Ta'wil of the Attributes of Allah

Q 1: We learned at school that the doctrine of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah (adherents to the Sunnah and the Muslim mainstream) concerning the Names and Attributes of Allah is to believe in them without Tahrif (distortion of the meaning), Ta‘til (denial of Allah’s Attributes), Takyif (descriptive designation of the Attribute), or Tamthil (likening Allah’s Attributes to those of His creatures). We knew that we must not allegorically interpret the texts that contain these Attributes. But we have come to meet some people who told us that there are two schools of thought in the creed of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah. The first school is that of Ibn Taymiyyah and his students (may Allah be merciful to them). The second school is that of Al-Asha`irah. What we learned at school was the views held by Ibn Taymiyyah and his students. The rest of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah; Al-Asha`irah, Al-Matrudiyyah and others had no objection as to giving Ta'wil (allegorical interpretation) to the Names and Attributes of Allah as long as this will not lead to contradiction with decisive Shar‘y (Islamic legal) texts. They based their argument on some views attributed to Ibn Al-Jawzy (may Allah be merciful to him) and some other scholars in this regard. Even Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the Imam of Ahl-ul-Sunnah (adherents to the Sunnah), had allegorically interpreted some Attributes of Allah such as those mentioned in sayings attributed to the Prophet (peace be upon him) such as: The hearts of the children of Adam are between two Fingers of The Most Merciful... And: The Black Stone is Allah’s Right Hand on earth. And those Attributes are mentioned by Allah (Exalted be He) in His saying: And He is with you (by His Knowledge) wheresoever you may be. And so on.The question that arises here is: Is it Islamically correct to divide Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama‘ah into two schools in such a way, Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah into two sects this way? (Part No. 3; Page No. 235) What is your opinion concerning the Ta'wil of the Attributes of Allah when there is no contradiction with decisive Shar‘y texts? What would be the position of the scholars who allegorically interpreted the Attributes, like Ibn Hajar, Al-Nawawy, Ibn Al-Jawzy and others? Should we still consider them to be from among the Imams of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah? Or should we regard that they were mistaken in their interpretation, or they deliberately deviated? It is well-known that Al-Asha`irah allegorically interpreted all the Attributes of Allah except the seven Attributes of Al-Ma`any (meanings). But, if one of the scholars allegorically interprets two or three of these Attributes, should we consider him to belong to Al-Ash‘ariah?

A: Firstly: The claim that Imam Ahmad had allegorically interpreted some of the Attributes of Allah as those mentioned in the Hadith: The hearts of the Servants (of Allah) are between two Fingers of The Most Merciful... And the Hadith: The Black Stone is Allah's Right Hand on earth etc., is not true. Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah said: "What is transmitted through Abu Hamid Al-Ghazaly from a Hanbaly scholar who stated that Ahmad made Ta'wil only in three texts: 'The Black Stone is Allah’s Right Hand on earth', 'The hearts of the children of Adam are between two Fingers of The Most Merciful', and 'I find the Relief given by the Most Merciful from the direction of Yemen' is a false narration ascribed to Imam Ahmad. This was neither transmitted from him through a sound Isnad (chain of narrators) nor did any of his students report that from him. This Hanbaly who was quoted by Abu Hamid is unknown. His knowledge about what he narrated and the proof as to whether he was truthful in his narration can not be ascertained." Majmu‘ Al-Fatawa: vol. 5, p.398. (Part No. 3; Page No. 236)  The explanation for this issue is that Ta’wil has three meanings: First: It is the told meanings of a thing when realized and brought into reality, as in the Saying of Allah about Yusuf (peace be upon him): This is the interpretation of my dream aforetime! It means: here it is materialized and turned into concrete reality. Obviously, this is not what is meant by the texts as mentioned in the question. Second: It is the skipping of the explicit meaning of a statement and following an allegorical tenor due to a semantic indication. This is the most appropriate opinion of scholars of Kalam (a discipline that searches for answers to creedal issues using logic) and scholars of Usul-ul-Fiqh (principles of Islamic jurisprudence). Yet, this meaning of Ta'wil does not apply to the aforementioned texts, whose explicit meaning is actually intended and can not be overlooked. We shall elaborate on this in our explanation of the third meaning of Ta'wil. Third: Ta'wil means explaining the direct meanings of the words according to their explicit denotation that first comes to the mind of a listener who is well-versed in the Arabic language. This is indeed what is intended in the texts above. The phrase: "The Black