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Int. J. Middle East Stud. 34 (2002).441-463.

Printed in the United States of America

DOl: 1O.1017.S0020743802003021
Wesley Williams
Today, the religion of Islam is most distinctly characterized by the emphasis it places
on the transcendence of God.
God's otherness (mukhalafa), it is said, is presupposed
in Islamic thinking from the Qur'an. A review of the history of dogmatic development
in Islam reveals, however, that during the formative period-that is, the period to
about 950
-divine transcendence was only one alternative among several models
attempting to explain God's unity. Indeed, it coexisted alongside its antithesis, "assimi-
lation" (tashbrh), or as we term it, anthropomorphism.
Muslim and Western scholars
agree that, although the anthropomorphist model certainly existed-the various here-
siographies attest to it-it existed only on the margins of Islam, in the extravagant
fancies of a few deviant doctors.
Thus, anthropomorphist ideas were relevant only
marginally, if at all, to Islam's attempt at theological self-definition. Such, at least, is
the current scholarly consensus. But how accurate is this reading of Islam's theologi-
cal history?
Anthropomorphic conceptions of God, particularly as they appear in scripture, have
perplexed and perturbed religious thinkers of all eras.
Although anthropomorphism
became self-evident in the Christian doctrine of incarnation, the histories of Judaism
and Islam are alike in that both present such conceptions as the source of great theo-
logical controversy and strife.
Contemplative Jews, in many cases influenced by Hel-
lenistic ideas, thought it appropriate to find figurative meanings to the biblical pas-
sages implying divine corporeality, meanings that were more palatable to their
understanding of God's holiness.
This trend was particularly strong in Egypt where
the Greek translation of the Bible (Septuagint) was reportedly produced in the 3rd
century B.c.E.
Other scholars, in no way embarrassed by images of an embodied
deity, increased and concretized these images. to In the end, normative Jewish belief
would settle on an incorporeal deity, thanks in no small measure to the great philoso-
pher Maimonides.
Judaism would eventually become so characterized by an "invisi-
ble, non-theophanous" deity that one can easily forget how recently such notions
established themselves as central postulates of the faith.
Islam experienced similar developments, but contrary to the large body of academic
literature examining Judaic anthropomorphist trends, relatively few scholars have
Wesley Williams is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor. Mich. 48105, USA; e-mail:
2002 Cambridge University Press 00207438102 $9.50
442 Wesley Williams
studied Islam's courtship with an embodied God. The most important works to date
are by Josef van Ess and Daniel Gimaret. i3 Our knowledge of the scriptural sources
of Islamic anthropomorphism, as well as our understanding of some of its main propo-
nents, has been greatly advanced by the work of these two authors and several others. i4
However, our overall understanding of the contribution corporealist ideas made to
the development of Islamic orthodoxy has not advanced much past R. Strothman's
characterization in the Encyclopaedia of Islam of tashbrh as a "heresy" and "grave
sin in dogma.,,15 W. M. Watt, for example, suggests that, "At an earlier period the
main body of Muslims came to regard the mushabbiha (anthropomorphists) as unor-
thodox.,,'6 It is presumably for this reason Watt very minimally and superficially treats
anthropomorphism in his The Formative Period of Islamic Thought.
Has the "main body" always rejected such notions? Source material for the 9th-
10th centuries argues against this conclusion. A closer reading of the dogmatic litera-
ture, as well as a more complete elucidation of the doctrinal positions of certain
popular and influential personalities, suggests amendments to the usual view of theo-
logical development in Islam. It seems that in an early period, anthropomorphist con-
ceptions enjoyed wide currency among the main body of Muslims. The 9th century
saw the beginning of the consolidation of Sunni doctrine under the leadership of
Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855). J7 An analysis of his views on these matters will therefore
go a long way in advancing our understanding of early Sunni doctrine. It will be
argued here that after Ahmad ibn Hanbal assumed leadership of the traditionalist camp
during and immediately following the Mil:tna (Inquisition) inaugurated by Caliph al-
Ma'mun (833-50), anthropomorphism achieved "orthodox" recognition. is
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal was arguably the "major cultural hero of his age.,,19 As the
patron saint of the traditionalists,20 his dogmatic views would eventually become the
shibboleth of Sunni "orthodoxy." Western scholarship, though, was late in recognizing
this, and consequently Hanbali studies were neglected until the late 19th century.21
Works treating the development of Muslim dogmatics consistently overlooked Ibn
Hanbal's creeds.
When his theological positions were finally made the subject of
academic inquiry, researchers tended to use only portions of the available material,
making no attempt to rectify or justify the many divergent positions found therein. n
The result was a conflicting image of the Imam and his creed, particularly treating
the Divine Attributes. While Patton and Anawati consider the Imam a true anthropo-
morphist, Laoust, Strothmann, and Watt see in him a "great orthodox authority against
tashbrh.,,24 Certainly, statements from Ibn Hanbal supporting both positions can be
found in the materiaL However, in limiting the discussion to "anthropomorphism" in
the strictest sense-the attribution of a human form to the divine-we can answer the
question posed earlier-Was Ibn Hanbal an anthropomorphist?-in the affirmative
without fear of contradiction.
;jurat al-Ra/:tman
A subject heretofore overlooked in Hanbali studies is the place of the Divine Form
( a l - ~ i i r a ) in the thinking of Ibn HanbaL According to Abu Muhammad al-Tamimi al-
Hanbali (d. 1095), Ibn Hanbal disapproved of attributing a "form" to God:
Anthropomorphism in Early Islam: A Reappraisal 443
(Ibn Hanbal) used to rebuke him who speaks about 'the body' (al-jism). He said: "The Names are
taken from language and from the Shana, and linguists have applied this name to every possessor
of length, width, thickness, form, structure, and components. Allah is outside of all of that:,2j
Although it is not unreasonable to assume that Ibn Hanbal censured users of the term
"body"-the term is not sanctioned by the Qur'an or hadith literature in reference to
God-he certainly had no reservations about attributing a form ( . ~ a r a ) to Him?6 We
find in his Musnad several versions of a tradition in which God will appear to the
believers on the Day of Judgment in a disguise, then reappear in "His (true) form":
God [at first] will come to them under a form other than that under which they knew Him. He
will say to them: "It is I, your Lord!" They will say: "God protects us from you! We will stay
here until our Lord comes to us. When our Lord comes, we will recognize Him!" Then God
will come to them under the form under which they knew Him. He will say to them: "It is I.
your Lord!" They will say: "[Yes], it is You, our Lord!" And they will follow Him.
Speculative theologians (mutakallim/ln) from among the Sunni fold, finding this
theomorphism objectionable yet unwilling to impugn the authenticity of the report,
preferred to interpret the "form" as belonging to something other than God, such as
the pseudodivinities (ma'hildat)-that is, the sun, moon, and stars.
Ibn Hanbal dis-
agreed. In two versions reported by the imam, we find the words "ya'trhim Allah
wa-jalla ft $/lratihi" (God will [then] come to them in "His form,,).29
It is likely that Ibn Hanbal recognized this sura as a true attribute of God. Though
we are not privileged to have his exegesis of this tradition, we do have it for a similar
yet more explicit report: "God created Adam according to His form (khalaqa Allah
Adam 'ala $/lratihi), his height being sixty cubits."JO This tradition played a significant
role in Ibn Hanbal's dogmatic formulation. He reports it countlessly in his Kitab al-
Sunna and invokes it in his published creeds. He states in his 'Aqrda I: "God created
Adam with His hand and in His image/form."3! In his 'Aqrda V, the imam argues:
"Adam was created in the form/image of the Merciful, as comes in a report from the
Messenger of God transmitted by Ibn 'Umar.',32 Some scholars interpreted the "his"
(hi) as a reference to Adam-that is, God created Adam according to Adam's form/
but Ibn Hanbal insisted on a theomorphic interpretation. Abu Thawr (d. 854), a stu-
dent of al-Shafi'i, stated concerning this hadith: "Rather, he [Adam] is according to
the form of Adam. He is not according to the form of the Merciful." When asked
about this, Ahmad answered: "Abu Thawr deviates and those who allege what he
alleges.,,34 Ibn Hanbal then declared, "He who says that Allah created Adam according
to the form of Adam, he is a lahmr (disbeliever). Which form did Adam have before
He created him?,,35 For Ibn Hanbal, to deny that God truly has a form is kufr (unbe-
lfadnh al-Ru'ya
Of all the a/:!adfth al-$ilra, or "form traditions," those that are most menacing to the
transcendentalists describe a theophany in which God appeared to the Prophet in a
particular form. Ibn Hanbal reported in his Musnad:
One morning, the Messenger of God went out to them [his companions] in a joyous mood and
[with] a radiant face. We said [to him]: "Oh Messenger of God, here you are in a joyous mood,
with a glowing face'" "How could I not beT' he answered. "My Lord came to me last night
444 Wesley Williams
under the most beautiful form and He said [to me]: 'Oh Muhammad!'-'Here
I am, Lord, at Your order!' He said [to me]: 'Over what disputes the Sublime Council?, - '1
do not know, Lord.' He posed [to me] two or three times the same question. Then He put His
palm between my shoulder blades, to the point where r felt its coolness between my nipples,
and from that moment appeared to me [all] that is in the heavens and on the earth."16
Not only is God's "most beautiful form" of interest; the physical contact between
Lord and Prophet described here establishes divine corporeality in a manner unrivaled
by other traditions.
For Ignaz Goldziher, this report is "flagrant anthropomor-
phism.,,3g Yet the imam's actual narration of this hadith, reported on the authority of
'Abd aI-Rahman ibn 'A'ish, has not gone unquestioned. Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani reports
from Abu Zur'a (d. 878) that the latter asked Ibn Hanbal about this report, and he
replied: "This is of no consequence (hadha laysa bi_shay,).,,39 Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200)
reports a similar position from Ahmad in his Daf' shubah al-tashbih bi-akaff al-
tanzih. He quotes the imam as stating, 'The origins of this hadith and its sources are
incongruous (muc/rarib).,,40 Yet Ibn al-Jawzi reports this very narration from Ibn Han-
bal in his al-'llal al-mutanahiya fi al-af].adrth al-wahiya.
'Abd Allah ibn Ahmad (d.
903), the imam's son, likewise narrates the hadith from his father in the latter's Kitab
According to Nur ai-Din 'Ali ibn Abi Bakr al-Haythami (d. 1405), when
Ibn Hanbal was asked about the report, he declared it to be correct or right (,yawab).43
Whatever qualms Ibn Hanbal may have had about this particular isnad, as that was
allegedly the object of his criticism,44 he had no issues with the matn (text). He re-
ported it three other times with different chains of narration
and explicitly declared
,yaf].lf:z a similar hadith from Mu'adh ibn Jabal.
