Interpreting the Hadith "Where is Allah? -- In the Heaven"
(hadith ayna Allah)
Concerning the saying of the slave-girl when the Prophet asked her: "Where is Allah?" (ayn Allah) And she said: "In the heaven" (fi al-sama'): She belonged to a people who worshipped stones and denied the Maker. When she confirmed the existence of Allah, she became thereby a believer. If the Prophet had condemned her for this answer, it would have been established that she was disbelieving in the Maker. But he said of her: "She is a believer." He understood from her gesture magnification of the Creator.
Nawawi said in his commentary on Muslim (Kitab 5 Bab 7 Hadith 33):
This is from among the ahadith that deal with Allah's attributes and there are two schools of reading for it... The first consists in believing in it without entering into its meaning, while holding that there is nothing like unto Allah, with His elevation above the characteristics of things created. The second consists in interpreting it with what befits Him.
Whoever holds the latter position says that the meaning of the tradition is that the Prophet intended to test her: was she a believer in oneness (muwahhida) who confirms that the Creator, Disposer, and Doer is Allah alone? that He it is Who, when the petitioner invokes Him, he turns towards the heaven, and when the worshipper prays, he turns towards the Ka`ba? -- and this is not because He is circumscribed in the heaven, just as this is not because He is circumscribed in the direction of the Ka`ba; rather this is because the heaven is the orientation of those who invoke, just as the Ka`ba is the orientation of those who pray -- or, on the other hand, was she of the idol-worshippers who worship the idols that are in front of them? When she replied: "In heaven," it was understood that she was a believer in oneness and not an idol-worshipper.
Qadi `Iyad said:
"There is no disagreement among the Muslims, all without exception: their jurists, scholars of hadith, theologians, keen-sighted ones, and imitators, that the external meanings cited pertaining to Allah being "in the heaven" -- as in His saying: "Have you taken security from Him Who is in the Heaven that He will not cause the earth to swallow you?" (67:16) and the like -- are not as they appear (laysat `ala zahiriha) but rather are interpreted by all of the scholars (muta'awwila `inda jami`ihim). He among the muhaddithin, fuqaha' and mutakallimin who spoke to establish that there is aboveness in direction without specifying dimension or modality : he did so only by interpreting "in the heaven" (fi al-sama') to mean "above the heaven" (`ala al-sama'). And of the great multitude of the keen-sighted ones and theologians and those who establish Allah's freedom from any likeness to creation who spoke to negate the concept of limit and the inconceivability of direction with relation to Allah: they did so only by interpreting with various figurative interpretations, according to the necessity of each case.
Qadi `Iyad continues, "Some of them practiced mutual tolerance in the matter of establishing a direction for Allah (i.e. they did the latter to some extent), but only with apprehension at such tolerance: for is there any difference between asking "how" and establishing directions for Allah? However, whatever generalization the Law has made such as about Allah being the Omnipotent over (fawqa) His slaves and His establishing Himself over (`ala) the Throne, it is always with strong adherence (tamassuk) to the verse which sums up the total transcendence (al-tanzih al-kulli)of Allah above creation, "There is nothing like unto Him," without which nothing of what is conceived in the mind is sound. Such adherence is perfect protection for him to whom Allah the Exalted grants success." And this, says Nawawi, is the end of Qadi `Iyad's discourse."
`Ali al-Qari said in his commentary on Mishkat al-masabih in relation to the hadith "Where is Allah?":
Al-Qadi `Iyad said: "By asking this, the Prophet's intent was not to ask about Allah's place (makan), for verily He is above and beyond space, as He is above and beyond time. Rather the intent of his question to her was to find out whether she was a believer in oneness (muwahhida) or someone who associated partners to Allah (mushrika), because the unbelievers (kuffar) of the Arabs used to worship idols, and each tribe used to have a specific idol in its midst which it worshipped and aggrandized, and it may be that the simple-minded and ignorant ones among them did not know any other object of worship than that idol. The Prophet therefore meant to determine what she worshipped. When she said: "in the heaven," -- and another narration says that she made a sign towards the heaven -- it was understood that she was a believer in oneness. He meant by this line of questioning the disavowal of the gods of the earth (nafi al-aliha al-ardiyya) which are the idols, not the establishment of the heaven as a location for Allah, and Allah is greatly exalted from the sayings of the wrong-doers!"