Doctrine of the Divine Attributes
According to Islam, a sound understanding of Allah’s attributes rests on two pillars. The first concerns the doctrine or ‘aqidah – of how hearts should believe in them. The second is tied to practice or ‘aml – of how hearts should take on board their meanings and implications. The latter issue will be discussed in a future post, insha’Llah. In this article we shall discuss the doctrine concerning the divine attributes.
The Qur’an is replete with mention of Allah’s divine attributes, or sifat; though there are certain attributes related in the Qur’an that have stoked fierce controversy. Now a cardinal beliefs of Islam is that Allah is transcendent, unique and is utterly unlike His creation. The Qur’an declares: There is nothing like Him. [42:11] And equal to Him there is none. [112:4] Do you know any like Him? [19:65]
And yet other Quranic passages inform us that: The hand of Allah is above their hands. [48:10] And the face of your Lord shall abide forever. [55:27] The All-Merciful rose over the Throne. [20:5] Your Lord comes … [89:22] Verily you are before Our eyes. [52:48]
Then there are hadiths in the same genre that state: ‘Our Lord descends to the lowest heaven every last third of the night.’1 And that, ‘Allah created Adam in His image.’2 ‘The hearts of the children of Adam are between the two fingers of the All-Merciful.’3 ‘[On the Day of Judgement], people shall be thrown into Hell, and it will keep asking, “Is there any more?” till the Lord of Might and Honour shall place His foot over it.’4 And: ‘Allah, exalted is He, says, “O Adam!” Adam shall reply: ‘Here I am, at Your beck and call!’ Then He shall call out with a voice …’5
Such verses and hadiths seem to compromise Allah’s transcendence; His dissimilarity to creation, and suggest that Allah is a corporeal entity (jism), composed of limbs and parts, and hence not too dissimilar to His creation. So how do these descriptions of Him tally with the Quranic belief in divine transcendence? An array of interpretative devices have been resorted to in order to square this circle. At one extreme lies an unyielding literalism that has no qualm in claiming that Allah has a corporeal body, limbs and others physical characteristics akin to human beings. Such blatant anthropomorphism (tajsim, tashbih) is confronted, at the other extreme, by a fierce negation (ta’til) of the divine attributes, stripping Allah to a sort of nothingness. Both these wildly speculative views amount to blasphemy, heresy and outright kufr or disbelief.
In contrast to the above, the following two hermeneutical stances have now come to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: the first typifying ‘later’ orthodoxy; the other, a much ‘earlier’ one. The orthodoxy associated with the later scholars – the khalaf – insist that all such texts that speak of the divine attributes must be figuratively explained, if we are to avoid the crime of resembling Allah to His creation: the apparent meaning of the texts cannot be what Allah intends. For this group, Allah’s “Hand” refers to His power; His “descending” refers to His angels descending; His “two fingers” mean His will and power; “rising over His Throne” means His dominion over creation; and Adam being created in Allah’s “image/form” means: with the qualities of life, knowledge, hearing and seeing. Recourse to figurative interpretaion or ta’wil has, in this reading, become the hallmark of a later Sunni orthodoxy.6
The earlier imams or religious authorities (the salaf) were, ironically, bitterly opposed to the idea of figurative explanation (ta’wil) when it came to the divine attributes. For them, ta’wil wasn’t a defining feature of orthodoxy, but of deviancy and innovation! Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote:
‘The correct view is that of the pious predecessors (al-salaf al-salih), in their letting the verses and hadiths concerning the divine attributes pass as they came: without asking how they are, or explaining them, or likening them to creation. Nothing contravening this is authentically related from them; especially not from Imam Ahmad. And nor is anything recorded from them proving they probed into their meanings or propounded analogies or similitudes for them – even though there were some who lived close to the time of Ahmad who did delve into some of this – following the path of Muqatil. They, however, must not be imitated in this. Rather those who should be imitated are the leading religious authorities like Ibn al-Mubarak, Malik, al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad, Ishaq, Abu ‘Ubayd and their like.’7
Alongside the Sahih collections of Imam al-Bukhari and Muslim, the Sunan works of Abu Dawud, al-Tirmidhi, al-Nasa’i and Ibn Majah are held as the most authoritative hadith canons in Sunni Islam. Of the ‘six canonical anthologies’, Imam al-Tirmidhi’s Sunan is the one that possibly contains the greatest benefit to non-specialist readers. For unlike the other five works, which more or less relate the hadiths and leave it at that, al-Tirmidhi adds a gloss to each hadith: noting the degree of its soundness; what other companions related the hadith; and what jurists based their fiqh ruling on the hadith. After relating the hadith: ‘Assuredly Allah accepts charity and takes it with His right hand,’ al-Tirmidhi glosses the following:
