The Belief of Ahlus Sunnah wa l-Jamā‘ah
In the view of Ahlus Sunnah wa l-Jamā‘ah, Allāh (subhānuhū wa ta‘ālā) is totally unlike His creation. There is nothing in His essence (dhāt), attributes (sifāt) or actions (af‘āl) that resembles in any way anything found in creation. This is the clear position of Ahlus Sunnah, and is the decisive and definitive verdict given by the Qur’ān, Sunnah, sayings of the Salaf and the Ahlus Sunnah who followed. Allāh (subhānuhū wa ta‘ālā) says in the Qur’ān: “No thing is as His likeness.” (42:11) ءيش هلثمك سي This verse, which is the foundation for Sunnī doctrine concerning the oneness and uniqueness of Allāh (subhānuhū wa ta‘ālā), expressly negates any and all similarity between Creator and creation. There are a few points to note about the verse:
1. The form of the sentence is “nafy (negation) in the context of nakirah (an indefinite noun).” Shay’ (thing) is an indefinite noun and it has been negated using the word laysa. It is an established principle of Nahw (Arabic grammar) that a nafy in the context of nakirah connotes total negation. In other words, the form of the sentence grammatically entails that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever that resembles Allāh (subhānuhū wa ta‘ālā).
2. The terms used for resemblance in this verse are two: one particle (harf), ka (like), and one noun (ism), mithl (likeness). This compounding of terms used for resemblance negates the minutest possible similarity. For instance, if one were to say, “Zayd is not a lion” (laysa Zaydun asadan), this would negate only a gross resemblance. If one were to say, “Zayd is not like a lion” (laysa Zaydun ka asadin), this would negate similarity with a lion to a greater degree. And if one were to say, “Zayd is not as the likeness of a lion,” (laysa Zaydun ka mithli asadin) it would be to negate any similarity between Zayd and a lion.
Imām al-Bayhaqī (384 – 458 H) said: “When Allāh intended to negate tashbīh (making a resemblance between Allāh and His creation) in the most emphatic way that a negation can [possibly] be made, He put together in our recitation the particles of similitude (i.e. ka) with the noun of resemblance (i.e. mithl), so that the negation is emphasised to the utmost.” (Al-Asmā’ wa l-Sifāt, 2:34).
The word mithl (likeness) is the broadest term of equation. It incorporates similarity in every possible dimension, whether in appearance, qualities or actions. Other words of equation, like shakl, nidd and musāwī are narrower than mithl. Hence, this entails a negation of similarity in all respects, as it means, “no thing is as His likeness in any respect.”
Imām al-Rāghib al-Asbahānī said in Mufradāt al-Qur’ān: “Mithl is an expression about resemblance with something in any property from its properties, whatever property it may be. It is broader than other words designated for resemblance. That is, nidd is said about something that shares in essence only, shibh is said about something that shares in quality only, musāwī is said about something that shares in quantity only, shakl is said about something that shares in measure and distance only. Mithl is broader than all of that. This is why when Allāh (Exalted is He) wished to negate tashbīh from every dimension, He mentioned this specifically, so He said: laysa ka mithlihī shay’.” (al-Mufradāt, p. 597)
Hence, the verse is absolutely categorical in its indication that Allāh (subhānuhū wa ta‘ālā) is totally unlike His creation. As for rational proof, if we were to assert that there was any similarity between Allāh and His creation, it would entail that the beginningless entity, Allāh, has within Him some attributes of temporal or originated entities. This would entail that the beginningless is originated, at least in some aspects, and that is absurd, as “beginningless” is the opposite of “originated” and they cannot come together. Imām al-Bayhaqī expressed this in the following words: “Further, it is known that the Creator of creation does not resemble anything of the creation, because if He resembled any originated thing in any way, He would resemble it in origination from that aspect, and it is impossible for the beginningless to be temporal, or beginningless from one angle and temporal from another.” (al-I‘tiqād wa l-Hidāyah ilā Sabīl al-Rashād, p. 37)
Furthermore, if any aspect or quality of temporality were to exist in the necessary and beginingless existence of Allāh (subhānuhū wa ta‘ālā), the same laws that apply to temporal entities would apply to Him. For temporal entities, their being and attributes are only possible, whereas for Allah they are necessary.