Stone is Allah's Right Hand on earth" does not mean in fact that the Black Stone is one of Allah's Attributes and that it is really His Right Hand so that we should overlook its explicit meaning in favor of an allegorical one. The explicit meaning here means that the Black Stone is as the Right Hand of Allah. This becomes clear when we look at the rest of the narration which says: "Whoever touches it will be as if he shakes hands with Allah and whoever kisses it will be as if he kisses the Right Hand of Allah.." Through reading the entire narration, one realizes that the explicit meaning is intended. This view is adopted by the Imams of Salaf (righteous predecessors), like Imam Ahmad and others. (Part No. 3; Page No. 237) Ta'wil here means the explication of the meaning and it does not mean turning away from the explicit meaning to an allegorical one, as it was alleged by some later scholars. In addition, the above texts are not part of the authentic Hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him). They are mere Athar (narrations from the Companions) reported from Ibn `Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him). Likewise, the explicit meaning of the Hadith: The hearts of the Servants (of Allah) are between two Fingers of The Most Merciful signifies neither contact nor adjacency. It solely intends to prove that the Most Merciful has fingers, just as men have hearts. The sentence as a whole underlines the perfection of Allah's Might and His complete disposal of His servants' affairs. When it is said that someone is in the hand of the king, does it mean that the king is physically holding him in his hand? Of course not. It simply means that he is under his control or in his presence. It does not also necessitate a physical contact with or adjacency to the hands of the king. It rather means that there is a person and there is a king who has two hands and who is capable of disposing of this person's affairs without contact or adjacency. The same thing is applicable to the Saying of Allah (Exalted be He): ...in Whose Hand is the dominion And: Floating under Our Eyes and other similar Ayahs (Qur'anic verses). Secondly: Dividing Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah into two schools in such a way is not Islamically right. The Sahabah (Companions of the Prophet, may Allah be pleased with them) had formed one nation in their `Aqidah (creed) and in their polity until the era of the caliphate of `Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him). Then, signs of political differences began to appear, without touching the `Aqidah. When 'Uthman was killed and a group of people pledged allegiance to `Aly and another group pledged allegiance to Mu`awiyah (may Allah be pleased with them), political wars erupted among them. (Part No. 3; Page No. 238) A group of people seceded from them and they were called Al-Khawarij. This group did not differ from the Muslims with regard to the six principles of Iman (faith) or the five pillars of Islam. However, they differed with them only with regard to the question of the caliphate, judging as a Kafir (disbeliever) whoever commits major sins, ruling out the wiping over the feet in Wudu' (ablution) and some other non-creedal matters. Then, an extremist group among the supporters of `Aly excessively adored him to the point that some of them associated him with Allah (Exalted be He). This group was called Shiites. Al-Khawarij and Shi`ah (Shi'ites) had split into many sub-sects. Later on, towards the end of the era of the Sahabah (may Allah be pleased with them), a sect branched off from the Muslim mainstream and denied divine predestination. Hence they were called Qadariyyah. After them came Al-Ja`d ibn Dirham who was the first to deny the Attributes of Allah and to make Ta'wil of the Ayahs and Hadiths, slipping far away from their intended meanings. But he was killed by Khalid Al-Qasry. Al-Jahm ibn Safwan followed Al-Ja`d in denying the Attributes of Allah and making Ta'wil of the texts that include them. He became famous due to this interpretative trend of which he was a pioneer. Those who followed his method were called Jahmiyyah (a deviant Islamic sect denying some of the Attributes of Allah, claiming they are ascribed to people and cannot be ascribed to Allah). Then appeared Mu`tazilah (a deviant Islamic sect claiming that those who commit major sins are in a state between belief and disbelief) who followed the example of Jahmiyyah in their Ta'wil of the texts that include the Attributes of Allah, arguing that this would raise Allah high above the literal meaning of these texts. Moreover, they followed Al-Qadariyyah in denying divine predestination and called it 'justice'. They also followed Al-Khawarij in rising against rulers and called it 'enjoining good'. They held many other controversial doctrines. Following this path, Abu Al-Hasan `Aly ibn Isma`il Al-Ash`ary was educated in their school and championed their doctrines. Then, Allah (Exalted be He) guided him to the truth and he definitively relinquished the doctrines of Al-Mutazilah and followed the way of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah. He (may Allah be merciful to him) exerted great efforts in refuting the allegations