Istiwa’ is a Divine Act
(Re: Qur'an 7:54; 13:2; 20:5; 25:59; 32:4)
Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani
"Istiwa’ is one of the Attributes of acts (min sifat al-af`al) according to the majority of the explanations." - Al-Qurtubi.1
"The establishment of His Throne in the heaven is known, and His Throne in the earth is the hearts of the People of Pure Monotheism (ahl al-tawhid). He said: “and eight will uphold the Throne of their Lord that day, above them” (69:17), and [concerning] the throne of the hearts: “We carry them on the land and the sea” (17:70). As for the throne of the heaven: the Merciful established Himself over it (`alayhi istawa); and as for the throne of the hearts: the Merciful conquered it (`alayhi istawla). The throne of the heaven is the direction of the supplication of creatures, while the throne of the heart is the locus of the gaze of the Real - Most High -. Therefore, there is a huge difference between this throne and that!" - Al-Qushayri.2
"We believe that “the Merciful established Himself over the Throne” (20:5), and we do not know the reality of the meaning of this nor what is meant by it (la na`lamu haqiqata mi`na dhalika wa al-murada bihi), while we do believe that “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (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." - Al-Nawawi.3
Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash`ari said: "The establishment of Allah - Most High - on the Throne is an action He has created named istiwa’ and related to the Throne, just as He has created an action named ityan (coming) related to a certain people; and this implies neither descent nor movement."4 Al-Bayhaqi confirms this: "Abu al-Hasan `Ali al-Ash`ari said that Allah - Most High - effected an act in relation to the Throne, and He called that act istiwa’, just as He effected other acts in relation to other objects, and He called those acts `sustenance' (rizq), `favor' (ni`ma), or other of His acts."5 This is also the interpretation of Ibn Hazm (d. 456) - although a vehement enemy of Ash`aris - who explains istiwa’ as "an act pertaining to the Throne".6
Abu al-Fadl al-Tamimi mentioned that two positions were reported from Imam Ahmad concerning istiwa’: One group narrated that he considered it "of the Attributes of act" (min sifat al-fi`l), another, "of the Attributes of the Essence" (min sifat al-dhat)."7 Ibn Battal mentions that Ahl al-Sunna hold either one of these two positions: "Those that interpreted istawa as `He exalted Himself' (`ala) consider istiwa an Attribute of the Essence, while those who interpreted it otherwise consider it an Attribute of act."8
Al-Tamimi further related that Ahmad said:
[Istiwa’]: It means height/exaltation (`uluw) and elevation (irtifa`). Allah - Most High - is ever exalted (`ali) and elevated (rafi`) without beginning, before He created the Throne. He is above everything (huwa fawqa kulli shay'), and He is exalted over everything (huwa al-`ali `ala kulli shay'). He only specified the Throne because of its particular significance which makes it different from everything else, as the Throne is the best of all things and the most elevated of them. Allah - Most High - therefore praised Himself by saying that He “established Himself over the Throne”, that is, He exalted Himself over it (`alayhi `ala). It is impermissible to say that He established Himself with a contact or a meeting with it. Exalted is Allah above that! Allah is not subject to change, substitution, nor limits, whether before or after the creation of the Throne.9
The Maliki scholar Ibn Abi Jamra (d. 695) said something similar in his commentary on the hadith "Allah wrote a Book before He created creation, saying: Verily My mercy precedeth My wrath; and it is written with Him above the Throne":
It may be said from the fact that the Book is mentioned as being "above the Throne" that the divine wisdom has decreed for the Throne to carry whatever Allah wishes of the record of His judgment, power, and the absolute unseen known of Him alone, in order to signify the exclusivity of His encompassing knowledge regarding these matters. This makes the Throne one of the greatest signs of the exclusivity of His knowledge of the Unseen. This could explain the verse of istiwa’ as referring to whatever Allah wills of His power, which is the Book He has placed above His Throne."10
Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161) interpreted istiwa’ in the verse “The Merciful established Himself over the Throne” (20:5) as "a command concerning the Throne" (amrun fi al-`arsh), as related by Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni and quoted by al-Yafi`i in the latter's book Marham al-`Ilal al-Mu`dila fi Daf` al-Shubah wa al-Radd `ala al-Mu`tazila ("Book of the Resolution of Difficult Problems for the Removal of Doubts and the Refutation of the Mu`tazila"):
The understanding of istiwa’ as the turning of Allah - Most High - to a particular command concerning the Throne is not far-fetched, and this is the ta'wil of Imam Sufyan al-Thawri, who took as corroborating evidence for it the verse: “Then turned He (thumma istawa) to the heaven when it was smoke” (41:11), meaning: "He proceeded to it" (qasada ilayha).11
Al-Tabari said, in his commentary on the verse “Then turned He (thumma istawa) to the heaven, and fashioned it as seven heavens” (2:29):
The meaning of istiwa’ in this verse is height (`uluw) and elevation... but if one claims that this means displacement for Allah, tell him: He is high and elevated over the heaven with the height of sovereignty and power, not the height of displacement and movement to and fro.
