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Understanding the Divine Attributes

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    Posted: 04 August 2007 at 4:29am

Bi ismillahi rahmani raheem

assalamu alaikum

Understanding the Divine Attributes: the Salaf, Ash`aris, Maturidis, and the way of mainstream Sunni Islam

Answered by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani, SunniPath Academy Teacher

I have been a follower of the Maturidi and Ashari schools for some time now. However, I have recently met Salafis who tell me that the Aqidah of the Salaf was of the Athari school. They have quotations of Hanbali scholars attacking the Asharis. I have also found many quotations of Ashari scholars attacking the Hanbalis.

I was wondering, which aqidah did the Salaf believe? Did the Ashari aqidah begin with Imam Ashari, I ask this because although he codified the beliefs of the Salaf there are many ideas and concepts he had which were new such as the concept of the universe being made up of atoms. The Salafis are telling me that the Salaf believed in the Athari creed and this is proven without doubt, and this Athari creed is much different than the Ashari creed. Can you please clarify things as I would like to believe as the Salaf believed.

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 very anti-Ash`ari. Some were simply wary of the nuances of scholastic theology and feared the impact of the purity of the beliefs in the truths of 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--whatever they were called, whether "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 and were Salafi in the true sense
Both Imam Abu'l Hasan al-Ash`ari and Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi were from the Salaf (blessed age of the early Muslims, generally defined as those of the righteous who lived in the first three Centuries after the Prophetic age). They simply defended and upheld the transmitted beliefs of the Qur'an and Sunna, as upheld 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
The preferred position of both the Ash`aris and Maturidis when it comes to understanding those Divine Attributes that may appear to indicate some similitude between the Creator and creation 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 rightly-guided early Muslims (salaf). Their statements of affirmation, which our methodologically-divergent brethren passionately cling, onto were not statements of excessive literalism (which is the way of such brethren). Rather, they were simply affirming what Allah has affirmed--and strongly condemning those who would negate anything that Allah affirmed (for that entails disbelief, thus the firmness of many of such statements). But they did not affirm more than that and did not insist on understanding such affirmations in a "literal" manner--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)?
At the same time, when need 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.

They had their 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--as 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 the many of 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--like 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

Rasul Allah (sallah llahu alaihi wa sallam) said: "Whoever knows himself, knows his Lord" and whoever knows his Lord has been given His gnosis and nearness.
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