The Re-Formers of Islam
The Mas'ud Questions
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995
Regarding the question of whether Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241/855) was an anthropomorphist, this is something that has been asked since early times, particularly since someone forged an anthropormorphic tract called Kitab al-sunna [The book of the sunna] and put the name of Imam Ahmad's son Abdullah (d. 290/903) on it.
I looked this book over with our teacher in hadith, Sheikh Shu'ayb al-Arna'ut, who had examined it one day, and said that at least 50 percent of the hadiths in it are weak or outright forgeries. He was dismayed how Muhammad al-Qahtani, the editor and commentator, could have been given a Ph.d. in Islamic faith ('aqida) from Umm al-Qura University in Saudi Arabia for readying for publication a work as sadly wanting in authenticity as this.
Ostensibly a "hadith" work, it contains some of the most hard-core anthropomorphism found anywhere, such as the hadith that "when He Most Blessed and Exalted sits on the Kursi, a squeak is heard like the squeak of a new leather saddle" (Kitab al-Sunna [Dammam, Dar Ibn al-Qayyim, 1986/1406], 1.301), or "Allah wrote the Torah for Moses with His hand while leaning back on a rock, on tablets of pearl, and the screech of the quill could be heard. There was no veil between Him and him" (ibid., 1.294), or "The angels were created from the light of His two elbows and chest" (ibid., 2.510), and so on.
The work also puts lies in the mouths of major Hanbali scholars and others, such as Kharija [ibn Mus'ab al-Sarakhsi] (d. 168/785), who is quoted about istiwa' (translated above as being 'established' on the Throne), "Does istiwa' mean anything except sitting?" (ibid., 1.106)—with a chain of transmission containing a liar (kadhdhab), an unidentifiable (majhul), plus the text with its contradiction (mukhalafa) of Islamic faith ('aqida). Or consider the forty-nine pages of vilification of Abu Hanifa and his school that it mendaciously ascribes to major Imams, such as that relating that Ishaq ibn Mansur al-Kusaj (d. 251/865) said, "I asked Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, 'Is a man rewarded by Allah for loathing Abu Hanifa and his colleagues?' and he said, 'Yes, by Allah'" (ibid., 1.180). To ascribe things so stupid to a man of godfearingness (taqwa) like Ahmad, whose respect for other scholars is well attested to by chains of transmission that are rigorously authenticated (sahih), is one of the things by which this counterfeit work overreaches itself, and ends in cancelling any credibility that the name on it may have been intended to give it. Sheikh Shu'ayb told us he doesn't believe it is really from Ahmad ibn Hanbal's son 'Abdullah, since there is an unidentifiable (majhul) transmitter in the book's chain of ascription to 'Abdullah. But the fact that such a work exists may give you an idea of the kinds of things that have been circulated about Ahmad after his death, and the total lack of scrupulousness among a handful of anthropomorphists who tried literally everything to spread their bid'as.
Another work with its share of anthropomorphisms and forgeries is Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya's Ijtima' al-juyush al-Islamiyya [The meeting of the Islamic armies], which mentions such "hadiths" as, "Honor the cow, for it has not lifted its head to the sky since the [golden] calf was worshipped, out of shame (haya') before Allah Mighty and Majestic" (Ijtima' al-juyush al-Islamiyya [Riyad: 'Awwad 'Abdullah al-Mu'tiq, 1408/1988], 330), a forged (mawdu') hadith apparently intended to encourage Muslims to believe that Allah is floating about the sky. Ibn al-Qayyim also mentions the hadith of al-Bukhari warning of the Antichrist (al-Masih al-Dajjal), who, in the Last Days will come forth and claim to be God, of which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, "Allah has sent no prophet except that he warned his people of the One Eyed Liar, and that he is one-eyed—and that your Lord is not one-eyed—and that he shall have unbeliever (kafir) written between his two eyes" (Sahih al-Bukhari [1350/1898. Reprint. Istanbul: Maktaba Pamuk, n.d.], 8.172). Ibn al-Qayyim comments, "The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) negated the attribute of one-eyedness [of Allah], which is proof that Allah Most High literally has two eyes" [emphasis mine] (Ibn al-Qayyim (Ijtima' al-juyush al-Islamiyya [Riyad: 'Awwad 'Abdullah al-Mu'tiq, 1408/1988], 97). Any primer on logical fallacies could have told Ibn al-Qayyim that the negation of a quality does not entail the affirmation of its contrary, an example of "the Black and White fallacy," (e.g. "If it is not black, it is therefore white," "If you are not my friend, you must be my enemy," and so on), though what he attempts to prove here does show the kind of anthropomorphism he is trying to promote. Forged chains of hadith transmission of Ibn al-Qayyim's Ijtima' al-juyush al-Islamiyya will be exhaustively dealt with in a forthcoming work by Hasan al-Saqqaf, Allah willing, which those interested may read.
