Does Allah exist in a place? A man in the sky?

Does Allah exist in a place? A man in the sky?

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
Twitter:@NassarMohamadMR

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 โ€˜sky-daddyโ€™ (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.

Allah said:

ู„ูŽูŠู’ุณูŽ ูƒูŽู…ูุซู’ู„ูู‡ู ุดูŽูŠู’ุกูŒ ูˆูŽู‡ููˆูŽ ุงู„ุณูŽู‘ู…ููŠุนู ุงู„ู’ุจูŽุตููŠุฑู

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 โ€œHearingโ€ and โ€œSeeing.โ€ It is understood that hearing as attributed to the Creator is perfect, limitless, flawless, and infinite, unlike human beings. The only commonality between the โ€˜hearingโ€™ 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 โ€˜aboveโ€™ the creation. The word โ€˜aboveโ€™ 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:

ูˆูŽุชูŽุนูŽุงู„ูŽู‰ ุนูŽู†ู ุงู„ู’ุญูุฏููˆุฏู ูˆูŽุงู„ู’ุบูŽุงูŠูŽุงุชู ูˆูŽุงู„ู’ุฃูŽุฑู’ูƒูŽุงู†ู ูˆูŽุงู„ู’ุฃูŽุนู’ุถูŽุงุกู ูˆูŽุงู„ู’ุฃูŽุฏูŽูˆูŽุงุชู ู„ูŽุง ุชูŽุญู’ูˆููŠู‡ู ุงู„ู’ุฌูู‡ูŽุงุชู ุงู„ุณูู‘ุชูู‘ ูƒูŽุณูŽุงุฆูุฑู ุงู„ู’ู…ูุจู’ุชูŽุฏูŽุนูŽุงุชู

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-โ€˜Izz commented on this statement, writing:

ูˆูŽู‚ูŽูˆู’ู„ู ุงู„ุดูŽู‘ูŠู’ุฎู ุฑูŽุญูู…ูŽู‡ู ุงู„ู„ูŽู‘ู‡ู ู„ูŽุง ุชูŽุญู’ูˆููŠู‡ู ุงู„ู’ุฌูู‡ูŽุงุชู ุงู„ุณูู‘ุชูู‘ ูƒูŽุณูŽุงุฆูุฑู ุงู„ู’ู…ูุจู’ุชูŽุฏูŽุนูŽุงุชู ู‡ููˆูŽ ุญูŽู‚ูŒู‘ ุจูุงุนู’ุชูุจูŽุงุฑู ุฃูŽู†ูŽู‘ู‡ู ู„ูŽุง ูŠูุญููŠุทู ุจูู‡ู ุดูŽูŠู’ุกูŒ ู…ูู†ู’ ู…ูŽุฎู’ู„ููˆู‚ูŽุงุชูู‡ู ุจูŽู„ู’ ู‡ููˆูŽ ู…ูุญููŠุทูŒ ุจููƒูู„ูู‘ ุดูŽูŠู’ุกู ูˆูŽููŽูˆู’ู‚ูŽู‡ู ูˆูŽู‡ูŽุฐูŽุง ุงู„ู’ู…ูŽุนู’ู†ูŽู‰ ู‡ููˆูŽ ุงู„ูŽู‘ุฐููŠ ุฃูŽุฑูŽุงุฏูŽู‡ู ุงู„ุดูŽู‘ูŠู’ุฎู ุฑูŽุญูู…ูŽู‡ู ุงู„ู„ูŽู‘ู‡ู ู„ูู…ูŽุง ูŠูŽุฃู’ุชููŠ ูููŠ ูƒูŽู„ูŽุงู…ูู‡ู ุฃูŽู†ูŽู‘ู‡ู ุชูŽุนูŽุงู„ูŽู‰ ู…ูุญููŠุทูŒ ุจููƒูู„ูู‘ ุดูŽูŠู’ุกู ูˆูŽููŽูˆู’ู‚ูŽู‡ู โ€ฆ ุนูู„ูู…ูŽ ุฃูŽู†ูŽู‘ ู…ูุฑูŽุงุฏูŽู‡ู ุฃูŽู†ูŽู‘ ุงู„ู„ูŽู‘ู‡ูŽ ุชูŽุนูŽุงู„ูŽู‰ ู„ูŽุง ูŠูŽุญู’ูˆููŠู‡ู ุดูŽูŠู’ุกูŒ ูˆูŽู„ูŽุง ูŠูุญููŠุทู ุจูู‡ู ุดูŽูŠู’ุกูŒ ูƒูŽู…ูŽุง ูŠูŽูƒููˆู†ู ู„ูุบูŽูŠู’ุฑูู‡ู ู…ูู†ูŽ ุงู„ู’ู…ูŽุฎู’ู„ููˆู‚ูŽุงุชู ูˆูŽุฃูŽู†ูŽู‘ู‡ู ุชูŽุนูŽุงู„ูŽู‰ ู‡ููˆูŽ ุงู„ู’ู…ูุญููŠุทู ุจููƒูู„ูู‘ ุดูŽูŠู’ุกู ุงู„ู’ุนูŽุงู„ููŠ ุนูŽู†ู’ ูƒูู„ูู‘ ุดูŽูŠู’ุกู

