Is it Permissible for a Muslim to Believe that Allah is in the Sky in Literal Sense?

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ 

The following is taken from Is It Permissible for a Muslim to Believe That Allah (s.w.t.) is in the Sky in a Literal Sense? And was answered by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, in 1995. 

No.  The literal sense of being “in the sky” would mean that Allah (s.w.t.) is actually in one of His creatures, for the sky is something Created.  It is not permissible to believe that Allah (s.w.t.) indwells or occupies, in Arabic, hulul, any of His creatures, as the Christians believe about Jesus (a.s.), or the Hindus about their avatars. 

What is obligatory for a human being to know is that Allah (s.w.t.) is ghaniy, absolutely free from need of anything He has Created.  He explicitly Says: 

سُوۡرَةُ العَنکبوت

إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَغَنِىٌّ عَنِ ٱلۡعَـٰلَمِينَ (٦) 

… for Allah is Free of all needs from all Creation. (Surah al-‘Ankabut:6) 

Allah (s.w.t.) Mentions this attribute of Ghina, freedom of need for anything whatsoever, in some seventeen verses in the Qur’an.  It is a central point of Islamic ‘aqidah, faith, and is the reason why it is impossible that Allah (s.w.t.) could be Jesus (a.s.) or be anyone else with a body and form: because bodies need space and time, while Allah (s.w.t.) has absolutely no need for anything.  This is the ‘aqidah of the Qur’an, and Muslim scholars have kept it in view in understanding other Qur’anic verses or ahadits. 

Muslims lift their hands toward the sky when they make du’a, supplications, to Allah (s.w.t.) because the sky is the qiblah for du’a, not that Allah (s.w.t.) occupies that particular direction - just as the Ka’bah is the qiblah of swalah, the prayer, without Muslims believing that Allah (s.w.t.) is in that direction.  Rather, Allah (s.w.t.), in His Wisdom, has Made the qiblah an ayah, a sign, of Muslim unity, just as He has Made the sky the Sign of His Exaltedness and His Infinitude, meanings which come to the heart of every believer merely by facing the sky and supplicating Allah (s.w.t.). 

It was part of the Divine Wisdom to incorporate these meanings into the prophetic sunnah to uplift the hearts of the people who first heard them, and to direct them to the Exaltedness and Infinitude of Allah (s.w.t.) through the greatest and most palpable physical sign of them: the visible sky that Allah (s.w.t.) had Raised above them.  Many of them, especially when newly from the Jahiliyyah, the pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance, were extremely close to physical, perceptible realities and had little conception of anything besides - as is attested to by their idols, which were images set up on the ground.  Sayyidina Abu Hafsw ‘Umar ibn al-Khaththab al-Faruq (q.s.) mentioned, for example, that in the Jahiliyyah, they might make their idols out of dates, and if they later grew hungry, they would simply eat them.  The language of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) in conveying the Exaltedness of Allah (s.w.t.) to such people was of course in terms they could understand without difficulty, and used the imagery of the sky above them. 

Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Qurthubi (r.a.), the famous Qur’anic exegete of the seventh / thirteenth century, said, “The ahadits on this subject are numerous, rigorously authenticated, and widely known, and indicate the Exaltedness of Allah, being undeniable by anyone except an atheist or obstinate ignoramus.  Their meaning is to Dignify Allah and Exalt Him above all that is base and low, to Characterise Him by Exaltedness and Greatness, not by being in places, particular directions, or within limits, for these are the qualities of physical bodies.”  This is found in his Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an. 

In this connection, a hadits was related by Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Malik ibn Anas (r.a.), in his Muwaththa’ and by Imam ‘Asakir ad-Din Abu al-Husayn Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (r.a.) in his Swahih, that Sayyidina Mu’awiyah ibn al-Hakam (r.a.) came to the Prophet (s.a.w.) and told him, “I am newly from the Jahiliyyah, and now Allah has Brought Islam,” and he proceeded to ask about various Jahiliyyah practices, until at last he said that he had slapped his slave girl, and asked if he should free her, as was obligatory if she was a believer. 