The above position is exactly that of the Ash`ari school, as shown by Abu Bakr ibn al-`Arabi's and Ibn Hajar's numerous comments to that effect12 directed against those who attribute altitude to Allah in their interpretation of His `uluw such as Ibn Taymiyya. The latter stated: "The Creator, Glorified and Exalted is He, is above the world and His being above is literal, not in the sense of dignity or rank."13 This doctrine was comprehensively refuted by Ibn Jahbal al-Kilabi (d. 733) in his Radd `ala Man Qala bi al-Jiha ("Refutation of Ibn Taymiyya Who Attributes A Direction to Allah - Most High -")14 and Shaykh Yusuf al-Nabahani (1265-1350) in his Raf` al-Ishtibah fi Istihala al-Jiha `ala Allah ("The Removal of Doubt Concerning the Impossibility of Direction for Allah").15
Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597) in the introduction of his Daf` Shubah al-Tashbih said of the anthropomorphists: "They are not content to say: `Attribute of act' (sifatu fi`l) until they end up saying: `Attribute of the Essence' (sifatu dhat)." Ibn Hazm also said: "If the establishment on the Throne is eternal without beginning, then the Throne is eternal without beginning, and this is disbelief."16
Al-Bayhaqi quotes one of the companions of al-Ash`ari, Abu al-Hasan `Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Mahdi al-Tabari (d. ~380) as saying in his book Ta'wil al-Ahadith al-Mushkalat al-Waridat fi al-Sifat ("Interpretation of the Problematic Narrations Pertaining to the Attributes"): "Allah is in the heaven above everything and established (mustawin) over His Throne in the sense that He is exalted or elevated (`alin) above it, and the sense of istiwa’ is self-elevation (i`tila')."17 This is the most widespread interpretation (ta'wil) of the issue among the Salaf: al-Baghawi said that the meaning of the verse “The Merciful established Himself over the Throne” (20:5) according to Ibn `Abbas and most of the commentators of Qur'an is "He elevated Himself" (irtafa`a).18 This is the interpretation quoted by al-Bukhari in his Sahih from the senior Tabi`i Rufay` ibn Mahran Abu al-`Aliya (d. 90). Al-Bukhari also cites from Mujahid (d. 102) the interpretation "to rise above" or "exalt Himself above" (`ala). Ibn Battal declares the latter to be the true position and the saying of Ahl al-Sunna because Allah described Himself as "the Sublimely Exalted" – “al-`Ali” (2:255) and said: “exalted be He (ta`ala) over all that they ascribe as partners (unto Him)!” (23:92).19
In complete opposition to the above Ibn Taymiyya said in his Fatawa: "The establishment of Allah over the Throne is real, and the servant's establishment over the ship is real" (lillahi ta`ala istiwa’un `ala `arshihi haqiqatan wa li al-`abdi istiwa’un `ala al-fulki haqiqatan).20 "Allah is with us in reality, and He is above His Throne in reality (Allahu ma`ana haqiqatan wa huwa fawqa al-`arshi haqiqatan).. . . Allah is with His creation in reality and He is above His Throne in reality (Allahu ma`a khalqihi haqiqatan wa huwa fawqa al-`arshi haqiqatan)."21
Another interpretation commonly used by later Ash`aris for istiwa’ is that of istila' and qahr, respectively "establishing dominion" and "subduing." Ibn `Abd al-Salam said:
His establishment (istiwa’) over the Throne is a metaphor for establishing dominion (istila') over His kingdom and disposing of it, as the poet said:
qad istawa Bishrun `ala al-`Iraq min ghayri sayfin wa damin muhraq
"Bishr established mastery over Iraq without sword and without shedding blood."22
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 `Umar's - Allah be well-pleased with him - saying:23 "My throne would have toppled if I had not found a merciful Lord."24
Ibn Battal and Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi attribute the interpretation as istila' chiefly to the Mu`tazila. Ibn Hajar said:
The Mu`tazila said its meaning is "establishing dominion through subjugation and overpowering" (al-istila' bi al-qahr wa al-ghalaba), citing as a proof the saying of the poet:
“Bishr established mastery over Iraq without sword and without shedding blood.”
The anthropomorphists (al-jismiyya) said: "Its meaning is settledness (al-istiqrar)."25 Some of Ahl al-Sunna said: "Its meaning is He elevated Himself (irtafa`a)" while others of them said: "Its meaning is He rose above (`ala)," and others of them said: "Its meaning is sovereignty (al-mulk) and power (al-qudra)."26
The latter Sunni interpretation is evidently similar to that of istila' and qahr. However, because the Mu`tazila claimed that the divine Attributes were originated in time rather than uncreated and beginningless, their interpretation was rejected by the scholars of Ahl al-Sunna. Ibn Battal said: "The Mu`tazila position is null and void, for Allah is qahir, ghalib, and mustawli without beginning."27 Ibn Battal is referring to the Ash`ari position whereby the Attributes of acts such as creation, although connected with created objects, are without beginning in relation to Allah.28 To those who object to istawla on the grounds that it necessarily supposed prior opposition,29 Ibn Hajar similarly remarked that that assumption is discarded by the verse: “Allah was (kana) ever Knower, Wise” (4:17), which the scholars explained to mean "He is ever Knower and Wise."30
Thus Dawud al-Zahiri's objection that istila' necessitates a wresting from an adversary31 is not absolute among Ahl al-Sunna. The Ash`ari grammarian al-Raghib al-Asfahani (d. 402) said that istawa `ala has the meaning of istawla `ala ("He overcame") and cited the verse of istiwa (20:5) as an example of this meaning: "It means that everything is alike in relation to him in such manner that no one thing is nearer to Him than another thing, since He is not like the bodies that abide in one place exclusively of another place."32 In this sense, both the Mu`tazili position of origination for the Attributes and the literalist requirement of conquest-after-struggle are dismissed, and istawla can be safely admitted among the interpretations of Ahl al-Sunna. As Ibn Battal alluded, "establishing dominion and sovereignty," "subduing," and "conquering" no more suppose prior opposition in the face of the Creator than do His Attributes of "All-Victorious" (Zahir) "All-Compelling" (Qahhar), "Prevailer" (Ghalib), or "Omnipotent" (Qahir) presuppose resistance or power on anyone's part. This is confirmed by the verses: “He is the Omnipotent (al-qahir) over His slaves” (6:18, 6:61) and “Allah prevails (ghalib) in His purpose” (12:21). Al-Raghib said: "It means that everything is alike in relation to him" and he did not say: "became alike."
