Are the Sifaat of Allah from the Mutashabih?

Posted on August 16, 2006. Filed under: 202 - Advanced Asma wa Sifaat |

How do we understand quotes from various Imams where they understood the texts about the sifaat to be of the mutashaabihaat?

There is nothing wrong with those quotes. Even Ibn Taymiyya says in is al-Musawwada in Usul al-Fiqh that the verses pertaining to the Sifat are from the Mutashabihat. The problem is in the understanding of the term ‘mutashabihat’ itself, and the different categories of it.

Take, for example, Ibn Muflih and al-Mardawi, and you will see that they categorized the mutashabihat, exactly as Ibn Taymiyya categorised them in his al-Musawwada, as both were heavily influenced by Ibn Taymiyya.

The first type they mention is al-Ishtirak al-Lafdhi, i.e. when a word has two equally possible meaning. For example, the word Qur’ in Arabic refers to the menstrual period, as it also equally refers to the period between two menstrual periods.

The second type is ijmal, i.e. when Allah makes a general statement without mentioning the necessary specific details, such as ‘…and give its due (zakah) on the day of its harvest’, where we are literally ordered to give Zakah that is due on crops, but the amount due is not mentioned, and therefore, that makes this verse a mutashabih. Similarly, the Hanbali scholars, including Ibn Taymiyya, regarded the texts about Allah’s Attributes to be from the Mutashabihat, i.e. we literally believe that Allah Rose over the Throne, but the exact nature thereof remains a Mutashabih.

Secondly, the Mutashabih is not something we can never find out the true meaning of. Rather, even if a particular text on its own, due to its ambiguity is regarded to be mutashabih, other evidences from the Quran, the Sunnah or even Qiyas can clear that ambiguity to various extents.

For example, the above quoted verse: ‘…and give its due (zakah) on the day of its harvest’, on its own is Mutashabih, because Allah did not specify how much Zakah to give. However, the Sunnah clarifies this Mutashabih, that 10% on naturally irrigated crops, and 5% on manually irrigated crops.

Likewise, Allah’s statement: ‘The day when the Shin will be revealed, and they are called to prostrate, they would not be able to’, is Mutashabih, for number of reasons, most famous of them being: it is not clear whose Shin exactly is Allah referring to? His own? Or someone else’s?

However, the Sunnah clarifies this Mutashabih by explicitly stating that when Allah will reveal His Shin, all those who would prostrate to him on this earth shall prostrate, while the backs of the hypocrites would be made straight and they will try to prostrate but fall flat on their faces. (I wonder how the Ash’aris react to ‘anthropomorphic’ statements uttered by our Prophet – SallAllahu ‘alaihi wa-sallam!)

This, one would only realise if he had formally studied Usul al-Fiqh, and hence, another reason why unqualified should not delve in issues they are ignorant of.

From this we conclude two main points:

  1. The Mutashabih includes verses pertaining to ‘Aqida as well as Fiqh. There are no verses pertaining to Fiqh, except that we either recognize them as nass (explicit texts) or dhahir (literal/obvious meanings), i.e. we always know what they mean, even if they are from the mutashabih. If such texts pertaining to Fiqh are from the first category of the mutashabih, then we know multiple meanings, yet cannot pin-point which meaning is intended, which is why they are mutashabih. If they are, however, from the second category, then there is only one meaning we know, but due to the ijmal, the generality of the phrase/context, we cannot determine the exact nature, magnitude or reality thereof, which is why such verses of Fiqh are mutashabih. Do note that in both of these categories, verses do have meaning(s), and likewise, the mutashabih verses related to ‘Aqida are not treated any differently.
  2. Having established the above, the verses related to the Attributes of Allah must either be of the first category, i.e. al-Ishtirak al-Lafdhi with no dhahir; or the second category with either nass or dhahir, but with unknown reality due to ijmal, or generality of the phrase/context. Therefore, as an example, the verse ‘…and give its due (zakah) on the day of its harvest’ is a nass (clearer than a dhahir), yet it is still counted from the second category of the mutashabih, due to ijmal, i.e. the generality of the text without any mention on the amount due on the crops. Similarly, in ‘Aqida, the verses about Allah’s elevation upon His creation have the dhahir meaning, which the Ash’aris do not deny and in fact explicitly negate the dhahir, which is why it cannot be from the first category of mutashabih, i.e. al-ishtirak al-lafdhi. Hence, it can only be from the second category of the mutashabih, where either the nass, or the dhahir is known, yet the reality, nature or magnitude of it remains unknown due to ijmal.

Another important point to note is what al-Qadhi Abu Ya’la notes about Imam Ahmad, is that the Imam regarded the Muhkam to be verses which do not need any explanation, while he regarded the Mutashabih to be verses that need explanation. This is clear from the title of his book: al-Radd ‘ala al-Jahmiyya wal-Zanadiqa fi ma shakku fi hi min Mutashabih al-Qur’an wa Ta’awwaluhu ‘ala Ghayri Ta’wilihi, meaning: Refutation of the Jahmite Zanadiqa, with respect to what they doubted from the Mutashabih of the Quran, and interpreted it contrary to its true interpretation.

In this book, Imam Ahmad quotes verses with respect to the Quran, the Speech of Allah and Allah’s literal elevation and explains, what he calls, the Mutashabih of the Quran, giving the literal interpretations and refuting the interpretations of the Jahmites.

Another interesting thing to note in this book is that Imam Ahmad regards the verse: ‘There is none like unto Him’ from the Mutashabih. Surely, one cannot deduce from it that Imam Ahmad did not know what this verse meant? Or that perhaps, he couldn’t pin-point the dhahir of this verse? Rather, he classified this verse as a Mutashabih due to ijmal, the generality of the text, which all the deviant sects use against each other; Jahmis against philosophers, who use it against the Mu’tazila, who use it against the Ash’aris, who use it against us, and we use it against the Karramiyya, etc, due to the obvious generality of the verse.

Here it seems we can conclude, that the Ash’aris and the Hanbalis mutually agree that the verses pertaining to Attributes are from the mutashabihat, and also have a dhahir, for if there was no dhahir to these verses, there will be no pressing need for the Ash’aris to negate it.

Hanbalis and the Ash’aris then differ. The Hanbalis affirm the dhahir, while the Ash’aris negate the dhahir, and treat the verses like Alif-Lam-Meen; while some of them fall into contradiction by classifying such verses from the first category (al-Ishtirak al-lafdhi) with no dhahir, yet, they still insist on negating the dhahir!

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