The Prophet (s.a.w.) requested that she be brought, and then asked her, “Where is Allah?” 

And she said, “In the sky”. 

Whereupon he asked her, “Who am I?” 

And she said, “You are the Messenger of Allah”. 

At which point, he said, “Free her, for she is a believer.” 

Imam Abu Zakariya Yahya ibn Sharaf an-Nawawi (r.a.) said, of this hadits, “This is one of the ahadits of the Attributes, about which scholars have two positions.  The first is to have faith in it without discussing its meaning, while believing of Allah Most High that ‘there is nothing whatsoever like unto Him’ (Qur'an 42:11), and that He is Exalted above having any of the attributes of His creatures.  The second is to figuratively explain it in a fitting way, scholars who hold this position adducing that the point of the hadits was to test the slave girl: Was she a monotheist, who affirmed that the Creator, the Disposer, the Doer, is Allah Alone and that He is the One Called upon when a person making supplication faces the sky - just as those performing the prayer face the Ka’bah, since the sky is the qiblah of those who supplicate, as the Ka’bah is the qiblah of those who perform the prayer - or was she a worshipper of the idols which they placed in front of themselves?  So when she said, ‘In the sky’, it was plain that she was not an idol worshipper.”  This is found in Swahih Muslim bi Sharh an-Nawawi. 

It is noteworthy that Imam an-Nawawi (r.a.) does not mention understanding the hadits literally as a possible scholarly position at all.  This occasions surprise today among some Muslims, who imagine that what is at stake is the principle of accepting a single swahih, rigorously authenticated, hadits as evidence in ‘aqidah, Islamic faith, for this hadits is such a single hadits, of those termed, in Arabic, ahad, conveyed by a single chain of transmission, as opposed to being mutawatir, conveyed by so many chains of transmission that it is impossible it could have been forged. 

Yet this is not what is at stake, because ahadits of its type are only considered acceptable as evidence by traditional scholars of Islamic ‘aqidah if one condition can be met: that the tenet of faith mentioned in the hadits is salimun min al-muaradah, free of conflicting evidence.  This condition is not met by this particular hadits for a number of reasons.  First, the story described in the hadits has come to us in a number of other well-authenticated versions that vary a great deal from the “Where is Allah? - In the sky” version.  One of these is related by Imam Abu Hatim Muhammad ibn Fayswal at-Tamimi ibn Hibban (r.a.), in his Swahih, with a hasan, well-authenticated, chain of transmission, in which the Prophet (s.a.w.) asked the slave girl, “Who is your Lord?” 

And she said, “Allah”. 

Whereupon he asked her, “Who am I?” 

And she said, “You are the Messenger of Allah”. 

At which point, he said, “Free her, for she is a believer.”  This is found in Ihsan fi Taqrib Swahih ibn Hibban. 

In another version, related by Imam ‘Abd ar-Razzaq ibn Hammam asw-Swan’ani (r.a.) with a swahih, rigorously authenticated, chain of transmission, the Prophet (s.a.w.) said to her, “Do you testify that there is no god but Allah?”, and she said yes.  He said, “Do you testify that I am the Messenger of Allah?” and she said yes.  He said, “Do you believe in resurrection after death?” and she said yes.  He said, “Free her.”  This is found in Muswannaf ‘Abd ar-Razzaq. 

In other versions, the slave girl cannot speak, but merely points to the sky in answer.  Imam Shihab ad-Din Abu al-Fadhl Ahmad ibn ‘Ali ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani (r.a.) has said of the various versions of this hadits, “There is great contradiction in the wording.”  This is found in his Talkhisw al-Habir fi Takhrij ahadits ar-Rafi’i al-Kabir.  When a hadits has numerous conflicting versions, there is a strong possibility that it has been related merely in riwayat bi al-ma’na, terms of what one or more narrators understood, and hence one of the versions is not adequate to establish a point of ‘aqidah. 

