by Imam Ahmad; NB- The version given in Mishkat, 1/184, also on the authority of Imam Ahmad does not have the addition ‘the masses and the masjid.’)
(11) And Abu Dharr (Allah be pleased with him) reported from the Prophet (Peace be upon him) that, “Two are better than one, and three better than two; so stick to the Jama’ah for verily Allah, Most Great and Glorious, will only unite my nation on guidance.” (Collected by Ahmad)
(12) Al-Harith al-Ashari (Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said:
“I bid you to do five things: to remain attached to the main body (Jama’ah of Muslims), listen to your ruler (the Khalif of the Islamic state) and obey him, and migrate, and fight in the way of Allah. And he who detaches himself from the main body of the Muslims (Jama’ah) to the extent of one span of hand, he in fact, throws off the yoke of Islam from his neck, and he who calls with the call of ignorance, he is one from the denizens of Hell beyond doubt, even if he observes fast and says prayers and considers himself as a Muslim.” (Musnad Ahmad, vide: Selection from Hadith, no. 288; by A.H. Siddique)
(13) Ibn Umar (Allah be pleased with him) reported Allah’s Messenger (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“Follow the great mass (as-Sawad al-Azam) for he who kept himself away from it, in fact would be thrown in Hell Fire.” (Ibn Majah; vide: Mishkat, 1/174, by A.H. Siddiqui).
The translator of Mishkat-ul-Masabih (A.H. Siddiqui, pg. 113) said in the footnote to the last Hadith:
“There is a good deal of difference of opinion as to what the term Sawad al-Azam implies. The overwhelming majority of the scholars are of the view that As-Sawad al-Azam means the largest group of the learned scholars and pious persons whose opinions are held in high esteem in Islam.”
(14) Imam al-Shafi’i (Rahimahullah) said in his Risala (pg. 252-3):
“Sufyan (ibn Uyayna) told us from Abd al-Malik ibn Umayr from Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah ibn Masood from his father, that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, `God will grant prosperity to His servant who hears my words, remembers them, guards them, and hands them on. Many a transmitter of law is no lawyer (faqih) himself, and many may transmit law to others who are more versed in the law than they. The heart of a Muslim shall never harbour vindictive feelings against three: sincerity in working for God; faithfulness to Muslims; and conformity to the community of believers (Jama’ah) – their call shall protect (the believers) and guard them from (the Devil’s) delusion.‘” (vide: Sunan al-Darimi, vol. 1, pp. 74-6; Ibn Hanbal, vol. 6, pg. 96; Musnad al-Shafi’i, vol. 1, pg. 16; Mishkat-ul-Masabih, 1/228; and al-Bayhaqi in his al-Madkhal). Imam al-Shafi’i said (pg. 253): “The Apostle’s (Peace be upon him) order that men should follow the Muslim community is a proof that the ijma (consensus) of the Muslims is binding.”
(15) Imam al-Shafi’i (Rahimahullah) stated in al-Risala (pg. 286-7):
“And Sufyan (also) told us from `Abd Allah ibn Abi Labid from `Abd Allah ibn Sulayman ibn Yasar from his father, who said: `Umar ibn al-Khattab (Allah be pleased with him) made a speech at al-Jabiya in which he said: The Apostle of God (Peace be upon him) stood among us by an order from God, as I am now standing among you, and said: Believe my Companions, then those who succeed them (the Successors), and after that those who succeed the Successors; but after them untruthfulness will prevail when people will swear (in support of their saying) without having been asked to swear, and will testify without having been asked to testify. Only those who seek the pleasure of Paradise will follow the community, for the devil can pursue one person, but stands far away from two. Let no man be alone with a woman, for the devil will be third among them. He who is happy with his right (behaviour), or unhappy with his wrong behaviour, is a (true) believer.'” (see also Musnad al-Shafi’i, vol. 2, pg. 187; and Ibn Hanbal, vol. 1, pg. 112-13, 176-81).
Imam al-Shafi’i said in conclusion to this Hadith:
“He who holds what the Muslim community (Jama’ah) holds shall be regarded as following the community, and he who holds differently shall be regarded as opposing the community he was ordered to follow. So the error comes from separation; but in the community as a whole there is no error concerning the meaning of the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and analogy (qiyas).”
(16) Imam Hakim (1/116) has related a Sahih Hadith from the Prophet (Peace be upon him) in the following words: “My Ummah shall not agree upon error.”
(17) Imam al-Tirmidhi (4/2167) reported on the authority of Ibn Umar (Allah be pleased with him) from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), who said: “Verily my Ummah would not agree (or he said the Ummah of Muhammad) would not agree upon error and Allah’s hand is over the group and whoever dissents from them departs to Hell.” (see also Mishkat, 1/173)
Imam al-Azizi (d. 1070/1660; Rahimahullah) quoted Imam al-Munawi’s (d. 1031/1622; Rahimahullah) commentary to the last Hadith in his al-Siraj al-munir sharh al-Jami al-saghir (3.449), as follows:- Allah’s hand is over the group
(al-Azizi): Munawi says, “Meaning his protection and preservation of them, signifying that the collectivity of the people of Islam are in Allah’s fold, so be also in Allah’s shelter, in the midst of them, and do not separate yourselves from them.” The rest of the Hadith, according to the one who first recorded it (Tirmidhi), is:-
and whoever descents from them departs to hell.
Meaning that whoever diverges from the overwhelming majority concerning what is lawful or unlawful and on which the Community does not differ has slipped off the path of guidance and this will lead him to hell.” (vide: The Reliance of the Traveller, pg. 25)
From Al-Albani Unvelied by Ahmed ibn Muhammad
A defence of the Ash’ari school by one of the foremost scholars of Hadith and Fiqh in Makkah of his time – Shaikh Sayyid Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki al-Makki (RahimAllah).
Shaykh Muhammad ‘Alawi Maliki: “Many sons/daughters of Muslims are ignorant of the Ash’ari School, whom it represents, and its positions on the tenets of the Islamic faith (aqidah), and yet some of them are not God-fearing enough to refrain from accusing it of deviance, departure from the religion of Islam, and heresy about the attributes of Allah. The ignorance of the Ash’ari school is a cause of rendering the unity of the Ahl al-Sunnah dispersing its ranks. Some have gone as far as to consider the Ash’aris among the categories of heretical sects, though it is beyond me how believers can be linked with misbelievers, or how Sunni Muslims can be considered equal with the most extreme faction of the Mu’tazilites, the Jahmites.
“Shall We deal with Muslims as We do criminals? How is it that you judge?” [Qur’an 68:35-36]
The Ash’aris are the Imams of the distinguished figures of guidance among the scholars of the Muslims, whose knowledge has filled the world from east to west, and whom people have unanimously concurred upon their excellence, scholarship, and religiousness. They include the first rank of Sunni scholars and the most brilliant of their luminaries, who stood in the face of the excesses commited by the Mu’tazilites, and who constitute whole sections of the foremost Imams of Hadith, Sacred Law, Quranic exegesis. Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad ibn Hajar ‘Asqalani (d. 852/1449; Rahimullah), the mentor of Hadith scholars and author of the book “Fath al-Bari bi sharh Sahih al-Bukhari“, which not a single Islamic scholar can dispense with, was Ash’ari. The shaykh of the scholars of Sunni Islam, Imam Nawawi (d. 676/1277; Rahimullah), author of “Sharh Sahih Muslim” and many other famous works, was Ash’ari. The master of Qur’anic exegetes, Imam Qurtubi (d. 671/1273; Rahimullah), author of “al-Jami’ li ahkan al-Qur’an“, was Ash’ari. Shaykh al-Islam ibn Hajar Haytami (d. 974/1567; Rahimullah), who wrote “al-Zawajir ‘an iqtiraf al-kaba’ir“, was Ash’ari. The Shaykh of Sacred Law and Hadith, the conclusive definitive Zakariyya Ansari (d. 926/1520; Rahimullah), was Ash’ari. Imam Abu Bakr Baqillani (d. 403/1013; Rahimullah), Imam ‘Asqalani; Imam Nasafi (d. 710/1310; Rahimullah); Imam Shirbini (d. 977/1570; Rahimullah); Abu Hayyan Tawhidi, author of the Qur’anic commentary “al-Bahr al-muhit“; Imam ibn Juzayy (d. 741/1340; Rahimullah); author of “al-Tashil fi ‘ulum al-Tanzil“; and others – all of these were Imams of the Ash’aris. If we wanted to name all of the top scholars of Hadith, Qur’anic exegesis, and Sacred Law who were Imams of the Ash’aris, we would be hard put to do so and would require volumes merely to list these illustrious figures whose wisdom has filled the earth from east to west. And it is incumbent upon us to give credit where credit is due, recognising the merit of those of knowledge and virtue who have served the Sacred Law of the Greatest Messengers (Allah bless him and grant him peace). What good is to be hoped for us if we impugn our foremost scholars and righteous forbearers with charges of aberrancy and misguidance? Or how should Allah give us the benefit of their scholarship if we believe it is deviance and departure from the way of Islam? I ask you, is there a single Islamic scholar of the present day, among all the PhD.’s and geniuses, who has done what Ibn Hajar ‘Asqalani or Imam Nawawi have, of the service rendered by these two noble Imams (May Allah enfold them in His mercy and bliss) to the pure Prophetic Sunnah? How should we charge them and all Ash’aris with abberancy when it is we who are in need of their scholarship? Or how can we take knowledge from them if they were in error? For as Imam Zuhri (d. 124/742; rahimullah) says, “This knowledge is religion, so look well to whom you are taking your religion from.”
Is it not sufficient for someone opposed to the Ash’aris to say, “Allah have mercy on them, they used reasoning (ijtihad) in figuratively interpreting the divine attributes, which it would have been fitter for them not to do”; instead of accusing them of deviance and misguidance, or displaying anger towards whoever considers them to be of the Sunni Community? If Imams Nawawi, ‘Asqalani, Qurtubi, Baqillani, al-Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Haytami, Zakariyyah Ansari, and many others were not among the most brilliant scholars and illustrious geniuses, or of the Sunni Community, then who are the Sunnis?
I sincerely entreat all who call others to this religion or who work in the field of propagating Islam to fear Allah respecting the honour of the Community of Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) is possessed of goodness until the Final Hour, we are bereft of any if we fail to acknowledge the worth and excellence of our learned.”
In conclusion, the Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah are the true followers of the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and his Companions (Allah be pleased with them all), followed by by those who trod their path for the last 1400 years. It is in summary the followers of Imam Abu’l Hasan al-Ash’ari (Rahimullah) and Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (Rahimullah) in Aqeedah, and this saved sect is represented by the adherents of one of the four schools – Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali today. This is the sect which has had the largest following throughout Islamic history as-Sawad al-Az’am) as confirmed by the Qur’anic and Ahadith based evidence and it will remain dominant until the Hour is established, inshaAllah.
Shaykh Ahmad Darwish Mosque of the Internet P.O. Box 601, Tesuque, NM 87574 USA Foreword by Professor Hasan El Fatih Dean of Umm Durman Islamic University. This book was written in Arabic by Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, or Algazel as he was known to medieval Europe (died 505/1111).
His numerous works are well known, respected and quoted not only in the middle east but in the higher universities of west. His contribution to theology and philosophy have proved to be major cornerstones of resource throughout the centuries.
During the revival of Greek philosophy in the middle ages, many Christians were attracted and swayed by the persuasion of Greek logic. In an effort to protect Christianity, Christian theologians relied upon the profound arguments of Al Ghazali to defeat the adherents of Greek philosophy and thereby protected their religion.
Al Ghazali’s works have been translated and printed in many languages. Comparative studies have shown that Jean Jacques Rousseau, known in the west as the pioneer of children’s education, based his ideas and methods upon the work of Al Ghazali.
The Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam says of Al Ghazali:
“He was the most original thinker that Islam produced and its greatest theologian.”
A.J. Arberry, professor and director of the Middle East Centre at the University of Cambridge, England referred to him as being:
“He was one of the greatest mystical theologians of Islam and indeed of all mankind.”
I pray that the readers will benefit from the sound reasoning which they are about to embark upon and that it will open guiding channels of thought that will give pleasure in this life and in the Hereafter.
Hasan El Fatih Umm Durman Sudan 1992
The first translation into English was by the late Professor Nabih Amin Al Faris, American University, Beirut, October 31, 1962 with the examination of Dr. John H. Patton, Professor of Religion Park College, Parksville, MO. USA.
The reason for this work being undertaken yet again is due to the need for updating this work and also to rectify English linguistic usages and to adapt it for the computer with the addition of an index.
If the reader encounters difficulty in understanding some parts of this book, we would advise a visit to the grand philosopher and Sufi of Islam, Professor Hasan El Fatih, at the Mosque of Sheikh Muhammad El Fatih, Umm Durman, Sudan.
It is interesting to note that in the English versions of the Bible we found that the proper noun of the Creator referred to as “God” whereas we found in the Arabic edition of the Bible the proper noun changes to be “Allah” which is the same proper noun mentioned in the Arabic Qur’an.
In the Name of the Compassionate, the Merciful Allah,
This is the Book of the Foundations of Islamic Belief.
The Exposition of the Belief of the Sunni, way of the Prophet, is embodied in two phrases of witnessing (Shahadah) which form one of the Pillars of Islam.
We say – our success is from Allah – praise be to Allah the Creator, the Restorer, the One who does whatever He wills. He whose Throne is glorious and whose Power is Mighty; who guides the select amongst His worshippers to the righteous path. He who grants them benefits once they affirm His Oneness by guarding the articles of belief from the darkness of doubt and hesitation. He who leads them to follow the way of His chosen Prophet Muhammad – praise and peace be upon him – and to follow the example of his companions, the most honored, by directing their footsteps to the way of truth. He who reveals Himself to them in His Essence and in His Works by His fine attributes which none perceive except the one who inclines his ear in contemplation. He who makes known to them that He is One in His Essence without any associate, Single without any equal, Eternal without a similar.
Nothing precedes Him, He is without any beginning. He is Eternal with none after Him, Everlasting without any end, subsisting without cessation, abiding without termination He has not ceased and He will not cease to be described by the epithets of Majesty. At the end of time He will not be subject to dissolution and decay, but He is the First and the Last, the Hidden and Apparent, and He knows everything.
Allah is not a body possessing form, nor a substance restricted and limited: He does not resemble other bodies either in limitation or in accepting division.
He is not a substance and substances do not reside in Him; He is not a quality of substance, nor does a quality of substance occur in Him.
Rather, He resembles no existent and no existent resembles Him. Nothing is like Him and He is not like anything. Measure does not bind Him and boundaries do not contain Him. Directions do not surround Him and neither the earth nor the Heavens are on different sides of Him.
Truly, He is controlling the Throne in the manner in which He said and in the sense in which He willed – in a state of transcendence that is removed from parallel and touch, residence, fixity of location, stability, envelopment, and movement.
The Throne does not support Him, but the Throne and those who carry it are supported by the Subtleness of His Power and are constrained by His Firmness. He is above the Throne and Heavens and above everything to the limits of the earth with an aboveness which does not bring Him nearer to the Throne and the Heavens, just as it does not make Him further from the earth.
Rather, He is Highly Exalted above the Throne and the Heavens, just as He is Highly Exalted above the earth. Nevertheless, He is near to every entity and is “nearer to the worshipper than his juggler vein” and He witnesses everything since His nearness does not resemble the nearness of bodies, just as His Essence does not resemble the essence of bodies.
He does not exist in anything, just as nothing exists in Him: Exalted is He that a place could contain Him, just as sanctified is He that no time could limit Him.
For, He was as before He had created time and place, and just as He was, He is now. He is distinct from His creatures through His attributes. There is not in His Essence any other than Him, nor does His Essence exist in any other than Him.
