Allah’s Hands

Anthropomorphism, the first step towards atheism

Many people today have the belief that Aļļaah is a being in a particular location, i.e. something with size. This belief is in itself incompatible with the teachings of Islam, and makes one a non-Muslim.

However, this is not the only problem. Another problem is that this is sometimes presented to the world as the real view of Islam, and as such makes Muslims look like clownish buffoons. Harsh words, yes, but unfortunately it is an understatement. This creed is incompatible with a logical and scientific view, like any of the other arbitrary religions out there.

This is because these proofs, and the proofs mentioned in the Qur’aan for that matter, are all based on looking at the world, i.e. looking at shapes of different color and movement, and construct logical argument for why they cannot be beginningless, and therefore must have a creator. When one turns around and says that Aļļaah Himself has a shape, by saying that He is in a location/direction, which necessitates a boundary confining Him, according to them, to this location, then one has effectively destroyed all arguments for the Creator’s existence. They make the atheist question, “if the world needs a creator, then why not the creator?” impossible to answer in a logically consistent manner, because if the shapes of the world need a creator, then why not all shapes? By representing their goofy view as Islam, they have opened the gates for the antichrist so to speak, by presenting it as just another incoherent religion.                               ____________________________

Allah’s Hands

More Than A Handful of Evidence

By Anthony Rogers

According to the Islamic sources Allah is a “thing” and a “person”; he.          has a “soul” and a “spirit”; he has a “likeness,” “shape,” and “form”; he has a “face,” “eyes,” and “ears”; he has “arms” and “elbows”; he has “hands,” “palms,” “fingers” and “fingertips”; he has a “chest,” “waist,” and “side”; he has a “shin” and “feet”; and he has dimensions, mass, and weight. This is why Allah can be said to wear a veil, sit on a throne, live in a house, look out over a watchtower, ascend and descend, run, stroke a person’s back, shake hands, grasp things, etc. Furthermore, although it is not characteristic for him to do so, Allah can even converse directly with people, i.e. without the mediation of an angelic messenger, and he has even directly spoken in this life to a select few, was seen by Muhammad in this world and also on the occasion of his ascent, and will be seen by all Muslims at the great assize or Last Day, antecedent to which event Muslims are even expected to have a mental picture of Allah by which they can identify him on that day. 

The body of evidence for the above statements is massive and the subject of a much larger, and, Lord willing, forthcoming project. Hence, the focus of this article will be much more modest, aiming to show that the Qur’an and a vast array of hadith very clearly ascribe hands to Allah, and they do so in such a way as to preclude viewing his hands as mere figures of speech, as some Muslims are wont to allege, or as something the modality of which is altogether inexplicable, as most Muslims at the present time are quick to assert.  

To begin with, the following passage that speaks of Allah’s hand could simply be a figure of speech referring to Allah’s power and control,

Say: “O Allah. Lord of Power (And Rule), Thou givest power to whom Thou pleasest, and Thou strippest off power from whom Thou pleasest: Thou enduest with honour whom Thou pleasest, and Thou bringest low whom Thou pleasest: In THY HAND is all good. Verily, over all things Thou hast power. (S. 3:26; so likewise 3:73, 5:64, 23:88, 36:71, 83, 39:67, 48:10, 49:1, 57:29, 67:1; unless stated otherwise, all Quranic citations are taken from Yusuf Ali)

just as “hand” can also be used figuratively for human beings, as in the following passage that speaks of circumspect generosity,

Make not thy hand tied (like a niggard’s) to thy neck, nor stretch it forth to its utmost reach, so that thou become blameworthy and destitute. (S. 17:29; cf. 40:29, 41:26, 68:47)

but just like the figurative use of hands for human beings does not rule out that humans have hands or that the word hands can be predicated of human beings in a literal sense, as the Qur’an itself testifies in other verses,

“O ye who believe! when ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; Rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles. If ye are in a state of ceremonial impurity, bathe your whole body. But if ye are ill, or on a journey, or one of you cometh from offices of nature, or ye have been in contact with women, and ye find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands, Allah doth not wish to place you in a difficulty, but to make you clean, and to complete his favour to you, that ye may be grateful.” (S. 5:6, Yusuf Ali).     

___________________                                                                                     so likewise, just because the word “hand” or “hands” may be used in some passages for Allah in a figurative sense does not mean they are never used for him in a literal sense. In this vein, the following statement about Allah’s hands clearly inclines toward a literal meaning:                                                                                 _______________

(Allah) said: “O Iblis! What prevents thee from prostrating thyself to one [i.e. Adam] whom I have created with MY HANDS? Art thou haughty? Or art thou one of the high (and mighty) ones?” (S. 38:75)
The fact that Adam was created with Allah’s own two hands is given as a reason in the above passage why Satan’s refusal to worship Adam as commanded is met with incredulity by Allah. But if this is to be taken in a metaphorical sense, i.e. when it says Adam was made with Allah’s hands it merely means that he was created by Allah’s power or the like, then it would imply that Satan and the other angels had the same reason (or that Allah had the same reason to command the angels) to bow down to anything and everything that they had for bowing down to Adam (or that Allah had for commanding them to bow down to Adam). After all, everything was created by Allah’s power according to the Qur’an: 

… For to Allah belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and all that is between. He createth what He pleaseth. For Allah hath power over all things. (S. 5:17)

See they not that Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth, has power to create the like of them (anew)? Only He has decreed a term appointed, of which there is no doubt. But the unjust refuse (to receive it) except with ingratitude. (S. 17:99)

And Allah has created every animal from water: of them there are some that creep on their bellies; some that walk on two legs; and some that walk on four. Allah creates what He wills for verily Allah has power over all things. (S. 24:45)

Likewise, all sorts of things are said to have been created by his hands/power.

We have made the heavens with OUR OWN HANDS and We expanded it. (S. 51:47, Muhammad Sarwar)

See they not that it is We Who have created for them – AMONG the things which OUR HANDS have fashioned – cattle, which are under their dominion? – (S. 36:71)

But yet it is only Adam in addition to Allah that the angels are required to prostrate to or bow down before. This shows that the word hands is being used differently in Surah 38:75 than it is in some other verses where it is to be understood figuratively or metaphorically. 

That the word “hands” is being used in a non-metaphorical way in      [S. 38:75] is made all the more clear from what is said in the following hadith about Adam’s creation, which is multiply attested and found in the two Sahih:

Narrated Anas:                                                                                                   Allah’s Apostle said, “The believers will be assembled on the Day of Resurrection and they will say, ‘Let us look for someone to intercede for us with our Lord so that He may relieve us from this place of ours.’ So they will go to Adam and say, ‘You are Adam, the father of mankind, and Allah created you with HIS OWN HANDS and ordered the Angels to prostrate before you, and He taught you the names of all things; so please intercede for us with our Lord so that He may relieve us.’ Adam will say, to them, ‘I am not fit for that,’ and then he will mention to them his mistake which he has committed.'” (Bukhari, 9.93.607; see also 4.55.556, 6.60.3, 6.60.236, 8.76.570, 9.93.507, 9.93.532; Muslim, 1.373, 1.378; Tirmidhi, 4.11.2433)
                                                                                                                                      This same idea of the importance and uniqueness and high privilege of Adam based on being made by Allah’s own hands is also invoked by Moses as grounds for finding fault with Adam:
Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: There was an argument between Adam and Moses (peace be upon both of them) in the presence of their Lord. Adam got the better of Moses. Moses said: Are you that Adam whom Allah created with HIS HAND and breathed into him His sprit, and commanded angels to fall in prostration before him and He made you live in Paradise with comfort and ease. Then you caused the people to get down to the earth because of your lapse. Adam said: Are you that Moses whom Allah selected for His Messengership and for His conversation with him and conferred upon you the tablets, in which everything was clearly explained and granted you the audience in order to have confidential talk with you. What is your opinion, how long was the Torah written before I was created? Moses said: Forty years before. Adam said: Did you not see these words: Adam committed an error and he was enticed to (do so). He (Moses) said: Yes. Whereupon, he (Adam) said: Do you then blame me for an act which Allah had ordained for me forty years before He created me? Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: This is how Adam got the better of Moses. (Muslim, 33.6411)

Another version of this tradition tells us that Allah wrote the Torah for Moses with his hand.                                                                    

Narrated Abu Huraira:

The Prophet said, “Adam and Moses argued with each other.

Moses said to Adam.

‘O Adam! You are our father who disappointed us and turned us out of Paradise.’

Then Adam said to him,

‘O Moses! Allah favored you with His talk (talked to you directly) and HE WROTE (the Torah) for you with HIS OWN HAND. Do you blame me for action which Allah had written in my fate forty years before my creation?’

So Adam confuted Moses, Adam confuted Moses,” the Prophet added, repeating the Statement three times.

(Bukhari, 8.77.611)

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (way peace be upon him) as saying: There was an argument between Adam and Moses. Moses said to Adam: You are our father. You did us harm and caused us to get out of Paradise. Adam said to him: You are Moses. Allah selected you (for direct conversation with you) and WROTE with HIS OWN HAND the Book (Torah) for you. Despite this you blame me for an act which Allah had ordained for me forty years before He created me. Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) said: This is how Adam came the better of Moses and Adam came the better of Moses. (Muslim, 33.6409)

Abu Hurairah reported the Messenger of Allah (May peace be upon him) as saying: Adam and Moses held a disputation. Moses said: Adam you are our father. You deprived us and caused us to come out from Paradise. Adam said: You are Moses Allah chose you for his speech and WROTE the Torah for you WITH HIS HAND. Do you blame me for doing a deed which Allah had decreed that I should do forty year before he created me? So Adam got the better of Moses in argument. Ahmad b. Salih said from ‘Amr from Tawus who heard Abu Hurairah. (Abi Dawud, 41.4684)

It is hardly surprising then to read the following in Kitab al-Sunna, which many Muslims believe to have been written by ‘Abduallah b. Ahmad, the son of the famed Ahmad b. Hanbal, but which in any case shows how at least some Muslims took teachings of this sort.