And it is not possible for something to be possible and necessary simultaneously. As for the recorded view of the Salaf, Imām Abū Ja‘far al-Tahāwī (239 – 321 H) transmitted from the founders of the Hanafī school, Imām Abū Hanīfah (80 – 150 H), Imām Abū Yūsuf (113 – 182 H) and Imām Muhammad al-Shaybānī (132 – 189 H)(rahimahumullah): “Whoever describes Allāh with a meaning (or property) from the meanings (or properties) of man, he has disbelieved.”
Here, Imām al-Tahāwī (rahmatullah alaih) is clear that it is not the wording or outward expressions that matter, but the meaning and substance. If any actual or ontological reality of a created being is believed to exist in Allāh, that is comparing Him to creation and is disbelief. As for the later Ahlus Sunnah, the books of ‘aqīdah have clearly incorporated this fundamental doctrine into the very foundation of Islāmic belief, Tawhīd. In defining Tawhīd, Shaykh Burhān al-Dīn Ibrāhīm al-Laqānī al-Mālikī rahimahullah (d. 1041 H) and many others said: “It is to single out the Deity for worship, along with believing in His oneness, in essence, attributes and actions.” (Hidāyat al-Murīd li Jawharat al-Tawhīd, 1:83)
The commentators of Jawharat al-Tawhīd and other ‘aqīdah texts explain that oneness in essence means: Allāh has only one being and there is nothing else akin to His being; oneness in attributes means: He has only one of each attribute, like power, knowledge, hearing, seeing and will, and no other being has an attribute akin to it in any way; and oneness in actions means: He alone is the true active agent in the created realm, bringing things into being from nonbeing and taking things out of existence after existence, and no other being has any real action. Hāfiz Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalānī rahimahullah (d. 852 H) states in Fath al-Bārī on the meaning of Tawhīd according to Ahlus Sunnah: “As for the Ahlus Sunnah, they explain Tawhīd as negating similarity [with Allāh] and [negating] nullification [of His attributes]. Thus, al-Junayd [al-Baghdādī] said in that which Abu l-Qāsim al-Qushayrī related: ‘Tawhīd is to single out the Beginningless from the temporal.’” (Fath al-Bārī, 13:421)
The Attributes of Allāh
Once the above has been settled, the question arises: what of the established attributes and names of Allāh which have counterparts within creation, like knowledge, hearing, seeing, life, speech, power, will and so on?? Do they not suggest that there is indeed some degree of similarity between Creator and creation??
In answer to this, it must firstly be understood that true similarity or resemblance between two entities occurs only in their actual external realities, meaning, in things that have actual existence or an ontological reality in the beings of those entities. Based on this, the following aspects will not be considered true resemblance as they do not entail any similarity in the external realities of the entities:
1. The consequences or relations of attributes. For example, the consequence of “hearing” is to perceive sounds. However, this is not the reality of hearing as it subsists in the being of the entity that hears. The reality of hearing as we know it is “to perceive sounds with the two ears.” This reality is restricted to creation. As for the reality of the hearing of Allāh, there is absolutely no similarity of it with creation, and we are not aware of it. We do know the consequence of it, however, which is “to perceive sounds.”
This degree of similarity in the consequences of the attributes entails no similarity in the actual realities of the entities themselves. In other words, by stating that sounds are not hidden to Allāh, or that they are disclosed to Him by virtue of a particular attribute He possesses called sam‘, says nothing about a description of the external reality of this attribute in the being of Allāh. Similarly, Allāh’s attributes of knowledge, power, seeing, will and life are understood according to the dictates or relations of these attributes and not on how they subsist in the being of Allāh. These attributes according to the Ahlus Sunnah (as opposed to the Mu‘tazilah and Jahmiyyah) do enjoy a real, unchanging and non-temporal ontological existence within the essence of Allāh. That reality however is beyond the human mind and is absolutely incomprehensible, as Imām al-Tahāwī rahimahullah mentioned in his ‘Aqīdah:
“Imaginations do not reach Him, comprehensions do not grasp Him.”
This is applicable to many other attributes, like mercy, love, anger, pleasure and so on. The famous early Ash‘arī scholar, Abū Bakr ibn Fūrak rahimahullah (d. 406 H) , said about the mercy of Allāh as it comes in one particular hadīth: “The mercy itself [as it subsists in the essence of Allāh] may not retreat or proceed with a limit or end, because it is, according to us, an attribute from the attributes of His essence that He has borne in eternity. What is intended here is an indication to the mercy which you attain from Allāh, because that which comes about from something and is connected to it is often given its name, just as something that appears from the power of Allāh (Glorified is He) from His actions is called ‘the power of Allāh.’ The meaning of this is that it came about from His power. Similarly, that which appears from one with pre-eternal mercy may be called mercy by way of flexibility in speech.” (Mushkil al-Hadīth, p. 112)
In other words, when we describe attributes like hearing, seeing, power, knowledge, will, life, mercy, love, anger, pleasure and so on, we are not describing them as they subsist in the essence of Allāh, as that can never be comprehended. Rather, we describe their connections, relations, outcomes and so on.
