Wahhabi Contention: How are “Ar Rahmanu `alal `arsh istawa” and “Laysaka mithlihi shay`” different?

Wahabi contention: “It is very UN-scientific to take the ayah about Allah not resembling creation at face value and NOT take the ayah about istiwaa at face value. Why is one different from the other?”

Sunni Response: It is not clear to me what you mean by “face value”, but at least I will explain the difference between the two.

First of all, the basic principle for understanding the ayahs of the Quran and Hadiths of the Prophet is that they be taken at their most absolute, literal and apparent meanings, unless there is a proof why they shouldn’t. Such proofs would be other ayahs, other hadiths, and ijmaa, while mere preference is not acceptable for this. Sorting out these issues is the main purpose of Usul-al-Fiqh, the methodology for knowing commandments from the Quran and the Sunnah. The rational purpose of this rule of requiring a proof, as mentioned, is to avoid people interpreting the scriptures any way they like, while recognizing that not everything in the Quran can be understood literally, because that would lead to one ayah contradicting another in meaning.

If the rule of requiring proof for saying that an ayah should not be taken literally was not correct, then there would be no purpose in sending a prophet, because his message would have been open to any interpretation desired. For example, one time my non-Muslim friend watched this woman praying as Imam for Jumu`ah prayer in the US. She said, “Well, this is her interpretation,” implying that the woman is free to interpret from the scriptures that a woman can lead Jumu`ah prayer. I told her, “Interpretation has to have rules, if you were allowed to make any interpretation, then what would be the point in sending a prophet?” She could not answer.

In short, one’s understanding of a statement in the Quran should be apparent, unless there is a proof of otherwise from other texts, or ijma.

Having said that, the difference between “He does not resemble anything,” and “istawa” is that the first denies the resemblance of anything to Allah. The latter, on the other hand affirms “istawa”. To be consistent then, we need to affirm istawa without affirming resemblance to something physical, because created things are physical, i.e. limited and quantitative, and therefore in need of Allah to create them. That is why the Salaf said “istawa bi-laa kayf,” “istawa without a how”, but they did not say “He does not resemble His creation – without a how.” The first statement is an affirmation followed by a partial negation, the second statement is clearly nonsense.

This should be enough, but if you want the details……

Understanding “He does not resemble anything”

When we want to understand “He does not resemble anything,” we need to understand what meanings and senses are exclusive to creation. We also need to identify the meanings and senses that are shared in created attributes, so that we do not end up believing that Allah is different from His creation in the same sense as created things are different from each other only. After all, all created things are different from each other in some more or less obvious or subtle senses, even if it be only time or location. If we do not pay attention to this, we will end up saying that the meaning of the ayah is “everything is different from everything else,” and that would be to make it meaningless, which is clearly not allowed. After all, the statement addresses an attribute of Allah.

Before we do this, let it be clear that “He does not resemble anything,” is an attribute that negates something from Allah, which is different from an affirmation, such as “istawa” because we are forbidden from pondering meanings that are affirmed to Allah. We are not forbidden from pondering about creation, however, so there is nothing wrong with identifying what meanings and senses are present in creation that Allah is clearly not attributed with. Such meanings would be those that necessitate having a creator. Such pondering is encouraged in the Quran, such as in:

إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ لَآَيَاتٍ لِأُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ
Meaning: “Verily in the creation of the Skies and the Earth, and the differences of night and day there are signs for those who have perceptive minds.” (Aal `Imraan, 190)

أَفَلاَ يَنظُرُونَ إِلَى ٱلإِبْلِ كَيْفَ خُلِقَتْ
Meaning: “What, do they not consider how the camel was created?”

Based on this, when we look at creation, we notice that created things have quantities and limits, i.e. they have a physical measure. We also notice that they come in different shapes, types and resemblances in terms of these quantities and limits. They do not necessarily resemble each other in all aspects, for they have different time limits, locations, attributes, etc, but their nature of being limited and quantitative is shared. So a chair, for example, is very different from a human being, but similar in some aspects, such as in having a weight and a volume.

From this observation, we know that Allah is not something limited, not something measurable or quantitative, because Allah is not merely different from creation in the way they are different from each other. He is completely different from creation, and not something measurable, limited or quantitative. Allah’s attributes are greater than that.

Note that even when we use the same word to refer to a created attribute as we use for an attribute of Allah, such as knowledge, then we know that this is completely different in meaning. Allah’s knowledge is not something limited. It is not in a location, such as a brain, unlike ours. It does not increase or decrease, unlike ours. Our knowledge is quantitative an divisible, His is not etc.

