Al-Buti’s Recapitulation of the Two Methods, part 1 of 2

Dr. Saeed Ramadan al-Buti

On the Anthropomorphism of the “Salafis”

Al-Buti’s Recapitulation of the Two Methods: The Non-Specific ta’wil of the Salaf, the Specific ta’wil of the Khalaf, and the impermissibility of Imposing One Over the Other In his landmark study of the “Salafi” innovation entitled al-Salafiyya marhalatun zamaniyyatun mubarakatun la madhhabun islami (The Salafiyya is a blessed historical period, not a school of law in Islam).

Dr. Muhammad Sa`id Ramadan al-Buti recapitulates the essential similarity of the respective methods of the Salaf and Khalaf, both centered, as we have established, in the priority of Allah’s transcendence. He shows that both the Salaf and the Khalaf applied figurative interpretation, but the Salaf applied an implicit, non-specific form of figurative interpretation which he calls ta’wil ijmali, while the Khalaf applied an explicit, specific form which he calls ta’wil tafsili:We have already shown that the consensus in place regarding these texts is the refraining from applying to them any meaning which establishes a sameness or likeness between Allah and His creatures, and the refraining from divesting their established lexical tenor.

The obligatory way to proceed is either to explain these words according to their external meanings which conform with Allah’s transcendence above any like or partner, and this includes not explaining them as bodily appendages and other corporeal imagery. Therefore it will be said, for example: He has established Himself over the Throne as He has said, with an establishment which befits His majesty and oneness; and He has a Hand as He has said, which befits His Divinity and Majesty; etc.

Or they can be explained figuratively according to the correct rules of language and in conformity with the customs of speech in their historical context. For example: the establishment is the conquering (istila‘) and dominion (tasallut), Allah’s hand is His strength in His saying: “Allah’s Hand is over their hand” (48:10) and His generosity in His saying: “Nay, both His hands are spread wide, and He bestows as He wills” (5:64).[Ibn al-Jawzi interpreted the former verse as Allah’s favor (ni`ma) and power (qudra), and the latter, according to Hasan al-Basri, as His kindness and goodness.](1)

Now, to proceed to any one of these two types of commentary is not devoid of interpretation (ta’wil) in either case. However, the first type of commentary is a non-specific interpretation, while the second is a specific interpretation.

In the case of the first type of commentary, it is plain to see that the lexical meaning of the hand, face, and eye, is not other than the familiar bodily organs and appendages used by all creatures. Such a meaning is negated for Allah’s Essence in any case and in both types of commentary. This is the non-specific interpretation. This is what they express when they say: “He has a hand which befits His Majesty as He has said, and eyes which befit His Majesty, as He has said.”

But is it obligatory to stop at this non-specific point of interpretation, as most of the Salaf have tended to do, or is it allowed to go beyond non-specific interpretation and treat aspects of the metaphors, figurative meanings, and other usages which are found in abundance in Allah’s book and the hadith of His Prophet?

The way that we advocate and have made known does not demand from the Muslim researcher a preference for either one of these two methods. What is important is that you not attribute to Allah a bodily appendage in the process of your understanding of the word “hand” which He has attributed to Himself, and that you not divest of its meaning the lexical evidence established by Allah’s own speech in your desire to assert His transcendence and steer clear of the perils of worshiping another together with Him.

That is the question in which those who stubbornly claim for themselves the name of “salafi” differ with us, substituting their purported affiliation with the pious Salaf, to the Method (manhaj) upon whose perfection in every single doctrinal principle and juridical method there is complete and general agreement. The bases of their claim against us are, first, that the Salaf of this Community, who are the best of Muslims, showed no tendency for specific interpretation whatsoever, nor added anything beyond what Allah established for Himself in those texts, together with His transcendence above all that does not befit His lordship and divinity and loftiness above any kind of partner or rival. And the second of their proofs against us is that any inroad one makes into the words whose lexical sense Allah has linked to Himself, any probing of their import as figures, or metaphors, or similitudes, is necessarily, in one way or another, a form of divestiture (ta`til)!

We say, relying upon Allah for our success, that we consider neither one of the above two proofs binding upon us, for they are both unacceptable and inapplicable, and because they are not real, unlike what they imagined. For it is not true that none of the Salaf tended to apply specific interpretation in commenting on the verses of the divine attributes; and even if we were to suppose hypothetically that that were true, it is not true that interpreting these attributes in conformity with the principles of religion and the rules of the Arabic language, and in accordance with their Qur’anic contexts, constitutes a form of divestiture.