However, this does not mean we negate that they have a beginningless, unchanging and intangible reality in the essence of Allāh as the Mu‘tazilah do. This also applies to divine actions. If we say a worldly ruler “honours” or “debases” one of his subjects, the reality of this action would be to, for example, write a decree and send it to a governor to exalt or lessen his rank. The consequence of this action is for the subject to have a higher or lower position. When we say Allāh “honours” or He “debases,” the reality of this action bears absolutely no resemblance to the reality of the action of man. However, its relation, in terms of the effect the action produces, may bear some resemblance.
This is not similarity in the external realities of these attributes but in a relational or consequential property. Another example is “existence” itself. Existence is a relational attribute that merely conveys the reality that there is an entity that enjoys an ontological presence outside of the human mind. It does not say anything descriptive about the reality itself.
2. The absence of attributes. For example, if we say, “angels do not sleep,” and we say, “Allāh does not sleep,” this is a resemblance in the absence of attributes, and not a resemblance in any true reality that subsists in either of them. Hence, this is not an actual resemblance. When we say Allāh is self-subsisting, dissimilar to creation, one, transcendent, beginningless, without end and so on, we are not affirming any positive external realities subsisting in Allāh’s being. Rather, we are saying what He is not. Hence, there is no question of anthropomorphism or regarding Allāh similar to His creation in this.
Thus, the divine attributes in the Qur’ān and Sunnah which outwardly and nominally bear resemblance with creation do not give the indication of any real similarity. The similarity is only in consequences and connections or in the absence of something, which does not represent any external reality of the beings themselves. This is how many names and attributes of Allāh can easily be understood. Hence, these attributes are readily affirmed and one will notice that these are the more frequently mentioned attributes of Allāh in the Qur’ān and Sunnah e.g. the oneness of Allāh, His absolute power, hearing, seeing, knowledge, life, mercy, love, generosity, transcendence, self-subsistence and so on.
The Sifāt Khabariyyah
However, there are certain attributes and actions known as sifāt khabariyyah (characteristics which outwardly suggest physical/bodily parts), like hand, foot, eye, laughter, and ascension (istiwā’), for which even a relational meaning or negative meaning is often difficult to decipher. For these, two views have emerged from the early scholars:
1. One is the way of the Salaf, which is to consign their realities to Allāh, while having surety that the literal meaning is not intended, e.g. eye is not a physical organ of sight.
2. The second is to interpret them according to the context in where they appear, which is the methodology of many of the later scholars.
On the first view, these ascriptions are affirmed as actual intangible attributes in the being of Allāh just like power and will, or as attributes of action like honouring and debasing, but like other attributes that are affirmed, their reality is consigned to the knowledge of Allāh. However, their connections and relations may be described, expanded upon and comprehended. On the second view, these “attributes” or ascriptions do not have any reality in the essence of Allāh but are reducible to other attributes or to particular aspects of other attributes, like will, power and knowledge.
Imām al-Bayhaqī rahimahullah (384 – 458 H) explicitly mentions these two methodologies of the early scholars in his work on Islāmic beliefs called al-I‘tiqād wa l-Hidāyah ilā Sabīl al-Rashād. He says: “[Some] amongst them accepted it, believed in it and did not interpret it but consigned its knowledge to Allāh, while negating kayfiyyah (modality) and similarity [with creation] from Him. [Some] amongst them accepted it, believed in it and interpreted it in a manner whose usage is valid linguistically, and does not contradict the oneness [of Allāh]. We have mentioned these two approaches in the book Kitāb al-Asmā’ wa l-Sifāt.” (al-I‘tiqād wa l-Hidāyah ilā Sabīl al-Rashād, p. 120)
The first view, known as tafwīd (consignment), is the preferred methodology, related from the earlier Salaf, as will be shown below.
The second methodology was that of many of the later scholars. For example, the great commentator of hadīth from the fourth Hijrī century, Abū Sulaymān al-Khattābī rahimahullah (319 – 388 H), says under the commentary of a hadīth from Sahīh al-Bukhārī which ascribes a “foot” to Allāh:
“Abū ‘Ubayd [al-Qāsim ibn Sallām (d. 224 H)] – who was one of the imāms from the people of knowledge – would say: We narrate these hadīths and we do not search for meanings for them.” Then he says: “We are more worthy of not advancing into that which those with more knowledge and more senior in era and age retreated from.”