We can also say it this way; the world around us is full of entities with size, even though they differ in attributes such as shape, density and taste, etc. The kind, however, things with size, is the same for them all. Since Allah is not the same kind as creation, then He is not something with size, and is not in a place. Further to this, we can also say that since place is a creation, as it is something other than Allah, He is not in it, because He existed before it.

To clarify further the meaning of “He does not resemble anything,” take the proof of Abu Hanifah that you linked, which points out an absurdity to an atheist: “You cannot imagine one ship running without some one looking after its affairs. Yet you think that for this whole world, which runs exactly and precisely, there is no one who looks after it, and no one owns it?” Take also a look at the proof of Allah’s existence that Ash-Shafi`i presented: “The leaves of Toot (berries) are all but one. Each leaf tastes exactly the same. Insects, honey bees, cows, goats, and deer live off of it. After eating these the insects produce silk; bees produce honey; deer give musk (a special kind of scent), cows and goats deliver off-springs.” Maalik said it this way: “Difference in languages, difference in pitches of voice, difference in singing are proof that Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala) exists!”

Such proofs are called arguments based on design, the order of creation, and they are also found in the Quran. The Quran does not have logically flawed proofs, so we can safely assume that they are valid. If you look carefully at these proof, and others like it, then you can detect what it means that Allah does not resemble His creation. This is because when you specify the attributes of creation that makes it so obvious that it needs a creator, then you can know what attributes the Creator does not have. You can know this, because Allah does not have a Creator.

The common denominator of all these proofs is that they give examples of how creations need physical specification for how they are to be. What kind? What location? What volume? What quantity? What size? What shape? How wide? What color? What taste? What temperature? What boundaries and limits? Where? How fast? Etc. All such attributes need specification. So in Abu Hanifah’s, for example, he proposes that the ship has goods (specification needed: what kind? how many? where?) that the ship keeps going back and forth (what direction, what speed? to and from where? what path?), etc.

Clearly such attributes need a creator, because they need to receive specification. This means that they have a beginning, because becoming specified needs a point in time. Clearly then, Allah is not something that physical specification applies to, so He is not a body, and therefore not in a place, because a body is what is in a place. The great scholar of the Salaf At-Tahaawi stated:

{Allah is above} the status of {having limits, extremes, corners, limbs or instruments.}

{The six directions} up, down, front, back, left and right {do not contain Him, like all created things}.

This same thing was stated by the most eloquent of all creation, as narrated by Muslim and Al-Bayhaqi:

اللهم أنت الْأَوَّلُ فَلَيْسَ قَبْلَكَ شَيْءٌ وَأَنْتَ الْآخِرُ فَلَيْسَ بَعْدَكَ شَيْءٌ وَأَنْتَ الظَّاهِرُ فَلَيْسَ فَوْقَكَ شَيْءٌ وَأَنْتَ الْبَاطِنُ فَلَيْسَ دُونَكَ شَيْءٌ
“O Allah, You are the First, so there is nothing before You, and You are the Last so there is nothing after You. You are Al-Thaahir so there is nothing above You. And You are Al-Baatin, so there is nothing below you.” If there is nothing above Him and nothing below Him, then he is not a body or a direction, and He does not have physical specification.

Further to this point, consider what was narrated from Ahmad ibn Hanbal at the link you provided, where he made an example of the egg with a chick in it, saying: “There is an incredibly strong fort, it has no doors, there is no way to get in. In fact, there is not even a hole in it. From outside it glows like the moon and from inside it shimmers like gold. It is sealed from all sides, matter of fact it is air tight. Suddenly one of its doors breaks down, a living thing with eyes and ears, a beautiful looking animal appears yelling and wandering all over. So is not there a creator who made it possible for life to take place in this secured and closed fort? And is not this Creator better than humans? This Creator has no limit.” Note that he concluded based on his proof: “This Creator has no limit.”

Why one cannot say that “He does not resemble anything,” except in that He has a direction

Another difference between “He does not resemble anything,” and “istawa” is that the first is clear in meaning, while the second is not; “istawa” has many possible meanings in Arabic. To get agreement between the two is therefore easy, you understand “He does not resemble anything,” absolutely and literally, and say that the meaning of “istawa” is one of the meanings in Arabic that does not contradict with “He does not resemble anything.” So it does not have the meaning of Allah being in a place or direction, because that would mean He has a physical limit, and that would be to invalidate “He does not resemble anything”, and render it meaningless without a need.

