Disclaimer: This post is quite long as it deals with an extensive subject.
While writing my last post Ash’ari – What’s in a name?, I was getting a rush of many things I wanted to state, but in the interest of keeping it short I opted to not mention much of what I would’ve liked to. Doing so has bothered me a great deal and therefore I decided to follow it up with another more elaborate exposition on this issue of Salafi/Wahhabi and Ash’ari labels. I still won’t get into the issue in exhausting detail, because that would mean I should write a book instead, which I’m not worthy of undertaking such a task. However, I will seek to highlight the main points here, because I’ve been finding that for those who do not study the matter, these labels are confusing more than anything. By that I mean that those who use these terms are confused in themselves and in turn confuse others when they throw these terms around. Just a word of warning, this is one of those topics that I get extra harsh on those Muslims that like to label their fellow Muslims. I have a zero tolerance policy for any Muslim that excludes other Muslims, especially when they do it in the name of Islam.
I do NOT like the term Salafi. It gives the impression to those who hear it that the one claiming to be Salafi is in fact following on the footsteps of the Salaf, i.e. the pious predecessors, while everyone else is not. This could NOT be further from the truth. In fact, in many cases those who claim to be Salafis should be punished for desecrating the name Salafi and giving such a distorted view of Islam and of the Salaf, which ends up pushing many Muslims away and driving non-Muslims to avoid Islam. I prefer the term Googli or YouTubi, because the reality is sadly that’s where they get all their “Islam” from. For these people “true” and “authentic” Islamic information will ONLY come from places like http://www.islam-qa.com or http://www.islamway.com. It’s really interesting that in those two examples that represent others, the first website is run by a well-known Islamic lecturer and author in Saudi Arabia, while the second one is run by a much more extensive group, that has names running for 3 pages, the great majority of which are Saudi or at least educated in Saudi Arabian Islamic universities (there were a couple of names from Al Azhar university though just to be fair!). When it comes to YouTube, the same principle holds. If the Shaykh sitting in front of that camera is wearing the Saudi robe and head piece, that’s confirmation for his uprightness and truthfulness!
So the premise most of those who call themselves Salafi, yet are in fact Googli or YouTubi, is that for any Islamic information to be authentic it must come from Saudi Arabia. Otherwise you can take it and throw it against the wall. Am I the only one who thinks that this is ludicrous? If you think that true Islam comes from Saudi Arabia, and all others are false or misguided or misunderstanding or innovating or anything of that sort, then you should wake up and smell the qahwa. The sad thing is, these people seem to not have anyone really stand up to them because they’re really clever in how they use the Quran and narrations of the Prophet peace be upon him to intellectually terrorize Muslims around them. Sophistical reasoning is the game in town for them. Yet, none of them are well versed in the Tradition in the slightest degree.
What are these terms Salafi/Wahhabi and Ash’ari about? Why do they have a problem with each other so much? And can they just get along?
This issue goes back in time to over 1100 years ago. Imam Abu Al Hasan Al Ash’ari, who is a descendent of one of the greatest companions of the Prophet peace be upon him, Abu Musa Al Ash’ari may God be pleased with him, was born around the year 260 AH in Basra, Iraq, and died around the year 324 AH in Baghdad, Iraq. He was a great theologian and philosopher during his time, and was one of the main, if not the top, figures of the Mu’tazilite school of theology. This school of theology had the basic premise that the intellect supersedes the transmission of any Tradition, and that a sound intellect and state of an individual are enough to determine what is permissible from that which is not. They had several positions in Islamic creed that deviated from the people of Sunnah, such as that God does not create the actions of people; that His Unity and Uniqueness negated having attributes (despite that these attributes are affirmed in the Quran); that the profligate Muslim is neither a believer nor a disbeliever, but he’s in a state between the two; that those in Paradise will not see God (again despite the verse that says that in the Quran); as well as several other contentions that the Mu’tazilites had. The point for them where all of their system of theology arose is that the intellect can do it all. One really famous Mu’tazilite figure that most Muslims don’t realize was a Mu’tazilite is Al Ja’hith (الجاحظ).