‘A number of the people of knowledge have spoken about this hadith, as well as those reports similar to it regarding the divine attributes, and of Allah’s descending to the lowest heaven each night, saying: The reports about such matters must be affirmed and believed in; they must not be imagined, nor asked how they are. This is what was related from Malik b. Anas, Sufyan b. ‘Uyaynah and ‘Abd Allah b. al-Mubarak. They all stated about such hadiths: “Let them pass without asking how (amirruha bila kayf).” Such is the stance of the people of knowledge from Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama’ah. The Jahmiyyah, though, reject such hadiths, alleging that this is resemblance (tashbih). But Allah, exalted is He, mentions at various places in His Book [His attributes of] Hand, Hearing and Seeing. The Jahmiyyah give them a figurative meaning, explaining them contrary to how the scholars explain them. Thus they say: Allah did not create Adam with His Hand: instead they claim that Hand means ‘Power’. Ishaq b. Ibrahim stated: “Resemblance is if one claims that Hand is like my hand or similar to it; or Hearing is like my hearing or similar to it. If it is said that Hearing is like my hearing or similar to it, this is resemblance. But to say what Allah says: Hand, Hearing, Seeing – neither asking how, nor claiming it to be like my hearing, or similar to it – then this is not resemblance. Rather it is as Allah, blessed and exalted is He, says in His Book: There is nothing like Him, He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing.” [42:11]’8
Ibn Kathir – whose exegesis (tafsir) of the Qur’an has met with widespread scholarly approval, and continues to be hugely popular among the educated laity too – penned the following about the divine attributes:
‘As for His words: He rose over the Throne [7:54], people have taken many [conflicting] stances in the matter; but now isn’t the place to discuss them. Instead, in this respect we travel the path taken by the pious predecessors: Malik, al-Awza‘i, al-Thawri, Layth b. Sa‘d, al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad, Ishaq b. Rahawayh and other leading authorities, ancient and recent, which was to let the verse pass as it came – without inquiring into the modality [howness] (takyif), resemblance (tashbih) or denying it (ta’til): the apparent meaning which comes to the minds of the anthropomorphists is negated from Allah, since nothing created resembles Him: There is nothing like Him, He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing. The issue is as the leading imams have stated, such as Nu‘aym b. Hammad al-Khuza‘i – Bukhari’s shaykh: “Whoever likens Allah to His creation, has disbelieved; whoever denies what Allah described Himself with, has disbelieved. There is nothing in what Allah described Himself with, or in what His Messenger described Him with, that implies resemblance.” Therefore, whoever affirms for Allah, exalted is He, what is reported in the explicit verses or in the authentic narrations – doing so in a manner that befits His majesty, and negating from Him any defects or imperfections – has indeed traversed the way of right guidance.’9
Finally, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi wrote this superb exposition on the subject, the likes of which would be hard pushed to better:
‘With regards to the divine attributes and what is reported in the authentic Sunan about them, the position of the salaf was to affirm them and to let them pass upon their literal sense (‘ala zawahiriha), neither asking about their modality (kayfiyyah), nor resembling them to created things (tashbih). Certain people negated the attributes and so nullified what Allah, exalted is He, affirmed. Others declared them to be real, then went beyond this to a sort of likening them to creation and ascribing to them a modality. The true goal is none other than to tread a middle path between the two methods. For Allah’s Religion lies between extremism and laxity. The rule that is to be followed here is that speech concerning the Divine Attributes (sifat) is a branch of speech regarding the Divine Essence (dhat). The path to follow in the former is the same extreme caution as in the latter. So if it is understood that affirming an Essence for [Allah] Lord of the Worlds is only an affirmation of existence; not of modality, it must be similarly understood that affirmation of His attributes is an affirmation of their existence, not affirmation of their definition (tahdid) or modality (takyif). Thus when we say that Allah has a Hand, Hearing and Sight, they are none other than attributes Allah affirms for Himself. We shouldn’t say the meaning of Hand is power, or that Hearing and Seeing means knowledge. Nor do we say they are bodily organs (jawarih), or liken them to hand, hearing and sight which are organs and instruments of [human] acts. Rather we say: What is obligatory is to affirm them, since they are textually stipulated, and to negate from them any likeness to created things – as per Allah’s words: There is nothing like Him. Also: And equal to Him there is none.’10
Expressions like: letting the texts about the divine attributes pass ‘ala zahir – “upon their apparent meaning”, or ‘ala haqiqah – their “literal meaning”, then this is said in contrast to giving them a figurative meaning – keeping in mind what Ibn Kathir said: ‘the apparent meaning that comes to the minds of the anthropomorphists is negated from Allah, since nothing created resembles Him.’ In short: the way of our noble salaf was grounded in the principle of imrar: letting the attributes pass as they came, without asking how, while at the same time upholding Allah’s transcendence above whatever resemblance, likeness or anthropomorphism these terms may suggest.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.1145; Muslim, no.758.
