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Narrated Attributes

Narrated Attributes or Testified Attributes or al-Ṣifāt al-Khabarīyya (Arabic: الصفات الخبریة) refers to attributes ascribed to God in the Qur'an and hadiths. These attributes ascribe properties to God which are similar to human properties, such as "Wajh Allah" (Divine Face), "Yad Allah" (Divine Hand), "Istiwa' 'ala l-'Arsh" (Mounting the Throne).

The Sifatiyya sect and People of Hadith appeal to these narrated attributes and characterize God as having "eyes", "hands", a "face", and the like. Ash'arite scholars subscribed to the view of the People of Hadith, and in their work on kalam (Islamic theology), they classified divine attributes into narrated and non-narrated (rational or based on reasoning) for the first time. They classified the narrated attributes, in turn, into essential (al-dhatiyya), act-based (al-fi'liyya), and qualitative (al-kayfiyya).

The Imamiyya negate the narrated attributes in their apparent meanings from an ontological point of view, since these attributes imply the corporeality of God if they are taken at face value. However, they accepted all these Qur'anic attributes from a semantic point of view by interpreting them away by means of referring ambiguous Qur'anic verses to explicit ones.

Contents

Introduction and Appellation

Narrated attributes are the ones that are ascribed to God only because they appear in the Qur'an or hadiths and no rational reasoning implies their attribution to God, such as Divine Face, Divine Hand, and Mounting the Throne.

They are called "al-Khabariyya" or narrated because they are attributed to God in narrated sources (akhbar) such as the Qur'an or hadiths.

Background of the Debate

In the early Islamic centuries, the radical textualism of Sifatiyya and the People of Hadith led to the introduction of narrated hadiths in the Islamic thought. They appealed to Qur'anic verses, such as (وَاصْنَعِ الْفُلْک بِأَعْینِنَا) "Make the ship under Our eyes" (23:27), and (بَلْ یدَاهُ مَبْسُوطَتَانِ) "His hands are widely outstretched" (5:64), to ascribe attributes such as having eyes, hands, and face to God. Mu'tazilites and Imamis opposed the view, but Ash'arites agreed with the people of hadith. In their works on kalam, they classified divine attributes into narrated and non-narrated (rational) and the former into essential, act-based, and qualitative attributes.

The issue was debated in the 3rd/9th and 4th/10th centuries. It is still discussed in books of kalam.

There is no independent title for "narrated (al-khabariyya) attributes" in the kalami and exegetical literature of Shi'as and Mu'tazilis. Scholars of these two schools discussed narrated attributes under negative attributes, and most scholars of Qur'anic sciences discussed them under the issue of literal and figurative speeches of the Qur'an.

Different Views about Narrated Attributes

Tashbih and Tajsim

According to tashbih and tajsim (that is, divine anthropomorphism), there is a full similarity between the creator and the created, and narrated attributes are instantiated by God just as they are instantiated by the creatures. Proponents of tashbih and tajsim as well as Hashwiyya, as branches of the People of Hadith, hold these attributes true of God by way of assimilation (tashbih) and in a qualitative manner. Also Mughayriyya, a branch of Ghulat, Yunusiyya, and Shaytaniyya impute narrated attributes to God just as they exist in creatures.

This theory is based on the assumption that a figurative speech is like telling lies, and there is no figurative speech in the Arabic language, the Qur'an and the Sunna or, to say the least, we have no evidence for such a speech in these cases. One should not set aside the apparent meaning of the Qur'an unless a truth behind the appearances is revealed to one, but this is impossible. Thus we have to take all Qur'anic verses at face value. Salafiyya also appeal to the Qur'an, hadiths, and even rational reasoning to ascribe narrated attributes to God.

Withholding

Some People of Hadith ascribe narrated attributes to God, but they withhold any judgments regarding how they are attributed to God. Indeed, they leave the meaning of such attributes to God. Some Ash'arite scholars have also preferred to withhold judgments in this regard. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi is a proponent of such an approach.

Attribution without Interpreting Away

Some People of Hadith and Salafiyya have forbidden any talk about narrated attributes, holding that asking any questions about such attributes is heretic. They maintain that such attributes are predicated of God in their literal meaning. Such a view appears in Malik b. Anas's remarks. In an answer to a question about the Qur'anic verse, (الرَّ‌حْمَٰنُ عَلَی الْعَرْ‌شِ اسْتَوَی) "the Merciful mounted the Throne" (20:5), Malik replied: "the mounting is known, its manner is unknown, and asking questions about it is heretic".

