Does anyone doubt that these scholars are among the most representative of the doctrine of Ahl al-Sunna, although they practiced ta'wil? As Taj al-Din al-Subki and Imam al-Yafiʿi said of Nawawi: "He was Ashʿari," while Sakhawi adds after quoting their views: "And he applied ta'wil a great deal."(1) Suffice it to quote Imam Nawawi's words in al-Majmuʿ touching the practice of ta'wil by the Salaf:
"The most well-known of the school of the theologians (mutakallimin) says that the divine attributes are interpreted figuratively according to what befits them. Others say that they are not interpreted but that one refrains from speaking concerning their meaning, and defers its actual knowledge (yuwakkilu ʿilmaha) to Allah, all the while holding the belief that Allah is transcendent above all things and that the attributes of the created are negated concerning Him, so that it said, for example: We believe that the Merciful is established over the Throne, and we do not know the reality of the meaning of this nor what is meant by it (la naʿlamu haqiqata miʿna dhalika wa al-murada bihi), while we do believe that "There is nothing like Him whatsoever" (42:11) and that He is exalted far above the most elevated of created things. That is the way of the Salaf or at least their vast majority, and it is the safest because one is not required to probe into such matters. Therefore, if he believes in Allah's transcendence there is no need for him to probe this nor to think about what is neither obligatory nor even needed to know. However, if there is a need for interpretation (ta'wil) in order to refute innovators and their like, then they (the Salaf) went ahead and applied interpretation. This is the correct understanding of what has reached us from the scholars concerning this subject, and Allah knows best."(2)
Nawawi repeats in many places of his Sharh Sahih Muslim this un equivocal characterization of "the vast majority of the Salaf" or even "most or all of them" as people who applied figurative interpretation of the divine attributes in the Qur'an and the Sunna at the appropriate time and places. Rejecting all notions of artificial divisions between the methods of Muslims, he shows that there is no difference between the intentions of the Salaf and those of kalam scholars -- Ashʿaris -- regarding the sound application of figurative interpretation -- if there is a need, as he says, in order to refute innovators and their like.
The conditional obligation of using kalam (theology) and ta'wil (figurative interpretation) for the purpose of upholding sound belief is precisely the position of the Ashʿaris as reported by one of their most eminent representatives, Taqi al-Din al-Subki, in his Tabaqat:
"Bukhari was of those who used to say: "My pronunciation of the Qur'an is created." Muhammad ibn Yahya al-Dhuhli said: "Whoever claims my pronunciation of Qur'an is created is an innovator whose company is shunned, and he who claims that the Qur'an is created commits disbelief."
(Subki:) Muhammad ibn Yahya only meant -- and Allah knows best -- what Ahmad ibn Hanbal meant, namely to forbid from entering into that subject. He did not mean to contradict Bukhari. If he did mean to contradict him and to claim that the pronunciation which comes out of his own created lips is pre- eternal, that would be an enormity. One should think that he meant other than that and that both he, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, and other (anti-kalam) imams only meant to prohibit people from entering into problems of dialectical theology (kalam).
For us, Bukhari's words are to be understood as a permission to mention kalam if it is needed, since the use of kalam in case of necessity is a legal obligation, and to keep silence about kalam in cases other than necessity is a sunna.
Understand this well, and leave the rantings of historians, and ignore once and for all the distortions of the misguided who think that they are scholars of hadith standing on the Sunna when in fact they couldn't be further from it. How could anyone possibly think that Bukhari has anything in common with the posi tion of the Muʿtazila when it has been authentically reported from him by al-Farabari and others that he said: "I hold as ignorant whoever does not declare the Jahmis to be disbelievers"?"(3)
Subki's rhetorical question is likely an allusion to Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim who had labeled Ashʿaris as innovators, just as Bukhari had been accused in the same terms by some followers of Imam Ahmad in his time.
As Nawawi and Subki show in so many words, the reserve concerning ta'wil and the condemnation of kalam by Imam Ahmad was not because these were in themselves opposed to Qur'an and Sunna, but because they were being used out of place by the ignorant or by opponents of Ahl al- Sunna. In such a case it was a duty to refute them, just as anthropomorphists were to be refuted through rejecting their literal interpretation of Allah's attributes. The Ashʿaris stood in the forefront of both battles, as shown by Imam Ghazali, whose eloquent positions against kalam did not preclude the fact that he, as Nawawi after him, interpreted Allah's attributes figuratively. Rather they, as their own Imam (al-Shafiʿi) in his time, wished to preclude the confusion that resulted from probing -- to use Nawawi's words -- into what was neither obligatory nor needed, leaving it to the experts, all the while negating anthropomorphism, as is made clear by Imam Ghazali in his words on the same subject.
Imam Ghazali in his Iljam al-ʿawam ʿan ʿilm al-kalam (Restraining the uneducated from the science of theology) compares the person who imagines Allah's "Hand" to be the member of a body to an idol-worshipper and states: "Whoever worships a body is a disbeliever according to the consensus of the Community." In the section immmediately preceding this comparison, Ghazali says:
"This is the way of the Salaf, which is the truth according to us: anybody among the uneducated dealing with one of the sayings of the Attributes is obliged to do seven things:
- taqdis: believe Allah free from corporeality and the like;
- tasdiq: believe that the Prophet was truthful in speaking these words, but in the manner in which he meant them;
- iʿtiraf bi al-ʿajz: admit that their understanding is beyond his capability;
- sukut: remain silent and not ask questions about it, nor discuss it, knowing that it poses a danger to his faith, and that he may unwittingly commit disbelief by discussing it;
- imsak: leave interpretation, not replacing the words which have appeared in the texts with any grammatical derivatives, nor translating them into another language;
- kuff: hold himself back from pondering these words;
- taslim li ahlihi defer all this to those who are qualified to deal with it."(4)
(1) Al-hafiz al-Sakhawi, Kitab tarjimat shaykh al-islam, qutb al-awliya' al-kiram wa faqih al-anam, muhyi al-sunna wa mumit al-bidʿa Abi Zakariyya Muhyiddin al-Nawawi (Biography of the Shaykh al-Islam, the Pole of the Noble Saints and the Jurist of Mankind, the Reviver of the Sunna and the Slayer of Innovation Abu Zakariyya Muhyiddin al-Nawawi) (Cairo: Jamʿiyyat al-nashr wa al-ta'lif al-azhariyya, 1354 / 1935) p. 36. (2) Imam Nawawi, introduction to his al-Majmuʿ sharh al-muhadhdhab (Cairo: Matbaʿat al-ʿasima, n.d.) 1:25. (3) Taj al-Din al-Subki, Tabaqat al-shafiʿiyya al-kubra, ed. Nur al-Din Shariba (Cairo: al-Halabi, 1373/1953) 2:241. (4) Hujjat al-Islam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Iljam al-ʿawamm ʿan ʿilm al- kalam (Istanbul : s.n., 1287/1870, repr. Istanbul: Waqf Ikhlas offset, 1994) p. 4-5.
Reproduced with permission from Shaykh M. Hisham Kabbani's _The Repudiation of "Salafi" Innovations_ (Kazi, 1996) p. 32-36.
Blessings and Peace on the Prophet ﷺ, his Family, and his Companions
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[5 Sep 1996]