He then says:
However, the time that which we are in, its people have evolved into two camps: the denier of what has been narrated of these hadīths entirely and a belier of them completely and in this is [entailed] accusing the scholars who narrated these hadīths of lying, while they are the imāms of religion, the transmitters of the sunnahs and the intermediaries between us and the Messenger of Allāh (Allāh bless him and grant him peace); and the second group accept the narration of them, adopting a path in actualising the outward of them which almost leads them to tashbīh. We are averse to both approaches, and we are not pleased with either of them as a methodology. Thus, it is necessary for us to search – with respect to the hadīths that have been transmitted when authentic in terms of transmission and chain – for an interpretation that emerges on the basis of the principles of the foundations of religion and the views of the scholars, and we do not nullify their narration completely when their routes are accepted and their transmitters righteous.” (A‘lām al-Hadīth, p. 1907)
Al-Bayhaqī rahimahullah quotes this statement of al-Khattabi in his al-Asmā’ wa l-Sifāt (2:192-3).
Hence, al-Khattābī rahimahullah accepts figuratively interpreting the sifāt khabariyyah mentioned in the hadīths, but only in the context in which he was living, where people were adopting a path of affirmation which took them close to anthropomorphism. In the same passage, he offers an interpretation of the “foot” of Allāh as that which Allāh has sent forth into the fire.
However, al-Khattābī rahimahullah says he only takes this approach with attributes that appear infrequently in some hadīths. With regards to frequently mentioned sifāt khabariyyah, he adopts the approach of tafwīd. He says: “If it is said: Why do you not interpret hand and face in this manner of interpretation, and consider these terms metaphors likewise? It will be said: These attributes are mentioned in the Book of Allāh (Exalted is He) with their names, and they are attributes of praise, and the default is that every attribute mentioned in the Book and are authentic by reports of continuous transmission or narrated through the route of solitary reporters but has a basis in the Book or emerges from some of its principles, then we profess it and we let it proceed on its outward, without giving it a modality. And that which does not have any mention in the Book, nor a basis in continuous transmission and has no connection to the principles of the Book, and were we to let it proceed on its outward, it would lead [some people] to tashbīh, we will interpret it with a meaning which the speech accommodates and by which the meaning of tashbīh will be eliminated. This is the difference between what has been transmitted of the mention of foot, leg and shin [on the one hand] and hand, face and eye [on the other].” (A‘lām al-Hadīth, 1911)
By the statement “we let it proceed on its outward,” al-Khattābī rahimahullah means leave it as it has come in the narrations without delving into its interpretation or meaning. He negates “modality” or kayf, which is to negate, as a starting principle, the literal meanings of these attributes, as Allāh is free of these meanings. As he says elsewhere in the same book: “The meaning of yad (hand) according to us is not a physical appendage [as is its literal meaning]. Rather, it is an attribute brought forth by restraint [at the text]. Thus, we let it proceed as it has come, and we do not give it a modality, and we hold back to where the Book and the authentically transmitted reports kept us. This is the way of Ahlus Sunnah wa lJamā‘ah.” (A‘lām al-Hadīth, p 2347)
The Position of the Salaf:Negating Physical Descriptions of Allāh
It is famously transmitted from the imām of the people of Madīnah, Imam Mālik ibn Anas Rahimahullah (93 – 179 H), that he was asked about the istiwā’ (ascension) of Allāh as mentioned in the Qur’ān (20:5 and other verses). Imām Mālik rahimahullah replied, as reported by al-Bayhaqī rahimahullah with his chain:
“The istiwā’ is known, kayf is incomprehensible, belief in it is necessary and asking about it is innovation.” (al-I‘tiqād wa l-Hidāyah ilā Sabīl al-Rashād, p. 119)
This is authentic from Imām Mālik (rahimahullah). It has also been reported by Abū Nu‘aym in Hilyat alAwliyā’, al-Bayhaqī in al-Asmā’ wa l-Sifāt, al-Lālakā’ī in Sharh Usūl I‘tiqād Ahl al-Sunnah, Qādī ‘Iyād in Tartīb al-Madārik and others. By, “istiwā’ is known” Imām Mālik rahimahullah conveys the truth of what the Qur’ān says. In other words, the Qur’ān certainly affirms the istiwā’ of Allāh and we confirm the reality of istiwā’ as the Qur’ān intends it. What is the reality of that istiwā’?? Imām Mālik rahimahullah says: “Asking about it is innovation!”
