The Position of the Salaf on Divine Attributes

Posted on December 17, 2006. Filed under: 202 - Advanced Asma wa Sifaat |

16. His statement, “Indeed, we were once highly respected among the adherents of the various schools; but here we are today berated, expelled, repressed, etc.”—is an indication from him to the effect that our Salaf followed certain doctrines and that we follow others; that we have thus innovated doctrines other than theirs, for which we deserve to be punished. But this is falsehood and defamation; it is the statement of one who has neither decency nor piety! Let him tell us what it is that we have innovated, and in which doctrine we have differed from our Salaf. If he should say, “you have abstained from the interpretation of the Quranic verses and the traditions which have come down to us with regard to the divine attributes,” claiming that the Salaf did interpret them and explain them, then he is uttering falsehood, forging lies, and is guilty of the most grievous aberration. For there is no question about the fact that the doctrine of the Salaf, in this regard, consisted in acknowledgment, unreserved approval, and avoidance of the temerity of using allegorical interpretation and anthropomorphism (tamthil). Moreover, the fundamental rule is to presume the lack of their use of allegorical interpretation. So let him who claims that they did interpret them allegorically produce evidence in support of his statement. But there is no way of knowing this save by the transmission and relation of traditions. Let him then transmit to us traditions to this effect on the authority of the Apostle of God or that of his Companions, or on the authority of one of the Successors or one of the approved Imams. Furthermore, he who claims this is one of the partisans of speculative theology; and they are the most ignorant of men with regard to the traditions of the Companions, the least possessed of knowledge with regard to those of the Successors, and the most neglectful of their transmission. Whence then would they have knowledge of traditions such as these? Even so, should anyone among them transmit something, his transmission would not be accepted, nor would he be heeded. The sole possessions of these people consist in forgery, falsehood, and false witness.

17. It is agreed among traditionists, orthodox and schismatics alike, that the doctrine of the Salaf as regards the attributes of God, consisted in acknowledging them, allowing them to pass intact, submitting unreservedly to their Author, and avoiding the temerity of undertaking their interpretation. It is with this information that the traditions have come down to us on their authority, both in general terms and in detail. Thus, it has been related on the authority of Malik b. Anas, al-Awza’i, Sufyan al-Thawri, Sufvan b. ’Uyayna, and Ma’mar b. Rashid, with regard to the traditions treating of the divine attributes, that they allowed them to pass intact as they had come down from the Prophet. Abu ’Urnar b. ’Abd al-Barr said in his Kitab al-’Ilm: “Those traditions which have come down to us through trustworthy traditionists on the authority of the Prophet, having proved to be sound on the authority of the Companions, constitute knowledge to be followed as one’s religion. But that which was innovated after them, having no basis in what has come down to us on their authority, constitutes a heretical innovation and an error. We give our unreserved approval to those traditions treating of the names of God and His attributes, which have come down to us on their authority; and, as it was in their case, we do not dispute with regard to them. The Salaf related them, but held their tongues from discussing them, though they, of all men, were the most profound in religious knowledge, had the greatest breadth in understanding, and were the least meddlesome. Their silence was not the result of inability. He who does not deem fit for himself what was fit for them, will be misled and will lose the right way.

18. Muhammad b. al-Hasan, the disciple of Abu Hanifa, has related that the learned men of East and West are agreed that these traditions which have come down to us, treating of the divine attributes, are not to be interpreted—or words to that effect.[11]

19. A Hanbali has said: I asked Abu ’Abd Allah Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Hanbal about those traditions which relate that God will be seen, that He descends to the heaven closest to the earth, and that He sets His foot down, and other relations similar to these. Whereupon, Abu ’Abd Allah answered: We believe in them, and accept them as true, without rejecting any part of them, when their chains of transmitters are sound; nor do we refuse the statements of the Apostle, for we know that what he has brought to us is true. God should not be described in excess of His own description of Himself, boundless and immeasurable: “There is nothing anything like Him! He is the Hearing, the Seeing.” [42:11] Therefore, we say exactly what He has said, and describe Him as He has described Himself without going beyond His description, nor removing from Him any of His attributes merely for fear of some possible slander which might be levelled against us. We believe in these traditions, we acknowledge them, and we allow them to pass intact as they have come down to us, without being able to understand the how of them (bila kayf), nor to fathom their intended sense (wa la ma’na),[12] except in accordance with His own description of Himself; and He is, according to His own description, the Hearing, the Seeing, boundless and immeasurable. His attributes proceed from Him and are His own. We do not go beyond the Quran or the traditions from the Prophet and his Companions; nor do we know the how of these (kayf), save by the acknowledgment of the Apostle and the continuation of the Quran.[13]

