Allah’s establishment on the Throne

istiwa’ Allah `ala al-`arsh

We continue listing the positions of the scholars of Ahl al-Sunna in establishing the sound understanding and refuting the unsound understanding of the attributes mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunna.

· Umm Salama the Prophet’s wife said the following about istiwa’ as quoted by Ibn Hajar in Fath al-bari: “The establishment is not unknown (ghayr majhul) and its modality is inconceivable in the mind (ghayr ma`qul); one does not ask “how” about Him; “how” is inapplicable to Him.”

· Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161) forwarded an interpretation of istiwa’ in verse 20:4 as “a command concerning the Throne” (amrun fi al-`arsh), according to Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 478) in his al-Irshad ila qawati` al-adilla fi usul al-i`tiqad (The guidance to the decisive proofs in the foundations of belief), as quoted by al-Yafi`i in the latter’s book Kitab marham al-`ilal al-mu`dila fi daf` al-shubah wa al-radd `ala al-mu`tazila (Book of the resolution of difficult problems for the removal of doubts and the refutation of the Mu`tazila):

The understanding of istiwa’ as Allah’s turning to a particular command concerning the Throne is not far-fetched, and this is the ta’wil of Imam Sufyan al-Thawri, who took as corroborating evidence for it the verse: “Then turned He (istawa) to the heaven when it was smoke” (41:11).

· Imam Abu Hanifa (d. 150) says in his Wasiyya: “Had He been in a place and needing to sit and rest before creating the Throne, then the question ‘Where was Allah?’ would have applied to Him, which is impossible… We assert that Allah is established on the throne without His need (haja) nor settlement (istiqrar) upon it, for He it is Who preserves the Throne and other than it without needing any of them.”

He said in his al-Fiqh al-akbar: “Allah has no limits, nor any rivals… He who says: ‘I do not know if my Lord is in the heavens or on the earth’ is a disbeliever, and he who says: ‘He is on the Throne, and I do not know whether the Throne is in the heaven or on the earth,’ he is also a disbeliever.” Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi explained this to mean: “The reason is that by such words he suggests a place for Allah and this is idolatry.”

· A man asked Imam Malik (d. 179): “How did Allah make istiwa’ on the throne?” Imam Malik inclined his head and was silent until the sweat of fever covered his brow, then he looked up and said: “Istiwa’ is not unknown (ghayru majhul), the modality of it is inconceivable in the mind (al-kayfu minhu ghayru ma`qul); but belief in it is obligatory, and inquiring about it is a heretical innovation. You are an innovator.” And he gave orders for him to be taken out.

· Imam Shafi`i (d. 204) in his small treatise entitled al-Fiqh al-akbar said: “Whoever says: al-Rahmanu `ala al-`arsh istawa, it is said to him: This verse is one of the mutashabih (ambiguous matter) concerning which one is perplexed to give an answer, and the same is said regarding similar verses.”

· Others who list the verse of istiwa’ among the mutashabihat are Imam Malik ibn Anas, the fuqaha’ of Madina, and al-Asma`i according to Abu Mansur `Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi in Usul al-Din.

· The Imam of Ahl al-Sunna, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash`ari (d. 324), says in his Al-ibana fi usul al-diyana: “Allah is above the heavens, above the Throne, above everything, with a loftiness (fawqiyya) which does not make Him any closer to the Throne or the heavens, just as it does not make Him any further from the earth. He is close to everything in existence, He is closer to the servant than his jugular vein, and He is a witness over all things.”

He also says, as reported by Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi in Usul al-Din: “Allah’s establishment on the Throne is an action He has created named istiwa’ and related to the Throne, just as He has created an action named ityan (coming) related to a certain people; and this implies neither descent nor movement.”

· Al-hafiz Abu Hatim Ibn Hibban al-Busti (d. 354) flatly denied that Allah had limits and was expelled from Sijistan under pain of death by the anthropomorphists, as mentioned above.

· Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310) said in his Tafsir: “Allah made himself exalted over the heaven with the exaltation of sovereignty and power, not that of displacement and movement.”

· Imam Abu Mansur `Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 429) in Usul al-Din says: “The correct position according to us is the interpretation of the Throne in this verse to mean the sovereignty (al-mulk), as if He meant that the sovereignty has not been established for any but Him. This interpretation is taken from the saying of the Arabs: “So-and-so’s Throne has toppled” if he lost his power.” He then cites three examples from poetry illustrating this. He says about the characteristics of Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama`a in his al-Farq bayn al-firaq (The differences between the sects): “Ahl al-Sunna are in consensus (ajma`u) that Allah, the Flawless, the Exalted, is not bounded by location.” He then reports the saying of Sayidina `Ali: “Allah created the Throne as an indication of His power, not for taking it as a place for Himself.”

· Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 478) said in his al-Irshad as quoted by al-Yafi`i in the latter’s book Kitab marham al-`ilal al-mu`dila:

Care must be taken to show the vulgar anthropomorphists (hashwiyya) the verses upon which they do practice ta’wil so that when they invoke as proof of their belief in Allah’s “settling” (istiqrar) the external meaning of “The Merciful is established on the Throne” (20:4), ask them for the meaning of “And He is with you wheresoever you are” (57:4). If they take the latter according to its external sense also, then they annul the external sense of His being established on the Throne which they claim, and they also proclaim the disgrace of their beliefs for all resonable persons to see; however, if they understand it as referring to His encompassing us with His knowledge, then they have applied ta’wil, and it is no longer forbidden for us to do the same in interpreting His establishment as “subduing” (qahara) and “prevailing over” (ghalaba), as is permitted by the Arabic language… Moreover, istiwa’ in the sense of istiqrar, or settling, presupposes a prior state of disturbance, and to hold this is disbelief (kufr)….

If they say: Why don’t you let the verse pass according to its external sense without interpreting it, and only say that it is among the mutashabihat whose meaning only Allah knows? We say: If the questioner wants to let istiwa’ pass according to the external sense it commonly suggests, which is physical settlement, then such a sense drives us to anthropomorphism, but if that is explicitly shown to be impossible, then the external sense ceases… at which time it is not far-fetched to understand the verse rightly and reasonably according to the demands of the divine Law and the obligation to avoid ta’wil, lest wrong belief results.

· Imam Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 505) says almost the same thing as Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi in the Ihya’, section on qawa`id wa `aqa’id (principles and doctrines), and something related to it in the Iljam which we have excerpted already.

· The grammarian al-Raghib (d. 507?) says: “The expression istawa `ala has the meaning of istila’ or holding mastery over something, as in the verse of Qur’an: al-rahmanu `ala al-`arsh istawa… It means that everything is alike in relation to Him in such manner that no one thing is nearer to Him than another thing, since He is not like the bodies that abide in one place exclusive of another place.”

· Imam Fakhr al-Din Razi (d. 606) in his al-Tafsir al-kabir says in his commentary to verse 19:93: “Since it is affirmed by this verse that “All those in the heavens and the earth must come to Allah as His slave,” and since it is obligatory that Allah is clear of being a slave, He is therefore clear of being in a place or direction, or on the Throne or the Chair.”

· Imam Abu Mansur Ibn `Asakir (d. 620) says in his `Aqida: “It must not be said: When was He, or where was He, or how was He. He exists without a place.”

· Ibn al-Jawzi said: “Whoever says: He is established on the Throne “in person” (bi dhatihi), has diverted the sense of the verse to that of sensory perception. Such a person must not neglect that the principle is established by the mind, by which we have come to know Allah, and have attributed pre-eternity to Him decisively. If you said: We read the hadiths and keep quiet, no one would criticize you; it is only your taking them in the external sense which is hideous. Therefore do not bring into the school of this pious man of the Salaf — Imam Ahmad — what does not belong in it. You have clothed this madhhab with an ugly deed, so that it is no longer said “Hanbali” except in the sense of “anthropomorphist”….

