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Thinking about Allah as a Human

Answered according to Shafi'i Fiqh by Seekersguidance.org

Question: How can I stop thinking of Allah as a human being?

Answer:

Wa alaykum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

Dear questioner,

Thank you for your important question.

It is widespread to try and think of Allah as physically or emotionally human.

When such thoughts arise in one’s mind, one should ignore them, remember that Allah is not like us, and focus on what one can practically do to draw nearer to Him.

The ultimate escape from such thoughts is through the complete and utter attachment of the heart to Allah Most High.

The problem

It is not easy to think of Allah as he really is. In fact, although we can say some things about Him, our minds cannot really understand what Allah is. One of the words lexically related to Allah, ‘aliha,’ means precisely that: perfection. (Shan al Dua, Khattabi)

In an attempt to explain the problem of worshipping someone whom we cannot fully comprehend, the great Sufi poet Shaykh Abd al Rahman al Shaghouri (d. 2002) said the following lines of poetry (using the third person feminine pronoun for the sense of being with Allah (Al Hadra al Ilahiyya)):

‘She appeared where there is nowhere and where there is no how
And her brilliant shine effaced all who would try to describe her, so there remained no description.’

While we wander around thus, describing Allah with what we know to be true about Him, while not really being able to “crack” what He is, we often fill in space in our brains with delusion (awham).

We often assume that Allah is physically and emotionally like us: He has a head, hands, and feet like us, and He strives for happiness by fulfilling His needs like us. This is all completely wrong.

Imam al Tahawi says, ‘Anyone who does not guard himself against negating the attributes of Allah or likening Allah to something else, has gone astray and has failed to understand Allah’s Glory. That is because our Lord, the Glorified and the Exalted, can only possibly be described in terms of Oneness and Absolute Singularity, and no creation is in any way like Him.’ (The Creed of Imam al Tahawi)

The source of the problem

The source of the problem is two things.

Firstly, Allah is in a completely different realm of being than everything else in existence. As such, it is not possible to “classify” Allah and thereby understand Him simply because He is not part of any class of which He is an instance.

Secondly, our interpretation of things is based on our emotional and spiritual attachments. It is narrated in a hadith that ‘One’s love for something makes one blind and deaf [to anything besides]. (Abu Dawud)

For example, someone obsessed with money dissects all the events around him (food, driving, work, guests, etc.) from the perspective of financial gain or loss. That is how he thinks and what he notices. His attachments define how he understands the events in his life.

Similarly, someone obsessed with sex understands all communication, interactions, approvals, and rejections related to sex. His hardwired mind would see the “lady in red” through a crowd of a million and not even notice the other 999,999 pedestrians walking past. His obsession governs what his mind registers and what it does not.

If someone were obsessed with gossip and drama, they would over-interpret people’s comments, expressions, and nods and always have the “low-down” of the evil within others. Such a person and thereby fall into having a bad opinion about nearly everyone who came in and out of their life: their ferreting and jaundiced view colors everything that comes into their eyes and ears.

Similarly, the average human being who lives and breathes the merely sensory (al hiss) can do nothing but think of sensory things. How tall, short, long, thin, heavy, big is it? What color is it? How does it smell? What does it feel like? He is all but forced by habit and attachment to the sensory to understand Allah as another sensory thing, thinking He is just like another human being.

So too, because the average human being interacts with humans all the time, his immediate and overcoming assumption of Allah is that He is emotionally like a human. He gets sad, loses hope, is elated, angry like we do, hurt, impressed, etc. None of these emotional states apply to Allah because He is completely different. After all, He creates us and our actions and does not react to us or what we do.

Treating Allah as emotionally human leads to all sorts of detours on one’s path to His pleasure and maims one’s relationship with Him.


Dealing with the problem

Given that we are all like this, how are we supposed to set things right and start to think of Allah as He is and not as we are?

The first thing to understand is that we will never truly be able to do that. As some have said, ‘To know that one cannot comprehend is to comprehend.’ That means that we are not obliged to grasp what Allah is mental. Rather, we are obliged to appreciate His vastness and greatness as best we can and strive towards expressing this appreciation in our lives. But this, too, is very difficult and ultimately relies on grace from Allah.

As Ibn Ata Illah puts it, ‘Were it that you could only reach Him after the annihilation of your faults, and the erasure of your empty claims, you would never reach Him. Rather He wants to make you reach Him; He covers the way you are with the way He is and overspreads your qualities with His. [He makes you reach Him] with that which is from Him, not with that which is from you.’ (Wisdoms, Ibn Ata Illah)

All we are obliged to do is shun such passing thoughts and delusions, focus on fulfilling our outward and inward obligations to Allah, and then rely on Allah to “open the door.”

Secondly, only when our hearts are filled with the love of Allah, and when the sensory no longer has a grip over us, can we break our own way of thinking about Allah. ‘How can a heart ever become illumined when the images of created beings are imprinted in its mirror? And how can one travel to Allah if one is chained down by one vain desire?’ (Wisdoms, Ibn Ata Illah)

We do this by following the Sunna and continually working to prefer Allah to ourselves. ‘Never will you leave something for Allah Mighty and Majestic save that Allah will give you something better than it.’ (Ahmad)

Now, this is quite a tall order of business, and only someone who has done this (i.e., not myself) can tell you how to achieve it. But it is possible, and many of the Prophetic Companions and Early Muslims did it.

Look at the Prophetic Companion, who was shot by an arrow and still kept prayer. His only concern Allah, and he was almost blind to the sensory pain of his wound. (Abu Dawud) Clearly, he was no longer “chained down” and was spiritually speaking on another planet.

Such anecdotes are not rare, and what man has done, man can do.

‘He singles out for His mercy whomsoever He wills, and Allah is possessed of  immense largesse.’ (Qur’an, 3: 74)

Conclusion

We conceive of things based on our own attachments. If we really attach our hearts to Allah, we can break beyond the limits of the sensory and of the created universe and begin to appreciate Allah for what He really is, and this will allow us to stop us from thinking of Allah as a human being.

This requires that one dedicates oneself to Sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), and the means and the end are only possible by grace from Allah.

I pray this helps.

[Ustadh] Farid

Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Ustadh Farid Dingle has completed extensive years of study in the sciences of the Arabic language and the various Islamic Sciences. During his studies, he also earned a CIFE Certificate in Islamic Finance. Over the years, he has developed a masterful ability to craft lessons that help non-Arabic speakers gain a deep understanding of the language. He currently teaches courses in the Arabic Language.

This answer was collected from Seekersguidance.org. It’s an online learning platform overseen by Sheikh Faraz Rabbani. All courses are free. They also have in-person classes in Canada.

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