For a period of approximately 40 years Imam Al Ash’ari was the most prominent figure in the Mu’tazilite school. He defended their arguments and attacked others who opposed them by using systems of logic and philosophical argumentations. Most of his writings were of a Mu’tazilite dispensation, which makes sense since most of his lifetime was spent as a Mu’tazilite. The Imam had an intellectual crisis after spending all his years as a Mu’tazilite, and after a short period of thought and reflection he had what can only be described as an opening from God, which was followed by him joining the group known at the time as Al Kullabiyya. He then spent his time using the systems of logic and philosophical argumentations used by the Mu’tazilites to refute their theological positions, to give conclusions such as that the actions of people are in fact created by God not by the people themselves, and that the Quran is the Uncreated Word of God, and that the attributes of God are to be affirmed not negated as they claimed. Imam Al Ash’ari further attempted to show that contrary to their claims, all of the refutations against the Mu’tazilites were consistent with sound logic and intellect. Major figures from Al Kullabiyya were Imam Al Harith Al Muhasibi who authored Risalat Al Mustarshideen (رسالة المسترشدين), Imam Ibn Hiban who authored the Hadith collections, and Imam Al Bukhari who authored the famous Sahih Al Bukhari. Interestingly enough, Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal may God be pleased with him always criticized Imam Al Muhasibi for getting into the philosophy of theology to a large degree. The only reason I can think of why he would do that is because of a personal experience I had when I asked Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah may God preserve him about studying philosophy, and his response to me was to be careful for philosophy brings about heresy.
Finally, Imam Al Ash’ari settled upon the creed that his pious predecessors upheld. Namely, that whatever has been revealed in the Quran and transmitted in a sound narration was to be taken at face value, and to not delve into its interpretation much. However, and this is the point the so-called Salafis don’t like, if the situation arises and it becomes a necessity, where a verse or narration from the Prophet peace be upon him gives an anthropomorphic impression, those who follow Imam Al Ash’ari’s school resort to interpretation, but follow it with the phrase “and God knows best what it means”. This is the core issue of the matter. This is where the so-called Salafi goes as far as excommunicating the Ash’ari from the people of Sunnah, falsely believing that he’s defending the religion. The accusation is that the Ash’ari still uses the intellect as a judge over the transmission, which the Salafi can’t accept despite God saying in the Quran:
أفلا يتدبرون القرآن
Do they not reflect upon the Quran
After this somewhat lengthy introduction, and believe me when I say that I’ve left much out of it in the interest of wanting to talk about the meat of the subject, it’s time to shed light on the major issue the so-called Salafi has with the Ash’ari, and it has to do with the attributes of God.
In the Quran, God says in Chapter 3, Verse 7:
هُوَ ٱلَّذِى أَنزَلَ عَلَيكَ ٱلكِتَـٰبَ مِنهُ ءَايَـٰتٌ مُّحكَمَـٰتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ ٱلكِتَـٰبِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَـٰبِهَـٰتٌ فَأَمَّا ٱلَّذِينَ فِى قُلُوبِهِم زَيغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَـٰبَهَ مِنهُ ٱبتِغَاءَ ٱلفِتنَةِ وَٱبتِغَاءَ تَأوِيلِهِۦ وَمَا يَعلَمُ تَأوِيلَهُ ۥ إِلَّا ٱللَّه وَٱلرَّٲسِخُونَ فِى ٱلعِلمِ يَقُولُونَ ءَامَنَّا بِهِۦ كُلٌّ مِّن عِندِ رَبِّنَا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُوْلُواْ ٱلأَلبَـٰبِ
He it is Who has revealed unto you (O Muhammad) the Scripture wherein are clear revelations – they are the substance of the Book – and others (which are) allegorical. But those in whose hearts is doubt pursue, that which is allegorical seeking (to cause) dissension by seeking to explain it. None knows its explanation except God. And those who are of sound instruction say: We believe therein; the whole is from our Lord; but only men of understanding really heed
Imam Ibn Katheer may God have mercy on him mentions in his commentary on the Quran Tafseer Al Quran Al Kareem that Imam Ahmed may God be pleased with him narrated that the Prophet peace be upon him heard a group of people arguing and he said:
إنما هلك من كان قبلكم بهذا، ضربوا كتاب الله بعضه ببعض، وإنما أنزل كتاب الله يصدق بعضه بعضا، فلا تكذبوا بعضه ببعض، فما علمتم منه فقولوا، وما جهلتم فكلوه إلى عالمه
