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

Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani

(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.

Allah said: “Have ye taken security from Him Who is in the heaven that He will not cause the earth to swallow you when lo! it is convulsed? Or have ye taken security from Him Who is in the heaven that He will not let loose on you a hurricane?” (67:16f.); and in Surat al-An`am: “Say: He is able to send punishment upon you from above you or from beneath your feet” (6:65). In the former verses He therefore places first what He places last in the latter verse (i.e. a sign from beneath). Al-Sufuri says: His answer to what He put in first position in Sura 67 is “He it is Who hath made the earth subservient unto you” (67:15) and corresponds to the fact that in the very next verse (67:16) He is in fact reiterating the threat of earthly instability. As for what comes in first position in “al-An`am” (“punishment upon you from above” 6:65), His answer: “He is the Omnipotent over His slaves” (6:61) corresponds to the placing of what lies in the above direction in first position in verse 6:65 for the sake of verisimilitude.

Nawawi in his commentary on Muslim agreed with Qadi `Iyad that the words “in the heaven” in the verse “Have you security from Him Who is in the heaven” is interpreted figuratively. Fakhr al-Din Razi said in his Tafsir (3:69): “It is the anthropomorphists who used the verse ‘Have you security from Him Who is in the heaven‘ to claim that Allah Himself is in the sky.” The Qur’anic commentator Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi said the same thing in his Bahr al-muhit (8:302) and Nahr al-madd (2:1131-1132) with particular reference to Ibn Taymiyya.

Concerning the verse: “He is Allah in the heavens and in the earth. He knoweth both your secret and your utterance, and He knoweth what you earn” (6:3) it is established that everything that is in heaven and on earth belongs to Him. He said: “Say: to whom belongs what is in the heavens and in the earth? Say: to Allah.” The word “what” (ma) here indicates rational beings as well as others, as in His saying: “And the heaven and Him (ma) who built it, and the earth and Him (ma) who spread it…” (91:5-6). If Allah was literally in the heavens then He would possess Himself and this is absurd.

Moreover, taking His saying: “in the heavens” in verse 6:3 to signify “inside one particular heaven” is not permissible as it contradicts the outward sense of the verse. As for taking it to mean “inside the heavens put together,” it would be tantamount to saying that what is contained of Him in a given heaven is other than what is contained in the remaining heavens, and would necessitate from Him the qualities of complexity and combination of parts, and this is absurd. It is therefore established that it is impossible to venture upon the outward meaning of this verse. It becomes obligatory to understand it figuratively. This figurative interpretation has several aspects.

  1. It means the disposal-and-direction (tadbir) of the heavens, as when it is said: “So-and-so is in such-and-such a matter,” that is, he is engaged in disposing and directing it.
  2. The words “He is Allah” are a complete statement. Then He continues with another statement: “In the heavens and in the earth, He knoweth both your secret and your utterance.” That is: He knows the secret of the angels and their utterance, and He likewise knows the state of whoever is in the earth.
  3. There is a precedence (taqdim) and a post-position (ta’khir) in the verse. The meaning implied thereby is: “And He is Allah, He knows in the heavens and in the earth your secret and your utterance.”
  4. Imam al-Qurtubi (d. 671) said the following in his commentary on verse 67:16 (“Have ye taken security from Him Who is in the heaven…“):This may mean: “Do you feel secure that He Who is the Creator of whomever is in the heavens will not make the earth swallow you, as He did Korah?” The more exacting hold that “in the heavens” signifies: “Do you feel secure from Him who is over the heavens,” just as Allah says: “Journey in the earth” (9:2) meaning over it; not over it 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 holds sway over (`ala) the heavens,” i.e. just as it is said: “So-and-so is over Iraq and the Hijaz,” meaning that he is the governor and commander of them. The hadiths on this subject are numerous, rigorously authenticated (sahih), and widely known, and indicate the exaltedness of Allah, being undeniable by anyone save an atheist or obstinate ignoramus. Their meaning is to dignify Allah and exalt Him above what is base and low, to characterize Him by exaltedness and grandeur, not by being in places, particular directions, or within limits, for these are the qualities of physical bodies. The hands are only raised skyward when one supplicates because the sky is from whence divine revelation descends and rains fall, the place of purity and the wellspring of the purified ones of the angels, and that the works of servants are raised to it and over it is the Throne and His Paradise, just as Allah has made the Ka`ba the direction of supplication and prayer. He created all places and has no need of them. He was without space or time in His beginningless eternality before creating space and time, and is now as He ever has been.
  5. Ibn Hajar says in the commentary on the chapter devoted to `uluw (#23) in the book of tawhid which is the last book of Sahih al-Bukhari:Bayhaqi mentioned Abu Bakr al-Dab`i’s saying that the Arabs use “in” (fi) in place of “over,” as in Allah’s saying: “Roam over (fi) the earth” and “I shall crucify you over (fi) the trunks of the palm-trees.” Likewise, Dab`i says, “In the heaven” means “Over the Throne above the heaven, as stated in the sound reports… And by including the hadith of Ibn `Abbas containing the words: “Lord of the mighty Throne” into this chapter, Bukhari warned those that might predicate spatial elevation to Allah (`uluw fawqi) that both the direction in which the heaven is believed to be and that in which the Throne is believed to be are created, lorded over, and brought into existence by Allah Who existed before all that and before everything else. Thus these places were created, and His existence, being eternal without beginning, precludes reference to Him as being bounded by them. And Allah knows best.