Ibn al-Jawzi mentions another reason for permitting this interpretation: "Whoever interprets ‘and He is with you’ (57:4) as meaning `He is with you in knowledge,' permits his opponent to interpret istiwa’ as `subduing' (al-qahr)."33
As for the linguistic precedent of the meaning istawla for istawa, it is provided by the poet al-Akhtal (d. <110) who said: "Bishr established mastery over (istawa `ala) Iraq without sword and without shedding blood." Some "Salafis" reject this linguistic proof on the ground that al-Akhtal was a second-century Christian. This shows ignorance of agreed-upon criteria for the probative force of Arabic poetry in the Shari`a, which extends at least to the year 150 and applies regardless of creed.
Dr. Muhammad Sa`id Ramadan al-Buti said:
The consensus in place regarding these texts is the refraining from applying to them any meaning which establishes a sameness or likeness between Allah and His creatures, and the refraining from divesting their established lexical tenor.
The obligatory way to proceed is either to explain these words according to their external meanings which conform with divine Transcendence above any like or partner, and this includes not explaining them as bodily appendages and other corporeal imagery. Therefore it will be said, for example: He has established Himself over the Throne as He has said, with an establishment which befits His Majesty and Oneness; and He has a Hand as He has said, which befits His Divinity and Majesty; etc.
Or they can be explained figuratively according to the correct rules of language and in conformity with the customs of speech in their historical context. For example: the establishment is the establishment of dominion (istila') and that of authority (tasallut); the hand of Allah is His strength in His saying: “The hand of Allah is over their hand” (48:10) and His generosity in His saying: “Nay, both His hands are spread wide, and He bestows as He wills” (5:64).34
As for the interpretation of istiwa’ as sitting (julus), it is asserted in the book attributed to `Abd Allah ibn Ahmad ibn Hanbal under the title Kitab al-Sunna (p. 5, 71): "Is establishment (istiwa’) other than by sitting (julus)?" "Allah - Most High - sits on the kursi and there remains only four spans vacant." Al-Khallal in his own Kitab al-Sunna (p. 215-216) states that whoever denies that "Allah sits on the kursi and there remains only four spans vacant" is an unbeliever. `Uthman al-Darimi went so far as to say in his Naqd al-Jahmiyya: "If He so willed, He could have settled on the back of a gnat and it would have carried Him thanks to His power and the favor of His lordship, not to mention the magnificient Throne."35 Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim endorsed these views.36 Al-Kawthari wrote in his Maqalat: "Whoever imagines that our Lord sits on the kursi and leaves space at His side for His Prophet to sit, he has followed the Christians who believe that `Isa (as) was raised to heaven and sat next to his Father - Allah is elevated above the partnership they ascribe to Him!"37
Al-Munawi quotes the following conclusion on the verse of the Throne upon the water:
Al-Tunisi said that the verse “And His Throne was upon the water” (11:7) contains a clear proof that direction is impossible for Allah - Most High - because the Throne settled (istaqarra) upon the water, therefore, since natural custom was broken by the settlement of that huge mass (jirm) - the largest of all masses - upon the water, contrary to the habitual fact that such a mass - or, rather, much less than it! - does not usually settle upon the water: it becomes known with certitude that istiwa’ over it is not an istiwa’ of settledness nor fixity.38
The above proof is similar to the proof derived from Imam Malik's statement: "The establishment is known, the `how' is inconceivable, and to ask about it is an innovation!"39 Shaykh al-Islam Taqi al-Din al-Subki pointed out that the inconceivability of the modality of istiwa’ proved that it precluded the meaning of sitting.40
In his Qur'anic commentary entitled Lata'if al-Isharat ("The Subtle Signs"), Imam Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465) - together with Imam al-Haramayn Ibn al-Juwayni and al-Khatib al-Baghdadi the main figure in the fourth generation-layer of al-Ash`ari's students - sums up the position of Ahl al-Sunna concerning istiwa’:
“He established Himself over the Throne” (7:54; 13:2; 20:5; 25:59; 32:4), however, the One without beginning has no limit (al-qadim laysa lahu hadd). He "established Himself over the Throne," however, it is impermissible to attribute to Him proximity with His Essence nor remoteness. He "established Himself over the Throne," however, the Throne would be the most needful of all things to an iota of connection (al-wisal) [with Him] if it were only alive! But it is a lifeless solid, and when did solids ever possess volition? He "established Himself over the Throne," however, He is the Everlasting Sovereign (al-Samad) without rival, the Unique without limit.41
And Allah Almighty is Most Knowing and Most Wise. May Allah Almighty bless and greet our master Muhammad, his Family, and his Companions!