He is Exalted from change and movement. Substance does not reside in Him and the quality of substance do not befall Him. Rather, He is in the attributes of His Majesty beyond cessation. And He is in the attributes of His Perfection. He is not in need of an increase in perfection. In His Essence, His Existence is known by reason (in this life).
In the Everlasting Life, His Essence is seen by the eyes of the righteous as a favor from Him, and a subtlety as a completion of favors from Him through their beholding His Gracious Face.
He is Living, Able, the Conqueror and All-subduing.
Inadequacy and weakness do not befall Him; slumber does not overtake Him nor sleep; annihilation does not prevail over Him nor death. He is the Owner of the visible and invisible Kingdom, and of Power and Might. His are dominion, subjugation, creation, and command; the Heavens are rolled in His Right and created things are subjugated in His Firmness.
He is Single in creating and inventing. He is Alone in bringing into existence and innovating. He created all creatures and their deeds, and decreed their sustenance and their life span; nothing decreed escapes His Firmness and the mutations of the affairs does not slip from His Power.
Whatever He decrees cannot be numbered neither does His Knowledge end.
He is Knowledgeable of all the known, encompassing all that happens in the depths of earth to the highest heavens. He is Knowledgeable in which there is not an atom that escapes His Knowledge in heaven and earth.
Rather, He knows the stamping of the black ant upon the solid rock in the darkest night. He perceives the movement of a particle of dust in mid-air. He knows the secrets and that which is more hidden.
He is the Overseer of the whispering of the self and the flow of thoughts, and the most deepest concealment of the selves.
With a knowledge which is ancient from eternity and by which He has not ceased to be described through the ages.
Not by a knowledge which is subject to updating by occurring and circulating in His Essence.
He is the Willer of all existence and the Planner of all contingent things. There is nothing that occurs in His visible or invisible world except by His prior planning and His execution whether it is little or plenteous, small or large, good or evil, benefit or harm, belief or unbelief, gratitude or ingratitude, prosperity or loss, increase or decrease, obedience or disobedience all is according to His Wisdom and Will, what He wills occurs and what He does not will does not occur. There is not a glance of the onlooker nor a stray thought that is not subject to His Will.
He is the Creator at first, the Restorer, the Doer of whatsoever He wills. There is none that rescinds His command, and none that supplements His decrees, and there is no escape for a worshipper from disobeying Him, except by His Help and Mercy, and none has power to obey Him except by His Will. Even if mankind, jinn, angels, and devils were to unite to try to move the weight of an atom in the world or to render it still, without His Will they would fail.
His Will subsists in His Essence amongst His Attributes. He has not ceased to be described by it from eternity, willing, – in His Infinity – the existence of the things at their appointed time which He has decreed. So they come into existence at their appointed times as He has willed in His Infinity without precedence or delay. They come to pass in accordance with His Knowledge and His Will without variation or change.
He directs matters not through arrangement of thought and awaiting the passage of time, and so no affair occupies Him from another affair.
He – the Most High – is the Hearer, the Seer. He hears and sees.
No audible thing, however faint, escapes His Hearing, and no visible thing, however minute, is hidden from His Sight.
Distance does not prevent His Hearing and darkness does not obstruct His Seeing. He sees without a pupil and eyelid, and hears without the meatus and ears, as He perceives without a heart, and seizes without limbs, and creates without an instrument, since His attributes do not resemble the attributes of the creation, and as His Essence does not resemble the essence of creation.
He – the Most High – speaks, commanding, forbidding, promising, and threatening, with a speech from eternity, ancient, and self-existing.
Unlike the speech of the creation, it is not a sound which is caused through the passage of air or the friction of bodies; nor is it a letter which is enunciated through the opening and closing of lips and the movement of the tongue.
And that the Qur’an, the original Torah, the original Gospel of Jesus, and the original Psalms are His Books sent down upon His Messengers, peace be upon them.
The Qur’an is read by tongues, written in books, and remembered in the heart, yet it is, nevertheless ancient, subsisting in the Essence of Allah, not subject to division and or separation through its transmission to the heart and paper [by this he meant that the movement of the reciter’s tongue and his management of the flow of air in his mouth and ear etc., or the writer’s inscription upon paper, all of which are created. Whereas the logic of Ghazali addresses what is beyond this human quality and dimension of time and physic. Thereby he refers to the Qur’an before one’s movement of the tongue or transcription onto paper. Most errors have come from our human dimensions, and that we try to describe Divine attributes through our own limited human attributes – Darwish]. Moses – Allah praised him and gave him peace – heard the Speech of Allah without sound and without letter, just as the righteous see the Essence of Allah – the High – in the Hereafter, without substance or its quality.
And since He has these qualities, He is Living, Knowing, Willing, Hearing, Seeing and Speaking with life, power, knowledge, will, hearing, sight, and speech, not solely through His Essence.
He, the Exalted, the High, there is no existence except Him, unless it occurs by His action and proceeds from His Justice, in the best, perfect, complete and just ways.
He is Wise in His verdicts. His justice is not to be compared with that of worshippers, because it is conceivable that the worshipper is unjust when he deals with properties of other than his own. But, harm is not conceivable from Allah – the High – because He does not encounter any ownership of other than Himself, in which His dealing could be described to be harmful.
Everything besides Him, children of Adam and jinn, angels and devils, heaven and earth, animals, plants, and inanimates, substance and its quality, as well as things perceived and things felt, are all originated things which He created by His Power and before they were nothing, since He existed in Eternity alone and there was nothing whatsoever with Him.
So He originated creation thereafter as a manifestation of His Power and a realization of that which had preceded of His Will and the realization of His Word in eternity, not because He had any need or necessity for it.
He is magnanimous in creating and inventing and in imposing obligations, not doing it through necessity.
He is Gracious in beneficence and reform, though not through any need. Munificence and Kindness, Beneficence and Grace are His, since He is able to bring upon His creatures all manner of torture and to try them with all kinds of pain and affliction. Even if He should do this, it would be justice from Him, it would not be vile, it would not be tyrannous.
He – the Mighty, the Glorified – rewards His believing worshippers for their acts of obedience according to generosity and encouragement rather than according to their merit and obligation. For there is no obligation upon Him in any deed towards anyone and tyranny is inconceivable in Him. For there is no right upon Him towards anyone.
As for His right to be obeyed it is obligatory and binding upon all creatures because He made it obligatory upon them through the tongues of His prophets and not by reason. But He sent His prophets and showed their truthfulness through explicit miracles, and they conveyed His commands and prohibitions as well as His promises and threats. So it became obligatory upon all creatures to believe them and what they brought.
Allah sent the unlettered, of Quraish, Prophet Muhammad – praise and peace be upon him – with His Message for Arabs and non-Arabs alike, to the jinn and humanity. Therefore Allah superseded other religions by the Religion of Prophet Muhammad – praise and peace be upon him – except that which He confirmed amongst them.
He favored Prophet Muhammad over all other prophets and made him the master of mankind, and declared incomplete any profession of faith which attests to Oneness, which is “ There is no god except Allah, ” unless it is followed by the witness to the Messenger, which is your saying, “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” He obligated all nations to believe in everything he informed of the affairs of here and the Hereafter.
Allah will not accept the belief of any one (worshipper) until he believes in that which the Prophet informed of the affairs that occur after death, the first of which is the question of the angels Munkar and Nakeer. These are two awesome and terrifying beings who will make the deceased sit up in the grave, both soul and body; they will ask him about the Oneness of Allah and about the Message, asking, “Who is your Lord, and what is your Religion, and who is your prophet?” They are also known as the two examiners of the grave and their questions are considered as the first trial after death.
Again, one should believe in the punishment of the grave, and that it is real and that His Ruling is just over both the body and soul in accordance with His Will.
And one should believe in the Scale with the two pans with its indicator – the magnitude of which is like the stages of the Heavens and the earth – in it, the deeds are weighed by the Power of Allah, and its weights or measures are the mustard seed and the atom, in order to establish exact justice.
The records of good deeds will be placed in a fine image in the scale of light, and then the balance will be heavy according to its rank with Allah, by His Virtue.
The records of the evil deeds will be cast in an evil image in the scale of darkness, and they will be light in the balance through the Justice of Allah.
One should believe also that the Bridge is real; it is a Bridge stretched over Hell, sharper than the edge of the sword and finer than a hair. The feet of the unbelievers slip on it, according to the decree of Allah – the Exalted – and they will fall into the Fire; but the feet of the believers stand firm upon it, by the Grace of Allah, and so they are driven into the Everlasting residence.
And one should believe in the frequented pool, the Pool of Prophet Muhammad – Allah has praised and given him peace. From which the believers will drink before entering Paradise and after crossing over the Bridge. Whoever drinks a single mouthful from it will never thirst again. Its width is the distance of one month’s journey; its waters are whiter than milk and sweeter than honey. Around it are ewers in number like the stars of the sky, and into it flow two springs from al-Kawthar.
And one should believe in the Judgement and the distinctions between those in it, that some will be closely questioned, that some will be treated with forgiveness and that others will enter Paradise without questioning – these are the nearest.
Allah will ask whomsoever He will of the prophets concerning the deliverance of the Message, and whosoever of the unbelievers concerning their rejection of the Messengers; and He will ask the innovators concerning the way of the Prophet (sunnah) and the Muslims concerning their deeds.
One should believe that the believer in the Oneness of Allah (if he enters Hell on account of his sins) will be released from Hell fire after he has been punished, so that there will not remain in Hell one single believer.
One should believe in the intercession of the prophets, of the learned, and of the martyrs, then the rest of the believers – each according to his influence and rank before Allah.
Whosoever remains of the believers and has no intercessor will be released through the Grace of Allah, the Mighty, the Glorified.
Therefore not one single believer will abide in Hell forever; whosoever has in his heart the weight of an atom of belief will be brought out from there.
One should believe the virtues of the Companions – may Allah be pleased with them – and their different ranks, and that the most excellent of mankind, after the Prophet – Allah praised and gave him peace – is Abu-Bakr, and then `Umar, and then `Uthman, and then `Ali – may Allah be pleased with them – and one should think well of all the Companions and praise them, just as Allah – the Mighty, the Glorified – and His Prophet praised them all – Allah has praised the Prophet and given him peace -. All these were reported in the news and witnessed traditions (of the Prophet). Therefore whosoever believes in all this and believes in it without doubting will be among the people of truth and the congregation of the Way of the Prophet (sunnah), and indeed has separated themself from the followers of error and party of innovation.
So we ask Allah to perfect our faith and make us steadfast in the Religion for us and for all Muslims through His Mercy. Truly He is the Most Merciful. And may the praise of Allah be upon our Master Muhammad and upon every chosen worshipper.
Imam Abu Ja’far Ahmad bin Muhammad bin Salamah bin Salmah bin `Abd al Malik bin Salmah bin Sulaim bin Sulaiman bin Jawab Azdi, popularly known as Imam Tahawi, after his birth-place in Egypt, is among the most outstanding authorities of the Islamic world on Hadith and fiqh (jurisprudence). He lived 239-321 A.H., an epoch when both the direct and indirect disciples of the four Imams: Imam Abu Hanifah, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi’i and Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal – were teaching and practicing. This period was the zenith of Hadith and fiqh studies, and Imam Tahawi studied with all the living authorities of the day. He began as a student of his maternal uncle, Isma’il bin Yahya Muzni. a leading disciple of Imam Shafi’i. Instinctively, however, Imam Tahawi felt drawn to the corpus of Imam Abu Hanifah’s works. Indeed, he had seen his uncle and teacher turning to the works of Hanafi scholars to resolve thorny issues of Fiqh, drawing heavily on the writings of Imam Muhammad Ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani and Imam Abu Yusuf, who had codified Hanafi fiqh. This led Imam Tahawi to devote his whole attention to studying the Hanafi works and he eventually joined the Hanafi school.
Imam Tahawi stands out not only as a prominent follower of the Hanafi school but, in view or his vast erudition and remarkable powers of assimilation, as one of its leading scholars. His monumental scholarly works, such as Sharh Ma’ani al-Athar and Mushkil al-Athar, are encyclopaedic in scope and have long been regarded as indispensable for training students of fiqh.
Al-‘Aqidah though small in size, is a basic text for all times, listing what a Muslim must know and believe and inwardly comprehend.
There is consensus among the Companions, Successors and all the leading Islamic authorities such as Imam Abu Hanifah, Imam Abu Yusuf, Imam Muhammad, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi’i and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal on the doctrines enumerated in this work. For these doctrines shared by ahl al-sunnah wa-al-Jama’ah owe their origin to the Holy Quran and consistent and confirmed Ahadith – the undisputed primary sources of Islam.
Being a text on the Islamic doctrines, this work draws heavily on the arguments set forth in the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah. Likewise, the arguments advanced in refuting the views of sects that have deviated from the Sunnah, are also taken from the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah.
As regards the sects mentioned in this work, a study of Islamic history up to the time of Imam Tahawi would be quite helpful. References to sects such as Mu’tazilah, Jahmiyyah, Qadriyah, and Jabriyah are found in the work. Moreover, it contains allusions to the unorthodox and deviant views of the Shi’ah, Khawarij and such mystics as had departed from the right path. There is an explicit reference in the work to the nonsensical controversy on khalq-al -Qu’ran in the times of Ma’mun and some other `Abbasid Caliphs.
While the permanent relevance of the statements of belief in al-‘Aqidah is obvious, the historical weight and point of certain of these statements can be properly appreciated only if the work is used as a text for study under the guidance of some learned person able to elucidate its arguments fully, with reference to the intellectual and historical background of the sects refuted in the work. Such study helps one to better understand the Islamic doctrines and avoid the deviations of the past or the present.
May Allah grant us a true undersanding of faith and include us with those to whom Allah refers as `those who believe, fear Allah and do good deeds’; and `he who fears Allah, endures affliction, then Allah will not waste the reward of well-doers.’
Iqbal Ahmad A’zami
In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate
Praise be to Allah, Lord of all the Worlds.
The great scholar Hujjat al-lslam Abu Ja’far al-Warraq al-Tahawi al-Misri, may Allah have mercy on him, said:
This is a presentation of the beliefs of ahl-al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah, according to the school of the jurists of this religion, Abu Hanifah an-Nu’man ibn Thabit al-Kufi, Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ibrahim al-Ansari and Abu `Abdullah Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani, may Allah be pleased with them all, and what they believe regarding the fundamentals of the religion and their faith in the Lord of all the Worlds.
`I will burn him in the Fire.’ (al-Muddaththir 74:26)
When Allah threatens with the Fire those who say
`This is just human speech’ (al-Muddaththir 74:25)
we know for certain that it is the speech of the Creator of mankind and that it is totally unlike the speech of mankind.
`Faces on that Day radiant, looking at their Lord’. (al-Qiyamah 75:22-3)
The explanation of this is as Allah knows and wills. Everything that has come down to us about this from the Messenger, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, in authentic traditions, is as he said and means what he intended. We do not delve into that, trying to interpret it according to our own opinions or letting our imaginations have free rein. No one is safe in his religion unless he surrenders himself completely to Allah, the Exalted and Glorified and to His Messenger, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and leaves the knowledge of things that are ambiguous to the one who knows them.
`and his heart was not mistaken about what it saw’ (al-Najm 53:11).
Allah blessed him and granted him peace in this world and the next.
`He is not asked about what He does but they are asked’. (al-Anbiya’ 21:23)
So anyone who asks: `Why did Allah do that?’ has gone against a judgement of the Book, and anyone who goes against a judgement of the Book is an unbeliever.
