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The Meaning of the Angels “Ascent” to Allah

Answered by Sidi Salman Younas

Question: How do you interpret Qur’anic verses that mention angels “ascending” to their Lord in light of our belief that no direction contains Allah? What about `Isa being raised “to” his Lord?

Answer: assalamu `alaykum

I pray you are well.

All scriptural texts that lend themselves to striking similitude between Allah and His creation when understood literally are interpreted figuratively in a manner that negates such similitude.

For example, the verse, “the angels and the spirit will ascend to Him/it (ilayhi)…” [32:5] was interpreted to refer Allah’s throne, or the lote tree of the furthest boundary (sidra al-muntaha), among other interpretations.

Similarly, Allah’s statement to our liege-lord `Isa (Allah bless him), “raise you to Myself…” [3:55] was interpreted to mean a place of Allah’s generosity and honoring due to the rank of the one being raised. This akin to the statement of our liege-lord Ibrahim (Allah bless him), “I am going to my Lord” when he traveled from Iraq to the Levant. It is also akin to the phrase “visitors of Allah” used for those performing pilgrimage.

Understanding such verses in a figurative way is permitted to ward off doubts and devilish whispers. Otherwise, there is no need ponder over the potential meanings of these verses, unless one is someone firmly grounded in knowledge.

For most of us, the descent of such ambiguous verses is a test from Allah to see whether we submit to His command to say, “We believe in it, all of it is from our Lord…” [3:7] Therefore, the best recourse is to simply focus on that which is clear within the Qur’an, not that which is ambiguous, while consigning the knowledge of the latter to Allah and knowing that He is transcendent beyond anything our minds can comprehend.

Related Answers:

What Does the Narration “Allah Created Adam in His/his Image” Mean

Allah Breathing His Spirit Into Jesus

Wassalam

Salman

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani

Allah Breathing His Spirit Into Jesus? The Possible Meanings of this Verse & The Approach of Sunni Islam Towards Ambiguous Texts

Answered by Ustadh Faraz Khan

Question: What is the meaning of the verse that states Allah blowing His spirit into Jesus?

Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,

InshaAllah you are well.

The verse in question is, “So We breathed into him of Our spirit” (66:12)

What the Scholars of Exegesis Have Mentioned

According to works of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), the expression “Our spirit” means “a spirit created by Us.” Of course, every human’s spirit is created by Allah Most High. The spirit of our Master `Isa (peace be upon him), however, is singled out with this expression as a way of honoring him. This ascription of honor (idafat al-tashrif) is quite common in the language of the Qur’an, such as “the house of Allah,” “the she-camel of Allah,” etc. That is, a house or she-camel so incredibly honored and so very special, that it is ascribed to Allah, who is of course utterly transcendent above using a house or she-camel, may He be glorified and exalted. Similarly, the spirit that Allah created for our master `Isa (peace be upon him) is so honored and special, it is ascribed to Allah directly, who is utterly transcendent above having His own spirit.

Another explanation given is that such an ascription is used to indicate that Allah created that thing without any intermediary or “means.” So the she-camel of Allah was created directly by Him without a womb, and the spirit of ‘`sa (peace be upon him) was created directly by Him without any means that Allah normally uses in the act of creation.

With respect to the expression “We breathed,” most exegetes mention that it was actually the Archangel Jibril (peace be upon him) who breathed the spirit into `Isa (peace be upon him). The act is ascribed to Allah in the verse, however, since He Most High is the One who commanded Jibril to do so. Therefore, “We breathed” actually means “We sent Jibril, who breathed.” [Qurtubi, Nasafi, Biqa’i, Abu Suud]

Imam Razi, however, interprets it as metaphorical, stating that the nature of the spirit is such that, once it is created in the body, it spreads to every part of the body, just as air that is breathed into a vessel. Hence according to him, there was no literal “breathing” that took place. And Allah knows best.

Dealing with Ambiguous Verses

The verse in question is considered one of the ambiguous verses (mutashabihat). With such verses, the outward apparent meaning of it cannot be taken literally with respect to Allah Most High, who is well-exalted and transcendent above all things temporal. This is established in clear, unequivocal verses such as “There is nothing like unto Him” (42:11) and “And He has no equivalent” (112:4).

Classically, there were two historical approaches among Muslim scholars in dealing with such verses. The first was, after negating the outward literal meaning, to consign the matter completely to Allah Most High without any attempt to interpret the verse (tafwid); this was the approach of the first few generations (salaf).

The second approach was to attempt to interpret the verse in a matter befitting His majesty (ta’wil), yet without affirming it with certainty since other meanings could also be correct; this was the approach of scholars of later generations (khalaf), who were forced to do so in order to safeguard the understanding of Allah’s transcendence from the incorrect beliefs of various sects that arose in their time. [Bajuri, Tuhfat al-Murid]

And Allah knows best.

wassalam
Faraz

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani

The Ash`aris & Maturidis: Standards of Mainstream Sunni Beliefs

Answered by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Question: Is it true that the Hanbalis were very anti-Ash`ari? I have heard from some people that the beliefs of the Salaf were the beliefs of the “Atharis” and not the Ash`ari/Maturidis and things like interpreting the attributes is not valid. Can you please clarify?

Answer: In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate

May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon His Messenger Muhammad, his folk, companions, and followers

Walaikum assalam wa rahmatullah,

I pray this finds you in the best of health and spirits.

