In the name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful,
The short and simple answer to the question is that Allah Most High exists beyond time, space, location and ‘physical’ direction; He is where He has always been.
Before detailing the above answer, it is important to realize that the issue ‘where is Allah?’ was never debated or made a matter of great dispute by the Companions (sahaba) and early Muslims (salaf). We seldom find within classical teachings of mainstream Muslim scholars that people went around asking and debating where Allah Most High is! And aside from the hadith of Sahih Muslim in which the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) asked the slave-girl (jariya) “Where is Allah?”, there seems to be no other text of the Qur’an and Sunna in which this question is asked. As for the hadith of the slave-girl, it has its own specific context, which will be explained later on, insha ‘Allah.
The reason for this is simple: We have not been commanded to identify the exact ‘physical location’ of Allah; rather our responsibility is to recognize Allah (ma’rifa), build a strong relationship with Him, affirm His exaltedness (tanzih), affirm His Oneness (tawhid), learn about His attributes (sifat), worship Him, obey His commands and abstain from His prohibitions. Beyond that, there is no Islamic obligation to know where Allah Almighty exactly is; neither is it possible for the meager intellects of us created beings to fully grasp the reality and majesty of our Creator. We have not even fully understood the reality of our souls, bodies, the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the sky, and so forth; then how are we expected to comprehend the essence (kunh) of the Almighty.
As such, it is important to note – at the outset – that we should avoid:
1 arguing about this topic,
2 considering it a fundamental part of belief (aqida), and
3 being hasty in declaring others as disbelievers or deviants if they happen to hold a different viewpoint. We should steer clear from trying to grasp the reality of Allah, and suffice by understanding that the human intellect is very limited in its reach.
We must see our inability to fully understand Allah as being from our weakness and imperfection as humans. This will bring about a deeper sense of slave-hood and neediness towards the One who is in need of no one.
Sadly, however, we live in a time where some Muslims constantly debate this issue and behave as though it is a fundamental part of one’s faith. They waste theirs and others’ precious time arguing for long periods about an issue that will not be questioned about on the Day of Judgment. As a result, much more important aspects of deen are neglected. Islamic forums and discussions are filled with arguments, counter-arguments, refutations, attacks and never ending debates about this one topic. Many are left confused and bemused with the whole experience, and some have even left Islam altogether due to their inability to fully comprehend this issue.
As such, the first advice for my dear brothers and sisters – of whichever persuasion – is to take a step back, relax and not become over emotional about the issue at hand. Thereafter, with cool headedness, realize that this issue is not a foregone conclusion and that there is room for ‘valid’ disagreement and thus ‘agree to disagree’. By doing so, we would save ourselves and others from falling into major sins and even disbelief.
To proceed with the answer: The central point of belief (aqida) with respect to Allah Most High – alongside affirmation of His Oneness (tawhid) – is His transcendence (tanzih), which has a clear Qur’anic basis and is unanimously agreed upon. Tanzih refers to affirming, in absolute and emphatic terms, that there is no similitude between Allah and His creation. Allah does not resemble His creation in any way, and there is no creation that is similar to Him in any way. No imagination can conceive of Him and no understanding can comprehend Him, as He is different from all created beings.
Allah Most High says about Himself, “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him.” (Qur’an 42:11)
And He Most High says in Surat al-Ikhlas, “And there is none like unto Him.” (Qur’an 112: 4)
This central belief has been outlined in almost all of the classical manuals on Islamic Creed. For example, Imam al-Nasafi (Allah have mercy on him) states, “He [Allah] is not a body (jism), nor an atom (jawhar), nor is He something formed (musawwar), nor a thing limited (mahdud), nor a thing numbered (ma’dud), nor a thing portioned or divided, nor a thing compounded (mutarakkab), and nor does He come to end in Himself. He is not described by quiddity (al-mahiyya), or by quality (al-kayfiyya), nor is He placed in a space (al-makan); and time (al-zaman) does not affect Him. Nothing resembles Him; that is to say, nothing is like unto Him.” (See: Sa’d al-Din al-Taftazani & Najm al-Din al-Nasafi, Sharh al-Aqa’id al-Nasafiyya, P: 92-97)
To believe that Allah Most High resembles His creation in any way, or attribute human forms and qualities to Him (anthropomorphism/tashbih) constitutes disbelief (kufr). Imam al-Tahawi (Allah have mercy in him) states in his famous reference work on Muslim beliefs, “Anyone who describes Allah as being in any way the same as a human being has become an unbeliever. All those who grasp this will take heed and refrain from saying things such as the unbelievers say, and they will know that He, in His attributes, is not like human beings.” (Al-Aqida al-Tahawiyya, article 34)
Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (Allah have mercy on him) states, “Whosoever thinks that Allah has a body made of organs is an idol-worshipper… Whosoever worships a body is considered a disbeliever by the consensus of all the scholars – both the early scholars (salaf) as well as the late ones (muta’akhirun).” (Iljam al-Anam an ilm al-Kalam, P: 6-8)
Mulla Ali al-Qari states in his commentary of Al-Fiqh al-Akbar, “We are unable to comprehend Allah Most High. Whatever occurs in one’s mind [regarding Allah’s appearance], Allah is other than that, for Allah says: ‘But they shall not encompass Him with their knowledge.'” (Minah al-Rawd al-Azhar fi sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar, P: 117)
Abu ‘l-Fadl al-Tamimi al-Hanbali says, “Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Allah have mercy on him) condemned those who said that Allah is a body (jism)… since the term jism/body linguistically is used to indicate things that have length, width, depth, and a compound nature. (See the footnotes to Minah al-Rawd al-Azhar fi sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar, P: 118)
As such, this basic and central aqida in Allah’s transcendence is the only requirement from a believer (along with general affirmation of all of Allah’s attributes), and would be sufficient for one’s salvation. Thereafter, there is no need for a simple believer to scrutinize the technical details of Allah’s attributes, and there is definitely no need for disputes and arguments. Most Muslims – if not all – deny that Allah resembles His creation, thus argumentation and haste in declaring others as disbelievers must be avoided. Yes, if one clearly believes that Allah is ‘physically’ in a location or that He has organs – such as hands, feet, face, etc – that are similar to His creation, or one gives Allah attributes of created things, then that would entail disbelief.
