Published time: 26 ,February ,2017      14:48:41
The article elucidated the two popular perspectives on metaphorical interpretation of some verses of the holy Qur'an and Hadith. The Salafis believe that there is nothing like metaphorical interpretation except innovation to religion. Contrary to other Sunni scholars who affirmed the metaphorical interpretation.
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The Salafī Concept of God: A Shī'ite Critique

The Salafī Concept of God: A Shī'ite Critique

(Part II)


                                                                                             By: Toyib Olawuyi

Divine Attributes and the Validity of Figurative Hermeneutics

 I.             The Two Interpretations


In the first part, a dictum of al-Fawzān – in which he has cited Qur'ān 67:16-17 as evidence that God is in/above the heaven – is quoted. The said Qur'ānic passage reads:


Do you feel secure that He Who is in the heaven will not cause you to be swallowed up by the earth when it shakes? Or do you feel secure that He Who is in the heaven will not send against you a violent tornado, so that you shall know how was My warning?


So, who is ‘He Who is in the heaven’ that the verses have referred to twice? Is He God? If He is God, does this not mean that the Salafīyyah have a valid point?

The above verses have been interpreted in two different ways by the classical scholars of the Ahl al-Sunnah. For example, al-Ṭabarī (d. 310 AH) says in his exegesis: ‘{Do you feel secure that He Who is in the heaven}: He is God.’[1] Thus, in his view, it is God Himself Who is in the heaven. This is the literal interpretation of the verses. It is noteworthy, at this point, that the phrase ‘He Who is in the heaven’ has indeed been used to describe God in the traditions of the Messenger (peace be upon him and his family), as documented in the Sunnī sources. The most well-known of such reports is this, from Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī:


Narrated Abū Sa'īd Al-Khudrī:


'Alī bin Abī Ṭālib sent a piece of gold not yet taken out of its ore, in a tanned leather container to Allāh’s Messenger. Allāh’s Messenger distributed that amongst four Persons: 'Uyaina bin Badr, Aqra' bin Ḥābis, Zaid Al-Khail and the fourth was either 'Alqama or 'Āmir bin Aṭ-Ṭufail. On that, one of his Companions said: ‘We are more deserving of this (gold) than these (persons).’ When that news reached the Prophet, he said: ‘Don't you trust me though I am the trustworthy man of the One in the heavens, and I receive the news of heaven (i.e. Divine Inspiration) both in the morning and in the evening?’[2] (emphasis added)


Therefore, it is correct to refer to God as ‘the One in the heaven(s)’. But, what does this phrase mean exactly? Does it indicate that God is literally inside or above the heaven? Or, does it mean something else?

An opinion similar to that of al-Ṭabarī has been reported from Mujāhid (d. 104 AH), another of the greatest classical Sunnī exegetes. Al-Suyūṭī (d. 911 AH) says: ‘Al-Firyābī, 'Abd ibn Ḥumayd, Ibn Jarīr and Ibn al-Mundhir narrated that Mujāhid said concerning His Statement {Do you feel secure that He Who is in the heaven}: ‘God, the Most High.”’[3] Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (d. 463 AH) also declares about the same verse: ‘{Do you feel secure that He Who is in the heaven will not cause you to be swallowed up} It means: He Who is above the heaven, that is, upon the Throne.’[4]

By contrast, on the other side of the aisle, the overwhelming majority of the classical Sunnī scholars opined that the phrase ‘He Who is in the heaven’ is merely a figurative expression. Al-Nawawī, for example, (d. 676 AH) reports:


Al-Qāḍī 'Iyāḍ said: ‘There is no disagreement among all Muslims – their jurists, traditionists, theologians and their likes and their followers – that the apparent texts which mention that God is in the heaven, like His Statement {Do you feel secure that He Who is in the heaven will not cause you to be swallowed up by the earth} and others like it, do NOT have literal meanings. Rather, they are given metaphorical interpretations by all of them (i.e. the Muslims).[5]      


Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 604 AH) also submits:


Know that the anthropomorphists argue that God exists within a space with His Statement {Do you feel secure that He Who is in the heaven}. The reply concerning it is that, this verse cannot be interpreted literally, according to the consensus of the Muslims. This is because if He were in the heaven, then He would necessarily be surrounded from all sides by the heaven. Hence, He would be smaller than the heaven. Whereas, the heaven is a lot smaller than the Throne. In that case, this would mean that God the Most High is something very negligible in comparison to the Throne; and this is impossible by the consensus of all the followers of Islām. Moreover, God the Most High says: {Say: ‘To whom belongs whatever is in the heavens and the earth?’ Say: ‘To God.’} [6:12]. If God were in the heaven, then He would necessarily be the Owner of Himself, and this is impossible. Therefore, we know that this verse must not be interpreted literally. It must be given a metaphorical meaning.[6]


