Istiwa’ is a Divine Act

Al-Bayhaqi quotes one of the companions of al-Ash`ari, Abu al-Hasan `Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Mahdi al-Tabari (d. ~380) as saying in his book Ta’wil al-Ahadith al-Mushkalat al-Waridat fi al-Sifat (“Interpretation of the Problematic Narrations Pertaining to the Attributes”): “Allah is in the heaven above everything and established (mustawin) over His Throne in the sense that He is exalted or elevated (`alin) above it, and the sense of istiwa’ is self-elevation (i`tila’).”17 This is the most widespread interpretation (ta’wil) of the issue among the Salaf: al-Baghawi said that the meaning of the verse “The Merciful established Himself over the Throne” (20:5) according to Ibn `Abbas and most of the commentators of Qur’an is “He elevated Himself” (irtafa`a).18 This is the interpretation quoted by al-Bukhari in his Sahih from the senior Tabi`i Rufay` ibn Mahran Abu al-`Aliya (d. 90). Al-Bukhari also cites from Mujahid (d. 102) the interpretation “to rise above” or “exalt Himself above” (`ala). Ibn Battal declares the latter to be the true position and the saying of Ahl al-Sunna because Allah described Himself as “the Sublimely Exalted” – “al-`Ali” (2:255) and said: “exalted be He (ta`ala) over all that they ascribe as partners (unto Him)!” (23:92).19

In complete opposition to the above Ibn Taymiyya said in his Fatawa: “The establishment of Allah over the Throne is real, and the servant’s establishment over the ship is real” (lillahi ta`ala istiwa’un `ala `arshihi haqiqatan wa li al-`abdi istiwa’un `ala al-fulki haqiqatan).20 “Allah is with us in reality, and He is above His Throne in reality (Allahu ma`ana haqiqatan wa huwa fawqa al-`arshi haqiqatan).. . . Allah is with His creation in reality and He is above His Throne in reality (Allahu ma`a khalqihi haqiqatan wa huwa fawqa al-`arshi haqiqatan).”21

Another interpretation commonly used by later Ash`aris for istiwa’ is that of istila’ and qahr, respectively “establishing dominion” and “subduing.” Ibn `Abd al-Salam said:

His establishment (istiwa’) over the Throne is a metaphor for establishing dominion (istila’) over His kingdom and disposing of it, as the poet said:

qad istawa Bishrun `ala al-`Iraq min ghayri sayfin wa damin muhraq

“Bishr established mastery over Iraq without sword and without shedding blood.”22

It is a metaphor of similitude with kings, who dispose of the affairs of their kingdoms while sitting among the dynastic princes. The throne may also express rank, as in `Umar’s – Allah be well-pleased with him – saying:23 “My throne would have toppled if I had not found a merciful Lord.”24

Ibn Battal and Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi attribute the interpretation as istila’ chiefly to the Mu`tazila. Ibn Hajar said:

The Mu`tazila said its meaning is “establishing dominion through subjugation and overpowering” (al-istila’ bi al-qahr wa al-ghalaba), citing as a proof the saying of the poet:

“Bishr established mastery over Iraq without sword and without shedding blood.”

The anthropomorphists (al-jismiyya) said: “Its meaning is settledness (al-istiqrar).”25 Some of Ahl al-Sunna said: “Its meaning is He elevated Himself (irtafa`a)” while others of them said: “Its meaning is He rose above (`ala),” and others of them said: “Its meaning is sovereignty (al-mulk) and power (al-qudra).”26

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