Yet another reason why place or direction cannot be excluded from the literal “He does not resemble anything” is the explicit scriptural text mentioned earlier, namely that the Prophet said:

اللهم أنت الْأَوَّلُ فَلَيْسَ قَبْلَكَ شَيْءٌ وَأَنْتَ الْآخِرُ فَلَيْسَ بَعْدَكَ شَيْءٌ وَأَنْتَ الظَّاهِرُ فَلَيْسَ فَوْقَكَ شَيْءٌ وَأَنْتَ الْبَاطِنُ فَلَيْسَ دُونَكَ شَيْءٌ
“O Aļļaah, You are the First, so there is nothing before You, and You are the Last so there is nothing after You. You are Al-Thaahir so there is nothing above You. And You are Al-Baatin, so there is nothing below you.”

If there is nothing above Him and nothing below Him, then He is not in a place or direction, so if one believed istawa to have the meaning of Allah literally being in a place or direction, then one would have rendered the perfectly clear “He does not resemble anything” virtually meaningless, as all creation as we know it is in a place and direction by nature of being limited and quantitative. One would also have contradicted the perfectly clear “”You are Al-Thaahir so there is nothing above You. And You are Al-Baatin, so there is nothing below you.”

Note that this hadith is a praise of Aļļaah, and that His names and attributes are attributes of perfection and greatness. Being in a place or direction is not an attribute of perfection; being physically in a high place is not greatness, because if it was, then Tibet would better than Makkah. Moreover, being in a physical direction necessitates having a limit. The Prophet then, made it clear in this ĥadiitħ that Allah’s aboveness mentioned in other texts is not one of direction.

Finally, by claiming that “istawa” means being physically above, one would have affirmed a limit to the creator and thereby claimed it possible for limited things to exist without a creator. By doing this one would have contradicted the proofs for Allah’s existence, because one would no longer be able to say that nothing limited can exist without a creator. One would also have insulted Allah by attributing to Him a limit.

How to deal with the meaning of “istawa”

The best solution then, is that one simply says “istawa” to affirm the attribute and then “without a how” to comply with “He does not resemble anything”. This way one is left with the various possible Arabic meanings of “istawa” that are not physical in meaning, and one has not contradicted these other very clear and specific texts (and a number of others). In other words, one has avoided restricting the literal meaning of “He does not resemble anything” and “O Allah, You are Al-Thaahir so there is nothing above You. And You are Al-Baatin, so there is nothing below you.” Last, but not least, one has also avoided affirming a limit to Allah which would contradict this aayah, among many others:

اللَّهُ لا إِلَهَ إِلا هُوَ لَهُ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَى
Meaning “There is no god but Him, He has the best names.” (Taahaa, 8 )

One does not necessarily, however, assign any specific one of those non-physical meanings to “istawa”, because it is not clear in the Arabic language which one is meant, and the meaning is not well known. For this reason, most of the Salaf left it at saying “istawa without a how,” and usually did not interpret the non-physical meaning left after saying “without a how”. This was for fear of speaking about Allah without a proof, and ending up assigning a meaning that was not meant, thereby denying the one that was actually meant, or ta`tiil, as is it called in Arabic.

Note that when the Salaf said “istawa bi-laa kayf,” they did not mean “without knowing the physical how that is really there,” as some think. Literally, bi-laa kayf means, “bi-(with) laa (categorically no) kayf (how.)” Since they knew Arabic very well, and knew Allah, this was all they needed to say as it made it clear that Allah is not something physical or temporal. This is not the case with most people today. And there is nothing wrong also in detailing what “kayf” means, because the great scholar of the Salaf At-Tahaawiy stated:

{Allah is above} the status of {having limits, extremes, corners, limbs or instruments.}

{The six directions} up, down, front, back, left and right {do not contain Him} because that would make Him {like all created things}.

He also agreed that believing that anything else is an insult to Islam, for he said:

{Whoever attributed to Allah an attribute that has a meaning among the meanings that apply to humans has committed blasphemy.}

Note that he said this after having already pointed out that the six directions apply to all created things, which includes humans.

