The Book of God’s Attributes (kitaab us-Sefaat ul-Allah)

The Unity of God (Tawheed) entails worshipping God alone, without any association, and this is called Tawheed by intention and action. The Unity of God is also demanded in knowledge and speech: “Say: He is Allah, the One; Allah, the eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; and there is none like unto Him.” The concept of Tawheed demands that the Muslim affirm God’s qualities and attributes that He has revealed to us, without depicting Him in a specific form (takief); or comparing Him to the human being, known as anthropomorphism (tamtheel); or negating the attributes of God (tahreef); or rendering Him useless (ta`teel), i.e whilst affirming God’s attributes and rejecting His resemblance to His creatures, we do not render God useless by saying He has no mercy, He has no speech, He has no likes or dislike etc., because this reduces God to the state of non-living matter. Tawheed also demands that we reject, by the evidences that He has revealed, those attributes that God Himself has rejected. This has to be done without committing apostasy in His names and verses, because God curses those who commit apostasy in His names and verses: “The most beautiful names belong to God: so call on him by them; but shun such men as distort His names: for what they do, they will soon be requited.”.

God’s attributes are known from the Quran, His qualities can only be taken from the revealed texts because they are of the knowledge of God: “Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth.”: “What He hath sent unto thee He hath sent from His own knowledge.”.
The Quran tells us that “there is nothing like Him.” Therefore although God has named many of His attributes in terms similar to His creatures we reject any comparison to human beings and any resemblance to Him.

The Companions and the early generations of the Muslims, known as the al-salaf al-salih , and the imams limited themselves to this, i.e. affirming the names and characteristics of God without rendering God useless or making resemblance to the characteristics of created beings: “Glory to thy Lord, the Lord of Honour and Power! He is free from what they ascribe to Him“. This was the case up until the advent of the theologians, known in Arabic as ilm al kallam, and the philosophers who elaborated on the subject of God’s attributes (sifaat-ullah). The Ahlul Sunnah represented by the Ash’ari school of thought permitted allegorical interpretation in respect of the attributes of God. The Mutazilah went further; they explained away the possibility of seeing God and His being posed of hearing and sight; the philosophers went further still, explaining everything that has reached us about the after-life as being metaphorical; denying the bodily resurrection and judgement.

The different positions taken up by the scholars of Islam occured as a consequence of the language of the Quran. Terms that are used to describe God are the same terms which are used in ordinary speech to describe human beings.

God calls Himself the Living (al Hai): “Allah! There is no god but He, the Living” God called some of His slaves the living “It is He who brings out the living from the dead, and brings out the dead from the living.” Definitely the living of God is not like the living of His slaves! God calls Himself the Knower (al Aleem) and the Forbearer (al Haleem), and God described Ishaq as one with knowledge “And they gave him glad tidings of a son endowed with knowledge.” And of Ismail one who is endowed with forbearance “So We gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear.” The knowledge of God and His forbearance are not like anyone!

God is the Hearer (as Samiu) and Seer (al Baseer): “For God is He who heareth and seeth all things.” and God has decribed His slaves with these faculties: ” So We gave him (the gifts) of hearing and sight.” The hearing and sight of God are not like His creatures!

He is the Sovereign: “Allah is He, than whom there is no other god; the Sovereign, the Holy One.” God calls some of His slaves king: “So the king said: Bring ye him unto me.” Indeed, the Kingdom of God is not like His slaves!

God describes Himself as speaking to Moses: “And to Moses God spoke direct.” In surah Yusuf He describes His slave with speaking “Therefore when he had spoken to him he said `Be assured this day, thou art, before our own Presence, with rank firmly established.”

Likewise in many other verses God describes Himself with `teaching’, `anger’, being `pleased, ‘making’, etc., and in all cases, although God has described His slaves with similar expressions. The Quran also uses anthromorphical terms such as eye, hand, face etc: “the hand of God is over their hands.”: “build a ship under Our eyes and Our inspiration“: “and the face of your Lord will abide forever.”

Once the probem had been taken up in theological debate some of the Muslim thinkers found a solution in ta’wil (allegorical interpretation); those that relied most heavily on allegorical interpretation were the Mutazilah. In opposition to this allegorical treatment of the verses other Muslim scholars stressed the need to take the verses literally; the most extreme of whom were labelled Mushabbihah, i.e., the likeners, and Mujassimah , i.e., the corporealists.