Surely the people who have come before you were destroyed by this (argumentation), they negated the Book of God using itself against itself, and verily the Book of God was revealed to affirm itself by itself, so do not negate it by it, and what you comprehended from it you can relate, and what you did not then leave it to its Knower
Imam Fakhr Ad’Deen Ar’Razi in his commentary on the Quran Mafateeh Al Ghaib addresses this verse from several angles. Linguistically, to say that a statement is Muhkam (محكم) means that it does not allow for any other meaning to come to your mind. For example, if I described a table color as “black”, the only color you will imagine is black. Your mind does not accommodate for anything different. Furthermore, black doesn’t come in shades. So you literally cannot imagine anything that would be different than anyone else when it comes to being told that the color of the table is black. On the other hand, to say that a statement is Mutashabih (متشابه), i.e. allegorical or ambiguous, means that it would carry different but equal possibilities, to the point where you could not affirm one over the other. This would of course be the case until it becomes clarified further using a statement that is Muhkam. What’s interesting about this is that as Imam Ar’Razi mentions, people who follow a particular school, will claim that the proofs for their conclusions are Muhkam, while those that oppose them are Mutashabih. For example, those who are of the opinion that the believers will be able to see God from Paradise use Verses 22 and 23 from Chapter 75, where God says:
وُجُوهٌ يَومَئذٍ نَّاضِرَةٌ إِلَىٰ رَبها نَاظِرَةٌ
Faces on that day are illuminated, looking upon its Lord
Meanwhile, those who reject this vision say that it’s a Mutashabih verse and the Muhkam one is Verse 103 from Chapter 6, where God says:
لَّا تُدرِكه ٱلأَبصَـٰرُ
Vision comprehends Him not
There are more examples that Imam Ar’Razi lists (and you can go check them out for yourself if you’d like in his commentary), but I think this one is sufficient to display the point, which is that the methodology of those holding one particular opinion is to claim that the Quranic verse or Prophetic narration they’re using is unambiguous and very clear, while those of the opposing opinion are utilizing interpretations of ambiguous ones. Funny enough, the same people that are being rejected are saying exactly the same thing but in opposite about the first group. So in reality it’s just a big ego trip just to prove that one group is on the truth while the other is on the falsehood. And to see how in the above example both sides are being ridiculous when they assume that their understanding is right while the other is wrong, all one has to do is examine the linguistic use of words in both verses; naathira (ناظرة) and al abss’aar (الأبصار).
Modern Arabs would falsely assume that the two words are synonymous, and therefore would translate both words into any language using that same meaning. However, Arabic is not that simple and has subtle nuances in meaning that only those well-grounded in the language would pick up – read any book on al furooq allughawiyya (الفروق اللغوية) and you’ll see what I mean. In this case, the word أبصر (abss’ar) indicates not only seeing, but also comprehending and encompassing what is seen (تفيد الإدراك), while the word نظر (na’thar) indicates seeing and not comprehending and encompassing what is seen. To give an everyday type of example that most of us have experienced, when someone looks through you and you wave at them but they don’t respond until you scream at them and they finally catch on and realize it’s you and respond and say “I didn’t see you there”. Also, those who sleepwalk seem awake because they usually have their eyes open and in some cases can go all the way to the store and back and not realize what they’re doing. In both of those examples, for the person using their eyes one would use the Arabic word na’thar. To use abss’ar the person in question must be actively engaged and comprehends the thing they’re looking at. To show this differential use of these two words in the Quran go to Chapter 7, Verse 198 where God says:
وَإِن تَدعُوهُم إِلَى ٱلهُدَىٰ لَا يَسمَعُواْ وَتَرَىهُم يَنظُرُونَ إِلَيكَ وَهُم لَا يُبصِرُونَ
And if you invite them to guidance, they do not hear; and you see them looking towards you, yet they do not see
Even if you don’t understand the differential use of the words abss’ar and na’thar, you still conclude from this verse alone that they can’t both have the same meaning since God is using one to affirm a quality of sight while the other is being negated. So when it comes to seeing God from Paradise, both groups’ understandings can actually be combined. Meaning, the believers will be able to see God from Paradise, but they still won’t be able to comprehend Him as they would comprehend anything else using their vision.
