It is evident that Bin Baz’s outburst against Ibn al-`Arabi’s position favoring interpretation is due to the fact that this Maliki scholar is among the most respected authorities of both the scholars of fiqh and those of hadith, and that he is scrupulous in his adherence to the strictest principles in most matters. Like al-Khattabi, Ibn Battal, Nawawi, Ibn Hajar, and so many others, he represents the soundest of the sound positions of Ahl al-Sunna, as demonstrated by his commentary in `Aridat al-ahwadhi on the hadith of descent in Tirmidhi, which we cite in full:
People are divided into three opinions regarding this hadith and the like:
- Some of them reject it, because it is a single narration and its external sense is not suitable for Allah. These are the Innovators.
- Some of them accepted it and took it as it came without interpreting it or discussing it, while believing that there is nothing that resembles Allah.
- Some of them interpreted it and explained it and this is my position, because its meaning is easy in pure Arabic.
Some ignorant people, however, trespassed bounds in interpreting it. They say that in this Hadith there is proof that Allah is in the Heaven on the Throne above the Seven Heavens. We say that this is a sign of tremendous ignorance.
[There is in this implicit criticism of Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani who belonged to Ibn al-`Arabi’s own school and was criticized for stating in his Risala or Epistle on Islamic belief and law according to the Maliki school, that “Allah is on His glorious Throne in person” (innahu fawqa `arshihi al-majid bi dhatihi). This was something that Imam Malik never said, since it has no precedent in Qur’an and hadith, and is therefore rejected. Ibn Abi Zayd did not include “in person” in his other statement of creed in al-Jami` fi al-sunan although he said “He is above His heavens, on His Throne, outside His earth” (innahu fawqa samawatihi `ala `arshihi duna ardihi).
Like Ibn `Arabi, al-`Izz ibn `Abd al-Salam and Ibn Hajar al-Haytami consider the saying “on His Throne in person” unacceptable and characterize it as a reprehensible innovation which it is not permissible to follow.]
What the hadith said is “He descends to Heaven” without specifying from where He descends or how He descends. Yet they said, and their proof is again based on the external sense, “The Merciful is firmly established on the Throne” (al-rahmanu `ala al-`arshi istawa).
We ask: What is the Throne in Arabic, and what is istawa?
They reply: As Allah said: “That they may mount (li yastawu) upon their backs” (43:13).
We say: Allah is Mighty and Higher than to have His istiwa on His Throne compared to our sitting on the backs of animals!
They say: And as He said: “And the ship came to rest (istawat) upon al-Judi” (11:44).
We say: Allah is Mighty and Higher than a ship that sailed and then docked and stopped!
They said: And as He said, “When you and those who are with you settle on the ship” (23:28).
We say: Allah forbid that His istiwa’ be similar to that of Noah and his people! Everything in the latter case is created, as it consists in istiwa’ with an elevation and a settling in a place involving physical contact. The entire Umma is in agreement, even before hearing the hadith of descent and the arguments of those who rejected it, that Allah’s istiwa’ does not involve any of those things. Therefore do not give examples from His creation for Him!
They say: Allah said, “Then He made istiwa’ on the Throne” (20:4) means “Then He made istawa’ to Heaven” (2:29).
We say: This is a contradiction. First you say that He is on the Throne above Heaven, then you say He is in Heaven according to His saying, “Have you taken security from Him Who is in the Heaven” (67:16) — and you say that it means “above the Heaven.” Therefore you must say that “The Merciful is firmly established on the Throne” means “to the Throne”!
They say: Allah said: “He rules all affairs from the Heaven to the Earth” (32:5).
We say: This is true, but it does not provide any proof for your innovation!
They say: All the firm believers in the Oneness of Allah raise their hands to the Heavens when supplicating him, and if Musa had not said to Pharaoh: My Lord is in the Heaven, Pharaoh would not have said: O Haman, build me a tower.
We say: You are telling lies about Musa, he never said that. But your conclusion shows that you are indeed the followers of Pharaoh, who believed that the Creator lies in a certain direction, and so he desired to climb up to Him on a ladder. He congratulates you for being among his followers, and he is your imam!