Second, this latter consideration is especially applicable to the point in question because the Prophet (s.a.w.) explicitly detailed the pillars of iman, Islamic faith, in a hadits related in Swahih Muslim, when he answered the questions of the angel, Gabriel (a.s.), saying, iman, true faith, is to believe in Allah (s.w.t.), His angels, His Books, His Messengers, the Last Day, and to believe qadr, destiny, its good and evil - and he did not mention anything about Allah (s.w.t.) being “in the sky”  If it had been the decisive test of a Muslims belief or unbelief, as in the “in the sky” hadits seems to imply, it would have been obligatory for the Prophet (s.a.w.) to mention it in this hadits, the whole point of which is to say precisely what iman is. 

Third, if one takes the hadits as meaning that Allah (s.w.t.) is literally “in the sky”, it conflicts with other equally swahih ahadits that have presumably equal right to be taken literally, such as the hadits qudsi related by Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah al-Hakim an-Nishaburi (r.a.) that Allah (s.w.t.) Says, “I am with My servant when he makes remembrance of Me and his lips move with Me.”  This is found in Mustadrak ‘ala asw-Swahihayn, a hadits that Imam al-Hakim (r.a.) said was swahih, rigorously authenticated, , which Imam Shams ad-Din Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ahmad adz-Dzahabi (r.a.) confirmed.  Or such as the hadits related by Imam Abu ‘Abd ar-Rahman Ahmad ibn Shu’ayb an-Nasa’i (r.a.), Imam Abu Dawud Sulayman ibn al-Ash’ats as-Sijistani (r.a.), and Imam Muslim (r.a.) that “the closest a servant is to his Lord is while prostrating”, whereas if Allah (s.w.t.) were literally “in the sky”, the closest one would be to Him would be while standing upright.  Or such as the hadits related by Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Isma’il al-Bukhari (r.a.) in his Swahih, in which the Prophet (s.a.w.) forbade spitting during prayer ahead of one, because when a person prays, “his Lord is in front of him”.  Finally, in the hadits of the Mir’aj, Nocturnal Ascent, the Prophet (s.a.w.) was Shown all of the seven samawat, heavens, by Gabriel (a.s.), and Allah (s.w.t.) was not mentioned as being in any of them. 

Fourth, the literal interpretation of Allah being “in the sky” contradicts two fundamentals of Islamic ‘aqidah Established by the Qur’an.  The first of these is Allah's (s.w.t.) Attribute of mukhalafah li al- hawadits, not resembling created things in any way, as Allah (s.w.t.) Says: 

سُوۡرَةُ الشّوریٰ

لَيۡسَ كَمِثۡلِهِۦ شَىۡءٌ۬‌ۖ (١١) 

… there is nothing whatever like unto Him ... (Surah ash-Shura’:11) 

Whereas if He were literally “in the sky”, there would be innumerable things like unto Him in such respects as having altitude, position, direction, and so forth.  The second fundamental that it contradicts, as mentioned above, is Allah’s (s.w.t.) Attribute of Ghina, being absolutely free of need for anything created, that He Affirms in numerous verses in the Qur’an.  It is impossible that Allah could be a corporeal entity because bodies need space and time, while Allah (s.w.t.) has absolutely no need for anything. 

Fifth, the literalist interpretation of “in the sky” entails that the sky encompasses Allah (s.w.t.) on all sides, such that He would be smaller than it, and it would thus be greater than Allah (s.w.t.), which is patently false. 