Yes, there was historically a group of Hanbalis who were quite anti-Ash`ari. Some of them were simply wary of the nuances of scholastic theology (kalam) and feared the impact it may have had on the purity of the beliefs within the Qur’an and Sunna. However, there was also a tendency–certainly not predominant–towards excessive literalism in beliefs and even towards anthropomorphism (affirmation of human attributes to Allah).

The Ash`ari and Maturidi Schools: the Standards of mainstream Sunni beliefs

This is why the scholars considered the prevalent way of the Ash`aris and Maturidis to be the ‘standard’ by which anyone’s beliefs would be judged. If these beliefs– whether referred to as “Athari aqida” or anything else–corresponded in content and implications to the beliefs acceptable to the mainstream Sunni schools, then such beliefs were accepted as being within the framework of Ahl al-Sunna; and to the extent that they didn’t, in content or implications, they weren’t.

Imam Ash`ari and Imam Maturidi were from the Salaf

Both Imam Abu’l Hasan al-Ash`ari and Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi were from the Salaf (the age of the early Muslims, generally defined as those of the righteous who lived in the first three Centuries after the Prophetic age). Both of these Imams simply defended and upheld the transmitted beliefs of the Qur’an and Sunna, as understood by mainstream Sunni Islam in each generation before them, from the extremes of excessive literalism and excessive rationalism.

Their teachings and methodology were accepted as the standard of mainstream Sunni Islam by clear general consensus of the scholarly community in their own times and in every generation since–a sign of Divine acceptance by clear promise of Allah and His Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), for it is a Divine promise that the teachings of His final revelation will be preserved and a Prophetic promise that his Umma will not agree on error.

The Divine Attributes and the way of Consigning (tafwid) the meaning to Allah

When it comes to understanding those Divine Attributes that may appear to indicate some similitude between the Creator and creation, the preferred position of both the Ash`aris and Maturidis is:

[1] Affirming what Allah has affirmed, such as istiwa’ or His Hand or Eyes, not more and not less.
[2] Negating what Allah has decisively negated, which is any similitude whatsoever between the Creator and creation–a negation that the sound intellect readily discerns, and which was affirmed by Allah’s words, “There is absolutely nothing like unto Him.” [Qur’an]
[3] Consigning (tafwid) the specific meaning and details of such matters to Allah Most High.

[Bajuri, Tuhfat al-Murid `ala Jawharat al-Tawhid; Nablusi, Sharh Ida’at al-Dujunna; Abu Mu`in al-Nasafi, Tabsirat al-Adilla; Qari/Abu Hanifa, Sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar; Maydani/Tahawi, Sharh al-Aqida al-Tahawiyya; Bouti, Kubra al-Yaqiniyyat]

This was the way of the Salaf

This was clearly the way of the pious predecessors (salaf). Their statements of affirmation, which our methodologically-divergent brethren passionately latch onto, were not statements of excessive literalism. Rather, they were simply affirming what Allah has affirmed and strongly condemned those who would negate anything that Allah affirmed (for that entails disbelief, thus the reason why some statements were so firm). However, they did not affirm more than that and did not insist on understanding such affirmations in being “literal” in nature. This is because the literal (i.e. primary) meaning of such matters entails affirming similitude between the Creator and creation and such similitude has been clearly and decisively negated throughout the Qur’an.

What About Figurative Interpretation (ta’wil)?

However, when the need for it arose, some of the early Muslim (salaf) scholars and many of the later Muslim (khalaf) scholars used figurative interpretation to give a meaning to such “apparently problematic” primary texts, using the sound principles of linguistic usage and textual interpretation.

These scholars had clear precedent in the interpretations of many of the Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), most notably Ibn Abbas (Allah be pleased with him), who also engaged in such interpretations when there was need. This is clearly found in many of the very earliest reliable tafsirs of the Qur’an, such as Tafsir al-Tabari, and also in Imam Maturidi’s own tafsir, Ta’wilat Ahl al-Sunna.

The later scholars engaged in figurative interpretation more than the earlier scholars because of the greater prevalence of literalist excesses and the harms these were causing to the laity among the believers.

Does Figurative Interpretation Entail Negation of What Allah Affirmed (ta`til)?

Figurative interpretation doesn’t entail negation of what Allah affirmed in any way whatsoever, because this way, akin to the way of ‘consigning the meaning to Allah’ (tafwid), also entails:

[1] Affirming what Allah has affirmed, such as istiwa’ or His Hand or Eyes.
[2] Negating what Allah has decisively negated, which is any similitude whatsoever between the Creator and creation–a negation that the sound intellect readily discerns, and which was affirmed by Allah’s words, “There is absolutely nothing like unto Him.” [Qur’an]

But it differs in that it

[3] Affirms a meaning to these texts, using the principles of established linguistic usage and sound textual interpretation (such as “Hand” signifying power or favor, as understood from the context). It is very important to note that this figurative interpretation entails affirming a meaning in the sense of affirming what the text signifies–and not an exclusive affirmation of meaning (such that A=B, meaning that text A means B, and nothing else). [For examples of such interpretation, see Shaykh Gibril Haddad’s Ibn `Abd al-Salam and Ash`ari Ta’wil.]

The way of figurative interpretation (ta’wil), as exercised by the mainstream Sunni scholars of the Ash`ari and Maturidi schools  is an affirmation of what is understood from such expressions, and not an exclusive specification of meaning. Thus, the way of figurative interpretation (ta’wil), which the scholars only resorted to with the utmost of caution when there was genuine need, also entails a consignment of the ultimate meaning to Allah Most High (tafwid). This is an important but subtle matter, so understand!

And Allah alone gives success.

Faraz Rabbani