Then they say: We take them according to their external senses. O wonder! What is the “external sense” of what Allah alone knows? Is the “external sense” of istiwa’ other than sitting down? and is the “external sense” of nuzul other than displacement?…

They said: He is established on the Throne “in person.” But this addition is not related by anyone! It is only what they understood with their senses, namely, that one is not established other than with his own person…

· Imam al-`Izz ibn `Abd al-Salam (d. 660) was asked in his Fatawa: “What do you say about Abu Zayd al-Qayrawani al-Maliki’s (d. 386) saying: “Allah is above His exalted Throne in person (bi dhatihi), and He is in every place with His knowledge”: Does such an affirmation attribute a direction to Allah or not? And is the one who holds such belief declared a disbeliever (kafir) or not?” He replied: “The apparent meaning of what Ibn Abi Zayd said attributes direction for Allah, because he has made a difference between Allah’s being on the Throne and His being with His creation. As for the second question: the more correct position is that the one who holds belief in Allah’s direction is not declared a disbeliever, because the scholars of Islam did not bring such as these out of Islam, rather, they adjudicated inheritance from Muslims for them, burial in Muslim grounds, sanctity of their blood and property, and the obligation to pray over their remains. The same is true of all the upholders of innovations: People never ceased to apply to them the rulings that apply to Muslims. Pay no attention to what the common people claim about their disbelief.”

· Imam Nawawi (d. 676) said in Sharh al-muhadhdhab: “It is said: We believe that the Merciful is established over the Throne, and we do not know the reality of the meaning of this nor what is meant by it (la na`lamu haqiqata mi`na dhalika wa al-murada bihi), while we do believe that “There is nothing like Him whatsoever” and that He is exalted far above the most elevated of created things. That is the way of the Salaf or at least their vast majority, and it is the safest because one is not required to probe into such matters.”

· Ibn al-Hammam al-Hanafi (d. 681) said in al-Musayara: “It is obligatory to believe that Allah is established on the Throne while negating any likeness to creation. As for saying that His establishment (istiwa’) is a conquering (istila’), it is permissible but not obligatory since there is no evidence for it specifically… However, if it is feared that the common people will not understand istiwa’ without conceiving of contact and other corporeal characteristics, and if they do not negate the latter, then there is no harm in directing their understanding to istila’, as its usage and meaning for istiwa’ is established in language from the poet’s saying: “Bishr has conquered (istawa `ala) Iraq” and “When we towered above them and conquered them (istawayna `alayhim)…”

· Shaykh `Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi’s (d. 1143) statement already quoted: “Whoever believes that Allah permeates the Heavens and the Earth, or that He is a body sitting on His Throne, is a disbeliever, even if he thinks he is a Muslim.”

· Al-Dhahabi disavowed the term “in person”: “There is no need for this expression, and it disturbs the soul.”

· Ibn Hajar also rejected the statement that Allah is on the Throne “in person” as equally preposterous as saying that He is everywhere:

Some of the Mu`tazila have claimed that Allah was everywhere on the basis of the hadith “If one of you stands in prayer, let him not spit in front of him for Allah is in front of him.” This is evident ignorance, because the hadith then states that he should spit under his foot, which invalidates their principle. The hadith also constitutes a refutation of those who say that Allah is on the Throne “in person.”

· Even Sulayman ibn `Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1817 CE), the Wahhabi founder’s grandson, declared as unbeliever anyone who used the term “in person” in relation to Allah being in a place, whether one place or an infinite number: “Whoever believes or says: Allah is in person (bi dhatihi) in every place, or in one place: he is a disbeliever (kafir). It is obligatory to declare that Allah is distinct from His creation, established over His throne without modality or likeness or examplarity. Allah was and there was no place, then He created place and He is exalted as He was before He created place.”

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