But let’s get back to the verse from Chapter 3 regarding the allegorical verses. The Prophet peace be upon him ordered us to simply believe in those verses but not delve into them and what they mean. Furthermore, as the majority of scholars have determined based on where the end of the statement comes within the verse, those who delve into the allegorical verses are the ones who have doubt and sickness in their hearts. There is a narration in the Tradition that Imam Malik may God be pleased with him had a man come to him and ask about Verse 5 from Chapter 20:
ٱلرَّحمَـٰنُ عَلَى ٱلعَرشِ ٱستَوَىٰ
This verse is translated in different ways depending on how the translator interpreted the verse:
The Beneficent One, Who is established on the Throne
The Beneficent God is firm in power
The All-Merciful has positioned Himself on the Throne
The Most Gracious God rose over the Mighty Throne
The Compassionate on the Throne is established
The question this man asked to Imam Malik may God be pleased with him was: how did God do it? In other words, what does this verse mean exactly? There are two versions for how Imam Malik may God be pleased with him responded. After lowering his head for a while, and getting hot and sweating heavily, he raised his head and said in one version:
الاستواء معلوم والكيف مجهول والسؤ ال عنه بدعة وما أراك إلا مبتدع فأنيحوه عني الساعة
al istiwa’ is known (i.e. linguistically we know what it means), and the how is unknown (i.e. what it actually means when it’s related to God is unknown), and asking about it is an innovation, and I see that you are nothing but an innovator, so get him out of my sight.
The other response of Imam Malik may God be pleased with him was:
The interpretation is in reciting it (i.e. it means what God intended and its explanation is by reciting it as is).
Either response of Imam Malik is a display of how the pious predecessors treated verses in the Quran or Prophetic narrations dealing with the attributes of God, which are allegorical or ambiguous in meaning. In those occasions where God or the Prophet peace be upon him used words that would typically mean something anthropomorphic, the pious predecessors didn’t delve into any of it and left it alone. They knew it couldn’t mean something anthropomorphic about God, because He says in Chapter 42 Verse 11:
لَيسَ كَمِثلِهِۦ شَىءٌ
There is nothing like a likeness of Him
The Arabic word in the verse ka’mithlihi (كمثله) uses two tools used in the Arabic science of balagha (بلاغة) for describing likeness. The letter kaf (ك) is used for likening something to another to a great degree. The use of mithl (مثل) is used for likening something to another to a small degree. So linguistically, what God is saying in the above verse is that nothing is like Him in either a small or a great degree, i.e. nothing can be compared to Him in any way whatsoever. This verse alone makes the approach of anyone towards verses in the Quran or Prophetic narrations to be a conceding approach of the meaning to God while acknowledging that it can’t mean anything anthropomorphic. And this is where the modern so-called Salafis have a problem with Ash’aris.