For these reasons and others, Islamic scholars have viewed it obligatory to figuratively interpret the above hadits and other texts containing similar figures of speech, in ways consonant with how the Arabic language is used.  Consider the Qur’anic verse: 

سُوۡرَةُ المُلک

ءَأَمِنتُم مَّن فِى ٱلسَّمَآءِ أَن يَخۡسِفَ بِكُمُ ٱلۡأَرۡضَ فَإِذَا هِىَ تَمُورُ (١٦) 

Do ye feel secure that He Who is in Heavens will not Cause you to be swallowed up by the earth when it shakes (as in an earthquake)? (Surah al-Mulk:16) 

For the following examples, traditional tafsir, Qur’anic commentary. can be offered.  Imam al-Qurthubi (r.a.) wrote, in Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an, “The more exacting scholars hold that it means, ‘Do you feel secure from Him Who is over the sky;, just as Allah Says, ‘Journey in the Earth’ (Qur’an 9:2), meaning journey over it, not over the sky by way of physical contact or spatialisation, but by way of omnipotent power and control.  Another position is that it means, ‘Do you feel secure from Him who is over the sky,’ just as it is said, ‘So-and-so is over ‘Iraq and the Hijaz’, meaning that he is the governor and commander of them.” 

Imam Shams ad-Din al-Khathib ash-Shirbini Muhammad ibn Ahmad (r.a.) wrote, in Siraj al-Munir, “There are various interpretive aspects to ‘He who is in the sky’, one of which is that it means, ‘He Whose Dominion is in the sky’, because it is the dwelling place of the angels, and there are His Throne, His Kursi, the Guarded Tablet; and from it are made to Descend His Decree, His Books, His Commands, and His Prohibitions.  A second interpretive possibility is that ‘He who is in the sky’ omits the first term of an ascriptive construction, in other words, ‘Do you feel safe from the Creator of him who is in the sky’; meaning the angels who dwell in the sky, for they are the ones who are Commanded to dispense Divine Mercy or Divine Vengeance.” 

Imam Fakhr ad-Din Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn ‘Umar ar-Razi (r.a.) wrote, in his Tafsir, “‘He who is in the sky’ may mean the angel who is Authorised to inflict Divine Punishments; that is, Gabriel (a.s); the words ‘cause the earth to swallow you’ meaning ‘by Allah’s Command and leave’”. 

Imam Atsir ad-Din Abu Hayyan Muhammad ibn Yusuf an-Nahwi al-Ghanathi (r.a.) wrote, Tafsir an-Nahr al-Madd min al-Bahr al-Muhith, “Or the context of these words may be according to the convictions of those being addressed, for they were anthropomorphists.  So that the meaning would be, ‘Do you feel safe from Him whom you claim is in the sky?’ while He is Exalted above all place.” 

Qadhi Abu al-Fadhl ‘Iyadh ibn ‘Amr al-Yahsubi (r.a.) wrote, Swahih Muslim bi Sharh an-Nawawi, “There is no disagreement among Muslims, one and all--their legal scholars, their hadith scholars, their scholars of theology, both those of them capable of expert scholarly reasoning and those who merely follow the scholarship of others, that the textual evidences that mention Allah Most High being ‘in the sky’, such as His Words, ‘Do you feel safe that He who is in the sky will not make the earth swallow you,’ and so forth, are not as their literal sense seems to imply, but rather, all scholars interpret them in other than their ostensive sense.” 

We now turn to a final example, the hadits related by Imam Muslim (r.a.) that the Prophet (s.a.w.) said, “Your Lord Blessed and Exalted Descends each night to the sky of this world, when the last third of the night remains, and Says, ‘Who supplicates Me, that I may Answer him?  Who asks Me, that I may Give to him?  Who seeks My Forgiveness, that I may Forgive him?’” 

This hadits, if we reflect for a moment, is not about ‘aqidah, but rather has a quite practical point to establish; namely, that we are supposed to do something in the last third of the night, to rise and pray.  This is why Imam an-Nawawi (r.a.), when he gave the present chapter names to the headings of Swahih Muslim, put this hadits under “Instilling Desire to Supplicate and Make Remembrance of Allah in the Last of the Night, and the Answering Therein”.  As for the meaning of “Descends” in the hadits, Imam an-Nawawi (r.a.) said, “This is one of the ahadits of the Attributes, and there are two positions about it, as previously mentioned in the Book of Iman.  To summarise, the first position, which is the school of the majority of early Muslims and some theologians, is that one should believe that the hadits is true in a way befitting Allah Most High, while the literal meaning of it as known to us and applicable to ourselves is not what is intended, without discussing the figurative meaning, though we believe that Allah is Transcendently above all attributes of createdness, of change of position, of motion, and all other attributes of created things.” 