The Literalists (Az-Zaahiriyyah):

Those that forbid the allegorical interpretation say that Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal forbade ta’wil of all but three traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): “The Black Stone (al-Hajar al Aswad) is the right hand of God in the earth.”; and ,”The heart of the believer lies bewteen two of the fingers of the Merciful.”; and “Verily I shall find the soul of the Merciful [coming] from the direction of al-Yaman.” Imam al-Ghazzali said Imam Ahmed forbade ta’wil for the good and welfare of people, “since whenever it is allowed matters become worse and go out of control, overstepping the limits of moderation. Things which go beyond the limits of moderation are beyond control. Therefore there is no harm done by such a prohibition which is also attested by the lives of the al-salaf who used to say, take them literally as they have been revealed and handed down.”

In recent times the literal approach to understanding God’s attributes has experienced a revival due to the propagation of the madhab known as “Salafiyya“. It has become common to hear their followers accuse people of having a deficient creed on the basis of the hadith narrated by Imam Muslim, which states that Muawiyah bin al-Hakam once had a young slave girl who tended his sheep and he found that she had allowed some of them to be lost so he slapped her in her face. On doing so, he immediately realised that he had sinned, for the Prophet, (peace be upon him), had forbidden striking anyone, person or animal, in the face. So he went to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and asked whether or not he could free her as a means of atonement. The Prophet, (peace be upon him), told him to bring the girl. When she came, the Prophet, (peace be upon him), asked where God was and she replied, `above the heavens.’ the he asked her who he was and she replied, `You are the messenger of God.’ he then turned to Muawiyah and told him, `Free her because she is a believer.

From this hadith they conclude that one has to testify that God is literally above His throne. In other words to specify God in terms of position and location; this is a dangerous matter. Imam Muslim has narrated that the Messenger of God said: “O God! You are the First ( al-Awal ), nothing is before You; You are the Last ( al-Ahkir ), nothing is after You, You are the Manifest ( al-Zahir ), nothing is above You, and You are the Hidden ( al-Batin ), and nothing is below You; save us from debt and save us from poverty.” Imam Bayhaqi says in his book “al-Asma wal Sifat”: “From this hadith the ahlul Sunnat wa al-Jamaat reject position being ascribed to God, which means He is neither above, nor below. He is not in a place. If it has been mentioned that God is above the thrown it is by the meaning of His dominance, because `above’ means dominance not location. The Messenger of God said in a hadith narrated by al Bukhari:God was and nothing was with Him.” which means He is the One who made positions and directions.” Something similar has been written by Imam Qurtubi in his tafsiral-Jami’li ahkam al-Quran“, he writes: “God, Most High says, `Do you feel secure that He who is in the heavens will not make the earth swallow you while it quakes?‘, which may mean, `Do you feel secure that He who is the Creator of whomever is in the heavens will not make the earth swallow you, as He did Korah?’ The more exacting hold that it signifies, `Do you feel secure from Him who is over the heavens, ‘ just as God says, `Journey in the earth. ‘, meaning over it; not over it by way of physical contact or spatialization, but by way of omnipotent power and control. Another position is that it means, `Do you feel secure from Him who is over (‘ala) the heavens,’ i.e. just as it is said, `So and so is over Iraq and Hijaz,’ meaning that he is the governor and commander of them. The hadiths on this subject are numerous, rigorously authenticated (sahih), and widely known, and indicate the exaltedness of God, being undeniable by anyone save an atheist or obstinate ignoramus. Their meaning is to dignify God and exalt Him above what is base and low, to characterise Him by exaltedness and grandeur, not by being in places, particular directions, or within limits, for these are the qualities of physical bodies. The hands are only raised skyward when one supplicates because the sky is from whence divine revelation descends and rains fall, the place of purity and the wellspring of the purified ones of the angels, and the servants’ works are raised to it and over it are the Throne and His paradise – just as God made the Kaaba the direction of supplication and the prayer. He created all places and has no need of them. He was without space or time in his beginning-less eternality before creating space and time, and is now as He ever has been.”