The statement of the Shaykh, may Allah have mercy on him, โ€˜He is not contained by the six directions like the rest of created beings,โ€™ 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 themโ€ฆ

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: Sharแธฅ al-โ€˜Aqฤซdah al-แนฌaแธฅฤwแป‹yah 1/267

Therefore, when the believers say Allah is โ€˜aboveโ€™ the creation, this does not literally mean a place or direction above the creation. It means Allahโ€™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 โ€˜place,โ€™ based upon the words of the Prophet (แนฃ).

Abu Salih reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

ุงู„ู„ูŽู‘ู‡ูู…ูŽู‘ ุฃูŽู†ู’ุชูŽ ุงู„ู’ุฃูŽูˆูŽู‘ู„ู ููŽู„ูŽูŠู’ุณูŽ ู‚ูŽุจู’ู„ูŽูƒูŽ ุดูŽูŠู’ุกูŒ ูˆูŽุฃูŽู†ู’ุชูŽ ุงู„ู’ุขุฎูุฑู ููŽู„ูŽูŠู’ุณูŽ ุจูŽุนู’ุฏูŽูƒูŽ ุดูŽูŠู’ุกูŒ ูˆูŽุฃูŽู†ู’ุชูŽ ุงู„ุธูŽู‘ุงู‡ูุฑู ููŽู„ูŽูŠู’ุณูŽ ููŽูˆู’ู‚ูŽูƒูŽ ุดูŽูŠู’ุกูŒ ูˆูŽุฃูŽู†ู’ุชูŽ ุงู„ู’ุจูŽุงุทูู†ู ููŽู„ูŽูŠู’ุณูŽ ุฏููˆู†ูŽูƒูŽ ุดูŽูŠู’ุกูŒ

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: แนขaแธฅฤซแธฅ Muslim 2713, Grade: Sahih=Correct

Al-Bayhaqi commented on this tradition, saying:

ูˆูŽุงุณู’ุชูŽุฏูŽู„ูŽู‘ ุจูŽุนู’ุถู ุฃูŽุตู’ุญูŽุงุจูู†ูŽุง ูููŠ ู†ูŽูู’ูŠู ุงู„ู’ู…ูŽูƒูŽุงู†ู ุนูŽู†ู’ู‡ู โ€ฆ ูˆูŽุฅูุฐูŽุง ู„ูŽู…ู’ ูŠูŽูƒูู†ู’ ููŽูˆู’ู‚ูŽู‡ู ุดูŽูŠู’ุกูŒ ูˆูŽู„ูŽุง ุฏููˆู†ูŽู‡ู ุดูŽูŠู’ุกูŒ ู„ูŽู…ู’ ูŠูŽูƒูู†ู’ ูููŠ ู…ูŽูƒูŽุงู†ู

Some of our scholars cited this as evidence of negating a place for Himโ€ฆ If there is nothing above or below Him, then He is not in a place.

Source: Kitฤb al-Asmฤโ€™ wal-แนขifฤt 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 โ€˜unknown modalityโ€™ (bi la kayf), or literally not asking โ€˜howโ€™ realities of the Unseen truly are.

For instance, when it comes to the texts of the Quran and Sunnah that describe Allah as โ€˜rising above the Throne,โ€™ Muslim scholars accept them as describing a true reality of which the modality is unknown and, indeed, cannot ever be known.

Abdullah ibn Nafiโ€™ reported: Malik, may Allah have mercy on him, was asked about the saying of Allah:

ุงู„ุฑูŽู‘ุญู’ู…ูŽู†ู ุนูŽู„ูŽู‰ ุงู„ู’ุนูŽุฑู’ุดู ุงุณู’ุชูŽูˆูŽู‰

The Most Merciful rose above the Throne (20:5).

The man said, โ€œHow is his rising?โ€ Malik said:

ูƒูŽูŠู’ููŽ ุงุณู’ุชูŽูˆูŽู‰ ููŽู‚ูŽุงู„ูŽ ุงุณู’ุชููˆูŽุงุคูู‡ู ู…ูŽุนู’ู„ููˆู…ูŒ ูˆูŽูƒูŽูŠู’ูููŠูŽู‘ุชูู‡ู ู…ูŽุฌู’ู‡ููˆู„ูŽุฉูŒ ูˆูŽุณูุคูŽุงู„ููƒู ุนูŽู†ู’ ู‡ูŽุฐูŽุง ุจูุฏู’ุนูŽุฉูŒ

The rising is acknowledged, its modality is unknown, and asking about it is an innovation.

