Ibn ʿAbd al-Salam and Ashʿari Ta'wil
(Figurative Interpretation of the Mutashābihāt)
by GFH

The great Imām ʿIzz al-Dīn Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām wrote a treatise on the principles of metaphorical interpretation of the Holy Qur'an according to the Ashʿarī School entitled
al-Ishāra ilā al-Ijāz fi Baʿd. Anwāʿ al-Majāz
(Ed. ʿUthmān H.ilmī, Cairo: al-Mat.baʿat al-ʿAmira, 1313/1895) which recently received a new edition. In it he states:

“When Allāh is described by something that is inapplicable to Him literally (bi-h.aqīqatihi), He is described by it only metaphorically, as is the case in the following:

1. Mercy (al-rah.ma) = According to the Shaykh [al-Ashʿarī], it means the willing (irāda) of Allāh, for His servant, of whatever one that shows mercy wills for the one who is shown mercy.

2. Friendship (al-mah.abba) = It entails willing munificence (ikrām) towards the beloved and making him content (ird.ā').

3. Love (al-wudd) = the will of Allāh or His treatment of the one He loves in the manner of the lover towards the beloved.

4. Contentment (al-rid.ā) = the will of Allāh or His treatment in the manner of the one who is content towards the one who made him content; in this sense it is an Attribute of the Essence. Or, the actual treatment of the servant by Allāh in the manner of the one who is content towards the one who made him content; in this sense it is an Attribute of act(1) (s.ifatu fiʿl) as in the h.adīth. Literally, it means "peace of mind at whatever the mind is content with" – and Allāh is exalted above that.

5. Gratitude (al-shukr) = A metaphor based on similitude (majāz al-tashbīh) between His treatment towards one who obeys Him and the treatment of the grateful one towards one he thanks. Or a metonymy (majāz tasmiya) naming the result by the name of the cause, as to thank Him is expressed by obeying Him.(2)

6. Laughter (al-d.ah.ik) = His satisfaction (rid.ā) and acceptance (qabūl).

7. Happiness (al-farah.) = He wills, for repentent sinners, whatever happiness brings about in the one who is happy. Or He treats the repentent sinners in the same manner as happiness treats the one who is happy.

8. Patience (al-s.abr) = He treats His servants in the way that the enduring one behaves toward what he dislikes. This is a metaphor based on similitude.

9. Jealousy (al-ghīra) = A metaphor of similitude with the legal category of abomination (karāhiyya) which applies to indecencies, or a metaphor for the emphatic repetition of the prohibition of indecencies.

10. Shyness or shame (al-h.ayā') = A synecdoche(3) (majāz al-mulāzama) naming as shame the abandonment of what causes shame. Or a metonymy(4) (majāz tasmiya) naming that result by the name of the cause. Allāh does not depart from right unlike one who shies from it.

11. His testing (ibtilā') through benefits and wrongs, good and evil = A metaphor of similitude between Him and an examiner, although He knows everything.

12. His sarcasm (sukhriyya), mockery (istihzā'), scheming (makr), and deceit (khidʿ) = All of these are metaphors of similitude or metonymies naming the result by the name of its cause, His sarcasm being caused by theirs, His mockery by theirs, His scheming by theirs, and His deceit by theirs.

13. His astonishment (ʿajab) = A metaphor of similitude with either the ugliness of what causes astonishment or its excellence.

14. Reference to Him with the pronoun "That One" (dhālika, dhālikum) which indicates distance = The remoteness of His Entity from similitude with all other entities (dhawāt), and the remoteness of His Attributes from similitude with all other attributes.

15. His hesitancy (taraddud) = In the hadith qudsī(5) "Nor do I hesitate to do anything as I hesitate to take back the believer's soul, for he hates death and I hate to hurt him,"(6) a metaphor of the superlative rank of the believer in the Divine presence and synechdoche for a lesser hurt to prevent a greater harm, as in the case of a father's severance of his son's gangrened hand so as to save his life.

16. His establishment (istiwā') over the Throne = A metaphor for establishing dominion (istīlā') over His kingdom and disposing of it, as the poet said:

qad istawā Bishrun ʿalā al-ʿIrāq
min ghayri sayfin wa-damin muhrāq

Bishr established mastery over Iraq
without sword and without shedding blood.(7)

It is a metaphor of similitude with kings, who dispose of the affairs of their kingdoms while sitting among the dynastic princes. The Throne may also express rank, as in ʿUmar's saying, Allah be well-pleased with him: "My Throne would have toppled if I had not found a merciful Lord."(8)

17. His freeing Himself in the verse {We shall soon be free to dispose of you} (55:31)(9) = A metaphor of similitude for the immense significance attributed to the judgment of creatures.

18. The baring of His Shin = A metaphor for His aggravation of the judgment of His enemies and their humiliation, defeat, and punishment. The Arabs say of one that acts earnestly and intensely that "he has bared his shin."(10)

19. His wrath (ghad.ab) = A metaphor of similitude for the attribute of act which consists in the punishment He exacts from those who disobey Him.

20. His resentment (sukht. or sakhat.) = The will of Allāh of whatever one who resents wills for the object of his resentment; or a metaphor of similitude; or a metonymy attributing resentment to their disbelief in the sense of attributing a verb to its cause.

21. His grief (asaf) = His anger. {When they grieved Us, We exacted retribution from them} (43:55) meaning "When they made us angry, we punished them."

22. His hatred (qilā): {Your Lord has not forsaken you nor does He hate you} (93:3) meaning "He has never forsaken you since He brought you near, nor hated you since He loved you."

