The Athari Way



The primary function of this brief breakdown is not to highlight the entire Athari creed, rather the purpose here is to summarize the essence of the Athari creed in the three distinct aspects that are being grossly misrepresented by the groups of Kalam theology (Ash’aris primarily along with pseudo Atharis). In short, there are three things that ahlul-hadith wal-athar i.e the Atharis, are having their own creed being dictated by other than themselves and being promoted in opposition to the principles of the Athari creed, hence the necessity of this brief summary of our stances.

This summary is broken down into three primary issues of concern

  1. Do we believe in the “literal” or the “dhahir”? Clarifying the divergence between the two!
  2. Ithbat vs Tafwid al-M’anawi
  3. The standard operating procedure of classical Atharis on those issues the sources of evidences have remained silent upon


So we will go forward one by one addressing these issues in the most easiest logically progressive manner possible. The best way I have decided was in the cognitive order listed above, first clarifying between literal and dhahir, then moving towards ithbat vs tafwid m’anawiyya, and then moving toward the conclsive end of it all, our base methodology laid in point number 3! Without further ado, lets get straight into the issues at hand.

Ash’aris have done well to misrepresent ahlu-sunnah wal-jama’ah by presenting our belief in the Attributes of Allah upon what they like to term “literalism“. Arab translators likewise had very little regard, including among atharis, who haphazardly translated the phrasal clause “‘ala-dhahira” as “literal“. This is the first blunder in the form of misrepresentation of our school. We do not believe in the Attributes solely on the “literal” for that is incorrect. In Arabic, a somewhat nominal meaning for “literal” is “dhahir” but in creed, the meaning is more profound. We believe and accept the attributes according to what our Athari Imams have stated verbatim “ala-dhahiruha” or its derivative phrases like “ala-dhahira”, “ala-dhawahir”.

So what does this mean? A more accurate translation is
A. Apparent
B. Obvious

So when we say we believe in the Attributes upon their dhahir, that means that we believe them based on their most apparent/obvious meanings.

So now the question might arise, “What exactly does the apparent meaning consist of?”

The answer to this was best explained by two of our Athari scholars

Imam Ibn Qudama al-Hanbali says in Dham al-Ta’wil:

فإن قيل فقد تأولتم آيات وأخبارا فقلتم في قوله تعالى ( وهو معكم أين ما كنتم ) أي بالعلم ونحو هذا من الآيات والأخبار فيلزمكم ما لزمنا
قلنا نحن لم نتأول شيئا وحمل هذه اللفظات على هذه المعاني ليس بتأويل لأن التأويل صرف اللفظ عن ظاهره وهذه المعاني هي الظاهر من هذه الألفاظ بدليل أنه المتبادر إلى الأفهام منها وظاهر اللفظ هو ما يسبق إلى الفهم منه حقيقة كان أو مجازا

‘If it is said: ‘You made ta’wil of verses and reports, for instance, you said with respect to Allah’s statement: ‘He is with you wherever you are’, meaning: with His knowledge, and the like of these verses and reports, and therefore, your arguments are as much applicable to you as us.
We say: We did not make ta’wil of anything, for to hold such texts in these meanings is not at all ta’wil, because ta’wil is to change the meaning of a word from its dhaahir, and what we say here is the dhahir of the wording, that is, what comes first to the mind from that text, irrespective of whether it is haqiqa or majaz.

To further clarify this, one might ask “what would come first into someone’s mind? Everyone thinks differently, right!”

We say in response to that, that what Ibnul-Qudamah meant here by “what first comes to mind FROM THAT TEXT” means according to the grammatical structure and support for that meaning in the arabic language. The clause “from that text” decisively indicates that understanding the information is quarantined within the confines of the rules of Arabic language since the text is ultimately in Arabic. So it doesnt mean a loose adoption of “whatever someone thinks” but rather what becomes known and apparent of that text according to the rules of the Arabic language. If the reader does not wish to simply take my word for it, rejecting my claim that we dont take the apparent based off what comes to mind on our own merit, I will bring the next Athari Imam to further prove my point, knocking two birds with one stone.

Imam adh-Dhahabi states the following in his book, al-‘Uluw

The latter ones from the speculative theologians (ahl al-nadhar) invented a new belief. I do not know of anyone preceding them in that. They said:
‘These attributes are passed on as they have come and not interpreted (la tu’awwal), while believing that the apparent meaning is not intended (dhahiruha ghayr murad).’

