Thursday, 30 September 2010

How to deal with the meaning of “istawa”

Wahhabi Contention:

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

Read full article: Here

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.

Shaykh Abu Adam