Archive for November, 2011

Imam Malik on Istiwa

Imam Malik on Istiwa

A man asked Imam Malik (d. 179): “How did Allah make istiwa’ on the throne?” Imam Malik inclined his head and was silent until the sweat of fever covered his brow, then he looked up and said: “Istiwa’ is not unknown (ghayru majhul), the modality of it is inconceivable in the mind (al-kayfu minhu ghayru ma`qul); but belief in it is obligatory, and inquiring about it is a heretical innovation. You are an innovator.” And he gave orders for him to be taken out.

My Thoughts:

Salafis have used this quote from Imam Malik to justify taking the unclear verses related to Allah upon it’s literal meaning (dhahir). As an Ashari, we are concerned about following the Salafus Saleh, and we regard Imam Malik’s statement as followable, however we don’t understand it in the same way that the Salafis understand Imam Malik’s statement.

Imam Malik did not say istiwa is to be taken upon the literal meaning (haqiqatan). Nowhere in any of the quotes that I read from Imam Malik, did he say to take istiwa upon its literal meaning.

Point 1:

Imam Malik merely said, “Istiwa is not unknown.” The way the Asharis understand this is that, “Istiwa is not unknown, for the wording is in the Quran.” If Imam Malik wanted to say that the meaning is known, Imam Malik would have said, “Istiwa is known, which would imply the meaning is known. Thus Imam Malik saying “istiwa is not unknown” is Imam Malik making tafwid.

And this is the understanding of Imam Qurtubi, that Imam Malik made tafwid. Imam al-Qurtubi‘s tafsir of ayah 29 of Al-Baqarah shows how he understood Imam Malik’s statement, Al-Istawa ghayr majhul wAl-kayf ghayr ma’qul:

Imam Al-Qurtubi al Maliki

“On this verse and those similar to it the people are divided into three groups:

(Tafwid) Some have said, “we should it, and we believe in it without explaining it,” and which is the position of most of the Imams, and this is as has been reported from [Imam] Malik (rh) who was asked by a man about the verse, “ar-Rahman ‘ala l-arshi Stawa” and he said “Al-istawa is not unknown, the how is not conceivable (ghayr ma’qul), belief in it [al-istawa] is obligatory and questioning about it is an innovation and I do not think that you are anything but an innovator.’ Then he ordered that the man be led out.

(Dhahir) Some others said, “we read, and we explain it by what is apparent in the language.” And this is what the anthropomorphists (mushabbihah) say.

(Tawil) And others said: “We read and we interpret them and we prevent taking it upon the apparent meaning [which comes to the mind of the anthropomorphists].” (Tafsir al Qurtubi)

And in this particular case, I agree with Imam Qurtubi, that Imam Malik preferred the methodology of tafwid. “Istiwaa is not unknown” and “Istiwaa is known” are not the same, while the Salafis read it as the same.

Point 2:

Salafis say the Salafus Saleh disagreed on the meaning of istiwa,

1. ‘alaa (to rise above)
2. irtafa’a (to ascend)
3. sa’uda (to ascend)
4. istaqarra (to be settled or established)

Ibn Qayyim said there were four meaning for the word istiwa, summarised these four explanations in his Nooniyyah saying, “And they (Ahl us-Sunnah) have four explanations for it (istiwaa)…” and then he mentioned, “and they are istaqarra (to be settle or established), ‘alaa (to rise above), irtafa’a (to ascend) about which there is no dispute, and likewise sa’uda (to ascend) is the fourth.

There are several things that comes to mind.

1) If Istiwa is not unknown, means, the meaning is known, which of the four meanings did Imam Malik intend?

2) Salafis believe that the Prophet taught these meanings to his companions, arguing, are you saying that the Prophet did not teach his companions? So I ask, which meaning did the Prophet teach his companions? Can you produce an authentic hadith of the Prophet teaching one of these meanings to his companions?


3) Salafis says, With regards to the ayaat of Sifat , the Meaning is Muhkam , the Kayf is muttashabih.

If the meaning is clear (muhkam), why did the Salafus Saleh differ on its meaning? There are four meanings according to Ibn Qayyim, that comes from the Salafus Saleh. That doesn’t sound like the meaning being clear.

And Allah knows best.



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