“Allah wrote the Torah for Moses with His hand while leaning back on a rock, on tablets of pearl, and the screech of the quill could be heard. There was no veil between Him and him,” (Vol. 1, p. 294)

Putting these narrations together, it would appear that Moses views Adam’s sin as all the more grievous since he was made with Allah’s own hands. In retort, Adam points out that Moses error in blaming him is more heinous since he was given a book that was written by Allah’s hand that was a transcription of what Allah decreed before ever creating Adam, a fact that Moses should have realized before imputing guilt to Adam. In this way, we are told, Adam got the upper hand of the argument.

Summarizing the above, Adam, the father of mankind, is distinguished from others by the fact that he was created with Allah’s own hands, a fact that will cause people on the day of resurrection to seek him out as a potential intercessor with Allah, and which served as the grounds for Moses to indict him for committing a great sin, all of which must, therefore, indicate that something different is in view when it speaks of Adam being made with Allah’s hands than the metaphorical sense in which all things in general are said to be the work of Allah’s hands/power. (We are also given the added information that the book given to Moses, mentioned in numerous verses in the Qur’an, is to be understood as a book that Allah wrote with his hand.)

In fact, certain traditions prove this even further, limiting the number of things that were created directly by Allah’s hand or hands to three or four. If the above wasn’t enough, this latter point conclusively demonstrates that the sense in which “hands” are being attributed to Allah in the account of the creation of Adam and in the hadith of intercession and the argument between Moses and Adam is not a mere metaphor as it was granted earlier it may be in some other cases: 

On the authority of al Haarith ibn Nawfal:

“Allaah created three things with HIS HAND:

1. He created Adam with HIS HAND.

2. He wrote the Tawraah with HIS HAND and

3. He planted Firdaus with HIS HAND.”

[Collected by ad Daylami, It was also collected by ad Darqutni in ‘As Sifaat’ P. 26 #28 and Abu Ash Shaikh in ‘Al ‘Udhmah’: 5/1555]

In another Hadeeth narrated by ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr:

“Indeed Allah – the Mighty and Majestic – created three things with HIS HAND; He created Adam with HIS HAND, He wrote the Torah with HIS HAND and He planted Firdaws with HIS HAND.”

[Collected by ad Darqutni in ‘As Sifaat’ P.45 and al Bayhaqi in ‘Al Asma was Sifat’: P. 403 on the authority of al Harith ibn Nawfal.]

It was authentically reported that ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar said:

“Allaah created four things with HIS HAND;

1. The Throne

2. The Pen

3. Aadam and

4. The paradise of ‘Adn.

He then said to the rest of the creation ‘Kun’ [Be] and it was.”

Adh Dhahabi stated in ‘Al ‘Uluw’: ‘It’s chain is good.’

Al Albaani stated in ‘Mukhtasar al ‘Uluw’ P.105: ‘The chain is authentic according to the conditions of Muslim.’

On the authority of ‘Abdullaah ibn al Haarith who said; the Messenger of Allaah – صلى الله عليه و سلم – said:

“Allah created three things with HIS HAND; He created Adam with HIS HAND, He wrote the Torah with HIS HAND and He planted Firdaws with HIS HAND. He then said; “By my Glory, neither a drunkard nor a ‘Dayyooth’ will live in it”

The companions asked: ‘O Messenger of Allah, we know the drunkard, but who is the Dayyooth?’

He responded: “One who consents to evil in his family.”[1]

[Collected by al Khira-ity in Masaawi al Akhlaaq: P.62, #426]

On the authority of ibn ‘Umar – may Allah be pleased with him:

“Allah created four things with HIS HAND: The throne, the paradise of ‘Adn, Adam and the Pen

He veiled the creation from Himself with four:

Fire, then darkness, then light, then darkness.”

Al Haakim stated: ‘The chain is authentic according to the conditions of both Bukhari and Muslim but they did not collect them [in their Saheehs].’

[Mukhtasar al ‘Uluw by al Albaani]

Ibnul Qayyim stated:

It has been authentically reported by both al Bukhari and Muslim in their Saheehs, that the Prophet – صلى الله عليه و سلم – said in the Hadeeth of the intercession: it will be said to Musa: 

‘…You are Musa that Allah has specified with His [direct] Speech [to you] and WROTE the Tablets for you with HIS HAND…’

[Bayaan Talbees al Jahmiyyah 1/153]

Ibn ‘Uthaymeen said:

The people of knowledge stated that Allah did not create anything with HIS HAND except Adam, the Paradise of ‘Adn – for indeed he created it with His Hand, and He wrote the Torah with HIS HAND. These are three things that were by the HAND of Allaah – the Mighty and Majestic, as for [those of mankind] other than Adam, they were created by the word ‘Kun’ (be).

[Tafseer Surat al Kahf: P.89]

(The above is taken from this source; emphasis mine)

Other hadiths of interest tell us that when Allah made Adam with his own hands he stroked or passed his right hand over Adam’s back twice in order to bring forth Adam’s offspring, which means that Allah was the first masseur and that Adam received the first (and second) back massage(s) in history:

Narrated Umar ibn al-Khattab: Muslim ibn Yasar al-Juhani said: When Umar ibn al-Khattab was asked about the verse “When your Lord took their offspring from the backs of the children of Adam” – al-Qa’nabi recited the verse–he said: I heard the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) say when he was questioned about it: Allah created Adam, then passed HIS RIGHT HAND over his back, and brought forth from it his offspring, saying: I have these for Paradise and these will do the deeds of those who go to Paradise. He then passed HIS HAND over his back and brought forth from it his offspring, saying: I have created these for Hell, and they will do the deeds of those who go to Hell. A man asked: What is the good of doing anything, Apostle of Allah? The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) said: When Allah creates a servant for Paradise, He employs him in doing the deeds of those who will go to Paradise, so that his final action before death is one of the deeds of those who go to Paradise, for which He will bring him into Paradise. But when He creates a servant for Hell, He employs him in doing the deeds of those who will go to Hell, so that his final action before death is one of the deeds of those who go to Hell, for which He will bring him into Hell. (Abi Dawud, 41.4686)

Yahya related to me from Malik from Zayd ibn Abi Unaysa that Abd al-Hamid ibn Abd ar-Rahman ibn Zayd ibn al-Khattab informed him from Muslim ibn Yasar al-Juhani that Umar ibn al-Khattab was asked about this ayat – “When your Lord took their progeny from the Banu Adam from their backs and made them testify against themselves. ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said, ‘Yes, we bear witness’ Lest you should say on the Day of Rising, ‘We were heedless of that.'” (Sura 7 ayat 172) Umar ibn al-Khattab said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, being asked about it. The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘Allah, the Blessed, the Exalted, created Adam. Then He STROKED his back with HIS RIGHT HAND, and progeny issued from it. He said, “I created these for the Garden and they will act with the behaviour of the people of the Garden.” Then He STROKED his back again and brought forth progeny from him. He said, “I created these for the Fire and they will act with the behaviour of the people of the Fire.” ‘A man said, ‘Messenger of Allah! Then of what value are deeds?’ The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, answered, ‘When Allah creates a slave for the Garden, he makes him use the behaviour of the people of the Garden, so that he dies on one of the actions of the people of the Garden and by it He brings him into the Garden. When He creates a slave for the Fire, He makes him use the behaviour of the people of the Fire, so that he dies on one of the actions of the people of the Fire, and by it, He brings him into the Fire.'” (Malik’s Muwatta, 46.1.2)

Not to be outdone by Adam who received a divine back rub, Muhammad claims that Allah touched his chest:

Ibn Abbas reported that the Prophet said: My Lord came to me in the best FORM, whilst I was asleep, and said: O Muhammad, do you know what the angelic assembly is disputing about? I said: I do not! Then Allah placed HIS HAND between my shoulders until I felt Its coolness in my chest and I became aware of what was happening in Heaven and on earth… (Tirmidhi, 43, as cited in Dr. Abdul Khaliq Kazi & Dr. Alan B. Day, trans., Al-Ahadith Al-Qudsiyyah – Divine Narratives [Dar Al Kitab Arabi – USA, 1995], pp. 82-83)

Other narrations, providing something of a synoptic perspective on this event, even mention Allah’s palm(s) and fingers:

Narrated AbdurRahman ibn A’ish: Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: I saw my Lord, the Exalted and Glorious in the most beautiful form. He said: What do the Angels in the presence of Allah contend about? I said: Thou art the most aware of it. He then placed HIS PALM between my shoulders and I felt its coldness in my chest and I came to know what was in the Heavens and the Earth. He recited: ‘Thus did we show Ibrahim the kingdom of the Heavens and the Earth and it was so that he might have certainty.’ (6:75) Darimi reported it in a mursal form and Tirmidhi also reported. (Tirmidhi, 237)

Narrated Mu’adh ibn Jabal:

Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) was detained one morning from observing the dawn prayer (in congregation) along with us till the sun had almost appeared on the horizon. He then came out hurriedly and Iqamah for prayer was observed and he conducted it (prayer) in brief form. When he had concluded the prayer by saying As-salamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah, he called out to us saying: Remain in your places as you were.

Then turning to us he said:

I am going to tell you what detained me from you (on account of which I could not join you in the prayer) in the morning. I got up in the night and performed ablution and observed the prayer as had been ordained for me. I dozed in my prayer till I was overcome by (sleep) and lo, I found myself in the presence of my Lord, the Blessed and the Glorious, in the best FORM.

He said: Muhammad!

I said: At Thy service, my Lord.

He said: What these highest angels contend about?

I said: I do not know.

He repeated it thrice.

He said: Then I SAW Him put HIS PALMS between my shoulder blades till I felt the coldness of HIS FINGERS between the two sides of my chest. Then everything was illuminated for me and I could recognize everything.

He said: Muhammad!

I said: At Thy service, my Lord.

He said: What do these high angels contend about?

I said: In regard to expiations.

He said: What are these?

I said: Going on foot to join congregational prayers, sitting in the mosques after the prayers, performing ablution well despite difficulties.

He again said:

Then what do they contend?

I said: In regard to the ranks.

He said: What are these?

I said: Providing of food, speaking gently, observing the prayer when the people are asleep.

He again said to me:

Beg (Your Lord) and say: O Allah, I beg of Thee (power) to do good deeds, and abandon abominable deeds, to love the poor, that Thou forgive me and show mercy to me and when Thou intendst to put people to trial Thou causes me to die unblemished and I beg of Thee Thy love and the love of one who loves Thee and the love for the deed which brings me near to Thy love. Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: It is a truth, so learn it and teach it.

