Allah’s Attributes: Literal or Metaphorical?

In the Qur’an, Allah (subhaanahoo wa ta’aala) Says (the meaning of which is) about Himself:

There is nothing like unto Him, and He is the Hearing, the Seeing. (Qur’an 42:11)

This verse has been a cause of much controversy in Muslim history as to the nature of its exact meaning.  The struggle to understand its exact meaning caused different groups to be formed within the ummah.  To be more particular, there are three main groups each of which understand this verse in a different manner.

The first group is those who understood this verse in the context of human nature and equated Allah to His creation[1], such as, their claim that Allah has ears and eyes just like men.[2]  Hence, they “assert that Allah’s Attributes are like human attributes and that His Essence is like the essences of created beings.”[3]  Thus, they focused on the second part of the verse that He is the Hearing, and the Seeing and ignored the first part where Allah explicitly states that there is nothing like Him.  They are usually referred to with the title of mushabbihah.

The second group is those who focused on the first part of the verse that there is nothing like unto Him and ignored the end of the verse.  They stripped Allah of His Attributes and claimed that all Attributes in the Qur’an and Sunnah attributed to Allah must be either denied or reinterpreted to mean something different than their apparent meaning.  Their reasoning behind this denial was their understanding that by affirming for Allah such Attributes is equating Him physically to His creation, which He Himself has denied.  Hence, they accused everyone who affirmed Allah’s Attributes to be guilty of anthropomorphism.  They also view the Attributes as imperfect and believe that affirming such Attributes for Allah would imply imperfection in His Essence though He is perfect.  Those who hold this ideology fall into various sects/categories.  According to Shaykh Umar Sulaiman Al-Ashqar, “there are those who are completely immersed in denying the Attributes and deny both Allah’s Names and His Attributes.  Others deny the Attributes but not the Names while yet others deny some of the Attributes and not others.”[4]

The last group is those who took a middle position between the two previous groups.  They affirmed what Allah and His Messenger (sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) affirmed of His Attributes while at the same time strongly denied equating Him to His creation.   Shaykh Al-Uthaymin said, “their methodology is to affirm whatever Allah has affirmed for Himself in His book and has affirmed for Himself by the tongue of His Messenger without making distortions, nullifications, descriptions, or comparisons of them (to His creation).”[5]  In other words, they affirmed that Allah has hands, foot, eyes, face, and whatever He or His Messenger affirmed for Him but they are not, this group claimed, the same in physical nature as His creation.   To them, the “howness” of Allah’s Attributes is unknown and something not to be questioned.  Those Attributes are with Him as it suits His Majesty.  By doing this, they incorporated the whole verse above completely in forming their belief without ignoring one part of the verse at the expense of the other.

There is no doubt that the last group is the clear winner as it avoids the extremes of both of the previous groups and adopts a middle path.  And the truth is always somewhere in the middle.  And the statements, methodology and beliefs of the salaf (early generation of Muslims) support it.  One of the strongest supporters of this belief and a master of Islamic sciences, Shaykh ul Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, said, “the salaf have avoided both negation and comparison.  They neither compare Allah’s Attributes with the Attributes of His creatures or His Essence with their essence, nor do they negate what He has affirmed of Himself or His prophet has affirmed of Him.  Hence, they do not have to falsify His Names and Attributes, misunderstand His Words by isolating them from their contexts, or distort the meaning of His Names and Words.”[6]