`He created everything and decreed it in a detailed way’. (al-Furqan 25:2)
And He also says:
`Allah’s command is always a decided decree’. (al-Ahzab 33:38)
So woe to anyone who argues with Allah concerning the decree and who, with a sick heart, starts delving into this matter. In his delusory attempt to investigate the Unseen, he is seeking a secret that can never be uncovered, and he ends up an evil-doer, telling nothing but lies.
`And He forgives anything less than that (shirk) to whoever He wills’ (al-Nisa’ 4: 116);
and if He wants, He will punish them in the Fire out of His justice and then bring them out of the Fire through His mercy, and for the intercession of those who were obedient to Him, and send them to the Garden. This is because Allah is the Protector of those who recognize Him and will not treat them in the Next World in the same way as He treats those who deny Him and who are bereft of His guidance and have failed to obtain His protection. O Allah, You are the Protector of Islam and its people; make us firm in Islam until the day we meet You.
`Allah does not charge a person except according to his ability’. (al-Baqarah 2: 286)
`Surely religion in the sight of Allah is Islam’. (Al `Imran 3:19)
And He also says:
`I am pleased with Islam as a religion for you’. (al-Matidah 5:3)
We ask Allah to make us firm in our belief and seal our lives with it and to protect us from variant ideas, scattering opinions and evil schools of view such as those of the Mushabbihah, the Mu’tazilah, the Jahmiyyah the Jabriyah, the Qadriyah and others like them who go against the Sunnah and Jama’ah and have allied themselves with error. We renounce any connection with them and in our opinion they are in error and on the path of destruction.
We ask Allah to protect us from all falsehood and we ask His Grace and Favour to do all good.
Abu Hanifa says in Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar about the qualities of God:
“He has a hand, a face, and a self. So what He, High is He, mentions in the Qur’an of the mention of the face, hand, and self, they are all attributes of His with no modality (or description).
Rather, His hand is His attribute with no modality (or description). And His anger and His satisfaction are two of His attributes with no modality (or description)…”
One must first understand that by virtue of the fact that the book – Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar – is considered to be the first book written in the time of the Taabi’een on the topic of Tawheed in an organized and methodical fashion during an age of great controversy when Sunnis were attempting to codify the orthodox creed of Muslims that there will be statements found in it that may be problematic.
Of course Salafis would find great joy in seeing such statements like the one above, since it apparently gives credence to their arguments about what they refer to as ‘The Attributes of Allah,’ like the hand, face, eyes, foot, side, shin, self, etc.
They could easily make the claim that their ‘aqeedah is correct and in agreement with the creed of the Salaf, since Imam Abu Hanifa who is one of the Salaf says in Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar that Allah has a hand. And His hand is an attribute, similar to what they say.
So on the surface it would seem that the argument is over, and that Salafis have proven themselves to be victorious in their claims.
However, a number of other things have to be considered before accepting their arguments.
Firstly, if we are to accept that Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar is an authentic work legitimately ascribable to Abu Hanifa and that it represents the ‘aqeedah of the Salaf, Salafis have to accept all that it contains. So they’d have to also accept the following statement made by Abu Hanifa about Allah’s speech:
“And He speaks, not as our speech. We speak with tools and letters while Allah, High is He, speaks without a tool and without letters. The letters are created. And the speech of Allah, High is He, is uncreated.”`
In this passage, Abu Hanifa states that when Allah, High is He, speaks, He speaks without letters. But Salafis believe that when Allah speaks, He speaks with letters and sounds.
So, really this is another case of Salafis selectively abusing and misusing the words of the Salaf and those attributed to the Salaf in an attempt to make it seem that their creed agrees with that of the Salaf, when in fact it doesn’t.
Add to that, Salafis are those who argue that the current version of Kitab al-Ibaanah ‘an Usool ad-Diyaanah, attributed to Imam Abu al-Hasan Al-Ash’ari, is a proper ascription to him.
And in that book, it states that Imam Abu Hanifa believed that the Qur’an was created1,. But if Salafis accept that Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar is appropriately ascribed to Abu Hanifa, they have to also accept his words that contradict this claim when he says:
“The Qur’an is Allah’s word, High is He, in pages transcribed, in hearts protected, on tongues recited, and on the Prophet (PBUH) and His family revealed. Our utterance of the Qur’an is created. Our writing of it is created. Our recitation of it is created. And the Qur’an is uncreated.”
How more explicit can the Imam be? He expressly states in Al-Fiqh al-Akbar that the “Qur’an is uncreated.” But the Salafis claim that the narrations in Al-Ibaanah that claim that Abu Hanifa believed that it was created is a proper ascription to Abu al-Hasan. And at the same time they consider Al-Fiqh al-Akbar to be properly ascribed to Abu Hanifa.
In addition to that, Imam Abu al-Hasan doesn’t make any mention of Abu Hanifa as being one of those who believed that the Qur’an was created in his more prominent and well-established work entitled ‘Maqaalaat al-Islaamiyyeen.’ And according to Salafis, Kitaab al-Ibaanah was his last work.
So how do they explain the fact that Imam Al-Ash’ari waited until his final work to mention Abu Hanifa, who died more than a century prior to him, as one of those who believed that the Qur’an was created in his supposed last work, when he didn’t mention him in what they believe to be one of his earlier works?
Did not Al-Ash’ari know that Imam Abu Hanifa was the author of Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar?
They just can’t have it both ways.
Either Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar is Abu Hanifa’s work, which would make Kitaab al-Ibaanah – in its present form – not Abu al-Hasan’s work. Or the current Kitaab al-Ibaanah is Abu al-Hasan’s work, which would mean that Al-Fiqh al-Akbar is not Abu Hanifa’s work.
And if Al-Fiqh al-Akbar is Abu Hanifa’s work and Salafis want to use it as proof that their ‘aqeedah is no different than his, they have to accept everything in it without exception.
Now as for the issue of the statement in Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar about the hand, face, and self and them being attributes, we must consider two things in particular:
1 – Imam At-Tahaawi makes no mention of hands, a face, or a self in his ‘aqeedah. And his book has been accepted as the one that represents the ‘aqeedah of Imam Abu Hanifa and his two companions, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad Ash-Shaibaani.
2 – Secondly, we must understand any comment made in Al-Fiqh al-Akbar – as in other works – according to context.
According to Al-Fiqh al-Akbar, Allah has two general classifications of attributes known as ‘Attributes of the Essence’ and ‘Attributes of Action.’
Attributes of the Essence are the essential qualities of His being.
As for attributes of action, they are things that happen outside of His being. And since He is the one responsible for those occurrences, they are attributed to Him and called ‘Attributes of Action.’
Imam Abu Hanifa explains this in his book when he says:
“He doesn’t resemble anything of His creation, and nothing of His creation resembles Him. He has always and will always exist with His names and His attributes of the (divine) essence and those (attributes) of action.
As for those of the essence, they are: life, power, knowledge, speech, hearing, seeing, and will.
And as for those of action, they are: creating, providing, producing, originating, manufacturing, and other attributes of action.”
So the attributes of Allah’s divine essence are seven:
As for the attributes of action, he states things like
Then, Abu Hanifa says,
“He has always and will always exist with His names and attributes. He has not acquired any new name or attribute.”
As for restricting the attributes of the essence to merely seven, this is not to say that these are the only attributes that Allah has. It is merely to say that this is the number that both revelation and reason have been able to conclude. As for the standard view of Maaturidis, the attributes of the essence are 8.
In the end, most of that is just a difference in semantics. And the true difference is with relationship to what Ash’aris call ‘Abstract Attributes’, which are the 7 that Abu Hanifa mentions in Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar, while Maaturidis add an eighth called ‘Takween.’
At any rate, notice how Abu Hanifa doesn’t make mention of the hand, face, and self until he enumerates the attributes of the essence. And, so that the readers can see, here is the complete text prior to the mention of the hand, face, and self:
“He doesn’t resemble anything of His creation, and nothing of His creation resembles Him. He has always and will always exist with His names and His attributes of the (divine) essence and those (attributes) of action.
As for those of the essence, they are: life, power, knowledge, speech, hearing, seeing, and will.
And as for those of action, they are: creating, providing, producing, originating, manufacturing, and other attributes of action.
He has always and will always exist with His names and attributes. He has not acquired any new name or attribute.”
So if He hasn’t acquired any new name or attribute, there are truly no other definitive attributes of essence other than those mentioned above, and the hand, face, and self aren’t included among them.
Then he continues:
“He has always been Knowing by His knowledge. And knowledge has been an attribute since pre-eternity.
(He has always been) Powerful by His power. And power has been an attribute since pre-eternity.
(He has always been) A Speaker by His speech. And speech has been an attribute since pre-eternity.
(He has always been) A Doer by His will to act. And the will to act has been an attribute since pre-eternity. The Doer is Allah, High is He. The will to act has been an attribute since pre-eternity. And the resulting entity of His will to act is created, while Allah’s will to act, High is He, is uncreated. And His attributes have been since pre-eternity un-invented and uncreated. So whoever says that they are created or invented, remains silent about them, or entertains doubts about them is one who rejects faith in Allah, High is He.”
He also says,
“And Allah, High is He, was indeed a Speaker at a time when He had not yet spoken to Musa, upon him be peace. And Allah was indeed a Creator in pre-eternity even though He had not yet created. ((There is nothing like unto Him. And He is the All-Hearing All-Seeing)). So when He spoke to Musa, He spoke to him with His speech, which has been an attribute of His since pre-eternity. And All of His attributes are without beginning from pre-eternity; contrary to the state of the attributes of created beings.
He has knowledge, not as our knowledge. He has power, not as our power. He sees, not as our seeing. He hears, not as our hearing. And He speaks, not as our speech.
We speak with tools and letters while Allah, High is He, speaks without a tool and without letters. The letters are created. And the speech of Allah, High is He, is uncreated.
He is a thing, not like other things. And the point of saying ‘thing’ is to confirm His existence while not being a divisible body, an indivisible body, and not an accident of a body.
He has no boundary. He has no opposite. He has no rival. And He has no equal.
Then finally he says,
He has a hand, a face, and a self. So what He, High is He, mentions in the Qur’an of the mention of the face, hand, and self, are all attributes of His with no modality (or description).
Rather, His hand is His attribute with no modality (or description). And His anger and His satisfaction are two of His attributes with no modality (or description)…”
So what are we to understand from all of this? How do we reconcile between Abu Hanifa’s saying after mentioning the seven attributes of the essence:
“He has always and will always exist with His names and attributes. He has not acquired any new name or attribute.”
And between his saying,
“He has a hand, a face, and a self. So what He, High is He, mentions in the Qur’an of the mention of the face, hand, and self, are all attributes of His with no modality (or description).”?
I believe that the best way to reconcile between the two is to say that ‘hand, face, and self’ are references to either one of Allah’s true attributes of the essence as stated in the first clause by Abu Hanifa. Or they are references to one of His attributes of action.
One cannot deny that by such words being annexed to Allah’s name or pronoun in the Qur’an, they are being ‘attributed’ to Him directly even if calling them ‘attributes’ doesn’t coincide with the original linguistic definition of what an attribute is.
So calling them attributes would be a metaphorical application as opposed to a literal application. And if it is a metaphorical application, it would have to be accepted that such named ‘attributes’ are metaphorical ‘attributes.’ So the hand, face, and self would have to be a metaphorical ‘hand, face, and self,’ which are references to one of Allah’s true attributes, since there is nothing like unto Him. And ‘hand’ in its original linguistic understanding applies only to created beings.
Abdur-Rahman ibn Al-Jawzi says while mentioning the mistakes of some Hanbali scholars in the area of scriptural interpretation of the problematic verses of the Qur’an,
“And those writers who I have mentioned have erred in seven areas. The first of them is that they called the ‘reports’ ‘attributes.’ When they are merely annexations/possessive forms. And not every possessive form is an attribute. For Allah, High is He, has said: ((And I have blown into him from My spirit)) [Al-Hijr: 29]. And Allah doesn’t have an attribute known as a ‘spirit.’ So those who have called ‘the possessive form’ (idaafa) ‘an attribute’ are guilty of innovation.”
The linguist, Tha’lab says in Taaj al-‘Aroos,
“A ‘na’t’ is a description given to a specific part of the body like the word ‘lame’ (‘araj). A ‘sifa’ (attribute) is for non-specificity (‘umoom), like the word ‘magnificent’ (‘azeem) and ‘generous’ (kareem). So Allah is described with a ‘sifa’. But He is not described with a ‘na’t.’”
What this would mean is that the word ‘sifa’ (attribute) is being used metaphorically to mean ‘na’t’, which is another word for ‘attribute’ or ‘trait.’ The difference is that a ‘na’t’ describes a specific part of a body, like ‘lame’ or ‘blind’.
For this reason, Imam Bukhaari uses the word ‘nu’oot’ (plural of na’t), instead of ‘sifaat’ (plural of sifa) to refer to those reports that make mention of Allah’s anger, laughter, foot, hand, and face even though He isn’t a body and doesn’t have a body.
This would have to be the accepted interpretation. Otherwise, we must accept that Abu Hanifa contradicts his self by first limiting the attributes of the essence to the 7 mentioned above, and then later adding Allah’s face, hand, and self.
Another important question is ‘Why doesn’t Abu Hanifa add to what he considered attributes ‘the shin, the side, the eyes, the foot, and the spirit?’
This is important because Allah annexes His name or personal pronoun to each of these things in the Qur’an or the Messenger does so in the hadith. So if I am to accept that Allah has a face, self, and hand, simply because He annexes such things to His name or pronoun, I should also accept that He has eyes, a spirit, a foot, a side, a shin, a she-camel, a house, and any other thing that He has attached His name or pronoun to.
And if the Salafis agree with Abu Hanifa’s creed, they should only accept as attributes those things that Abu Hanifa declared to be attributes. This would mean that Salafis have to stop saying that Allah has a foot, a shin, a side, and eyes.
But we know that they won’t do that, because Salafis are very selective about what they want to accept from the Salaf and what they don’t want to accept, all the while claiming that their ‘aqeeda is the ‘aqeeda of the Salaf.
If they use Abu Hanifa’s words about the face, hand, and self as being proof that they follow the minhaaj and understanding of the Salaf, they should only say what the Salaf said and stop adding to their words.
So to accept that these are the words of Abu Hanifa, we’d either have to accept the first interpretation or we’d have to accept the second, which would mean that he is in contradiction with his self.
And if that is so, we’d have to accept that Abu Hanifa may not have been an authority on this subject.
As for referring to these problematic verses and hadiths as ‘Attribute Verses’ (Aayaat as-Sifaat) or ‘Reports of Attributes’ (Akhbaar as-Sifaat), this was the specific terminology that scholars used to refer to them even though they didn’t actually mean that such ascriptions mentioned in scripture were attributes of Allah. Imam Ibn Al-Jawzi’s words above clarify the error of this sort of designation. So hopefully that should resolve any confusion about the issue.
“Haarun ibn Ishaaq al-Hamdaani mentioned about Abu Na’eem from Sulaimaan ibn ‘Eesaa Al-Qaari that Sufyaan Ath-Thauri said: “I said to Hammaad ibn Abi Sulaimaan: “Proclaim to Abu Hanifa, The Idolater, that I am innocent of him.”” Sulaimaan said: “Then Sufyaan said: “That’s because he used to say, ‘The Qur’an is created.’”
Sufyaan ibn Wakee’ said: “I heard ‘Umar ibn Hammaad, the grandson of Abu Hanifa, say: “My father said to me: “The comment that Ibn Abi Lailaa demanded that Abu Hanifa repent from was his statement: ‘The Qur’an is created.’” He (Hammaad) said: “So he repented from it and announced his repentance publicly. My (Hammaad) father said: “How did you turn to this?” He (Abu Hanifa) said: “I feared – By Allah – that I would be disciplined. So I used a misleading expression to trick him (heela).”