Transmitted by Ahmad, Tirmidhi who said: This is a hasan sahih hadith and I asked Muhammad ibn Isma’il about this hadith and he said: It is a sahih hadith. (Tirmidhi, 245)

Hence, it should hardly come as a surprise to learn that Allah will even shake hands with people on the Day of Judgment:

‘Ubayy b. Ka’b (Allah be pleased with him) reported that Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said,

“The first person with whom ALLAH will SHAKE HANDS (on the Day of Judgment), will be ‘Umar; and he will be the first man to whom Allah will pay salutation (say: Assalamu ‘alaika) and he will be the first man whom He will HOLD with HIS HAND and make him enter the Paradise.” (Online Source)

It was narrated that Ubayy bin Ka’b said:

“The Messenger of Allah said: ‘The first person with whom Allah will SHAKE HANDS will be ‘Umar, (and he is) the first person to be greeted with the Salam, and the first person who will be taken by the hand and admitted into Paradise.'” (Da’if) (Ibn Majah, 1.1.104)

Seeing how Allah’s hands factored into the argument between Adam and Moses, one can only imagine the interesting four-way argument all of this could generate between Adam (who was created with Allah’s own hands), Moses (who received the book written with Allah’s own hand), Muhammad (whose chest Allah touched) and Umar (who was promised to be the first with whom Allah will shake hands) about who is superior. No doubt if Muhammad were to tell the story, he would win hands down.

The preceding shows not only that it will hardly do to say that Allah’s hand(s) are to be understood figuratively in connection with Adam’s creation, for this would generate numerous contradictions and is clearly far from the import of the language being employed to describe it/them, and also does away with the subterfuge of saying that one has to be agnostic about their modality. This is so because the hand(s) of Allah are further defined and delimited by being ascribed palms and fingers, and by the fact that Allah’s hand is said to be able to fit between Muhammad’s shoulder blades, to have caused a physical sensation of coolness, and to be capable of movement, as in the case of Allah stroking and passing his hand over Adam’s back, writing the Torah for Moses, planting the trees of Eden, and shaking hands with Umar. As well, not only will Allah shake hands with Umar, but Umar will simply be the first person with whom he does so. Apparently more shaking will be going on after that. 

It should also be noticed that other things of relevance to this general subject but which are not part of the specific focus of this article also appear in the above narrations. Most significantly is the fact that Allah is ascribed a form and that Muhammad says he actually saw him (some versions of the hadith say he was awake, some say he was asleep, and others do not say either way).

Another verse of potential interest in the Qur’an is the following: 

No just estimate have they made of God, such as is due to Him: On the Day of Judgment the whole of the earth will be but HIS HANDFUL, and the heavens will be rolled up in HIS RIGHT HAND: Glory to Him! High is He above the Partners they attribute to Him! (S. 39:67)

In itself it would appear that this verse could be taken either figuratively or literally, but in light of the following traditions from Muhammad a literal meaning seems more than likely:

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “On the Day of Resurrection Allah will hold the whole earth and fold the heaven with HIS RIGHT HAND and say, ‘I am the King: where are the kings of the earth?” ‘ (Bukhari, 9.93.479)

Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: Allah’s Apostle said, “On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will GRASP the whole Earth by HIS HAND, and all the Heavens in HIS RIGHT, and then He will say, ‘I am the King. ‘” Abu Huraira said, “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Allah will GRASP the Earth…'” (Bukhari, 9.93.509) 

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) as saying: Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, will take IN HIS GRIP the earth on the Day of Judgment and He would roll up the sky in HIS RIGHT HAND and would say: I am the Lord; where are the sovereigns of the world? (Muslim, 39.6703)

Abdullah b. ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) saying: Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, would fold the Heavens on the Day of Judgment and then He would place them ON HIS RIGHT HAND and say: I am the Lord; where are the haughty and where are the proud (today)? He would fold the earth (placing it) on the left hand and say: I am the Lord; where are the haughty and where are the proud (today)? (Muslim, 39.6704)

Abdullah b. Miqsam reported that he saw Abdullah b. Umar as he narrated Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying:

“Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, would take IN HIS HAND His Heavens and His Earth, and would say: I am Allah. And He would CLENCH HIS FINGERS and then would OPEN THEM (and say): I am your Lord. I saw the pulpit in commotion from underneath because of something (vib-ating) there. And (I felt this commotion so much) that I said (to myself): It may not fall with Allah’s Massenger (may peace be upon him) upon it.” (Muslim, 39.6705)

Abdullah b. Miqsam reported that ‘Abdullah b. ‘Umar reported: I saw Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) upon the pulpit and he was saying that the Mighty Lord, the Exalted and Glorious would take HOLD of the Heavens and earth IN HIS HAND. The rest of the hadith is the same, (Muslim, 39.6706)

‘Abd Allah b. ‘Umar reported the Messenger of Allah (May peace be upon him) as saying: Allah will fold the heavens in the day of Resurrection, then SEIZING them IN HIS RIGHT HAND he will say: I am the king. Where are the mighty men? Where are the proud men? He will then fold the earths and take them in HIS OTHER HAND (According to the version of Ibn al-Ala), and then say; I am the King. Where are the mighty men? Where are the proud men? (Abi Dawud, 41.4732)

What makes it all the more likely that the above is intended in a straightforward and anthropomorphic way is the illuminating fact that a Jew is reported to have said the same thing to Muhammad on at least one occasion:

Narrated ‘Abdullah: A man from the people of the scripture came to the Prophet and said, “O Abal-Qasim! Allah will HOLD the Heavens UPON A FINGER, and the Earth ON A FINGER and the land ON A FINGER, and all the creation ON A FINGER, and will say, ‘I am the King! I am the King!'” I saw the Prophet (after hearing that), smiling till his premolar teeth became visible, and he then recited: — ‘No just estimate have they made of Allah such as due to him… (39.67) ‘ (Bukhari, 9.93.511)

What makes this significant is the fact that the Jews of Muhammad’s time were unabashed, full-blown anthropomorphists. It wasn’t until later in the medieval period that rabbinic Judaism threw off this understanding, largely through the efforts of Maimonides.

It might be argued that the recitation of the verse, “No just estimate have they made of Allah such as due to him,” was intended by Muhammad to be a denial of what the Jewish man intended by his statement. That is, perhaps Muhammad quoted Surah 39:67 in order to assert that Allah is far greater than the Jewish man intended and beyond having hands and fingers ascribed to him. But the fact that Muhammad smiled to the point of exposing his premolar teeth surely tells against this idea. In the science of hadith, Muhammad’s reactions, in this case smiling, are just as much an authoritative indication of what he believed and taught and of what is binding on Muslims as are his words.

Fortunately this latter point doesn’t have to be taken for granted; it is pointedly stated in a neighboring hadith: 

‘Abida related from ‘Abdullah that a Jew went to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and said, “Muhammad, Allah will HOLD the heavens ON A FINGER, the earths ON A FINGER, the mountains ON A FINGER, the trees ON A FINGER and creatures ON A FINGER and then He will say, ‘I am the King,’ The Messenger of Allah laughed until his molars showed and then recited, ‘They do not measure Allah with His true measure.’ (39:67)” ‘Abida related from ‘Abdullah, “The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, laughed out of amazement and AFFIRMATION of it.” (Bukhari, 6978; alt. trans.  9.93.510)

The same point is made in several other hadith:

Abdullah b. Mas’ud reported that a Jew scholar came to Allah’s Apostle (may peace he upon him) and said. Muhammad, or Abu al-Qasim, verify, Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, would CARRY the Heavens on the Day of Judgment UPON ONE FINGER and earths UPON ONE FINGER and the mountains and trees UPON ONE FINGER and the ocean and moist earth UPON ONE FINGER-in fact the whole of the creation UPON ONE FINGER, and then He would stir them and say: I am your Lord, I am your Lord. Thereupon Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) smiled TESTIFYING what that scholar had said. He then recited this verse: “And they honour not Allah with the honour due to Him;” and the whole earth will be in HIS GRIP on the Day of Resurrection and the heavens rolled up IN HIS RIGHT HAND. Glory be to Him and highly Exalted is He above what they associate (with Him)” (xxxix. 67). (Muslim, 39.6699)

This hadlth has been narrated on the authority of Mansur with the same chain of transmission (and the words are): A Jew scholar came to Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him). The rest of the hadith is the same, but there is no mention of “then He would stir them.” But there is this addition: “I saw Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) smiling so much that his front teeth appeared and TESTIFYING him (the Jew scholar); then Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) recited the verse: “And they honour not Allah with the honour due to Him.” (xxxix. 67). (Muslim, 39.6700)

Abdullah reported that a person from the People of the Book came to Allah’s Apostle (may peace he upon him) and said: Abu al-Qasim, verify, Allah would CARRY the heavens UPON ONE FINGER and the earths UPON ONE FINGER and the trees and moist earth UPON ONE FINGER and in fact the whole of the creation UPON ONE FINGER and then say: I am your Lord. I an your Lord. And he (the narrator) further said: I saw Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) feeling so much HAPPY that his front teeth became visible and then he recited the verse: “And they honour not Allah with the honour due to Him.” (xxxix. 67). (Muslim, 39.6701; cf. Muslim, 39.6702)

In his tafsir on this verse, Ibn Kathir stated:

(They made not a just estimate of Allah such as is due to Him.)

“These are the disbeliever [sic] who did not believe that Allah had power over them. Whoever believes that Allah is able to do all things, has made a just estimate of Allah such as is due to Him, and whoever does not believe that, has not made a just estimate of Allah such as is due to Him.”

Many Hadiths have been narrated concerning this Ayah and how it and other Ayat like it are to be interpreted and accepted WITHOUT ANY ATTEMPTS TO TWIST OR CHANGE ITS MEANING. Concerning the Ayah, (They made not a just estimate of Allah such as is due to Him.)