1 In his Tafsir (18:281).
2 In Lata'if al-Isharat (4:118).
3 Al-Nawawi, al-Majmu` Sharh al-Muhadhdhab (1:25).
4 As cited in `Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi, Usul al-Din (p. 113).
5 Al-Bayhaqi, al-Asma' wa al-Sifat (2:308).
6 In his al-Fisal fi al-Milal (2:125).
7 Ibn Abi Ya`la, Tabaqat al-Hanabila (2:296).
8 In Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari (1959 ed. 13:406).
9 Ibn Abi Ya`la, Tabaqat al-Hanabila (2:296-297).
10 Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, Tawhid ch. 22 (1959 ed. 13:414; 1989 ed. 13:508 #7422).
11 In al-Yafi`i, Marham al-`Ilal (p. 245) and Abu al-Ma`ali Ibn al-Juwayni, al-Irshad (p. 59-60).
12 Respectively in `Arida al-Ahwadhi (2:234-237) and Fath al-Bari (3:37-38, 6:136 [Jihad], also Tawhid ch. 23 last par.).
13 In al-Ta'sis al-Radd `ala Asas al-Taqdis (= Talbis al-Jahmiyya 1:111).
14 Its text is quoted in full in Ibn al-Subki's Tabaqat (9:35-91) and its translation is forthcoming insha Allah.
15 Reproduced in full in al-Nabahani's Shawahid al-Haqq (p. 210-240).
16 In al-Fisal (2:124).
17 In al-Bayhaqi, al-Asma' wa al-Sifat (al-Hashidi ed. 2:308).
18 As reported by Ibn Hajar in Fath al-Bari (1959 ed. 13:409f.), book of Tawhid, chapter 22.
20 Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu` al-Fatawa, Vol. 5 entitled al-Asma' wa al-Sifat (5:199).
21 Op. cit. (5:103).
22 Cf. Mukhtar al-Sihah (p. 136).
23 Narrated as a dream seen after `Umar's death. See the following under the entry `arsh: Lisan al-`Arab, Ibn al-Athir's al-Nihaya, al-Raghib's Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur'an, al-Basa'ir (4:24), and `Umda al-Huffaz.
24 Ibn `Abd al-Salam, al-Ishara ila al-Ijaz (p. 104-112).
25 The explanation of istawa as istaqarra in the verse “Then He established Himself over the Throne” (32:4) is actually reported from al-Kalbi and Muqatil by al-Baghawi - in his commentary entitled Ma`alim al-Tanzil (al-Manar ed. 3:488) - who adds that the philologist Abu `Ubayda [Ma`mar ibn al-Muthanna al-Taymi (d. ~210)] said "He mounted" (sa`ida). Pickthall followed the latter in his translation of the verse as “Then He mounted the Throne”. It is a foundational position of the "Salafis" as stated by Imam Muhammad Abu Zahra: "The `Salafis' and Ibn Taymiyya assert that settledness takes place over the Throne.... Ibn Taymiyya strenuously asserts that Allah descends, and can be above (fawq) and below (taht) `without how'.... and that the school of the Salaf is the affirmation of everything that the Qur'an stated concerning aboveness (fawqiyya), belowness (tahtiyya), and establishment over the Throne." Abu Zahra, al-Madhahib al-Islamiyya (p. 320-322).
26 Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari (1959 ed. 13:409).