For all of these reasons, the utmost care must be used in accepting the ascription of tenets of faith to Ahmad ibn Hanbal or other Imams, especially when made by anthropomorphists whose concern is to create credibility for the ideas we are talking about. It seems to me that what has misled the Salafi revivers of these ideas, in the Najd and elsewhere, is their uncritical acceptance of the statements and chains of ascription found in the books of Ibn Taymiya (d. 728/1328) and his student Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751/1350), which they continually cite to one another and rely on, and from whence they get the idea that these were the positions of the early Muslims and Companions (Sahaba).
Umbrage has unfortunately been taken at the biographies I appended to Reliance of the Traveller [a translation of Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri's 'Umdat al-salik] (Evanston: Sunna Books, 1994) about Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, which detail the gulf between Ibn Taymiya's innovations and the 'aqida of the early Muslims, though anyone interested can read about it in any number of other books, ancient and modern. One of the best is Ibn Taymiya laysa salafiyyan [Ibn Taymiya was not an early Muslim] (Cairo: Dar al-Nahda al-'Arabiyya, 1390/1970), by the Azhar professor of Islamic faith ('aqida) Mansur Muhammad 'Uways, which focuses primarily on tenets of belief. Another was written by a scholar who lived after Ibn al-Qayyim in the same city, Taqi al-Din Abu Bakr al-Hisni (d. 829/1426), author of the famous Shafi'i fiqh manual Kifaya al-akhyar [The sufficiency of the pious], whose book on Ibn Taymiya is called Daf' shubah man shabbaha wa tamarrada wa nasaba dhalika ila al-sayyid al-jalil al-Imam Ahmad [Rebuttal of the insinuations of him who makes anthropomorphisms and rebels, and ascribes that to the noble master Imam Ahmad] (Cairo: Dar Ihya' al-Kutub al-'Arabiyya, 1350/1931). Whoever reads these and similar works with an open mind cannot fail but notice the hoax that has been perpetrated by moneyed quarters in our times, of equating the tenets of a small band of anthropomorphists to the Islamic belief ('aqida) of Imam Ahmad and other scholars of the early Muslims (al-salaf).
The real ('aqida) of Imam Ahmad was very simple, and consisted, in the main, of accepting the words of the mutashabihat or 'unapparent meanings' of the Qur'an and hadith as they have come without saying how they are meant. His position is close to that of a number of other early scholars, who would not even countenance changing the Qur'anic order of the words or substituting words imagined to be synonyms. For them, the verse in Sura Taha,
It should be appreciated how far this position is from understanding the mutashabihat or 'unapparent in meaning,' scriptural expressions about Allah as though they were meant literally ('ala al-dhahir). The Hanbali Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Khallal (311/923), who took his fiqh from Imam Ahmad's students, relates in his al-Sunna [The sunna] through his chain of narrators from Hanbal [ibn Ishaq al-Shaybani] (d. 273/886), the son of the brother of Ahmad ibn Hanbal's father, that
Imam Ahmad was asked about the hadiths mentioning "Allah's descending," "seeing Allah," and "placing His foot on hell"; and the like, and he replied: "We believe in them and consider them true, without 'how' and without 'meaning' (bi la kayfa wa la ma'na) [emphasis mine]."
And he said, when they asked him about Allah's istiwa' [translated above as established]: "He is 'established' upon the Throne (istawa 'ala al-'Arsh) how He wills and as He wills, without any limit or any description that be made by any describer (Kawthari, Daf' shubah al-tashbih. Cairo n.d. Reprint. Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Tawfiqiyya, 1396/1976, 28).
This demonstrates how far Imam Ahmad was from anthropomorphism, though a third example is even more explicit. The Imam and hadith master (hafiz) Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066) relates in his Manaqib al-Imam Ahmad [The memorable actions of Imam Ahmad], through his chain of narrators that
Ahmad condemned those who said Allah was a "body," saying, "The names of things are taken from the Shari'a and the Arabic language. The language's possessors have used this word [body] for something that has height, breadth, thickness, construction, form, and composition, while Allah Most High is beyond all of that, and may not be termed a "body" because of being beyond any meaning of embodiedness [emphasis mine]. This has not been conveyed by the Shari'a, and so is refuted" ('Azzami, al-Barahin al-sati'a [Cairo: Najm al-Din al-Kurdi, 1366/1947], 164).