20. Abu ’Abd Allah also said: One day, Waki’ related to us one of these traditions, and Zakariya b. ’Adi shuddered. Whereupon, Waki’, having become angry, said: We are old enough to have heard al-A’mash and Sufyan’ relating these traditions without denying them. This is something in respect of which we know of no differences among our Salaf. He who denies them is either ignorant or feigns ignorance, is wanting in piety and decency, and when lying, he neither fears God, nor is he ashamed of himself before men.[14]

21. Now as for us, we follow the path of our Salaf, and the beaten track of our Imams, and the Sunna of our Prophet. We have not innovated any doctrines, nor have we made any innovating additions to theirs. On the contrary, we believe in the traditions which have come down to us, and allow them to pass intact, exactly as they have come from the Prophet; we uphold their teachings; we hold our tongue from discussing those things about which they were silent; we pursue the same course of conduct as they did. Therefore, there is no reason to accuse us of disagreement and innovation.

22. Ibn ’Aqil was merely speaking of his own condition, while in the state of innovation. When he introduced innovations into the religion of God and differed from his Salaf, from his Imams, and from the notable members of his school, and followed the partisans of speculative theology (kalam) and heretical innovations, abandoning orthodoxy and taking up heresy—his blood was deemed fit to be shed, his mind was made insecure, he became the object of injury and flight, intimidation and pursuit, and finally, he became humiliated and despised. So he ascribed his own condition to others; and misrepresented the innovation which issued from him as proceeding from others than himself. He clothed others with his own description, and accused the people of the Sunna of a sin similar to his own, as the saying goes: “She reproached me with her own fault, and slipped away.”

23. As for the people of the Sunna who follow the traditions and pursue the path of the righteous Salaf, no imperfection taints them, nor does any disgrace occur to them. Among them are the active learned men, the friends of God and the virtuous men, the God-fearing and pious, the pure and the righteous; those who have become friends with God and performed miracles, and those who worship in humility and exert themselves in the study of religious law. It is with their praise that books and registers are adorned. Their annals embellish the congregations and assemblies. Hearts become alive at the mention of their life histories, and happiness ensues from following in their footsteps. They are supported by religion; and religion is by them enforced. Of them the Quran speaks; and through the Quran they themselves express. And they are a retreat for men when events afflict them: for kings, and others of lesser rank, seek their visits, regarding their supplications to God as a means of obtaining blessings, and asking them to intercede for them with God.[15]

[11]Al-Lalika’i, Sharh Usul al-I’tiqad 3/480, Ibn Qudamah in Damm al-Ta’wil p.225 and al-Dhahabi in al-‘Uluww 1/1008. The following were the words of Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-Shaybani being referred to:

“The jurists the from the East to West have all agreed, on having faith in the Qur’an and the traditions narrated by the reliable narrators on the authority of the Messenger of Allah – peace and blessings be upon him – concerning the Attribute of the Lord, the Mighty and Majestic, without explanation (tafsir), description (wasf) and comparison (tashbih). Whoever gives an explanation to any of it today has left what the Prophet – peace and blessings be upon him – was upon, and has departed from the community. For they neither described nor explained these attributes. They only gave verdicts in accordance with the Book and the Sunna and remained silent. So whoever holds Jahm’s doctrine has departed from the community, because he has described God with the attributes of nothingness!”

[12]Some Ash’arites have claimed that Imam Ahmad’s statement: ‘nor to fathom their intended sense (ma’na)’ indicates that he refused to acknowledge the primary, or literal meanings of the legal texts pertaining to the divine names and attributes. This understanding is flawed due to the following reasons:

1) Ahmad clearly declares in his Usul al-Sunnah “the hadeeth, in our estimation, is to be taken by its apparent (dhaahir) meaning, as it has come from the Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam…”

2) The various narrations from Ahmad as collected by his early students and followers unanimously demonstrate that he would acknowledge the primary and literal meanings of the texts. For instance, it is well known that Ahmad would not suffice by saying ‘Quran is God’s Speech’, but he would insist that one must add, ‘…and it is uncreated’. This indicates that he literally believed Quran to be God’s Speech, which is why he categorically denied that it be God’s creation. Abu Dawud also narrated that Imam Ahmad was asked: Does any one have an excuse to say that “[the Quran is] the Speech of God”, and then remain silent? Imam Ahmad replied: “Why would he remain silent? If it wasn’t for what the people have fallen into (i.e. the belief of the creation of the Quran), he may have remained silent. But since they (the Jahmites) have already spoken (that it is created), why would they (Ahl al-Sunnah) not speak?!”