The Ash’ari creed’s approach to ambiguous verses in the Quran and Prophetic narrations regarding the attributes of God was not antithetical to the approach of the pious predecessors. Rather, they recognized that to not delve into their meanings would be the proper way to handle them. However, as Islam started to spread to Christian lands, and as people from different dispensations started to have questions for Muslims about God, and as Muslims had to deal with people who did not speak the Arabic language, something had to be done when it came to the ambiguous verses in the Quran and Prophetic narrations dealing with the attributes of God. For example, when God says in Chapter 48 Verse 10:
يَدُ ٱللَّهِ فَوقَ أَيدِيهم
One would not literally translate the word yad into English as hand, but rather as a metaphor for power, i.e.:
The power of God is over theirs
Another example is with the verse I’ve already mentioned:
ٱلرَّحمَـٰنُ عَلَى ٱلعَرشِ ٱستَوَىٰ
The Ash’ari way to explain this would be to use the translation:
The Beneficent God is firm in power
Instead of saying anything else relating to God becoming established on the Throne or sitting on it or anything of that sort.
So for the Ash’aris the reason they interpreted such verses in the Quran and narrations from the Prophet peace be upon him was not due to free choice in the matter. It was a matter of necessity. In other words, they were compelled to do so out of need to translate or explain to either non-Muslims/non-Arabs, or to Muslims who raised those questions up due to doubt in their hearts. This was also to uphold the principle in the Quran of:
لَيسَ كَمِثلِهِۦ شَىءٌ
There is nothing like a likeness of Him
Which was repeated again in a different way in Chapter 112 Verse 4:
وَلَم يَكُن لَّهُ ۥ كفُوًا أَحَدٌ
And never has there ever been anyone co-equal to him
The idea was to use this strategy to stop the mind from imagining something unbecoming of God. This was also not done out of thin air without evidence. The Arabic language is quite poetic and most words carry metaphorical meanings other than the outward literal meaning. For example, the word istiwa’ (استواء) has about 14 meanings in the Arabic dictionaries, which I’ve come across. One of them is the outward meaning “to establish” or “to sit”. However, there are others such as to affirm in power, to take over, to complete a process, etc. The Ash’ari position on such a word when it’s attributed to God is that it can’t mean the same thing outwardly when it’s applied to humans, i.e. to sit. Therefore, they move to other meanings and use them when attempting to explain or translate, but still concede what it actually means to God’s knowledge by saying:
الله أعلم بمرادها
God knows better what is intended in meaning
This goes with other Quranic verses or Prophetic narrations as well. When one sees the word “hand” attributed to God, the Ash’ari position is that they should immediately move it to the metaphor rather than the literal meaning of hand as it is applied to humans. This is done to a great extent in Arabic everyday speech, such as when one says:
حكومة البلد في يد رجل معين
The power of government in country xyz is in the hand of a particular person
Also, if you see the word “coming” attributed to God, the Ash’ari position is that it possibly refers to His command, i.e. the command of God is coming, rather than God Himself in His essence coming, which would be a characteristic of human beings.
All of I have mentioned above and much more is based on a very deep linguistic understanding of meanings and syntax in the Quran. It also brings it knowledge of pre-Islamic poetry and metaphorical use of words as the Arabs understood them. Interestingly enough, the companions didn’t get into all of this because to them Arabic wasn’t even a science to be studied as it has become afterwards. It was natural to them and didn’t require much effort because their eloquence was a side effect of the culture. Nowadays we have to go and study these things to gain a glimpse of an appreciation of the linguistic nature of the Quran, which for the companions was immediately apparent. As the poet says:
لست نحويا يلوك لسانه
ولكن سليقيا أقول فأعرب
I’m not a grammarian chewing his tongue
I’m naturally speaking eloquently
Where the modern day so-called Salafis differ with Ash’aris is that they reject this approach of interpretation and claim that doing so is a negation of what God says in the Quran about Himself. So they affirm the literal meanings, but add a caveat statement – as it befits His majesty (كما تليق بجلاله). For example, when they see the word hand, they affirm that God has a hand. But would say: as it befits His majesty. Meaning He has a hand, but it’s not like your hand. Another example is with the verses on seeing God from Paradise. They say: we will see God using our eyes (and I’ve actually seen them point at their eyes). Any interpretation would be a deviation in one’s creed and in fact would take one out of the folds of people of Sunnah.
