Ash’ari Contentions Of Sunni Theology 1: Abdullah bin Hamid Ali


We welcome the reader to a new series of Islamic theological posts whose aim transcends the past two decades of theological disputes, mainly in the format of how these theological, often, polemic discussions took place in that era. Meaningful discussions and clarity was not as accurate during that era, or should I say, was clouded with unnecessary extremes, in which I hope members of our community (both salafis and kalam adherents) could bridge that gaping hole into a more conducive discussion without the typical vitriolic behavior known to have been a method of custom during that era. It is also the belief of this author (Ali Boriqee) and many salafis that we view Islamic orthodoxy (salafism) as a singular salvific view. This does not mean that members of the Islamic community that contend with orthodox positions are “prone to the hellfire” as many misinformed individuals assume, NOR, does this mean that members who share our orthodox positions as sunnis (salafism) are NOT prone to hellfire. This is a typical misnomer that most people who believe in a post 9th century view that sunni theology can consist of three diametrically opposed factions (Ash’aris, Maturidis, and Atharis) which is itself disputed by members of all three factions and even altered by other members in its variations. We need not to get into that.

Addressing The Mistakes Made by Ustadh Abdullah bin Hamid

In the above video lecture, shaykh Abdullah makes several mistaken mischaracterizations about some of the theological nature of disputes and its historicity. The aim of this synopsis is to highlight them, correct them, and to contextualize the nature of the dispute in light of orthodox contentions!

1. He initially confirms that there are two types of t’awil. I assumed his defining of what these two were, would be accurate. But as he went on to explain these two types, it became clear to me that he does not fully conceptualize the nature of what t’awil is as a distinct meaning in two schools. Instead of understanding that t’awil in the school of the mutakalimun was a conpletely different academic practice to the normative sunni and purely linguistic endeavor of t’awil, what shaykh Abdullah did was he reversed the reality. He carries on his discussion construing that the kalam conception of t’awil is synonymous to the linguistic meaning and thee orthodox view and that somehow the hanbalis were the ones who distorted the theological nature of t’awil.

Reality, history, and Ash’ari mutakalimun themselves correct shaykh Abdullah’s mistaken portrayal of this.

As a result of this, he then interprets the normative standard athari sunni conception of “dhawahir” (apparent, obvious meanings), which can be either literal or metaphoric depending on context, he then mischaracterizes this as a play with t’awil, which is categorically false in comparison to the kalam induced meaning, which we will exemplify in a test run for the readers so they can understand the nature of kalam t’awil and why it is so drastically different from Islamic orthodoxy which would defacto contextualize why the early scholars and those later generations beholden to their methodological practice in theology were so averse to Ash’ari doctrine entirely.

2. He then asserts that t’awil did not pose an issue in three of the four schools excluding the hanbalis. The mistake here is that t’awil was a universally contentious and viewed as an innovated approach by all scholars of all madhabib, including the extinct madhahib. The problem here is that the early scholars utilized the interpretations of the jahmiyyah and the m’utazilah as their censure of t’awil. During this period, the Ash’ari theological school was not yet in existence, and if one argues that their principles have a root in the theology of the early scholars, we retort back saying “of course” and then we clarify that their legacy is rooted within the isnad system of Islam. The school of asharism is linked back to al-Ash’ari and abu Muhammad ibnul-Kullab, and their thoughts were by-products of revisions to the m’utazili school. So, the salaf for kalam theology are the jahmiyyah and the m’utazilah.

Historically, all schools were opposed to theological interpretations but they viewed them as distortions (tahrif) of the texts because as we will get into, the later development of the technical meaning for the term “tawil” invented by mutakalimun which diverges from the linguistic meaning, is literally the scholarly endeavor of tahrif (to distort).

3. He then goes on to say that “t’awil is a necessary part of language, everyone does it, and it cant be denied”! That is true. But again, he conflates the linguistic meaning of t’awil which is synonymous with tafsir with the kalam notion of t’awil and appeals to the normative mass adoption of t’awil “as tafsir” so that he posits the kalam notion as the orthodox view. This will be exposed now

The linguistic meaning

Imam al-Azhari says of t’awil

so yu’awwilu means: it results or leads to.

