After mentioning the creation of the heavens and the earth, verse 4 goes further to state, ‘then He (Allah) rose above the throne (istawa)’. Here, in this verse, it is mentioned that Allah rose above the throne. The Arabic word used to express this is ‘Istawa’ which, when followed by the preposition ‘Ala’ (on) literally means to be established or to be settled upon a thing.
In the Holy Quran, this word has been used in a few places where different meanings have been given to it. (Lughatul Quran – Allama Abdur Rasheed Nu’mani – vol.1 pg. 84).
In the above verse (i.e. v.4 of Sura Sajdah), the translation given to this part of the verse as well as other similar verses is that ‘then He (Allah) rose above the throne’ or ‘He established Himself above the throne’. This however, is not upon its literal meaning; instead, it is upon a meaning that is intended and known by Allah alone.
While commenting on verses that speak about ‘Allah’s rising above the throne’, the great commentator Allama Qurtubi writes, ‘Most of the former and latter scholars hold the view that Allah is free from direction, domain and confines. This being the case, it necessarily follows that according to most of the former scholars and leaders of the latter ones, that Allah is free from all directions. As such, according to them, the direction of ‘above’ is not there (that is, it is not to be used for Allah). The reason for this is that whenever He (Allah) is specified with a direction, then a place, domain and confine will be established for Him, and when this takes place, it means that movements, stillness, changes and new occurrences will come about in the essence and being of Allah, when in reality, He is free and pure of all these matters, and is not subjected to such movements and alterations. This is the statement of the theologians’.
Imam Qurtubi writes further, ‘The pious predecessors did not negate a direction, nor did they say that a direction was established. But, they said that it was established for Allah in the same manner the Book of Allah and the Messenger of Allah spoke about it. No one from among the pious predecessors denied that Allah ‘rose above the throne’, in truth, and the ‘throne’ was mentioned because it is the greatest of Allah’s creation. None has the knowledge of the mode of ‘rising above the throne’, and its reality is unknown. (Tafseer Al Qurtubi vol.7 pg. 196)
The above explanation shows that with respect to Allah’s ‘rising above the throne’, none has the knowledge to explain this except Him. This is from among the divine attributes of Allah which cannot be understood or analyzed based on the actions of the created beings. Allah is free from all wants and needs. He is free from place and time, and He has no need for a throne or being above a throne. In this regard, Imam Abu Hanifa (A.R) writes in his book Al Wasiyya, ‘We agree that Allah is established (Istawa) on the Throne without His needing it or resting on it, and He is the guardian of the Throne and all besides the Throne. If He were in need, He would not have been able to bring into existence the Universe, or administrate over its affairs, just as created beings cannot. If He were in need of sitting or settling (on it), then before the creation of the Throne, where was He, the Most High? In effect, He is transcendent of all of this’. (Sharh Al Fiqhul Akbar (Mullah Ali Qaari) pg. 37)
On this issue, it is narrated that a man came to Imam Malik (A.R) and asked about the Throne. In response, Imam Malik (A.R) said, ‘The establishment (Istiwa) (on the throne) is known, the mode (‘how’) is unknown, asking about it is an innovation, and belief in it is compulsory’. (Tafseer Al Qurtubi vol.7 pg. 196).
In another similar narration, Hafiz Ibn Abd Al Barr relates that Ayyub ibn Salah Al Makhzumi reported, ‘we were with Imam Malik (A.R) when an Iraqi came and said, ‘O Abu Abdillah, Allah became established on His Throne, how did He become established?’ Imam Malik (A.R) replied, ‘You have asked about what is not unknown (i.e. the establishment on the Throne is known from the Quran), and you have spoken about what is incomprehensible (i.e. the mode and the ‘how’ of establishment upon the Throne is unknown). (Al Tamheed)
It is also narrated from Umm Salma (R.A) that she said, ‘Establishment on the Throne is not unknown (that is, it is known through the Quran), the mode of it is unknown, affirming it is Imaan (faith), and denying it is kufr (disbelief). (Ibn Marwiya and Laalka’i have narrated it in Kitaabus Sunnah – Fathul Bayaan vol.3 pg. 307 – Lughatul Quran vol.1 pg. 86)
While explaining this verse of ‘Allah’s rising above the Throne’, Hafiz Ibn Katheer has written, ‘We must thread the path of the Mazhab of the pious predecessors like that of Malik, Al Awzaa’ie, Thawri, Laith bin Sa’ad, Shafi, Ahmad, Ishaq bin Rahaway and others besides them from the leaders of the Muslims of the past and present. (They held firm to the view) that this should be accepted in the same way it is mentioned without describing a mode, a semblance or likeness and without negating it’.
‘For certainly nothing of the created beings is like Allah, and Allah is not like anything’. (Tafseer Ibn Katheer vol.2 pg. 220 – Amjad Academy Lahore Pakistan 1982)
In summary, the path of the pious predecessors is the safest way to adopt as clearly stated by the great jurist expert, Mufti Muhammad Shafi (A.R). On this issue of ‘Allah’s establishment on the Throne’, he writes, ‘Regarding this, the safest creed to hold which is clear and correct, and free from doubt, is none other but that of the most righteous elders, the Sahabah and the Tabieen. The creed is that human reason is incapable of comprehending the reality of the Being and attributes of Allah. Pursuing the knowledge of its exact reality is an exercise in futility, even harmful. One should believe, as a matter of general principle, that the meaning intended by Allah (whatever it may be) is the one correct and true. In this process, one should not try to determine or worry about fixing a meaning on one’s own’. (Ma’ariful Quran vol.3 pg. 598)
It is to be noted here, that some of the righteous successors have given interpretations on certain attributes of Allah. This, according to many great scholars, was more judicious and wise according to the exigencies of their times. In other words, the interpretations of certain attributes given by the successors were viewed as being more judicious and wise in light of the resistance they met from deviated sects (especially the Mu’tazila and more specifically the anthropomorphists), who tried to influence the masses to turn towards their heretical ideas. The practice of the pious predecessors of maintaining silence (and not giving an interpretation) regarding such texts (and verses) was no longer viewed as an adequate approach to overcome such heresy, and thus, some of the expert scholars from among the successors attempted to give interpretations, but at the same time, they maintained that the way of the pious predecessors was safer.
With respect to the concession of giving interpretation in these matters, the great scholar Ibn Daqeeq Al‘Id (died 702 A.H) mentions that interpretation of these attributes is acceptable if the meaning is close to the popular usage of the Arabs and it is unacceptable if it is distant. The great jurist expert and scholar, Allama Ibn Al Humaam (died 681 A.H) has stated that it depends upon the situation. If interpretation is required owing to a problem in the understanding of the people, then it is allowed, otherwise it should be left out. (Sharh Al Fiqh Al Akbar – Mulla Ali Qaari pg. 38-39).
Commentary of Surah Sajdah ayah 4
By: Mufti Waseem Khan (Hafizahullaah)
This answer was collected from DarulUloomTT.net, which is operated under the supervision of Mufti Waseem Khan from Darul Uloom Trinidad and Tobago.