Al-Bukhari recorded that `Abdullah bin Mas`ud, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “One of the rabbis came to the Messenger of Allah and said, `O Muhammad! We learn that Allah will put the heavens on one finger, the earths on one finger, the trees on one finger, the water and dust on one finger, and the rest of creation on one finger, then He will say: I am the King.’ The Messenger of Allah smiled so broadly that his molars could be seen, in CONFIRMATION of what the rabbi had said. Then the Messenger of Allah recited: (They made not a just estimate of Allah such as is due to Him. And on the Day of Resurrection the whole of the earth will be grasped by His Hand).”

Al-Bukhari also recorded this in other places of his Sahih. It was also recorded by Imam Ahmad and Muslim, and by At-Tirmidhi and An-Nasa’i in the (books of) Tafsir in their Sunans.

Abu Hurayrah, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah say: (Allah will grasp the earth and roll up the heavens in His Right Hand, then He will say: “I am the King, where are the kings of the earth”)”

This version was recorded only by Al-Bukhari; Muslim recorded another version. Al-Bukhari also recorded from Ibn `Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, that the Messenger of Allah said: (On the Day of Resurrection, Allah, may He be blessed and exalted, will grasp the earth with one finger, and the heavens will be in His Right Hand, then He will say, “I am the King.”) This version was also recorded by Al-Bukhari It is recorded that Ibn `Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, said, ”

The Messenger of Allah recited this Ayah on the Minbar one day:

(They made not a just estimate of Allah such as is due to Him. On the Day of Resurrection the whole earth will be grasped by His Hand and the heavens will be rolled up in His Right Hand. Glorified be He, and High be He above all that they associate as partners with Him!) The Messenger of Allah said WHILE MOVING HIS HAND FORWARD AND BACKWARD: (And the Lord will glorify Himself, saying “I am Compeller, I am the Proud, I am the King, I am the Mighty, I am the Most

Generous.”) And the Minbar shook so much that we feared that the Messenger of Allah would fall.”

This was also recorded by Muslim, An-Nasa’i and Ibn Majah. (Online source)

A final bit of evidence on the meaning of this verse is provided by Bassam Zawadi:

First Hadeeth

This hadeeth is found in Musnad Ahmad, Hadith no. 5157:


حدثنا عبد الله ثنا أبي ثنا عفان ثنا حماد بن سلمة أنا إسحاق بن عبد الله يعنى بن أبي طلحة عن عبيد الله بن مقسم عن بن عمر : ان رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم قرأ هذه الآية ذات يوم على المنبر { وما قدروا الله حق قدره والأرض جميعا قبضته يوم القيامة والسموات مطويات بيمينه سبحانه وتعالى عما يشركون } ورسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم يقول هكذا بيده ويحركها يقبل بها ويدبر يمجد الرب نفسه أنا الجبار أنا المتكبر أنا الملك أنا العزيز أنا الكريم فرجف برسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم المنبر حتى قلنا ليخرن به 

Abdullah – Abdullah’s Father – Affan – Hammad bin Salamah – Ishaaq bin Abdullah (i.e. bin Abi Talha) – ‘Obaidillah bin Muqsim – Ibn Umar: The Messenger of Allah peace be upon him recited this ayah on the pulpit one day

“They made not a just estimate of Allah such as is due to Him. And on the Day of Resurrection the whole of the earth will be grasped by His Hand and the heavens will be rolled up in His Right Hand. Glorified is He, and High is He above all that they associate as partners with Him!” (Surah 39:67)

and Allah’s Messenger peace be upon him said like this with his hand moving it back and forth.

The Lord glorifies Himself saying

“I am the All Compeller, I am the Proud, I am the King, I am the Mighty, I am the Generous”.

The Messenger of Allah peace be upon him began to shiver on the pulpit until we said it will collapse with him.

Authenticity of First Hadeeth

Shaykh Shu’ayb Al Arna’ut commented on this hadeeth saying:


إسناده صحيح على شرط مسلم رجاله ثقات رجال الشيخين غير حماد بن سلمة فمن رجال مسلم. عفان: هو ابن مسلم الباهلي 

It’s isnaad is Saheeh on the condition of Muslim. It’s men are Thiqaat and the men of the two Shaykhs except for Hammad bin Salamah for he is only from the men of Muslim. Affan is Ibn Muslim Al Baahili.

Second Hadeeth

This narration is found in Al Tabarani’s Al Mu’jam Al Kabeer, Volume 12, page 355:


حدثنا يحيى بن أيوب العلاف المصري ثنا سعيد بن أبي مريم أنا ابن أبي حازم ثنا أبو حازم عن عبيد الله بن مقسم أنه سمع عبد الله بن عمر : يقول : رأيت رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم على المنبر وهو يقول : ( يأخذ الجبار سماواته وأرضه بيديه ) وقبض رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم يده وجعل يقبضها ويبسطها ثم قال : ( فيقول : أنا الرحمن أنا الملك أين الجبارون أين المتكبرون ) وتمايل رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم عن يمينه وعن شماله حتى نظرت إلى المنبر يتحرك من أسفل شيء منه حتى أقول أساقط هو برسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم 

Yahya bin Ayub Al ‘Alaaf Al Masri – Sa’eed bin Abi Maryam – Ibn Abi Hazmi – Abu Hazim – ‘Obaidillah bin Muqsim – Abdullah ibn Umar said:

I saw the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him on the pulpit saying

“The All Compeller will take His heavens and earth in His Hand” and the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him clasped his hand continuously clasping and unfolding it.

Then he said “Then He will say: I am the Most Gracious, I am the King. Where are the ones who are arrogant and proud?”.

Then Allah’s Messenger peace be upon him started swaying left and right until I saw the pulpit move from its bottom until I said that it is going to collapse with the Prophet peace be upon him on it.

Authenticity of Second Hadeeth

Yahya bin Ayub: He has narrated hadeeths in Sunan Al Nisaa’i. Ibn Hajar and others said that he is saduq according to Shaykh Al Albani in his article Hawl Iftaar Al Saa’im Qabal Safarihi Ba’d Al Fajr. Him being saduq is affirmed in Al Kaashif fi Ma’rifat man lahu Riwaayah fi Al Kitub Al Sittah, Volume 2, page 361, no. 6135. Al Mizzi in his Al Tahdheeb Al Kamal cited Al Nisai saying that he is a righteous man (saalih). 

Sa’eed bin Abi Maryam: His full name is Sa’eed bin Al Hakam bin Muhammad bin Salim. He is a Saheeh Bukhari and Saheeh Muslim narrator. 

Ibn Abi Haazim: He is Abdul Aziz ibn Abi Haazim. Check the link to Saheeh Bukhari that I put for Sa’eed, Ibn Abi Haazim is there. He is a Saheeh Muslim narrator as well.

Abu Haazim: He is Ibn Abi Haazim’s father. He is Abi Haazim Salamah bin Dinar. Just like his son he is a Saheeh Bukhari and Saheeh Muslim narrator. Refer to the links that I just provided to Saheeh Bukhari and Saheeh Muslim and you will find him there. 

As for ‘Obaidillah, he is there in the Musnad Ahmad narration and we saw that Shaykh Al Arna’ut said he was a narrator for both Bukhari and Muslim.

This isnad is inshallah saheeh, if not hasan. Furthermore, we have the shaahid (i.e. corroboration) from the Musnad Ahmad hadith so this hadeeth is definitely saheeh inshallah.

Zawadi then concludes with the following reasoning:

What Is Derived From These Hadeeths?

Notice the parts that I have put in bold where Ibn Umar said that after the Prophet (peace be upon him) talked about how Allah will grasp the heavens and the earth on the Day of Judgement with His Right Hand the Prophet (peace be upon him) would make an action with his hand. This is similar to the hadeeth where the Prophet (peace be upon him) pointed to his eyes and ears to affirm sight and hearing for Allah (something Asharis would agree with). Using that same logic, the Prophet (peace be upon him) is affirming the attribute of the Hand for Allah. If we didn’t know the meaning of Hand (according to Asharis Tafweed Al Ma’na) or if we were to interpret it metaphorically as power or something else (according to Asharis Ta’weel) then it would have been meaningless and misleading for the Prophet (peace be upon him) to make an action with his hand. 

If the meaning of Hand was not known for Allah then why on earth would the Prophet (peace be upon him) use his hand for emphasis? The same logic applies to ta’weel. 

This is “clear” and “powerful” evidence that the Prophet (peace be upon him) recognized that Allah literally has a Hand (unlike that of creation of course). (Source; emphasis original)

It was pointed out above that some statements about Allah’s hands could well have been (and probably were) intended figuratively by Muhammad in the specific instances listed in this connection. While it was found that this does not rule out that Allah does have hands, as has been shown on the basis of other verses, such as Surah 38:75 and 39:67, along with the traditions associated with them; nevertheless, some Muslims have argued that even those verses and narrations that could be meant figuratively are also to be accepted as proof that Allah literally has hands. Here is how one Muslim frames the argument:

When we say the clausal phrase “the kingdom is in the hand of Phillip” the most obviously understood meaning implied here is that the kingdom is under his dominion and rule, and not in the literal thing called hand with five fingers etc. However, the grammarians o [sic] the religion pointed out that in order for an attributed [sic] to be attributed to an individual like this expression above, then the prerequisite of using such an expression is that the subject must be among the class or genre of those things that have an actual hand. In other words, for simplicity, we coul [sic] not say “the food is in the hand of the table” because the subject being discussed i.e. the table, is not among the genre or things which actually have hands.

Likewise when Allah says “Nay, both of My Hands are outstretched” the obvious meaning hinted in this ayaah is that His generaosity [sic] knows no limit and it is not pointing to the literal thing of a Hand. However, it is becaue [sic] Allah has Hands which qualifies Allah to be the subject of attributed [sic] this ayaah for Him. WHY? because He is among the class or thing [sic] which actually has [sic] Hands. In other words, if Allah did not have hands, then the person who subscribed to this viewpointm [sic] from a grammatical level is attributing illogic to Allah because Allah attributed this ayaah to Himself without possessing the Attribute of Hands.

