Literal Sense

Literal Sense

IS IT PERMISSIBLE FOR A MUSLIM TO BELIEVE THAT ALLAH IS IN THE SKY IN A LITERAL SENSE?

Q-News © Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995

No. The literal sense of being “in the sky” would mean that Allah is actually in one of His creatures, for the sky is something created. It is not permissible to believe that Allah indwells or occupies (in Arabic, “hulul”) any of His creatures, as the Christians believe about Jesus, or the Hindus about their avatars.

What is obligatory for a human being to know is that Allah is “ghaniyy” or “absolutely free from need” of anything He has created. He explicitly says in surat al-Ankabut of the Qur’an, “Verily Allah is absolutely free of need of anything in the worlds” (Qur’an 29:6). Allah mentions this attribute of “ghina” or “freedom of need for anything whatsoever” in some seventeen verses in the Qur’an. It is a central point of Islamic `aqida or faith, and is the reason why it is impossible that Allah could be Jesus (upon whom be peace) or be anyone else with a body and form: because bodies need space and time, while Allah has absolutely no need for anything. This is the `aqida of the Qur’an, and Muslim scholars have kept it in view in understanding other Qur’anic verses or hadiths.

Muslims lift their hands toward the sky when they make supplications (du’a) to Allah because the sky is the qibla for du’a, not that Allah occupies that particular direction–just as the Kaaba is the qibla of the prayer (salat), without Muslims believing that Allah is in that direction. Rather, Allah in His wisdom has made the qibla a sign (ayah) of Muslim unity, just as He has made the sky the sign of His exaltedness and His infinitude, meanings which come to the heart of every believer merely by facing the sky and supplicating Allah.

It was part of the divine wisdom to incorporate these meanings into the prophetic sunna to uplift the hearts of the people who first heard them, and to direct them to the exaltedness and infinitude of Allah through the greatest and most palpable physical sign of them: the visible sky that Allah had raised above them. Many of them, especially when newly from the Jahiliyya or “pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance”, were extremely close to physical, perceptible realities and had little conception of anything besides–as is attested to by their idols, which were images set up on the ground. Umar ibn al-Khattab mentions, for example, that in the Jahiliyya, they might make their idols out of dates, and if they later grew hungry, they would simply eat them. The language of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) in conveying the exaltedness of Allah Most High to such people was of course in terms they could understand without difficulty, and used the imagery of the sky above them. Imam al-Qurtubi, the famous Qur’anic exegete of the seventh/thirteenth century, says:

The hadiths on this subject are numerous, rigorously authenticated (sahih), and widely known, and indicate the exaltedness of Allah, being undeniable by anyone except an atheist or obstinate ignoramus. Their meaning is to dignify Allah and exalt Him above all that is base and low, to characterize Him by exaltedness and greatness, not by being in places, particular directions, or within limits, for these are the qualities of physical bodies (al-Jami li ahkam al-Qur’an. 20 vols. Cairo 1387/1967. Reprint (20 vols in 10). Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d.,18.216).

In this connection, a hadith has been related by Malik in his Muwatta’ and by Muslim in his Sahih, that Muawiya ibn al-Hakam came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and told him, “I am very newly from the Jahiliyya, and now Allah has brought Islam,” and he proceeded to ask about various Jahiliyya practices, until at last he said that he had slapped his slave girl, and asked if he should free her, as was obligatory if she was a believer. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) requested that she be brought, and then asked her, “Where is Allah?” and she said, “In the sky (Fi al-sama)”; whereupon he asked her, “Who am I?” and she said, “You are the Messenger of Allah”; at which he said, Free her, “for she is a believer” (Sahih Muslim, 5 vols. Cairo 1376/1956. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1403/1983, 1.382: 538). Imam Nawawi says of this hadith:

Page 1 of 6 | Next page