One such metaphorical interpretation is provided by al-Qurṭubī (d. 671 AH), who states:


I say: It is possible that it means: ‘Do you feel secure that the Creator of those in the heaven will not cause you to be swallowed up by the earth as He caused it to swallow Korah?’[7]


Niẓām al-Dīn al-Naysābūrī (d. 850 AH) equally mentions other metaphorical interpretations of the verse by classical Sunnī Muslims:


The anthropomorphists quote His Statement {He who is in the heaven} as evidence, in its literal sense. But, the Ahl al-Sunnah give it various metaphorical interpretations. One of them is the statement of Abū Muslim that the Arabs used to affirm the existence of God; but, they also wrongly claimed that He was in the heaven. So, it was said to them, in line with their belief: {Do you feel secure that the One Whom you wrongly claim to be in the heaven}. Another interpretation is the statement of a number of the exegetes that {Do you feel secure that He Whose kingdom, or authority, or force is in the heaven}, because calamities customarily descend from the heaven. Another interpretation is the statement of others that the one meant (in the verse) was Gabriel: He would cause the earth to swallow them up by the Command of God.[8]  


Generally, a metaphorical or figurative interpretation of any sentence, clause, phrase or word is any that differs from its literal meaning. As such, all these varying interpretations are possible, even though only one of them could be correct.   


II.           Salafī Rejection of Metaphors


Understandably, Salafīs – a tiny, minority group – oppose the metaphorical interpretations of the other Sunnī Muslims. If they agree with the traditionalist Sunnī Muslims that Qur'ān 67:16-17 does not have a literal exegesis, their entire creed collapses. There can be no Salafīsm without the doctrine that God is spatially above the heavens.

Interestingly, in his vehement opposition to metaphorical hermeneutics, Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 AH) posits that the very term ‘metaphor’ did not even exist during the lifetime of the Messenger of God (peace be upon him and his family) and his Companions:


It is well-known that ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ are from the attributes of expressions. In any case, this classification (into ‘literal’ and ‘’metaphorical’) is a terminology which came into being after the passing of the first three centuries. None of the Companions mentioned it, nor any of those who followed them (al-tābi'īn) in goodness, nor any of the great scholars renowned for knowledge, like Mālik, al-Thawrī, al-Awzā'ī, Abū Ḥanīfah and al-Shāfi'ī. Rather, even the great scholars of Arabic linguistics and grammar – such as al-Khalīl, Sībawayh, Abū 'Amr ibn al-'Alā and their likes – did not mention it. The first person known to have used the word ‘metaphor’ was Abū 'Ubaydah Mu'ammar ibn al-Muthannā in his book.[9] 


His loyal student, Ibn Qayyim (d. 751 AH), puts forward the same argument:


We say: Your categorization of expressions, their meanings and their usages into ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ can only be based on the intellect, divine law (sharī'ah), linguistics or terminology (iṣṭilāḥ). The first three categories are invalid…. As for the divine law, it does not mention this categorization, and does not prove it, and does not point to it. Moreover, none of the linguists mentioned that Arabs divided their language into ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’, and no Arab ever said: ‘This expression has a literal meaning, and that expression has a metaphorical meaning.’ It is also non-existent in the statements of those who transmitted their language from them orally or otherwise. This is why it does not exist in the statements of al-Khalīl, Sībawayh, al-Farrā, Abū 'Amr ibn al-'Alā, al-Aṣma'ī and others like them. Similarly, it is not found in the statement of any of the Companions, the Tābi'īn, and the Tābi'ī al-Tābi’īn; and it is not found in the statement of any of the Four Imams. There was al-Shāfi'ī with his numerous writings as well as his joint researches with Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan and others. There is no mention of ‘metaphor’ in any of them at all. This is his treatise which is like the root of Islamic jurisprudence. He has not spoken about metaphor even once in it. Furthermore, the statements of the great scholars were documented verbatim. The division of the language into ‘literal’ and ‘metaphor’ was not transmitted from any of them. Rather, the first person known in the history of Islām to have used the expression ‘metaphor’ was Abū 'Ubaydah Mu'ammar ibn al-Muthannā. He wrote an abridged commentary of the Qur'ān entitled: ‘The Metaphors of the Qur'ān.’[10]  