This follows that the apparent meaning (dhahir) could mean two things:

First; that it has no interpretation (ta’wil) except the meaning of the text (dilalat al-khitab), as the Salaf said: ‘The rising (al-Istiwa) is known’, or as Sufyan and others said: ‘Its recitation is in fact its interpretation (tafseer)’ – meaning, it is obvious and clear in the language, such that one should not opt for interpretation (t’awil) or distortion (tahrif). This is the Madhab of the Salaf, while they all agree that they do not resemble the attributes of human beings in any way. For the Bari has no likeness, neither in His Essence, nor in His Attributes.

Second; that the apparent meaning (dhahir) is what comes to imagination from the attribute, just like an image that is formed in one’s mind of a human attribute. This is certainly not intended, for Allah is single and self-sufficient who has no likeness. Even if He has multiple attributes, they all are true, however, they have no resemblance or likeness

Thus adh-Dhahabi proves that our ithbat (affirmation) of the Attributes of Allah are upon their apparent meaning but according to the rules of Arabic language (elucidated in his first point) and NOT according to someone’s imaginations or predilections of dhahir elucidated in the second point.

Lastly, I wish to point out, notice the very last statement where Ibul-Qudamah says “irrespective whether it is haqiqa (literal) or majaz (figurative/metaphorical)“. That is because the obvious or apparent meaning of a text can either be literal OR metaphorical. What does this mean? This means that we, as Atharis DO NOT DENY METAPHORICAL meanings as our mutakalim counterparts would have people believe. All this means is that in order for the adoption of a metaphorical meaning to be accepted by ahlu-sunnah, it must conform to the principles upon which the sciences of Arabic language support such a meaning. In this regard, we have the famous report by al-Shafi’ee brought by Imam as-Suyuti in Sawn al-Mantiq (1/47-48):

ماجهل الناس ولااختلفوا إلا لتركهم لسان العرب وميلهم إلى لسان ارسطوطاليس

The people did not become ignorant and nor differ (with each other) except due to their abandonment of the language of the Arabs and their inclination to the language of Aristotle.
The birth of all kalaam ideologies and their brainchild offshoots from the mutazilah to the ashaa’irah, Maturidis, etc was based on this very phenomenon that Imam ash-Shafi’ee laid out right here. The underlying point of ash-Shafi’ee was that the main reason for heterodox groups (ahlul-kalam) differing with the main group of orthodoxy i.e. Ahlul-Hadith wal-Athar (Atharis) was because of their ignorance of Arabic language because they’ve allowed themselves to understand the scriptures according to Aristotelian concepts.

In short, the difference between Atharis versus ahlul-kalam regarding interpreting the Attributes into majaz is that Atharis accept majaz when the language linguistically supports it. Unlike this method of metaphorical interpretation is the kalam based method whereby the interpretation is NOT supported by the langauge of the Arabs. This is why the famous mutakalim Sayfu-Deen al-‘Amidi says regarding the t’awil of kalam is that

صرف اللفض من الاهتمال الراجه إلى الاهتمال المرجوه

The diversion of an expression from the preponderant – or probable – interpretation to the outweighed – or improbable – interpretation’.

al-Amidi, al-Ihkam 3:279

In other words, when Ash’aris perform the practice of t’awil, it is based on distorting the well understood meaning known in the Arabic language and siphons off towards a far fetched meaning by which the makes no sense in the language of the Arabs.

An example of this was demonstrated by Imam ar-Razi who said in Mukhtar as-Sihah under the root word “yad”, when speaking about this ayah in repelling the distorting t’awil of both al-Jawhari and al-Azhari

قلتُ: قوله تعالى: (بأَيْد) أي بقُوَّةٍ وهو مَصْدَر آدَ يئِيدُ أَيْداً إذا قَوِيَ وليس جَمْعاً لِيدٍ ليُذْكَر هُنَا بل مَوْضعُه بابُ الدَّالِ. وقد نَصَّ الأزَهَري على هذه الآية في الأيدِ بمعنى المَصْدَر. ولا أَعْرِفُ أَحدَاً من أَئِمَة اللُّغَة أو التَّفْسِير ذَهَبَ إلى ما ذَهَب إليه الجَوْهَرِي من أَنَّها جَمْعُ يَدٍ.

“I said: His (Allah) saying: (Bi-aydin) meaning with power, and it is the root Aada, ya’idu, aydan if he became strong; and it is not the plural of yad/hand, for it to be mentioned here (under the root word yad) , its place is in the section of the letter dal. and al-Azhari (370 A.H.) mentioned this ayah under the word al Ayd meaning the root. And I do not know any of the imams of the Arabic language or tafsir who had the same opinion of al Jawhari that it is the plural of yad – hand.