Moreover, Imām Mālik (rahmatillah alaih) says there is something positive we can say about the istiwā’, which is: kayf is incomprehensible for it. Kayf means “how”. How is an istiwā’, how is a hand, how is an eye?? An istiwā’ may be quick, slow, from a short distance, a long distance and so on. A hand can be big or small, an eye can be round or thin, blue or brown, and so on. These all fall under kayf. This kayf is incomprehensible for Allāh, as Allāh is free of all these physical qualities of creation. In another version, Imām Mālik rahimahullah said: “Kayf is removed (marfū‘) from Allāh.” As in, kayf does not pertain to or relate to Allāh. Hence, the literal meanings of these words are not what is meant. In fact, the literal meaning which incorporates, by necessity, some of what falls under kayf, is explicitly negated. Instead, istiwā’ is affirmed for Allāh with a meaning that is known to Him, and which to ask about is innovation. This, in a nutshell, is the methodology of the Salaf:
a) to negate bodily attributes,
b) to affirm the sifāt khabariyya with a meaning known to Allāh and
c) to admit ignorance of that meaning.
Imām al-Bayhaqī rahimahullah transmits this position from the early scholars, declaring it the correct methodology. He says: “Further, the correct methodology in all this is sufficing with what brings with it restraint [at the text], without giving it a modality. This is what the earlier ones from our scholars adopted as well as those who followed them from the later ones, and they said: The istiwā’ on the throne has been stated in the Book in various verses and have been transmitted in the reports.” (al-I‘tiqād wa l-Hidāyah ilā Sabīl al-Rashād, p. 118)
In another version of the statement from Imām Mālik rahimahullah which al-Bayhaqī rahimahullah narrates with a chain graded excellent (jayyid) by Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalānī rahimahullah, he says: “The Most Merciful ascended the Throne as He described Himself. It is not said ‘how?’ and ‘how’ is removed from Him.” (Al-Asmā’ wa l-Sifāt, 2:304-5)
In al-Asmā’ wa l-Sifāt, Imām al-Bayhaqī rahimahullah shows the Salaf would negate physical descriptions, while affirming what has been transmitted of the sifāt khabariyyah. He says: “We have related [the position of] leaving discussion on the likes of this from the early ones of our companions. This is along with their belief in the negation of limit, tashbīh and tamthīl from Allāh, Glorified and Exalted is He. Faqīh Abū Bakr Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hārith al-Asbahānī reported to us: Abū Muhammad ibn Hayyān reported to us: Ishāq ibn Ahmad alFārisī narrated to us: Hafs ibn ‘Umar al-Mahraqānī narrated to us: Abū Dāwūd [al-Tayālisī] narrated to us: He said: ‘Sufyān al-Thawrī (97 – 161 H), Shu‘bah (82 – 160 H), Hammād ibn Zayd (98 – 179 H), Hammād ibn Salamah (91 – 167 H), Sharīk (95 – 177 H) and [al-Waddāh ibn ‘Abdillāh] Abū ‘Awānah (c. 95 – 176 H) would not ascribe a limit, nor make resemblance nor similarity. They narrate the hadīth without saying kayf. When asked, they would answer with narration.’ Abū Dāwūd said: ‘This is our view.’ I say: And our elders remained on this.” (al-Asmā’ wa l-Sifāt 2:334)
The report to Abū Dāwūd al-Tayālisī (133 – 204 H) is sound. The position of these great imāms of the atbā‘ al-tābi‘īn (third generation of Muslims) is that whatever has been transmitted in authentic reports are accepted as they were intended without taking any physical meanings from them like limit and kayf.
This was the way of all the major scholars of the Salaf. Imām al-Bayhaqī rahimahullah related with a sound chain
“Al-Awzā‘ī, Mālik, Sufyān al-Thawrī and al-Layth ibn Sa‘d were asked about these hadīths [on the sifāt khabariyyah], and they said: ‘Let them pass as they have come without kayfiyyah.’” (alI‘tiqād wa l-Hidāyah ilā Sabīl al-Rashād, p. 123)
In other words, convey them, read them and believe in them as they were intended, but while holding firmly that kayf is negated.