[Tahdhib al-Lugha 10:458]

Raghib al-Isfahani says of t’awil

returning something to the aim of the intention’, i.e. the actuality or result

[al-Mufradat p.31]

Ta’wîl means, therefore, in the Arabic language: its result, its outcome, explanation and its fulfilment. It is mentioned as such in the Qur’an, for example in al-Khidr’s saying to Musa:

{I will tell you the interpretation (ta’wîl) of things over which you were unable to hold patience} [18:78]

The meaning is, {I will tell you the ta’wîl..} i.e. the outcome or its actual reality {..of things over which you were unable to hold patience}, meaning the things al-Khidr performed such as the killing of a boy etc. In this sense T’awil means the fulfillment or interpretation. From the above we understand that according to the linguists and lexicographers at-T’awil means two things originally:

-The first meaning: to what something ends or results in, that is: with the meaning of referring or fulfilling or resulting.

-The second meaning: explanation or interpretation of something, and making clear its meaning.

The difference between these two meanings is one not of nature, but rather of use. The first type of understanding of ta’wil is used in general; referring to something or fulfilling and resulting in something can be done with all kind of things, be it speech or otherwise. As for the second type of understanding, i.e. that of explanation, interpretation, clarification and their likes, they are used in a particular sense: namely that of speech alone.

To clarify my speech by examples:

If there is need of ta’wîl of a dream, than we desire the knowledge of its fulfilment or its outcome. Its interpretation is of course that what can be desired, but that what the questioner actually means is: what is its fulfilment? Refer for example to Ibn al-Qayyim’s reference to Surah Yûsuf, verse 100.

If there is need of ta’wîl of speech, than we desire its explanation, interpretation, elucidation or clarification. The best translation for ta’wîl in this particular understanding would be ‘explanation’, cause speech – when ambiguous for some – is desired to be explained (or clarified).

Imam al-Tabarî expresses in a passage of his Tafsir (6:204) this (dual) meaning of Ta’wîl as such:

“As for the meaning (ma’na) of al-ta’wil in the speech of the Arabs, then it is: the explanation (al-tafsir),

the result, the fulfilment”

Here al-Tabari brings together the two specific understandings of ta’wil, giving it the meaning the above mentioned scholars have indicated.

The Kalam Usage of T’awil

In the scientific (istilahi) meaning of t’awil that is the official adopted meaning for all kalam schools after its codification and development by the mutakalimun, it drastically differs from the above linguistic meaning.

Sayfu-Deen al-‘Amidi says of t’awil

صرف اللفض من الاهتمال الراجه إلى الاهتمال المرجوه

(It means): ‘The diversion of an expression from the preponderant – or probable – interpretation to the far-fetched – or improbable – interpretation’.

[al-Amidi, al-Ihkam 3:279]

As other scholars have expressed, t’awil in the kalam conception of it, is to divert away from the apparent meaning of an expression.

One must be honest and ask ourselves, what is this, if this is not the classic linguistic meaning of tahrif i.e. distortion? In reality, all kalam induced practice of t’awil is the net result of tahrif, to distort the meanings intended by the speaker into meanings not intended by the speaker. That is defacto what distortion is!

4. Shaykh Abdullah then goes on to essentially assert that the hanbalis played a game of not calling a spade a spade, of dancing around the bush by not calling t’awil in fiqh as “t’awil” because as he says “it would undermine their claim that t’awil in sifat is blameworthy.

No, the hanbalis knew well the subtleties of t’awil in its technical sense used in doctrinal distortions of words employed by kalam theological discourse and its ideologues versus normative conceptions of t’awil as its linguistic meaning and usage of “to explain“.

He then asserts that t’awil is this “figurative interpretation“. This is false. T’awil in the kalam notion and usage does not mean “figurative” interpretation alone. It means to divert the meaning from its most probable meaning known in the language to a far-fetched and improbable meaning! Completely different from just “figurative“. The reason why its drastically different is because in Arabic, metaphor is clearly understood as obvious and intended by the speaker. Or at the very least, the literal meaning was not intended by the speaker. However, with t’awil, there is no linguistic precedence to distort words that are not the meanings of those words in the language, and then to assert that such distortions are in fact its “figurative” meaning. Making such claims is a disgrace to the tradition of metaphoric expressions to the human race and to any of its languages, which is essentially what kalam induced projections of t’awil is and does as its tradition.

5. He then asserts that ibn taymiyyah has in-fact made t’awil in his explanation of the hadith of the slave girl asked by the Messenger ﷺ asking Allah’s whereabouts in which she responded with her finger pointing at the heavens, the linguistic portrayal being “fi sama” i.e. in the heavens. He asserts ibn taymiyyah’s explanation that “fi sama” means either

-ala sama (above the heavens)

-fil-‘uluw (in a position of highness)

He assert this is the t’awil. We say, this is a faulty induction on your part because linguistically, the preposition “في” can mean “above, beyond, in, over”. Whichever meaning it takes depends on two factors

-the construction of other words that locks in its meaning to a specific understanding

-the subject being addressed.