The second position, the school of most theologians, of whole groups of the salaf, early Muslims, and reported from Imam Malik (r.a.) and Imam Abu ‘Amr ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn ‘Amr al-Awza’i (r.a.), is that such ahadits should be figuratively interpreted in a way appropriate to them in their contexts.  According to this school of thought, they interpret the hadits in two ways.  The first is the interpretation of Imam Malik (r.a.) and others, that “your Lord Descends” means “His Mercy, Command, and angels descend,” just as it is said, “The sulthan did such-and-such,” when his followers did it at his command.  The second is that it is a metaphor signifying Allah’s (s.w.t.) Concern for those making supplication, by Answering them and Kindness toward them.  This is found in Swahih Muslim bi Sharh an-Nawawi. 

The ahadits scholar, Mulla Nur ad-Din Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Sulthan Muhammad al-Hirawi al-Qari (r.a.), said about the above hadits of Allah’s (s.w.t.) “descending”, “You know that Malik and al-Awza’i, who are among the greatest of the early Muslims, both gave detailed figurative interpretations to the hadits.”  He continued, “Another of them was Ja’far asw-Swadiq.  Indeed a whole group of them, as well as later scholars, said that whoever believes Allah to be in a particular physical direction is a disbeliever, as al-‘Iraqi has explicitly stated, saying that this was the position of Abu Hanifah, Malik, ash-Shafi’i, al-Ash’ari, and al- Baqillani.”  This is found in Mirqat al-Mafatih Sharh Mishkat al-Maswabih. 

It is worth remembering that Imam Zayn ad-Din Abu al-Fadhl ‘Abd ar-Rahim ibn al-Husayn al-‘Iraqi (r.a.) was a hafizh, ahadits master, someone with over 100,000 ahadits by memory, while Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari (r.a.) was a ahadits authority who produced reference works still in use today on forged ahadits.  In other words, each had the highest credentials for verifying the chains of transmission of the positions they relate.  For this reason, their transmission of the position of the disbelief of whoever ascribes a direction to Allah (s.w.t.) carries its weight. 

But perhaps it is fitter today to say that Muslims who believe that Allah (s.w.t.) is somehow “up there” are not disbelievers, for they have the shubhah, extenuating circumstance, that moneyed quarters in our times are aggressively pushing the bid’ah of anthropomorphism.  This bid’ah was confined in previous centuries to a small handful of Hanabilah, who were rebutted time and again by ‘ulama of Ahl as-Sunnah like Imam Abu al-Faraj ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn ‘Ali ibn al-Jawzy (r.a.), who addressed his fellow Hanabilah in his Daf Shubah at-Tashbih bi Akaff at-Tanzih, “Rebuttal of the Insinuations of Anthropomorphism at the Hands of Divine Transcendence” with the words, “If you had said, ‘We but read the ahadits and remain silent,’ no one would have condemned you.  What is shameful is that you interpret them literally.  Do not surreptitiously introduce into the madzhab of this righteous, early Muslim man that which is not of it.  You have clothed this madzhab in shameful disgrace, until it can hardly be said ‘Hanbali’ any more without saying anthropomorphist.” 

These beliefs apparently survived for some centuries in Khurasan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the East, for Shaykh Muhammad Zahid Kawtsari al-Hanafi (r.a.) noted that the Hanbali, Shaykh Taqi’ ad-Din Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Halim ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) picked up the details of them from manuscripts on nihal, sects, when the libraries of scholars poured into Damascus with caravans fleeing from the Mongols farther east.  He read them without a perspicacious teacher to guide him, came to believe what he understood from them, and went on to become an advocate for them in his own works.  This is found Sayf as-Saqil fi ar-Radd ‘ala ibn Zafil.  “ibn Zafil” was another name for Imam ibn al-Jawzy (r.a.), the student of Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.).  Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) was imprisoned for these ideas numerous times before his death, the ‘ulama of Damascus accusing him of anthropomorphism. 