The question, then, is how did the
revered imam understand this report? Did he understand God truly to possess a "beau-
tiful form"? The answer varies according to whose testimony one consults. Ibn al-
Jawzi reports from Abu Ya'la's (d. 1066) Kitab al-Kifaya that Ahmad stated, " 'I saw
my Lord in the most beautiful form,' Le., in the best position (mawc/i').,,47 Interpreting
"most beautiful form" as "best position" effectively eliminates the anthropomorphism
of the text. But there are problems with this report. First, it is at variance with Abu
Ya'la's own exegesis of this narration, as found in his Kitab al-mu'tamad fi usul al-
din. According to what we read, God truly has a most beautiful form in the same
manner He has a soul and an essence:
If it is said, "He is a person (shakhs) or form (.yara)," it (should be) said: the report from
different routes on the night of the Mi'raj mentioned, "I saw my Lord in the most beautiful
form." And then He said, "Over what does the Sublime Council dispute')" And the application
of that is not to be refused. Just as "soul" (nafs) not like souls and essence (dhiit) not like
essences weren't denied Him. Likewise form unlike forms, for the Sharr'a (uses it in this
Second, 'Abd Allah ibn Ahmad, the person most responsible for the publication of
Ibn Hanbal's dogmatic works, quotes from his father a different exegesis of this ha-
dith, which is startling in its frank anthropomorphist suggestions:
My father reported to me ... from 'Abd ai-Rahman ibn al-'A'ish from some of the companions
of the Prophet: "He came out to them one morning while in a joyous mood and [with] a radiant
face. We said [to him]: 'Oh Messenger of God, here you are in a joyous mood, with a glowing
face!' -'How could r not beT he answered. 'My Lord came to me last night under the most
Anthropomorphism in Early Islam: A Reappraisal 445
beautiful form, and He said [to me]: "'0 Muhammad!' ... " And my father [Ibn Hanbal]
reported to us, 'Abd al-Razzaq from Ma'mar from Qatada [from the Prophet), "Allah created
Adam according to His form." My father reported to us, 'Abd al-Razzaq from Ma'mar from
Qatada, .. 'in the best stature (ff absan taqwrm)' meaning 'in the most beautiful form (ff absan
!jara)'." Ibrahim ibn al-Hajjaj reported to us, Hammad (ibn Salama) reported to us ... that the
Prophet said, "Allah is beautiful Uamrl) and He loves beauty.',49
The implication of this collection of traditions is unmistakable. The "most beautiful
form" is first identified with that form of God according to which Adam was created.
This identification is further supported by the imam's interpretation of sura 95:4:
"Surely We created man in the best stature (ft al;zsan taqwfm)." Ibn Hanbal accepts
the ta/sir or exegesis of Qatada identifying man's "best stature" with God's "most
beautiful form."so Because Adam was created according to God's own form, this iden-
tification is logical. It is then affirmed that God is beautiful in the physical sense.
Such an exegesis demonstrates a capacity for hermeneutical exercise, against the mini-
malist fideism popularly imputed to Ibn Hanbal. If he was anthropomorphist in his
thought, this was not due to irrationalism or blind adherence to the "letter" of scrip-
ture. The report quoted here betrays the employment of the rational faculties, albeit
in a traditionalist context.
lfadfth al-Shabb
The most controversial and disputed form traditions identify the "most beautiful form"
of God as that of a beautiful young man (shabb). Umm al-Tufayl, wife of Ubayy ibn
Ka'b (d. 642), reported, "I heard [one day] the Messenger of God say that he had
seen his Lord during sleep, under the form of a young man (shabb) with long hair
(muwaffar), in verdure, on a carpet of gold, with sandals of gold on His feet and a
veil of gold on His face.,,52 Such a crude representation of deity received mixed re-
views among the Hanbalites. Al-Tabarani (d. 971) reported the hadith in his Kitab aI-
Sunna and al-Mu'jam al-kabir.
Abu ai-Hasan ibn Bashshar (d. 925) declared it
!jal;zil;z,54 and Abu Ya'ia cited it as proof, apparently judging it sound, as well.
Ibn al-
Jawzi, however, found the narration defective and attributed to Ibn Hanbal a similar
When asked about the narration, the imam reportedly declared, "This is
a condemned reporl. Marwan ibn 'Uthman and 'Umara (ibn 'Amir) are unknown (maj-
hal).',57 AI-Dhahabi likewise cited this judgment from A h m a d . 5 ~
Assuming that this report from Ibn Hanbal is accurate, it is not necessary to read
any anti-anthropomorphist sentiments in it. In fact, the opposite is suggested. The
imam finds the isniid defective-Marwan and 'Umara are unknown-but says nothing
of the mam. Ibn Hanbal's rejection of this report is therefore based on strict isniid
criticism, not dogmatic considerations. This interpretation is confirmed by the imam's
treatment of a similarly uninhibited narration on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas. Hammad
ibn Salama reported from Qatada, from 'Ikrima, from Ibn 'Abbas, that the Prophet
said, "I saw my Lord in the form of a young man, beardless (amrad) with short curly
hair Ua'd) and clothed in a green garment."59 Ibn Hanbal not only acknowledged the
soundness of this report; he made its belief obligatory. In his 'Aqrda III, the imam
declares one of the fundamental principles of the sunna (u!jal al-sunna) to be
446 Wesley Williams
[tJo have faith in the Ru'ya (Beatific Vision) on the Day of Judgment as has been reported from
the Prophet in the authentic And that the Prophet saw his Lord, since this has been
transmitted from the Messenger of Allah and is correct and authentic. It has been reported by
Qatada from 'Ikrima from Ibn 'Abbas.
He says again in his 'Aqlda V:
In one of the sound about the Messenger of God, it is said; 'The Prophet has seen his
Lord.' This is transmitted from the Messenger of God. Qatada reported it from 'Ikrima from
Ibn 'Abbas.... Belief in that and counting it true is obligatory.6J
This hadith is reported, in an abridged form, twice in Ibn Hanbal's Musnad, and
'Abd Allah narrates it repeatedly from Ibn Hanbal in his Kitab al-Sunna.
With so
many references, it is strange that Daniel Gimaret, in his discussion of this hadith and
other anthropomorphisms of the sunna, claimed that the report "does not figure in the
Musnad.,,63 It is there, albeit in an abridged (mukhtwjar) form, reading simply, "I saw
my Lord, Blessed and Most High." This shortening of the report has served some as
proof of the imam's reluctance to attribute to God such an uncompromisingly anthro-
pomorphic description. Ibn Kathir and Khaldun Ahdad suggest that Ibn Hanbal
abridged it himself from "the hadith of the Dream (/;uldfth al-manam)," i.e., the most
beautiful form report, not from the al-shabb.
For 'Abd Allah ibn Muhammad
al-Hashidi, editor of al-Bayhaqi's al-Asma' wa-'l-sifat, the abridged narrations evince
the imam's rejection of the expression "beardless, curly haired" and presumably "form
of a young man. ,,65
An abundance of evidence, however, suggests otherwise. According to al-Tabarani,
'Abd Allah narrated from Ibn Hanbal the full report, "I saw my Lord in the form of
a young man with abundant hair.,,66 Abu Bakr al-Marrudhi (d. 888), reputedly "the
preferred disciple of Ahmad ibn Hanbal:,67 asked his imam about this report, the latter
getting visibly angry at those who denied it:
I read to Abu 'Abd Allah (Ibn Hanbal); "Shadhan reported to us ... from Ibn 'Abbas [that] the
Messenger of Allah said, 'I saw my Lord as a young man, beardless and curly haired, and on
Him a green garment.''' [I then said to Ibn HanbalJ; "They salk [no oneJ reported [this hadith]
except Shadhan." He [Ibn Hanbal] got angry and said, "Who said this? 'Affan reported to us
that 'Abd al-Samad ibn Kaysan reported to us that Hammad reported from Qatada from 'Ikrima
from Ibn 'Abbas from the Messenger of Allah, 'I saw my Lord, Exalted and Great.' " I [then]
said to [Ibn Hanbal]; "'0 Abu 'Abd Allah, they say Qatada didn't report anything from 'Ik-
rima.,,6? [He got angry and] said; "Who said this?!" Then he pulled out [his book and in itJ
five, six, or seven from Qatada from 'Ikrima.
It is evident from this report that, for Ibn Hanbal, "I saw my Lord" was simply
shorthand for the hadith in question and did not imply a rejection of it in ful1. This is
further confirmed by a report from 'Abd al-Samad ibn Yahya in which Shadhan in-
structed him to question the imam about this hadith:
[Shadhan said to meJ "Go to Abu 'Abd Allah and say, 'Do you tell me that I should report the
of Qatada from 'Ikrima from Ibn 'Abbas, "I saw my Lord in the form of a young
man"?," So I came to Abu 'Abd Allah and said it to him, and he said to me; "Report it,
because the 'ulama' (religious scholars) have reported it."71
Anthropomorphism in Early Islam: A Reappraisal 447
Final confirmation that Ibn Hanbal affirmed the most blatantly anthropomorphic
expressions of this report comes from an anti-anthropomorphist among the Hanbalite,
Ibn 'Aqil (d. 1119). Yusef ibn 'Abd al-Hadii reported concerning Ibn 'Aqil:
Someone asked Ibn Hanbal if he could report the J;adfth of Ibn 'Abbas ... in which the Prophet
reported to have seen his Lord with short curly hair, and Ahmad is said to have told him to
report it, since the 'ulamii' have reported it. On this, Ibn 'Aqil said: "I treat these two traditions
in the same way, in that Ibn Hanbal permitted him to report them interpreted metaphorically,
not unqualifiedly, so that the form and the short curly hair are related to Muhammad, not to
his Lord.',12
This report, coming from one so hostile to anthropomorphism, is strong evidence of
the imam's affirmation of the anthropomorphism of this hadith. Although Ibn 'Aqil
does not hesitate to deem apocryphal any report offensive to God's transcendence
despite its acceptance by the majority of his companions,73 Ibn Hanbal's affirming the
use of these expressions was apparently too well established even for him to deny.
Instead, Ibn 'Aqil chose a route he had traveled before: attribute to the imam the use
of ta'wrl (figurative interpretation) to do away with the anthropomorphism. This is
contradicted, however, by Ibn Hanbal's own discussion of the report in which he
condemned ta'wrl in its regard:
And the J;adfth, in our estimation, is to be taken by its apparent meaning ('alii as it
has come from the Prophet. And indulging in theological rhetoric (kalam) with respect to it is
an innovation. But we have faith in it as it came, upon its apparent meaning, and we do not
dispute with anyone regarding it.
Can one who affirms the apparent meaning of a report that is so explicitly anthropo-
morphic be considered anything other than an anthropomorphist? In 1988, Aziz al-
Azmeh poignantly raised this question:
Are we therefore to consider as correct the contention of Hanbalites that their position is one
of a perfect equipoise, the just middle, the authentic continuator of authentic beginnings. , . ,
Can we agree with the Hanbalite position that such a statement (J;adfth al-shiibb) has no anthro-
pomorphic intension when it is not suhjected to an allegorical interpretation.... It is not rea-
sonable to make a statement whose lexical sense is anthropomorphic, yet interdict both allegory
and anthropomorphism.
Apparently, this question has been disputed since the time of the Prophet's compan-
It is equally unclear in Ibn Hanbal's creed. According to Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziy-
ya, the confusion began with a group of the Imam's followers:
But Ahmad did not say that [the Prophet] saw Him with the eyes of his head while awake....