Beyond Time and Space
Part of this central point of aqida is recognizing that Allah Most High is not confined to time (zaman) and space (makan), since He is the creator of both and absolutely free from needing anything (ghaniyy) that He has created. “Surely Allah is independent of all the worlds.” (Qur’an 29:6) He is not to be described with having a form, body, limits, directions and a material existence that occupies a particular space or location. Limiting Allah to time and space implies likening Him to His creation, because the one who exists in a physical place would, by nature, be a body; thus attributing a body to Allah.
Sayyiduna Ali (Allah be pleased with him) says, “Allah existed when there was no place, and He is now where He has always been [i.e. without place].” (Al-Farq bayna al-Firaq, P: 333)
Imam al-Tahawi (Allah have mercy on him) states, “He (Allah) is beyond having limits placed on Him, or being restricted, or having parts or limbs. Nor is He contained by the six directions like all the created things.” (Al-Aqida al-Tahawiyya, Point: 38)
It is stated in Al-Fiqh al-Akbar, attributed to Imam Abu Hanifa, “Allah is an entity unlike any other entity. The meaning of [Allah being a] entity [unlike any other] is that He is without body (jism), substance (jawhar), or accident (arad). He has no definition/limit, no opposite, no equal, and no peer…” (See: Minah al-Rawd al-Azhar fi sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar, P: 117-120)
Imam Abu Hanifa (Allah be pleased with him) also states in his Al-Fiqh al-Absat, “If it is asked, ‘Where is Allah?’ It will be said to him that Allah Most High existed when there was no place, before creating the creation. And Allah Most High existed when there was no ‘where’, no creation, nothing; and He is the Creator of everything.” (Al-Fiqh al-Absat, P: 21)
Mulla Ali al-Qari states in his commentary of Al-Fiqh al-Akbar, “Allah Most High does not reside in a place from the places and neither in a time from the times, because place and time are from the created things whilst Allah Most High has existed eternally when nothing from the created things were in existence with Him.” (Minah al-Rawd al-Azhar fi sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar, P: 117)
Qadi Abu Ya’la al-Hanbali says, “Indeed, Allah Most High is not to be described with [residing in a] place.” (Daf’ Shubah al-Tashbih, P: 43) Based on this, it is erroneous to say that Allah Most High is ‘physically’ in the sky or above the heavens on His Throne. Likewise, it is wrong to say that He Most High is ‘physically’ everywhere and in everything. The reason, as explained above, is that these things are created and limited. The Throne and heavens are restricted entities, and space is an area restricted within six dimensions. Allah Most High cannot be confined to things He has created, such as the heavens and the Throne. He is the creator of time and space, and thus is exalted beyond both.