An Examination

According to Imamis, the three views above are subject to the following objections:

The theory of tashbih and tajsim (anthropomorphism), as well as the theory of attribution without interpreting away, are in contradiction with the exaltation of God. The denial of figurative speeches in the Qur'an is unfounded, because Qur'an is a divine speech, and figurative speeches are literary arrays whose existence in the Qur'an counts as a perfection, rather than a flaw.

The theory of withholding is incompatible with the explicit Qur'anic verses, (وَنَزَّلْنَا عَلَیک الْکتَابَ تِبْیانًا لِّکلِّ شَیءٍ) "We have sent down to you the Book explaining all things" (16:89) and (أَفَلَا یتَدَبَّرُ‌ونَ الْقُرْ‌آنَ) "do they not ponder on the Qur'an?" (4:82). Moreover, this theory is based on the assumption that religious apparent meanings are absolutely reliable, on the one hand, and the prohibition of discussing truths about the Qur'an and the tradition, on the other hand. However, it is incorrect to hold that apparent meanings of the Qur'an and hadiths are absolutely reliable, and there is no evidence to show that discussing truths about the Qur'an and hadiths is prohibited. Furthermore, the reliability of the apparent meanings of the Qur'an and hadiths holds so long as all attached and detached evidence is considered. This point is also overlooked in this theory.

Attribution without a Quality

In his exegesis of relevant Qur'anic verses, Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari (d. 324/936) believed that God possesses narrated attributes, but these attributes are predicated of Him without any qualities. On the one hand, he subscribes to the view of the People of Hadith, and on the other hand, he stipulates the view with the qualifiers, "without any assimilation" and "without any qualities".

In his book, al-Ibana, al-Ash'ari appeals to Qur'anic verses in which God is said to mount the Throne and says that "all these verses are evidence … that God mounted the Throne without any qualities and without relying on anything." Therefore, al-Ash'ari imputes narrated attributes to God, but instead of resting content to the apparent meaning, he stipulates the attribution with the qualifiers, "without any assimilation or qualities" in order to avoid objections raised against proponents of tajsim and tashbih.

People of Hadith, Hanbalis, Shafi'is and Hanafis were advocates of this approach.

An Examination

The theory of attribution without qualities is subject to some objections:

For instance, the word "hand" literally refers to a specific shape (a quality) in humans or animals, but al-Ash'ari took the word to literally refer to something without a shape and a quality, which turns the literal meaning of the world into a self-contradictory one.

Attributes such as knowledge and power, which are not specific to material beings, can be literally attributed to God without any problems, but narrated attributes, such as having face and hand, which are specific to material beings, cannot be literally predicated of God, since it leads to anthropomorphism.

Shiite View

Attribution with Interpreting Away

In their analysis of Qur'anic verses and hadiths which ascribe narrated attributes to God, Imami and Mu'tazili scholars deny their apparent meanings because they are incompatible with rational reasoning. Therefore, they ascribe such attributes to God, though they interpret them away.

From an ontological point of view, the Imamis deny the narrated attributes in their apparent meanings, since their literal meaning implies corporeality. However, from a semantic point of view, they accept all the relevant Qur'anic verses, and with referring ambiguous Qur'anic verses to its explicit verses and by relying on rational reasoning, they interpret those attributes away. For example, Imam al-Sadiq (a) was asked about God mounting the Throne. He replied: "we accept the existence of the Throne … but we do not take it to be a material, finite being … since in this case, the Throne will be a vehicle of God and will be needed by Him, while God never needs anything and it is the throne which is in need of God." Moreover, the Throne encompasses the whole heavens and the Earth, as in the Qur'an: (وَسِعَ کرْ‌سِیهُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْ‌ضَ) "His Throne extends over the heavens and the Earth" (2:255). The Throne is a figurative speech referring to Divine all-encompassing knowledge, power, and plan, or a degree of the existence of entities other than God which dominates the world and with which God administrates the world.

Qur'anic verses should be interpreted away on the basis of evidence. The evidence helps single phrases and words to acquire their meanings as parts of a whole sentence, and not regardless of it. Thus it is also referred to as taking a sentence at face value on the basis of confirmation. The difference between this approach and that of the proponents of textualism, such as People of Hadith, is that they take the apparent meanings of single words and phrases to be reliable, but on this approach, what is reliable is the apparent meaning of sentence.

References