To give you an idea of the extent of their taking the literal meanings of these verses I’ll share what I learned when I went to school as a young boy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. When we came across the verse mentioning the word yad, which has the literal meaning hand, our class teacher said:
And surely God has a hand, and both of His hands are right hands for God is the most beautiful being and He can’t have a left hand, so they’re both right hands
When we studied the narration of the Prophet peace be upon him in commenting on Verse 30 from Chapter 50, where God says:
يَومَ نَقُولُ لِجَهَنَّمَ هَلِ ٱمتَلَأتِ وَتَقُولُ هَل مِن مَّزِيدٍ
On the Day when we will say unto Hell: are you filled? And it will say: is there any more to add?
The Prophet peace be upon him is narrated to have said that:
يضع الله قدمه في النار فتقول: قط قط
God will put forth His foot in Hell and it will say: enough! enough!
So now God doesn’t just have two hands (that are both right hands), but also a foot. And that’s not where it ends, because in Verse 42 from Chapter 68 God says:
يَومَ يُكشَفُ عَن سَاقٍ وَيُدعَونَ إِلَى ٱلسُّجُودِ فَلَا يَستَطِيعُونَ
On the Day a leg will be bared and they (the unbelievers) will be called to fall in prostration but they will not be able to
OK. So now God has two right hands, a foot, and a leg. What else? If I were to go through all the Quranic verses that have an ambiguous use of attributes being given to God, and take the literal meaning of each as it’s applied to humans, God will have hands, feet, legs, a face, and sits on a massive Throne. If I add to it the Prophetic narrations, God also walks, runs, laughs, asks questions as if he doesn’t know the answer, has to look for Adam and Eve peace be upon them when they hide, and most of the time he’s in the sky, but comes down in the last third of every night. All of this is derived from the approach of the modern day so-called Salafis. But where does this come from?
Well, it’s an approach that’s about 700 years old, the main proponent of which was Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him. He based this on many understandings of his regarding what God has intended from us as Muslims when we approach the Quran, one of which was that we must accept everything on face value as it is said without any exceptions. According to Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him, to interpret the ambiguous verses metaphorically would necessitate the negation of their outward meaning, and therefore would be a form of major deviance, if not a flat-out disbelief in what God has revealed (in reality, this is a problem in philosophy that I’ll address at a later point, but it has to do with substance theory and bundle theory). The response to Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him was that he misunderstood the point of interpretative approach. Namely, that it wasn’t to negate the outward meaning of the ambiguous use of certain attributes as they are mentioned in relation to God. Rather, it was to negate a meaning that is carried upon that which applies to humans. In other words, if it’s an anthropomorphic meaning, it has to be rejected. This was not based on some whim or caprices of the scholars that preceded Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him and all of them; it was based on the verse where God says about himself:
لَيسَ كَمِثلِهِۦ شَىءٌ
There is nothing like a likeness of Him
Very few scholars came after Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him and tried to propagate his type of understanding. However, they were rejected by the consensus of the scholars. One of the major works dealing with how these attributes were fallaciously understood in an anthropomorphic sense is a book by Imam Abdul Rahman Ibn Al Jawzi titled Daf’ Shubah At’Tashbeeh Bi’Akaff At’Tanzeeh (دفع شبه التشبيه بأكف التنزيه). Imam Al Jawzi shows in this work how all of the ambiguously associated attributes to God can be understood linguistically in other ways, which are in line with a proper understanding of Arabic syntax and metaphor use, while not negating what God is saying about Himself.
Imam Ar’Razi in his commentary on this verse actually mentions an individual (Muhammad Ibn Isaac Ibn Khuzayma who wrote a book called التوحيد – monotheism) that was quite similar in his approach to the modern day so-called Salafis who want to affirm the attributes God mentions in a literal sense and at the same negate it with the self-contradictory sophistical reasoning. For those who are interested you can look it up for yourself and enjoy an interesting response from Imam Ar’Razi to an ignoramus as he described him.