Writings were authored by scholars like Imam Abu Hayyan an-Nahwi (r.a.); Imam Taqi’ ad-Din Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn ‘Abd al-Kafi’ as-Subki (r.a.); Imam Badr ad-Din Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Jama’ah (r.a.); Shaykh ‘Amir asw-Swana’ni Muhammad ibn Isma’il (r.a.), author of Subul as-Salam; Imam Taqi’ ad-Din Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad al-Hiswni (r.a.), author of Kifayat al-Akhyar; and Imam Shibab ad-Din Abu al-‘Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hajr al-Haytsami (r.a.), in rebuttal of his ‘aqidah, and it remained without acceptance by Muslims for another four hundred years, until the eighteenth-century Wahhabi movement, which followed Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) on points of ‘aqidah, and made him its “Shaykh al-Islam.”  But was not until with the advent of printing in the Arab world that Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah’s (r.a.) books and the tenets of this sect really saw the light of day, when a wealthy merchant from Jiddah commissioned the printing of his Minhaj as-Sunnah and other works on ‘aqidah in Egypt at the end of the last century, resurrected this time as Salafism, “return to early Islam.”  They have since been carried to all parts of the Islamic world, borne upon a flood of copious funding from one or two modern Muslim countries, whose efforts have filled mosques with books, pamphlets, and young men who push these ideas and even ascribe them with Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah’s (r.a.) questionable chains of transmission, or none at all, to the a’immah of the earliest Muslims. 

My point, as regards considering Muslims believers or disbelievers, is that this kind of money can buy the influence and propaganda that turn night into day; so perhaps contemporary Muslims have some excuse for these ideas, until they have had a chance to learn that the God of Islam is Transcendently above being a large man, just as He is Transcendently above being subject to time or to space, which are but two of His creatures. 

To summarise what I have said in answer to your question above, scholars take the primary texts of the Qur’an and sunnah literally unless there is some cogent reason for them not to.  In the case of Allah “descending” or being “in the sky”, there are many such reasons.  First, a literal interpretation of these texts makes it impossible to join between them and the many other rigorously authenticated texts about Allah being “with” a servant when he does dzikr, “closer to him than the jugular vein”, “in front of him” when he prays, “closest” to him when he is prostrating, “in the sky” when a slave girl was asked; “with you wherever you are”, and so on.  These are incoherent when taken together literally, and only become free of contradictions when they are understood figuratively, as Imam Malik (r.a.), Imam al-Awza’i (r.a.), and Imam an-Nawawi (r.a.) have done above.  Second, the Prophet (s.a.w.) detailed the beliefs that every Muslim must have in the Gabriel Hadits in Swahih Muslim and others, and did not mention Allah (s.w.t.) being “in the sky” or anywhere else, in any of them.  Third, Allah’s (s.w.t.) being “in the sky” as birds, clouds, and so on are in the sky in a literal sense contradicts the ‘aqidah of the Qur’an that there is “nothing whatsoever like unto Him”.  Fourth, the notion of Allah’s (s.w.t.) being in particular places contradicts the ‘aqidah expressed in seventeen verses of the Qur’an that Allah (s.w.t.) is free of need of anything, while things that occupy places need both space and time. 

These reasons are not exhaustive, but are intended to answer your question by illustrating the ‘aqidah and principles of traditional ‘ulama in interpreting the kind of texts we are talking about.  They show just how far from traditional Islam is the belief that Allah (s.w.t.) is “in the sky” in a literal sense, and why it is not permissible for any Muslim to believe this.  And Allah (s.w.t.) Alone Gives success.



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