Imam al-Bagdadi says: “Ahlul Sunnat wa Jamaat agree that limitation cannot be attributed to the One who made this universe, contrary to what the Corporealists ( Mujassimah ) say. Imam Subki said, `How can God, the Most High be described with limitation and position when there is nothing in the Quran and the Sunnah to support it and God says: `There is nothing like Him.” .Allama Mullah Ali Qari Hanafi, in his explanation to al-Mishkat Vol.2, p.137, says: “Imam Subki said: `There is consensus of the Salaf and the Khalaf that anybody who believes Go is in a place or direction he is an unbeliever. This is what our imams Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafii, Abu Hassan (al Ash’ari) and al-Baqalani have said.”

It is also wrong to say that God is everywhere. If it is meant that God knows everything then the meaning is correct but it is expressed incorrectly. Rather one should say that God knows everything everywhere. Imam Ali said: God was, without a place, and He is now like he was.” The statement that God is everywhere can lead on to the concept of divine indwelling (hulul), i.e. God incarnate in a human being, and union with God (ittihad) both of which take the person out of the fold of Islam.

On the whole most of the scholars of the Ahlul Sunnah have been guided by the answer given by Imam Malik when questioned about the verse “The Beneficient is firmly established on the throne.”; He said: “The act of rising on the throne is not unknown, but `how’ is unknown, to believe in it is obligatory, to question about it is an innovation (bida).”


The scholars of Islam have at times felt it necessary to provide a ta`wil (allegorical type of interpretation) for many of the expressions related to God’s attributes. Imam Khatabi commenting on the hadith narrated by al-Bukhari in al-Tarikh, which reports that a bedouin came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and asked where is God? To which the Prophet replied “Verily, God is above His throne and His throne is above His sky”, said If this narration is taken literally (zahir) it will contain some know-how, and as Imam Malik said the know-how of God is unknown. The Prophet meant by this answer that God is above the throne in His Greatness and Majesty.” Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal used to criticize those who made ta’wil of the verses that twisted the meaning of the word away from its literal meaning (haqiqi), but he did not negate ta’wil totally.

The scholars of Ahlul Sunnah have stated appropriate metaphorical meanings for verses to avoid portraying God in human like form. Imam al-Tahawi of the Hanafi school said “Anyone who describes God as being in any way the same as a human being has become an unbeliever.” Imam Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani in Fatha’ al Bari, and al-Bagwi, in his tafsir of surah Ta-Ha verse 5, both relate from Abdullah ibn Abbas that ` istowa ‘, i.e “established on the throne” means He raised higher. Ibn Hajar also narrates from Ibn Battal that istowa means high nobilty and eminence; he further adds this is the opinion of Ahlul Sunnah. There are many other examples of the ta’wil of the scholars of Ahlul Sunnah regarding the attributes of God in the tafseer of Tabari, al-Bagwi, al-Bayhaqi, al-Khatabi etc. Ibn Taymiyyah commenting on “Everything will perish except His face.” says `face’ in this verse means `in the path of God, i.e. jihad.’; Ibn Taymiyyah reports Jaffar Sadiq as saying `face’ in this verse means religion (deen); al-Dahhak, the famous mufassar (explainer) of Quran, said it means God’s throne, paradise, hell, and God’s Being. Al-Bayhaqi reports al Shafi`i as saying the expression “To God belongs the East and the West: withersoever ye turn there is the face of God.” as “the face to which God directed you all and God knows best.” Mujahid said the face means the “qibla” (the dirction one faces in prayer). al-Bayhaqi also quotes Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal as interpreting “And the Lord cometh and His Angels rank upon rank.” as God’s command, because in surah al-Nahl God says, “Do the (ungodly) wait but for the angels to come to them, or there comes the Command of thy Lord (for their doom)?“. Zamakhshari in his tafsir of “Would they expect that God Himself should come to them on canopies of white cloud with angels? Yet it is a thing decreed, and to God shall all things return.” says “The coming of God means the coming of His command and His power.” Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi says in relation to the same verse “Wise men have agreed that God is free from such actions as coming and going.” and” God is not a body occupying a specific locus and therefore coming and going cannot be ascribed to Him.”. Al-Bukhari explained the word `smile’ in the following tradition as God’s `mercy’: “The Prophet (peace be upon him) said to Ayoub al Ansary and his wife, after they had entertained the Prophet offering him their food while they stayed the night hungry `God has smiled last night regarding what you did.”.