Rather, he said once, "he saw Him" and once he said, "he saw Him with his heart." ... And a
third [opinion] is reported from [Ahmad] from the ta$arrufof some of his companions that he
said "he saw Him with the eyes of his head." [Yet] the texts of Ahmad are available and that
is not in them.
The situation is not this simple, however. Ibn Hanbal did report in his Musnad the
exegetical tradition for al-Najm (53: 1-18), "He saw his Lord with his heart
twice,,,78 but he also narrates a report from Ibn Mas'ud who claimed that ,yurat al-
448 Wesley Williams
Najm refers to a vision of the angel Jabril, not God.
') In one of the vision traditions
reported in Ibn Hanbal's Musnad, Ibn 'Abbas suggests that the vision of God occurred
during the Prophet's sleep: "My Lord came to me last night in the most beautiful
form-I think [says Ibn 'Abbas] he meant during sleep."Ho
However, there is textual evidence that the imam acknowledged a vision of God
during a wakened state. According to Abu Muhammad al-Tamimi, Ibn Hanbal be-
lieved that the Prophet saw God during the Mi'raj with his eyes.
In his Musnad, we
read a report from Mu'adh ibn Jabal in which the Prophet said, HI got up last night
[to pray]. I did the ablution, I prayed what destiny wished that] pray; then while I
was praying, sleepiness took me, and I fell asleep, until I woke up 'stayqaz/u)
and there, in front of me, was my Lord, under the most beautiful form."Hl AI-Tirmidhi
reported this hadith from Mu'adh with the words (I dozed off) instead
of istayqaz:tu making the appearance a vision or dream'H3 Ibn Hanbal is alone in using
the phrase 'stayqaz:tu" (until I woke up), implying a physical seeing of God.
AI-Mubarakfuri relates the theory that batta 'stayqaz:tu is a copyist's misspelling
(ta$hfj) from istathqaltu, but Ibn al-Jawzi narrated the hadith from the Imam which
included the disputed words, making this theory unlikely,H5
Although it is probable that the imam understood at least one of two reported
appearances as a vision,so this in no way diminishes the force of the theophany or
sighting. When asked about the visions, the imam replied, "Yes, he saw Him in reality
(ra'ahu haqqan), for the visions of the prophets are real."H7 The Imam even claimed to
have seen God during his sleep.s,
Scholars are almost unanimous in attributing to Ibn Hanbal the use of the ancient
balkaj'a formula. Goldziher, Wensinck, Halkin, Laoust, Makdisi, Abrahamov, and Watt
all find in the Imam an advocate of this mediating principle (balkafa), which report-
edly allowed the traditionalists to deny the Mu'tazilite ta'wfl or figurative interpreta-
tion of the Qur'anic anthropomorphisms while concomitantly affirming the doctrine
of the "incorporeal, transcendent According to Watt, the deadlock between
the adherents of the literal interpretation of the attributes and the adherents of ta'wfl
was broken by Ahmad ibn Hanbal with his use of bi-lii The one dissenting
voice is Joseph Schacht, who not only denies the existence of any anti-anthropomor-
phist implications of the balkafa formula but also points out that "there is no evidence
that Ahmad ibn Hanbal ... used the term.,,91
Schacht is certainly correct. The balkafa formula appears in none of the Imam's
six published creeds; nor does it appear in the two semi-rationalist creedal statements
attributed to him by al-Tamimi;91 it is absent from his al-Radd 'ala al-Zafladiqa wa-
'l-Jahmiyya as well as from his Kitab al-Su/lfla. After affirming the mentioned attri-
butes of God, Ibn Hanbal apparently never engaged in the practice of qualifying this
affirmation by invoking balkafa. An example of this practice is the creedal statement
by al-Ash'ari (d. 935), "We confess that God is firmly established on His Throne bi-
Iii kayfa [without how]. ... We confess that God has two hands bi-lii kayfa . .. We
confess that God has two eyes hi-Iii ka)/a. ... We confess that God has a face bi-lii
kaYfa."93 Compare this with Ibn Hanbal's 'Aqfda ]:
Anthropomorphism in Early Islam: A Reappraisal 449
God is on the Throne and the Kursi is the place of His feet. ... God is on the Throne, and the
Throne has bearers carrying it. ... He is in movement, He speaks, He looks, He laughs, He
rejoices, He loves and He detests, He displays ill-will and kindness; He becomes angry and He
forgives .... Every night He descends, in the manner He wishes, to the nearest heaven ... the
hearts of humankind are between two fingers of the Merciful; He turns them over as He desires
and engraves on them whatever He wants. He created Adam with His hands and in His image.
On the Day of Resurrection, the heavens and the earth will be in His palm.... The People of
Paradise will look at His Face and see it. God will honor them. He will appear to them and
dispense His grants to them. The servants will appear before Him [onJ the Day of Judgment.
It is He, Himself, who will ask them for their accounts. Other than He will not administer
The conspicuous absence of balkafa is observed also in 'Aqrdas III and V, where the
imam refers to the hadith of the young man, a most suitable report with which to
invoke the formula.
Ibn Hanbal, then, was an anthropomorphisL He affirmed for the divine a human
form, including a face, eyes, curly hair, mouth,% voice,97 breath,98 chest and two el-
bows,99 back,ulO arms,IOI hands with a palm,,02 five fingers
and fingertips,l04 legs,
shin, feet, SOUI,105 physical beauty, a limit, and even, shockingly, 10ins.
He affirmed
the external meaning of these attributes and refused to qualify them with balkafa.
A close reading of Ibn Hanbal's works reveals that, although he argued for the accep-
tance of the literal meaning of the Qur'anic and prophetic statements about God, he
was no fideisL
The imam was quite willing to engage in hermeneutical exercise, as
observed earlier in regard to the /:tadrth al-manam. His treatment of sura 6: 104, "Vi-
sion comprehends Him not and He comprehends all vision," is also instructive:
As for His statement, "Faces will be bright, looking to their Lord" (75:23) and He said in
another verse, "Vision comprehends Him not and He comprehends all vison," they [the hereticsJ
said: How is this?! It is reported that they [the people of Paradise] will look toward their Lord
and he said in another verse "Vision comprehends Him not and He comprehends all vision."
And they doubt the Qur'an and claim that it is contradictory. [But] as for His statement, "Faces
will be bright," it means the Beauty and the Whiteness. "Looking toward their Lord" means to
see their Lord with the eyes (ta'ayana) in Paradise. As for His statement "Vision comprehends
Him not," it means in this world, not the Hereafter.... And this exegesis (falsfr) is what the
heretics doubt.
Ibn Hanbal here presents himself as a willing mufassir (exegete). In harmonizing two
contradictory verses-one seemingly anthropomorphist and the other anti-anthropo-
morphist-the imam interprets them both. He makes the anti-anthropomorphist verse
"Vision comprehends Him not" conform to the dictates of the anthropomorphist verse
"Faces shinning, looking toward their Lord," then interprets the latter in a way that
enhances its anthropomorphist tone: "looking toward their Lord" becomes "seeing
their Lord with the eyes."
Ibn Hanbal likewise employed the methods of ta'wrl. In his 'Aqfda I, the imam
wants to argue God's actual establishment on the throne above the seventh heaven.
To do so, however, he must first overcome objections raised by certain Qur'anic verses
that appear to oppose such an interpretation:
450 Wesley Williams
God is on the Throne; and the Kursl is the place of His feet. ... He is on His Throne high
above the seventh heaven.... If an innovator and opponent tries to prove [the opposite] by
God's words such as: "We are nearer than the jugular vein" (50: 16) or "He is with you wherever
you are" (57:4) ... and similar ambiguous [passages] of the Qur'an, then say to him [in reply]:
What this signifies is knowledge [which is everywhere], for God is on the throne above the
seventh and highest heaven, and separate from His creatures, but his knowledge embraces
everything. 109
One observes in this passage the use of ta'wrl as well as the "if-then" disjunction
characteristic of the kalam mode of disputation used by the mutakallimun. Ibn Hanbal
likewise interprets God's words to Moses and Aaron, "I am with you both. I will
hearken" (20:46) as "I will defend you both.,,11O A "slavish literalist" Ibn Hanbal
clearly was not. His anthropomorphism therefore seems to have been a doctrinal
choice made by the imam, inasmuch as it in no way necessarily followed from his
hermeneutical methods. He chose to treat the anthropomorphic descriptions of God
found in the scriptures as mubkamiit, admitting to only a literal meaning, and the
seemingly anti-anthropomorphist descriptions as mutashabihiit, dubious and therefore
requiring interpretation, for the apparent meaning of these was for Ibn Hanbal inap-
Later Sunni doctors would take the opposite position. Where the verses
of the attributes are insufficiently clear in their corporeal import, Ibn Hanbal provides
an interpretation of those verses that removes any ambiguity. We have, then, the major
figure of 9th-century religiosity, highly learned and capable of thinking outside the
"literalist box" of his less sophisticated contemporaries, choosing divine embodiment
as his dogmatic position. A whole generation would subsequently embrace aspects of
this dogmatic position.
Anthropomorphist inclinations were not peculiar to Ibn Hanbal during this period.
The a ~ b i i b al-badlth (traditionalists), whose cause he championed, were frequently
imprecated by the more rationalist theologians for their insistence on the literal inter-
pretation of the Qur'anic and traditional description of GOd.
The Mu'tazila character-
ized the traditionalist as bashwiyya, a contemptuous term whose real meaning is un-
clear but that probably meant "vulgar populace."113
The Caliph al-Ma'mun (d. 833), influenced as he was by the a-?biib al-ra'y (rational-
ists),114 found this trend of fideistic literalism objectionable, and in 833 he instituted
the Mibna in an attempt to impose elements of the rationalist creed on the public and
possibly to stem the growing tide of anthropomorphism.
Ibn Hanbal, due to his
reputed refusal to comply with the caliphal mandate,1I6 would become the hero-victim
of the Mibna as well as the standard bearer of the anthropomorphists.
The Mibna is not generally associated with an anti-anthropomorphist agenda, but
there is ample evidence that aversion to the growing trend played a role in the caliph's
move. Although al-Ma'mun chose as the litmus test the doctrine of the created Qur'an,
this was but "the rubric under which was subsumed denial of anthropomorphism.,,117
According to Wilfred Madelung, the assertion of a created Qur'an "constituted an
attack on the anthropomorphic ... God of traditionalist Sunnism" and "the insistence
of the traditionalists that God truly speaks is part of their general defense of an anthro-
Anthropomorphism in Early Islam: A Reappraisal 451
pomorphic and personal concept of God.',118 A review of the caliph's letters to his
governor in Baghdad, Ishaq ibn Ibrahim (d. 849-50), confirms the significant role
aversion to anthropomorphism played in the government's policy. In his first letter,
al-Ma'mun chided the traditionalists and their followers for, among other
things, likening God to His creation:
The Commander of the Faithful has realized that the broad masses and [lowly commoners]
... are a people sunk in ignorance and in blindness about God.... [They are] a people who
fall short of being able to grasp the reality of God as He should be recognized, to acknowledge
Him exactly as He should be acknowledged and to distinguish Him and His creation, 119
In his fourth letter, written after the interrogation of the second set of jurists and
traditionalists in Baghdad, the caliph applauded the work of his governor through
whose efforts the cited people "agreed to reject anthropomorphism (tashbrh).,,120
Madelung is therefore incorrect when he states, "There [in the letters of the caliph]
the traditionalists are not charged with anthropomorphism and ascribing organs to
God.','21 As will be shown, both Ibn Hanbal and Bishr ibn al-Walid (d. 852) were
accused of tashbfh.