Furthermore; sitting, standing, rising over, ascending, descending, climbing, etc are all characteristics of created bodies, whilst Allah is pure from having any attributes of created things attributed to Him. Allah is not in need of a place in order to exist. Imam al-Tahawi sums this up by saying, “He [Allah] is independent of the Throne and that which is beneath it.” (Al-Aqida al-Tahawiyya, Point: 50)
Dealing with texts whose meanings are not decisively known (mutashabihat)
There are certain texts in the Qur’an and Sunna which indicate that Allah Most High is in the sky or above the heavens upon his Throne. For example:
a “The All-Merciful istawa [literal meaning: positioned Himself] upon the Throne.” (Qur’an 20:5)
b “Have you become fearless of Him who is in the sky if He makes you sink into the earth, and it starts trembling at once?” (Qur’an 67:17)
c Mu’awiya ibn al-Hakam relates, as part of a long hadith, that he came to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) and asked various questions about hispractices before Islam. From among the questions he said that he had slapped his slave girl, and whether he should free her. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) asked that she be brought before him, and then asked her, “Where is Allah?” She replied, “In the sky (fi ‘l-sama).” The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) asked, “Who am I?” She replied, “You are the Messenger of Allah.” The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said, “Free her, for she is a believer.” (Sahih Muslim 537 and others)
d Sayyiduna Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) relates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said, “Our Lord ‘yanzilu [literal meaning: descends]’ every night to the closest heavens…” (Sunan Tirmidhi 2414)
Conversely, there are other texts which indicate that Allah Most High is everywhere and All-Encompassing. For example:
e “No secret consultation takes place between three, but He [Allah] is fourth of them; nor between five, but He is sixth of them; nor between fewer than that or more, but He is with them wherever they may be…” (Qur’an 58:7)
f “Indeed, We have created man, and We know whatever thoughts his inner self develops, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein.” (Qur’an 50:16)
g “When My servants ask you about Me, then [inform them that] I am near. I respond to the call of one when he prays to Me…” (Qur’an 2:186)
h “Allah encompasses everything.” (Qur’an 4:126)
i “He is with you wherever you are…” (Qur’an 57:4)
These types of texts are known as mutashabihat i.e. their meanings are not decisively known by us. Their outward apparent meanings indicate location for Allah Most High or a similitude between Allah and His creation, and thus they go against the fundamental ‘agreed-upon’ belief in Allah’s transcendence (tanzih), mentioned in unequivocal verses such as “There is nothing like unto Him.”
The question that arises, then, is how do you deal with such texts?
1 The most precautious and mainstream position in this regard is of the early Muslims (salaf), which includes the majority of the Companions, their followers (tabi’un), the majority of hadith scholars (muhaddithun), the four main Imams and the major scholars of their schools (Allah be pleased with them all). Their view is that the outward purport of such texts is not intended, and only Allah knows the real meanings of such texts; thus they consign their meanings completely to Allah Most High without attempting to interpret them – either literally or figuratively. This is known as the position of tafwid.
It means that we fully believe in the texts, but owing to the fact that their meanings have not been decisively established and that they apparently contradict the decisive texts, we consign the knowledge of their reality to Allah Most High, and avoid delving into them. We understand that they have meanings befitting Allah, but it is impossible that they would have physical meanings, since they do not befit Allah; such as places, shapes, limbs, movements, sitting, colors, directions, smiling, laughter, and other meanings which are not permissible to be attributed to Allah.
As such; we affirm the words indicating location and Throne for Allah, and also those which indicate Him being everywhere. However, we cannot comprehend the reality of Allah being on his Throne and neither can we comprehend the reality of Him being everywhere – although we fully negate that Allah is ‘physically’ in the heavens/on his Throne (tashbih), and also negate that He is ‘physically’ everywhere in everything (hulul). This is what the early scholars meant when they said regarding such texts, “Pass them by as they are, without asking how” (amirruha bi la kayf). (Some of the scholars from this group, however, interpret the second type of texts which indicate that Allah Most High is everywhere by saying, He is everywhere by His Knowledge, His Seeing, His Hearing and His Power).
This position of tafwid is based on the following verse of the Qur’an:
“He [Allah] is the One who has revealed to you the Book [the Qur’an]. Out of it there are verses that are muhkamat [of established meaning], which are the principal verses of the Book, and some others are mutashabihat [whose definite meanings are unknown]. Now those who have perversity in their hearts go after the mutashabih of it, seeking [to create] discord, and searching for its interpretation [that meets their desires], while no one knows its interpretation except Allah; and those well-grounded in knowledge say: We believe therein; all is from our Lord. Only the men of understanding observe the advice.” (Qur’an 3:7)
Mulla Ali al-Qari states in his commentary of Al-Fiqh al-Akbar, “Imam Abu Hanifa (Allah have mercy on him) said in his Kitab al-Wasiyya, ‘We agree that Allah performed istiwa [literal meaning: positioned Himself] upon the Throne without Him having any need for it or resting on it. He is the Guardian of the Throne and all besides the Throne. If He were in need [of the Throne], He would not have been capable of bringing the universe into existence and administrating over its affairs, like the created beings [for created things are in need, and the one in need of others cannot create the universe]. If He [Allah Most High] was in need of sitting or settling [on the Throne], then before the creation of the Throne, where was He Most High? In effect, He is transcendent of all of this.’ (Minah al-Rawd al-Azhar fi sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar P: 126-127)