Those who deny the use of ta’wil in seeking to understand the meaning of such verses as al Maidah 5:67, al Rahman 55:27, al Fath 48:10 and Hud 11:37 cite al Imran 3:7 in their support: “He it is who has sent down to you the Book. Some of it consist of Muhkamat (perspicous meaning), which are the Mother of the Book, while others are Mutashabihat (not clear in meaning). Those who have swerving in their hearts, in their quest for sedition, follow the Mutashabihat and search for its hidden meanings. But no one knows those meanings except God, and those firmly grounded in knowledge say: We believe in it, the whole is from our Lord. But only people of inner understanding really heed.” The scholars have differed in their understanding as to whether the verse should read “But no one knows those meaning except God, and those firmly grounded in knowledge say:” or “But no one knows those meanings except God and those firmly grounded in knowledge. Say”. The most widely read recitation of this verse follows the official Egyptian printing which ends “But no one knows those meanings except God.” Ibn Kathir said in his tafsir that most of the reciters of the Quran and the explainers of Quran and the people of jurisprudence end the verse after “those firmly grounded in knowledge. Say”. He narrates that Abdullah ibn Abbas said “I am from those firmly grounded in knowledge who know the ta’wil of the Quran.” Mujahid, al-Rabi’ ibn Anas, and Imam Shafii held the same view. The Prophet (peace be upon him) made a supplication for Abdullah ibn Abbas saying “May God make him knowledgeable in religion and teach him the ta`wil.” Ibn Kathir says there are scholars who distinguish between two meanings of ta’wil in the Quran. The first is that ta’wil means the truth about something and its final outcome. An example of which is the attributes of God, the knowledge of which only God knows. The second type of ta’wil is the interpretation and elucidation (tafsir), as in “Inform us of its ta’wil” which those grounded in knowledge will know.

Al-Amidi said in his book al-Ahkam:” Whoever says that there is no ta’wil in the Quran, he is simply saying that most of the Quran has no meaning; and that will contradict the verses which prove that the Quran is fully explained to the Prophet (peace be upon him) “And We have sent down unto thee the Message; that thou mayest explain clearly to men what is sent for them.” and “We have sent down to thee clear verses (ayat ).”. Still further proof for what we have said is that the Companions and their Successors all agreed on the need to interpret the whole Quran. We have no evidences that they stopped at certain verses saying `this verse is mutashabih, and no one knows its meaning except God’.”

Tuqi udeen an-Nebahani says in his book, Islamic Personality Volume 3: “We must say two things: firstly, that nothing in the Quran and Sunnah consists of incomprehensible words; and secondly, God does not intend a meaning contrary to its literal meaning without explanation. Indeed, in verse 7 of al-Imran God has used the phrase”grounded in Knowledge” as an adjective for knowledge, such a description is only applicable when we refer to something we know as opposed to the unknown. Consequently, those grounded in knowledge know the ta`wil of the Quran. Furthermore, the verese of Quran testify that the Quran is easy to understand: “And We have indeed made the Quran easy to understand and remember.”, “Nay, here are verses self-evident in the hearts of those endowed with knowledge.” ”

Accordingly one cannot blame those scholars, like those of the Ash’ari school, who have made ta`wil for certain verses so as not to impute to God human actions or description, for example: “the hand of God is over their hands.” they have drawn a metaphoric or figurative (majazi) meaning to say `hand’ is `power’ or `ability’. Likewise, with the verse “both His hands are widely outstretched.” they have departed from the literal (haqiqi) meaning in favour of the metaphorical meaning of `generosity’. The scholars of the Ash’ari school have supported their position by the argument that since words such as hand must be either figurative or literal, and since the literal meaning of hand is a bodily limb, an attribute that is unbelief to ascribe to God, the only other possibility is that it is figurative. The Quran contains many examples of figures of speech, such as, “Whoever was blind in this life shall be blind in the hereafter, and even further astray” which does not refer to the physically blind in this life, but rather to those who are blind to the signs of God. Similarly the verse “Today We forget yo, as you have forgotten this day of yours.”, God’s forgetting cannot be literally interpreted, for God forgets nothing.

However, we must accept that such metaphorical descriptions are no more than conjecture. The human being can only conceive of descriptions by comparison, but with God we are incapable of knowing the subject of our comparison. The prophet (peace be upon him and his family) said “Whatever comes to your mind about God, He is different from that.” The reality of the names and attributes of God is that only God knows the knowledge of them “Knowest thou of any who is worthy of the same Name as He?”, “there is nothing like Him.” and Allah knows best.



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