Haarun ibn Ishaaq said, “I heard Ismaa’eel ibn Abi Al-Hakam mention about ‘Umar ibn ‘Ubaid At-Tanaafusi that Hammaad – i.e. Ibn Abi Sulaimaan – sent someone to Abu Hanifa to say: “Verily I am innocent of what you say until you repent.”
Ibn Abi ‘Inabah was with him (i.e. Hammaad) and said: “Your neighbor told me that Abu Hanifa invited him to what he was asked to repent from after he had already been asked to repent from it.”
And it was mentioned that Abu Yusuf said, “I debated with Abu Hanifa for two months until he retracted his statement about the createdness of the Qur’an.”
[Al-Ash’ari, Abu al-Hasan (ascribed to him), Kitaab al-Ibaanah ‘an Usool ad-Diyaanah: 1998/1418 Daar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, Marginal Notes by ‘Abdullah Mahmood Muhammad ‘Umar.]
On the same page, the commentator, Abdullah Mahmood Muhammad ‘Umar, makes the following comments:
“Tahaawi states in his book, Al-‘Aqeedah At-Tahaawiyyah, what contradicts these narrations that claim that Abu Hanifa used to state that the Qur’an is created. And Tahaawi is more reliable in transmission and more knowing of the creed of his comrades (Abu Hanifa and his two companions) than Al-Ash’ari is. Imam Tahaawi, the Hanafi, says: “The Qu’ran is the word of Allah. It came from Him as speech without it being possible to say how. He sent it down upon His messenger as revelation. The believers accept it as absolute truth. They are certain that it is, in truth, the word of Allah. It was not created like the speech of human beings…”
So the commentator, in spite of the fact that he seems to accept that the book is properly ascribed to Imam Al-Ash’ari, he establishes that such a claim made by him cannot be substantiated, since it conflicts with the reports given by those who have better knowledge of the creed of Abu Hanifa who conveyed it to the Ummah.
Add to this, Al-Ash’ari doesn’t list Imam Abu Hanifa among those who believed the Qur’an to be created in his book, Maqaalaat al-Islaamiyyeen, even though the narrations above from Al-Ibaanah give the impression that Abu Hanifa never actually relinquished the presumed belief that the Qur’an is created.
Existence is known as the ‘Essential Attribute’ (As-sifah An-nafsiyyah), since without it Allah would not be able of being described by any of the others.
The other 5 are known as the ‘Negating Attributes’ (As-Sifaat As-Salbiyyah). This is because by establishing them, one negates their opposites from Allah’s being.
They are called the ‘Signifying Attributes’ (As-Sifaat al-Ma’nawiyya), because they signify that Allah has the attribute that each adjective implies, i.e. power, will, knowledge, life, sight, hearing, and speech.
Abu Hanifa mentions only the 7 abstract attributes. But this doesn’t mean that he denies the existence of the other 13 mentioned by Ash’aris. This is because the ‘essential attribute’ of ‘existence’ and the other five negating attributes are characteristics of the 7 essential qualities. So they go without saying.
 The reason that Abu Hanifa doesn’t mention the 5 ‘Negating Attributes’ (i.e. permanence without beginning, endurance without end, absolute independence, dissimilarity to creation, and oneness), the ‘Essential Attribute’ (Existence), and the 7 signifying attributes stated above, is that these attributes are actually qualities of Allah’s main qualities, which are the 7 Attributes of the Essence or as Ash’aris call them, ‘Abstract Attributes.’
 The ‘will to act’ is a translation for the word, ‘fi’l,’ usually translated as ‘action.’ I translated as ‘will to act’ since it is more in line with the actually creed of Maaturidis who based much of their creed off of the doctrine of Imam Abu Hanifa. To translate ‘fi’l’ as ‘action’ or ‘act’ would imply that the creation – one of Allah’s actions – is eternal without a beginning, since the author states that the ‘fi’l’ is uncreated.
 In other words, to say such a thing would be equal to saying what the people who deny the divine decree (qadar) say and like the Mu’tazilites who say that every time Allah ascribes a hand to His self, it means ‘power.’
 Imam Shaukaani states in his Irshaad al-Fuhool while discussing the different relationships that tie between literal and figurative language that one of them is, “Assigning a thing the name of one of its forms and manifestations, like using the word ‘hand’ to refer to ‘power…” [Irshaad al-Fuhool: 1/119] In other words, the hand is a form or manifestation of power. This would mean that when one says that the ‘hand’ is one of Allah’s attributes, he really means that it is His power even though a different word is used to apply to it. And Allah knows best.
Thus article is reproduced courtesy of Lamppost Productions
Dear brothers and sisters know that it is incumbent upon Muslims to believe that Prophethood has ended with the advent of Sayyidna Muhammad al-Mustafa Habib Allah (may the peace and blessing of Allah be upon him). This belief in the finality of Prophethood has been an established belief of the Muslims since the time of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). Every time a false prophet has arisen, the Muslims knew he was false because belief in the finality of Prophethood has been established as part of the Muslim’s aqidah (tenets of faith).
A fitna in India arose in the latter part of the 19th Century in the guise of the Qadiani heretical cult who claimed prophethood for their leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadian (lanat Allah alay) despite all the evidence against such a claim. What I would like to present are some clear proofs from the ulama of the past, ulama that predate the Qadiani fitna so no one can accuse them of being biased. What you will see is that it is quite clear, without a shadow of a doubt that finality of Prophethood is something that is necessarily known as being part of the religion of Islam. Hence the rejection of this belief is Kufr and quite rightly the Qadianis have been declared as kafir by the leading ulama of this ummah then and now.
Imam al-Tahawi (d. 321 AH) in al-Aqidah al-Tahawiyya states
“Every claim to prophethood after him is falsehood and deceit.”
Ibn Kathir (d. 774 AH) in Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim states
“”Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but the Messenger of Allahand the Last of Prophets. And Allah has knowledge of everything”
This Qur’anic verse is an unequivocally decisive primary text [nass] that there will be no prophet after him. And since there will be no prophet (nabi), it follows a fortiori that there will be no prophetic messenger (rasul). The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
(1) “Messengerhood and prophethood have ceased. There will be no messenger or prophet after me.” [related by Ahmad]
(2) “My likeness among the prophets is as a man who, having built a house put the finishing touches on it and made it seemly, yet left one place without a brick. When anyone entered it and saw this, he would exclaim, ‘How excellent it is, but for the place of this brick.' Now, I am the place of the brick: through me the line of prophets (Allah bless him and give him peace) has been brought to completion.” [Related by al-Bukhari]
(3) “I have been favoured above the prophets in six things: I have been endowed with consummate succinctness of speech, made triumphant through dread, war booty has been made lawful for me, the whole earth has been made a purified place of worship for me, I have been sent to all created beings, and the succession of prophets has been completed in me.” [related by Tirmidhi and ibn Majah]
Allah Most Blessed and Exalted has stated in His book, as has His Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) in hadiths of numerous channels of transmission (mutawatir) that there will be no prophet after him, so that whoever claims this rank thereafter is a lying [kadhab] pretender [dajjal], misled and misleading, even if he should stage miracles and exhibit all kinds of magic, talismans and spells.”
Here ends the quotation from Ibn Kathir’s Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim 3.493-494 (cf. Reliance of the Traveller W4.2).
Here are some ahadith from Sahih al-Bukhari:
Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “The Children of Israel used to be ruled and guided by prophets: Whenever a prophet died, another would take over his place. There will be no prophet after me, but there will be Caliphs who will increase in number.” The people asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! What do you order us (to do)?” He said, “Obey the one who will be given the pledge of allegiance first. Fulfil their (i.e. the Caliphs) rights, for Allah will ask them about (any shortcoming) in ruling those Allah has put under their guardianship.” [al-Bukhari 4.661]
Narrated Sa’ad: Allah’s Apostle set out for Tabuk. appointing ‘Ali as his deputy (in Medina). ‘Ali said, “Do you want to leave me with the children and women?” The Prophet said, “Will you not be pleased that you will be to me like Aaron to Moses? But there will be no prophet after me.” [al-Bukhari 5.700]
Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “The Hour will not be established (1) till two big groups fight each other whereupon there will be a great number of casualties on both sides and they will be following one and the same religious doctrine, (2) till about thirty dajjals (liars) appear, and each one of them will claim that he is Allah’s Apostle, (3) till the religious knowledge is taken away (by the death of Religious scholars) (4) earthquakes will increase in number (5) time will pass quickly, (6) afflictions will appear, (7) Al-Harj, (i.e., killing) will increase, (8) till wealth will be in abundance . . .” [al-Bukhari 9.237]
Narrated Isma’il: I asked Abi Aufa, “Did you see Ibrahim, the son of the Prophet?” He said, “Yes, but he died in his early childhood.Had there been a Prophet after Muhammad then his son would have lived, but there is no Prophet after him.”  [al-Bukhari 8.214]
Narrated Ayesha (RA): “Prophethood will NOT continue after me, except the harbingers of good news”. They asked “What are the harbingers of good news, O Apostle of Allah?.” He replied: “Virtuous and pious dreams a Muslim sees or are shown to him”. Musnad of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal
Now, the above is just a small portion of the vast amount of mutawatir evidence that proves conclusively that there are no prophets after the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), if you believe that there is a prophet after him then you are a kafir, period. There is absolutely and utterly no room for any doubt in this matter. In the face of such overwhelming evidence then why is it that the Qadianis persist in their misguided and misguiding belief?
Written in response to Qadiani propaganda on the newsgroup soc.religion.islam
 mutawatir def: related by whole groups of individuals from whole groups, in multiple contiguous channels of transmission leading back to the Prophet himself, such that the sheer number of separate channels at each stage of transmission is too many for it to be possible for all to have conspired to fabricate the hadith (which makes it obligatory to believe in and denial of which is kufr). [cf. Reliance of the Traveller o22.1(dII)]
 I have seen a hadith quoted by the Qadianis in which Umm al-Mu’minin Sayyida Aisha is reported to have said “O ye Muslims ! Do proclaim that the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, was the Khataman Nabiyeen, but never say that there shall be no prophet after him” [Takmilah Majma ul Bihar & Durr i Manthur], this hadith is a fabrication and is rejected. Witness the lies they invent and attribute to Umm al-Mu’mineen!
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.
The literal sense of being “in the sky” would mean that Allah is actually in one of His creatures, for the sky is something created. It is not permissible to believe that Allah indwells or occupies (in Arabic,hulul) any of His creatures, as the Christians believe about Jesus, or the Hindus about their avatars.
What is obligatory for a human being to know is that Allah is ghaniyy or “absolutely free from need” of anything He has created. He explicitly says insurat al-Ankabut of the Qur’an,
“Verily Allah is absolutely free of need of anything in the worlds” (Qur’an 29:6).
Allah mentions this attribute of ghina or “freedom of need for anything whatsoever” in some seventeen verses in the Qur’an. It is a central point of Islamic `aqida or faith, and is the reason why it is impossible that Allah could be Jesus (upon whom be peace) or be anyone else with a body and form: because bodies need space and time, while Allah has absolutely no need for anything. This is the `aqida of the Qur’an, and Muslim scholars have kept it in view in understanding other Qur’anic verses or hadiths.
Muslims lift their hands toward the sky when they make supplications (du’a) to Allah because the sky is the qibla for du’a, not that Allah occupies that particular direction–just as the Kaaba is the qibla of the prayer (salat), without Muslims believing that Allah is in that direction. Rather, Allah in His wisdom has made the qibla a sign (ayah) of Muslim unity, just as He has made the sky the sign of His exaltedness and His infinitude, meanings which come to the heart of every believer merely by facing the sky and supplicating Allah.
It was part of the divine wisdom to incorporate these meanings into the prophetic sunna to uplift the hearts of the people who first heard them, and to direct them to the exaltedness and infinitude of Allah through the greatest and most palpable physical sign of them: the visible sky that Allah had raised above them. Many of them, especially when newly from the Jahiliyya or “pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance”, were extremely close to physical, perceptible realities and had little conception of anything besides–as is attested to by their idols, which were images set up on the ground. Umar ibn al-Khattab mentions, for example, that in the Jahiliyya, they might make their idols out of dates, and if they later grew hungry, they would simply eat them. The language of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) in conveying the exaltedness of Allah Most High to such people was of course in terms they could understand without difficulty, and used the imagery of the sky above them. Imam al-Qurtubi, the famous Qur’anic exegete of the seventh/thirteenth century, says:
The hadiths on this subject are numerous, rigorously authenticated (sahih), and widely known, and indicate the exaltedness of Allah, being undeniable by anyone except an atheist or obstinate ignoramus. Their meaning is to dignify Allah and exalt Him above all that is base and low, to characterize Him by exaltedness and greatness, not by being in places, particular directions, or within limits, for these are the qualities of physical bodies (al-Jami li ahkam al-Qur’an. 20 vols. Cairo 1387/1967. Reprint (20 vols in 10). Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d.,18.216).
In this connection, a hadith has been related by Malik in his Muwatta’ and by Muslim in his Sahih, that Muawiya ibn al-Hakam came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and told him, “I am very newly from the Jahiliyya, and now Allah has brought Islam,” and he proceeded to ask about various Jahiliyya practices, until at last he said that he had slapped his slave girl, and asked if he should free her, as was obligatory if she was a believer. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) requested that she be brought, and then asked her, “Where is Allah?” and she said, “In the sky (Fi al-sama)”; whereupon he asked her, “Who am I?” and she said, “You are the Messenger of Allah”; at which he said, Free her, “for she is a believer” (Sahih Muslim, 5 vols. Cairo 1376/1956. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1403/1983, 1.382: 538). Imam Nawawi says of this hadith:
This is one of the “hadiths of the attributes,” about which scholars have two positions. The first is to have faith in it without discussing its meaning, while believing of Allah Most High that “there is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11), and that He is exalted above having any of the attributes of His creatures. The second is to figuratively explain it in a fitting way, scholars who hold this position adducing that the point of the hadith was to test the slave girl: Was she a monotheist, who affirmed that the Creator, the Disposer, the Doer, is Allah alone and that He is the one called upon when a person making supplication (du’a) faces the sky–just as those performing the prayer (salat) face the Kaaba, since the sky is the qibla of those who supplicate, as the Kaaba is the qibla of those who perform the prayer–or was she a worshipper of the idols which they placed in front of themselves? So when she said, In the sky, it was plain that she was not an idol worshipper (Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi. 18 vols. Cairo 1349/1930. Reprint (18 vols. in 9). Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1401/1981, 5.24).
It is noteworthy that Imam Nawawi does not mention understanding the hadith literally as a possible scholarly position at all. This occasions surprise today among some Muslims, who imagine that what is at stake is the principle of accepting a single rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadith as evidence in Islamic faith (`aqida), for this hadith is such a single hadith, of those termed in Arabic ahad, or “conveyed by a single chain of transmission”, as opposed to being mutawatir or “conveyed by so many chains of transmission that it is impossible it could have been forged”.
Yet this is not what is at stake, because hadiths of its type are only considered acceptable as evidence by traditional scholars of Islamic `aqida if one condition can be met: that the tenet of faith mentioned in the hadith is salimun min al-muarada or “free of conflicting evidence”. This condition is not met by this particular hadith for a number of reasons. First, the story described in the hadith has come to us in a number of other well-authenticated versions that vary a great deal from the “Where is Allah?–In the sky” version. One of these is related by Ibn Hibban in his Sahih with a well-authenticated (hasan) chain of transmission, in which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) asked the slave girl, “‘Who is your Lord?’ and she said, ‘Allah’; whereupon he asked her, ‘Who am I?’ and she said, ‘You are the Messenger of Allah’; at which he said, ‘Free her, for she is a believer'” (al-Ihsan fi taqrib Sahih Ibn Hibban, 18 vols. Beirut: Muassasa al-Risala, 1408/1988, 1.419: 189).