of those who contested the doctrines of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah concerning the fundamentals of Islam. However, he remained a partisan to some of the doctrines of Al-Mu`tazilah such as the allegorical interpretation of the texts that dealt with some of the Attributes of Allah. He was also influenced by the doctrines of Jahm ibn Safwan regarding the authority over men's actions. (Part No. 3; Page No. 239) He believed in fatalism and called it 'man's earnings'. Many other disputable doctrines are evident in his book "Al-Ibanah", which he had authored short time prior to his death, also in the writings of his students who were well-aware of his thought, and in what Ibn Taymiyyah wrote about him (may Allah be merciful to them all). Therefore, we come to know that Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah are those Muslims who held fast to the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) as the basis of their `Aqidah and rest of the fundamentals of Islam. They never attempted to contravene any of the teachings of these two sources on account that they do not agree with their perception and personal views. They held firmly to the example of the Sahabah (may Allah be pleased with them) with regard to tenets of the Iman and pillars of Islam. Therefore, they became Imams of guidance, luminaries of truth and staunch advocates of goodness and prosperity like Al-Hasan Al-Basry, Sa`id ibn Al-Musayyib, Mujahid, Abu Hanifah, Malik, Al-Shafi`y, Al-Awza`y, Ahmad, Is-haq, Al-Bukhari and those who followed their way in matters of `Aqidah and Istidlal (reasoning by methods other than the recognized sources). As for those who contradicted them in issues pertaining to the fundamentals of Islam, they would retain of the Sunnah as much as they have followed the traditions of the Sahabah (may Allah be pleased with them) and the Imams of guidance. They would also bear a share of Bid`ah (innovation in religion) and errors in as much as they contradicted them thereof, whether little or much. The nearest of those Imams to the path of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah was Abu Al-Hasan Al-Ash`ary and those who followed his way in matters of `Aqidah and Istidlal. Based on the above, it becomes obvious that Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah (adherents to the Sunnah and the Muslim mainstream) did not branch off to two schools; they had always formed one school, which was supported and promoted by whoever followed their example. Ibn Taymiyyah was one of those who dedicated their entire lives to this noble cause, though he was not the pioneer of this way. (Part No. 3; Page No. 240) He was a follower of the way of the Imams of guidance from among the Sahabah. As for those who came after these Imams, from the scholars of the first three centuries of Islam - whom the Prophet (peace be upon him) highly praised and testified to their uprightness - as well as Ibn Taymiyyah's counterparts, they fervently supported the example of those who ensued him from among those who belonged to Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah like Abu Al-Hasan Al-Ash`ary and his students after he had abandoned the Mu'tazilah doctrines and returned to the way of Ahl-ul-Sunnah, except in a few issues. Therefore, he was the nearest scholar in these sects to the mainstream of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah wal-Jama`ah. Thirdly: Those among Al-Ash`ariyyah and others who allegorically interpreted texts that deal with the Names and Attributes of Allah did so because they erroneously assumed them to be in contradiction to logic-based evidence and some of the Shar`y texts. But the matter is completely different, as there is nothing in these texts that contradicted sound reason and Shar`y texts. In their entirety, the Shar`y texts dealing with the Names and Attributes of Allah support each other in confirming the Names and Attributes of Allah and elevating Him high above resemblance to any of His creatures. Fourthly: We consider Abu Bakr Al-Baqillany, Al-Bayhaqy, Abu Al-Faraj ibn Al-Jawzy, Abu Zakariyya Al-Nawawy, Ibn Hajr and their likes who allegorically interpreted some of the Attributes of Allah or those who consigned the reality of their meanings to Allah as grand Muslim scholars who were of great help to the Muslim Ummah (nation based on one creed). We ask Allah (Exalted be He) to bestow His Mercy upon them and to reward them well for all that they did for us. They represented Ahl-ul-Sunnah in the respects they followed the Sahabah (Companions of the Prophet, may Allah be pleased with them) and the Imams of the Salaf from the first three centuries of Islam, whom the Prophet (peace be upon him) highly praised and testified to their uprightness. At the same time, we deem them erroneous in their Ta'wil of the texts that dealt with the Attributes of Allah and in their contradiction to the views of the Salaf and the Imams of the Sunnah (may Allah be merciful to them), whether by applying Ta'wil to all or part of the Attributes of the Divine Essence (Part No. 3; Page No. 241) and the Attributes of Action.May Allah grant us success. May peace and blessings be upon our Prophet Muhammad, his family, and Companions.