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Refuting the Claim that the Pious Predecessors Falsely Interpreted the Attributes of Allāh

Imām Ibn Qudāmah al-Maqdisī

An explanation of the correct meaning of the statement “He is with you” (57:4).

[Q]: If it is said: You have falsely interpreted the verses and narrations, claiming with regards to the saying of the Most High:

وَهُوَ مَعَكُمْ أَيْنَ مَا كُنتُمْ

“And He is with you (by His Knowledge) wheresoever you may be.”
(Al-Ḥadīd, 57:4)

That He is with you by His knowledge, and the likeness of such verses and narrations. Thus, you are guilty of the very same crime [i.e. false interpretation of Allāh’s names and attributes] you have alleged against us?

[A]: We say: We have not falsely interpreted a single passage. This is because attaching these passages to the meaning stated in no way represents false interpretation. False interpretation means to interpret a phrase in a manner that opposes its apparent meaning. The meanings stated here are the apparent ones from the passages mentioned as evidenced by the fact that it is the first meaning that comes to mind upon reading it.

The apparent meaning of a given phrase is the first interpretation of it that comes to mind upon hearing it, whether that meaning is actual or metaphorical. For this reason, there are words that are used widely whose apparent meaning is metaphorical rather than actual. Like the words:

Rāwiyah: linguistically refers to that which holds water which is a camel, then used widely in reference to the water vessel itself made from animal skin1 2 or

Ẓaʿīnah: linguistically refers to a camel-borne sedan chair for women but used widely referring to women because they are the ones who ride in said chairs,3 and other than these two terms that are widely used.
The apparent meaning of such terms are metaphoric which is different to their actual linguistic meanings. If one was to take these terms literally, it would represent a form of false interpretation for which he would require evidence.

The same can be said for other words that have a well-known meaning in Islamic legislation in addition to an actual linguistic meaning. For example:

Wuḍūʾ: ritual ablution but linguistically refers to general purity or cleanliness,

Ṭahārah: refers to the state of purity following ritual ablution but linguistically refers to general cleanliness and chastity,

Ṣalāh: ritual prayer but linguistically refers to invocation for goodness,

Ṣawm: ritual fasting but linguistically refers to abstaining from a thing,

Ẓakāh: obligatory allotment given to the classes of zakāh recipients but linguistically refers to purification, and

Ḥajj: ritual pilgrimage but linguistically refers to an intention that is perpetually made for the accomplishment of a particular mission or directive.4

The apparent meaning of all these words is the Islamic legislative meaning, not its alternate linguistic one.

If this point has been satisfactorily established, then the meaning that comes to mind upon hearing the saying ‘Allāh is with you’, that is: by His protection and preservation. For this reason, Allāh has said regarding His Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم):

إِذْ يَقُولُ لِصَاحِبِهِ لَا تَحْزَنْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَنَا ۖ

“He (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said to his companion (Abū Bakr): “Be not sad (or afraid), surely Allāh is with us.””
(Al-Tawbah, 9:40)

And He said to Musá (عليه السلام):

إِنَّنِي مَعَكُمَا أَسْمَعُ وَأَرَىٰ

“I am with you both, hearing and seeing.”
(Ṭāhá, 20:46)

If the intended meaning [from the previous verses] was that He Himself was with every person, there would be no specific merit associated with Him being with His prophets because He is with them just as He is with everyone else. Herego, His presence would not stipulate the alleviation of Abū Bakr’s sadness, nor would it represent a reason for its alleviation [as in the verse].

Thus, the apparent meaning of these passages is consistent with the way it has been understood. There is no false interpretation present. Even if there was an interpretation present, we are not the ones who have interpreted it in this way. The pious predecessors (رحمهم الله), whose correctness has been authenticated and whose path we are obliged to follow, were the ones who interpreted these verses in this way. For, indeed, Ibn ʿAbbās, al-Ḍaḥḥāk, Mālik, Sufyān (al-Thawrī) and many others from among the scholars have said regarding His saying “And He is with you” that is, by His knowledge.