In another version, related by Abd al-Razzaq with a rigorously authenticated (sahih) chain of transmission, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said to her, “Do you testify that there is no god but Allah?” and she said yes. He said, “Do you testify that I am the Messenger of Allah?” and she said yes. He said, “Do you believe in resurrection after death?” and she said yes. He said, “Free her” (al-Musannaf, 11 vols. Beirut: al-Majlis al-Ilmi, 1390/1970, 9.175: 16814).
In other versions, the slave girl cannot speak, but merely points to the sky in answer. Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani has said of the various versions of this hadith, “There is great contradiction in the wording” (Talkhis al-habir, 4 vols. in 2. Cairo: Maktaba al-Kulliyat al-Azhariyya, 1399/1979, 3.250). When a hadith has numerous conflicting versions, there is a strong possibility that it has been related merely in terms of what one or more narrators understood (riwaya bi al-ma’na), and hence one of the versions is not adequate to establish a point of `aqida.
Second, this latter consideration is especially applicable to the point in question because the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) explicitly detailed the pillars of Islamic faith (iman) in a hadith related in Sahih Muslim when he answered the questions of the angel Gabriel, saying, True faith (iman) is to believe in Allah, His angels, His Books, His messengers, the Last Day, and to believe destiny (qadr), its good and evil (Sahih Muslim, 1.37: 8)–and he did not mention anything about Allah being “in the sky“. If it had been the decisive test of a Muslims belief or unbelief (as in the “in the sky” hadith seems to imply), it would have been obligatory for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to mention it in this hadith, the whole point of which is to say precisely what “iman is”.
Third, if one takes the hadith as meaning that Allah is literally “in the sky”, it conflicts with other equally sahih hadiths that have presumably equal right to be taken literally–such as the hadith qudsi related by al-Hakim that Allah Most High says, “I am with My servant when he makes remembrance of Me and his lips move with Me” (al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn. 4 vols. Hyderabad, 1334/1916. Reprint (with index vol. 5). Beirut: Dar al-Marifa, n.d., 1.496), a hadith that al- Hakim said was rigorously authenticated (sahih), which al-Dhahabi confirmed. Or such as the hadith related by al-Nasai, Abu Dawud, and Muslim that “the closest a servant is to his Lord is while prostrating” (Sahih Muslim, 1.350: 482)–whereas if Allah were literally “in the sky”, the closest one would be to Him would be while standing upright. Or such as the hadith related by al-Bukhari in his Sahih, in which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) forbade spitting during prayer ahead of one, because when a person prays, “his Lord is in front of him” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 1.112: 406). Finally, in the hadiths of the Mir’aj or “Nocturnal Ascent”, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was shown all of the seven heavens (samawat) by Gabriel, and Allah was not mentioned as being in any of them.
Fourth, the literal interpretation of Allah being “in the sky” contradicts two fundamentals of Islamic `aqida established by the Qur’an. The first of these is Allah’s attribute of mukhalafa li al- hawadith or “not resembling created things in any way”, as Allah says in surat al-Shura, “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11), whereas if He were literally “in the sky“, there would be innumerable things like unto Him in such respects as having altitude, position, direction, and so forth. The second fundamental that it contradicts, as mentioned above, is Allah’s attribute of ghina or “being absolutely free of need for anything created” that He affirms in numerous verses in the Qur’an. It is impossible that Allah could be a corporeal entity because bodies need space and time, while Allah has absolutely no need for anything.
Fifth, the literalist interpretation of “in the sky” entails that the sky encompasses Allah on all sides, such that He would be smaller than it, and it would thus be greater than Allah, which is patently false.
For these reasons and others, Islamic scholars have viewed it obligatory to figuratively interpret the above hadith and other texts containing similar figures of speech, in ways consonant with how the Arabic language is used. Consider the Qur’anic verse “Do you feel safe that He who is in the sky will not make the earth swallow you while it quakes” (Qur’an 67:16), for which the following examples of traditional tafsir or “Qur’anic commentary” can be offered:
(al-Qurtubi:) The more exacting scholars hold that it [“in the sky“] means, “Do you feel secure from Him who is over the sky“–just as Allah says, “Journey in the earth” (Qur’an 9:2), meaning journey over it–not over the sky by way of physical contact or spatialization, but by way of omnipotent power and control. Another position is that it means “Do you feel secure from Him who is over (‘ala) the sky,” just as it is said, “So-and-so is over Iraq and the Hijaz”, meaning that he is the governor and commander of them (al-Jami li ahkam al-Qur’an, 18.216).(al-Shirbini al-Khatib:) There are various interpretive aspects to “He who is in the sky,” one of which is that it means “He whose dominion is in the sky,” because it is the dwelling place of the angels, and there are His Throne, His Kursi, the Guarded Tablet; and from it are made to descend His decrees, His Books, His commands, and His prohibitions. A second interpretive possibility is that “He who is in the sky” omits the first term of an ascriptive construction (idafa)–in other words, “Do you feel safe from the Creator of him who is in the sky”; meaning the angels who dwell in the sky, for they are the ones who are commanded to dispense the divine mercy or divine vengeance (al-Siraj al-Munir. 4 vols. Bulaq 1285/1886. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Marifa, n.d., 4.344).
(Fakhr al-Din al-Razi:) “He who is in the sky” may mean the angel who is authorized to inflict divine punishments; that is, Gabriel (upon whom be peace); the words “cause the earth to swallow you” meaning “by Allah’s command and leave” (Tafsir al-Fakhr al-Razi. 32 vols. Beirut 1401/1981. Reprint (32 vols. in 16). Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1405/1985, 30.70).
(Abu Hayyan al-Nahwi:) Or the context of these words may be according to the convictions of those being addressed [the unbelievers], for they were anthropomorphists. So that the meaning would be, “Do you feel safe from Him whom you claim is in the sky?–while He is exalted above all place” (Tafsir al-nahr al-madd min al-Bahr al-muhit. 2 vols. in 3. Beirut: Dar al-Janan and Muassasa al-Kutub al-Thaqafiyya, 1407/1987, 2.1132).
(Qadi Iyad:) There is no disagreement among Muslims, one and all–their legal scholars, their hadith scholars, their scholars of theology, both those of them capable of expert scholarly reasoning and those who merely follow the scholarship of others–that the textual evidences that mention Allah Most High being “in the sky”, such as His words, “Do you feel safe that He who is in the sky will not make the earth swallow you,” and so forth, are not as their literal sense (dhahir) seems to imply, but rather, all scholars interpret them in other than their ostensive sense (Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi, 5.24).
We now turn to a final example, the hadith related by Muslim that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
Your Lord Blessed and Exalted descends each night to the sky of this world, when the last third of the night remains, and says: “Who supplicates Me, that I may answer him? Who asks Me, that I may give to him? Who seeks My forgiveness, that I may forgive him?” (Sahih Muslim, 1.521: 758).
This hadith, if we reflect for a moment, is not about `aqida, but rather has a quite practical point to establish; namely, that we are supposed to do something in the last third of the night, to rise and pray. This is why Imam al-Nawawi, when he gave the present chapter names to the headings of Sahih Muslim, put this hadith under “Instilling Desire to Supplicate and Make Remembrance of Allah (dhikr) in the Last of the Night, and the Answering Therein”. As for the meaning of “descends” in the hadith, al-Nawawi says:
This is one of the “hadiths of the Attributes”, and there are two positions about it, as previously mentioned in the “Book of Iman”. To summarize, the first position, which is the school of the majority of early Muslims and some theologians, is that one should believe that the hadith is true in a way befitting Allah Most High, while the literal meaning of it as known to us and applicable to ourselves is not what is intended, without discussing the figurative meaning, though we believe that Allah is transcendently above all attributes of createdness, of change of position, of motion, and all other attributes of created things.The second position, the school of most theologians, of whole groups of the early Muslims (salaf), and reported from Malik and al-Awzai, is that such hadiths should be figuratively interpreted in a way appropriate to them in their contexts. According to this school of thought, they interpret the hadith in two ways. The first is the interpretation of Malik ibn Anas and others, that it [“your Lord descends”] means “His mercy, command, and angels descend,” just as it is said, “The sultan did such-and-such,” when his followers did it at his command. The second is that it is a metaphor signifying [Allah’s] concern for those making supplication, by answering them and kindness toward them (Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi, 6.3637).
The hadith scholar Ali al-Qari says about the above hadith of Allah’s “descending”:
You know that Malik and al-Awazai, who are among the greatest of the early Muslims, both gave detailed figurative interpretations to the hadith. . . . Another of them was Jafar al-Sadiq. Indeed a whole group of them [the early Muslims], as well as later scholars, said that whoever believes Allah to be in a particular physical direction is an unbeliever, as al-Iraqi has explicitly stated, saying that this was the position of Abu Hanifa, Malik, al-Shafi’i, al-Ashari, and al- Baqillani (Mirqat al-mafatih: sharh Mishkat al-masabih. 5 vols. Cairo 1309/1892. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d., 2.137).
It is worth remembering that al-Iraqi was a hafiz or “hadith master”, someone with over 100,000 hadiths by memory, while Ali al-Qari was a hadith authority who produced reference works still in use today on forged hadiths. In other words, each had the highest credentials for verifying the chains of transmission of the positions they relate. For this reason, their transmission of the position of the unbelief of whoever ascribes a direction to Allah carries its weight.
But perhaps it is fitter today to say that Muslims who believe that Allah is somehow “up there” are not unbelievers. For they have the shubha or “extenuating circumstance” that moneyed quarters in our times are aggressively pushing the bid’a of anthropomorphism. This bid’a was confined in previous centuries to a small handful of Hanbalis, who were rebutted time and again by ulama of Ahl al-Sunna like Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201), who addressed his fellow Hanbalis in his Daf shubah al-tashbih bi akaff al-tanzih [Rebuttal of the insinuations of anthropomorphism at the hands of divine transcendence] with the words:
If you had said, “We but read the hadiths and remain silent,” no one would have condemned you. What is shameful is that you interpret them literally. Do not surrreptiously introduce into the madhhab of this righteous, early Muslim man [Ahmad ibn Hanbal] that which is not of it. You have clothed this madhhab in shameful disgrace, until it can hardly be said “Hanbali” any more without saying anthropomorphist (Daf shubah al-tashbih bi akaff al-tanzih. Cairo n.d. Reprint. Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Tawfiqiyya, 1396/1976, 2829).
These beliefs apparently survived for some centuries in Khorasan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the East, for Imam al-Kawthari notes that the Hanbali Ibn Taymiya (d. 728/1328) picked up the details of them from manuscripts on sects (nihal) when the libraries of scholars poured into Damascus with caravans fleeing from the Mongols farther east. He read them without a perspicacious teacher to guide him, came to believe what he understood from them, and went on to become an advocate for them in his own works (al-Kawthari, al-Sayf al-saqil fi al-radd ala Ibn Zafil. Cairo 1356/ 1937. Reprint. Cairo: Maktaba al-Zahran, n.d. 56).
He was imprisoned for these ideas numerous times before his death, the ulama of Damascus accusing him of anthropomorphism (al-Asqalani, al-Durar al-kamina fi ayan al-mia al-thamina. 4 vols. Hyderabad 134950/193031. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d., 1.155).
Writings were authored by scholars like Abu Hayyan al-Nahwi (d. 745/ 1344), Taqi al-Din Subki (756/1355), Badr al-Din ibn Jamaa (d. 733/ 1333), al-Amir al-Sanani, author of Subul al-salam (d. 1182/1768), Taqi al-Din al-Hisni, author of Kifayat al-akhyar, (d. 829/1426), and Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (d. 974/1567) in rebuttal of his `aqida, and it remained without acceptance by Muslims for another four hundred years, until the eighteenth-century Wahhabi movement, which followed Ibn Taymiya on points of `aqida, and made him its “Sheikh of Islam.” But was not until with the advent of printing in the Arab world that Ibn Taymiya’s books (and the tenets of this sect) really saw the light of day, when a wealthy merchant from Jedda commissioned the printing of his Minhaj al-sunna and other works on `aqida in Egypt at the end of the last century, resurrected this time as Salafism or “return to early Islam.” They have since been carried to all parts of the Islamic world, borne upon a flood of copious funding from one or two modern Muslim countries, whose efforts have filled mosques with books, pamphlets, and young men who push these ideas and even ascribe them (with Ibn Taymiya’s questionable chains of transmission, or none at all) to the Imams of the earliest Muslims. My point, as regards considering Muslims believers or unbelievers, is that this kind of money can buy the influence and propaganda that turn night into day; so perhaps contemporary Muslims have some excuse for these ideas–until they have had a chance to learn that the God of Islam is transcendently above being a large man, just as He is transcendently above being subject to time or to space, which are but two of His creatures.
To summarize what I have said in answer to your question above, scholars take the primary texts of the Qur’an and sunna literally unless there is some cogent reason for them not to. In the case of Allah “descending” or being “in the sky”, there are many such reasons. First, a literal interpretation of these texts makes it impossible to join between them and the many other rigorously authenticated texts about Allah being “with” a servant when he does dhikr, “closer to him than the jugular vein” (Qur’an 50:16), “in front of him” when he prays, “closest” to him when he is prostrating, “in the sky” when a slave girl was asked; “with you wherever you are” (Qur’an 58:4), and so on. These are incoherent when taken together literally, and only become free of contradictions when they are understood figuratively, as Malik, al-Awzai, and al-Nawawi have done above. Second, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) detailed the beliefs that every Muslim must have in the Gabriel Hadith in Sahih Muslim and others, and did not mention Allah being “in the sky” (or anywhere else) in any of them. Third, Allah’s being “in the sky” as birds, clouds, and so on are in the sky in a literal sense contradicts the `aqida of the Qur’an that there is “nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11). Fourth, the notion of Allah’s being in particular places contradicts the `aqida expressed in seventeen verses of the Qur’an that Allah is free of need of anything, while things that occupy places need both space and time.
These reasons are not exhaustive, but are intended to answer your question by illustrating the `aqida and principles of traditional ulama in interpreting the kind of texts we are talking about. They show just how far from traditional Islam is the belief that Allah is “in the sky” in a literal sense, and why it is not permissible for any Muslim to believe this. And Allah alone gives success.
©Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995
Regarding the question of whether Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241/855) 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’s son Abdullah (d. 290/903) on it.
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 Saudi Arabia 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 that “when He Most Blessed and Exalted sits on the Kursi, a squeak is heard like the squeak of a new leather saddle” (Kitab al-Sunna [Dammam, Dar Ibn al-Qayyim, 1986/1406], 1.301), or “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” (ibid., 1.294), or “The angels were created from the light of His two elbows and chest” (ibid., 2.510), 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] (d. 168/785), who is quoted about istiwa’ (translated above as being ‘established‘ on the Throne), “Does istiwa’ mean anything except sitting?” (ibid., 1.106)—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 forty-nine pages of vilification of Abu Hanifa and his school that it mendaciously ascribes to major Imams, such as that relating that Ishaq ibn Mansur al-Kusaj (d. 251/865) 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’” (ibid., 1.180). To ascribe things so stupid 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. Sheikh Shu‘ayb told us he doesn’t believe it is really from Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s son ‘Abdullah, since there is an unidentifiable (majhul) transmitter in the book’s chain of ascription to ‘Abdullah. But the fact that such a work exists may give you 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 bid‘as.