The question that poses itself for those who are in insistent on taking the literal outward meaning of an Arabic word that normally means something when it’s attributed to humans, is why they reject the move to one of the other multiple meanings of the word, which would at least get one to move away from anthropomorphizing God, while at the same time affirming what God says about Himself. What’s more puzzling is their claim that this is what the pious predecessors did. The audacity of such a claim is astounding. Interestingly enough, they add this insidious caveat at the end of their literal understanding and say “as it befits his majesty – كما تليق بجلاله”. There is something in logic that points to the fallaciousness of a statement called “self-contradiction”. If I claim that someone is a happily married bachelor, people would laugh. If I point at something and say it’s a round square, my intellect would be questioned. To attribute an anthropomorphic quality to God and then say it’s not anthropomorphic is ridiculous. None of the pious predecessors ever said that phrase those modern so-called Salafis use. When people started asking about the ambiguously associated attributes with God found in the Quran and Prophetic narrations, what became known later as the Ash’aris (those following the creed of Imam Abu Al Hasan Al Ash’ari) or Matouridis (those following the creed of Imam Abu Mansour Al Maturidi may God be pleased with him that had a similar approach to Imam Al Ash’ari), went the route of interpretation so as not to have the questioner form an imaginary anthropomorphic image of God in his/her mind.
If one looks at a verse that uses the word “hand” associated with God, and it’s used in a certain context, but decides to ignore that context, and vehemently affirms that God has a hand, and it in fact is a hand, but then says it’s not like a human hand and it’s as it befits His majesty, this would mean that this person is either ignorant of the Arabic language, or is having some form of dissociation in his/her brain pathways, which the neuroscientist in me wants to study because I find that quite interesting. In fact, my hypothesis is that it’s a combination of ignorance of Arabic sciences, as well as a neurological symptom of a much deeper condition possibly caused by being dropped on the head as a child!
So, what did the pious predecessors say when it came to God’s attributes?
Abu Bakr As’Sidig may God be pleased with him said a beautiful statement:
كل ما يخطر في بالك فالله خلاف ذلك
Anything that you can imagine in your mind, God is other than that
He may God be pleased with him also said:
العجز عن إدراكه إدراك والخوض في ذات الإله إشراك
Inability to comprehend God is comprehension of God and delving into matters regarding the essence of God is a form of polytheism
Also, there are the statements I’ve mentioned from Imam Malik when he was asked about Verse 5 from Chapter 20 and his first version of the responses was: al istiwa’ is known (i.e. linguistically we know it means), and the how is unknown (i.e. what it actually means when it’s related to God is unknown), and asking about it is an innovation, and I see that you are nothing but an innovator, so get him out of my sight. The other response of Imam Malik may God be pleased with him was: the interpretation is in reciting it (i.e. it means what God intended and its explanation is by reciting it as is).
I’ve travelled around and asked Muslims coming from diverse backgrounds, and whenever the topic of the attributes of God comes up, the first response I hear is the Verse:
لَيسَ كَمِثلِهِۦ شَىءٌ
There is nothing like a likeness of Him
This is the guiding principle for the majority of Muslims when talking about God to anyone. They usually don’t go further than that. But if the necessity arises, where they have to explain or interpret or translate for any reason, they always move towards utilizing other valid meanings for the words rather than affirming the literal one commonly used for humans then negating it at the same time with the ridiculous statement “as it befits His majesty – كما تليق بجلاله”. This is the way not only the majority of regular Muslims, but also the majority of Sunni Muslim scholars dealt with this topic. And this is the point of contention between the Salafi/Wahhabi crowd and the Ash’ari crowd. The sad part about this is that the modern so-called Salafis go as far as saying since, for example, Imam An’Nawawi was an Ash’ari, he’s not from the people of Sunnah. What a calamity?! If Imam An’Nawawi is not from the people of Sunnah, who is from the people of Sunnah then? Right now Al Azhar scholars say they are Ash’aris. Are they not Sunni then? What about scholars from Al Qarawiyeen University? How about the majority of scholars such as Al Baiy’haqi and As’Seyooti and Ibn Hajr Al Asqalani and Al Qurtubi and As’Subki and many more. It’s literally about 90% of Sunni scholars and Muslims in the world and throughout history that claim the creed led by Imam Abu Al Hasan Al Ash’ari on Islamic theology to be their creed.