In refutation of their first claim we say: We know that countless numbers of the Salaf of this Community, the Muslims of the first three centuries, whom the Prophet himself said were the best of all people, applied specific interpretation in commenting upon the verses of the attributes and the hadiths related to them: the same kind of interpretation which displeases those who call themselves “Salafis” today. Examples:*

Imam Ahmad’s authentic interpretation of Allah’s coming in the verse “And thy Lord shall come with angels, rank on rank” (89:22) as referring to the coming of His order (amr) according to the verse: “Wait they aught save that thy Lord’s command (amr) should come to pass?” (16:32)(2)*

The Prophet’s saying: “Allah smiled/laughed last night at the good deed of both of you…” which is part of a longer hadith about the Ansari who hosted a guest of the Prophet’s while he himself remained hungry with his wife. Bukhari and Muslim extracted it through various chains. Al-Bukhari interpreted Allah’s smile or laughter as His mercy, and he did not stop and content himself to say: “Let it pass without asking how.”(3)*

Bayhaqi in his al-Asma’ wa al-sifat related Hammad ibn Zayd’s interpretation of Allah’s descent to the nearest heaven, in the hadiths of descent, as His drawing near to His servants.(4)*

Ibn Taymiyya related Ja`far al-Sadiq’s interpretation of Allah’s “face” in His saying: “Everything will perish save His face” (28:88) as meaning Religion; and al-Dahhak’s interpretation of the face in the same verse as meaning: Allah’s Essence, Paradise, the Fire, and the Throne. As for Ibn Taymiyya himself, he interprets the face as meaning direction (jiha), so that the meaning would be for him: Everything will perish save that by which Allah’s direction is sought. Then he adds: “This is what the vast majority of the Salaf have said.”(5)*

Al-Bayhaqi relates that al-Muzani reported from al-Shafi`i the following commentary on the verse: “To Allah belong the East and the West, and wheresoever you turn, there is Allah’s face” (2:115): “It means — and Allah knows best — there is the face towards which Allah has directed you.” Bayhaqi continues: “The hafiz Abu `Abd Allah and the hafiz al-Qadi Abu Bakr ibn al-`Arabi have related to us… from Mujahid that he said regarding this verse: “It means Allah’s qibla, therefore wheresoever you may be, East and West, do not turn your faces except towards it.”(6)*

Ibn Hajar in Fath al-bari and al-Baghawi in his Tafsir related that `Abd Allah ibn `Abbas and the majority of the commentators have interpreted istawa in Allah’s saying “The Merciful is established on the Throne” (20:4) as meaning He rose above it (irtafa`a). Similar to it is what Ibn Hajar related, in his long commentary on that verse, from Ibn Battal: “The commentary on istawa as meaning He towers above it (`ala) is correct and the true position and the saying of Ahl al-Sunna.”(7)

Those are some of the Attributes of Names and the Attributes of Action that have been mentioned in the Book of Allah and in the authentic Sunna of the Prophet and interpreted specifically by many of the men of the Salaf in detail. They did not stop at the general interpretation which is expressed in their saying, “Take their outward meaning without how.” Numerous other examples of what we have mentioned can be found in books such as in Bayhaqi’s al-Asma’ wa al-sifat, al-Khattabi’s Ma`alim al-sunan, al-Baghawi’s Tafsir, and other references.

Perhaps what you have seen of Ibn Taymiyya’s doing in searching for an acceptable interpretation for Allah’s “Face” in His saying: “All that is on it will perish, but the face of thy Lord full of Majesty, Bounty and Honour will abide” (44:26-27) should put an end to all misconceptions and cut off the source of all arguments and differences in this subject, since he is the one who heaps criticism on the Khalaf for their interpretation of such verses. We reject the double standard of those who are looking to excuse away Ibn Taymiyya’s clear case of interpretation or give it a preference or a special right over others, claiming, “the face in that verse does not necessarily refer to an attribute, and therefore such interpretation is different from other interpretations, therefore there is nothing wrong with plunging into this form of ta’wil.”

We say, this kind of talk is unacceptable for it is a manipulation of the meaning of ta’wil. What made the wajh “not necessarily refer to one of the attributes” is precisely the ta’wil for which Ibn Taymiyya has allowed us to open the door. Were it not for such ta’wil which is being investigated here, it would not have occurred to anyone’s mind that the face is anything but one attribute among the other attributes of Allah’s names (asma’ al-sifat) which Allah has asserted for His essence in the way that He will and as befits the majesty of His face and the greatness of His sovereignty. If it were at all acceptable to rely on such an excuse (as what “Salafis” bring up for Ibn Taymiyya) for interpreting the verses and hadiths of attributes, then this excuse can be used by any interpreter and it would not be allowed for Ibn Taymiyya to use it alone!