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], which mentions such “hadiths” as, “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” (Ijtima‘ al-juyush al-Islamiyya [Riyad: ‘Awwad ‘Abdullah al-Mu‘tiq, 1408/1988], 330), a forged (mawdu‘) hadith apparently intended to encourage Muslims to believe that Allah is floating about the sky. Ibn al-Qayyim also mentions the hadith of al-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 [1350/1898. Reprint. Istanbul: Maktaba Pamuk, n.d.], 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” [emphasis mine] (Ibn al-Qayyim (Ijtima‘ al-juyush al-Islamiyya [Riyad: ‘Awwad ‘Abdullah al-Mu‘tiq, 1408/1988], 97). 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,” (e.g. “If it is not black, it is therefore white,” “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 of Ibn al-Qayyim’s Ijtima‘ al-juyush al-Islamiyya will be exhaustively dealt with in a forthcoming work by Hasan al-Saqqaf, Allah willing, which those interested may read.
For all of these reasons, the utmost care must be used in accepting the ascription of 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. It seems to me that what has misled the Salafi revivers of these ideas, in the Najd and elsewhere, is their uncritical acceptance of the statements and chains of ascription found in the books of Ibn Taymiya (d. 728/1328) and his student Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751/1350), which they continually cite to one another and rely on, and from whence they get the idea that these were the positions of the early Muslims and Companions (Sahaba).
Umbrage has unfortunately been taken at the biographies I appended to Reliance of the Traveller [a translation of Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri’s‘Umdat al-salik] (Evanston: Sunna Books, 1994) 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, ancient and modern. One of the best is Ibn Taymiya laysa salafiyyan [Ibn Taymiya was not an early Muslim] (Cairo: Dar al-Nahda al-‘Arabiyya, 1390/1970), 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 after Ibn al-Qayyim in the same city, Taqi al-Din Abu Bakr al-Hisni (d. 829/1426), 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] (Cairo: Dar Ihya’ al-Kutub al-‘Arabiyya, 1350/1931). Whoever reads these and similar works with an open mind cannot fail but 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, in the main, of accepting the words of the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent meanings’ of the Qur’an and hadith as they have come without saying 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 (d. 98/717), 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 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.” We have mentioned this school of tafwidor ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah’ in questions (1) and (2) above.
It should be appreciated how far this position is from understanding the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning,’ scriptural expressions about Allah as though they were meant literally (‘ala al-dhahir). The Hanbali Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Khallal (311/923), who took his fiqh from Imam Ahmad’s students, relates in his al-Sunna [The sunna] through his chain of narrators from Hanbal [ibn Ishaq al-Shaybani] (d. 273/886), 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 he replied: “We believe in them and consider them true, without ‘how’ and without ‘meaning’ (bi la kayfa wa la ma‘na) [emphasis mine].”
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) how He wills and as He wills, without any limit or any description that be made by any describer (Kawthari, Daf‘ shubah al-tashbih. Cairo n.d. Reprint. Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Tawfiqiyya, 1396/1976, 28).
This demonstrates how far Imam Ahmad was from anthropomorphism, though a third example is even more explicit. The Imam and hadith master (hafiz) Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066) 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 [emphasis mine]. This has not been conveyed by the Shari‘a, and so is refuted” (‘Azzami, al-Barahin al-sati‘a [Cairo: Najm al-Din al-Kurdi, 1366/1947], 164).
The above provides an 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.
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 (d. 597/1201), 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.
Ibn al-Jawzi 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] (N.d. Reprint. Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Tawfiqiyya, 1396/1976), 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 (“an ascriptive construction (Ar. idafa, “the X of the Y”) does not establish [that X is] an attribute [of Y]”). This is very interesting 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 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, Ibn al-Jawzi’s principle means that we are not entitled to affirm, on the basis of the Arabic wording of the verse alone, that “Allah has a hand” as an attribute (sifa) of His entity. It could be that this Arabic expression is simply meant to emphasize the tremendousness of the offense of breaking this pact, as some scholars state.
There are many similar examples in the Arabic language in which an ascriptive construction (idafa) conveys something about the possessor that is not literally an attribute. For example, in Arabic, it is said of someone with considerable power and influence in society that Ba‘uhu tawil (“His fathom (the length of his outstretched arms) is long,”), in which the ascriptive construction His fathom does not prove that the individual literally “has the attribute of an fathom,” but the words rather signify that he has power, and mean nothing besides. Or as Imam al-Ghazali says of the wordhand:
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 an 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 amputated, for example (Ghazali, Iljam al-‘awam ‘an ‘ilm al-kalam [Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1406/1985], 55).
Because that was the way the Arabic language was, and also to protect against the danger of anthropomorphism, many Muslim scholars were 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 the former 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, it seems worthwhile in the face of such “reforms,” to first ask an obvious question, namely: Is literalism really identical with pristine Islamic faith (‘aqida)? Or rather did figurative interpretation (ta’wil) exist among the salaf? We will answer this question with a few 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 (d. 310/922); 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’” [emphasis mine] (Tabari, Jami‘ al-bayan[Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1405/1984], 8.202). Now, this is precisely ta’wil, or interpretation in other than the verse’s ostensive sense. Al-Tabari ascribes this interpretation, through his chains of transmission, to the Companion (Sahabi) Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be well pleased with him) (d. 68/687) as well as to Mujahid [ibn Jabr] (d. 104/722), Ibn ‘Abbas’s main student in Qur’anic exegesis.
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 (d. 68/687), Mujahid (d. 104/722), Qatada [ibn Da‘ama] (d. 118/736), Mansur [ibn Zadhan al-Thaqafi] (d. 131/749), and Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161/778) (Jami‘ al-bayan, 27.7–8).
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 68:32),
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 a dire matter (amr shadid) shall be disclosed [emphasis mine] [n: 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’]” (Jami‘ al-bayan, 29.38). Al-Tabari also relates from Muhammad ibn ‘Ubayd al-Muharibi (d. 245/859), who relates from Ibn al-Mubarak (d. 181/797), from Usama ibn Zayd [al-Laythi] (d. 153/770), from ‘Ikrima [ibn ‘Abdullah al-Barbari] (d. 104/723), from Ibn ‘Abbas (d. 68/687) that shin in the above verse means “a day of war and direness (harb wa shidda)” [emphasis mine] (ibid., 29.38). All of these narrators are those of the rigorously authenticated (sahih) collections except Usama ibn Zayd, whose hadiths are well authenticated (hasan).
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 (hafiz) Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066) records that [Muhammad ibn Yusuf] al-Farabri (d. 320/932) related from the hadith master Imam al-Bukhari (d. “The meaning of laughter in it is mercy” [emphasis mine] (Bayhaqi, Kitab al-asma’ wa al-sifat [1358/1939. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.], 298).
5. Coming. The hadith master (hafiz) Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373) reports that Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066) related from al-Hakim (d. 405/1014), from Abu ‘Amr ibn al-Sammak (d. 344/955), from Hanbal [ibn Ishaq al-Shaybani] (d. 273/886), the son of the brother of Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s father, that “Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241/855) figuratively interpreted the word of Allah Most High,
“‘And your Lord shall come . . .’ (Qur’an 89:22),
“as meaning ‘His recompense (thawab) shall come’” [emphasis mine]. Al-Bayhaqi said, “This chain of narrators has absolutely nothing wrong in it” (Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya wa al-nihaya [Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1985/1405], 10.342). In other words, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, like the Companions (Sahaba) and other early Muslims mentioned above, also gave figurative interpretations (ta’wil) to scriptural expressions that might otherwise have been misinterpreted anthropomorphically, which is what neo-Salafis condemn the Ash‘ari school for doing.
In light of the above examples, it is plain that the Ash‘ari school did not originate figurative interpretation, but rather it had been with Muslims from the beginning. And if the above figures are not the salaf or ‘early Muslims,’ who are? Ibn Taymiya (d. 728/1328) and Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751/1350)?
The question of ta’wil or ‘figurative interpretation’ is the reason that our “reformers” refer to Ash‘aris (as did Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim did before them) as Jahmiyya, or ‘Jahmites,’ after Jahm ibn Safwan (d. 128/745), an extreme Mu‘tazilite who denied that Allah had any attributes. Or as Nafat, or ‘Negaters,’ meaning of the ‘attributes’ they would infer from verbs and ascriptive (idafa) constructions of the above type ofmutashabihat, or ‘unapparent in meaning’ verses and hadiths that we have discussed. Despite the inaccuracy of these labels, which beg the question that the mutashabihat signify attributes, one cannot doubt the sincerity with which these people advocate their “return to early Islam.” Yet, in view of the foregoing examples of figurative interpretation by early Muslims, one cannot help feeling entitled to ask, Whose early Islam would they have us return to?
It was Imam Abu Hanifa (d. 150/767) who first noted, “Two depraved opinions have reached us from East, those of Jahm [ibn Safwan] (d. 128/745), the nullifier of the divine attributes, and those of Muqatil [ibn Sulayman al-Balkhi (d. c.a. 150/767)], the likener of Allah to His creation” (Dhahabi, Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’ [Beirut: Mu’assasa al-Risala, 1401/1984], 7.202).
These do not have to be 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 ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi in hisDaf‘ shubah al-tashbih, or like the forgers of Kitab al-sunna who ascribed it to Imam Ahmad’s son ‘Abdullah, or like the Karramiyya [the followers of Muhammad al-Karram (d. 255/869)], who believed Allah to be a corporeal entity “sitting in person on His Throne.”
It is with all the greater concern that we see, in our times, pamphlets being circulated in an attempt to create acceptance for these ideas, such as The Muslim’s Belief, a English tract on Islamic faith (‘aqida) that tells Western Muslim readers:
His [Allah’s] ‘settling [istiwa’] on the Throne’ means that He is sitting in person on His Throne [emphasis mine] in a way that is becoming to His Majesty and Greatness. Nobody except He knows exactly how He is sitting (Sheikh Muhammad al-Salih al-‘Uthaymin, The Muslim’s Belief [tr. Dr. Maneh Hammad al-Juhani. Intr. Sheikh Ibn Baz. Riyad: World Assembly of Muslim Youth, 1407/1987], 11).
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). Listen to the words of the Imam of Ahl al-Sunna in tenets of faith and heresiology, ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 429/1037):
Anyone who considers his Lord to resemble the form of a person—as do the Bayaniyya [the followers of Bayan ibn Sam‘an al-Tamimi (d. 119/737)], the Mughiriyya [followers of al-Mughira ibn Sa‘id al-‘Ajali (d. 119/737)], the Jawaribiyya [followers of Dawud al-Jawaribi, (d. 2nd Hijra century)], and the Hishamiyya [followers of Hisham ibn Salim al-Jawaliqi, the teacher of al-Jawaribi in anthropomorphism]—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 (Baghdadi, Usul al-din [Istanbul: Matba‘a al-Dawla, 1346/1929], 337).
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?
To summarize: we have distinguished three ways of understanding the mutashabihat, or ‘unapparent in meaning’ verses and hadiths. The first is the way of tafwid, or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah,’ which was the way of Shafi‘i and many of the early Muslims; in accordance with the reading of the Qur’anic verse about the mutashabihat:
“though none knows its meaning except Allah [emphasis mine]. And those firm in knowledge say, ‘We believe in all of it. All is from our Lord’” (Qur’an 3:7);
though another possible reading of the same verse is closer to the way of ta’wil, or ‘figurative interpretation’ which, as reported above, was done by the Companion (Sahabi) Ibn ‘Abbas and many other early Muslims; namely,
“though none knows its meaning except Allah and those firm in knowledge [emphasis mine]; they say, ‘We believe in all of it. All is from our Lord’” (Qur’an 3:7);
In my view, both these are 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 previous history of this Umma, that it is not an Islamic school of thought, and never has been. And Allah knows best.
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995
Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373) is a scholar of Ahl al-Sunna who was of the Shafi‘i school (according to the first volume of his main work, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Azim, 1.2), while Ibn Taymiya (d. 728/1328) was a scholar whose fiqh remained in the general framework of the Hanbali school. Ibn Taymiya’s controversies in tenets of faith (‘aqida) and literalist interpretations of the attributes of Allah were mostly adopted from what had historically been the more anthropomorphic end of the previous spectrum of Hanbali ‘aqida—Hanbali in that some of the followers of this school had these beliefs, not that Ahmad ibn Hanbal in any way supported them or that they were part of his madhhab. They have been resurrected in our times as Salafism or “return to early Islam” by moneyed supporters of the Wahhabi sect, whose differences with Ahl al-Sunna consist almost entirely of the ideas of Ibn Taymiya. In scholarship, Ibn Kathir was a hadith master (hafiz, someone with at least 100,000 hadiths by memory), while Ibn Taymiya was not: his name does not appear in any of the works of tabaqat al-huffaz or “successive generations of hadith masters,” that comprehensively document such scholars. Whatever length of time Ibn Kathir studied with Ibn Taymiya, he was in his twenties when the latter died, and his long and fruitful career extended over the next forty-six years.
Alhough I have not read all of Ibn Kathir’s Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), I have not found in it any traces of Ibn Taymiya’s more unusual positions, the most significant of which, for ‘aqida and Qur’anic exegesis, is his claim that “there is no figurative expression (majaz) in the Qur’an” (Ibn Taymiya:al-Iman, 83), even in the use of such words as ‘hand’, ‘face’, ‘eyes’, ‘shin’, and the like with reference to Allah. He says, “Every word in the Book of Allah and His messenger is conditioned by that which clarifies its meaning, in none of which is there any figurative expression (majaz); rather, all of it is literal (haqiqa)” (ibid., 78). Compare this with what Ibn Kathir says about the verse “Then He ‘was established’ (istawa) upon the Throne” (Qur’an 7:54), (istawa here rendered as “was established” not by way of definitive interpretation, but rather out of need to answer the question):
People have many positions on this matter, and this is not the place to present them at length. On this point, we follow the position of the early Muslims (salaf)—Malik, Awza‘i, Thawri, Layth ibn Sa‘d, Shafi‘i, Ahmad, Ishaq ibn Rahawayh, as well as others among the Imams of the Muslims, ancient and modern—namely, to let the verse pass as it has come, without saying how it is meant (bi la takyif), without any resemblance to created things (wa la tashbih), and without nullifying it (wa la ta‘til): the literal outward meaning (dhahir) that comes to the minds of anthropomorphists (al-mushabbihin) is negated of Allah [italics mine], for nothing created has any resemblance to Him: “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him, and He is the All-hearing, the All-seeing” (Qur’an 42:11) (Ibn Kathir: Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Azim, 2.220).
This is precisely the position of tafwid or “consigning the knowledge of what is really meant by such scriptural expressions to Allah” that Ash‘aris like Imam Nawawi and many others held concerning such verses. It cannot be lost on you how far Ibn Kathir is from anthropomorphism, and I haven’t found anything else in his tafsir that suggests he followed the ideas of Ibn Taymiya or his student Ibn Qayyim in the literalism that gives the impression of likening Allah to created things. And Allah knows best.
Few would deny today that the millions of dollars spent worldwide on religious books, teachers, and schools in the last thirty years by oil-rich governments have brought about a sea change in the way Muslims view Islam. In whole regions of the Islamic world and Western countries where Muslims live, what was called Wahhabism in earlier times and termed Salafism in our own has supplanted much of traditional Islamic faith and practice. The very name Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama‘a or “Sunni orthodoxy and consensus” has been so completely derailed in our times that few Muslims even know it is rolling down another track. In most countries, Salafism is the new “default Islam,” defining all religious discourse, past and present, by the understanding of a few Hanbali scholars of the Middle Ages whose works historically affected the tribes and lands where the most oil has been found. Among the more prominent casualties of this “reform” are the Hanbalis’ ancient foes, the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of Sunni theology whom I have been asked to speak about tonight.
