Q & A: Figures of Speech
Someone asked, after reading “The Foundations of the Religion“:
Dear Shaikh, The proof was conclusive and it has surely increased my iman but how does one explain statements like Allah descends to the lowest heaven at night time and that on the Day of Reckoning He along with the angels would arrive on the earth. They apparently don’t fit with the belief that Allah is where he has always been and does not move as He is independent of space.
Answer: First of all, you must not say that He is where He has always been, say instead, “He is as He has always been.” Second, I am not aware of any scripture that states, as you say, “Allah will arrive on Earth.” Perhaps you are referring to the Quranic “wa jaa’a Rabbuka”. Abul Faraj Ibn Al-Jawziyy, a famous Hanbali of the 6th century, said about this, and other scripture texts that apparently, but not actually, ascribe physical attributes to Allah:
<<…. I have mentioned earlier, in things like this, that it is an obligation upon us to know what it is possible to be an attribute of Allah, and what is impossible to be and attribute of His. Among the things that it is impossible that Allah should be attributed with is movement, transport and change. The scholars have two approaches to the remaining meanings: one is to remain silent without assigning a specific meaning. They said, “Narrate it on, without saying it has a modality”. This was the approach of the Salaf in general. The second approach is to assign an acceptable meaning, knowing that movement cannot be an attribute of Allah. The Imam Ahmad said “wa jaa’ Rabbuka” means: “His orders came”. (If literally translated it would state: wa (and) jaa’ (He came) Rabbuka (your Lord).(Kashf Al Mushkil 3/3791)>>
As for the nuzul, translated by some as “descending,” mentioned for the last third of the night, the scholars that assigned a meaning said that it refers to the angel of Allah that comes to the Sky at that time to announce the acceptability of supplications at that time. I.e. it means “the Angel of Allah descends.” Others said that it is a figure of speech to emphasize the acceptability of supplications at that time. Even in English you could say something like “Bush came to Iraq,” even if it was only his army that came, so that the actual meaning is “Bush’s army came to Iraq.”
None of what you mentioned is problematic in Arabic. It is very confusing, however, when these scriptures are translated to English literally, because these translations would not work well, or work at all, as figures of speech in English. Such translations makes the claim of Sunnis that these aren’t literally meant seem weak, when it is actually not.
Take for example the statement in the Qur’aan: “وَيَبْقَى وَجْهُ رَبِّك” (Ar-Rahman). Many have translated this, stating something like: “But the Face of your Lord will remain.” Now, in English this sounds like they are saying that Allah has an actual face. It will also sound extremely weird, from a English linguistic viewpoint, to claim that “face” here means “self”, because their English phrase “the Face of your Lord” simply cannot mean “the self of your Lord” in English. It also could not mean in English “what is done for the sake of your Lord.” In Arabic, however, both “the self of your Lord (i.e. He Himself)” and “what is done for the sake of your Lord” are plausible understandings of “وَيَبْقَى وَجْهُ رَبِّكَ”, which they translated as “But the Face of your Lord will remain.”
In fact, I cannot think of any acceptable figurative meaning of their English “the Face of your Lord.” The reason is that “face” simply does not have many meanings beyond, well, “face” in English. The word “wajh” in Arabic, however, has very many meanings, such as face, leader, something acceptable, surface, status, intention, direction, way, etc., etc. It is safe to say that such translations, even when done by people who don’t believe in the literal meaning, cause a great deal of confusion. It is as if one is saying, “face here does not mean face!”
Another issue is that even in Arabic, when several such scriptures are mentioned together, and not in the context that they were revealed, then it is also misleading. As an example in English, let us say that you came and asked a favour from me, like convincing the government not to make you pay taxes, and I replied, “this matter is not in my hands.” If I answered you like this, you would understand me as saying, “I have no influence,” and the thought of actual “hands” would not even enter your mind. However, if you heard me say, “this matter is not in my hands. It is in the hands of the government, but my hands are tied,” in this case you might start thinking of actual “hands,” even though these were 3 figures of speech put together, and the meanings have nothing to do with actual hands. The reason why the concept of a physical hand here starts to creep into your mind is that people do not usually use several figures of speech together. The basic principle of communication is to say things literally, and figures of speech are exceptions that make language more beautiful. Too much of it, however, quickly becomes awkward.
Those who believe Allah to be physical use this method, putting several figurative scriptures together, and out of context, to make people think of limbs, movement, sitting and the like. This is just like when I made you think of hands when I said “this matter is not in my hands, It is in the hands of the government, but my hands are tied,” even though actual hands have nothing to do with what I said.
The figures of speech in Arabic that some deviants interpret literally to mean that Allah is physical are not problematic to someone who knows Allah, and knows Arabic. Only someone who does not know Allah, and is ignorant in Arabic will get confused and think of physical attributes. This is what I was referring to at the end of “The Foundations of the Religion” when I said:
“Identifying literal meanings that are absurd is of particular importance in matters of belief, so it deserves a more detailed discussion. It should first be pointed out that rejecting absurd meanings and understanding expressions as figures of speech is something natural that we all do constantly. To illustrate: A few years ago the telephone company AT&T had an advertising slogan saying, “Reach out and touch someone.” What they meant here was not a physical touch, but simply pleasing another person by calling them. To interpret this slogan literally would be absurd and laughable. We know this through our knowledge of what a telephone is and what it is not.
In this same manner, among others, figurative speech is identified in the Quran and hadith; a learned Muslim knows what attributes are impossible for the Creator or a prophet to have. He knows thereby that expressions in the Quran whose literal meaning implies attributes that are physical, or have a beginning, or an end, or change, must not be taken literally. He knows that interpreting them literally would be absurd and an insult to the Creator, just like the sane person who heard the AT&T slogan knew its literal meaning to be absurd.”
You may also benefit from reading Wahhabi Contention: How are “Ar Rahmanu `alal `arsh istawa” and “Laysaka mithlihi shay`” different?
1كشف المشكل ج3/ص379: 1819 2257 – وفي الحديث التسعين ينزل ربنا كل ليلة إلى السماء الدنيا حين يبقى ثلث الليل الآخر وفي رواية إذا ذهب ثلث الليل الأول أصح الروايات عن أبي هريرة إذا بقي ثلث الليل الآخر كذلك قال الترمذي وحديث النزول قد رواه جماعة عن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم منهم أبو بكر وعلي وابن مسعود وأبو الدرداء وابن عباس وأبو هريرة وجبير بن مطعم ورفاعة الجهني والنواس بن سمعان وأبو ثعلبة الخشني وعثمان بن أبي العاص وعائشة في آخرين وقد ذكرت فيما تقدم من مسند ابن عمر وأنس وغيرهما في مثل هذه الأشياء أنه يجب علينا أن نعرف ما يجوز على الله سبحانه وما يستحيل ومن المستحيل عليه الحركة والنقلة والتغير فيبقى ما ورد في هذا فالناس فيه قائلان أحدهما الساكت عن الكلام فيه وقد حكى أبو عيسى الترمذي عن مالك بن أنس وسفيان بن عيينة وعبد الله بن المبارك أنهم قالوا في هذه الأحاديث أمروها بلا كيف فهذه كانت طريقة عامة السلف والثاني المتأول فهو يحملها على ما توجبه سعة اللغة لعلمه بأن ما يتضمنه النزول من الحركة مستحيل على الله سبحانه وتعالى وقد قال الإمام أحمد “وجاء ربك” (الفجر 22 ) أي جاء أمره .
–Abul Faraj Ibn Al-Jawzi (508-597 AH/ 1114-1201 AD). Kashf Al-Mushkil. Riyadh: Dar Al Watan, 1997.