Mulla Ali al-Qari further states, “How fitting is the response of Imam Malik (Allah have mercy on him) when he was asked about istiwa. He said, ‘istiwa is known [i.e. we know and accept that it has been mentioned in the Qur’an, because in another narration Imam Malik said, ‘istiwa is not unknown’], the ‘how’ (kayf) is unknown [this has also been transmitted as ‘the how is not comprehensible’], asking about it is an innovation, and belief in it [i.e. accepting it to be part of revelation] is obligatory.’ This is the way of the early scholars (salaf) and the safest path, and Allah knows best.” (Minah al-Rawd al-Azhar fi sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar P: 127)
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Allah have mercy on him) said, when asked about Allah’s istiwa on the Throne, “He performs istiwa upon the Throne, however He wills and as He wills, without any limit or any description that can be made by any describer.” (Daf’ Shubah al-Tashbih, P: 28)
Imam Shafi’i (Allah have mercy on him) would simply say regarding the mutashabihat texts, “I believe in what has come from Allah as it was intended by Allah, and I believe in what has come from the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) as it was intended by the Messenger of Allah.” (Ibn Qudama, Dhamm al-Ta’wil)
Imam Sufyan ibn Uyayna (Allah have mercy on him) says, “All that Allah has described Himself with in His Book; its explanation is its reciting and keeping silent about it.” (Bayhaqi, Al-Asma’ wa ‘l-sifat 2/158)
2 The second position concerning such texts is of some later scholars; such as Imam Ibn Taymiya, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim and others (Allah have mercy on them). They also consign the knowledge of what is meant to Allah, but in a slightly different manner. They are of the opinion that we must affirm the apparent literal meaning that has been expressed in the text (tathbit), but then consign its details to Allah Most High. So for example, in relation to the verse of ‘istiwa’, we must believe in and affirm the apparent meaning which is ‘elevation’ and ‘rising over the Throne’. However, the modality (kayfiyya) of this ‘elevation’ or ‘rising’ is unknown, but it is certainly not like the rising of created things. (As for the second type of texts, they clearly interpret them by saying that Allah is everywhere by His Knowledge, His Seeing, His Hearing and His Power).
The key difference between this position and the previous one is that in the case of the former, one recites the mutashabih text, accepts it to have been revealed by Allah, believes in it and affirms ‘whatever’ is intended by Allah through it, and then remains silent about it without saying whether the literal or figurative meaning is meant (pass them by as they are without asking how). In the latter position, however, after recital and acknowledgement of the text, one affirms that the apparent literal meaning is what is meant, but the details of this apparent meaning is only known by Allah. There is a very subtle difference between the two viewpoints!
Even though this (latter) view – in of itself – can be considered acceptable, it can also potentially be highly dangerous, especially in our times. This is due to two reasons:
Firstly; the human intellect is very limited, and thus it is very difficult for it to comprehend Allah being above the heavens upon His Throne without some sort of bodily figure coming to mind. The early Muslims had strong faiths, and may have been equipped to negate any thought of a bodily figure occupying a throne. This cannot be said for every simple believer today. In life, we are accustomed to only experiencing created things; and thus it may be difficult to fully realize the transcendent nature and majesty of Allah Most High – if we were to say that He is upon His Throne.
Imam Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani expresses this point in a very beautiful manner. He states that Allah’s attributes of ‘istiwa’, ‘elevation’ and ‘nuzul [descending] to the heavens’ are all eternal (qadim), for He is eternal with all His attributes; whereas there is a consensus that the Throne and everything surrounding it is created. As such, Allah Most High had the attribute of ‘istiwa’ and ‘nuzul’ even before He created the Throne and the heavens. So where was His ‘istiwa’ before creating the Throne, and upon what did He do ‘nuzul’ before creating the heavens and the sky? Therefore, the way you envisage Allah’s ‘istiwa’ upon the Throne and His ‘nuzul’ to the heavens before the creation of the Throne and the heavens, envisage it in the same manner after their creation. (Al-Yawaqit wa ‘l-Jawahir)
Secondly, the discourse of the early Muslims was mainly in the Arabic language. As such, both approaches in consigning the mutashabihat texts to the knowledge of Allah seemed similar. The advocates of the first approach would, for example, merely recite the word ‘istawa’ and say “I affirm this istiwa as intended by Allah” and leave it to that, whilst those who took the second approach would also recite ‘istawa’ and then say that the meaning of this is literal ‘istiwa’ but in a manner befitting Allah. The difficulty arises when the word ‘istawa’ is translated into another language. If the second approach is taken, then one would translate it in English by saying “the meaning of this is that Allah rose over the Throne” and the like. This is when the thought of a bodily figure and human-like attributes come to mind.
This also explains why the advocates of both approaches use the same evidences and statements of early Muslim scholars, such as the four Imams, in justifying their view. Using only the Arabic medium, it can be difficult to distinguish the clear difference between the two approaches.