The above provides an idea of Ahmad's 'aqida, as conveyed to us by the hadith masters (huffaz) of the Umma who have distinguished the true reports from the spurious attributions of the anthropomorphists' opinions to their Imam, both early and late. But it is perhaps even more instructive, in view of the recrudescence of these ideas today, to look at an earlier work against Hanbali anthropomorphists about this bid'a, for the light this literature sheds upon the science of textual interpretation.
As you may know, the true architect of the Hanbali madhhab was not actually Imam Ahmad, who did not like to see any of his positions written down, but rather these were conveyed orally by various students at different times, one reason there are often a number of different narratives from him on legal questions. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the real founder of the Hanbali madhhab was the Imam and hadith master (hafiz) 'Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201), who recorded all the narratives from Imam Ahmad, distinguished the well-authenticated from the poorly-authenticate
Ibn al-Jawzi took the question of people associating anthropomorphism with Hanbalism so seriously that he wrote a book, Daf' shubah al-tashbih bi akaff al-tanzih [Rebuttal of the insinuations of anthropomorphism at the hands of transcendence] (N.d. Reprint. Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Tawfiqiyya, 1396/1976), refuting this heresy and exonerating his Imam of any association with it.
One of the most significant points he makes in this work is the principle that al-Idafatu la tufidu al-sifa ("an ascriptive construction (Ar. idafa, "the X of the Y") does not establish [that X is] an attribute [of Y]"). This is very interesting because the anthropomorphists of his day, as well as Ibn Taymiyya in the seventh century after the Hijra, used many ascriptive constructions (idafa) that appear in hadiths and Qur'anic verses as proof that Allah had "attributes" that bolstered their conceptions of Him.
To clarify with examples, you are doubtless familiar with the Qur'anic verse of the Sahaba swearing a fealty pact (bay'a) to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), that says, "Allah's hand is above their hands" (Qur'an 48:10). Here, Ibn al-Jawzi's principle means that we are not entitled to affirm, on the basis of the Arabic wording of the verse alone, that "Allah has a hand" as an attribute (sifa) of His entity. It could be that this Arabic expression is simply meant to emphasize the tremendousness of the offense of breaking this pact, as some scholars state.
There are many similar examples in the Arabic language in which an ascriptive construction (idafa) conveys something about the possessor that is not literally an attribute. For example, in Arabic, it is said of someone with considerable power and influence in society that Ba'uhu tawil ("His fathom (the length of his outstretched arms) is long,"), in which the ascriptive construction His fathom does not prove that the individual literally "has the attribute of an fathom," but the words rather signify that he has power, and mean nothing besides. Or as Imam al-Ghazali says of the word hand:
One should realize that hand may mean two different things. The first is the primary lexical sense; namely, the bodily member composed of flesh, bone, and nervous tissue. Now, flesh, bone, and nervous tissue make up a specific body with specific attributes; meaning, by body, something of an amount (with height, width, depth) that prevents anything else from occupying wherever it is, until it is moved from that place.
Or [secondly] the word may be used figuratively, in another sense with no relation to that of an body at all: as when one says, "The city is in the leader's hands," the meaning of which is well understood, even if the leader's hands are amputated, for example (Ghazali, Iljam al-'awam 'an 'ilm al-kalam [Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-'Arabi, 1406/1985], 55).
Because that was the way the Arabic language was, and also to protect against the danger of anthropomorphism, many Muslim scholars were to explain certain of the mutashabihat or 'unapparent in meaning' expressions in Qur'anic verses and hadiths by ta'wil, or 'figuratively.'
This naturally drew the criticism of neo-Hanbalis, at their forefront Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, as it still does of today's "reformers" of Islam, who echo the former two's arguments that figurative interpretation (ta'wil) was a reprehensible departure (bid'a) by Ash'aris and others from the way of the early Muslims (salaf); and who call for a "return to the sunna," that is, to anthropomorphic literalism. Now, it seems worthwhile in the face of such "reforms," to first ask an obvious question, namely: Is literalism really identical with pristine Islamic faith ('aqida)? Or rather did figurative interpretation (ta'wil) exist among the salaf? We will answer this question with a few actual examples of mutashabihat or 'unapparent in meaning' Qur'anic verses and hadiths, and examine how the earliest scholars interpreted them:
1. Forgetting. We have mentioned above the Qur'anic verse,
2. Hands. In the verse,
3. Shin. Of the Qur'anic verse,
4. Laughter. Of the hadith related in Sahih al-Bukhari from Abu Hurayra that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said,
5. Coming. The hadith master (hafiz) Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373) reports that Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066) related from al-Hakim (d. 405/1014), from Abu 'Amr ibn al-Sammak (d. 344/955), from Hanbal [ibn Ishaq al-Shaybani] (d. 273/886), the son of the brother of Ahmad ibn Hanbal's father, that "Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241/855) figuratively interpreted the word of Allah Most High,
In light of the above examples, it is plain that the Ash'ari school did not originate figurative interpretation, but rather it had been with Muslims from the beginning. And if the above figures are not the salaf or 'early Muslims,' who are? Ibn Taymiya (d. 728/1328) and Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751/1350)?