Imām al-Bayhaqī rahimahullah also related from Sufyān ibn ‘Uyaynah with an authentic chain: “All that Allāh has described of Himself, its interpretation is its recitation and silence over it.”(al-I‘tiqād wa l-Hidāyah ilā Sabīl al-Rashād, p. 123)
In the same report from his al-Asmā’ wa l-Sifāt, there is the addition: “No one may explain it, neither in Arabic nor in Fārsī.” (al-Asmā’ wal-Sifāt, 2:117)
In the same report from Sharh Usūl I‘tiqād Ahl al-Sunnah, al-Lālakā’ī (d. 418) narrates it as follows: “Everything Allāh has described Himself with in the Qur’ān, its recitation is its explanation. There is no kayf and no likeness.” (Sharh Usūl I‘tiqād Ahl al-Sunnah, p. 431)
This is a reference to the sifāt khabariyyah like ascension, hand, eye and so on, the literal meaning of which is specific to created beings.
Hence, the intent of these attributes as they appear in the revealed sources is consigned to Allāh. Other attributes like knowledge, power, hearing, seeing, mercy, self-subsistence, oneness etc. can be explained and expanded upon, in terms of their connections and in terms of what they negate, as explained earlier.
Thus, Imām al-Bayhaqī rahimahullah explained Ibn ‘Uyaynah’s words as follows: “He only intended thereby – and Allāh knows best – that which the explanation of which leads to ascribing kayf. And ascribing kayf necessitates considering Him like His creation in the qualities of temporality.” (al-I‘tiqād wa l-Hidāyah ilā Sabīl al-Rashād, p. 123)
After mentioning the report in al-Asmā’ wa l-Sifāt, he says:
“I say: And he only intended – and Allāh knows best – the sifāt khabariyyah.” (al-Asmā’ wa l-Sifāt, 2:159)
However, it is possible that even these attributes like yad and ‘ayn are understood relationally, in terms of what they connect to, while their reality as they subsist in Allāh’s essence is understood to be unfathomable.
Thus, al-Bayhaqī rahimahullah said after this: “Some of the people of insight amongst them adopted the view that by the right hand is meant the hand, and the hand of Allāh (Exalted is He) is an expression about an attribute that is not a physical appendage. Thus, wherever it is mentioned in the Book and the authentic Sunnah, the intent of its mention is its connection to what came about in that which is mentioned along with it, of folding up and grasping, contracting and spreading out, eliminating and accepting, spending and other than that; a connection of an intrinsic attribute with its consequence without direct physical contact or mutual touching. There is no tashbīh in this at all.” (Al-Asmā’ wa l-Sifāt, 2:159)
Imām al-Tahāwī rahimahullah said in his famous text on ‘aqīdah encapsulating the beliefs transmitted from Imām Abū Hanīfah and his two students:
“The vision [of Allāh] is true for the inhabitants of Paradise, without encompassing, nor kayfiyyah.”
Here kayfiyyah is categorically negated for the vision of Allāh in Paradise. Kayfiyyah with regards to vision refers to distance, opposition, direction and so on, which are necessary concomitants of vision in the phenomenal world. However, the vision of Allāh in the afterlife will be without these modalities that we are accustomed to. It will be a beholding of Allāh with the eyes bestowed to true believers after resurrection.
The mujassimah (corporealists) and crypto-mujassimah refuse to make the explicit negations of kayf and physical descriptions for Allāh in the way the Salaf did. Imām al-Tahāwī rahimahullah narrates from the imāms of the Hanafī school:
“Our Lord bears the attributes of oneness and holds the characteristics of singularity. Not one of creation is in His meaning. He is transcendent beyond limits and boundaries, parts, limbs and instruments.”
Imām al-Tahāwī rahimahullah did not merely say that we are not permitted to say that He does not have these attributes. Rather, he categorically states that Allāh is far-removed from them due to His absolute transcendence.
Similarly, Hāfiz Abū Bakr al-Ismā‘īlī (277 – 371 H) imāms of hadīth that Allāh is free of limbs and a physical body: “Limbs and appendages, nor length and breadth, thickness and thinness and the like of this, of which the equivalent is found in creation, are not believed about Him. And that there is nothing as His likeness.” (I‘tiqād A’immat al-Hadīth, p 36)
Describing the vision of Allāh, he says: “And that is without belief in corporealism with respect to Allāh – Great and Glorious is He – nor assigning limits. But they will see Him – Great and Glorious is He – with their eyes just as He pleases, without kayf.” (I‘tiqād A’immat al-Hadīth p. 43)
The Salaf would often say Allāh is “above the creation” (fawq al-khalq) or above the Throne (fawq al-‘arsh) which is the highest point of creation.