Abu al-'Arab, in his Kitab aI-Mihan, reports on a letter from al-Ma'mun in
which al-Ma'mun stipulates not only the doctrine of the created Qur'an but also denial
of Ru'ya (beatific vision), and of the denial of locating God in a place (makiin) or on
His Throne-that is, those issues that anthropomorphists used in argument to support
their position.
Al- Wathiq, al-Ma'mun's second successor as caliph (842-47) who
continued the forbade the profession of belief in the beatific vision.
Mu'tazilite essayist and polemicist al-Jahiz (d. 869), who was on personal terms with
Qadi Ibn Abi Duwad, apparently understood anthropomorphism and its adherents to
be at least one of the targets of the In his Risala fi nafy al-tashbih written to
the Qadi, al-Jahiz noted, "You know that although the supporters of anthropomor-
phism have been crushed, reduced, and subjected to the Inquisition, their numbers
have not decreased, the majority have not changed their views, and only a tiny minor-
ity are dead.',125
It is noteworthy that many of the scholars cited during the first rounds of the
interrogations were otherwise noted for their anthropomorphist positions or their sup-
port for anthropomorphic traditions, particularly al-shabb. The prominent Iraqi
traditionalist 'Affan ibn Muslim (d. 835), reportedly the first to be tried during the
was an important narrator of this hadith.
Nu'aym ibn Hammad (d. 843), who
would become a martyr of the was known for (and in some cases con-
demned for) his narration of the report of Umm al-Tufayl.128 In addition, the famous
'Ali ibn al-Madini and Yahya ibn Ma'in, both of whom were cited with
the first round of interrogations, narrated similar traditions.
Reviewing the reports of the interrogations, one discovers that Ibn Hanbal was
specifically cited for corporealist views. During the second round of examinations,
after first questioning three noted traditionalists on their views regarding the Qur'an's
createdness, Ishaq ibn Ibrahim turned to Ibn Hanbal. Not satisfied with the imam's
response, the governor took the interrogation in a different direction by asking about
sura 42: II, "There is nothing like Him, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.',1J1J Although
this verse had little bearing on the question of the Qur'an's temporality, it had by that
452 Wesley Williams
time become the bedrock of the transcendentalist interpretation of scripture.!)! During
the exchange between the governor and his subject, a fellow traditionalist interrupted,
"May God grant you righteousness! It speaks of 'a hearing one' because of ears and
a 'seeing one' because of eyesr,1J2 The governor then asked Ibn Hanbal about this,
and the imam characteristically replied, "God is even as He has described Himself.',13J
Abu Nu'aym al-Isfahani (d. 1038) reported on the authority of Ahmad ibn al-Faraj,
allegedly a witness to Ibn Hanbal's flogging, an isolated narration in which Caliph
al-Mu'tasim (d. 842), al-Ma'mun's immediate successor, accused the imam of corpore-
ali sm. On entering the palace, the caliph reportedly inquired, "Where is this man
[Ahmad] who claims that God speaks with two organs [of speechJ?,,134
During the course of the MiJ:ma, Ibn Hanbal's standing among his peers grew, eclip-
sing the prior traditionalist leaders.
According to a reproach by Qadi Ibn Abi Du-
wad, the imam became chief of a school of "commoners and riffraff.',136 As a corollary,
anthropomorphism hardened and grew in influence. This is confirmed by the testi-
mony of al-Jahiz, who wrote several treatises remonstrating against Ahmad ibn Han-
bal and his supporters. These treatises are significant in that they provide a general
time line allowing scholars to trace the development of anthropomorphism during this
period and determine with relative accuracy the date it became the recognized creed
of Sunni Islam under Ibn HanbaI's leadership.
AI-Jahiz wrote the relevant treatises during the MOyna years (833-50).137 For him,
the "great sin, the monstrous falsehood" at that time was not an uncreated Qur'an; it
was anthropomorphism (tashbrh).1)8 In 835, two years after the inauguration of the
Inquisition by al-Ma'mun, al-Jahiz initiated a relentless literary campaign against an-
thropomorphism with his epistle Risala.1i nafY al-tashbih.
In it, one learns that before
the Mil:zna, anthropomorphism already had "adherents of great numbers and manifest
power.',!40 Thanks to the Milyna, they had been crushed and afflicted, yet their numbers
remained. 141 Despite the Mil:zna's apparent failure to eliminate or even curb the tide of
anthropomorphism, al-Jahiz viewed the situation with optimism; the mushabbiha's
"hearts are full and their souls troubled. This is a situation in which cunning and
persuasion are called for, since force and violence are ineffectual.,,141
This epistle's tone is characterized by disappointment yet also hope. AI-Jahiz can
admit to fearing his antagonists while concurrently having hope for them (that they
will change). Five years later, around 839-40, the situation changed. Anthropomor-
phism concretized, and the optimism left. The cause was apparently Ibn Hanbal and
his followers, whom al-Jahiz designated as the Nabita, a term probably meaning "con-
temptible, suddenly powerful, irritating sprouters on the scene.',14) Ibn Hanbal's fol-
lowers outdo the anthropomorphists of 835, who in comparison come out looking
rather mild:
One group among them [the people] asserted that God will be seen, without adding any expla-
nation. If it feared being suspected of tashhrh, it explained, "He will be seen hi-fa kayf," thus
avoiding tajsfm (corporeality) and (attributing a form to God). But the Nahifa sprouted,
and the secessionist group insisted: He is a body; and it ascribed form and limits to Him and
declared anyone who believes in the Beatific Vision without tajsfm and fapvfr to be a heretic. I'"
One learns here that the Nabita emerged out of that original anthropomorphist block,
the al-I:zadfth. Second, the Nabita differ from their parent group in that they not
Anthropomorphism in Early Islam: A Reappraisal 453
only refused to qualify their anthropomorphist affirmations with hi-Ia kayfa;145 they
also went a step further and declared anyone who did not go as far as they in assigning
corporality to God an unbeliever. The attribution of fonn, limit, and a corporeal be-
atific vision are all elements found in the various creedal statements of Ibn Hanbal.
By this time, no doubt because of Ibn Hanbal's newly acquired fame, anthropomor-
phism enjoyed even greater currency: "The acts of disobedience of this community
had never exceeded sin and errors ... until the Nabita and their followers, the masses,
appeared. Now the prevailing (ghaZib) trend of this generation is kufr, that is anthropo-
morphism and determinism."147 It is now the Mu'tazila and the speculative theologians
whose "hearts are full, souls troubled." The optimism of 835 had become disenchant-
ment and ire by 840. Although it was the mushabbiha who were subjected to the
Mibna, al-Jahiz bemoaned "this our (mutakallimun) difficult era and corrupt time.,,14s
By 846, Ibn Hanbal and his band of theological upstarts could boast of having on
their side "the masses, the pious recluse, the jurists, and the hadith people.,,149 Discon-
solate, al-Jahiz reported, "The Nabita today [indulge in] anthropomorphism with the
secessionist ... and the commoners are with them and the vulgar masses comply with
them.,,15o The Nabita are so strong that al-Jahiz anticipates the demise of Kalam at
their hands, even while Kaliim enjoyed the patronage and protection of the state.
He lamented: "the craft of Kalam ... is in retreat.,,152
The rise of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal during the Mibna resulted in the empowering
and centering of corporealist ideas within the Sunni movement. When his ideas be-
came the criterion of traditionalist orthodoxy, so too did anthropomorphism.
This is
evident not only from the testimony of al-Jahiz, but also from the account of the
Zaydi Imam and scholar al-Qasim ibn Ibrahim (d. 860). In his Kitab al-DaZiI al-Kabir,
al-Qasim accused the popular ulama of tajsrm:
The belief which is pure of any act of disobedience is the certain knowledge of God and the
freeing of thought from fancying God. For the fancies of the fancier occupy his thought only
with regard to every owner of a form and body. Whoever fancies God as a body, neither knows
Him rightly, nor approaches [even] slightly the certain knowledge of God. Therefore the schol-
ars of the masses (/:tashw ai- 'amma) are devoid of certain knowledge of God.
For al-Qasim, "bashw al-'amma" and "bashwiyya" denoted the pro-Umayyad, anthropo-
morphist traditionalists who accepted Ibn Hanbal as their principal authority.155 Binya-
min Abrahamov, editor of al-Qasim's works, translated the term as "scholars of the
masses," indicating the general acceptance of these ideas among the community. This,
however, contradicts Abrahamov's later claim that anthropomorphists "were a minority
among Muslim scholars."ls6 Al-Jahiz and al-Qasim seem to suggest otherwise.
It is likely that Ibn Hanbal's staunch support of badfth al-shabb explains its general
acceptance among the al-badrth.
Abu Bakr ibn Sadaqa reported hearing Abu
Zur'a al-Razi (d. 878) say, "The hadith of Qatada from 'Ikrima from Ibn 'Abbas in the
Vision is sound Shadhan and 'Abd al-Samad ibn Kaysan and Ibrahim ibn Abi
Suwayd reported it and and none denies it except the Mu'tazila."ls8 'Abd Allah ibn
'Adi argued that "the report is not to be denied,,,ls9 and Yahya ibn Ma'in considered
454 Wesley Williams
those who denied the report innovators.
Consequently the IJadfth al-shabb had a
significant impact on traditionalist ideas of God at the time. AI-Qasim noted in Kitab
The Muslims [lit., those who pray] have agreed with us that the glances will not perceive God,
except for a group of the Rawafid, and the Hashwiyya which agree with them. They said the
Prophet had seen his Lord white-skinned and dark-haired. They related in another way that He
had been seen in the form of an adolescent whose hair was cut off. Some of them claimed that
this seeing was with the heart, and some others claimed that it was with the eyes.
The 1}adfth al-shabb continued to shape traditionalist ideas of God well into the
10th century. AI-Ash'ari (d. 935) insisted on a vision of God by Muhammad and
invoked the reports of Ibn 'Abbas and Umm al-Tufayl as proof.
A rescript of Caliph
al-Radi issued in 935 against the Baghdadi Hanbalis under the command of al-Barbar-
hari (d. 940), clearly the leader of the traditionalist block at the time, denounced them
for anthropomorphist ideas based on the hadith quoted earlier:
You claim that your ugly and disgusting faces are in the image of the Lord of the worlds and
that your vile appearance is in His image; you talk of His feet and fingers and legs and gilded
shoes and curly hair, and going up to heaven and coming down to the world-may God be
raised above what wrongdoers and unbelievers say about Him.
The God of 9th-10th-century Sunnism was theophanous and corporeal. It was widely
believed that an encounter with the divine inaugurated Muhammad's prophetic ca-
Such a God would eventually be replaced by an invisible, non-theophanous
deity, as it was in Judaism, but not before making a significant contribution to the
development of Islamic orthodoxy, which has shown itself to be remarkably fluid
over the years.