For example, Imam Abu Hanifa states in his Al-Fiqh al-Absat, “He who says that I do not know if my Lord is in the sky or the earth has indeed committed disbelief… Similarly, he who says that He is on His Throne, but I do not know whether the Throne is in the sky or the earth [has also committed disbelief].” (Al-Fiqh al-Absat, p: 14)
This quote of Imam Abu Hanifa (Allah have mercy on him) is misunderstood by some, and incorrectly used to prove that the Imam believed in affirming a direction and location for Allah! The reality is that Imam Abu Hanifa was amongst the very early Muslims (salaf), and his position was in harmony with the mainstream popular opinion of that time – which is ultimate tafwid, as it is clear from his statements quoted earlier; such as, “If He [Allah Most High] was in need of sitting or settling [on the Throne], then before the creation of the Throne, where was He Most High?” However, the Imam was also against figurative interpretation of the mutashabihat texts, and firm on the position of consigning the meaning to the knowledge of Allah.
As such, followers of Imam Abu Hanifa and commentators of his works have explained what he meant by the above text. They state that the reason why Imam Abu Hanifa declared a person who says these two phrases a disbeliever is because they contain attributing a direction and location for Allah. (See: Isharat al-Maram min Ibarat al-Imam, p: 168) Imam Izz al-Din ibn al-Salam says that the reason why Imam Abu Hanifa declared such a person a disbeliever is that by using such words, one suggests a place for Allah; and whosoever believes that Allah has a place is an anthropomorphist. (Minah al-Rawd al-Azhar fi sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar P: 115)
Thus, Imam Abu Hanifa’s intention is not to prove that the heavens and the Throne are places for Allah, and the clearest evidence for this is the aforementioned saying of the Imam himself, “If He [Allah Most High] was in need of sitting or settling [on the Throne], then before the creation of the Throne, where was He Most High? In effect, He is transcendent of all of this.” And Allah knows best.
3 The third position in regards to these mutashabihat texts is that their apparent literal meaning is impossible for Allah; thus the texts will be interpreted figuratively/metaphorically in a manner befitting Allah, yet without affirming it with certainty since other meanings could also be correct. This position was held mainly by scholars of later generations (khalaf), who were forced to take this stance in order to safeguard the iman of the masses, since people were not satisfied with merely consigning the knowledge of mutashabihat texts to Allah, and thus began to understand them literally and read into meanings that do not befit Allah Most High.
This position is known as the position of ta’wil. Ta’wil means to interpret, make sense of, assign a meaning to, and give an interpretation or explanation to a particular text or phrase. For example, interpreting the saying “the King defeated the enemy” that the defeat occurred at the hands of the King’s army and not the King himself.
This is also a valid and acceptable view according to the vast majority of scholars as long as it remains within the boundaries of the Arabic language and spirit of Shari’ah. Even some early Muslims (salaf), including some of the Sahaba such as Ibn Abbas (Allah be pleased with him), made ta’wil in some of the Qur’anic verses and hadiths, and the reality is that at times we have no choice but to assign figurative meanings, otherwise they will contradict the decisive and emphatically established texts (muhkamat), leading to many contradictions in the Qur’an and Sunna.
For example, Imam al-Bukhari (Allah have mercy on him) interprets the verse “There is no god but He. Everything is going to perish except His wajh [literal meaning: face]” (Qur’an 28:88) by saying that the word ‘wajh’ means ‘mulk’ or ‘dominion.’ He also quotes another interpretation, “that which was done solely for the sake of Allah [i.e. righteous actions].” Imam Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, in his Fath al-Bari, quotes Abu Ubayda as saying that the word ‘wajh’ in the verse means the ‘majesty (jalal)’ of Allah. (See: Fath al-Bari with Sahih al-Bukhari 8/641-642)
Similarly, in regards to the hadith of Bukhari and Muslim wherein the attribute of Allah ‘dhik (literal meaning: laughing)’ has been mentioned, Imam Bukhari is quoted as saying that it means, “Allah’s mercy.” (Bayhaqi, Kitab al-Asma’ wa ‘l-Sifat, p: 433)
In Surat al-Qalam, Allah Most High says, “On the Day when the saq [literal meaning: shin] will be exposed…” (Qur’an 68:42) Likewise, in the hadith of Bukhari, it is stated, “Our Lord will expose his saq [literal meaning: shin].” Many scholars from the salaf and khalaf; such as Abdullah ibn Abbas, Mujahid and Qatada interpret the term ‘saq’ with various different explanations. (See: Imam al-Bayhaqi’s Al-Asma’ wa ‘l-Sifat, p: 323)
Imam Ibn Kathir (Allah have mercy on him) relates in his masterpiece Al-Bidaya wa ‘l-Nihaya quoting Imam al-Bayhaqi from his Manaqib through a sound chain that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Allah have mercy on him) interpreted the verse, “And your Lord shall come” (Qur’an 89:22) to mean, “His recompense (thawab) shall come.’ (Al-Bidaya wa ‘l-Nihaya, 10/327)
There are countless other examples of this, but the above should suffice, insha’Allah.