I hope I have managed to make it clear now that denying istawa to be a physical attribute does not mean denying istawa. If you want more on this, and to prevent this dialogue to degenerate into an explanation of every scripture that might be taken to be physical in meaning, you can look at Ibn Al-Jawzi’s “Daf’ Shubah al-Tashbhi”, which has been translated to English under the name “The Attributes of God”. I haven’t seen the translation myself, but here are a couple of quotes I have translated for you myself from the Arabic version: “And they (the corrupt Hanbalis) made Allah’s aboveness physical, and forgot that physical aboveness can only be for a body, or an indivisible element, and that aboveness can be used for the meaning of high status, for one may say for example, ‘so and so is above so and so’.” In other words, Ibn Al-Jawzi is saying that in no way shape or form is the denial of physical direction and physical aboveness a denial of an aboveness that is not physical. Physical aboveness is refuted, however, as it is a limited aboveness, because it involves at least one physical limit. For example, if someone says that Allah is physically above the `Arsh (throne), then he is saying that Allah has a limit adjacent to the throne.

Then Ibn Al-Jawziyy narrated from Ahmad ibn Hanbal that he said: “istawa is an attribute no doubt, and it does not mean purpose or control,” and that, “Ahmad refuted that Allah should have a direction, because directions cannot be without something other than them,” i.e. something physical to be in a direction. Then Ibn Al-Jawzi said, “Since the claim that Allah has a direction is false, then it is clear that He is not in a place.” Then he clarified this by saying “because Allah is not surrounded by anything, and He does not have attributes with a beginning.”

Note, however, that when some later scholars saw the activities of deviants trying to use the silence of the scholars regarding istawa in order to spread the falsehood that Allah is physical, some of them, or more of them, decided to mention specific non-physical meanings, such as control. This happened also to some extent among the Salaf. This was to calm the minds of the uneducated (who were far from the mindset and linguistic capability of the Companions of the Prophet) so that they would not keep thinking about this issue. They did this because, although most of them felt they had no certain knowledge of the specific meaning of istawa, and that the safest approach is to keep silent when one does not have certain knowledge of such a matter, this was considered a minor concern compared to the danger of having people believing Allah to be something in a place or a direction.

Note also that whether the non-physical meaning of scripture texts that have apparent physical meanings are known or not, is sometimes a matter of disagreement. So for example, many scholars interpreted the literally translated, “He is with you wherever you are,” as “in the sense of knowledge,” I.e. Allah knows about you, and what you do, wherever you are. Clearly this aayah is also not literally meant.

The Quran and hadith texts are full of such figurative expressions, and they are widely known. They did not cause confusion among the Companions, simply because they knew that Allah is not limited, as He does not have a Creator. They knew their Creator in other words, so physical meanings did not even enter their minds, just like when you heard the AT&T commercial “reach out and touch someone,” you knew that it was not literally meant, because you know what a telephone is.

Author: Shaykh Abu Adam al Naruiji

10 Responses to Wahhabi Contention: How are “Ar Rahmanu `alal `arsh istawa” and “Laysaka mithlihi shay`” different?

  1. Sam says:

    Can I please have your email Shaykh Adam al Naruiji. I am from Australia and would like to ask you something.

  2. Ibn Mazhar says:

    Sam,

    Look at the top of the panel on the right side.

  3. Ibrahim al-Maliki says:

    As-salamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,

    SubhanAllah. What a fantastic explanation. A great article, and I hope a lot of brothers and sisters will absorb it!

  4. IrfanIbnIsmail says:

    If someone says

    1)that Allah Dhat is over the arsh without any contact with the arsh.
    2) Allah has no limit
    3) the arsh has limit.

    is this in anyway contridictory ? do the 1st and 3rd result to mean that Allah has limit.

  5. IrfanIbnIsmail says:

    also can fi al sama be translated as “Above the sky” instead of “in the sky” ???

    is this a valid translation??

  6. Assalaamu^alaykum,

    Yes, you are right, 1 and 3 are contradictory. As for you second question, see:
    https://sunnianswers.wordpress.com/2008/06/23/wahhabi-contention-wahhabis-claim-that-abu-hanifa-said-allah-is-in-the-sky/

    Abu Adam

  7. IrfanIbnIsmail says:

    walaikum assalaam

    could you tell me how it is resulting in Allahu taala to have a limit ??

  8. IrfanIbnIsmail says:

    And i didnt get the fi al sama answer.

    are both the translations valid i.e “above the sky ” and “in the sky”.

    —-

    if someone says that the aboveness is physical aboveness without a under. is this valid? if not why ? and is this anthropomorphism?

  9. I think it is obvious that if something is above something then it must have a limit adjacent to it. This does not need explanation. It is also obvious that when something is physically above something, then something is under it, otherwise how would it be above it?

  10. Aslam says:

    Assalaamu Alaikum,

    Excellent article. It opens up our minds to know Allah better and saves us from committing shirk.

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