Ninth-century traditionalism laid the base for early Sunnism. Nascent Sunni doctrine,
apparently due to Ibn Hanbal's influence, included elements that would be considered
anathema by current standards of Islamic orthodoxy. With the patronage of the imam,
anthropomorphism enjoyed a golden age of sorts. But early Islamic anthropomor-
phism-at least, as represented by Ibn Hanbal-was not the result of a minimalist
fideism, as is popularly assumed. "Literalism" no doubt played a part, but there was
a great deal more "rationalism" and interpretation involved than has heretofore been
acknowledged. In this sense, the anthropomorphism of Ibn Hanbal was not too differ-
ent from that of the famous 8th-century mujassir Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 767),
whose notions of God embarrassed later generations. In spite of Muqatil's "extreme"
corporealism. he employed ta'wfl in his Tajsfr even on verses on the attributes. loS Ibn
Hanbal appreciated Muqatil's knowledge of the Qur'an but refused to transmit on his
authority because of Muqatil's use of books. 166 In any case, though the imam probably
never attributed to God "flesh and blood," as did Muqatil,167 their views on God were
similar. Both were greatly informed by IJadfth al-shabb. What this demonstrates is
that, in the early stages of Islamic theological development. when corporealist im-
pulses were strongest, these trends were characterized less by blind adherence to the
letter of scripture than by a significant degree of intellectuality.
Anthropomorphism in Early Islam: A Reappraisal 455
A larger study is required to ascertain the sources of Islamic notions of a corporeal
godhead. Similarities with Jewish concepts are suggestive but ultimately inconclusive.
Certain pre-Islamic ideas of God survived Muslim iconoclasm, though the extent to
which they did so is unclear based on the available material. The most that can be
said with any degree of certainty is that normative Islam was a lot less hostile to such
notions during its developmental stages than it is today. Historians of Islam must
abandon the generally held assumption that, behind the divergent views that consti-
tuted the "general religious movement" of the formative period, there exists an indige-
nous and truly Islamic concept of God as "utterly other," and that when Muslim
divines did agree, they agreed on this concept of deity. Islam, apparently from its
outset, played host to varying concepts of the divine, either of which-or, possibly,
none of which-could claim true indigenousness. From a historical perspective, tran-
scendentalism and anthropomorphism were two alternatives available to Muslim di-
vines attempting to interpret the most important pillar of their faith, "There is no god
but Allah," and there were times that anthropomorphism was the model preferred by
Sunni Islam.
'See Muhammad Ibrahim H. I. Suny, "The Conception of God in Muslim Tradition," lslamic Quarterly
37 (1993): 127 ff; Fazlur Rahman, "The Qur'anic Conception of God, the Universe and Man," lslamic
Studies 6 (1967): 2.
'See The Encyclopaedia of lslam, 2nd ed. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960-) (hereafter, El), S.v. '''Aklda'' (W.
Montgomery Watt), 1:333.
'See W. Montgomery Watt, The Formative Period of lslamic Thought (1972; repr., Oxford: Oneworld
Publications, 1998).
'Anthropomorphism, from the Greek amhropos (man) and morphe (form), means the ascription of
human attributes-for example, forms, feelings, or actions-to the divine: see The Encyclopedia of Reli-
gion, ed. M. Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987) (hereafter, ER), s. v. "Anthropomorphism" (R. J. Z.
Werblowsky). 1:316 f.
'Even the Ahmadi apologist M. Muhammad Ali, for example, argued in his The Religion of lslam
(Lahore: Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha'at Islam, 1950), 154, "The anthropomorphic view which likens God to
man has never found favor among the Muslims. A very insignificant sect .. held the view ... but this has
always been rejected by the learned among the Muslims." See also Binyamin Abrahamov, "The Bi-la kayfa
Doctrine and Its Foundations in Islamic Theology," Arabica 42 (1995): 369.
See Stuart Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), esp. chap. 7. For
a general look at anthropomorphism in religious discourse, see also MaIjo C. A. Korpel, A Rift in the
Clouds (MUnster: UGARIT-Verlag, 1990); Edward L. Schoen, "Anthropomorphic Concepts of God," Reli-
gious Studies 26 (1990): 123-39; Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Anthropomorphism in Ancient Religions," Biblio
theca Sacra 125 (1968): 29-44; Frederick Ferre, "In Praise of Anthropomorphism," lnternational Journal
for Philosophy of Religion 16 (1984): 203-12.
'This is not to suggest that such discussions were completely absent from early Christian discourse.
Questions about the nature of God (the Father) occupied the thoughts and writing of the church fathers as
well as the laity, the latter apparently preferring anthropomorphism in some quarters: see Georges F1orov-
sky, Aspects of Church History (Belmont, Mass.: Norland Publishing, 1975), 89 ff; Gedaliahu Stroumsa,
"The Incorporeality of God," Religion 13 (1983): 345-58; Roland J. Teske. "The Aim of Augustine'S Proof
that God Truly Is," lnternational Philosophical Quarterly 28 (1986): 253-68; David L. Paulsen, "Early
Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity," Harvard Theological Review (hereafter, HTR) 83 (1990): 105-16;
idem, "Reply to Kim Paffenroth's Comment," HTR 86 (1993): 235-39; Elizabeth A. Clark, The Origenist
Controversy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992); idem, "New Perspectives on the Origenist
Controversy: Human Embodiment and Ascetic Strategies," Church History (1990): 145-62.
456 Wesley Williams
'The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1925), s. v. "Anthropomorphism," 1:622 ff;
Arthur Marmorstein, The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God, vol. 2: Essays in Anthropomorphism (London:
Oxford, 1937); Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971), s.v. "Anthropomor-
phism," 1:52 ff.
Charles T. Fritsch, The Anti-anthropomorphism of the Greek Pentateuch (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1943). See also Michael L. Klein, "The Translation of Anthropomorphisms and Anthro-
popathisms in the Targumim," Vetus Testamentum, Congress Volume 32 (1980), 162-77.
IOMarmorstein, The Old Rabbinic Doctrine; Gedaliahu Stroumsa, "Form(s) of God: Some Notes on
Me\a\ron," HTR 76 (1983): 269-88; Gershom Scholem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead (New
York: Schocken Books, 1991); Jacob Neusner, The Incarnation of God: The Character of Divinity in For-
mative Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, (988); Alon Goshen Gottstein, "The Body as Image of God
in Rabbinic Literature," HTR 87 (1994): 171-95; Stephen D. Moore, "Gigantic God: Yahweh's Body,"
Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 70 (1996): 87-115; Elliot R. Wolfson, "Images of God's Feet:
Some Observations on the Divine Body in Judaism," in People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from an
Embodied Perspective, ed. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz (New York: State University of New York Press,
1992), 143-81; Naomi Janowitz, "God's Body: Theological and Ritual Roles of Shi'ur Komah," in People
of the Body, 183-201.
"Jewish Encyclopedia, s. v. "anthropomorphism," I:624; David S. Shapiro, "Possible Deus Homo?" Ju-
daism (summer 1983): 361.
"Daniel Boyarin, "The Eye in the Torah: Ocular Desire in Midrashic Hermeneutic," Critical Inquiry 16
(1990): 532-50.
"Josef van Ess, Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra (hereafter, TG), 6 vols.
(Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1992), esp. vol. 4. See also idem, "The Youthful God: Anthropomorphism in
Early Islam," University Lecture in Religion at Arizona State University, 3 March 1988 (Tempe: Arizona
State University, 1988); idem, '''Abd ai-Malik and the Dome of the Rock: An Analysis of Some Texts," in
Bayt al-Maqdis, 'Abd ai-Malik's Jerusalem. ed. Julian Raby and Jeremy Johns (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1992), 89-103: Daniel Gimaret, Dieu al'image de l'homme: les anthropomorphismes de la sunna
et leur interpretation par les theologiens (Paris: Patrimoines. 1997).
"Other works on anthropomorphism in Islam are EI, s. v. "Tashbih" (R. Strothmann), 4:685 f; Helmut
Ritter, Das Meer der Seele (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1955),445 ff: Kees Wagtendonk, "Images in Islam: Discus-
sion of a Paradox," in Effigies Dei, ed. Dirk van Der Plas (Leiden: E. J. Brill. 1987). 112-29; J. M. S.
Baljon, "Qur'anic Anthropomorphisms," Islamic Studies 27 (1988): 119-27; W. Montgomery Watt, "Some
Muslim Discussions of Anthropomorphism," in idem, Early Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
1990). 86-93; and Binyamin Abrahamov, Anthropomorphism and Interpretation of the Qur'an in the Theol-
ogy of Al-Qasim Ibn Ibrahim (Leiden: E. 1. Brill, 1996).
"EI. s. v. "TashbIh," 4:583.
16EI, s. v. '''AkIda,'' 1:333.
17According to Watt, the "positive achievement of the Traditionists of the ninth century ... was no less
than the consolidation of Sunnism": W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Philosophy and Theology (Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 1962),74. The undisputed leader of the 9th-century traditionists/traditionalists
was Ahmad ibn Hanbal.
"I use the term "orthodox" hesitantly, recognizing the difficulty with which it is employed in an Islamic
context. Islam has no machinery comparable to the ecumenical councils of Christendom whereby a doctrinal
tenet can be authoritatively declared orthodox or heretical. However. by a process of ijmii', or consensus,
a wide area of agreement can be reached, giving a doctrine or set of doctrines or practices an air of
legitimacy: see Watt, Formative Period, 5 f. See also Alexander Knysh, "'Orthodoxy' and 'Heresy' in
Medieval Islam: An Essay in Reassessment," Muslim World 83 (1993): 48-67.
INimrod Hurvitz. "Ahmad ibn Hanbal and the Formation of Islamic Orthodoxy" (PhD. diss. Princeton
University. Princeton. N.J., 1994),282. AI-Khatib aI-Baghdadi introduced Ibn Hanbal as "the champion of
the Sunna, the senior figure of his community, and the exemplar of his class (ttl'ifa)": AI-Khatib ai-Bagh-
dadi. Ta'rikh Baghdad, 14 vols. (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-'Arabiyya bi-Baghdad. 1931).3:336.
20George Makdisi. Ibn 'Aqil: Religion and Culture in Classical Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University
Press, 1997), 63.
"Idem, "l;Ianbalite Islam." in Studies on Islam. ed. Merlin L. Swartz (New York: Oxford University
Press. 1981), 216 ff.
Anthropomorphism in Early Islam: A Reappraisal 457
"See Henry Laoust, "Les Premieres Professions de foi l:lanbalites," in Melanr;es Louis Massir;non, 3
(Damascus: Institut Fransoais de Damas, 1957), 7 ff.
