Is it Permissible for a Muslim to Believe that Allah is in the Sky in a Literal Sense?

Second, this latter consideration is especially applicable to the point in question because the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) explicitly detailed the pillars of Islamic faith (iman) in a hadith related in Sahih Muslim when he answered the questions of the angel Gabriel, saying, True faith (iman) is to believe in Allah, His angels, His Books, His messengers, the Last Day, and to believe destiny (qadr), its good and evil (Sahih Muslim, 1.37: 8)–and he did not mention anything about Allah being “in the sky”. If it had been the decisive test of a Muslims belief or unbelief (as in the “in the sky” hadith seems to imply), it would have been obligatory for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to mention it in this hadith, the whole point of which is to say precisely what “iman is”.

Third, if one takes the hadith as meaning that Allah is literally “in the sky”, it conflicts with other equally sahih hadiths that have presumably equal right to be taken literally–such as the hadith qudsi related by al-Hakim that Allah Most High says, “I am with My servant when he makes remembrance of Me and his lips move with Me” (al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn. 4 vols. Hyderabad, 1334/1916. Reprint (with index vol. 5). Beirut: Dar al-Marifa, n.d., 1.496), a hadith that al-Hakim said was rigorously authenticated (sahih), which al-Dhahabi confirmed. Or such as the hadith related by al-Nasai, Abu Dawud, and Muslim that “the closest a servant is to his Lord is while prostrating” (Sahih Muslim, 1.350: 482)–whereas if Allah were literally “in the sky”, the closest one would be to Him would be while standing upright. Or such as the hadith related by al-Bukhari in his Sahih, in which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) forbade spitting during prayer ahead of one, because when a person prays, “his Lord is in front of him” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 1.112: 406). Finally, in the hadiths of the Mir’aj or “Nocturnal Ascent”, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was shown all of the seven heavens (samawat) by Gabriel, and Allah was not mentioned as being in any of them.

Fourth, the literal interpretation of Allah being “in the sky” contradicts two fundamentals of Islamic `aqida established by the Qur’an. The first of these is Allah’s attribute of mukhalafa li al-hawadith or “not resembling created things in any way”, as Allah says in Surat al-Shura, “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11), whereas if He were literally “in the sky”, there would be innumerable things like unto Him in such respects as having altitude, position, direction, and so forth. The second fundamental that it contradicts, as mentioned above, is Allah’s attribute of ghina or “being absolutely free of need for anything created” that He affirms in numerous verses in the Qur’an. It is impossible that Allah could be a corporeal entity because bodies need space and time, while Allah has absolutely no need for anything.

Fifth, the literalist interpretation of “in the sky” entails that the sky encompasses Allah on all sides, such that He would be smaller than it, and it would thus be greater than Allah, which is patently false.

For these reasons and others, Islamic scholars have viewed it obligatory to figuratively interpret the above hadith and other texts containing similar figures of speech, in ways consonant with how the Arabic language is used. Consider the Qur’anic verse “Do you feel safe that He who is in the sky will not make the earth swallow you while it quakes” (Qur’an 67:16), for which the following examples of traditional tafsir or “Qur’anic commentary” can be offered:

(al-Qurtubi:) The more exacting scholars hold that it ["in the sky"] means, “Do you feel secure from Him who is over the sky”–just as Allah says, “Journey in the earth” (Qur’an 9:2), meaning journey over it–not over the sky by way of physical contact or spatialization, but by way of omnipotent power and control. Another position is that it means “Do you feel secure from Him who is over (`ala) the sky,” just as it is said, “So-and-so is over Iraq and the Hijaz”, meaning that he is the governor and commander of them (al-Jami li ahkam al-Qur’an, 18.216).

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