27 In Fath al-Bari (1959 ed. 13:409f.).
28 See Ibn Khafif's `Aqida §§15-19.
29 Cf. Ibn al-A`rabi in al-Dhahabi's Mukhtasar al-`Uluw (p. 195 #241) and Dawud al-Zahiri - both of whom are quoted by Ibn Hajar in his discussion in Fath al-Bari - and Ibn `Abd al-Barr in his discussion of the hadith of descent in al-Tamhid: "The meaning of istawla in the language is `to overcome,' and Allah Almighty does not need to overcome anyone."
30 In Fath al-Bari (1959 ed. 13:409f.).
31 In Fath al-Bari (1959 ed. 13:409f.).
32 In al-Zabidi, Taj al-`Arus, entry s-w-y.
33 In Daf` Shubah al-Tashbih (1998 al-Kawthari repr. p. 23).
34 Al-Buti, al-Salafiyya (p. 132-133). For "Hands" = kindness, mercy, generosity, etc. see al-Qari, Mirqat al-Mafatih (1892 ed. 2:137, 1994 ed. 3:302) and al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim, hadith "Then He stretches out both hands, saying: `Who shall loan One Who is neither indigent nor inequitable?'" This phrase concludes the hadith of descent in one of Muslim's narrations.
35 `Uthman al-Darimi, Naqd al-Jahmiyya (p. 75).
36 Cf. the latter's Bada'i` al-Fawa'id (1900 ed. 4:39-40, 1994 ed. 2:328-329).
37 Al-Kawthari, Maqalat (p. 358).
38 In al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir, under the entry for the hadith: "Allah inscribed the destinies of all created things before creating the heavens and the earth by fifty thousand years, while His Throne stood upon the water." Narrated from `Abd Allah ibn `Amr ibn al-`As by al-Tirmidhi (hasan sahih gharib) and Ahmad; also by Muslim with the following wording: "Allah inscribed (kataba) the destinies of all created things before creating the heavens and the earth by fifty thousand years, while His Throne stood upon the water (wa `arshuhu `ala al-ma')."
39 The sound versions of Imam Malik's famous response to the man who asked about istiwa’ are as follows:  "The `how' of it is inconceivable; the `establishment' part of it is not unknown; belief in it is obligatory; asking about it is an innovation; and I believe that you are a man of innovation." Narrated from Ja`far ibn `Abd Allah by al-Dhahabi, Siyar (7:415).  "”The Merciful established Himself over the Throne” just as He described Himself. One cannot ask `how.' `How' does not apply to Him. And you are an evil man, a man of innovation. Take him out!" Narrated from Ibn Wahb by al-Bayhaqi with a sound chain in al-Asma' wa al-Sifat (2:304-305 #866), al-Dhahabi in the Siyar (7:416), and Ibn Hajar in Fath al-Bari (1959 ed. 13:406-407; 1989 ed. 13:501).  "The establishment is not unknown; the "how" is inconceivable; belief in it is obligatory; asking about it is an innovation; and I do not think that you are anything but an innovator." Narrated from Yahya ibn Yahya al-Tamimi and Malik's shaykh Rabi`a ibn Abi `Abd al-Rahman by al-Bayhaqi with a sound chain in al-Asma' wa al-Sifat (2:305-306 #867) and by Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani in al-Jami` fi al-Sunan (p. 123). Note that the wording that says: "The `how' is unknown" (al-kayfu majhul) is also narrated from Rabi`a by al-Bayhaqi in al-Asma' wa al-Sifat (2:306 #868) with a sound chain, but is an aberrant narration (riwaya shadhdha). Yet it is the preferred wording of Ibn Taymiyya in Dar' Ta`arud al-`Aql wa al-Naql (1:278) and Majmu`a al-Fatawa (17:373) as he infers from it support for his positions.
40 In al-Sayf al-Saqil (p. 128).
41 Al-Qushayri, Lata'if (5:139).