For over a thousand years Ash‘ari-Maturidi theology has defined Sunni orthodoxy. When I visited al-Azhar in Cairo in 1990 and requested for my library the entire syllabus of religious textbooks taught by Azhar High Schools in Egypt, one of the books I was given was a manual on Islamic sects, whose final section defined Ahl al-Sunna as “the Ash‘aris, followers of Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari, and the Maturidis, followers of Abu Mansur al-Maturidi” (Mudhakkara al-firaq (c00), 14).
This is not an isolated assessment. When the Imam of the late Shafi‘i school Ibn Hajr al-Haytami was asked for a fatwa identifying as-hab al-bida‘ or heretics, he answered that they were “those who contravene Muslim orthodoxy and consensus (Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama‘a): the followers of Sheikh Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, the two Imams of Ahl al-Sunna” (al-Fatawa al-hadithiyya (c00), 280).
Few Muslims today know anything about the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools or their relation to Islam. So I shall discuss their theology not as history, but as orthodoxy, answering the most basic questions about them such as: What are the beliefs of Sunni Islam? Who needs rational theology anyway? And what relevance does it have today? We mention only enough history to understand what brought it into being, what it said, what it developed into, what its critics said of it, and what the future may hold for it.
Islamic theology is based on an ethical rather than speculative imperative. Many Qur’anic verses and hadiths show that iman or “true faith” is obligatory and rewarded by paradise, and that kufr or “unbelief” is wrong and punished by hell. Every Muslim must know certain matters of faith, be convinced of them himself, and not merely imitate others who believe in them. The faith God requires of man is expressed in the words
“The Messenger believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the believers. Each believes in Allah, His angels, His books, and His messengers. We do not differentiate between any of His messengers, and they say: We hear and obey, O Lord grant us Your forgiveness, and unto You is the final becoming” (Qur’an 2:285).
This verse defines the believer as someone who believes in the Prophet’s revelation (Allah bless him and give him peace) in general and in detail. The details have to be known to be believed, for as Allah says,
“Allah does not tax any soul except in its capacity” (Qur’an 2:286),
and it is not in one’s capacity to believe something unless it is both known to one and not unbelievable, meaning not absurd or self-contradictory.
Moreover, “belief” means holding something to be true, not merely believing what one’s forefathers or group believe, such that if they handed down something else, one would believe that instead. That is, “belief” by blind imitation without reference to truth or falsity is not belief at all. Allah specifically condemns those who reject the message of Islam for this reason, by saying:
“When they are told: ‘Come to what Allah has revealed, and to the Messenger,’ they say, ‘It suffices us what we found our forefathers upon’—But what if their forefathers knew nothing, and were not guided?” Qur’an 5:104).
In short, Islamic kalam theology exists because belief in Islam demands three things:
(1) to define the contents of faith;
(2) to show that it is possible for the mind to accept, not absurd or inconsistent;
(3) and to give reasons to be personally convinced of it.
“Very well,” one may say, “these are valid aims, but what proof is there that rational argument, the specific means adopted by traditional theology, is valid or acceptable in matters of faith?”— to which the first answer is that the Qur’an itself uses rational argument; while the second is that nothing else would have met the historical threat to Islam of Jahm and the Mu‘tazila, the aberrant schools who were obligatory for Ash‘ari and Maturidi to defeat.
The Qur’anic proof is the verse
“Allah has not begotten a son, nor is there any god besides Him, for otherwise, each would have taken what they created and overcome the other—how exalted is Allah above what they describe!” (Qur’an 23:91),
whose premises and conclusion are: (a) a “god” means a being with an omnipotent will; (b) the omnipotent will of more than one such being would impose a limit on the omnipotence of the other, which is absurd; (c) God is therefore one, and has not begotten a son, nor is there any god besides Him.
A second proof is in the Qur’anic verse
“Were there other gods in [the heavens and earth] besides Allah, [the heavens and earth] would have come to ruin” (Qur’an 21:22),
whose argument may be summarized as: (a) a “god” means a being with an omnipotent will, to whom everything in the universe is thus subject; (b) if the universe were subject to a number of omnipotent gods, its fabric would be disrupted by the exercise of their several wills, while no such disruption is evident in the universe; (c) God is therefore one, and there are no other gods.
The historical proof for rational argument—unmentioned in kalam literature but perhaps even more cogent than either of the Qur’anic proofs just mentioned—is that nothing else could meet the crisis that Ash‘ari and Maturidi faced; namely, the heretical mistakes of the two early proto-schools of ‘aqida, the Jahmiyya and the Mu‘tazila. We say “nothing else” because a chess player cannot be defeated by playing checkers, and the only way to refute the arguments of the Jahmiyya and of the Mu‘tazila was by intellectual means. Mere political suppression would have but hardened their party spirit into sectarian obstinacy, so it was necessary to defeat them with rational argument.
The challenge facing Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi was thus threefold: (1) to define the tenets of faith of Islam and refute innovation; (2) to show that this faith was acceptable to the mind and not absurd or inconsistent; and (3) to give proofs that personally convinced the believer of it. Though not originally obligatory itself, kalam became so when these aims could not be accomplished for the Muslim polity without it, in view of the Islamic legal principle that “whatever the obligatory cannot be accomplished without is itself obligatory.” As we have seen, the specific form of the response, rational argument, was used by the Qur’an, mandated by human reason, and necessitated by history. We now turn to the concrete form of the response, which was the traditional tenets of faith (‘aqida) of the two schools, after which we will look at how the response was conditioned by their historical predecessors, the Jahmiyya and Mu‘tazila schools.
The heart of traditional kalam theology is that—after the shahada “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,” and after acknowledging Allah’s infinite perfections and transcendence above any imperfection—it is obligatory for every Muslim to know what is (a) necessarily true, (b) impossible, or (c) possible to affirm of both Allah and the prophets (upon whom be peace). These three categories traditionally subsume some fifty tenets of faith.
(a) The twenty attributes necessarily true of Allah are His (1) existence; (2) not beginning; (3) not ending; (4) self-subsistence, meaning not needing any place or determinant to exist; (5) dissimilarity to created things; (6) uniqueness, meaning having no partner (sharik) in His entity, attributes, or actions; (7) omnipotent power; (8) will; (9) knowledge; (10) life; (11) hearing; (12) sight; (13) speech; such that He is (14) almighty; (15) all-willing; (16) all-knowing; (17) living; (18) all-hearing; (19) all-seeing; (20) and speaking—through His attributes of power, will, knowledge, life, hearing, sight, and speech, not merely through His being.
(b) The twenty attributes necessarily impossible of Allah (21–40) are the opposites of the previous twenty, such as nonexistence, beginning, ending, and so on.
(c) The one attribute merely possible of Allah (41) is that He may create or destroy any possible thing.
The attributes of the prophets (upon whom be peace) similarly fall under the three headings:
(a) The four attributes necessarily true of the prophets (42–45) are telling the truth, keeping their trust, conveying to mankind everything they were ordered to, and intelligence.
(b) The four attributes necessarily impossible of them (46–49) are the opposites of the previous four, namely lying, treachery, concealing what they were ordered to reveal, and feeblemindedness .
(c) The one attribute possible of them (50) is any human state that does not detract from their rank, such as eating, sleeping, marrying, and illnesses not repellant to others; although Allah protected them from every offensive physical trait and everything unbecoming them, keeping them from both lesser sins and enormities, before their prophethood and thereafter.
When one reflects on these fifty fundamental tenets of faith, which students memorized over the centuries, it is not difficult to understand why Ash‘ari-Maturidi kalam was identified with Islamic orthodoxy for over a millennium; namely, they are the tenets of the Qur’an and sunna.
We find however in the history of kalam that authors sometimes urged the distinctive doctrines of their school, particularly against opponents, as if they were basic principles of Islam. Now, “basic principles” are what every Muslim must know and believe as a Muslim, while “distinctive doctrines” may include virtually any point that controversy has brought into prominence. The two are not necessarily the same.
A number of points of ‘aqida were not originally central to the faith of Islam, but entered the canon of “orthodoxy” by celebrity acquired through debate among schools. To take but one point for example: the question of “whether man is obligated to know God by revelation or whether by human reason alone” has been treated by Ahl al-Sunna, Mu‘tazila, and Jahmiyya theologians as a point of ‘aqida, though it does not personally concern one single Muslim—for all Muslims know Allah through the revelation of the Qur’an—but rather concerns Allah’s own judgement of human beings who have never been reached by the Islamic revelation, a judgement Allah is unlikely to consult anyone else about, whether believer or unbeliever. Something so devoid of practical consequences for Muslims could not have become prominent except through faction and debate.
Treating distinctive doctrines as basic tenets of faith, however, was not always the result of mere controversy, but because Sunni theologians had to distinguish truth from falsehood, the latter including the many mistakes of the Mu‘tazila and Jahmiyya. All falsehoods are rejected by Islam, and in matters of faith most are serious sins, but some are more crucial than others. In other words, in the spectrum from right to wrong beliefs, there are four main categories:
(1) central beliefs that one must hold or one is not a Muslim;
(2) beliefs that are obligatory to hold, but denying them does not make one a non-Muslim;
(3) beliefs that are unlawful to hold, but affirming them does not make one a non-Muslim;
(4) and beliefs that no one can hold and remain a Muslim.
For many Muslims today, greater knowledge of these four necessary distinctions would bring about greater tolerance, and teachers of Islamic theology must explain that while “orthodoxy” reflects what Sunnis believe, only some of their issues spell the difference between faith and unbelief, while others are things that Muslims may disagree about and still remain Muslim.
To say it again, a particular point of ‘aqida could be contrary to another, even heretical school of thought and hotly debated, yet not directly concern kufr or iman, faith or unfaith. Indeed, the longer and harder the historical debate, the less likely the point under discussion is a matter of salvation or damnation, for it is inconsistent with Allah’s mercy and justice to create men of widely varying intelligence and then make their salvation depend on something that even the most brilliant of them cannot agree upon. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1210) acknowledges this by writing:
One should know that theologians have had considerable difficulty defining kufr (unbelief). . . Kufr consists in denying the truth of anything the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is necessarily known to have said. Examples include denying the Creator’s existence, His knowledge, power, choice, oneness, or perfection above all deficiencies and infirmities. Or denying the prophethood of Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), the truth of the Qur’an, or denying any law necessarily known to be of the religion of Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), such as the obligatoriness of prayer, of zakat, fasting, or pilgrimage, or the unlawfulness of usury or wine. Whoever does so is an unbeliever because he has disbelieved the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) about something necessarily known to be of his religion.
As for what is only known by inference from proof to be his religion, such as “whether God knows by virtue of His attribute of knowledge or rather by virtue of His entity,” or “whether or not He may be seen [in the next life],” or “whether or not He creates the actions of His servants”; we do not know by incontestably numerous chains of transmission (tawatur) that any of these alternatives has been affirmed by the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) instead of the other. For each, the truth of one and falsity of the other is known only through inference, so neither denial nor affirmation of it can enter into actual faith, and hence cannot entail unbelief.
The proof of this is that if such points were part of faith, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) would not have judged anyone a believer until he was sure that the person knew the question. Had he done such a thing, his position on the question would have been known to everyone in Islam and conveyed by many chains of transmission. Because it has not, it is clear that he did not make it a condition of faith, so knowing it is not a point of belief, nor denying it unbelief.
In light of which, no one of this Umma is an unbeliever, and we do not consider anyone an unbeliever whose words are interpretable as meaning anything besides. As for beliefs not known except through hadiths related by a single narrator, it seems plain that they cannot be a decisive criterion for belief or unbelief. That is our view about the reality of unbelief (Mafatih al-ghayb (c00), 2.42).
Such breadth of perspective was not unique to Razi, the lifelong defender of Ahl al-Sunna ‘aqida and implacable foe of its opponents, but was also the view of Imam Ash‘ari himself. Dhahabi says:
Bayhaqi relates that he heard Abu Hazim al-‘Abdawi say that he heard Zahir ibn Ahmad al-Sarkhasi say, “When death came to Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari in my home in Baghdad, he called me to him and I came, and he said, ‘Be my witness: I do not declare anyone an unbeliever who prays towards the qibla, for all direct themselves to the One whom alone is worshipped, while all this [controversy] is but different ways of speaking” (Siyar al-a‘lam (c00), 15.88).
These passages show that both Ash‘ari and Razi, the early and late Imams of their school, implicitly distinguished between the central‘aqida of Islam, and the logical elaboration upon it by traditional theology. Clearly, their life work brought them to the understanding thatkalam theology had produced a body of knowledge that was, if important and true, nevertheless distinct from the ‘aqida that is obligatory for every Muslim to believe in order to be Muslim. The difference however, between ‘aqida or “personal theology,” and kalam or “discursive theology” was perhaps most strikingly delineated by Imam Ghazali (d. 505/1111).
According to Ghazali, kalam theology could not be identified with the ‘aqida of Islam itself, but rather was what protected it from heresy and change. He wrote about his long experience in studying kalam in a number of places in his Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din, one of them just after his beautiful ‘Aqida al-Qudsiyya or “Jerusalem Creed.” After mentioning the words of Imam Shafi‘i, Malik, Ahmad, and Sufyan al-Thawri thatkalam theology is unlawful—by which they meant the Mu‘tazilite school of their times, the only example they knew of—Ghazali gives his own opinion on discursive theology, saying:
There is benefit and harm in it. As to its benefit, it is lawful or recommended or obligatory whenever it is beneficial, according to the circumstances. As to its harm, it is unlawful whenever and for whomever it is harmful.
Its harm is that it raises doubts in minds and shakes a student’s tenets of faith from certitude and conviction at the outset, while there is no guarantee that he will ever get it back again through proofs, individuals varying in this. That is its harm to faith.
It has another bad effect, namely that it hardens heretics’ attachment to their heresy and makes it firmer in their hearts by stirring them up and increasing their resolve to persist. This harm, however, comes about through bigotry born of argument, which is why you see the ordinary unlearned heretic fairly easy to dissuade from his mistakes through affability; though not if he has grown up in a locale where there is arguing and bigotry, in which case if all mankind from beginning to end were to join together, they would be unable to rid his heart of wrong ideas. Rather, his prejudice, his heatedness, and his loathing for his opponents and their group has such a grip over his heart and so blinds him to the truth that if he were asked, “Would you like Allah Most High Himself to raise the veil so you can see with your own eyes that your opponent is right?” he would refuse, lest it please his opponent. This is the incurable disease that plagues cities and people: the sort of vice produced by bigotry when there is argument. This also is of the harm of kalam.
As for its benefit, it might be supposed that it is to reveal truths and know them as they truly are. And how farfetched! Kalam theology is simply unable to fulfill this noble aim, and it probably founders and misguides more than it discovers or reveals. If you had heard these words from a hadith scholar or literalist, you might think, “People are enemies of what they are ignorant of.” So hear them instead from someone steeped in kalam theology, who left it after mastering it in depth and penetrating into it as far as any scholar can, and who then went on to specialize in closely related fields, before realizing that access to the realities of true knowledge was barred from this path. By my life, theology is not bereft of revealing and defining the truth and clarifying some issues, but it does so rarely, and about things that are already clear and almost plain before learning its details.
Rather, it has one single benefit, namely guarding the ordinary man’s faith we have just outlined [the Jerusalem Creed] and defending it by argument from being shaken by those who would change it with heresies. For the common man is weak and susceptible to the arguments of heretics even when false; and the false may be rebutted by something not in itself especially good; while people are only responsible for the creed we have presented above (Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din (c00), 1.86).