When it is asked “where is God”, right then and there the subject has already been defined. The subject is “Allah”. This then defacto would negate any meanings that contravene Qur’anic descriptives. Hence the default meaning is “ala” i.e. “above” or “beyond”.

What shaykh Abdullah would have us believe here is that this basic linguistic fact is itself t’awil, again, NOT to be confused with the basic linguistic t’awil of explaining, but rather of the t’awil synonymous with the deployed application utilized by the Ash’aris, which is to distort the meaning into an improbable meaning not understood in the language or intended by the speaker!

6. He finally asserts that ibn taymiyyah, and the hanbalis in general, performs a “play of words”. We assert that the only ones guilty of this play of words are the Ash’aris themselves. Ibn taymiyyah did not see a “problem” with “fi sama” in the hadith that shaykh Abdullah asserts. Rather his “t’awil” is in fact a normative explanation of the hadith that everyone before him likewise offers. So why is ibn taymiyyah exclusively calles out for following his predecessors from all fours schools who likewise offered the exact same meaning, as if he is “the only one playing with words”?

7. Shaykh Abdullah then asserts that if they were to have a discussion with a traditional hanbali or salafi on the belief of affirming a “real hand”, he says that “but a real hand is this” and in the video, he shows his hand.

It seems that during shaykh Abdullah’s studies, he must have missed the doctrinal outline of sunni theology that was clarified by various scholarly authorities. Let us incorporate these principles now so we can highlight the fundamental flaw in shaykh Abdullah’s takyif of sifat, for he resorts to the tahdid of sifat.

The great Shafi’i Imam Abu Bakr al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, who is an advesary of t’awil contrary to Abdullah bin Hamid’s claim, says regarding the methodological practice of ahlu-sunnah regarding Allah’s Attributes

As for what has been reported of such Attributes in the Authentic Compilations (as-Sunan as-Sihaah) – the madhab of the Salaf – may Allah be pleased with them all – is to affirm them, and to carry them upon their apparent meanings (alaa dhawaahirihaa) and to deny [knowledge of] their kaifiyyah (their true reality) and [to negate] tashbih (resemblance) from them.

And the principle in this matter is:

That speaking about the Attributes is a branch of speaking about the Essence (Dhaat) and thus follows it exactly and takes its example.

So when it is known that [making] affirmation of the Lord of all the Worlds – the Mighty and Majestic – that it is an affirmation of existence, not an affirmation of defining the reality [of His existence] (tahdid) and how it is (takyif) [in reality] , then it is the same for affirming His Attributes. Indeed, it is an affirmation of their existence, not an affirmation of defining their reality (tahdid) and how they are (takyif) [in reality].

So when we say: Allah has a hand, hearing and seeing, then these are Attributes which Allah the Exalted has affirmed for Himself and we do not say: The meaning of hand is ‘power’ and nor do we say: The meaning of hearing and seeing is ‘knowledge’. And nor do we say: They are limbs and instruments for action. And we do not resemble them with [those] hands, [and faculties of] hearing and sight which are the limbs and the instruments of action [in created beings].

[Mukhtasir al-‘Uluw p. 273, no: 332]

Allahu Akbar. Significant and profound principles upon which the sunni creed is predicated on. Virtually all of the principles stated above are un-factored in shaykh Abdullah’s conception of creed, precisely because the Ash’ari conception of creed drastically diverges from sunni doctrine.

Shaykh Abdullah falls into the same anthropomorphic takyif all kalam adherents fall into when contending with the sunni faith. In the video, he demonstrates it. When he conceives of “hand” (or any other Attribute), he understands from it the tahdid definition applicable to namely, humans; not realizing that hands and its nature depend on the nature of the subject of whom those hands are attributed to. Hence the statement of Khatib al-Baghdadi is pristinely highlighted here, in which we reiterate

That speaking about the Attributes is a branch of speaking about the Essence (Dhaat) and thus follows it exactly and takes its example.

Attributes depend on the nature of the subject whom they are attributed to! Obviously, the human limb “hand” is primary because that is in context to humans and utilized most, and hence the primary meaning of a hand in a lexicographical work like a dictionary. However, when humans say “the hand of the clock is pointed at the number three” we DONT conceive of the limb in which he shows his own hand in the video. The reason is because the “hand” of a “clock” is DIFFERENT than the hand of a human, because the nature of the essence of whom that hand is attributed to differs.