However, in other ayaa [sic], He says “Why have you not bowed down to one whom I have created with My Own Hands”

The obvious meaning here does not leav [sic] us with the obvious meaning of the first, because in this ayaah, the bounties of Allah is not what is being implied here, but the actual merit of Adam because of the fact that Adam was created by Allah’s literal Hands. SO here, Hands means Hands, it is just that we have no grasp, or understanding of what these Hands are. This is the reality of knowing the meaning and not knowing the nature. (Ash’ari Contentions: On Tafweedh and Allah’s Hand)

Note that according to the above, while some verses are using “hand(s)” figuratively, Surah 38:75 is not. In addition, even regarding those verses where the word “hand(s)” is being used figuratively, the “grammarians of the religion” supposedly maintain that such a word can only be used figuratively for something that literally has such an attribute. On the supposition of the soundness of this claim, and at least in the case of such Muslims who take this approach, many other verses and narrations from the Qur’an and Sunnah would also apply, such as the following:

“And believe no one unless he follows your religion.” Say: “True guidance is the Guidance of God: (Fear ye) Lest a revelation be sent to someone (else) Like unto that which was sent unto you? or that those (Receiving such revelation) should engage you in argument before your Lord?” Say: “All bounties are in the HAND of God: He granteth them to whom He pleaseth: And God careth for all, and He knoweth all things.” (S. 3:73)

The Jews say: “God’s HAND is tied up.” Be their hands tied up and be they accursed for the (blasphemy) they utter. Nay, BOTH HIS HANDS are widely outstretched: He giveth and spendeth (of His bounty) as He pleaseth. But the revelation that cometh to thee from God increaseth in most of them their obstinate rebellion and blasphemy. Amongst them we have placed enmity and hatred till the Day of Judgment. Every time they kindle the fire of war, God doth extinguish it; but they (ever) strive to do mischief on earth. And God loveth not those who do mischief. (S. 5:64)

Say: “Who is it in whose HANDS is the governance of all things, – who protects (all), but is not protected (of any)? (say) if ye know.” (S. 23:88)

See they not that it is We Who have created for them – among the things which OUR HANDS have fashioned – cattle, which are under their dominion? – (S. 36:71)

So glory to HIM in WHOSE HANDS is the dominion of all things: and to Him will ye be all brought back. (S. 36:83)

Verily those who plight their fealty to thee do no less than plight their fealty to God: the HAND of God is over their hands: then any one who violates his oath, does so to the harm of his own soul, and any one who fulfils what he has covenanted with God, – God will soon grant him a great Reward. (S. 48:10)

That the People of the Book may know that they have no power whatever over the Grace of God, that (His) Grace is (entirely) in HIS HAND, to bestow it on whomsoever He wills. For God is the Lord of Grace abounding. S. (57:29)

Blessed be He in Whose HANDS is Dominion; and He over all things hath Power; – (S. 67:1)

Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “Allah said, ‘The offspring of Adam abuse the Dahr (Time), and I am the Dahr; in MY HANDS are the night and the day!’” (Bukhari, 8.73.200)

Narrated Abu Huraira: “The Prophet said, ‘Allah said: “The son of Adam hurts Me by abusing Time, for I am Time; in MY HANDS are all things and I cause the revolution of night and day.”’” (See Hadith No. 351, Vol. 6) (Bukhari, 9.93.583)

Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “Allah’s Hand is full, and (its fullness) is not affected by the continuous spending, day and

night.” He also said, “Do you see what He has spent since He created the Heavens and the Earth? Yet all that has not decreased what is in HIS HAND.” He also said, “His Throne is over the water and in HIS OTHER HAND is the balance (of Justice) and He raises and lowers (whomever He will).” (See Hadith No. 206, Vol. 6) (Bukhari, 9.93.508)

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “The RIGHT (HAND) of Allah is full, and (Its fullness) is not affected by the continuous spending night and day. Do you see what He has spent since He created the Heavens and the Earth? Yet all that has not decreased what is in HIS RIGHT HAND. His Throne is over the water and in His OTHER HAND is the Bounty or the Power to bring about death, and He raises some people and brings others down.” (See Hadith No. 508) (Bukhari, 9.93.515)

Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “If somebody gives in charity something equal to a date from his honestly earned money —-for nothing ascends to Allah except good—- then Allah will take it in HIS RIGHT (HAND) and bring it up for its owner as anyone of you brings up a baby horse, till it becomes like a mountain.” Abu Huraira said: The Prophet. said, “Nothing ascends to Allah except good.” (Bukhari, 9.93.525y)

Narrated Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri: The Prophet (swt) said, “Allah will say to the people of Paradise, “O the people of Paradise!” They will say, ‘Labbaik, O our Lord, and Sa`daik, and all the good is IN YOUR HANDS!’ Allah will say, “Are you satisfied?’ They will say, ‘Why shouldn’t we be satisfied, O our Lord as You have given us what You have not given to any of Your created beings?’ He will say, ‘Shall I not give you something better than that?’ They will say, ‘O our Lord! What else could be better than that?’ He will say, ‘I bestow My Pleasure on you and will never be angry with you after that.'” (Bukhari, 9.93.609)

It is reported on the authority of al-Mughira b. Shu’ba that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Moses asked his Lord: Who amongst the inhabitants of Paradise is the lowest to rank? He (Allah) said: The person who would be admitted into Paradise last of all among those deserving of Paradise who are admitted to it. I would be said to him: Enter Paradise. He would say: O my Lord! how (should I enter) while the people have settled in their apartments and taken the shares (portions)? It would be said to him: Would you be pleased if there be for you like the kingdom of a king amongst the kings of the world? He would say: I am pleased my Lord. He (Allah) would say: For you is that, and like that, and like that, and like that, and that. He would say at the fifth (point): I am well pleased. My Lord. He (Allah) would say: It is for you and, ten times like it, and for you is what your self desires and your eye enjoys. He would say: I am well pleased, my Lord. He (Moses) said: (Which is) the highest of their (inhabitants of Paradise) ranks? He (Allah) said: They are those whom I choose. I establish their honour with MY OWN HAND and then set a seal over it (and they would be blessed with Bounties) which no eye has seen, no ear has heard and no human mind has perceived: and this is substantiated by the Book of Allah, Exalted and Great:” So no soul knows what delight of the eye is hidden for them; a reward for what they did” (xxxii. 17). (Muslim, 1.363)

Narrated AbuHurayrah: I heard the Messenger of Allah say: There were two men among Banu Isra’il, who were striving for the same goal. One of them would commit sin and the other would strive to do his best in the world. The man who exerted himself in worship continued to see the other in sin. He would say: Refrain from it. One day he found him in sin and said to him: Refrain from it. He said: Leave me alone with my Lord. Have you been sent as a watchman over me? He said: I swear by Allah, Allah will not forgive you, nor will he admit you to Paradise. Then their souls were taken back (by Allah), and they met together with the Lord of the worlds. He (Allah) said to this man who had striven hard in worship; Had you knowledge about Me or had you power over that which I had in MY HAND? He said to the man who sinned: Go and enter Paradise by My mercy. He said about the other: Take him to Hell. AbuHurayrah said: By Him in Whose HAND my soul is, he spoke a word by which this world and the next world of his were destroyed. (Abi Dawud, 42.4883)

Narrated Malik ibn Nadlah: The Prophet said: Hands are of three types: ALLAH’S HAND is the upper one; the bestower’s hand is the one near it; the beggar’s hand is the lower one. So bestow what is surplus, and do not submit yourself to the demand of your soul. (Abi Dawud, 9.1645)

To this can be added innumerable narrations where Muhammad swears “by him in whose hand(s) my soul is,” or some variation thereof.

Whether or not all these other statements are rightly taken as pointing to Allah having hands, as some Muslims contend and the above quote exemplifies, we have already seen that there is more than a handful of evidence outside of these latter references that clearly show that Allah has hands and, all claims to the contrary, these hands are very much like the hands of human beings, having palms, fingers, etc., and they are just as surely palpable in so far as they can be seen and can be used to touch and grasp things as well as cause physical sensation, etc.

It hardly needs to be said that such a conception of the Allah of Islam, based on the deliverances of the Qur’an and many authentic (and in some cases mass-narrated), mutually supportive, traditions and lines of evidences, rule out believing Muhammad’s Allah to be the creator of the universe, for such a being would be a contingent being, one whose existence would depend upon and be conditioned by such created realities as space, matter and time.

This also means that Muslims are far from being in anything even remotely close to an enviable position when they mischaracterize and ridicule the Christian doctrine of the incarnation as belief in a man-god. After all, there is a big difference between saying that one of the persons of the Godhead took on a human nature at a point in time in addition to his infinite, eternal, unchanging divine nature, such that it can be said that the Divine Word or Son, not by virtue of His eternal divinity but by virtue of assuming a human nature, literally has a face, hands, feet, etc., and saying, as the Muslim sources do, that God qua God, that is, God as He is in Himself and apart from a voluntary act of condescension in taking a human nature upon Himself, actually has anatomical features analogous to those possessed by human creatures. The same principle applies to the incarnation-anticipating theophanies of the Old Testament and to any and all other acts of divine self-humbling whereby the otherwise Ineffable, Inscrutable, Incomprehensible God manifests Himself and makes Himself known to His creatures, whether in heaven or on earth.

In conclusion, all Christians should find what is taught in the Islamic sources about Allah being a man-god in his essential nature absolutely degrading to the Supreme Creator of all things, and Muslims should be ashamed of what the Islamic sources attribute to their deity. God as God is far above the attributes they associate with Him.

For other articles on this general topic, see the following:

Allah As An Exalted Shakhs

Allah – More Human Than Divine

The Annihilation of Allah

Revisiting the Face of Allah

Adam – Allah’s Twin Partner

Allah – An Immaterial Entity Or An Invisible Man

Allah the Man-God – Part One

Soul Man

See also the following ABN Broadcast:

Do Muslims Worship Allah’s Body? > Shaikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller

Literalism and the Attributes of Allah

© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995

I received a letter in Jordan not too long ago from a British Muslim, asking me questions about modern calls to replace traditional Islam with an ostensible “return to the way of the Salaf, or ‘early Muslims.’” When I answered one of these questions, I realized that many other people might be wondering the same thing, and thought that presenting the question to you tonight in a wider forum might be of greater benefit to the British Muslim and non-Muslim audience.

The letter asked me: 

Are the Hanbali Mujtahid Imams al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm considered Ahl al-Sunna? And was Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal an anthropomorphist—meaning someone who ascribed human attributes to Allah? Can you provide me examples of the sayings of Imam Ahmad that show he did not have anthropomorphic ‘Aqida?