Accordingly, scholars of later generations interpreted the mutashabihat texts which indicate Allah’s physical elevation above the heavens, and Allah being positioned in the sky or upon His Throne with various explanations. For example:
a Imam Ibn Jarir al-Tabari states in his well-known exegesis (tafsir) of the Qur’an, “Allah made himself exalted over the heavens with the exaltation of sovereignty and power, not that of dislodgment and movement.” (Tasir al-Tabari 1/430)
Others who interpret the verses of ‘istiwa’ figuratively include: Imam al-Bayhaqi, Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni, Imam Raghib al-Isfahani, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Imam Abu ‘l-Faraj ibn al-Jazi al-Hanbali, Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Imam al-Baydawi, Imam al-Nasafi, Imam Taqi al-Din al-Subki, Imam Ibn al-Humam al-Hanafi, Imam al-Suyuti and others (Allah have mercy on them all). They state that ‘istiwa’ does not mean Allah’s physical elevation over the Throne; rather, it refers to elevation of rank, status and dominion, and Allah’s subjugation of the Throne that is without a beginning like all of the attributes of Allah.
b In regards to the verse of Surat al-Mulk [“Have you become fearless of Him who is in the sky…”], the great Maliki exegete (mufassir) Imam al-Qurtubi (Allah have mercy on him) says in his twenty-volume commentary of the Qur’an, Al-Jami’ li ahkam al-Qur’an, “It is said that the meaning of the verse is, have you become fearless of Him whose power, authority, Throne and dominion is in the sky. The reason for specifying the sky – despite His authority being universal – is to assert that a God is One whose power is [also] manifest in the heavens, and not [only] one whom people venerate on the earth. Some others said that it refers to the angels, and some said that it refers to angel Jibra’il who is entrusted with punishing people. I [Qurtubi] say that the verse could mean, “Have you become fearless of the Creator of those in the sky…” (Al-Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an, tafsir of 67/17, 18/141)
Imam al-Qurtubi further states in the commentary of the same verse, “The more exacting scholars hold that “in the heavens” is similar to Allah’s statement “Journey in the earth”, meaning over the heavens; but [not over it] by way of physical contact or spatialization, but by way of power (qahr) and control (tadbir). Another position is that it means, “Have you become fearless of Him who holds sway over (ala) the heavens” just as it is said, “So-and-so is over Iraq and the 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 Allah; only an atheist or a stubborn ignoramus would deny them. Their meaning is to dignify Allah and exalt Him above what is base and low, and to characterize Him by highness 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 towards the heavens when one supplicates because the sky is from where divine revelation descends and rain falls, the place of purity and the wellspring of the purified ones from the angels, and that the deeds of servants are raised to it; and over it is His Throne and His Paradise; just as Allah has made the Ka’ba the direction (qibla) of supplication and prayer. And also because He has created all places and has no need of them. He was in His beginning-less eternality before creating space and time, when there was no place or time, and is now as He was.” (Al-Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an, tafsir of 67/17, 18/141)
Similarly, Imam Nawawi (Allah have mercy on him) states in his commentary on Sahih Muslim, “Al-Qadi Iyad said, ‘There is no disagreement among any of the Muslims – their jurists (fuqaha), their hadith scholars (muhaddithun), their theologians (mutakallimun), their polemicists (nuddhar) and their ordinary followers (muqallidun) – that the texts which outwardly indicate that Allah is in the sky – for example, the statement of Allah Most High, “Have you become fearless of Him who is in the sky if He makes you sink into the earth?” (Qur’an 67:17) – are not to be taken literally; rather, according to them all [that is, all the Muslims and experts of every field of Shari’ah as mentioned above], they are to be interpreted figuratively.'” (Al-Minhaj sharh Sahih Muslim)
c In regards to the hadith of the slave-girl whom the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) asked, “Where is Allah?”, and she responded by saying, “In the sky”, Imam Nawawi states, “This is one of the hadiths which deal with the attributes [of Allah]. There are two positions with regards to them, both of which have been discussed repeatedly in the chapter of faith (iman). The first position is to believe in them without delving into its meaning (tafwid); while maintaining categorically that there is nothing like unto Allah Most High, and that He transcends the attributes of created things. The second position is to interpret them figuratively (ta’wil) in a manner that befits Him. Those who hold this [latter] position [of figurative interpretation] say that [in the present hadith] the Messenger of Allah’s (Allah bless him & give him peace) intention was to examine her to see whether or not she was one of those who worshiped idols that are before them, or one of those who believed in the Oneness of Allah and maintained that Allah alone is the creator, disposer, and one who effects [all things] – for He is the One that when a person supplicates to Him, he turns [his attention, or hands] towards the sky; just as when a person performs Salat, he faces the Ka’ba. [What is mentioned in the hadith] is not because Allah is restricted in the sky, just as He is not restricted in the direction of the Ka’ba. Rather, it is because the sky is the direction (qibla) for supplication (dua’), just as the Ka’ba is the direction (qibla) for the ritual prayer. So when she said that “He is in the sky”, it became known that she was one of those who believed in the Oneness of Allah, and not a worshipper of idols.” (Al-Minhaj sharh Sahih Muslim)