It has also been confirmed in the Book of Allāh and narrated from multiple independent lines of inquiry from the Messenger of Allāh (صلى الله عليه وسلم), and the consensus of scholars [ijmāʿ], that Allāh—the Most High—is above the heavens, above His throne. This wording comes in attachment with that which proves that knowledge is what is being referred to by these passages. For example, His saying:

أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّهَ يَعْلَمُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ مَا يَكُونُ مِن نَّجْوَىٰ ثَلَاثَةٍ إِلَّا هُوَ رَابِعُهُمْ وَلَا خَمْسَةٍ إِلَّا هُوَ سَادِسُهُمْ وَلَا أَدْنَىٰ مِن ذَٰلِكَ وَلَا أَكْثَرَ إِلَّا هُوَ مَعَهُمْ أَيْنَ مَا كَانُوا ۖ ثُمَّ يُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا عَمِلُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ

“Have you not seen that Allāh knows whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth? There is no najwá (secret counsel) of three, but He is their fourth (with His Knowledge, while He Himself is over the Throne, over the seventh heaven), nor of five but He is their sixth (with His Knowledge), not of less than that or more, but He is with them (with His Knowledge) wheresoever they may be; and afterwards on the Day of Resurrection, He will inform them of what they did.”
(Mujādilah, 58:7)

Then, He says at the end of the verse:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ ‎﴿٧﴾

“Verily, Allāh is the All-Knower of everything.”
(Mujādilah, 58:7)

The verse begins and ends with the mention of His knowledge, [its middle part] the context is meant to instil fear in them, associated with Allah—the Most High’s— knowledge of their state, and that he will inform them of what they used to do on the Day of Judgement and will recompense them for it.

These attached indicators prove that knowledge is what is being referred to in these verses. The attached indicators in these verses are all consistent with one another, acting to indicate what is meant by these verses, just as it confirms the sayings of the pious predecessors and their interpretation of it. How, then, could one attach to these verses a meaning that is contrary to the Book of Allāh, the narrations of the Sunnah, and the saying of the pious predecessors [i.e., the false claim that Allāh is everywhere]?!

This is a matter that is not obscure from the truly intellectual one, by the will of Allāh. If it is obscure, then we have revealed and clarified it—all praise be to Allāh, the Most High. Even in consideration of this, if a person was to remain silent regarding the interpretation and meaning of these passages, then there should be no objection to this.5 This is not obligatory upon him. For falsely interpreting passages is an action that is not obligatory on anyone—by the will of Allāh.

[1] See ‘Al-Sharḥ al-Ṣawtī lizād al-Mustaqniʿ’1:997.
[2] Note: Meanings of all words henceforth are from the translator to provide context.
[3] See ‘Gharīb al-Ḥadīth’ 2:486.
[4] See ‘Al-ʿAdhb al-Namīr’ 5:253.
[5] Referencing the path of the pious predecessors with regards to the names and attributes of Allāh. This ‘silence’ is due to the meaning of these words being well-known already as elucidated in this article and explained by Shaykh ʿAbd al-Muhsin al-ʿAbbād in his saying: “As was narrated from Imām Mālik (رحمه الله) their [the pious predecessors] correct methodology in his saying: “The meaning of the word istiwāʾ [rising over] is well-known [i.e. he remained silent regarding its meaning], how it occurs [in relation to Allāh] is unknown, having īmān in its occurrence is obligatory, and asking about how it occurs is an innovation.” Al-Shaykh Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn ʿAlī al-Maqrīzī also clarified the path of the companions with regards to the attributes of Allāh in his saying: “Indeed, Allāh has raised among the Arabs His prophet, Muḥammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) who was sent to all of mankind. He described to them their Lord—the Glorified, the High—with that which He has described Himself in all His Generosity in His great Book, revealed unto his (صلى الله عليه وسلم) heart by the trustworthy Rūḥ [Jibrīl]. He (صلى الله عليه وسلم) also described Him by that which was revealed to him from his Lord [in the Sunnah]. Not one of the Arabs ever asked him (صلى الله عليه وسلم), whether they be city-folk or bedouin, concerning the meaning of a single aspect of this, in the way they used to ask him concerning ṣalāh, zakāh, ṣawm, and ḥajj and other than these things within which Allāh has commands and prohibitions. Or the way they used to ask him regarding the circumstances of Judgement Day or Paradise and Hell. As if one of them had asked regarding the meaning of one of these divine attributes, it would have reached us just as the other aḥadīth from him (صلى الله عليه وسلم) have reached us concerning rulings, ḥalāl and ḥarām…And whoever fully immerses himself in the examination of books of prophetic ḥadīth and narrations from the pious predecessors, will realise that it has never been narrated, authentically or otherwise, from a single companion—despite their varying levels and vast numbers—that they ever asked the Messenger of Allāh (صلى الله عليه وسلم) regarding the meaning of a single attribute He used to describe His Glorious Self, whether this be in the glorious Qurʾān or upon the tongue of His Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم). Rather, all of them already knew the meaning of the words used, and were hence silent when it came to discourse surrounding the meaning of these attributes.” See Qaṭf al-Jiná al-Dānī: 14.

Source: Dham al-Taʾwīl: 43-44
Translated by: Riyāḍ al-Kanadī

Published: December 22, 2023
Edited: April 23, 2024

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