One of the verses of the Qur’an which has caused much controversy is the one reproduced below:
الرَّحْمَٰنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَىٰ
“The Beneficent Istawa over the throne” (20:5).
The crux of the problem is how to interpret the verb underlined.
In purely linguistic terms Istiwa can refer to:
- Settling upon something (الاستقرار والتمكن على الشئ)
- Directing yourself towards something (قصد الشئ والاقبال إليه)
- Ascending over something (علو وارتفاع فوق الشئ)
Taking the literal meaning of the verse has meant that some Sunni scholars (especially the Hanabila and the so-called Athari Salafi) have implied motion to God or a location for Him – although they hasten to add ‘in a manner that befits Him’.
1. Abdallah b. Ahmad b. Hanbal attributes the following statement in his Kitab al-Sunna (Vol. 1, Pg. 106) to the early authority Kharija (d. 168):
وهل يكون الاستواء إِلا بجلوس
Can there be Istiwa without sitting?!
2. al-Darimi (d. 280), a highly regarded scholar and author of an important book of Hadith, was also an outright Mujassim (anthropomorphist):
ولو قد شاء لاستقر على ظهر بعوضة فاستقلت به بقدرته ولطف ربوبيته فكيف على عرش عظيم أكبر من السموات والارض
If He wanted He could have settled upon the back of a gnat and it would have carried Him by His power and the grace of His lordship, then why wonder (at Him being carried) upon a great throne, bigger than the heavens and the earth!
See his Naqdh ala al-Marisi (as quoted by Ibn Taymiyya in his Bayan Talbis al-Jahmiyya Pg. 243).
3. Ibn Taymiyya (d.728) falsely attributes this view to the whole of the Ahl al-Sunna (Sharh Hadith al-Nuzul Pg. 390):
وقال اهل السنة ان الاستواء من الله على عرشه المجيد على الحقيقة لا على المجاز
The Ahl al-Sunna said that the Istiwa of Allah on His Throne is to be understood literally and not allegorically.
In another place (Sharh Hadith al-Nuzul Pg. 232) he says:
والقول الثالث وهو الصواب وهو المأثور عن سلف الأمة وأئمّتها أنه لا يزال فوق العرش، ولا يخلو العرش منه مع دنوه ونزوله إلى السماء، ولا يكون العرش فوقه
The third opinion, which is the correct one, and the one which can be traced back to the Salaf of the Umma and its ‘Aimma is that – He never stops being above the Throne, and the Throne does not become vacant when He descends to the sky, and the Throne is never above Him.
The Truth about Ibn Taymiyya
This is what Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi (d. 754), the famous grammarian and commentator of the Qur’an says in his Tafsir al-Nahr al-Madd (Pg. 372):
I read in a book of Ahmad b. Taymiyya, a contemporary of ours, which he titled the Book of the Throne, written in his own handwriting: Indeed Allah sits on a chair, and He has left some space in it which is going to be occupied by the Messenger of Allah who will sit next to Him. al-Taj Muhammad b. Ali b. Abd al-Haq al-Barinbari tricked him by appearing to be a follower of his and then took this book from him and we have read this in it.
Abu Hayyan, originally from Granada in Islamic Spain, had moved to Damascus and knew Ibn Taymiyya personally. He had held him in high esteem at first. It is only this incident, when al-Barinbari brought him the handwritten testimony of Ibn Taymiyya’s actual beliefs, that exposed him to Ibn Taymiyya’s double dealings. He realized that Ibn Taymiyya was censoring his true views to the public. It is said that Abu Hayyan never spoke to Ibn Taymiyya after this and cursed him to the day he died.
When Abu Hayyan’s work was first printed on the margin of his longer exegesis al-Bahr al-Muhit in Cairo by Matba’a al-Sa’ada in 1910, this whole passage was deleted—intentionally.
Allama Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari relates an enlightening confession to explain the discrepancy:
وقد أخبرني مصحح طبعه بمطبعة السعادة أنه استفظعها جداً فحذفها عند الطبع لئلا يستغلها أعداء الدين، ورجاني أن أسجل ذلك هنا استدراكاً لما كان منه ونصيحة للمسلمين
The copy editor who published the book in the Sa’ada publishing house informed me that he deleted this passage because it shocked him greatly and he did not want it to be used by the enemies of the religion. He asked me to clarify this here so as to set the record straight and as a counsel to the Muslims (See Kawthari’s footnote to Taj al-Diin Subki’s Sayf al-Saqil Pg. 75).
