Interpreting Allah’s Words “He Who is in the Heaven”

(man fi al-sama’)

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Allah’s saying: “Have you taken security from Him Who is in the Heaven that He will not cause the earth to swallow you” (67:16) indicates that everything elevated is called “Heaven.” The commentaries say that Allah said this to the idolaters in response to their claim that the gods on earth were the idols and that Allah the Exalted owned only the heavens. It means: Have you taken security from Him Who is on high with the highness of loftiness and sublimity, in the same way as it is said: “the sultan is higher than the emir,” even though they may both sit on one and the same dais.

Similarly with reference to His saying: “He is the Omnipotent over His slaves” (6:18, 6:61): pre-eminence or the quality of aboveness here signifies a pre-eminence of importance and rank. Pharaoh described himself as pre-eminent over the Banu Isra’il by saying: “Verily we are omnipotent over you.” It is understood that his meaning here does not consist in a geographic location above them. Al-Tabari said in his Tafsir: “Allah made Himself exalted over the heaven with the exaltation (`uluw) of sovereignty and power, not that of displacement and movement.”

Another meaning for 67:16 is mentioned in Zamakhshari’s Kashshaf. It is: “Have you taken security from Him whose sovereignty is in the Heaven?” (a’amintum man malakutihi fi al-sama’). When “whose sovereignty” (malakutihi) is omitted the pronoun “Him” (man) remains instead. There are many instances of this turn of speech in the Qur’an: “And ask the town” (was’al al-qaryat), that is: “And ask the people of the town”; “And your Lord came” (wa ja’a rabbuka), that is: “And your Lord’s order came” (wa ja’a amru rabbika).

Concerning the latter verse Imam Ahmad said: “It means His command.” Bayhaqi said about this saying in his book Manaqib al-Imam Ahmad: “Its chain of transmission is impeccable.” It is related verbatim in Ibn Kathir who adds: “Imam Ahmad’s words signify negation of likening Allah to creation.”

We do not think that Ibn Kathir would countenance the argument of some “Salafis” of today who say that al-Bayhaqi may have misunderstood the wording of the original text and misphrased it! Nor do we accept such baseless hypotheses. We believe that Imam Ahmad said those words as they came to us with a faultless chain of transmission, whether or not they meet the expectations of “Salafis” towards Imam Ahmad. Ibn Hazm in al-Fasl fi al-milal confirms that Imam Ahmad interpreted Allah’s “coming” as His command. Al-Khallal himself, in his book Al-Sunna, reports that Imam Ahmad interpreted Sura al-Baqara figuratively to mean “Allah’s reward” in the hadith of Muslim: “On the Day of the Rising, al-Baqara and Ali `Imran will come…” Similarly Bayhaqi relates in his al-Asma’ wa al-Sifat that Imam Bukhari interpreted Allah’s “laughter” to mean his mercy. Al-Khattabi confirmed it.

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