So why exactly, when Allah is mentioned, Who is different from all things, as there is no Likeness unto Him, all of a sudden the Ash’ari has a very anthropomorphic depiction of creatures when referring to Attributes Allah Himself attributes to Himself???? Why can you not understand of Allah’s Hand as a reality that even Abu Bakr al-Khatib discussed in this very same quote repelling the kalam induced argument based on their very anthropomorphic readings of the textual sources? Let us re-highlight Khatib al-Baghdadi’s point. He says

“So when it is known that [making] affirmation of the Lord of all the Worlds – the Mighty and Majestic – that it is an affirmation of existence, not an affirmation of defining the reality [of His existence] (tahdid) and how it is (takyif) [in reality] , then it is the same for affirming His Attributes. Indeed, it is an affirmation of their existence, not an affirmation of defining their reality (tahdid) and how they are (takyif) [in reality].

So when we say: Allah has a hand, hearing and seeing, then these are Attributes which Allah the Exalted has affirmed for Himself and we do not say: The meaning of hand is ‘power’ and nor do we say: The meaning of hearing and seeing is ‘knowledge’. And nor do we say: They are limbs and instruments for action. And we do not resemble them with [those] hands, [and faculties of] hearing and sight which are the limbs and the instruments of action [in created beings]”

Why we contend with Ash’aris is because when they read the textual sources, they defacto conceive of the textual sources as revealing blasphemies by their default, thus the texts require the tanzih of human rationale to purify the Creator from such blasphemies, that for some reason Allah was unable to do for Himself when ascribing His Attributes to Himself! The Ash’ari can only conceive of the Attribute in its takyif and tahdid form, something Imam Abu Bakr al-Khatib informs us above that we ARE NOT suppose to do in our methodological principle in our doctrinal conception of the Divine Attributes.

Not only does Abu Bakr al-Khatib make this clear, he also repels the notion that affirming them upon their apparent meaning (dhawahir) is only affirming their reality, and NOT their takyifi and tahdidi implications, something that an Ash’ari can never wrap their mind around because they fundamentally cannot apply the ayah “laysa kamithlihi shay” when reading the Sifat, hence the Ash’ari need for their developed tanzih!

This is why Abdullah and all other mutakalimun resort to the human limb when reading sunni affirmations of “Yad” for Allah azawajal.

8. Shaykh Abdullah employs a clever, yet mistaken attempt to trick the audience of t’awil. He responds to the sunni response of “Hand, unlike our hands” which is the response all the salaf gave, and says this itself is the t’awil. He is saying that when we say “Allah has Hands unlike ours” that that itself is a t’awil.

Again, it cannot be stressed enough, that that may be a “t’awil”, but its linguistic sense. Moreover, that is NOT the t’awil that is adapted by kalam schools. The t’awil of kalam schools is to distort “hand” to mean things it does not contain in the Arabic language. With THIS Ash’ari-induced meaning of “t’awil”, then simply saying “Allah has Hands unlike our hands” is unequivocally UNLIKE Ash’ari adaptions of t’awil.

9. He strengthens his implicated anthropomorphic projections in responding to salafis who say “no, you cannot say Allah’s Hands are metaphoric, because its a real hand” and so he responds saying “well you cant say this is a real hand because this is a real hand (and he shows his own hand)”

There is no need to continue reiterating what was already stated above proving that Ash’aris have a strong anthropomorphic reading of the texts because again to him, a “real hand” is a human limb, thereby disqualifying the sunni principle that “speech concerning the attributes is part and parcel with speech concerning the essence of the subject

In other words, attributes take on the nature of the subject they are attributed to. Thats the sunni doctrine! This is what makes sunnis differentiate Allah from creation and creatures. Its what allows sunnis to follow “laysa kamithlihi shay” to its proper application WHILE maintaining belief in the Almighty’s Words. Not understanding this principle and thereby not applying it, is what actually creates anthropomorphism and creates blasphemies for Allah.

10. Speaking of “deceptions” and “playing with words”, earlier in the video, shaykh Abdullah expresses that t’awil means “figurative meanings”. Yet however after the 6th minute of the video, he says “it does not mean actually metaphor, it just simply means ‘m’ana'”

Interesting. He first asserts t’awil is giving a figurative meaning, and then now he says its not that, but it just simply means “meaning”.

Again, without prolonging the already clarified to the reader above, t’awil in its linguistic meaning does mean “meaning” or tafsir”. It is to elucidate a meaning. However that is NOT the Ash’ari nature of t’awil. As is proven above, Ash’aris adopt a highly philosophical conception of t’awil. To divert to an improbable meaning not apparent in the language or intended by the speaker.