The reason for this statement was to refute the Jahmī belief that Allāh dwells within creation. Hence, this is not a positive description of Allāh, but a way of expressing the negative detail of Allāh not being within His creation, but being far removed and different from creation.
This is why the Salaf would also say He is “bā’in” (separate) from His creation. This also is not a physical “separation”, but a way of expressing that the creation does not contain the Creator. Abū Sulaymān al-Khattābī rahimahullah said: “The meaning of the statement of the Muslims that Allāh is over the throne is not that He is touching it or settled on it or bounded by one of its directions, but that He is different/separate from all His creation.” (A‘lām al-Hadīth, p. 1474)
Ibn Hamdān al-Hanbalī (603 – 695 H) said: “He is separate from His creation. Allāh is above the throne, without [physical] limitation. [Physical] limitation is of the throne and all that is beneath it. And Allāh is above that with no place and no limit. [This is] because He existed when there was no place, and then He created place, and He is as He was before He created place.”
The above encapsulates the belief of the Salaf. Hence, the Salaf, unlike the present-day so-called “Salafīs” who claim to follow the Salaf, would explicitly negate boundaries, parts, limbs, directions, physicality and kayfiyyāt in general for Allāh (subhānahū wa ta‘ālā).
Allāh is Unchanging and Timeless
Moreover, if Allāh possesses kayfiyyāt like movement, physical descent and ascent, laughter, emotions and so on, it would entail changing from one state to another which is a feature of temporal things and not of the beginningless unchanging Creator.
This has also been expressed by one of the imāms of the Salaf. Abu l-Shaykh relates in his ‘Azamah with an authentic chain from Imām ‘Abd al-‘Azīz ibn al-Mājishūn rahimahullah (d 164 H), a narrator of hadīth found in the six collections and a prominent jurist of Madīnah, that he said: “…He is the Last that will not end and the First that will not perish, the beginningless (qadīm) Who has no beginning. He did not come into being as [other] things came into being. He was not small and then became large, nor was He weak and then became strong, nor deficient and then became complete, nor ignorant and then He knew. He was always strong, lofty, great and transcendent. The blink of an eye did not pass but He was Allāh, without ceasing to be Rabb. He will remain so unceasingly in what has passed and likewise in what remains to come. And thus He is now. He did not gain new knowledge after not having known, nor strength after a strength that was not in Him. He did not alternate from one state to another state with increase or decrease, because there remains no [aspect] of sovereignty and magnitude but He occupies it. He will never increase beyond something that He was upon…”
The above is the clear view of Ahlus Sunnah as transmitted from the Salaf and the imāms of ‘aqīdah, and subsequently from the Ash‘arī and Māturīdī theologians, as well as major Hanbalī authorities like Abu l-Fadl al-Tamīmī (342 – 410 H) Jawzī (510 – 597 H) 44, 48 and Ibn Hamdān (603 – 695 H)(rahimahumullah)
The Beliefs of the Mujassimah
On the other hand, there was a small group historically, and a sizeable group in recent times, of a people who believe that the sifāt khabariyyah must be accepted literally. They believe that Allāh is literally in the upward direction, with physical parts like a face, two hands, fingers, shape, two eyes and so on. They believe He moves up and down. This is the position of tashbīh and tajsīm.
While Ahlus Sunnah deny completely any and all resemblance between Allāh and creation in their descriptive and ontological realities, some modern “Salafī” authors do not shy away from saying they accept a degree of resemblance between Allāh and His creation.
For example, one of the leaders of the contemporary Salafī movement, Ibn ‘Uthaymīn, said: “To negate tashbīh completely between the attributes of Creator and of creation is not correct because there are no two established attributes except they have commonality in the basic meaning, and this commonality is a kind of similarity.” (Fatāwā Ibn ‘Uthaymīn, 1:181)
He also said: “If you ask: what is the shape which Allāh has that Ādam was upon? We say: Allāh has a face, eye, hand and leg, but it is not necessary that these things are equivalent to man’s. Thus, there is a degree of similarity but it is not by way of equivalence.” (Sharh ‘Aqīdat al-Wasatiyyah, p. 110)
Clarifying further, he said: “The one who believes that the attributes of the Creator are equivalent to the attributes of creation is misguided. That is, the attributes of the Creator are not equal to the attributes of creation by the clear text of the Qur’ān… And it is not necessary from the equivalence of two entities in name or attribute that they are equal in reality. This is a known principle. Does man not have a face and a camel a face? They are common in name but do not conform in reality. The camel has a hand and the ant a hand – are the two hands equal? The answer is no. Then, why do you not say that Allāh has a face that is not equivalent to the faces of creation and Allāh has a hand that is not equivalent to the hands of creation? Allāh (Exalted is He) said: ‘And they esteem not Allah as He has the right to be esteemed, when the whole earth is His handful on the Day of Resurrection, and the heavens are rolled in His right hand.’ (39:67) Is there a hand from the hands of creation that is like this hand? No….This is why it is never permissible for you to imagine how a quality from the qualities of Allāh is or that you believe that the attributes of Allāh are the same as the attributes of creation.” (Fatāwā Ibn ‘Uthaymīn, 1:177)
It is clear from these statements that he believes the “attributes” of hand, face, eye and so on are physical parts but with distinctive features that put them apart from creation.