The questions proved to be related in ways unsuspected by their author. What unites them is literalism as an interpretive principle, which is the subject of my talk tonight. We will look at it first in respect to ijtihad, meaning the ‘qualified deduction of Islamic legal rulings from the Qur’an and hadith.’ But we will look at literalism also, and most carefully, from the point of view of ‘aqida or Islamic belief, in understanding the Qur’anic verses and prophetic hadiths that are called mutashabihat or ‘unclear in meaning’—such as the verse in Surat al-Fath that says, 

“Allah’s hand is above their hands” (Qur’an 48:10)

—termed ‘unclear in meaning,’ mutashabih, because linguistically hand can bear multiple interpretations, and its ostensive sense seems to imply ‘belief in a God with human attributes,’ that is, anthropomorphism, an understanding categorically rejected by the Qur’anic verse in Surat al-Shura,

“There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11).

We shall see that literalism was a school of thought in Islamic jurisprudence, though not considered a very strong one by traditional scholars. But in tenets of faith, and particularly in interpreting the relation of the mutashabihat to the attributes of Allah, literalism has never been accepted as an Islamic school of thought, neither among the Salaf or ‘early Muslims,’ nor those who came later.

In answer to the first question, “Are the Hanbali Mujtahid Imams al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm considered Ahl al-Sunna?” Dawud ibn ‘Ali al-Dhahiri of Isfahan, who died 270 years after the Hijra, and Abu Muhammad ibn Hazm, who died 456 years after the Hijra, were not followers of Ahmad ibn Hanbal but Dhahiris or ‘literalists’ in jurisprudence. Whether Dawud al-Dhahiri was a mujtahid—meaning qualified to issue expert Islamic legal opinion—has been disagreed upon by Muslim scholars, not only for reasons we will discuss, but also because little that he wrote has come down to us. 

As for Ibn Hazm, traditional Islamic scholars have not accepted his claims to be a mujtahid, the first qualification of which is to have comprehensive knowledge of the Qur’an and hadith. Scholars point to his many substantive mistakes in hadith knowledge, and adduce, for example, that if someone doesn’t even know, as Ibn Hazm did not, about the existence of the Sunan of al-Tirmidhi, who died nearly a hundred and fifty years before Ibn Hazm did, it is not clear how he can be considered a mujtahid. But aside from their qualifications, what interests us tonight is their Dhahirism or ‘textual literalism’ as an interpretive method.

What the Dhahiris are most famous for is their denial of all qiyas or analogy. It is recorded, for example, that Dawud held that the Qur’anic prohibition of saying “Uff” in disgust to one’s parents did not prove that it was wrong to beat them, since the literal content of the verse only concerned saying “Uff,” and no analogy could be drawn from this about anything else. Similarly, Ibn Hazm seems to have believed the prohibition in hadith of urinating into a pool of water did not show that there is anything wrong with defecating in it. These are two examples of denials of what is called in Arabic a qiyas jaliyy meaning an a fortiori analogy. 

Denying the validity of the a fortiori analogy is so counterintuitive, that Imam al-Juwayni, who died 478 years after the Hijra, has said: 

The position adopted by the most exacting of scholars is that those who deny analogy are not considered scholars of the Umma or conveyers of the Shari‘a, because they oppose out of mere obstinacy and exchange calumnies about things established by an overwhelming preponderence of the evidence, conveyed by whole groups from whole groups back to their prophetic origin (tawatur). 

For most of the Shari‘a proceeds from ijtihad, and the uniquivocal statements from the Qur’an and hadith do not deal [n: in specific particulars by name] with even a tenth of the Shari‘a [n: as most of Islamic life is covered by general principles given by Allah to guide Muslims in every culture and time], so they [the literalists] are not considered of the learned” (al-Dhahabi, Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’ [Beirut: Mu’assasa al-Risala, 1401/1984], 13.105).

From Juwayni’s remark that “the uniquivocal statements from the Qur’an and hadith do not deal with even a tenth of the Shari‘a,” we can understand a main impetus of Dhahiri thought by which it differed from the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence; namely, that it radically truncated the range and relevance of the Shari‘a to nothing more than those rulings established by the literal wording (dhahir) of hadiths or verses. And this is perhaps one reason today for renewed interest in the long-dead school, namely, that it frees people from having to learn and follow the large part of the Shari‘a deduced from the general and comprehensive ethos of the Qur’an and sunna. 

But secondly, if one reflects for a moment on the fiqh questions we hear urged today by youthful reformers in our mosques, it is plain that a great many of what are termed “Salafi ijtihads” are not salafi (early Muslim) at all, but mere Dhahiri or literalist interpretations of hadiths. To their credit, the movement we are speaking of has revived interest in hadith among Islamic scholars across the board. But it has also given rise to a bid‘a or ‘reprehensible innovation’; namely, that the emphasis on hadith and its ancillary disciplines to the exclusion of other Islamic sciences equally necessary to understanding the revelation, such as fiqh methodology, or the conditioning of hadith by general principles expressed in the Qur’an, has created a false dichotomy in many Muslims’ minds of either fiqh or hadith, where what is needed is fiqh or ‘understanding’ of hadith.

For example, a young man, after leading us at salat al-fajr prayer in Chicago a few months ago, told a latecomer to the first rak‘a (who had been finishing his sunna prayer when the iqama (call to commence) was made): “If the prescribed prayer begins, you don’t finish the sunna, but quit and join the group. Don’t listen to Abu Hanifa, or Malik, or Shafi‘i; the hadith is clear: La salata ba‘da al-iqama illa al-maktuba ‘There is no prayer after the iqama except the prescribed one.’” 

Now, the dhahir or ‘literal meaning’ of the hadith was as he said, but the Imams of Shari‘a have not understood it this way for the very good reason that Allah says in Surat Muhammad of the Qur’an, “And do not nullify your works” (Qur’an 47:33), and to simply quit an act of worship—namely, the sunna rak‘as before fajr—is precisely to nullify one of one’s works. 

Scholars rather understand the hadith to mean that one may not begin a sunna (or other nafila) prayer after the call to commence (iqama) is given. And this is very usual in human language: to use a general expression, in this case, “There is no prayer” to mean a specific part or aspect of it; namely, “There is no initiating a prayer.” Consider how the Qur’an says, “Ask the village we were in, and the caravan that we came with” (Qur’an 12:82), where the dhahir or literal meaning of village and caravan; namely, the assemblage of stone huts and the string of pack animals, are not things that can be asked—but rather a specific aspect or part of them is intended; that is, the people of the village and the people of the caravan, or rather, just some of them. There are many similar expressions in every language, “Put the tea on the stove,” for example, not meaning to heap the dried leaves on the stove, but rather to put them in a pot, add water, and light the stove, and so on. It is all the more surprising that anyone, Dhahiri or otherwise, could have ever imagined that Arabic, with its incomparable richness in figures of speech, could be so impoverished as to lack this basic expressive faculty. 

In reference to modern re-formers of Islam, such literalism necessarily forces itself upon someone trained in hadith alone, as most of them are, when they try to deduce Shari‘a rulings without mastery of the interpretive tools needed to meet the challenges that face the mujtahid, for example, in joining between a number of hadiths on a particular question that seem to conflict, or the many other intellectual problems involved in doing ijtihad. This has made some contemporary Muslims seriously believe that it is a matter of either following “the Qur’an and sunna,” or one of the schools of the mujtahid Imams. 

This idea has only gained credibility today because so few Muslims understand what ijtihad is or how it is done. I believe this can be cured by familiarizing Muslims with concrete examples of how mujtahid Imams have derived particular Shari‘a rulings from the Qur’an and hadith. Such examples would first show the breadth of their hadith knowledge—Muhammad ibn ‘Ubayd Allah ibn al-Munadi, for example, who died in 272 years after the Hijra, heard Ahmad ibn Hanbal say that having memorized three hundred thousand hadiths was not enough to be a mujtahid—and second, would show the mujtahids’ mastery of the deductive principles that enabled them to join between all the primary texts. 

Until this is done, the advocates of this movement will probably continue to follow the ijtihad of non-mujtahids (the sheikhs who inspire their confidence), under the catch phrase “Qur’an and sunna” just as if the real mujtahids were unfamiliar with these. The followers perhaps cannot be blamed, since “for someone who has never travelled, his mother is the only cook.” But I do blame the sheikhs who, whatever their motivations, write and speak as if they were the only cooks. 

Finally, if the shortcomings of Dhahiri interpretation is plain enough in fiqh, in ‘aqida, it can amount to outright kufr, as when someone reads the Qur’anic verse, 

“Today We forget you as you have forgotten this day of yours” (Qur’an 45:34), 

and affirms that Allah forgets, which is an imperfection, and not permissible to affirm of Allah. Of this sort of literalism, Dawud al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm were innocent, for this is anthropomorphism, meaning to believe Allah has human attributes, and as such is beyond the pale of Islam.

Regarding the second question that I received in my letter, of whether Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal was an anthropomorphist, this is something that has been asked since early times, particularly since someone forged an anthropormorphic tract called Kitab al-sunna [The book of the sunna] and put the name of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s son Abdullah on it. It was published in two volumes in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, by Ibn al-Qayyim Publishing House, in 1986.

I looked this book over with our teacher in hadith, Sheikh Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, who had examined it one day, and said that at least 50 percent of the hadiths in it are weak or outright forgeries. He was dismayed how Muhammad al-Qahtani, the editor and commentator, could have been given a Ph.d. in Islamic faith (‘aqida) from Umm al-Qura University in Mecca for readying for publication a work as sadly wanting in authenticity as this. 

Ostensibly a “hadith” work, it contains some of the most hard-core anthropomorphism found anywhere, such as the hadith on page 301 of the first volume that “when He Most Blessed and Exalted sits on the Kursi, a squeak is heard like the squeak of a new leather saddle”; or on page 294 of the same volume: “Allah wrote the Torah for Moses with His hand while leaning back on a rock, on tablets of pearl, and the screech of the quill could be heard. There was no veil between Him and him,” or the hadith on page 510 of the second volume: “The angels were created from the light of His two elbows and chest,” and so on. 