Mulla Ali al-Qari states in his commentary on Mishkat al-Masabih in relation to this hadith, “Al-Qadi Iyad al-Maliki said, ‘By asking this question, the Messenger of Allah’s (Allah bless him & give him peace) objective was not to ask about Allah’s location (makan), for verily He is above and beyond space, as He is above and beyond time. Rather the intent of his question to her was to find out whether she was a believer in His oneness (muwahhida) or someone who associated partners with Allah (mushrika), because the unbelievers of the Arabs used to worship idols, and each tribe used to have a specific idol in its midst which it worshipped and aggrandized; and it may be that the simple-minded and ignorant ones among them did not know any other object of worship than that idol. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) meant to determine what she worshipped. When she said, ‘In the heavens’ – and another narration says that she made a sign towards the heavens – it was understood that she was a believer in tawhid. His objective by this line of questioning was the disowning of the gods of the earth, which are the idols; not the establishment of the heaven as a location for Allah. Allah is greatly exalted from the sayings of the wrong-doers.'” (Mirqat al-Mafatih)
Furthermore; Imam al-Ubbiy in his commentary of Sahih Muslim, Shaykh Muhammad al-Shanqiti, Imam Abu Bakr ibn al-Furak in his Mushkil al-Hadith, Qadi Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi in his commentary of Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Imam Ibn al-Jawzi al-Hanbali in his Daf’ Shubah al-Tashbih, Imam Abu ‘l-Walid al-Baji, Imam al-Baydawi, Imam Taqi al-Din al-Subki and countless other classical scholars also state that the Messenger of Allah’s (Allah bless him & give him peace) objective by the question was not to ask regarding the physical location of Allah (makan), but about His rank and status (makana); and the slave-girl’s response was not intended to describe Allah physically being in the sky, rather to express His tremendousness (adhama), superiority, nobility and elevation of status and rank. There are so many quotes of the Imams in this regard such that it is difficult to reproduce them here.
As such, this group of scholars interpreted all such texts which indicate Allah’s physical elevation over the heavens and Throne by giving figurative meanings. Similarly, many of them interpreted the second type of texts which indicate that Allah Most High is everywhere by saying, He is everywhere with His knowledge, assistance and the like. Interpreting both types of texts is acceptable and valid as long as it remains within the known parameters of language and Shari’ah. Just as it is valid to interpret texts indicating Allah being everywhere or with His creation, it is likewise permitted to interpret the texts indicating Allah being above the heavens on His Throne. Sadly, some people consider the interpretation of ‘Allah above the heavens/upon His Throne’ texts to be deviation, yet they see no problem in interpreting the ‘Allah with His creation’ texts! This is an unjust approach. If interpreting the second type of texts is not deviation, then interpreting the first type of texts is also not deviation. Consistency demands that we hold the same stance with both types of texts.
Conclusion and final thoughts
In conclusion, the central point of aqida which every Muslim must firmly believe is of Allah’s transcendence (tanzih) – that is to say, Allah Most High is above and beyond having any resemblance with His creation. He Most High is not to be described with limits, organs and other such characteristics belonging to created things; and is not confined to time and space. “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him.” (Qur’an 42:11) This much belief is sufficient for an average Muslim to attain salvation, insha Allah.
Thereafter; with regard to the texts describing Allah to be everywhere or with His creation, most classical and later scholars interpret them to mean that Allah is everywhere with His knowledge, seeing and hearing; and this is not the real point of contention. Accordingly, one may interpret these texts, or consign their meaning to the knowledge of Allah. However, one must not believe that Allah Most High is ‘physically’ everywhere, since space is created whereas Allah is pre-existent and eternal.
As for the texts describing Allah to be in the heavens/sky and above His Throne – which are the real point of contention, and apparently go against the above core belief in Allah’s transcendence – one may adopt any of the following positions; and all of them are valid positions and none of them can be considered outright deviation:
a Consigning their meanings and details completely to the knowledge of Allah. This position, known as tafwid, was chosen by the majority of early scholars (salaf), and by far the best and safest approach.
b Affirming their literal meanings (tathbit) – with emphatic rejection of a similitude between Allah and His creation – and then consigning the modality (kayfiyya) of such texts to the knowledge of Allah. This position, chosen by scholars such as Imam Ibn Taymiya, can be risky for an average believer.
C Interpreting such texts figuratively in a manner that befits Allah. This is known as ta’wil, and was chosen by some later scholars.