2. Muslim, no.2612.
3. Muslim, no.2654.
4. Al-Bukhari, no.4848; Muslim, no.2848.
5. Al-Bukhari, no.3348; Muslim, no.222.
6. Consult: al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 158-9.
7. Bayan Fadl ‘Ilm al-Salaf (Kuwait: Dar al-Arkam, 1983), 33.
8. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 168; no.662.
9. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 2:230.
10. Cited in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubula (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1995), 18:284.
Salaamualaikum. Jazakallah khair for an enlightening article.
I love the simplicity you have exposed here. My question is, based on your readings into this area and given the simple approach, why have individuals/groups gone to such great lengths to prove it one way or another? What purpose does it serve? Is it simply a zeal to discover the ultimate truth of Allah swt or does it have real consequences in other parts of the deen (e.g. worship)?
Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah.
Scholars have gone to great lengths to prove their stance on this issue simply because they have a duty to clarify and pass on what they believe to be the correct teachings concerning the divine attributes. To allow an erroneous belief about Allah to pass in silence, without clarifying the error or falsehood, would be a significant failure of scholarship. Hence the plethora of writings and refutations.
As for much of what happens on the net, or between non-scholars, we should try and ignore it and learn our din at the feet of the scholars.
Having understood the divine attributes, as per the understanding of the salaf, one spends the rest of their lives trying to internalise their meanings and implications, and to adorn ourselves with “the qualities of God.”
Salaamun ‘Alaykum wa-Rahmatullaahi wa-Barakaatuhu,
Refreshingly precise and devoid of the usual ‘attacks’ that often take place. It is a very important issue, and one that has retained some of its contentious nature (as you alluded). As always, nicely done! Baarak Allaahu Feekum.
Wa iyyakum, Sidi Saeed.
As salaamu alaikum,
Very concise and comprehensive….I have one question though: wouldn’t be easier to just let them pass as they came and leave it at that? It seems that problems arise when people accept them on their literal meanings-and they may very well mean by literal meanings as in contrast to a figurative meaning-but when the word literal is inserted, it is difficult to think of the attribute as being contrast to a figurative meaning. Also, it is quite possible that an attribute CAN carry a figurative meaning, but not just assigning ONE figurative meaning to it and understanding that one figurative meaning to be the correct one. Does that sound like it makes sense? lol
Yes, I agree with you. Hence I ended the article with:
‘In short: the way of the salaf was grounded in the principle of imrar: letting the attributes pass as they came, without asking how, while upholding Allah’s transcendence above whatever resemblance or anthropomorphism these terms may suggest.’
JazakAllahu Khayran for this nice exposition of the subject. I have a question, however, which is this:
Do those who promote the idea of interpreting the attributes figuratively agree that this is contrary to the approach of the salaf? If so, how do they justify departing in this matter from the understanding of those generations whom the Messenger (sallallaahu `alayhi wasallam) described as being the best of mankind?
Those who employ figurative interpretations, or ta’wil, do so because they believe it is in keeping in line with some of the salaf who – they claim – did use ta’wil; although very infrequently. However, the few narrations that are attributed to a few of the past Imams showing their use of ta’wil, are highly questionable in authenticity and oppose the well-known path of imrar from them. And Allah knows best.
If such scholars did believe that the salaf unanimously left off ta’wil, then in my understanding, they would have left it too and fallen in line with the totality of the salaf. For they too adhere to the defining Sunni principle of adhering to the Book, Sunnah and scholarly consensus (ijma’). But, as I mentioned, they do not believe there to be a consensus on this point. Instead, they believe that the majority refused ta’wil, but a minority employed it. As ideas of anthropomorphism steadily grew and infiltrated the body of Muslim thought, these scholars felt even more compelled to resort to ta’wil, so as to counter such deviancy.
I hope that sheds some light on the matter.
This is an interesting piece which portrays the issue with more measured language than is usual. for that, it must be applauded.
I fear though, that it doesn’t do great justice to the issue from any sides of the debate. A reading of Dr Jackson’s first introduction to his translation of Faysul al-Tafriqa draws on some important issues that better contextualise the degrees of eisegesis that are involved in creating these disparate view points. There is definitely a degree of selective corroboration, or forced uniformity that grounds the naive narrative.