They say: What about Umayya ibn Abi al-Salt who said: “Glory to Him Whom creatures are unable to know in the way He deserves to be known, Who is on His Throne, One and One Alone, Sovereign and Possessor over the Throne of Heaven, unto Whose Majesty faces are humbled and prostrate”? and he (Umayya) had read the Torah, the Bible, and the Psalms.
We say: It is like you and your ignorance to cite as proof, first Pharaoh, then the discourse of a pre-Islamic Arab supported by the Torah and the Bible, which have been distorted and changed! And of all of Allah’s creation the Jews are the most knowledgeable in disbelieve and likening Allah to creation.
[Ibn Hajar said in al-Isaba fi tamyiz al-sahaba: “There is no disagreement among the authorities in history that Umayya ibn Abi Salt died an unbeliever.”]
What we must believe is that Allah existed and nothing existed with Him; that He created all creation, including the Throne, without becoming indicatable through them, nor did a direction arise for Him because of them, nor did He acquire a location in them; that He does not become immanent, that He does not cease to be transcendent, that he does not change, and that He does not move from one state to another.
Istiwa’ in the Arabic language has fifteen meanings both literal and figurative. Some of these meanings are suitable for Allah and the meaning of the verse (20:4) is derived from them. The other meanings are not accepted under any circumstances. For example, if it is taken to mean being in a place (tamakkun), settling (istiqrar), connecting (ittisal), or being bounded (muhadhat): then none of these are suitable for the Creator — Exalted is He — and no one should try to find His likeness in His creation.
One may refrain from explaining the verse, as Malik and others have said:
“The istiwa’ is known” — he means: its lexical sense– “and the modality is unknown” — that is: the modality of whatever is suitable for Allah among the senses of istiwa’: therefore who can specify such modality? — “and asking about it is innovation” — because, as we have just made clear, probing this matter is looking for dubious matters and that is asking for fitna.
Hence, from what the Imam of Muslims Malik has said we can conclude that the istiwa’ is known; that what is suitable for Allah is left unspecified; and that He is declared transcendent above what is impossible for Him. As for specifying what is not suitable for Him, it is not permissible for you, since you have completed the declaration of oneness and belief by negating likeness for Allah and by negating whatever it is absurd to believe concerning Him. There is no need for you for anything beyond that, and we have already explained this in detail.
As for His saying: He descends, comes, arrives, and similar phrases whose meanings are not allowed to apply to His essence: they refer to His actions… al-Awza`i explained this when he said, about this hadith (“Allah descends”): “Allah does what he wishes.” Or it suffices to know, or simply to believe that Allah is not to be defined by any of the characteristics of created things and that there is nothing in His creation that resembles Him and there is no interpretation that can explain Him.
They said: We must say “He descends” without asking how. We say: We seek refuge in Allah from saying that! We only say whatever Allah’s Messenger has taught us to say and what we have understood from the Arabic language in which the Qur’an was revealed. And the Prophet said:
“Allah says: O My servant, I was ailing and you did not visit me, I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you did not give me drink…”
and none of this is suitable of Allah whatsoever, but He has honored all these actions by expressing them through Him. In the same way, the saying “Our Lord descends” expresses His servant and angel that descends, in His name, with His order concerning whatever He bestows of His Mercy and gives of his generosity and showers His creation of His bounty.
The poet says:
I have descended
— therefore do not suspect me of jealousy! —
in the station of the generous lover.
A descent can be either figurative or physical. The descending that Allah spoke about, if understood as physical, would mean His angel, Messenger, and slave. However, if you can understand it to mean that He was not doing any of this and that He then turned to do it in the last third of the night, thereby answering prayers, forgiving, bestowing, and that He has named this “descending from one degree to another and from one attribute to another,” then that — ironically enough — is addressed to those who have more knowledge than you and more intelligence, who are firmer in belief in Allah’s Unity and are less confused than you — nay, who are not confused at all!
They say in ignorance that if He meant the descending of his Mercy he would not make that only in the last third of the night, because His Mercy descends day and night. We say: Yes, he singled out the night, and the day of `Arafat, and the hour of Jum`a, because the descent of His mercy in them is more abundant, and its bestowal is even greater then. Allah warned us of this when He said: “And those who beg forgiveness in the early hours of the morning” (3:17)