None of the above three standpoints can be considered deviation or departure from the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jama’ah. One of my respected Shaykhs, Mufti Taqi Usmani (may Allah preserve him) states in his monumental commentary of Sahih Muslim, “All four positions [he mentioned one other position which can be incorporated in the three I have mentioned) are feasible. Large numbers of verifying scholars have taken every one of these positions, since the important thing in creed (aqida) is declaring Allah to be beyond having a similitude [with His creation], and not negating His attributes (ta’til); and every one of these four paths is firmly convinced of this. The difference between them is not a difference in creed, for indeed the creed is declaring Allah beyond tashbih and ta’til; it is only a difference of opinion in expressing that creed and basing them on the texts. So not one of these paths is entirely baseless or absolutely misguided, even if theoretical debates and arguments have not ceased to run between them for many centuries. Occasionally, exaggeration and excess occurred in them from the various sides, and occasionally one of them steered in the direction of trespassing the limits of moderation, but the truth is that the basis of the dispute is nothing but a judgmental (ijtihadi) dispute, akin to the differences of the jurists in juristic matters which are open to interpretation. For this reason, outstanding scholars of the Umma, adherent devotees to the Book and the Sunna, of whose being from the people of truth and from the Ahl al-Sunnah wa l-Jama’ah is not in doubt, took every opinion from these four opinions.
It is apparent that the path of the majority from the predecessors (salaf) was tafwid, and this is the safest, most prudent and most in accordance with His statement (Most High), “No one knows its interpretation except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: we believe therein'” (3:7) (Takmila Fath al-Mulhim 5/379-80)
The famous late Jordanian scholar of immense knowledge and wisdom, Shaykh Nuh Ali Salman al-Qudat (Allah have mercy on him) expresses the same stance in his commentary of Jawharat al-Tawhid. He states that all the various positions of the scholars are close to one-another, since they all agree that Allah Most High does not possess human-like attributes. Thereafter, whether one consigns the meaning completely to the knowledge of Allah, or interprets the texts figuratively, or affirms the literal meaning but negates anthropomorphism (tashbih), it is all part of affirming Allah’s transcendence. As such, there is no need to fuel hostility and enmity between Muslims – especially at a time when Muslims have to combat the enemies of Islam. (See: Al-Mukhtasar al-Mufid fi sharh Jawharat al-Tawhid, p: 91)
As such, all classical scholars agree on ensuring that the basic doctrine of Allah’s transcendence is preserved; they merely differ in the manner in which this is realized. Some perceive Allah’s transcendence in absolute tafwid, whilst others see it in interpreting the texts figuratively, and some others see it in affirming the literal meaning but with ’emphatic rejection’ of Allah being similar to His creation.
For example, Allah’s attribute of ‘yad’ has been mentioned in various texts of the Qur’an and Sunna. ‘Yad’ linguistically, as we understand it, refers to the hand of a created being. However, all the groups agree and emphatically deny that Allah has a hand like that of a human, thus they all preserve the central belief in Allah’s transcendence. Thereafter, whether we say “Allah knows best what ‘yad’ means” or “it refers to Allah’s assistance, etc” or “it means a hand but certainly unlike the human hand”, it does not undo the central aqida outlined in the verse, “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him.” (Qur’an 42:11)
Therefore, debates and heated arguments about this issue must be avoided, and we should learn to ‘agree to disagree’. No group should enforce their viewpoint on the other group, and no group has the right of claiming to be on the ultimate truth. Sadly, we live in a time of religious extremism and fanaticism. Some of us very easily term others as anthropomorphist (mushabbiha), whilst others consider tafwid, ta’wil and everything else besides affirming the literal meaning (tathbit) to be outright deviation and even disbelief! This implies declaring countless Imams and giants of this Umma as deviated, since most of them either chose the path of tafwid or ta’wil. May Allah protect us, Ameen.
Indeed, the following positions are absolute deviation and may well even take one out of the fold of Islam:
a Believing (may Allah protect us) that Allah is ‘physically’ in the heavens or ‘physically sitting’ on His Throne like created beings, known as anthropomorphism (tashbih). Sitting, standing, coming into contact, separation, moving from one place to another, etc, are all characteristics of created bodies from which Allah is pure.
b Believing that Allah Most High is ‘physically’ everywhere and ‘physically’ with His creation and in every space. This is known as hulul.
c Rejecting and denying the non-decisive (mutashabihat) texts concerning the attributes of Allah altogether. This is known as ta’til.
The above is what I have learnt from my teachers, especially Shaykh Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani (may Allah preserve him). It is what I consider and accept as the truth in the matter, and feel is the most balanced observation, Insha Allah. May Allah protect us all and bring about harmony and love between us, Ameen Ya Rabb. And Allah knows best
[Mufti] Muhammad ibn Adam
Leicester , UK