Then, he concludes:


Once it is known that the division of expressions into ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ is not based upon divine law, nor upon the intellect, nor upon linguistics, it is mere terminology. It is a terminology which was INNOVATED after the three best generations, as per the text, and it originated from the Mu'tazilah, the Jahmiyyah and the theologians who followed their way.[11]  


The implication of these dicta, from a Salafī viewpoint, is that describing any expression in the Qur'ān or the Tradition as a metaphor is a reprehensible ‘innovation’ in the religion, a bid'ah. To Salafī Muslims, the Messenger and his Companions never considered any statement anywhere to be a metaphor. Rather, they considered all verses and traditions to be literal texts. This is obviously why Ibn Bāz (d. 1420 AH) takes the next big leap, and declares that the Qur'ān is empty of metaphors:


The correct opinion which the researchers have accepted is that there is NO metaphor in the Qur'ān in the sense understood by the scholars of rhetoric, and everything in it is LITERAL in its place…. His Statement {And ask the town where we have been, and the caravan in which we returned} [12:82], it means ‘the people of the town’ and ‘the members of the caravan’. It is the custom of the Arabs to use the word ‘town’ to refer to ‘the people of the town’ and the word ‘caravan’ to refer to its members. This is due to the richness of the Arabic language and its multiple varieties of expression, and it is not a metaphor in the technical sense understood by the scholars of rhetoric.[12] 


Defending this position, al-'Uthaymīn (d. 1421 AH) also states that:


It is obligatory to leave the text of the Qur'ān and the Tradition upon their literal meanings without changing them at all, because God revealed the Qur'ān in a clear, Arabic language, and the Prophet spoke Arabic. Therefore, it is obligatory to leave the Words of God, and the words of His Messenger, upon the meanings which they had in that language. Furthermore, abandoning their literal meanings is tantamount to attributing things to God without knowledge, and this is forbidden, due to His Statement: {Say: ‘My Lord has forbidden all lewd action, what is obvious from them and what is subtle, and sin, and aggression without cause, and that you set up partners with God that which He has never authorized, and that you say about God what you do not know.’} [7:33]. An example of that is His Statement: {Rather both His hands are outstretched; He dispenses just as He wishes} [5:64]. The literal meaning of the verse is that God has two literal hands. Therefore, this must be affirmed for Him.[13]


Hence, since the Qur'ān has mentioned the face,[14] eyes[15] and hands[16] of God, Salafīs maintain that He possesses those body organs in a literal sense.

But, there are several observable problems with the entire Salafī approach. First and foremost, even though the word ‘metaphor (majāz)’ itself might have been unknown during the lifetime of the Prophet, its concept, ta-wīl, was widely used. Tā-wīl is to give a ‘metaphorical interpretation’ or ‘figurative interpretation’ to a sentence, clause, phrase or word. This is exactly what metaphors are based upon. This reality is confirmed by the so-called Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Iftā, in this dictum:


The interpretation of the word ‘coming’ in its literal sense befits the Glory of the Most High. It is not likened to the ‘coming’ of the creatures, and we do not do tā-wīl of it to mean the coming of His mercy or of one of His angels. Rather, we affirm it as the predecessors (salaf) affirmed it concerning His Statement { Do they wait until the angels will come to them, or your Lord comes, or some signs from your Lord The day some signs come from your Lord} [6:158] without simile (tashbīh), and without analogy (tamthīl), and without figurative interpretation (tā-wīl), and without denial (ta'ṭīl).[17]


So, Salafīs themselves interchange tā-wīl and ‘metaphorical interpretation’, which is a testimony to their synonymity. Needless to add, the term tā-wīl is in the Qur'ān at several places.[18] In particular, the interpretation of dreams has been called tā-wīl in the Book of God,[19] and we all know that it is never literal. Therefore, the entirety of the Salafī arguments against the origin of metaphorical interpretations collapses with these facts. But, there is more.