For example, no one reading later kalam scholars as disparate as al-Razi and ibn Taymiyyah can sensibly claim that either are merely practicing “imrar”. Nor can early disagreements between ibn Hanbal and some of the students of al-shafi’i over the kalam-cum-sifah issue of the Qur’an be ignored. This article however presents a rosy salf vs khalaf picture which doesn’t match the standards of critical scholarship on this issue, in my view. The works of Brown, Melchert and others on the formation of sunnism provide a more accurate background to these types of issues.
Thank you for your comment and I do apologise for the incredible delay in responding. You are right from one perspective that I haven’t done the issue great justice, and that’s the angle of academic thoroughness. As you’ve quite rightly pointed out, I’ve left out many of the nuances in the frantic debate. I’ve totally omitted Ibn Taymiyyah’s differing with those before him in terms of his idea of tafwid – of ‘resigning” or ‘entrusting” the issue to God (how he believes this only applies to the kayf and not the ma’na). I’ve also left out the whole discussion on hulul al-huwadith v. af’al al-ikhtiyariyyah – a key defining principle between the kalam and non-kalam approaches (not to mention al-Razi’s specific take on the matter). I’ve also left out Ibn Hazm, Ibn ‘Aqil and Ibn al-Jawzi’s views, which are neither wholly kalami, nor wholly athari.
But as can be gauged from the overall approach of the blog, the article was never meant to be a thorough academic discussion. How is that possible for a blog? And what point could it have possibly served? We are commanded to worship Allah, not some abstruse theological abstractions written on paper. So my intent was to sketch the two main approaches, with emphasis on the way of the early religious authorities – affectionately called the salaf.
The two views were, I believe, fairly and correctly represented (which was one of the article’s aims). The measured tone of the discussion was hoped to allow people to see the crux of each argument, free of all the highly-charged polemics and emotive rebuttals. To the degree that was achieved is to the degree the article fulfilled its purpose; and all praise is for Allah.
With that in mind, the narrative may not have been as naive as you imagined.
And Allah knows best.
Thank you for your reply,
Given the difficulty, as you mentioned, with respect to academic thoroughness in authoring blog articles, let me, a fortiori, condition my response with the caveat that my reply will be limited. I will say, however, that the general academic tone and content of your articles partially mitigates the extent to which you can shield criticism with the claim that academic thoroughness is not intended or possible. Nonetheless, I do, to some degree, sympathise with this aspect of your reply, as we should all give credence to the popularised statement, “the medium is the message,” courtesy of Postman.
Unfortunately I still take issue with this article and the demonstration that you are more than aware of the contestable matters relating to it does not alleviate my concerns. My complaint with the article does not trade on what is missing in it of later scholastic output, and in that respect I apologise if my mention of later figures like al-Razi and ibn Taymiyya gives the impression that my finding fault in this piece would somehow be remedied with a section on hulul al-hawadith. Thus, my issue, at its heart, is squarely about the directive to worship (‘ubudiyya) and not anything abstruse.
My issue is that the article is in fact replete with a nuanced form of begging the question. The result is nothing short of tacitly endorsing the later Hanbali creedal systematisation as the true inheritance of some retroactively sculpted imagery of the pious predecessors.
For example, the constructed view of a ‘madhab of the salaf’ to which your article gives credence is internal to this article supported by reference to selectively endorsed later (khalaf) figures – al-Tirmidhi, al-Baghdadi, ibn Rajab. These are figures from ‘our’ salaf, but they are not from ‘The Salaf’ in any primary capacity – the construction of orthodoxy is already under way by the time of al-Tirmidhi. If you read al-Ghazali’s Iljam, then there is a somewhat different apprehension of what he considers the madhab of the salaf to be in these matters. Likewise al-Bayhaqi and a host of traditionalist minded scholars. Consequently your article is simply prescribing to the reader what the madhab of the salaf is, according to one sent of figures over another.
On more primary grounds one may take this criticism further by arguing, as i did in my first reply, that even if we accept the view that to certain key figures in the late 1st – early 2nd century there can be ascribed loose remarks on the ‘sifat’ of Allah ‘azza wa jall, it does not hold, without argument, that any notion of ‘sifat’ as a doctrinally substantive subject are anything more than anachronism when attributed to the ‘salaf’ in the primary meaning of what the ‘salaf’ is – i.e. The Messenger sallallaahu ‘aliahi wa sallam and His companions. To me, this hints towards the fallacy of interlacing the remarks of autonomous characters so as to present the edifice of conjunctive belief in the mould of an individual. Conjoining sparse remarks from a handful of figures to give rise to a mythical singular figure who some how represents the sum total of those remarks as a stable and socially transmitted doctrine. This is a difficult point, and I think Dr Jackson begins to bring it out in his discussion of selective endorsement in the introduction to Faysul al-Tafriqa.