The work also puts lies in the mouths of major Hanbali scholars and others, such as Kharija [ibn Mus‘ab al-Sarakhsi], who died 168 after the Hijra, and who on page 106 of volume one is quoted about istiwa’ (sometimes translated as being ‘established’ on the Throne), “Does istiwa’ mean anything except sitting?”—with a chain of transmission containing a liar (kadhdhab), an unidentifiable (majhul), plus the text, with its contradiction (mukhalafa) of Islamic faith (‘aqida). Or consider the no less than forty-nine pages of vilifications of Abu Hanifa and his school that it mendaciously ascribes to major Imams, such as relating on page 180 of the first volume that Ishaq ibn Mansur al-Kusaj, who died 251 years after the Hijra said, “I asked Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, ‘Is a man rewarded by Allah for loathing Abu Hanifa and his colleagues?’ and he said, ‘Yes, by Allah.’” To ascribe things so fatuous to a man of godfearingness (taqwa) like Ahmad, whose respect for other scholars is well attested to by chains of transmission that are rigorously authenticated (sahih), is one of the things by which this counterfeit work overreaches itself, and ends in cancelling any credibility that the name on it may have been intended to give it. 

The ascription of this book to Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s son ‘Abdullah fails from a hadith point of view, since there are two unidentifiable (majhul) transmitters in the chain of ascription whose names are given as Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Simsar and Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Harawi, of whom no other trace exists anywhere, a fact that the editor and commentator, Muhammad al-Qahtani, on page 105 of the first volume tries to sweep under the rug by saying that the work was quoted by Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya. 

But the fact that such a work even exists may give one an idea of the kinds of things that have been circulated about Ahmad after his death, and the total lack of scrupulousness among a handful of anthropomorphists who tried literally everything to spread their innovations. 

Another work with its share of anthropomorphisms and forgeries is Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s Ijtima‘ al-juyush al-Islamiyya [The meeting of the Islamic armies], published by ‘Awwad al-Mu‘tiq in Riyad, Saudi Arabia, in 1988, which on page 330 mentions as a hadith of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the words “Honor the cow, for it has not lifted its head to the sky since the [golden] calf was worshipped, out of shame (haya’) before Allah Mighty and Majestic,” a mawdu‘ hadith forgery apparently intended to encourage Muslims to believe that Allah is physically above the cow in the sky. 

On page 97 of the same work, Ibn al-Qayyim also mentions the hadith of Bukhari, warning of the Antichrist (al-Masih al-Dajjal), who in the Last Days will come forth and claim to be God; of which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Allah has sent no prophet except that he warned his people of the One Eyed Liar, and that he is one-eyed—and that your Lord is not one-eyed—and that he shall have unbeliever (kafir) written between his two eyes” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 8.172).

Ibn al-Qayyim comments,

“The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) negated the attribute of one-eyedness [of Allah], which is proof that Allah Most High literally has two eyes.”

Now, any primer on logical fallacies could have told Ibn al-Qayyim that the negation of a quality does not entail the affirmation of its contrary, an example of the “Black and White Fallacy” (for example, “If it is not white, it is therefore black,” “If you are not my friend, you must be my enemy,” and so on), though what he attempts to prove here does show the kind of anthropomorphism he is trying to promote. Forged chains of hadith transmission in Ibn al-Qayyim’s Ijtima‘ al-juyush al-Islamiyya are the subject of a forthcoming work by a Jordanian scholar, In Sha’ Allah, which those interested may read. 

For all of these reasons, the utmost care must be used in ascribing tenets of faith to Ahmad ibn Hanbal or other Imams, especially when made by anthropomorphists whose concern is to create credibility for the ideas we are talking about. Many would-be revivers of these ideas today have been misled by their uncritical acceptance of the statements and chains of ascription found in the books of Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, which they cite in print and rely on, and from whence they get the idea that these were the positions of the early Muslims and prophetic Companions or Sahaba. 

Umbrage has unfortunately been taken at the biographies I appended to my translation Reliance of the Traveller about Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, which detail the gulf between Ibn Taymiya’s innovations and the ‘aqida of the early Muslims, though anyone interested can read about it in any number of other books, one of the best of which has been published in Cairo in 1970 by Dar al-Nahda al-‘Arabiyya, and is called Ibn Taymiya laysa salafiyyan [Ibn Taymiya is not an early Muslim], by the Azhar professor of Islamic faith (‘aqida) Mansur Muhammad ‘Uways, which focuses primarily on tenets of belief.

Another was written by a scholar who lived shortly after Ibn al-Qayyim in the same city, Taqi al-Din Abu Bakr al-Hisni, author of the famous Shafi‘i fiqh manual Kifaya al-akhyar [The sufficiency of the pious], whose book on Ibn Taymiya is called Daf‘ shubah man shabbaha wa tamarrada wa nasaba dhalika ila al-sayyid al-jalil al-Imam Ahmad [Rebuttal of the insinuations of him who makes anthropomorphisms and rebels, and ascribes that to the noble master Imam Ahmad], published in Cairo in 1931 by Dar Ihya’ al-Kutub al-‘Arabiyya.

Whoever reads these and similar works with an open mind cannot fail to notice the hoax that has been perpetrated by moneyed quarters in our times, of equating the tenets of a small band of anthropomorphists to the Islamic belief (‘aqida) of Imam Ahmad and other scholars of the early Muslims (al-salaf). 

The real (‘aqida) of Imam Ahmad was very simple, and consisted, mainly of tafwid, that is, to consign to Allah the meaning of the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent meanings’ of the Qur’an and hadith, accepting their words as they have come without saying or claiming to know how they are meant. His position is close to that of a number of other early scholars, who would not even countenance changing the Qur’anic order of the words or substituting words imagined to be synonyms. For them, the verse in Sura Taha, 

“The All-merciful is ‘established’ (istawa) upon the Throne” (Qur’an 20:5) 

does not enable one to say that “Allah is ‘established’ upon Throne,” or that “The All-merciful is upon the Throne” or anything else besides “The All-merciful is ‘established’ (istawa) upon the Throne.” Full stop. Their position is exemplified by Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayna, who died 98 years after the Hijra, and who said, “The interpretation (tafsir) of everything with which Allah has described Himself in His book is to recite it and remain silent about it.” It also resembles the position of Imam Shafi‘i, who simply said: “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.” 

It should be appreciated how far this school of tafwid or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah’ is from understanding the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning,’ scriptural expressions about Allah as though they were meant literally (‘ala al-dhahir). The Hanbali Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Khallal, who died in Hijra year 311, and who took his fiqh from Imam Ahmad’s students, relates in his book al-Sunna through his chain of narrators from Hanbal ibn Ishaq al-Shaybani, the son of the brother of Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s father, that

Imam Ahmad was asked about the hadiths mentioning “Allah’s descending,” “seeing Allah,” and “placing His foot on hell”; and the like, and Ahmad replied: “We believe in them and consider them true, without ‘how’ and without ‘meaning’ (bi la kayfa wa la ma‘na).” 

And he said, when they asked him about Allah’s istiwa’ [translated above as established]: “He is ‘established’ upon the Throne (istawa ‘ala al-‘Arsh) however He wills and as He wills, without any limit or any description that be made by any describer (Daf‘ shubah al-tashbih, 28).

This demonstrates how far Imam Ahmad was from anthropomorphism, though a third example is even more explicit. The Imam and hadith master (hafiz) al-Bayhaqi relates in his Manaqib al-Imam Ahmad [The memorable actions of Imam Ahmad], through his chain of narrators that:

Ahmad condemned those who said Allah was a “body,” saying, “The names of things are taken from the Shari‘a and the Arabic language. The language’s possessors have used this word [body] for something that has height, breadth, thickness, construction, form, and composition, while Allah Most High is beyond all of that, and may not be termed a “body” because of being beyond any meaning of embodiedness. This has not been conveyed by the Shari‘a, and so is rebutted” (al-Barahin al-sati‘a, 164). 

These examples provide an accurate idea of Ahmad’s ‘Aqida, as conveyed to us by the hadith masters (huffaz) of the Umma, who have distinguished the true reports from the spurious attributions of the anthropomorphists’ opinions to their Imam, both early and late. But it is perhaps even more instructive, in view of the recrudescence of these ideas today, to look at an earlier work against Hanbali anthropomorphists about this bid‘a, for the light this literature sheds upon the science of textual interpretation, and I will conclude my talk tonight to it. 

As you may know, the true architect of the Hanbali madhhab was not actually Imam Ahmad, who did not like to see any of his positions written down, but rather these were conveyed orally by various students at different times, one reason there are often a number of different narratives from him on legal questions. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the real founder of the Hanbali madhhab was the Imam and hadith master (hafiz) ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi, who died 597 years after the Hijra, and who recorded all the narratives from Imam Ahmad, distinguished the well-authenticated from the poorly-authenticated, and organized them into a coherent body of fiqh jurisprudence. 

Ibn al-Jawzi—who is not to be confused with Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya—took the question of people associating anthropomorphism with Hanbalism so seriously that he wrote a book, Daf‘ shubah al-tashbih bi akaff al-tanzih [Rebuttal of the insinuations of anthropomorphism at the hands of transcendence], refuting this heresy and exonerating his Imam of any association with it. 

One of the most significant points he makes in this work is the principle that al-Idafatu la tufidu al-sifa, meaning that an ascriptive construction, called in Arabic an idafa, ‘the x of the y’ or in other words, ‘y’s x’ does not establish that ‘x is an attribute of y.’ This is important because the anthropomorphists of his day, as well as Ibn Taymiyya in the seventh century after the Hijra, used many ascriptive constructions (idafa) that appear in hadiths and Qur’anic verses as proof that Allah had “attributes” that bolstered their conceptions of Him. 

To clarify with examples, you are doubtless familiar with the Qur’anic verse in Surat al-Fath of the Sahaba swearing a fealty pact (bay‘a) to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), that says, 

“Allah’s hand is above their hands” (Qur’an 48:10). 