According to the Prophet of Islām, God Himself used figurative expressions about Himself! Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj (d. 261 AH) reports:


It was narrated that Abū Hurairah said:


The Messenger of Allāh said: ‘Allāh, Glorified and Exalted is He, will say on the Day of Resurrection: "O son of Ādam, I fell sick and you did not visit Me.” He will say: "O Lord, how could I visit You when You are the Lord of the Worlds?” He will say: "Did you not know that My slave so and-so was sick, but you did not visit him? Do you not know that if you had visited him you would have found Me with him? O son of Ādam, I asked you for food and you did not feed Me.” He will say: "O Lord, how could I feed You when You are the Lord of the Worlds?” He said: "Did you not know that My slave so-and-so asked you for food, but you did not feed him? Do you not know that if you had fed him, you would have found that with Me? O son of Adam, I asked you for water and you did not give Me to drink.” He will say: "O Lord, how could I give you to drink when You are the Lord of the Worlds?” He will say: "My slave so-and-so asked you for water, and you did not give him to drink. If you had given him to drink you would have found that with Me.”’[20] (emphasis added)


This is how God interpreted His pronouncements about His Holy Essence:


1.       God fell sick = One of God’s servants fell sick.

2.       God asked for food = One of God’s servants asked for food.

3.       God asked for water = One of God’s servants asked for water.


These are undeniably some of the clearest examples of metaphorical interpretations of verses and traditions concerning God. One wonders then: how can Salafīs consider metaphorical interpretations to be reprehensible innovations in the religion?

The Messenger of God too interpreted certain verses about his Lord figuratively. Arguably, the most handy example is this verse: ‘He is the First and the Last, the Outward (al-Ẓāhir) and the Inward (al-Bāṭin). He has knowledge of all things.’[21] What exactly does the Qur'ān mean when it says that God is ‘outward’ and also ‘inward’? Al-Tirmidhī (d. 279 AH) records the Prophet’s exegesis of the verse:


Abū Hurairah narrated that:


Fāṭimah came to the Prophet, asking him for a servant. So he said to her: ‘Say: "O Allāh, Lord of the Seven Heavens and the Lord of the Magnificent Throne, our Lord, and the Lord of everything, Revealer of the Tawrah, the Injīl, and the Qur'ān, Splitter of the seed-grain and the date-stone, I seek refuge in You from the evil of everything that You are holding by the forelock, You are the First, for there is nothing before You, You are the Last, for there is nothing after You. You are Aẓ-Ẓāhir, for there is nothing above You, AND YOU ARE AL-BĀṬIN, FOR THERE IS NOTHING BELOW YOU. Relieve me from debt, and enrich me from poverty.”’[22] (emphasis added)


Thus, this is how the Messenger of God interpreted the verse:


a.       God is outward (Ẓāhir) = There is nothing above God.

b.      God is inward (Bāṭin) = There is nothing below God.


With absolutely no doubt, these are metaphorical interpretations. There is simply no way to connect the literal appearances of the texts with the Prophetic exegetes; and this is precisely what happens in metaphorical interpretations. Meanwhile, there is a serious problem for Salafīs in this metaphorical exegesis of the Prophet. He declared that there is nothing below God. To be more specific, the seven heavens, the earth and other beings are NOT below our Lord and Creator. We are neither above Him, nor below Him. This Prophetic belief obviously knocks down the Salafi claim that the Throne, the seven heavens, and the earth are below God. They are not.



[1] Abū Ja'far Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī, Tafsīr al-abarī, ed. by Dr. 'Abdullāh ibn 'Abd al-Musin al-Turkī, 26 vols (Cairo: Dār Hijr, 1422 AH), XXIII, 129

[2] The Translation of the Meanings of Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: Arabic-English, trans. by Dr. Muḥammad Muḥsin Khan, 9 vols (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers and Distributors, 1997), V, 387-388, no. 4351

[3] Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, al-Durr al-Manthūr fī al-Tafsīr bi al-Ma-thūr, ed. by Dr. 'Abdullāh ibn 'Abd al-Musin al-Turkī, 17 vols (Cairo: Dār Hijr, 1424 AH),  XIV, 613

[4] Abū 'Umar Yūsuf ibn 'Abdullāh ibn Muḥammad ibn 'Abd al-Barr al-Nimrī al-Qurṭubī, al-Tamhīd limā fī al-Muwaṭṭā mina al-Ma'ānī wa al-Asānīd, 2nd edn, 26 vols (Morocco: Wizārat al-Awqāf wa Shu-ūn al-Islāmīyyah, 1387-1412 AH), VII (1399 AH), 130