This is an important statement where Imam Ahmad confirms that if it wasn’t for the Jahmites negating that the Quran is literally the Speech of God, one may have an excuse for sufficing with: “Kalam Allah”, without adding “not created”. But when the Jahmites denied the literal meaning, Imam Ahmad obliged the Sunnis to use the terms and phrase unmentioned in the Quran to emphasise the literal meanings of the texts, that the Quran is literally the word of God, and not His creation.

Ahmad also literally affirmed that God speaks with a sound, as reported by his son, ‘Abdullah; as he equally affirmed that God is literally above the creation, and to describe his belief, he used the word ‘fawq’ (lit. above), instead of ‘ala, indicating that he affirmed the literal meaning.

3) The Hanbalis are unanimous about ijra al-nusus ‘ala al-dhawahir, that is, to believe in the texts literally, as declared in several works by early Hanbalis as well as the latter; al-Qadhi Abu Ya’la, Ibn Qudama, Ibn Taymiyya, Mar’i al-Karmi and al-Saffarini, to name but a few. Ibn Taymiyya, amongst the Hanbalis greatly endeavoured to explain not only the Hanbali doctrine, but the Sunni doctrine at large, He also concluded that Imam Ahmad would affirm the literal meanings of the divine texts, a claim left unchallenged by all Hanbalis who succeeded him. In fact, there would not be a challenge if Ibn Taymiyya’s predecessors and successors amongst the Hanbalis were unanimous over the issue, save Ibn al-Jawzi, whose biographical notice is marred with criticisms directed at him for departing from Imam Ahmad’s doctrine by opting for allegorical interpretation (ta’wil) of divine attributes.

4) The early scholars were primarily divided into two groups; the proponents of the literal meanings, and the advocates of allegorical interpretation. The phenomenon of negating the literal meanings without resorting to an allegorical interpretation was, at least during the 7th or the 8th Islamic century, a newly invented concept, unknown to the early scholars. In this regard, a famous 8th century Shafi’i historian and a traditionist, al-Dhahabi declares: “The latter ones from the speculative theologians (ahl al-nadhar) invented a new belief, I do not know of anyone preceding them in that. They said: ‘These attributes are passed on as they have come and not interpreted (la tu’awwal), while believing that the literal meaning is not intended (dhahiruha ghayr murad).’ ” (al-Dhahabi, al-‘Uluw 2/1329, ed. ‘Abdullah al-Barrak, Dar al-Watan 1999) He then goes onto state that the primary linguistic meaning is what the early scholars affirmed.

With respect to the particular statement of Imam Ahmad, as mentioned by Ibn Qudama, the following observations could be made:

1) The word ‘meaning’ is an ambiguous term in and of itself, as it could refer to the definition of a word, the lexical meaning, and the allegorical interpretation contrary to the literal meaning. It is very possible that the negation of ‘meaning’ here is referring to an allegorical meaning which the Mu’tazilites would promote, knowing that they were Ahmad’s greatest detractors. It is similarly, very unlikely that his statement would be directed towards the anthropomorphists, since they were hardly influential.

2) In this very narration, Ahmad is also asked about God’s vision on the Last Day. Since the traditionalists in bulk, and the vast majority of the Ash’arite rationalists, believe in God’s vision literally, it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that Ahmad would negate the literal meaning of ‘God’s vision’. This is perhaps one of the strongest arguments against the assumption that Ahmad negated the literal meanings of legal texts pertaining to divine attributes.

[13] Ibn Qudama, al-Dham al-Ta’wil 1/22, ed. Badr b. ‘Abd Allah al-Badr, Dar al-Salafiyya 1406; similar narration also reported by al-Lalika’i in Sharh Usul I’tiqad Ahl al-Sunnah 3/502, ed. Ahmad b. Sa’d al-Ghamidi, Dar Tayba 2005

[14] Ibn Ma’in, al-Tarikh no.2543 (in the transmission of al-Duri), al-Dulabi in al-Kuna wal-Asma’ 1:199-200, al-Daraqutni in al-Sifat p.69, Ibn Mandah in K. al-Tawhid p.211, Ibn Qudamah in Damm al-Ta’wil p.232 and al-Bayhaqi in al-Asma’ wa’l-Sifat 2:197

[15] The phrase, ‘asking them to intercede for them with God’, refers to asking them to supplicate to God on their behalf, since the supplications of the pious are more likely to be answered.

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