The question of ta'wil or 'figurative interpretation' is the reason that our "reformers" refer to Ash'aris (as did Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim did before them) as Jahmiyya, or 'Jahmites,' after Jahm ibn Safwan (d. 128/745), an extreme Mu'tazilite who denied that Allah had any attributes. Or as Nafat, or 'Negaters,' meaning of the 'attributes' they would infer from verbs and ascriptive (idafa) constructions of the above type of mutashabihat, or 'unapparent in meaning' verses and hadiths that we have discussed. Despite the inaccuracy of these labels, which beg the question that the mutashabihat signify attributes, one cannot doubt the sincerity with which these people advocate their "return to early Islam." Yet, in view of the foregoing examples of figurative interpretation by early Muslims, one cannot help feeling entitled to ask, Whose early Islam would they have us return to?
It was Imam Abu Hanifa (d. 150/767) who first noted, "Two depraved opinions have reached us from East, those of Jahm [ibn Safwan] (d. 128/745), the nullifier of the divine attributes, and those of Muqatil [ibn Sulayman al-Balkhi (d. c.a. 150/767)], the likener of Allah to His creation" (Dhahabi, Siyar a'lam al-nubala' [Beirut: Mu'assasa al-Risala, 1401/1984], 7.202).
These do not have to be an either-or for Muslims. Jahm's brand of Mu'tazilism has been dead for over a thousand years, while anthropomorphic literalism is a heresy that in previous centuries was confined to a handful of sects like the Hanbalis addressed by 'Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi in his Daf' shubah al-tashbih, or like the forgers of Kitab al-sunna who ascribed it to Imam Ahmad's son 'Abdullah, or like the Karramiyya [the followers of Muhammad al-Karram (d. 255/869)], who believed Allah to be a corporeal entity "sitting in person on His Throne."
It is with all the greater concern that we see, in our times, pamphlets being circulated in an attempt to create acceptance for these ideas, such as The Muslim's Belief, a English tract on Islamic faith ('aqida) that tells Western Muslim readers:
His [Allah's] 'settling [istiwa'] on the Throne' means that He is sitting in person on His Throne [emphasis mine] in a way that is becoming to His Majesty and Greatness. Nobody except He knows exactly how He is sitting (Sheikh Muhammad al-Salih al-'Uthaymin, The Muslim's Belief [tr. Dr. Maneh Hammad al-Juhani. Intr. Sheikh Ibn Baz. Riyad: World Assembly of Muslim Youth, 1407/1987], 11).
In previous Islamic centuries, someone who worshipped a god who 'sits,' moves about, and so forth, was considered to be in serious trouble in his faith ('aqida). Listen to the words of the Imam of Ahl al-Sunna in tenets of faith and heresiology, 'Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 429/1037):
Anyone who considers his Lord to resemble the form of a person—as do the Bayaniyya [the followers of Bayan ibn Sam'an al-Tamimi (d. 119/737)], the Mughiriyya [followers of al-Mughira ibn Sa'id al-'Ajali (d. 119/737)], the Jawaribiyya [followers of Dawud al-Jawaribi, (d. 2nd Hijra century)], and the Hishamiyya [followers of Hisham ibn Salim al-Jawaliqi, the teacher of al-Jawaribi in anthropomorphism]—
If anthropomorphic literalism were an acceptable Islamic school of thought, why was it counted among heresies and rejected for the first seven centuries of Islam that preceded Ibn Taymiya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim?
To summarize: we have distinguished three ways of understanding the mutashabihat, or 'unapparent in meaning' verses and hadiths. The first is the way of tafwid, or 'consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah,' which was the way of Shafi'i and many of the early Muslims; in accordance with the reading of the Qur'anic verse about the mutashabihat:
As for anthropomorphism, it is clear from this verse and from the entire previous history of this Umma, that it is not an Islamic school of thought, and never has been. And Allah knows best.
The Mas'ud Questions