This becomes more apparent from many of his other statements. What the contemporary Salafiyyah do not realise, however, is that by affirming a likeness in the base meaning of the attributes of Creator and creation, they are affirming a general resemblance between the two, and by negating similarity in kayfiyyāt (physical descriptions), they are negating similarity in only minor details. Hence, what they affirm in resemblance is far greater than what they negate. This belief has its roots in an early time. Muqātil ibn Sulaymān an early mufassir from the atbā‘ al-tābi‘īn overemphasised the attributes of Allāh in opposition to the Jahmiyyah who negated it, resulting in affirming a similarity between Allāh and His creation, as al-Khatīb al-Baghdādī narrated with an authentic chain from Imām Abū Hanīfah rahimahullah (80 – 150 H): “Two groups of the worst of people are from Khurāsān: the Jahmiyyah and the Mushabbihah” or he said, “Muqātiliyyah.” (Tarikh Baghdad 15:514) 54
Hāfiz Ibn Hajar rahimahullah said in Tahdhīb al-Tahdhīb: “Muhammad ibn Samā‘ah (130 – 233 H) narrated from Abū Yūsuf from Abū Hanīfah that he said: ‘Jahm went overboard in negation until he said: He [i.e. Allah] is nothing, and Muqātil went overboard in affirmation until He deemed Allah to be like His creation.’”
Hāfiz Ibn Hajar rahimahullah also quotes him saying: “Two repulsive opinions came to us from the east: Jahm the negator [of Allah’s attributes] and Muqātil, the anthropomorphist.”
Hence, the Salaf did not turn a blind eye to the anthropomorphism that found its way into some groups of Muslims.
The belief-system of tashbīh, though in existence before, was popularised and defended fiercely by the Damascene Hanbalī scholar, Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Halīm Ibn Taymiyyah (661 – 728 H), an undisputed authority of the contemporary Salafiyyah. He, for example, explicitly supported the notion that the attributes of Allāh, including the sifāt khabariyyah like eye, hand, face, descent and ascension, must be understood by analogising them to creation. He supported the idea that these attributes have a meaning that is shared between creation and Creator. He differentiates between “intangible” attributes like knowledge and power and “tangible” attributes like hand and face for Allāh. He defended the view that Allāh has boundaries from all six physical directions, up, down, left, right, front and back, leaving no room for doubt that he believed in a physical body for Allāh. His claim to avoiding tashbīh, tajsīm and tamthīl, however, is on the grounds that Allāh is not exactly like His creation. He is vastly bigger, with unknown dimensions, and He is indivisible as His parts cannot be separated one from the other, and He doesn’t have a digestive system, nor are His limbs made of blood and flesh like human beings. Instead, His features that have a counterpart in creation only bear a generic resemblance with those of creatures, while their physical descriptions and modalities (kayfiyyāt) are vastly different.
Hence, while this group with Ibn Taymiyyah at its head, affirm kayfiyyāt (physical descriptions) for Allāh while negating knowledge of them, the Salaf and Ahlus Sunnah negate the very existence of kayfiyyāt for Allāh. These innovated ascriptions of physical parts to Allāh, delving into the ambiguous attributes of Allāh by designating their literal meanings as their intent, and affirming a basic meaning or ontological reality of these attributes that are similar to the qualities of creation, are extreme violations of core Islāmic beliefs on the oneness of Allāh and His absolute dissimilarity to creation.
[ Acknowledgements: This article is based on an online work of ‘Uthmān Muhammad al-Nāblusī titled: al-Sifāt al-‘Ilāhiyyah bayna Ahl al-Tanzīh wa Ahl al-Tashbīh, translated by Maulana Zameelur Rahmaan]