[5] Muḥy al-Dīn Abū Zakariyyā Yaḥyā ibn Sharaf ibn Murrā al-Nawawī, al-Minhāj: Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 2nd edn, 18 vols (Beirut: Dār Iḥyā al-Turāth al-'Arabī, 1392 AH), V, 24

[6] Muḥammad al-Rāzī Fakhr al-Dīn ibn 'Umar, Tafsīr al-Fakhr al-Rāzī, 32 vols (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1401 AH), XXX, 69-70

[7] Abū 'Abdillāh Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn Abī Bakr al-Qurṭubī, al-Jāmi' li Aḥkām al-Qur'ān, ed. by Dr. 'Abdullāh ibn 'Abd al-Muḥsin al-Turkī et al, 24 vols (Beirut: Muassasat al-Risālah, 1427 AH), XXI, 125

[8] Niẓām al-Dīn al-Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad ibn Ḥusayn al-Qummī al-Naysābūrī, Gharāib al-Qur'ān wa Raghāib al-Furqān, ed. by Zakariyyā 'Umayrāt, 6 vols (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyyah, 1416 AH), VI, 328

[9] Taqiyy al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Taymiyyah al-Ḥarrānī, Majmū'at al-Fatāwā, ed. by 'Āmir al-Jazzār and Anwār al-Bāz, 3rd edn, 37 vols (Al-Mansura: Dār al-Wafā, 1426 AH), VII, 60

[10] Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Mukhtaṣar al-Ṣawā'iq al-Mursalah 'alā al-Jahmiyyah wa al-Mu'aṭṭilah, summarized by Muḥammad ibn al-Mūṣilī, ed. by Dr. al-Ḥasan ibn 'Abd al-Raḥman al-'Alawī, 4 vols (Aḍwā al-Salaf, 1425 AH), II, 692-694

[11] Ibid, II, 700

[12] 'Abd al-'Azīz ibn 'Abdullāh ibn 'Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Bāz, Majmū' Fatāwā wa Maqālāt Mutanawwi'ah, ed. by Dr. Muḥammad ibn Sa'd al-Shuway'ir, 24 vols (Riyadh: Dār al-Qāsim li al-Nashr, 1420-1425 AH), XXIV (1425 AH), 387

[13] Muḥammad ibn Ṣāliḥ al-'Uthaymīn, Majmū' Fatāwā wa Rasāil, ed. by Fahd ibn Nāṣir ibn Ibrāhīm al-Sulaymān, 29 vols (Riyadh: Dār al-Waṭan, 1413-1431 AH), V (1414 AH), 11-12

[14] Qur'ān 2:115, 2:272, 6:52, 13:22, 18:28, 28:88, 30:38, 30:39, 76:9 and 92:20

[15] Qur'ān 11:37, 23:27, 52:48, 54:14 and 20:39

[16] Qur'ān 3:26, 3:73, 5:64, 23:88, 36:71, 36:83, 38:75, 48:10, 57:29 and 67:1

[17] Fatāwā al-Lajnah al-Dā-imah li al-Buḥūth al-'Ilmiyyah wa al-Iftā, ed. by Aḥmad ibn 'Abd al-Razzāq al-Duwaysh, 23 vols (Riyadh: Dār al-Muayyad, 1424 AH), III, 130, no. 5957

[18] Qur'ān 3:7, 10:39, 12:6, 12:21, 12:36, 12:37, 12:44, 12:45, 12:100, 12:101, 18:78, and 18:82

[19] Qur'ān 12:36, 12:37, 12:44, 12:45 and 12:100

[20] Imam Abul Hussain Muslim Ibn al-Hajjaj, English Translation of Sahih Muslim, trans. by Nasiruddin al-Khattab, ed. by Hafiz Abu Tahir Zubair 'Ali Za'i, rev. by Abu Khaliyl, 7 vols (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers and Distributors, 2007), VI, 437, no. 6556

[21] Qur'ān 57:3

[22] Imām Hāfiz Abū 'Eisā Mohammad Ibn 'Eisā At-Tirmidhī, English Translation of Jāmi' At-Tirmidhī, trans. by Abu Khaliyl, ed. by Hafiz Abu Tahir Zubair 'Ali Za'i, rev. by Islamic Research Section Darussalam, 6 vols (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers and Distributors, 2007), VI, 200, no. 3481. Abu Tahir Zubair 'Ali Za'i says about it: ‘Ṣaḥīḥ.’

* Opinion: