Literalism and the Attributes of Allah – Nuh HM Keller


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Literalism and the Attributes of Allah – Nuh HM Keller

Literalism and the Attributes of Allah

Nuh Ha Mim Keller

I received a letter in Jordan not too long ago from a British Muslim, asking me questions about modern calls to replace traditional Islam with an ostensible “return to the way of the Salaf, or ‘early Muslims.’” When I answered one of these questions, I realized that many other people might be wondering the same thing, and thought that presenting the question to you tonight in a wider forum might be of greater benefit to the British Muslim and non-Muslim audience.

The letter asked me: 

    Are the Hanbali Mujtahid Imams al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm considered Ahl al-Sunna? And was Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal an anthropomorphist—meaning someone who ascribed human attributes to Allah? Can you provide me examples of the sayings of Imam Ahmad that show he did not have anthropomorphic ‘Aqida?

The questions proved to be related in ways unsuspected by their author. What unites them is literalism as an interpretive principle, which is the subject of my talk tonight. We will look at it first in respect to ijtihad, meaning the ‘qualified deduction of Islamic legal rulings from the Koran and hadith.’ But we will look at literalism also, and most carefully, from the point of view of ‘aqida or Islamic belief, in understanding the Koranic verses and prophetic hadiths that are called mutashabihat or ‘unclear in meaning’—such as the verse in Surat al-Fath that says, 

“Allah’s hand is above their hands” (Koran 48:10)

—termed ‘unclear in meaning,’ mutashabih, because linguistically hand can bear multiple interpretations, and its ostensive sense seems to imply ‘belief in a God with human attributes,’ that is, anthropomorphism, an understanding categorically rejected by the Koranic verse in Surat al-Shura,

“There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Koran 42:11).

We shall see that literalism was a school of thought in Islamic jurisprudence, though not considered a very strong one by traditional scholars. But in tenets of faith, and particularly in interpreting the relation of the mutashabihat to the attributes of Allah, literalism has never been accepted as an Islamic school of thought, neither among the Salaf or ‘early Muslims,’ nor those who came later.

In answer to the first question, “Are the Hanbali Mujtahid Imams al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm considered Ahl al-Sunna?” Dawud ibn ‘Ali al-Dhahiri of Isfahan, who died 270 years after the Hijra, and Abu Muhammad ibn Hazm, who died 456 years after the Hijra, were not followers of Ahmad ibn Hanbal but Dhahiris or ‘literalists’ in jurisprudence. Whether Dawud al-Dhahiri was a mujtahid—meaning qualified to issue expert Islamic legal opinion—has been disagreed upon by Muslim scholars, not only for reasons we will discuss, but also because little that he wrote has come down to us. 

As for Ibn Hazm, traditional Islamic scholars have not accepted his claims to be a mujtahid, the first qualification of which is to have comprehensive knowledge of the Koran and hadith. Scholars point to his many substantive mistakes in hadith knowledge, and adduce, for example, that if someone doesn’t even know, as Ibn Hazm did not, about the existence of the Sunan of al-Tirmidhi, who died nearly a hundred and fifty years before Ibn Hazm did, it is not clear how he can be considered a mujtahid. But aside from their qualifications, what interests us tonight is their Dhahirism or ‘textual literalism’ as an interpretive method.

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