In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Some people are confused about belief in Allah, or God, as if the believers think there is literally a man sitting on a cloud in the sky. The favorite insult of atheists against believers is that we allegedly believe in a ‘sky-daddy’ (Allah is perfectly above what they claim). Indeed, some religions have conceived of the Creator in these terms, but the theology of Islam is more sophisticated than these crude caricatures.
It is a fundamental belief in Islam that the Creator is unlike anything in His creation, not subject to natural laws or limits like all other created beings.
لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ وَهُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْبَصِيرُ
There is nothing like Him, for He is the Hearing, the Seeing.
Source: Surat al-Shura 42:11
This verse is instructive, because it affirms the complete uniqueness of the Creator while also describing him as “Hearing” and “Seeing.” It is understood that hearing as attributed to the Creator is perfect, limitless, flawless, and infinite, unlike human beings. The only commonality between the ‘hearing’ of the Creator and of the creation is the word itself, not the realities that they describe.
The same principle is true for descriptions of Allah that might imply a place, such as His being ‘above’ the creation. The word ‘above’ does not refer to a place or spatial direction, but rather the exaltedness of His attributes and His transcendence over creation.
As stated by Imam al-Tahawi in his creed:
وَتَعَالَى عَنِ الْحُدُودِ وَالْغَايَاتِ وَالْأَرْكَانِ وَالْأَعْضَاءِ وَالْأَدَوَاتِ لَا تَحْوِيهِ الْجِهَاتُ السِّتُّ كَسَائِرِ الْمُبْتَدَعَاتِ
He is exalted above any limits, ends, supports, limbs, or tools. He is not contained by six directions like the rest of created things.
Ibn Abi al-‘Izz commented on this statement, writing:
وَقَوْلُ الشَّيْخِ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ لَا تَحْوِيهِ الْجِهَاتُ السِّتُّ كَسَائِرِ الْمُبْتَدَعَاتِ هُوَ حَقٌّ بِاعْتِبَارِ أَنَّهُ لَا يُحِيطُ بِهِ شَيْءٌ مِنْ مَخْلُوقَاتِهِ بَلْ هُوَ مُحِيطٌ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَفَوْقَهُ وَهَذَا الْمَعْنَى هُوَ الَّذِي أَرَادَهُ الشَّيْخُ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ لِمَا يَأْتِي فِي كَلَامِهِ أَنَّهُ تَعَالَى مُحِيطٌ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَفَوْقَهُ … عُلِمَ أَنَّ مُرَادَهُ أَنَّ اللَّهَ تَعَالَى لَا يَحْوِيهِ شَيْءٌ وَلَا يُحِيطُ بِهِ شَيْءٌ كَمَا يَكُونُ لِغَيْرِهِ مِنَ الْمَخْلُوقَاتِ وَأَنَّهُ تَعَالَى هُوَ الْمُحِيطُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ الْعَالِي عَنْ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ
The statement of the Shaykh, may Allah have mercy on him, ‘He is not contained by the six directions like the rest of created beings,’ is true in the sense that no creatures surround Him. Rather, He surrounds all things and is above them. This is what was meant by the Shaykh, as what he said later is that He is exalted, surrounding all things and is above them… It is understood that he means Allah is exalted, not contained or surrounded by anything, as all other creations besides Him are. He is exalted, surrounding all things and higher than all things.
Source: Sharḥ al-‘Aqīdah al-Ṭaḥāwịyah 1/267
Therefore, when the believers say Allah is ‘above’ the creation, this does not literally mean a place or direction above the creation. It means Allah’s attributes are exalted above all creation and the He surrounds all creation, the true manner of which is unknown to us.
Some of the early Muslims explicitly rejected the idea that Allah is contained in a time or ‘place,’ based upon the words of the Prophet (ṣ).
Abu Salih reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
اللَّهُمَّ أَنْتَ الْأَوَّلُ فَلَيْسَ قَبْلَكَ شَيْءٌ وَأَنْتَ الْآخِرُ فَلَيْسَ بَعْدَكَ شَيْءٌ وَأَنْتَ الظَّاهِرُ فَلَيْسَ فَوْقَكَ شَيْءٌ وَأَنْتَ الْبَاطِنُ فَلَيْسَ دُونَكَ شَيْءٌ
O Allah, you are the First, there is nothing before you. You are the Last, there is nothing after you. You are the Manifest, there is nothing above you. You are the Hidden, there is nothing beyond you.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2713, Grade: Sahih
Al-Bayhaqi commented on this tradition, saying:
وَاسْتَدَلَّ بَعْضُ أَصْحَابِنَا فِي نَفْيِ الْمَكَانِ عَنْهُ … وَإِذَا لَمْ يَكُنْ فَوْقَهُ شَيْءٌ وَلَا دُونَهُ شَيْءٌ لَمْ يَكُنْ فِي مَكَانٍ
Some of our scholars cited this as evidence of negating a place for Him… If there is nothing above or below Him, then He is not in a place.
Source: Kitāb al-Asmā’ wal-Ṣifāt 2/287
How then does Allah exist if not in time or space? It is difficult for us human beings to conceive of a reality transcending time and space, since we are all confined by time and space. For such realities as proven by revelation but beyond the ability of human reason to fully comprehend, Muslim scholars adhere to the principle of ‘unknown modality’ (bi la kayf), or literally not asking ‘how’ realities of the Unseen truly are.