BBy rectify I mean harmonize the divergent views into a coherent system. By justify, I mean account
for these divergences. On the divergences, see, for example, Walter Patton, Ahmed ibn lIanbal and the
Mihna (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1897): EI, s. v. "Ahmad b. Hanbal" (Henry Laous!), 1:272-77. See also idem,
La Profession de foi d'ibn Batta (Damascus: Institut Fransoais de Damas, 1958); Sayyid Abd al-Aziz Sili,
'Aqidat al-salafiyya bayn ai-Imam Ibn Hanbal wa-'I-Imam Ibn Taymiyya (Cairo: Dar al-Manar, 1993); Mi-
chel Allard, Le probleme des attributs divins dans la doctrine d'al-As ari et de ses premiers grands disciples
(Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1965), 98 ff. Henry Laoust uses as his primary sources for the imam's
creed a selective reading of Ibn Hanbal's Kitab al-Sunna, appended to his al-Radd ala al-Znnadiqa wa-'I-
Jahmiyya (Cairo: n.p., 1973), Ibn al-Jawzi. Manaqib ai-Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Cairo: Maktabat al-
Khaniji, 1930); and the six creeds attributed to the imam found in Ibn Abi Ya'la, labaqat al-lIanabila, ed.
Muhammad Hamid al-Fiqi, 2 vols. (Cairo: Ma!ba'at al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya, 1952), 1:24-36 CAqfda
1),13031 (Aqfda II), 241-46 ('Aqfda Ill), 294-95 ('Aqfda IV), 311-13 ('Aqrda V), 341-45 (Aqfda VI).
(There are also two creedal statements attributed to the imam by Abu Muhammad al-Tamimi, 'Aqfda VII,
2:265-90, and 'Aqfda VIII, 2:292-308, the latter published independently as Abu Bakr al-Khallal's ~ 4 q i d a t
ai-Imam Ahmad, ed. 'Abd al-'Azlz 'Izz ai-Din al-Sayrawan [Damascus: Dar Qutayba, 1988].) Also available
for the study of Ibn Hanbal's creed are al-Radd: the extended version of his Kitab ai-Sanna, ed. 'Abd Allah
ibn Hasan ibn Husayn (Mecca: Matba'at al-Salafiyya, 1931) (cf. 'Abd Allah ibn Ahmad, Kitab ai-Sanna.
ed. Muhammad ibn Sa'id ibn Salim al-Qahtani, 2 vols. [Damman: Dar Ibn al-Qayyim, 1986]); his Masnad,
6 vols. (Cairo: n.p., A.H. 1313); al-Khallal, Musnad min masa'il Abi 'Abd Allah Ahmad b. Mahammad b.
Hanbal, ed, Ziyaudin Ahmad, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh Publication 29 (Dhaka: Asiatic Society of
Bangladesh, 1975): and his ai-Sanna, 5 vols. (Riyadh: Dar al-Rayah, 1994) (plus extracts from Ibn Taymi-
yya, Dar' ta'arud al- aql wa- 'I-naql, 5 vols. [Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al- 'Ilmiyya, 1997], 4 vols" esp. 1:254 ff,
2:307 ft); Abu Dawud Sulayman al-Sijistani, Masa'il ai-Imam Ahmad (Cairo: Maktabat Ibn Taymiyya,
1999); and Ibn Taymiyya, al-Qawl al-ahmadfi bayan ghalar 'an Khalit 'ala ai-Imam Ahmad (Riyadh: Dar
al-'Asima, 1998).
"Patton, Ahmed Ibn Hanbal and the Mihna, 188: ER, s.v. "Attributes of God: Islamic Concepts" (Georges
C. Anawati), 1:513 1': Laoust, EI, S.v. "Ahmad b. Hanbal," 1:275: Strothmann, EI, S.I'. "Tashbrh," 4:584;
W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Creeds: A Selection (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994), 16.
"Ibn Hanbal, 'Aqrda VII, near Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat, 2:294.
"The difference is mainly semantic. Ibn Hanbal and the traditionalists in general prohibited describing
God by any terms not found in the Qur'an or hadith literature: See Sili. 'Aqidat al-salafiyya, 175.
"Ibn Hanbal, Masnad, 2:275: idem, Kitab ai-Sanna, 42.
"On the various exegetical methods employed by theologians, see Gimaret, Diea it /'image, 137 tf.
'"Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, ed. Shu'ayb al-Ama'u!, 30 vols. (Beirut: Mu'assasal al-Risala, 1993) (hereafter,
Masnad'), 13:304, no, 7927, 16:527, no. 10906, See also idem, Kitab ai-Sanna. 42.
1<'ldem, Musnad, 2:315; idem Masnad', 13:504, no. 8170.
"Idem, 'Aqrda I, near Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat. 1:29.
"Idem, 'Aqrda V, near Ibn Abi Ya'ia. labaqat, I:313. From the report of Ibn 'Umar, "Don't make your
face ugly, because Adam was created according to the form of the Merciful": Ibn Hanbal, Kitab al-Sunna.
56. See also idem. Musnad
, 12:275, no. 7323, 12:382, no. 7420, 15:371, no. 9604.
l.lFor a discussion of the various interpretations advanced by Muslim scholars see Gimaret, Diea a
l'image. 123 f; Watt, "Created in His Image: A Study in Islamic Theology," in idem, Early Islam, 94-100.
"Ibn Abi Ya'la. 'll,baqat. 1:212.
"Ibid. 1:309.
"Ibn Hanbal, Masnad', 27:171, no. 16621.
"Cf. van Ess, TG, 4:392 ff.
"Ignaz Goldziher, Introdaction to Islamic Theology and Law, trans. Andras and Ruth Hamori (Princeton,
N.J,: Princeton University Press, 1981). 107.
'"Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani. Kitab Tahdhib "al-Tahdhib," 12 vols. (Haydarabad: MajIis Da'irat al-Ma'aril
al-Nizamiyya, 1907-09),6:204.
"'Ibn al-Jawzi. Dar shubah al-tashbih bi-akalf al-tallzih (Amman: Dar ai-Imam Nawawi, 1991), 149.
"AI-Dhahabi, Talkhis Kitab al-'lIal al-matanahiya /i-Ibn al-Jawzi (Riyadh: Maktabat al-Rushd: Sharikat
al-Riyad, 1998), 25.
458 Wesley Williams
4'Ibn Hanbal, Kitab al-Sunna, 159.
"Nur ai-Din 'Ali ibn Abi Baler al-Haythami, Kitab Majma' al-bahraynft zawa'id al-mujamayn (Riyadh:
Maktabat al-Rushd. 1992), 368, no. 11741.
"'The problem with the isndd, according to its critics, is the presence of 'Abd ai-Rahman ibn al- 'A'ish.
AI-Tirmidhl claims that Ibn al-'A'ish "did not hear from the Prophet": see Shu'ayb al-Ama'ut's comments
in Ibn Hanbal, Masnacl, 27: 172 ff.
451bn Hanbal, Masnad, 1:368, 5:243, 5:378.
4ti'Abd Allah ibn 'Adi, AI-Kamil fi da'afa' al-rijal, 7 vols. (Beirut: Dar ai-Filer, 1984), 6:2344.
"Ibn al-Jawzi, Daf' shubah, 151.
"Abu Ya'la, Kitab al-ma'tamadfi usaf ai-din, ed. W. Z. Haddad (Beirut: Dar al-Mashraq, 1974),58.
See also ibid., 85.
"'Ibn Hanbal, Kitab al-Sunna, 159.
lO'Abd Allah, Kitab ai-Sanna, 2:490.
"On the hadith "God is beautiful," Daniel Gimaret notes, "the sense of the word jamrl is unequivocal:
it is about beauty, and of physical, material beauty": Gimaret, Diea aI'image, 260. See also Ibn Hanbal,
Masnad', 28:437 f, no. 17206.
"AI-SuYUli, al-w'ali' al-masnu'a fi al-ahadith al-mawda'a (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Tijariyya al-Kubra,
196?), 28f; AI-Khatib ai-Baghdadi, Ta'rikh Baghdad, 13:311; 'Ala' aI-Din ai-Muttaqi ai-Hindi, Kanz al-
'ummalfi sunani al-aqwal wa-'I-af'al, 18 vols. (Haydar Abad al-Dakan: Dalrat al-Ma'arif a1-'Uthmaniyya,
1945), 1:58. See also Gimaret, Dieu al'image, 154 f.
"AI-Muttaqi, Kanz, 1:58; AI-Tabarani, al-Mujam al-kabir, 25 vols. (Cairo: Maktabat Ibn Taymiyya,
n.d.), 25:143.
"Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat, 2:59.
l'Abu Ya'la, Kitab al-ma'tamad, 85.
l6AI-Dhahabi, Talkhis Kitab al-'llal, 24.
l7From the isnad: 'Abd Allah ibn Wahb from 'Amr ibn al-Harith from Sa'id ibn Abi Hilal from Marwan
ibn 'Uthman from 'Umra ibn 'Amir from Umm al-Tufayl, wife of Ubayy ibn Ka'b; Ibn al-Jawzi, Daf'
shubah, 152.
l'AI-Dhahabi, Tartib al-mawdu'a (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyya, 1994),22.
,qAI-Bayhaqi, al-Asma' wa-'I-sifat, ed. 'Abd Allah ibn Muhammad al-Hashidi, 2 vols. (Riyadh: Maktabat
al-Sawadi, 1993), 2:363 f; Ibn 'Adi, al-Kamil, 2:677; ai-Khatib ai-Baghdadi, Ta'rikh Baghdad, II :214; AI-
Suyuti, al-w'ali'. 29 f; ai-Muttaqi, Kanz, I :58. See also Ritter, Das Meer, 445 ff, and idem, "Philologica
I!." Der Islam 17 (1928): 255 ff.
""Ibn Hanbal, 'Aqrda III, near Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat, I:246; Ibn al-Jawzi, Manaqib ai-Imam Ahmad.
172; al-Dhahabi, Tarjamat ai-Imam Ahmad (Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif, 1946). 30 f.
"Ibn Hanbal. 'Aqrda V, near Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat, I:312. For an English translation, see Watt, Islamic
Creeds, 31.
'Ibn Hanbal, Musnad', 4:351, no. 2580,4:386, no. 2634; see also idem, Kitab ai-Sanna, 67. 154, 165;
'Abd Allah, Kitab ai-Sanna, 1:292 f, no. 563; 2:484. no. 1116-17; 2:503, no. 1167.
"Gimaret, Diea al'image, 161.
"ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur'an al-'azim, 8 vols. (Riyadh: al-Mamlaka al- 'Arabiyya al-Sa'odiyya: Dar Tiba,
1997),7:450; Khaldun Ahdad, Znwa'id Ta'rikh Baghdad 'ala al-katab al-sitta, 10 vols. (Damascus: Dar al-
Qalam, 1996), 4:39 f.
MAI-Bayhaqi, AI-Asma' wa-'I-sifat, 2:364.
"AI-Tabarani, Kitab ai-Sunna, near al-Suyuti, AI-w'ali', 29 f.
"'1, S.v. "AI-Marwazi," 627.
""In a slightly different version reported by Ibn Adi, instead of "they say (innaham yaqalana)" one finds
"you say (taqalana)": Ibn 'Adi, al-Kamil, 2:677.
"'Ibn 'Adi's version reads, 'They say Qatada did not hear from 'Ikrima": Ibn 'Adi, ai-Kamil, 2:677.
"'Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat, 2:45 f; Ibn 'Adi, ai-Kamil, 2:677.
"Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat, 1:2 I8.
72See Makdisi, Ibn 'Aqil, 130 ff.
"Ibid., 104.
"Ibn Hanbal, 'Aqrda III, near Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat, 1:246.
