Meanings of Attributes

Posted on February 1, 2007. Filed under: 202 - Advanced Asma wa Sifaat |

74. He says to us: “Speak up and tell us what appears to you to be the meaning of these expressions revealed in connection with the divine attributes!” Now this fellow was indeed hasty in feigning ignorance and blindness of mind, as though he really were not familiar with the creed of the people of the Sunna and their doctrines concerning these expressions. These doctrines are also his, since he had been brought up among the adherents to these expressions, and knew their teachings with regard to them.

75. Many a time did he himself expound the doctrine of the people of the Sunna with regard to this question, and make clear the truth with regard to it after he had retracted the present discourse; and many a time did he himself show that if anyone should ask us about the intended meaning of expressions regarding the divine attributes, our answer should be: “We have nothing to offer you by way of an addition to these expressions which would convey a meaning; nay rather their very recitation is their interpretation, without any meaning or interpretation in particular. But we do know that they have a meaning, among others, which is known by Him who uttered them. So we believe in them according to that meaning.” Now, how can he, whose position is such, ask about the meaning of something, when he himself says, “I do not know it”? And how can he ask about the nature of what he himself thinks to be a heretical innovation to ask about, a transgression to discuss its interpretation, meddlesomeness and heretical exaggeration to examine? Has he not heard the story of Malik b. Anas when he was asked with regard to the Quranic verse “The Merciful rose over the throne,”[20:5] ” “how ’rise over’?” Malik inclined his head and was silent until the sweat of fever covered his brow; then he looked up and said: “The attribute ’rising over’ (istawa) is not unknown, the modality (kayf) of it is not comprehendible; but belief in it is obligatory, and inquiring about it is a heretical innovation.” Then he gave instructions, and the man was shown the way out.[56]


[56] This statement of Imam Malik has been whole-heartedly accepted by the Sunni community throughout Islamic history, and has become one of the symbols distinguishing traditionalism from rationalism. Imam Malik’s position affirming the knowledge of ‘rising over’ (istiwa), while relegating the knowledge of modality thereof to God, has been reported by at least six of Malik’s students. Those who narrated this tradition include al-Bayhaqi in al-asma wal-sifat, al-Dhahabi in al-‘uluw who says: ‘this is correctly attributed to Malik’, and Shams al-Din Ibn ‘Abd al-Hadi in his work al-istiwa who says: ‘It is correctly attributed to Malik.’ For a detailed study of Malik’s tradition refer to al-jami’ lil-buhuth wal-rasa’il by ‘Abd al-Razzaq b. ‘Abd al-Muhsin al-Badr p. 61-192)

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