In this and other passages of Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din, al-Munqidh min al-dalal, and Faysal al-tafriqa which summarize his life experience withkalam theology, Ghazali distinguishes between several things. The first is ‘ilm al-‘aqa’id or the knowledge of basic tenets of faith, which we have called above “personal theology,” and which he deems beneficial.The second is what we have called “discursive theology,” or kalamproperly speaking, the use of rational arguments to defeat heretics who would confuse common people about tenets of faith. Ghazali believes this is valid and obligatory, but only to the extent needed. The third we may call “speculative theology,” which is philosophical reasoning from first principles about God, man, and being, to discover by deduction and inference the way things really are. This Ghazali regards as impossible for kalam to do.
The scholars of kalam certainly did not agree with Ghazali on this latter point, and history attests to their continued confidence in it as a medium of discovery, producing what has subsequently been regarded by almost everyone as a period of excess in kalam literature. Taj al-Din al-Subki (d. 771/1370) who was himself steeped in kalam theology wrote:
Upon reflection—and no one can tell you like someone who truly knows—I have not found anything more harmful to those of our times or more ruinous to their faith than reading books of kalam written by latter-day scholars after Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and others. If they confined themselves instead to the works of the Qadi Abu Bakr al-Baqillani, the great Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini, the Imam of the Two Sanctuaries Abu al-Ma‘ali al-Juwayni, and others of those times, they would have nothing but benefit. But truly I believe that whoever ignores the Qur’an and sunna [defended by these scholars] and instead occupies himself with the debates of Ibn Sina and those of his path—leaving the words of the Muslims: “Abu Bakr and ‘Umar (Allah Most High be well pleased with them) said,” “Shafi‘i said,” “Abu Hanifa said,” “Ash‘ari said,” “Qadi Abu Bakr said”; and instead saying: “The Sovereign Sage (al-Shaykh al-Ra’is) said” meaning Ibn Sina, or “The Great Master (al-Khawaja) Nasir said,” and so on—that whoever does so should be whipped and paraded through the marketplaces with a crier proclaiming: “This is the punishment of whoever leaves the Qur’an and sunna and busies himself with the words of heretics” (Mu‘id al-ni‘am (c00), 79–80).
For Subki, it showed how far kalam had strayed for latter-day authors to call heterodox figures such as Ibn Sina or Tusi “Sovereign Sage” or “Great Master” in works supposedly explaining the faith of Islam. The reason he found nothing “more harmful to those of our times or more ruinous to their faith than reading the books of kalam theology written by latter-day scholars” was that they had vitiated the very reason for kalam’sexistence: to defend the truth. By widening its universe to include heretics and giving them titles of authority,kalam literature had become a compendium of wrong ideas.
To summarize, although Sunni theology first defined orthodoxy and rebutted heresy, it afterwards swelled with speculative excesses that hearkened back those of the Jahmiyya and Mu‘tazila. At this juncture, it met with criticism from figures who knew it too well to accept this, such as Imam Ghazali, Taj al-Subki, Nawawi, and others, whose view was that kalam was a medicine useful in moderation, but harmful in overdose. Their criticisms were valid, for when theology obeys a speculative rather than an ethical imperative, it ceases to give guidance in man’s relationship to God, and hence is no longer a science of the din.
What has been forgotten today however by critics who would use the words of earlier Imams to condemn all kalam, is that these criticisms were directed against its having become “speculative theology” at the hands of latter-day authors. Whoever believes they were directed against the ‘aqida or “personal theology” of basic tenets of faith, or the “discursive theology” of rational kalam arguments against heresy is someone who either does not understand the critics or else is quoting them disingenuously.
We conclude our remarks with a glance at kalam’s significance today. What does traditional theology have to offer contemporary Muslims ?
With universal comparison, the door today is open to universal skepticism, not only about particular religions, but belief in God and in religion itself. It is hence appropriate to consider the legacy of kalam proofs for the existence of God.
At the practical level, most people who believe in God do not do so because of philosophical arguments, but because they feel a presence, inwardly and outwardly, that uplifts hearts, answers prayers, and solves their problems. Yet Muslims and others find their faith increasingly challenged by an atheistic modern world. The question becomes, can traditional kalam arguments answer modern misgivings?
Now, philosophy as taught today in many places dismisses traditional proofs for the existence of God as tautological, saying that they smuggle in the conclusions they reach by embedding them in the premises. A young American Muslim philosophy student asked me, “How can we believe with certainty that there is a God, when logically speaking there is no argument without holes in it?” He mentioned among the arguments of kalam that (a) the world is hadith or “contingent”; (b) everything contingent requires a muhdith or “cause”; (c) if there is no first cause that is “necessary” or uncaused, this entails an infinite regress, which is absurd; and (d) therefore the world must ultimately have an uncaused or ‘necessary’ cause as its origin.
While scholars like Majid Fakhry in his History of Islamic Philosophy point out that saying that “the ‘contingent’ (hadith) requires a ‘cause’ (muhdith)” is a mere play on words, one can answer that while the form of this argument does contain a play on words, if we penetrate to the content of these words, they express an empirical relationship so basic to our experience that science regards it as axiomatic. That is, to provide a scientific explanation for something is to suggest a probable cause for it, and then present evidence for the particular cause being adduced as its “explanation.”
In cosmology, for example, the origin of the universe must be explained causally, and most scientists currently believe that the universe began about fifteen billion years ago in a cosmic cataclysm they term the Big Bang. And yet this most interesting of all events, indeed the effective cause of all of them, is somehow exempted from the scientific dictum that to explain something is to suggest a cause for it. Why the Big Bang? What urged its being rather than its nonbeing? This is no trivial enigma, still less a play on words. If to explain an event is to find a cause for it, then the Big Bang is not an scientific “explanation” for the origin of the universe in any ordinary sense of the word. Here, thekalam argument that the contingent must return to the necessary is still relevant today, and has been cited by name in works such as Craig and Smith’s Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology. The prevailing cosmological view among scientists is that the universe did have a beginning, and this requires an explanation.
Another traditional kalam argument vitally relevant to the teaching of Islam is the “argument from design,” namely that the complexity of many natural phenomena is far more analogous to our own intentionally planned processes and productions than to ordinary random events. That is, the perfection of design in nature argues for the existence of a designer. As in the previous example, to teach this argument directly from kalam would seem to many intellectual Muslims today, particularly those scientifically literate, to be a mere tautology or play on words. But when filled in with examples drawn from scientific literature, its cogency becomes plain.
Examples abound. One of them forms the central thesis of the work Just Six Numbers by the British Astronomer Royal Martin Reese of Cambridge. He has determined that the fabric of the universe depends on the coincidence of six basic physical number ratios, two of them related to basic forces, two fixing the size and texture of the universe, and two fixing the properties of space itself. These six numbers, in Reese’s own words, “constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any of them were to be untuned [the slightest bit different in numerical value], there would be no stars and no life” (Just Six Numbers (c00), 4). If any of these six numbers were dependent on the others, the fact that they allow for the existence of the universe would be less astonishing, but none of them can be predicted from the values of the others, and each number compounds the unlikelihood of the others. The only consequence mathematically inferable from this is that the universe that we know and live in is unlikely to an absurd degree. The statistical probability of the confluence of just these numbers is, to borrow the expression of astronomer Hugh Ross, about as likely as “the possibility of a Boeing 747 aircraft being completely assembled as a result of a tornado striking a junkyard” (Discover (c00), 21, no. 11).
The shocking improbability of ourselves and our universe is no play on words, and shows the relevance of the kalam argument for the existence of God from design.
Another example of the argument from design is the origin of life, especially with what is known today, after the advent of the electron microscope, about the tens of thousands of interdependent parts that compose even the simplest one-celled organism known. The probability of such an entity not only assembling itself, but also simultaneously assembling a viable reproductive apparatus to produce another equally complex living reality does not urge itself very strongly according to anything we know about empirical reality. That is, the origin of perfectly articulated functional complexity argues for a design, and a design argues for the existence of a designer.
A third example of the relevance of the argument from design is what physicist Paul Davies has called in his Mind of God “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in describing and predicting the phenomena of the physical world. The “unreasonableness” in it is that if, as scientism avers, the structure of our brains that determines the way we view reality is only an evolutionary accident, which would presumably be much different if we were, say, a race of aliens who had evolved on different planet, why is it that so much of the mathematics that was first worked out as an abstract exercise in the minds of pure mathematicians has been so spectacularly effective in explaining the physical world? If man were hundreds of times larger than he is or hundreds of times smaller, his perceptual reality would be so completely different that he might well not have developed the integers or other mathematical tools that he did. But because man has turned out just so, by an uncannily improbable coincidence, the mathematical rules formulated by pure mathematicians—which should be a mere accident of man’s evolutionary and cultural history—turn out, often years after their discovery, to be exactly the same rules nature is playing by.
The enigma here is that, while there is a distinct evolutionary advantage in knowing the world by direct empirical observation, we have been equipped with a second faculty, of no selective evolutionary advantage at all, which can incorporate quantum and relativistic mathematical systems into our mental model of the world. For Davies these facts suggest that a conscious Being has encoded this ability within humanity, knowing that one day they would reach a degree of comprehension of the universe that will bring them to the realization that the unreasonable correspondence of nature to pure thought is not a coincidence, but the outcome of a great design.
There are many other examples of the argument from design, particularly in the complexity of symbiotic and parasitic relationships between species of the natural world, which, if too long to detail here, also strongly attest to the relevance of the kalam argument for the existence of God.
As for the role of kalam in defending Islam from heresies, Jahm and the Mu‘tazilites are certainly less of threat to orthodoxy today thanscientism, the reduction of all truth to statements about quantities and empirical facts. The real challenge to religion today is the mythic power of science to theologize its experimental method, and imply that since it has not discovered God, He must not exist.
Here, the task of critique cannot be relegated to traditional proofs drawn from the literature of a prescientific age. Rather, it belongs to scientifically literate Muslims today to clarify the provisional nature of the logic of science, and to show how its epistemology, values, and historical and cultural moment condition the very nature of questions it can ask—or answer.
Omniscience is not a property of science. In physics today, at the outset of the twenty-first century, we do not yet understand what gives physical matter its mass, its most basic property. In taxonomy, estimates vary, but probably less than 3 percent of the living organisms on our own planet have been named or identified. In human fertility, many fundamental mechanisms remain undiscovered. Even our most familiar companion, human consciousness, has not been scientifically explained, replicated, or reduced to physical laws. In short, though we do not base our faith on the current state of science, we should realize that if science has not discovered God, there is a long list of other things it has not discovered that we would be ill-advised to consider nonexistent in consequence.
In short, attacks today on religion by scientism should be met by Muslims as Ash‘ari and Maturidi met the Mu‘tazilites and Jahmites in their times: with a dialectic critique of the premises and conclusions thoroughly grounded in their own terms. The names that come to mind in our day are not Ash‘ari, Baqillani, and Razi, but rather those like Huston Smith in his Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, Charles Le Gai Eaton in his King of the Castle, Keith Ward in his God, Chance, and Necessity, and even non-religious writers like Paul Davies in The Mind of God and John Horgan in his The End of Science and The Undiscovered Mind. Answering reductionist attacks on religion is a communal obligation, which Muslims can only ignore at their peril. This too is of the legacy of kalam, or the “aptness of words to answer words.”
A final benefit of kalam is to realize from its history that there is some range and latitude in the beliefs of one’s fellow Muslims. In an Islamic world growing ever younger with the burgeoning population, there is a danger that those quoting Qur’anic verses and hadiths without a grasp of the historical issues will stir up the hearts of young Muslims against each other in sectarian strife. People like to belong to groups, and the positive benefits of bonding with others in a group may be offset by bad attitudes towards those outside the group. The Wahhabi movement for example, recast in our times as Salafism, began as a Kharijite-like sect that regarded nonmembers, including most of the Umma, as kafirs or unbelievers. Here, a working knowledge of the history and variety of schools of Islamic theology would do much to promote tolerance.
The figures we have cited, from Ash‘ari to Razi to Dhahabi to Ibn Taymiya, were men who passionately believed that there was a truth to be known, and that it represented the beliefs of Islam, and that it was but one. They believed that those who disagreed with it were wrong and should be engaged and rebutted. But they did not consider anyone who called himself a Muslim to be a kafir as long as his positions did not flatly deny the truthfulness of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). Imam Ghazali says in Faysal al-tafriqa:
“Unbelief” (kufr) consists in asserting that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) lied about anything he conveyed, while “faith” is believing that he told the truth in everything he said (Faysal al-tafriqa (c00), 78).
There is wide scholarly consensus on this tolerance of Islam, and we have heard from Imam Ash‘ari that he did not consider anyone who prayed towards the qibla to be an unbeliever, from Razi that he did not consider anyone to be an unbeliever whose words could possibly mean anything besides, and from Ibn Taymiya that he considered everyone who faithfully prays with ablution to be a believer. None of them believed that a Muslim can go to hell on a technicality.
To summarize everything we have said, the three main tasks of kalam consist in defining the contents of faith, showing that it contradicts neither logic nor experience, and providing grounds to be personally convinced of it, and these three are as relevant today as ever.
First, the substantive knowledge of the ‘aqida each of us will die and meet Allah upon will remain a lasting benefit as long as there are Muslims.
Second, demographers expect mankind to attain close to universal literacy within fifty years. Members of world faiths may be expected to question their religious beliefs for coherence, logicality, applicability, and adequacy, and the work of Ahl al-Sunna scholars will go far to show that one does not have to hang up one’s mind to enter Islam.
Third, universal communication will make comparisons between religions inevitable. Blind imitation of ethnic religious affiliation will become less relevant to people around the globe, and I personally believe Islam has stronger theological arguments for its truth than other world religions. Indeed, Islam is a sapiential religion, in which salvation itself rests not on vicarious atonement as in Christianity, or on ethnic origin as in Judaism, but on personal knowledge. Whoever knows that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God is by that very fact saved.
So in the coming century, three areas of kalam’s legacy will remain especially relevant for Muslims: first, the proofs for the existence of God from necessity and design, second, the rebuttal of the heresy of scientistic reductionism and atheism, and third, promoting tolerance among Muslims. The latter is one of the most important lessons that the history of kalam can teach; that if Muslims cannot expect to agree on everything in matters of faith, they can at least agree on the broad essentials, and not to let their differences descend from their heads to their hearts.
MMV © N. Keller
(The above is the text of a talk given to the Aal al-Bayt Institute of Islamic Thought on 4 January 2005 in Amman, Jordan.)
 Dhahabi goes on: “This is my own religious view. So too, our sheikh Ibn Taymiya used to say in his last days, ‘I do not consider anyone of this Umma an unbeliever,’ and he would relate that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, ‘No one but a believer faithfully performs ablution’ [Ahmad ((c00), 5.82: 22433. S], saying, ‘So whoever regularly attends prayers with ablution is a Muslim’” (Siyar al-a‘lam (c00), 15.88).
 The “Great Master” Nasir al-Din al-Tusi was the traitor who betrayed Baghdad and its whole populace to their Mongol slaughterers out of sectarian malice against the Sunni caliphate. In tenets of faith, he introduced philosophy into Shiism, reviving Ibn Sina’s thought in a Twelver Shiite matrix, and authored Tajrid al-‘aqa’id, the preeminent work of Shiite dogma to this day, in which he describes man as “the creator of his works” (Encyclopedia of Religion (c00), 6.324, 7.316, 13.265)—while the Qur’an tells us that “Allah created you and what you do” (Qur’an 37:96).
 The Associated Press on Thursday 9 December 2004 carried the story “Famous Atheist Now Believes in God,” in which religion writer Richard Ostling mentions that a British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has now changed his mind. “At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. ‘A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature,’ Flew said in a telephone interview from England.” He also recently said that biologists’ investigation of DNA “has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce [life], that intelligence must have been involved” (U.S. National – AP Website, 9 December 2004).