)lA. a1-Azmeh, "Orthodoxy and l:Ianbalite Fideism," Arabica 35 (1988): 264.
Anthropomorphism in Early Islam: A Reappraisal 459
?See Ibn Kathir's tafsrr on !juriit al-Najm; Ibn Kathir, 7:442 ff; al-Qari, Mirqat al-Mafatih
sharh mishkat al-masabih, 10 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Pikr, 1992),9:619 ff.
"Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Zad al-ma'ad fi hady khayr al-'ibad, 6 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al- 'IImiyya,
1998),3:29. Cf. Ibn Taymiyya, al-Qawl, 133.
"Ibn Hanbal, Musnad', 3:425, no. 1957.
'"Idem, Musnad, 1:460.
"'Idem, Musnad', 5:437, no. 3484.
"Idem, 'Aqfda VII, near Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat, 2:271.
sZldem, Musnad, 5:243.
"AI-Mubarakfuri, Tuhjat al-ahwadhi bi-sharh Jam!' al-Tirmidhi, 10 vols. (Damascus: Dar al-Kikr,
1979), 9: 107.
"Gimaret, Dieu al'image, 145 ff.
"AI-Mubarakfuri, Tuhfat al-ahwadhi, 9:103; AI-Dhahabi, Talkhis Kitab al-'flal, 25.
imam was reportedly asked, "In which way do you believe Muhammad saw his LordT to which
he replied, "The way [mentioned in] the hadith of A'mash from Ziyad ibn al-Hasin from Abi al-'Aliya
from Ibn 'Abbas: The Prophet saw his Lord with his heart": AI-Lalakat Sharh usul l'tiqad ahl ai-surma
wa-'l-jama'a (Riyadh: Dar Tiba, 1985),2:519.
"Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Zad al-ma'ad, 3:29.
"Ibn al-Jawzi, Manaqib ai-Imam Ahmad, 434.
'"Ignaz Goldziher, The Zahiris: Their Doctrine and Their History, trans. Wolfgang Behn (Leiden: E. J.
Brill, I97\), 125: A. J. Wensinck, The Muslim Creed 0932; repr., New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint
Corporation, 1979), 86; A. S. Halkin, "The .l:fashwiyya," Journal of the American Oriental Society 54
(1934), 15; EI, s.v. "Ahmad b. Hanbal," 1:275; idem, Ibn Batta, 102n. 3; Makdisi, Ibn 'Aqil, 103, 108;
Abrahamov, "The Bi-lii kayfa Doctrine," 366 f:
Watt argues, for example, "One must maintain both the authority of Scripture and the incorporeality of
God, even if one cannot reconcile them intellectually. In the doctrine of balkafiyya this position was regular-
ized and a formal acknowledgment made of the limits to human intellect. The essence of the doctrine is
that the terms and phrases of the Scripture are to be aecepted bi-Iii kayfa. God 'has two hands bi-lii kayfa.
. . . He has two eyes bi-/ti kayfa.' ... It is implied that the hands and eyes are not corporeal, and the phrase
biola kayfa further suggests that no attempt is to be made to substitute something else for 'hands' and
'eyes' ": Watt, "Some Muslim Discussions of Anthropomorphism," 88 f. Cf. Abrahamov, "The Bi-lii kayfa
Doctrine," 365 ff. Although the literal meaning of the phrase is "without how" or "without asking how,"
it is eommonly translated as "without modality" or without saying exactly how the attributes apply to God.
It is further interpreted as a denial of kayfiyya or physical attribution: see R. M. Frank, "Elements in the
Development of the Teaching of AI-Ash'ari," Le Musf!on 104 (1991): 155 ff.
""watt, Islamic Creeds, 16.
9'He says, "the balkayfa is primarily directed against reasoning, not against the excesses of crude anthro-
pomorphism as has been supposed up to now": Joseph Schacht, "New Sources for the History of Muham-
madan Theology," Studia Islamica I (1953): 34. See also idem, "Theology and Law in Islam," in Theology
and Law in Islam, ed. G. E. von Grunebaum (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1971,) II.
"Binyamin Abrahamov, while citing the creed attributed to the imam by al-Tamimi ('Aqrda V11I) as an
example of the imam's acknowledgement of this principle, notes that "the term bi-lii kayfa, however, does
not appear": Abrahamov, "The Bi-iii kayfa Doctrine," 366. Abrahamov is thus required to derive the "con-
stituents of the bi-lii kayfa doctrine" from certain passages.
Y3AI-Ash'ari, "Al-Ibana 'an usul al-diyana," trans. Walter Klein, in The Elucidation of Islam sFoundation
(New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1940), 35 f.
"'Ibn Hanbal, 'Aqfda I, near Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat, 1:29.
9l In 'Agida 11I, Ibn Hanbal argues that one of the obligations of the sunna is "[tlo have faith in Qadar
(divine predestination), its good and its eviL To affirm the hadith reports related to it and to have faith in
them. It is not to be said, 'Why'?' or 'How?' It is but attestation to their truthfulness and having faith in
them. Whoever does not know the explanation of a hadith and whose intellect [does not have the capacity]
to make him understand it, then that would be sufficient [i.e., to merely affirm the hadiths and have faith
in them].... And it is necessary for him to have faith in it and submit to it": Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat, I:
24\, The imam does not use the balkafa formula here, but he rejects the asking of questions. This is most
certainly a polemic against the dialectical mode of argumentation employed by the mutakallimun. An
460 Wesley Williams
illustration of this mode of disputation and traditionalist sentiments toward it is found in the narrative of
Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah al-Shaybani concerning Harun aI-Rashid (d. 809), "Abu Mu'awiya
al-Darir was speaking to Harun aI-Rashid and he narrated to him the lJadrlh of Abu Hurayra, 'Adam and
Musa had a dispute ... ' So 'Ali ibn Ja'far said, 'How can this be when there exists the gap [of time]
between Adam and Musa that [which] there is?' He [the narrator] said, 'So Harun jumped up on account
of it and said, "He is narrating to you from the Messenger and you oppose him by saying 'How?'" and
he did not cease saying this until he calmed down and became silent." The imam's intent was to censure
the mulakallimun, not the mushabbiha: cf. Ibn Hanbal, Kilab al-Sunna, 55.
Although the balkafa formula is absent from all of Ibn Hanbal's extant works, the solitary witness to
his use of the mediating principle is his cousin Hanbal ibn Ishaq. According to Hanbal, when the imam
was asked abut the hadiths mentioning the descent (alNuZill), the beatific vision, (al-Ru'ya), placing the
Foot on Hell, and the like, he replied, "We believe in them and consider them true without 'how' and
without meaning (Iii kayfa wa-lii ma'nii)": see Ibn laymiyya, Dar' la'arud, I :255. But this is certainly an
erroneous attribution. Hanbal ibn Ishaq has been cited for several such attributions by respected l;Ianballs:
see Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Mukhlasar al-sawa'iq al-mursala 'ala al-Jahmiyya al-Mu'allila (Cairo: Mal-
ba'at aI-Imam, 1960-61),406.
"He says in 'Aqrda I, "Allah spoke to Musa with His mouth": Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqal, 1:29.
9]'Abd Allah said, "I asked my father about a people who say: 'When Allah spoke to Musa he didn't
speak with a voice.' And my father said: 'Rather, your Lord indeed spoke with a voice. These hadilhs we
report them as they came." Also, "My father said [from Ibn Mas'ud]: 'When Allah spoke a voice is heard
like the dragging of iron chains on stones.' My father said: 'This is the Jahmiyya deny''': 'Abd Allah,
Kitab al-Sunna, I:280, no. 533.
""From Qur'an 15:29; also, the hadith reported on the authority of Abu Hurayra, who alleges to have
heard the Prophet say, "Wind comes from God's breath": Ibn Hanbal. Musnad, 2:267.
"'Ibn Hanbal, Kilab al-Sunna, lSI; 'Abd Allah, Kilab al-Sunna, 2:510.
IIxkAbd Allah narrates from Ibn Hanbal, "Allah wrote the Torah for Musa while supporting His back on
a rock, on Tablets of pearl, and the screech of the pen could be heard": Ibn Hanbal, Kiwb al-Sunna, 67:
'Abd Allah, Kiwb AI-Sunna, 1:294, no. 568.
JO'He reports in Musnad, 3:473, the narration of Malik ibn NadIa in which the Prophet declares, "The
Arm of God is stronger than your arm."
""Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 2:538.
IOJlbn Hanbal narrated the hadith "God will [on the Day of Resurrection) hold the heavens on one finger
[lirst], the lands on one finger [second], the mountains on one finger [third], the humid land on one finger
[fourth], and all of the creatures on one linger [fifth]": ibid., 1:429; idem, Kiwb ai-Surma, 54.
''''Idem, Musnad, 5:243.
lU'Idem, 'Aqfda VIII, near Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqal, 2:298.
IIl6From the tradition found in Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 2:330, "After God completed creation, kinship rose
and seized God's loin (tzaqw)." Cf. Goldziher, Zahiris, 154 f; Gimaret Dieu a /'image, 229 ff.
100Ibn Hanbal, 'Aqrda Ill, near Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqal, 1:246.
1000ldem, al-Radd, 13 f.
''''Idem, 'AqMa I, near Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqal, 1:29.
""Ibn Hanbal, al-Radd, 40 f.
'''Laoust is thus incorrect in claiming that Ibn Hanbal treats the verses about the attributes as mUlashiibi
hal: Laoust, "Ahmad b. Hanbal," 275; idem., Ibn Batla, 22. For Ibn Hanbat sura 42:11, "There is none
like Him," is one of the mulashiibihiil, or ambiguous verses, that must noT be read according to its letter.
See Ibn Hanbal, AI-Radd, 20. For an English translation, see Morris Seal, Muslim Theology (London: Luzac
and Company, 1964), 96-125, esp. 98. See also Madelung, "The Controversy Concerning the Creation of
the Koran," 508n. 2.
'''See Marshall G, S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1974), 1:392; Gimaret, Dieu ill'image, 13 ff.
llJOn the l;Iashwiyya, see A. S. Halkin, "The l;Iashwiyya," 1-28; EI, s. v. "l;Iashwiyya," 3:269; G. van
Vloten, "Les Hachwia et Nabita," Actes du Onzieme Congres International des Orientalisls, Paris, 1897
(paris, 1899),99-123; M. Th. Houtsma, "Die l;IashwIya," Zeilschrifl fur Assyriologie 26 (1912): 196-202;
Fritz Steppat, "From 'Ahd Arda.ffr to al-Ma'mon: A Persian Element in the Policy of the Mibna," in Sludia
Anthropomorphism in Early lslam: A Reappraisal 461
Arabica et Islamica: Festschrifrfor Ihsan 'Abbas, ed. Wadad aI-Qadi (Beirut: American University of Bei-
rut, 1981),45111.
"'The theologian chiefly associated with the doctrine of al-Ma'mun was Bishr alMarisi (d. 1i33-43), a
Hanifi jurisprudent often denounced as a Jahmf by traditionalists. Ibn Abi Duwad (d, 854), the chief qadi
responsible for the prosecution of the Mii}na, was a Hanifi and Mu'tazilite: see EI, s. v., "MiJ:1na" (Martin
Hinds), 7:2 ff, with references.