For instance, when it comes to the texts of the Quran and Sunnah that describe Allah as ‘rising above the Throne,’ Muslim scholars accept them as describing a true reality of which the modality is unknown and, indeed, cannot ever be known.
Abdullah ibn Nafi’ reported: Malik, may Allah have mercy on him, was asked about the saying of Allah:
الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَى
The Most Merciful rose above the Throne (20:5).
The man said, “How is his rising?” Malik said:
كَيْفَ اسْتَوَى فَقَالَ اسْتِوَاؤُهُ مَعْلُومٌ وَكَيْفِيَّتُهُ مَجْهُولَةٌ وَسُؤَالُكُ عَنْ هَذَا بِدْعَةٌ
The rising is acknowledged, its modality is unknown, and asking about it is an innovation.
Source: al-Istidhkār 2/529
Ibn Abdul Barr commented on this report, writing:
أهل السّنة مجمعون على الْإِقْرَار بِالصِّفَاتِ الورادة فِي الْكتاب وَالسّنة وَحملهَا على الْحَقِيقَة لَا على الْمجَاز إِلَّا أَنهم لم يكيفوا شَيْئا من ذَلِك
The people of the Sunnah agreed upon affirming the divine attributes as related in the Book and the Sunnah, interpreting them as reality and not as a metaphor, except that they do not ask ‘how’ is the modality of any of that.
Source: al-‘Ulūw lil-‘Alī al-Ghaffār 1/250
And Al-Bayhaqi commented upon it, writing:
وَعَلَى مِثْلِ هَذَا دَرَجَ أَكْثَرُ عُلَمَائِنَا فِي مَسْأَلَةِ الِاسْتِوَاءِ وَفِي مَسْأَلَةِ الْمَجِيءِ وَالْإِتْيَانِ وَالنِّزُولِ
Most of our scholars followed this example in the issue of the divine attribute of ‘rising,’ as well as the issues of ‘coming,’ ‘going,’ and ‘descending.’
Source: al-I’tiqād lil-Bayhaqī 1/116
Thus, for any scriptural texts that describe Allah in ways that might imply a time or place, the wording of these texts is accepted, not denied, while their modality is not interpreted or sought, as the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
سَكَتَ عَنْ أَشْيَاءَ رَحْمَةً لَكُمْ غَيْرَ نِسْيَانٍ فَلَا تَبْحَثُوا عَنْهَا
He has remained silent upon matters as mercy for you, not out of forgetfulness, so do not search them out.
Source: Sunan al-Dāraquṭnī 4316, Grade: Sahih
Allah deliberately did not reveal the modality of many matters in the Unseen because there is no practical benefit to knowing these things. This knowledge would not change our moral values, acts of worship, or charity.
In another example, there is a tradition describing Allah as ‘descending’ in the last third of the night to draw near to those who perform prayer in the night.
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
يَنْزِلُ رَبُّنَا تَبَارَكَ وَتَعَالَى كُلَّ لَيْلَةٍ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ الدُّنْيَا حِينَ يَبْقَى ثُلُثُ اللَّيْلِ الآخِرُ يَقُولُ مَنْ يَدْعُونِي فَأَسْتَجِيبَ لَهُ مَنْ يَسْأَلُنِي فَأُعْطِيَهُ مَنْ يَسْتَغْفِرُنِي فَأَغْفِرَ لَهُ
Our Lord descends to the lowest heaven in the last third of every night, and he says: Who is calling upon me that I may answer him? Who is asking from me that I may give him? Who is seeking my forgiveness that I may forgive him?
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1094, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Ibn Abi al-‘Izz commented on this tradition, writing:
سُئِلَ أَبُو حَنِيفَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ بَعْد رِوَايَتِهِ حَدِيث النُّزُولِ فَقَالَ يَنْزِلُ بِلَا كَيْفٍ
Abu Hanifa, may Allah be pleased with him, was asked after relating the narration of descending and he said: The descending is in a modality unknown.
Source: Sharḥ al-‘Aqīdah al-Ṭaḥāwịyah 1/269
The purpose of this tradition is to encourage night prayer and to inform us that Allah draws near to us, in the sense of loving us, when we perform night prayer. It is not the purpose of such traditions to describe the modality in which Allah exists.
Islam rejects any notion of anthropomorphism, or that the modality of Allah’s existence and attributes is in any way like human beings. Indeed, Islam rejects any such equivalency between the Creator and anything in the creation.
Abdullah reported: A rabbi came to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, and he said, “O Muhammad, Allah will place the heavens on a finger, the earth on a finger, the mountains on a finger, the trees and rivers on a finger, and the rest of creation on a finger, then he will say: I am the King.” The Prophet laughed and he recited the verse:
وَمَا قَدَرُوا اللَّهَ حَقَّ قَدْرِهِ
They have not estimated Allah as is due to him. (39:67)
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 7013, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
This is the key point that is misunderstood by atheists, and even many of the people of the Book: Allah is nothing like His creation. Rather, Allah is only described by words that might imply time, or place, or modality because of the limitations of human language and reason. We simply cannot know the true modalities of Allah’s existence; we can only know that He is infinitely transcending our own existence.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.