Regarding the distortion of tawil of yad to mean power, Shaykhul-Islam Imamul-Aimah ibnul-Khuzayma said “the one who cannot distinguish between yad (hand) and ayd (power) is more deserving to be in school than seeking a theological debate.

Further academic support from the Athari Imams in accepting and believing in the Attributes upon their apparent meanings include a plethora of Imams, too innumeral to count and cite here. So a couple will suffice.

Shaykhul-Islam Abu Uthman as-Sabooni says in his book “Aqeedatu-Salaf ashaabul-hadeeth” highlighting their stance regarding the Attributes

……On the contrary, they limit themselves to what Allah the Most High said and to what the Messenger ﷺ said without adding anything to them, saying how they are, likening them, distorting and changing their meanings or making alterations, taking them out of context in which the Arabs understood them, attaching to them false interpretations. They take then upon their apparent meanings.

In Mukhtasar al-‘Uloow, adh-Dhahabi quotes Abu Bakr al-Khateeb al-Baghdadee from the book “Ghuniyah ‘an kalam wa ahlihi” where Imam Khateeb states

The madhab of the salaf with regards to the Sifat is to affirm them as they are upon their apparent meaning (‘ala-dhahir), negating any tashbeeh (resemblance) to them nor takyif (inquiring into the nature of how they are)”

One last key point I wish to clarify before concluding with this segment as a means to transition into the second segment is with regards to some of our Imams commenting that the Attributes are to be believed/understood in “haqiqatan” commonly translated as “literal” as well. Common examples of Athari Imams making such statements are for example Ibn Abdul-Barr al-Maliki رحمه الله. In interpretative methods, haqiqa is usually understood and thus translated as “hidden reality” when in conjunction with its opposite, dhahir (commonly translated as literal). Example, the shi’ite or certain sufi ideologues would say that sunnis only know or understand the Islamic sources based on the dhahir and it is they who know the inner secrets and true reality (haqiqi) meanings of what Allah intended in the scriptures.
What is meant by haqiqi here in relation to the Attributes of Allah is that the Attributes are to be understood as a matter of reality. Meaning they are true, really existent, as opposed to majaz (metaphorical) which would mean a concept, a figment of the imagination, not real. But thats when the linguistic construct in the ayah gives no apparent linguistic implication of metaphor. If it does, then it would be accepted. That is what is meant here by haqiqi, and not literal in terms of interpreting the Attributes towards literal human attributes.

What follows on from believing and accepting the scriptural sources of Allah’s Attributes upon its apparent meanings is in how that belief is cognitively applied. In other words, do we affirm them (muthbata/ithbat) or do we relegate those meanings to Allah? This lands us towards the next point

2. Ithbat versus tafwid al-m’anawi. Ithbat is the creed/methodology of “affirming” the scriptural evidences that reveal information of Allah’s Sublime Attributes. The method of this affirmation is affirming them based on their dhahir i.e. apparent meanings, as has been efficiently explained above

There is one problem here. Some atharis, whom we shall name as the “mufawwida”, have opposed their own tradition. Cognitively speaking, the methodology of ithbat is antithetical to the methodology of tafwid bil-m’anawiyya. What is the definition of tafwid al-m’anawi?

Tafwid al-m’anawi means to consign/relegate the meaning of the Attributes of Allah to Allah. The outcome of that essentially means that you DO NOT affirm the apparent meaning of the Attributes because you are ipso facto ignorant of the meaning as you are consigning those meanings to Allah. The end result is that we do not know, or claim to know the meanings of the Attributes of Allah. Basically, in a nutshell, the bottom line of the position of the mufawwida is that we are not able to know the meanings of the Attributes. So when actual Atharis affirm the apparent meanings as every Imam of ahlul-hadeeth wal-athar mandated, these mufawwida say “you are actually making takyif (delving into the how) or assigning a meaning to them, and this is incorrect.

The intellectual nature of this invented ideology was that it was preposterous to both Ash’aris and the Atharis. The original Ash’aris wrote entire books refuting this newly invented concept of tafwid al-m’anawi and the mufawwida. The same with Atharis. We will not present the invalidity of the method and argument of the mufawwida here, as that will go beyond the scope of the intent of this outline

The bottom line here is that the methodology of Ithbat is diametrically opposed to tafwid al-m’anawi. You cannot have two opposing ideologies and claim you follow them both. Either you affirm the meaning (ithbat) or you do not (tafwid bil-m’ana). Its a cognitive impossibility to say you affirm the meanings and likewise claim you don’t know the meanings and that you consign the meanings to Allah.