11. Shaykh Abdullah, may Allah forgive him, continues distorting realities for his audience in claiming that ibn taymiyyah developed his own definition of dhahir and that his theories oppose mainstream definitions adopted by sunnis.

To repel this complete alteration of history, we will resort to mainstream sunni authorities who precede ibn taymiyyah in complete identical congruity with everything ibn taymiyyah conveys on doctrinal conceptions of sifat, thereby diffusing the mistaken deception shaykh Abdullah deploys to his audience.

We have already cited Hafidh Abu Bakr al-Khatib رحمه الله who preceeds ibn tamiyyah by 3 centuries who relates a completely identical theology to what ibn taymiyyah asserts and we will cite the applicable excerpt as follows

As for what has been reported of such Attributes in the Authentic Compilations (as-Sunan as-Sihaah) – the madhab of the Salaf – may Allah be pleased with them all – is to affirm them, and to carry them upon their apparent meanings (alaa dhawaahirihaa) and to deny [knowledge of] their kaifiyyah (their true reality) and [to negate] tashbih (resemblance) from them.

The main points being

-we affirm the apparent meaning

-deny their kayfiyya

This is exactly Ibn Taymiyyan theology that shaykh Abdullah cites exactly in his video who claims that ibn taymiyyah

-develops his own theological view of t’awil and adopting the meaning and denying the kayfiya-> which if juxtaposed to abu bakr al-khatib’s theology, is in identical congruity, for which shaykh Abdullah does not exemplify for his audience listening to this distortion of facts

-that ibn taymiyyah contradicts the normative sunni stances and conceptions

Again, which would mean that previous scholarly authorities like abu bakr al-khatib, the Shafi’i, is also guilty of, but that goes unstated by our comrades on the Ash’ari aisle.

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.

Ibnul-Qudama precedes ibn taymiyyah by a generation. Ibnul-Qudamah expresses exactly in detail, everything shaykh Abdullah asserts ibn taymiyyah develops as he alleges “on his own” with no precedent. Moreover, ibnul-Qudamah here in Dhamm at-T’awil collapses every shubha shaykh Abdullah bin Hamid contends sunnis with. Ibnul-Qudamah clarifies that the meaning of t’awil is to change (distort) the meaning of a word from its apparent meaning! Thus t’awil is not just simply “m’ana” that shaykh Abdullah asserted after asserting t’awil is just employing figurative interpretation.

He finally asserts that when ibn taymiyyah finally “gets caught doing t’awil, he is able to escape the accusation under his newly defined definition”; which, as we have shown above, is a complete forgery of reality brought about by some form of delusion that I personally can’t explain except through the excuse of ignorance or vague reading of the historical polemic and not being well read and informed in the field, may Allah forgive us all!

12. Shaykh Abdullah leads a 6 minute discussion conflating core sciences with natural sciences. So he compares neutral sciences that muslims sometimes mistreat as if there is allegedly some orthodoxy to it, to then pin this mistaken behavioral pattern to the general sunni opposition to the greek logicians and ibn taymiyyahs refutation of them. This conflation stems from not realizing or being honest with what was that opposition? Did traditionalists simply oppose logic? Or was it much more nuanced in terms of the nature of placing the rationale as the sole criterion for what was sound and unsound in spite of it contending with revelation, from its own ontological views which is hindered based on the limitations of the human rationale!

13. Shaykh Abdullah finally makes a stride to confirm an agreement with ibn taymiyyah’s pragmatic approach in defense of the mass laymen against the constrained theological constructs imposed by the Ash’aris and their Aristotelianized approach. Very reasonable. However he blunts his praise of ibn taymiyyah with the insinuation that he held a contradictory method of refuting philosophy and yet indulging in it, when that is not the mission of ibn taymiyyah at all, and thus he misrepresents the entire phenomenon of who ibn taymiyyah was! If anyone understands ibn Taymiyyah, they can truly characterize ibn taymiyyah in a mission statement exemplified as the campaign to repel the adopted stances of the rationalists in their postulation that the infinite and unfathomable nature of the Divine can be empirically assessed through the rationale of the finite mind! This was the underlying nature of Ibn Taymiyyah’s mission. Not simply “anti-philosophy” or “anti-logic” as many people mischaracterize the nature of his campaign. His campaign can also be characterized as the opposition to the notion that two Divinely sourced authorities i.e. reason and revelation, can contradict one another!!