Just a final thought after having gone through all of this. I find the attitude of modern so-called Salafis to be hypocritical. On the one hand they go around preaching and bothering other Muslims that follow the scholars and follow different matth’habs and talk about how people should be following the Quran and Sunnah and ignore the scholars. They keep telling those who disagree with them that just because one of the four Imams said something doesn’t make it binding because they’re men and they make mistakes. They use statements out of context made by the different Imams such as the one by Imam Shafi’i where he said:
إن صح الحديث فهو مذهبي
If the narration is authentic then it’s my matth’hab
And they basically annoy their fellow Muslims over all kinds of jurisprudence issues. But when it comes to creed, they blindly follow one scholar, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him, who is not infallible and since he’s a human being is subject to making mistakes, such as the one regarding how to handle the ambiguous verses on the attributes of God. The Arabic proverb says:
أخطاء الكبار كبار
The mistakes of great people are great
If you’re a modern day so-called Salafi reading this, and are boiling because you think I’m attacking Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him, seek refuge with God from your devil that’s whispering to you such a ridiculous assertion. I’m not in a position to judge a great scholar such as Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him. I’m simply relating what other Sunni scholars have said about the matter. He made ijtihad in a matter and was wrong according to about 90% of Muslim scholars, so he’s singly rewarded by God instead of doubly. To preserve his legacy and keep it all positive, his mistakes should be covered over. But when you propagate his mistakes, it forces him to be exposed to those who hate him and allows them to attack his legacy, which I’ll be one of the first to defend. First order of business in defending Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him is to stop the ignoramus from spreading his mistakes among the masses.
Finally, there are three general types of Muslims that involve themselves in this type of discourse; ones who can’t comprehend much of this theological discussion (and being able to read doesn’t mean being able to comprehend), ones who somewhat comprehend this topic, and ones who really do get it. In what is considered to be the most famous narration of the Prophet peace be upon him, when the archangel Gabriel peace be upon him came and asked about Islam, Iman, and Ihsan, the Prophet peace be upon him addressed creed under the topic of Iman and said:
أن تومن بالله وملائكته وكتبه ورسله واليوم الآخر والقدر خيره وشره
That you believe in God, the angels, the revealed Scriptures, the messengers, the Last Day, and the Divine Decree good and bad
In reality, this is all one needs for creed, and any discussion about God is discouraged because it’s an attempt with a limited intellect and finite brain to understand the unlimited and infinite God. The Prophet peace be upon him said:
تفكروا في خلق الله ولا تتفكروا في ذات الله
Reflect upon the Creation of God and do not reflect upon the essence of God
However, if the situation arises where a discussion can’t be avoided, the guiding principle is given by God Himself in the Quran when He says:
لَيسَ كَمِثلِهِۦ شَىءٌ
There is nothing like a likeness of Him
In my estimation, the modern day so-called Salafis are of the type of Muslims that God did not give the intellectual ability to engage in theological discourse. The proof of that is in their self-contradictory statements and ignorance of the Arabic language and its sciences coupled with a blind tribal-allegiance to a single scholar. Hence, they should recognize their inabilities and not try to tread water in an ocean they can’t swim, for this would be following the teaching and narration of the Prophet peace be upon him:
رحم الله امرئ عرف قدر نفسه
God has mercy on an individual that knows their true measure
Final Disclaimer: whether you call yourself Salafi, Ash’ari, or Maturidi, at the end of the day you’re of the people of Sunnah just like the others you don’t attribute yourself to. So stop judging who is a Sunni and who is not and have some humility and fear of God!
That and God knows best.