23. His spite (maqt) i.e. the height of hatred (bughd.) = Allāh wills for the misguided whatever one who bears hatred wills for the object of his hate, or He curses or treats them in the manner that one who bears hatred curses or treats the object of his hate. Or it is a metaphor of similitude in terms of the above.

24. His enmity (ʿadāwa) = His treatment of His enemies in a way so as to cause them harm for the most part.

25. His malediction (laʿn) = His banishment of sinners from His door, far from His reward.”(11)


(1) Meaning an act attributed to Allāh.

(2) Abū Sahl al-S.uʿlūkī narrates that as a boy al-Junayd heard his uncle being asked about thankfulness, whereupon he said: "It is to not use His favors for the purpose of disobeying Him." In al-Qushayrī, Risāla (p. 148-150); Ibn ʿImād, Shadharāt al-Dhahab (2:228-230); al-Dhahabī, Siyar (11:153-155 §2555); Ibn al-Subkī, T.abaqāt (2:260-275 §60).

(3) "Synecdoche: a figure of speech in which a part is used for a whole, an individual for a class, a material for a thing, or the reverse of any of these (Ex.: bread for food, the army for a soldier, or copper for a penny)." Webster's.

(4) "Metonymy: a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used in place of that of another associated with or suggested by it (Ex.: 'the White House' for 'the President')." Webster's.

(5) Meaning a narration in which Allāh Most High speaks in the first person, but in a wording given by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, unlike the Qur'ān where both the meaning and wording are spoken by Allāh.

(6) H.adīth qudsī of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, narrated from Abū Hurayra by al-Bukhārī.

(7) See our article < Istiwā' is a Divine Act. >

(8) Narrated as a dream seen after ʿUmar's death. See the following under the entry ʿarsh: Lisān al-ʿArab, Ibn al-Athīr's al-Nihāya, al-Rāghib's Mufradāt Alfāz. al-Qur'ān, al-Bas.ā'ir (4:24), and ʿUmdat al-H.uffāz..

(9) "That is: for the reckoning of the Day of Judgment, and He is in no way occupied – exalted is Allāh beyond that! The meaning of the verse is: We shall proceed to take account of you." Al-Qushayrī, Lat.ā'if.

(10) This is the authentic interpretation of Ibn ʿAbbās and the view of the massive majority, which al-T.abarī references to Ibn ʿAbbās, Ibn Masʿūd, Abū Mūsā al-Ashʿarī, Mujāhid, ʿIkrima, al-D.ah.h.āk, Qatāda, and Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī, which none denies except those Allāh misguides and blinds to the truth, for the Qur'ānic verse {The Day that the shin shall be bared} (68:42). Ibn ʿAbbās explained: "This is a day of affliction and hardship" and in another version: "It means the Day of Resurrection due to its hardship." Narrated by al-T.abarī in his Tafsīr (28:38-42), al-H.ākim (2:499-500 isnād s.ah.īh. =1990 ed. 2:542), al-Bayhaqī in al-Asmā' wal-S.ifāt (Kawtharī ed. p. 345-346=H.āshidī ed. 2:183-185 §746-748) with two fair chains and one sound chain according to Ibn H.ajar in Fath. al-Bārī (1959 ed. 13:428), Ibn H.ibbān (16:382) with a fair chain according to al-Arna'ūt., al-Qurt.ubī (18:248-249), al-S.anʿānī (3:310) and al-Shawkānī (5:275-278) and other Tafsīrs. Cf. Pickthall's ad sensum translation: "On the day when affliction befalls them in earnest." Ibn Qutayba in Mukhtalif al-H.adīth states that the baring of the shin is a metonymy for travails in which one hitches up one's lower garments, baring the legs. Ibn al-Jawzī in Dafʿ Shubah al-Tashbīh (p. 15) and Zād al-Masīr (8:341) cites Ibn Qutayba and relates from Ibn ʿAbbās, Mujāhid, Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī, Qatāda, "and the vast majority of the scholars," the same meaning. Cf. al-Qushayrī in Lat.ā'if al-Ishārāt (6:189), Ibn Fūrak in Mushkil al-H.adīth (p. 442), al-Khat.t.ābī, Ibn Bat.t.āl, al-Rāzī, Ibn H.azm in al-Fis.al (2:129), Abū al-Suʿūd in his Tafsīr (9:18), al-Bayd.āwī in his, Ibn Kathīr in his (4:408-409), al-Wāh.idī in his (2:1124), Jalālayn (p. 760), al-Suyūt.ī in al-Durr al-Manthūr (8:254-256), al-Karmī al-H.anbalī in Aqāwīl al-Thiqāt (p. 174), al-Zarkashī in al-Burhān (2:84) who cites it (2:179) as an example of a metaphor which it is extremely offensive to interpret literally, and others. This explanation applies to the h.adīth of Abū Hurayra and Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī on the sight of Allāh Most High in al-Bukhārī and Muslim. When Saʿīd ibn Jubayr (d. 94) was asked about it he became very angry and said: "Some people claim that 'Allāh uncovers His Shin'!! Rather, He but uncovers affliction and hardship." Narrated by ʿAbd ibn H.umayd in his Musnad and Ibn al-Mundhir as cited by al-Suyūt.ī in al-Durr al-Manthūr (8:255).

(11) Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām, al-Ishāra ilā al-Ijāz (p. 104-112).

GF Haddad
[SP 2006-11-25]

see also: Literalism & Figurative Interpretation

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