The View of the Ahl al-Bayt
What was the Imams interpretation of this Verse?
أبي، عن سعد، عن محمد بن الحسين، عن صفوان بن يحيى، عن عبد الرحمن ابن الحجاج قال: سألت أبا عبد الله عليه السلام عن قول الله عزوجل: الرَّحْمَٰنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَىٰ فقال: استوى من كل شئ فليس شئ أقرب إليه من شئ، لم يبعد منه بعيد ولم يقرب منه قريب، استوى من كل شئ
My father from Sa’d from Muhammad b. al-Husayn from Safwan b. Yahya from Abd al-Rahman b. al-Hajjaj who said: I asked Aba Abdillah عليه السلام about the words of Allah Mighty and Majestic “The Beneficent Istawa over the throne” (20:5). He said: He has transcended over all things. Thus, nothing is closer to Him than another thing. The distant is not far from Him and the near is not close to Him. He has transcended over all things.
The novel interpretation given by the Imam is المساواة في النسبة (al-Musawa fi al-Nisba). That is to say, all things are equal with each other in relation to Him. The Imam explains this in terms of things being equi-distant to God. Since this is not possible in the physical universe (things in different locations cannot be equi-distant to God if He was at a fixed point in the universe), it necessarily implies that He is beyond space and time. I have used the word ‘transcend’ to describe this concept.
There is also an indication here that Arsh (Throne) denotes all created things because the Imam interprets ‘Istiwa over the Throne’ as ‘transcending over all things’. This is consonant with the biblical symbolism ‘the heavens and the earth are His footstool’.
This interpretation is also found in a dialogue of Imam al-Sadiq with Ibn Abil Awja (a famous skeptic and proto-Atheist of Early Islam).
الهمداني والمكتب والوراق جميعا، عن علي، عن أبيه، عن الفضل بن يونس قال: كان ابن أبي العوجاء من تلامذة الحسن البصري فانحرف عن التوحيد … فقدم مكة تمردا وإنكارا على من يحج، وكان يكره العلماء مجالسته ومساءلته لخبث لسانه وفساد ضميره، فأتى أبا عبد الله عليه السلام فجلس إليه في جماعة من نظرائه فقال: يا أبا عبد الله إن المجالس بالامانات، ولابد لكل من به سعال أن يسعل أفتأذن لي في الكلام؟ فقال الصادق عليه السلام: تكلم بما شئت … فقال ابن أبي العوجاء: فهو في كل مكان أليس إذا كان في السماء كيف يكون في الارض؟ وإذا كان في الارض كيف يكون في السماء؟ فقال أبو عبد الله عليه السلام: إنما وصفت المخلوق الذي إذا انتقل من مكان اشتغل به مكان وخلا منه مكان، فلا يدري في المكان الذي صار إليه ما حدث في المكان الذي كان فيه، فأما الله العظيم الشأن الملك الديان فلا يخلو منه مكان ولا يشتغل به مكان ولا يكون إلى مكان أقرب منه إلى مكان
al-Hamdani, al-Mukatib and al-Warraq all together from Ali from his father from al-Fadhl b. Yunus who said: Ibn Abil Awja was among the students of al-Hasan al-Basri but then deviated from Tawhid … He traveled to Makka and began showing arrogance and opposition to those making the pilgrimage. The scholars would dislike sitting and debating with him because of the vulgarity of his tongue and his corrupt heart (intentions).
He came to Aba Abdillah عليه السلام and sat in his presence (circle) together with a number of his peers. He said: O Aba Abdillah, discussions are conducted with guarantee of protection (against persecution for what is said) and it is incumbent for every one who has a question to ask. Do you allow me to speak? Al-Sadiq عليه السلام said: Speak whatever you wish (freely) …
Ibn Abil Awja said: That would mean He is everywhere. Is it not the case that if He were in heaven how can He also be on earth? And if He is on earth how can He be in heaven (at the same time)?
Abu Abdillah عليه السلام said: You have described a created thing which if it departs from a place then one place is occupied by him and another place becomes empty of him, and he cannot know what is happening in the place he used to be in from the place he has moved to. As for Allah The Great in Stature, the King and Judge, then no space is empty of Him, nor does He occupy space, nor is He closer to one point with respect to another.