In closing, my raising issue with these finer points, though perhaps of little concern to the general reader, is due to the concern I have for what a genuinely reformative essay on this topic should look like. By reformative, I mean that the discussion should once again be positioned on its pre-Qadari, pre-Mu’tazili footing. The issue is not, misleadingly, about ta’wil, imrar and the way of the earlier scholars. It is about informing the common populace that engagement with this topic from the perspective of ‘aqidah as opposed to ‘amal is already by and large a step away from what is quintessentially the madhab of the Salaf.
Allah knows best.
Reblogged this on Blogging Theology and commented:
A beautifully simple and elegant exposition of the position I too arrived at just a few months ago.
Thank you, Paul, for taking the time to comment. May Allah keep us all upon the path of His good pleasure; that of adhering to the Sunnah and the Jama‘ah.
Salamu’alaykum Abu Aaliyah;
I have a couple of remarks and questions here:
First, you translated *yad* as hand. But this would pretty much violate what al-Tahawi mentioned in his *’aqeedah* that God isn’t constituted of organs (*jawarih*), and since in English there’s no other meaning for ‘hand’ as far as I’m aware that an organ. Same thing can be said about your rendering of *wajh* as ‘face’. I assume this was just to illustrate the apparent meaning that a reader may misunderstand?
Secondly you state,
> The earlier imams or religious authorities (the salaf) were, ironically, bitterly opposed to the idea of figurative explanation (ta’wil) when it came to the divine attributes. For them, ta’wil wasn’t a defining feature of orthodoxy, but of deviancy and innovation!
But there are many narrated examples of *ta’wil* from pillars such as al-Awza’i and Imam Malik (as mentioned by al-Nawawi in his *Sharh Sahih Muslim*), as well as by al-Tabari in many instances in his *tafsir*, … Maybe I’m missing something?
*Barakallahu fikum for your efforts, and looking forward to your replies!*
Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah.
As you probably know, the subject is lengthy and the polemics often intense. Wishing to avoid both, I’ll limit myself to this:
1. It’s always going to be semantically tricky when using translation. I translated yad as hand only because that’s how it is usually translated when the learned discuss issues of sifat in English. As for the question of whether they should be translated as such, or left as they are in Arabic, that’s a good question; and one that I haven’t given enough thought to.
2. When the learned discuss the issue, they inevitably emphasise, and reemphasise, the issue of Allah’s tanzih; His complete dissimilarity to created things. I’ve tried to do that in my article too, so as to make this crystal clear to the reader. And Allah alone grants success.
3. You are indeed correct in asserting that there are reports of ta’wil from some of the salaf. However, in view of a number of early and later scholars and verificationists, all such reports lack authenticity in one way or another. Hence the claims of ijma‘ by the likes of al-Tirmidhi, al-Khatib, Ibn Kathir and others.
4. I acknowledge this is not the only stance in general Sunni thought, and that taw’il has been a hermeneutic strategy for some – as Imam al-Nawawi and others have stated (and as my article has tried to acknowledge).
May Allah bless you, and may our Generous Lord increase us both in understanding and sincerity.
And Allah knows best.
Jazaka Allah Khayran for your answers! I was mostly interested on the issue of translation, and I agree that it hasn’t been given its due weight in consideration. The only discussion of it that I happened on was one by al-Shahrastani in his al-Milal wa al-Nihal (pg.105): “Some were so careful that they did not translate the terms ‘yad’, ‘wajh’ and ‘istiwa’’ in Farsi as well as for any similar narration. If they needed a phrase to mention them, they would quote them to the letter. Indeed, this is the safe way and it is not assimilating God with His creation in anyway.”
Jazakallahu khayran for that quote. It is certainly something to consider and very likely to take on board.
May Allah reward you abundantly with goodness for raising the issue and sharing the quote, and thereby helping me to better glorify the greatness of God.
Here, the issue of tafweed al ma’ana that ibn taymiyyah opposed would be something to consider, and hopefully clarify to us as well. Inshallah.
Agreed. Some clarification on tafwid al-ma’na is needed. It’s been in my “to do” list for quite some time now. I ask Allah for tawfiq to write something about it in the near future.
May Allah benefit us from you. Indeed this issue has caused much division between many Muslims here in India. May Allah make you a means for rectification through clarification.