The tafwid that Atharis have classically affirmed to adopt is in tafwid bil-kayfiyyah, which means to consign and relegate the nature and howness of the Attributes to Allah. This is the position of all of ahlu-sunnah wal-jama’ah.

Tafwid al-kayfiyyah = orthodoxy – Atharis
Tafwid al-m’anawiyya = heterodoxy – Mufawwida

Now we come to the final controversy that even some Atharis have misunderstood

3. The standard operating procedure of classical Atharis on those issues the sources of evidences have remained silent upon. What exactly is our position regarding an issue regarding the Attributes for which the source texts (the Book and Sunnah) have remained silent on and for which none of the salaf have elaborated upon.

The Athari aqeedah in the view of mistaken Atharis along with ahlul-kalam, is representative of the following mistaken formula.

To affirm what the sources affirm for Allah, to deny what the sources deny for Allah, and to reject on what the sources have remained silent and to condemn as innovated to whatever is brought forth

However, the athari aqida of the atharis is

To affirm what the sources affirm for Allah, to deny what the sources deny for Allah, AND NOT to affirm OR deny on what has been silent until it is investigated on, and whether or not the subject matter is in congruency to the source evidence

Now, my proof for this comes from the Athari Imam Ibn Abil-‘Izz al-Hanafi, in his explanation of Imam at-Tahawi’s statement in his creed on point 38, who was also athari. So ibn Abil-‘Izz says

ش أذكر بين يدي الكلام على عبارة الشيخ رحمه الله مقدمة وهي أن الناس في إطلاق مثل هذه الألفاظ ثلاثة أقوال فطائفة تنفيها وطائفة تثبتها وطائفة تفصل وهم المتبعون للسلف فلا يطلقون نفيها ولا إثباتها الا اذا تبين ما أثبت بها فهو ثابت وما نفي بها فهو منفي لأن المتأخرين قد صارت هذه الألفاظ في اصطلاحهم فيها إجمال وابهام كغيرها من الألفاظ الاصطلاحية فليس كلهم يستعملها في نفس معناها اللغوي ولهذا كان النفاة ينفون بها حقا وباطلا ويذكرون عن مثبتها ما لا يقولون به وبعض المثبتين لها يدخل لها معنى باطلا مخالفا لقول السلف ولما دل عليه الكتاب والميزان ولم يرد نص من الكتاب ولا من السنة بنفيها ولا إثباتها وليس لنا أن نصف الله تعالى بما لم يصف به نفسه ولا وصفه به رسوله نفيا ولا إثباتا وانما نحن متبعون لا مبتدعون
Some speech has been mentioned to me regarding the statement of the shaykh (at-Tahawi), may Allah have mercy on him, in the foreword, and regarding it, the people separated into three different positions regarding issuing statements like this [like the one Tahawi made].
Their views are
1. the group who completely and absolutely disprove of such statements
2. the group who completely affirm (such statements)
3. those who hold (to the methodology of seeking clarification) tafsil

and it is they (the people of the third category) who follow and are attributed to the salaf and so they are not entirely liberated from either completely denying [which is what we see mistaken atharis along with ahlul-kalam do] or completely affirming until it (meaning statements not found in the sources) turns out to be approved and upon good merit.”

All of this was my brief rendition just for the underlined portion as it was most relevant to the point I was making. Everything in (parenthesis) is speech to help clarify the arabic import and everything stated in [brackets] are my own point

In short, What Im trying to prove here is that it is not from the principles of the athariyyah (i.e. the salaf) to meet statements, language, phrases, or words that have not been mentioned in the Qur’an or Sunnah with plain and simple rejection on the basis that it has not been mentoned by the two sources, but rather, as Ibn Abil-‘Izz is saying, it is to refrain from giving a verdict or taking a stance until there is a method of finding out, weighing how the statement is in agreement with the revelation or not, THEN after we find out if it is in accord or against the Qur’an and sunnah, THEN and only then do we take a stance.

In short, our way is not to quickly affirm something nor mentioned in the sources NOR is it to quickly negate something, rather our way is the way of investigation until it is proven to be supooeted or rejected by the texts.

That is the Athari methodology.