Here, with the words yad Allahi ‘the hand of Allah,’ Ibn al-Jawzi’s principle means that we are not entitled to affirm, on the basis of the Arabic wording alone, that “Allah has a hand” as an attribute (sifa) of His entity. It could be that this Arabic expression is simply meant to emphasize the tremendousness of the offense of breaking this pact, as some scholars state, for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) placed his hand on top of the Sahaba’s, and the wording could be a figure of speech emphasizing Allah’s backing of this action; and classical Arabic abounds in such figures of speech. The Prophet himself (Allah bless him and give him peace) used hand as a figure of speech in the rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadith, Al-Muslimu man salima l-Muslimuna min lisanihi wa yadih “The Muslim is he who the Muslims are safe from his tongue and his hand,” where hand means anything within his power to do to them, whether with his hand, his foot, or by any other means. As Imam al-Ghazali says of the word hand:

One should realize that hand may mean two different things. The first is the primary lexical sense; namely, the bodily member composed of flesh, bone, and nervous tissue. Now, flesh, bone, and nervous tissue make up a specific body with specific attributes; meaning, by body, something of an amount (with height, width, depth) that prevents anything else from occupying wherever it is, until it is moved from that place. 

Or [secondly] the word may be used figuratively, in another sense with no relation to that of a body at all: as when one says, “The city is in the leader’s hands,” the meaning of which is well understood, even if the leader’s hands are missing, for example (al-Ghazali, Iljam al-‘awam ‘an ‘ilm al-kalam [Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1406/1985], 55).

We have already mentioned the school of thought of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Shafi‘i, and other early Muslims of understanding the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning,’ scriptural expressions about Allah by tafwid or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah.’ But secondly, we have seen from the example of the hand, that because of the figurative richness the Arabic language, and also to protect against the danger of anthropomorphism, many Muslim scholars were able to explain certain of the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning’ expressions in Qur’anic verses and hadiths by ta’wil, or ‘figuratively.’ 

This naturally drew the criticism of neo-Hanbalis, at their forefront Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, as it still does of today’s “reformers” of Islam, who echo these two’s arguments that figurative interpretation (ta’wil) was a reprehensible departure (bid‘a) by Ash‘aris and others from the way of the early Muslims (salaf); and who call for a “return to the sunna,” that is, to anthropomorphic literalism. Now, the obvious question in the face of such “reforms” is whether literalism is really identical with pristine Islamic faith (‘aqida). Or rather did figurative interpretation (ta’wil) exist among the salaf? We will answer this question with actual examples of mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning’ Qur’anic verses and hadiths, and examine how the earliest scholars interpreted them:

1. Forgetting. We have mentioned above the Qur’anic verse,

“Today We forget you as you have forgotten this day of yours” (Qur’an 45:34),

which the early Muslims used to interpret figuratively, as reported by a scholar who was himself an early Muslim (salafi) and indeed, the sheikh of the early Muslims in Qur’anic exegesis, the hadith master (hafiz) Ibn Jarir al-Tabari who died 310 years after the Hijra, and who explains the above verse as meaning: “‘This day, Resurrection Day, We shall forget them,’ so as to say, ‘We shall abandon them to their punishment.’” Now, this is precisely ta’wil, or interpretation in other than the verse’s ostensive sense. Al-Tabari ascribes this interpretation, through his chains of transmission, to the Companion (Sahabi) Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be well pleased with him) as well as to Mujahid, Ibn ‘Abbas’s main student in Qur’anic exegesis (Jami‘ al-bayan, 8.202). 

2. Hands. In the verse,

“And the sky We built with hands; verily We outspread [it]” (Qur’an 51:47),

al-Tabari ascribes the figurative explanation (ta’wil) of with hands as meaning “with power (bi quwwa)” through five chains of transmission to Ibn ‘Abbas, who died 68 years after the Hijra, Mujahid who died 104 years after the Hijra, Qatada [ibn Da‘ama] who died 118 years after the Hijra, Mansur [ibn Zadhan al-Thaqafi] who died 131 years after the Hijra, and Sufyan al-Thawri who died 161 years after the Hijra (Jami‘ al-bayan, 27.7–8). I mention these dates to show just how early they were.

3. Shin. Of the Qur’anic verse,

“On a day when shin shall be exposed, they shall be ordered to prostrate, but be unable” (Qur’an 68:42),

al-Tabari says, “A number of the exegetes of the Companions (Sahaba) and their students (tabi‘in) held that it [a day when shin shall be exposed] means that a dire matter (amrun shadid) shall be disclosed” (Jami‘ al-bayan, 29.38)—the shin’s association with direness being that it was customary for Arab warriors fighting in the desert to ready themselves to move fast and hard through the sand in the thick of the fight by lifting the hems of their garments above the shin. This was apparently lost upon later anthropomorphists, who said the verse proved ‘Allah has a shin,’ or, according to others, ‘two shins, since one would be unbecoming.’ Al-Tabari also relates from Muhammad ibn ‘Ubayd al-Muharibi, who relates from Ibn al-Mubarak, from Usama ibn Zayd, from ‘Ikrima, from Ibn ‘Abbas that shin in the above verse means “a day of war and direness (harbin wa shidda)” (ibid., 29.38). All of these narrators are those of the sahih or rigorously authenticated collections except Usama ibn Zayd, whose hadiths are hasan or ‘well authenticated.’

4. Laughter. Of the hadith related in Sahih al-Bukhari from Abu Hurayra that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said,

Allah Most High laughs about two men, one of whom kills the other, but both of whom enter paradise: the one fights in the path of Allah and is killed, and afterwards Allah forgives the killer, and then he fights in the path of Allah and is martyred,

the hadith master al-Bayhaqi records that the scribe of Bukhari [Muhammad ibn Yusuf] al-Farabri related that Imam al-Bukhari said, “The meaning of laughter in it is mercy” (Kitab al-asma’ wa al-sifat, 298).

5. Coming. The hadith master (hafiz) Ibn Kathir reports that Imam al-Bayhaqi related from al-Hakim from Abu ‘Amr ibn al-Sammak, from Hanbal, the son of the brother of Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s father, that 

Ahmad ibn Hanbal figuratively interpreted the word of Allah Most High,

“And your Lord shall come . . .” (Qur’an 89:22), 

as meaning “His recompense (thawab) shall come.”

Al-Bayhaqi said, “This chain of narrators has absolutely nothing wrong in it” (al-Bidaya wa al-nihaya,10.342). In other words, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, like the Companions (Sahaba) and other early Muslims mentioned above, sometimes also gave figurative interpretations (ta’wil) to scriptural expressions that might otherwise have been misinterpreted anthropomorphically. This was also the way of Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari, founder of the Ash‘ari school of Islamic belief, who had two views about the mutashabihat, the first being tafwid, or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah,’ and the second being ta’wil or ‘figurative interpretation’ when needed to avoid the suggestion of the anthropomorphism that is explicitly rejected by the Qur’an.

In light of the examples quoted above about such words about Allah as ‘forgetting,’ ‘hands,’ ‘shin,’ ‘laughter,’ ‘coming,’ and so forth, it is plain that Muslims scholars of ‘Aqida, whether of the Ash‘ari school or any other, did not originate ta’wil or figurative interpretation, but rather it had been with Muslims from the beginning, because that was the nature of the Arabic language. And if the above figures are not the salaf or ‘early Muslims,’ who are? Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, who died more than seven centuries after the Hijra? 

In view of the foregoing examples of figurative interpretation by early Muslims, we have to ask, Whose ‘early Islam’ would today’s reformers of ‘Aqida have us return to? Imam Abu Hanifa first noted, “Two depraved opinions have reached us from East, those of Jahm [ibn Safwan], the nullifier of the divine attributes, and those of Muqatil [ibn Sulayman al-Balkhi, the likener of Allah to His creation” (Siyar a‘lam al-nubala,’ 7.202). 

These are not an either-or for Muslims. Jahm’s brand of Mu‘tazilism has been dead for over a thousand years, while anthropomorphic literalism is a heresy that in previous centuries was confined to a handful of sects like the Hanbalis addressed by Imam Ibn al-Jawzi in his Daf‘ shubah al-tashbih, or like the forgers of Kitab al-sunna who ascribed it to Imam Ahmad’s son ‘Abdullah, or like the Karramiyya, an early sect who believed Allah to be a corporeal entity “sitting in person on His Throne.” 

As for Islamic orthodoxy, the Imam of Ahl al-Sunna in tenets of faith, ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi says in his ‘aqida manual Usul al-din [The fundamentals of the religion]:

Anyone who considers his Lord to resemble the form of a person [. . . ] is only worshipping a person like himself. As for the permissibility of eating the meat he slaughters or of marriage with him, his ruling is that of an idol-worshipper.

. . . Regarding the anthropomorphists of Khurasan, of the Karramiyya, it is obligatory to consider them unbelievers because they affirm that Allah has a physical limit and boundary from underneath, from whence He is contact with His Throne (al-Baghdadi, Usul al-din [Istanbul: Matba‘a al-Dawla, 1346/1929], 337).

In previous Islamic centuries, someone who worshipped a god who ‘sits,’ moves about, and so forth, was considered to be in serious trouble in his faith (‘aqida). Our question should be: If anthropomorphic literalism were an acceptable Islamic school of thought, why was it counted among heresies and rejected for the first seven centuries of Islam that preceded Ibn Taymiya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim, and condemned by the scholars of Ahl al-Sunna thereafter? 

To summarize everything I have said tonight, we have seen three ways of understanding the mutashabihat, or ‘unapparent in meaning’ verses and hadiths: tafwid, ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah,’ ta’wil, ‘figurative interpretation within the parameters of classical Arabic usage,’ and lastly tashbih, or ‘anthropomorphic literalism.’ 

We saw that the way of tafwid or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah,’ was the way of Shafi‘i, Ahmad, and many of the early Muslims. A second interpretive possibility, the way of ta’wil, or ‘figurative interpretation,’ was also done by the Companions (Sahaba) and many other early Muslims as reported above. In classical scholarship, both have been considered Islamic, and both seem needed, though tafwid is superior where it does not lead to confusion about Allah’s transcendence beyond the attributes of created things, in accordance with the Qur’anic verse,

“There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11).

As for anthropomorphism, it is clear from this verse and from the entire history of the Umma, that it is not an Islamic school of thought, and never has been. In all times and places, Islam has invited non-Muslims to faith in the Incomparable Reality called Allah; not making man a god, and not making God a man.

Wa jazakum Allah khayran, wa l-hamdu li Llahi Rabbil ‘Alamin.

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