It is significant that none of the interpretations that we have transmitted from the Salaf — including the one adopted by Ibn Taymiyya for the face (“Religion”) after one of the Salaf whom he has mentioned (Ja`far al-Sadiq)– necessitates any divestiture of meaning (ta`til) nor any misapplication of language and usage. On the contrary it it is fully supported by the principles of doctrine and the rulings of Shari`a, in full conformity with the rules of grammar and the evidence of language. No better proof illustrates all this than that adopted by Imam Ahmad in interpreting the “coming” in the verse “And thy Lord shall come with angels, rank on rank” (89:22) as: “The command of thy Lord cometh,” in the light of the verse: “Wait they aught save that thy Lord’s command (amr) should come to pass?” (16:32). Indeed, the best commentary on the Qur’an is the Qur’an itself. This is explained in detail further down.

Let us now proceed to refute the second claim of the “Salafis” against us, namely their saying that “forcibly interpreting any of these phrases, which Allah has asserted in their lexical sense as attributes of His essence, as figurative or metaphorical or similes, is none other than a form of divestiture (ta`til).”

We say: the examples that we have shown are enough to discredit this claim. Indeed, the true Salaf that interpreted the texts which we have mentioned, bringing them out of their literal sense into the metaphorical, were not divesters of meaning — far be it for them to be labeled with such a name! Therefore, if there were in their interpretations any form of divestiture, or any discrepancy within viewpoints, or any misunderstanding, they would not have forwarded such interpretations in the first place.

Nevertheless, let us hypothetically set aside this kind of interpretation and suppose that they have not been said and do not exist. Let us also suppose that none of the righteous Salaf has given himself the right to assert more than what Allah Himself has asserted of His essence, leaving all further knowledge and details to Allah. Even so: this would by no means provide a proof for the claim of “Salafis” that holding a different viewpoint than theirs is absolutely forbidden! For the refraining of the true Salaf from exerting effort (ijtihad) to find the meanings of these phrases or attributes may have a number of reasons.

1- Among these reasons may be their fear of probing something for which they did not consider themselves qualified, not because of ignorance or lack of knowledge, but only, in the likelier and greater number of cases, as a result of the extreme fear and awe of Allah and His majesty in their hearts.

2 – Another reason would be their general circumstances and the conditions they were in, as they did not find in their surroundings anything that called them to force their way into these dangers and cause themselves headaches over something for which there was no need.

3 – Yet another reason for their lack of interest in interpretation could be the conclusion of their own ijtihad, which is not binding on any other than themselves. Least of all would it be binding on those who possess the scholarly wherewithal that qualifies them for investigation and personal effort of qualified legal reasoning (ijtihad). We are among those who believe that the legal method or school (madhhab) of a Companion is not a legal proof in itself; how then could we consider that of the Successors and their Successors?

If all the above causes are possible, then to consider the view of the “Salafis” as an evidence on the basis of the possibility that there might be another reason, namely, the prohibition of ta’wil and the obligation to stop at the outward meaning of these attributes while declaring Allah’s transcendence and oneness: then this position is by now worthless and unacceptable, because it relies on a proof that is more comprehensive than what is being claimed, and it is known that speculation precludes the probative force of a conclusion.

Yet the measuring-scale that cannot be ignored in any case is the arbitration of the Arabic language in which the Book of Allah has been revealed and through the medium of which the purified Sunna of the Prophet has reached us. Such arbitration can only be by applying the rules of grammar and language pertaining to what is literal, what is metaphorical, what makes figurative interpretation obligatory, and what makes it forbidden. No one is capable of applying the above unless he has a firm understanding of this language and possesses a fully matured gift of knowledge in the roots or methodology of Islamic law and the doctrines of Islam, to an extent that qualifies him for ijtihad, together with self-discipline proceeding from godwariness, uprightness, and truthfulness in Religion. The long hadith that Ibn Taymiyya tried to use to extract his interpretation of wajh (face) as jiha (direction), making use of language, its derivations, and the varieties of its literal and metaphorical meanings, is nothing but a practical application of this model.

This is not the place to discuss Ibn Taymiyya’s interpretation of wajh as “direction” from a linguistisc standpoint or that of its Qur’anic meaning, nor comparing his opinion in this matter to that of those who interpreted it as Allah’s Essence. This is not the point we are presently making. All we want to clarify for now is that ijtihad in interpreting these words complies fully with the parameters of lexical evidence and the rules pertaining to it, and falls completely within all the requirements of Islamic belief and the principles pertaining to it which are agreed upon by the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama`a; and that such ijtihad is an accepted type of ijtihad because it evolves within the circle of the Way (manhaj) that is agreed upon without violating it or deviating from it in the least.

Therefore, as long as that Way is firmly adhered to, then literal conformity with the Ijtihad of the Salaf and their views regarding the verses of the attributes and others, is neither obligatory nor binding. For reasons and circumstances may differ between one mujtahid and another, in addition to the natural differences which arise between one historical period and another. This was mentioned more than once and in many occasions by such imams as Hammad bin Zayd, al-Khattabi, and al-Bayhaqi.

Continued in Part 2/2