"'For the Mif}na and its possible inspirations, see ibid.; John Nawas, "A Reexamination of the Three
Current Explanations for AI-Ma'mon's Introduction of the MiJ:1na," International journal of Middle East
Studies 26 (1994): 615-29; idem, "The MiI:lOa of 218 AJI/833 AD. Revisited: An Empirical Study," journal
of the American Oriental Society 116 (1996); 698-708; Hurvitz, "Ahmad Ibn Hanbal," 198 ff; Muhammad
Qasim Zaman, Religioll alld Politics under the Early Abbasids (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997), 106 ff.
""There is reason to believe, however, that the imam in fact capitulated: see Michael Cooperson, "The
Heirs of the Prophets in Classical Arabic Biography" (Ph,D, diss., Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.,
1994), 329 ff; Hinds, EI, s. v. "MiJ:1na" 7:3,
'''Robert M. Haddad, "Iconoclasts and the Mu'tazila: The Politics of Anthropomorphism," Greek Ortho-
dox Theological Revin,. 27 (1982): 289.
'''Wilfred Madelung, "The Origins of the Controversy Concerning the Creation of the Koran," in idem,
Religious Schools and Sects ill Medieval Islam (London: Variorum Reprints, 1985),5:509 f. Cf. also Hinds,
EI, s. v. "Mil)na;' 7:5.
"'AI.Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, trans. C. E. Bosworth, 39 vols. (New York: State University of
New York Press, 1987), 33:200.
'2I'lbid. 33:214.
"'Madelung, "The Controversy," 5:517.
'''AI-Tabari, The History of alTabari, 33:212, 215.
"'Abu al-'Arab, Kitab alMihan, ed. Y. W. Juburi (Beirut: Dar alGharb aI-Islam, 1983),451.
'14pallon, Ahmed Ibn Hanbal and the Mihna, 117.
I15AI-Jahiz, Rasa'il al-JahiZ, ed. 'Abd aI-Salam Muhammad Harun, 4 vols, (Cario: Maktabat al-Khanji,
1964-79), 1:288,
'''Ibn 'Adi, al-Kamil. 2:278. On 'Mfan, see ai-Khatib ai-Baghdadi, Ta'rikh Baghdad, 12:269 ff.
!27See Georges Vajda, "Nu'aym b. Hammad et Nasr Allah Ibn Suqayr," Arabica 8 (1961): 99; EI, .1,1',
"Nu'aym b. Hammad" (Ch, Pellal), 87.
log AI-Suyuti, ai-LA/ali', 29.
0 n 'Ali ibn al-Madini, see al-Lalaka'i, Sharh usul, 2:510. On Yahya ibn Ma'in, see Muhammad ibn
'lmran al-Marzubani, Kirab nur al-qabas almukhtasar (Fisbadin: Dar al-Nashr Frantis Shitayinir, 1964-),
!1('AI-Tabari. The Historv of al-Tabari, 33:212.
'''According to Abdoldjavad Falaturi. the verse "rejects all anthropomorphism": Abdoldjavad Falaturi,
"How Can a Muslim Experience God, Given Islam's Radical Monotheism?" in We Believe in One God:
The Experience of God in Christianity and Islam, cd, Annemarie Schimmel and Abdoldjavad Falaturi (New
York: Seabury Press, 1979), 78, On this verse and its late use by anti-anthropomorphist trends, see van
Ess, TG. 4:378; Claude Gilliot, "Muqatil, grand exegete. traditionniste ettheologien maudit," journal Asia
tique 179 (1991): 57.
u'AI-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, 33:212 f.
':'lbid" 33:213. After pressure from the governor to reveal his understanding of the meaning of this
description, the imam feigned ignorance. Hanbal ibn Ishaq, the imam's cousin, reports from Ibn Hanbal a
discussion between the laller and his interrogators. As proof of his claim that God sees, hears, and speaks
in the literal sense, Ibn Hanbal cited from Qur'an 19:42 Abraham's reproach of his father for idolatry, "Oh
sire, why do you worship that which hears not and sees not, nor can it avail thee aught?" Understanding
the anthropomorphist intension of this recitation, the imam's examiners cry, "He has made tashbrh, '0
Commander of the Faithful [al-Mu'tasim], he has made tashbrh'" On Ibn Hanbal's use of this verse, see
al-Khallal, al-'Aqida, 106 f.
1J4Abu Nu'aym al-Isfahani, Hilyat al-awliya', 10 vols. (Cairo: Maktabat al-Khanji, 1932-38), 9:204 f.
The two organs are probably the tongue and teeth. See Cooperson, "Heirs of the Prophets," 373.
IJ5Pallon claims that Ibn Hanbal was "established as the greatest traditionist of his time when al-Ma'mun
introduced the Mil)na": Pallon, Ahmed Ibn Hanbal and the Mihna, 19. This does not, however, scem to
462 Wesley Williams
be correct. Fellow traditionist Abu Zur'a al-Razi noted, "I always hear people speaking highly of Ibn Hanbal
and granting him precedence over [the traditionists] Yahya ibn Ma'in and Abu Khaythama. It was never
that way before the Mif:ina; after he was tried, however, his reputation knew no bounds": Ibn al-Jawzi,
Manaqib ai-Imam Ahmad, 337 f. The pre-eminent traditionist during this period was 'Ali ibn al-Madini
(d. 849), who presided over a study group in Baghdad attended by Yahya and Ibn Hanbal. One anecdote
describes al-Madini lying on his back dictating traditions to Ibn Hanbal, who was on his right, and Yahya,
who was on his left: Hurvitz, "Ahmad Ibn Hanbal," 274 f.
13"wilfred Madelung, Der Imam al-Qasim Ibn Ibrahim (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter & Co., 1965), 41n. I.
137Wadad aI-Qadi, "The Earliest 'Nabita' and the Paradigmatic 'Nawabit' ," Studia Islarnica 78 (1993):
13SAI-Jahiz, Risala}1 nafy al-tashbih, near al-Jahiz, Rasa'i/ al-Jahiz, 1:285.
"'Ibid., I:284-308. For a partial English translation, see Charles Pellat, The Life and Works of al-Jahiz,
trans. D. M. Hawke (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 51 ff.
'4IlAI-Jahiz, Risala fi nafy al-tashbih, near al-Jahiz, Rasa'il al-Jahiz, 1:285.
'4l lbid., 1:287 f.
'4'In causing the guilty to abandon their wicked ways: ibid., 1:288.
'4'Pellat notes, "For al-Djaf:ii?-, the term applies essentially to the f:lanbalrs": EI, s. v. "Nabita," 843. See
also idem, "La 'N1ibita'de Dj1ihiz," Annales de l'institU! d'etudes orientales (Algiers) 10 (1952): 308. Wa-
dad al-Qadi, "The Earliest 'Nabita'," 59. On the Nabita, see also lIai Alon, "Farabr's Funny Flora: al-
Nawabit as 'Opposition,'" Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 37 (1988): 222-25; Madelung, Der Imam,
223 ff; van Vloten, "Les Hachwia et Nabita."
I44AI-Jahiz, Risala fi al-Nabita, near al-Jahiz, Rasa'it al-JahiZ, 2: 18.
'"'In his study of the Nabita (HFarabI's Funny Flora," 243), Alon erroneously states, HAI-JlI.l;li7, connected
the Nawll.bit with the slogan of Bi/tt Kaifa, the celebrated principle of the l;[anbaliyah." The text clearly
implies, however, that the NlI.bita did not use this formula. According to al-Jahiz, one of the differences
between the Nabita and the earlier anthropomorphists al-/:zadflh) was the Nabitas' refusal to qualify
their statements with balkafa.
''''On attributing a limit to God, see Ibn Hanbal al-Radd, 36 (Seal, Muslin Theology, 117). On the Ru'va,
see Ibn Hanbal, al-Radd, 23 (Seal, Muslim Theology, 112 f).
147AI_Jahiz, Risala fi al-Nabita, near al-Jahiz, Rasa'il al-Jahiz, 2:20.
149AI-Jahiz, Kitab}1 khulq al-Qur'an, near al-Jahiz, Rasa'it al-Jahiz, 3:297.
""Ibid., 3:300.
IS2AI_Jahiz, Kitab fi sina'at al-Kalam, near al-Jahiz, Rasa'i/ al-Jahiz, 4:243. In his 'aqfda II, Ibn Hanbal
pretends to speak on behalf of "ninety men from among the Tabtfn (Successors), the scholars of the Mus-
lims and Salaf (Pious Ancestors) and the Jurists of the various cities": Ibn Abi Ya'la, Tabaqat, I: 130.
IlJ'Abd Allah reports in Kitab al-Sunna the statements of several prominent traditionalists condemning
as Jahmf those who would deny certain anthropomorphic narrations.
,s4AI _Qasim ibn Ibrahim, Kitab al-Dalil al-Kabir, ed. and trans. Binyamin Abrahamov, in AI-Kasim B.
Ibrahim on the Proof of Existence (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990), 143.
'''AI-Qasim, Kitab al-Dalil al-Kabir, 188; Abrahamov, Anthropomorphism and Interpretation of the
Quran, 133, n. 160.
156Abrahamov, "The Bi-Ia. kayfa Doctrine," 369.
'SlIt is to be noted that this hadith seems first to have appeared as a tenet of faith ('Aqfda) with Ibn
Hanbal. It is absent from the various Sunni creeds reported by al-Lalaka'i, Sharh usul, vol. 2.
'"AI-Suyuti, al-La'ali', 30.
IS9lbn 'Adi, al-Kamil, 2:278.
'00AI-Marzubani, Kitab nur al-qabas al-mukhtasar, 1:48.
'61AI-Qasim ibn Ibrahim, Kitab al-Mustarshid, 133.
'62Abu Bakr ibn FurJk, Mujarrad maqalat al-Ash'ari, ed. Daniel Gimaret (Beirut: Dar EI-Machreq Editeurs
Sari, 1987), 82 f. See also Daniel Gimaret, La Doctrine d'AI-Ash'ari (Paris: Patrimoines, 1990), 342 ff.
IOl'In ai-Din Ibn aI-Athir, al-Kamilfi al-ta'rik, ed. C. J. Thornberg (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1851-76),8:229 ff.
""Based on a theophanic interpretation of al-Najm: see Wesley Williams, "Tajallr wa Ru'ya: A
Anthropomorphism in Early Islam: A Reappraisal 463
Study of Theophany and Visio Dei in Early Islam," paper presented at the 16th Annual Middle East History
and Theory Conference, University of Chicago, Chicago, 12 May 2ool.
'''See Gilliot, "Muqatil, grand exegete."
''''See Isaiah Goldfeld, "Muqatil Ibn Sulayman." in Arabic and Islamic Sllldies, ed. Jacob Mansour (Ra-
mat-Gan: Bar-Han University Press, 1978), 2: 17.
"'On Muqatil's doctrines, see al-Ash'ari, Maqalat al-Islamiyyin, ed. Helmut Ritter (Istanbul. 1929-33),
209 f; van Ess, TG, 2:529 f; Gilliot, "Muqatil, grand exegete."