The proper way to understand Allah’s Attributes is by not thinking of them in the same context as the creation.  There is no doubt that there is nothing similar to Him, as stated in the above verse, and anyone who compares Him to His creation in any way or form has been misguided from the straight path.  However, the second group, those who deny or reinterpret Allah’s Attributes, took this refutation to an extreme.  They “liken Allah’s Names and Attributes to the names and attributes of His creatures, give them the meaning which they have in the context of the creatures, and deny the meanings”[7] altogether.  Ibn Taymiyyah points towards their hypocrisy in understanding His Attributes by stating that, “when we say that Allah Knows everything, that He can do everything, or that He Sees everything, Hears everything, it does not mean that His Knowledge and Power have the same characteristics which are found in the knowledge and power of the creatures.”[8]  In other words, just as we do not think of such Attributes of His in the same context and resemblance to His creation, we should also do the same with His other Attributes, which He and His prophet have affirmed in the Qur’an and Sunnah.  Who are we to pick and choose which Attributes we will affirm and which we will deny based on our own intellectual reasoning?  Allah is infinite and we are finite, thus, our limited minds will never be able to completely understand the modality of His Attributes and Essence.  Shaykh Al-Uthaymin said, “the Names and Attributes of Allah are clear in their meanings because their meanings are known.  They are unclear in their reality because their reality is not known by anyone except Allah.”[9]

Finally, Allah and His Messenger are more eloquent and better capable of describing Him.  They affirmed those Attributes clearly without going into their details nor expressing something other than their apparent meaning.  If this issue were of such concern that people may wrongly understand His Attributes in a literal way, which is the common case among people in communication, then Allah and His prophet would have clarified it for the people so that no person would go astray regarding His Attributes.  Just as the man who understood the verse of fasting to mean actual thread and not the timing of dawn and the Prophet clarified it for him.  This is because people usually understand words in language literally and do not look for hidden meanings in everyday speech.  The speech of Allah (Qur’an) is for all mankind and it is unfair to claim without basis that all of it is literal except when it speaks of the Attributes of Allah, in which case, it is metaphorical as majority of the deniers of His Attributes claim nowadays.  This is why Ibn Taymiyyah said, “we know what Allah has said of Himself is free from ambiguity and obscurity, and that one can find out its meaning in the way one finds out from a statement what its author wants to say.  This is all the easier when the author is one who knows more than anyone what he says, and is more competent than anyone to express his ideas, to formulate them and state them.”[10]  Hence, the Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah affirm all of Allah’s Attributes which He or His Messenger have affirmed literally but at the same time deny their similarity in any way or form to His creation.


[1] Humanistic qualities or Human characteristics are terms the negators use to deny attributes shared between Allah and created beings. The source of the attributes possessed by humans is Allah himself, but humans possess them in their restricted and deficient form while Allah possesses them in their highest, most complete and perfect form.

[2] Ahl-us-Sunnah’s stance towards ascription of body, limbs, organs, direction, place and other innovated terms not found in the Qur’aan, the Sunnah or the statements of the Salaf is to neither affirm them nor deny them.

They may not be affirmed since it would amount to ascribing to Allah what He did not ascribe to Himself, but they may also not be negated because Allah kept silent about them and did not negate a body and so on from himself, so denying them will amount to pontificating about Allah without knowledge!

As for the meaning, then since some of these may imply more than one thing (although usually they are used to deny the attributes), their intended meaning is requested and if it is negation of tashbeeh (equating Allah to His creation) then the meaning is accepted, while if it is negation of the attributes then the meaning is rejected.

As for the words, they must never be used at all, neither in affirmation, nor in denial.

[3] Al-Ashqar, pg. 254

[4] Ibid, pg. 258.

[5] Al-Uthaymin, pg. 61

[6] Ansari, pg. 76

[7] Ibid, pg. 77

[8] Ibid

[9] Al-Uthaymin, pg. 65

[10] Ansari, pg. 76

Bibliography

  1. Ansari, Muhammad ‘Abdul-Haqq.  Ibn Taymiyyah Expounds on Islam.  Riyadh:  Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University, 2000.
  2. Al-Ashqar, ‘Umar Sulaiman.  The Names and Attributes of Allah:  According to the doctrine of Ahl-us-Sunnah wal Jama’ah.  Suffolk:  Jam’iat Ihyaa’ Minhaaj Al-Sunnah, 1999.
  3. Al-Uthaymin, Muhammad Salih.  Shaykh Muhammad Salih al-‘Uthaymin’s Notes on al-‘Aqidah al-Wasitiyah.  Trans.  Shakiel Humayun.  New York:  Purification and Development Publishing, 2004.
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