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.