Source: al-Istidhkฤr 2/529

Ibn Abdul Barr commented on this report, writing:

ุฃู‡ู„ ุงู„ุณู‘ู†ุฉ ู…ุฌู…ุนูˆู† ุนู„ู‰ ุงู„ู’ุฅูู‚ู’ุฑูŽุงุฑ ุจูุงู„ุตูู‘ููŽุงุชู ุงู„ูˆุฑุงุฏุฉ ูููŠ ุงู„ู’ูƒุชุงุจ ูˆูŽุงู„ุณู‘ู†ุฉ ูˆูŽุญู…ู„ู‡ูŽุง ุนู„ู‰ ุงู„ู’ุญูŽู‚ููŠู‚ูŽุฉ ู„ูŽุง ุนู„ู‰ ุงู„ู’ู…ุฌูŽุงุฒ ุฅูู„ูŽู‘ุง ุฃูŽู†ู‡ู… ู„ู… ูŠูƒูŠููˆุง ุดูŽูŠู’ุฆุง ู…ู† ุฐูŽู„ููƒ

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 โ€˜howโ€™ is the modality of any of that.

Source: al-โ€˜Ulลซw lil-โ€˜Alฤซ al-Ghaffฤr 1/250

And Al-Bayhaqi commented upon it, writing:

ูˆูŽุนูŽู„ูŽู‰ ู…ูุซู’ู„ู ู‡ูŽุฐูŽุง ุฏูŽุฑูŽุฌูŽ ุฃูŽูƒู’ุซูŽุฑู ุนูู„ูŽู…ูŽุงุฆูู†ูŽุง ูููŠ ู…ูŽุณู’ุฃูŽู„ูŽุฉู ุงู„ูุงุณู’ุชููˆูŽุงุกู ูˆูŽูููŠ ู…ูŽุณู’ุฃูŽู„ูŽุฉู ุงู„ู’ู…ูŽุฌููŠุกู ูˆูŽุงู„ู’ุฅูุชู’ูŠูŽุงู†ู ูˆูŽุงู„ู†ูู‘ุฒููˆู„ู

Most of our scholars followed this example in the issue of the divine attribute of โ€˜rising,โ€™ as well as the issues of โ€˜coming,โ€™ โ€˜going,โ€™ and โ€˜descending.โ€™

Source: al-Iโ€™tiqฤd lil-Bayhaqฤซ 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:

ุณูŽูƒูŽุชูŽ ุนูŽู†ู’ ุฃูŽุดู’ูŠูŽุงุกูŽ ุฑูŽุญู’ู…ูŽุฉู‹ ู„ูŽูƒูู…ู’ ุบูŽูŠู’ุฑูŽ ู†ูุณู’ูŠูŽุงู†ู ููŽู„ูŽุง ุชูŽุจู’ุญูŽุซููˆุง ุนูŽู†ู’ู‡ูŽุง

He has remained silent upon matters as mercy for you, not out of forgetfulness, so do not search them out.

Source: Sunan al-Dฤraquแนญnฤซ 4316, Grade: Sahih=Correct

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 โ€˜descendingโ€™ 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:

ูŠูŽู†ู’ุฒูู„ู ุฑูŽุจูู‘ู†ูŽุง ุชูŽุจูŽุงุฑูŽูƒูŽ ูˆูŽุชูŽุนูŽุงู„ูŽู‰ ูƒูู„ูŽู‘ ู„ูŽูŠู’ู„ูŽุฉู ุฅูู„ูŽู‰ ุงู„ุณูŽู‘ู…ูŽุงุกู ุงู„ุฏูู‘ู†ู’ูŠูŽุง ุญููŠู†ูŽ ูŠูŽุจู’ู‚ูŽู‰ ุซูู„ูุซู ุงู„ู„ูŽู‘ูŠู’ู„ู ุงู„ุขุฎูุฑู ูŠูŽู‚ููˆู„ู ู…ูŽู†ู’ ูŠูŽุฏู’ุนููˆู†ููŠ ููŽุฃูŽุณู’ุชูŽุฌููŠุจูŽ ู„ูŽู‡ู ู…ูŽู†ู’ ูŠูŽุณู’ุฃูŽู„ูู†ููŠ ููŽุฃูุนู’ุทููŠูŽู‡ู ู…ูŽู†ู’ ูŠูŽุณู’ุชูŽุบู’ููุฑูู†ููŠ ููŽุฃูŽุบู’ููุฑูŽ ู„ูŽู‡ู

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: แนขaแธฅฤซแธฅ al-Bukhฤrฤซ 1094, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi=Agreed  upon its authenticity

Ibn Abi al-โ€˜Izz commented on this tradition, writing:

ุณูุฆูู„ูŽ ุฃูŽุจููˆ ุญูŽู†ููŠููŽุฉูŽ ุฑูŽุถููŠูŽ ุงู„ู„ูŽู‘ู‡ู ุนูŽู†ู’ู‡ู ุจูŽุนู’ุฏ ุฑููˆูŽุงูŠูŽุชูู‡ู ุญูŽุฏููŠุซ ุงู„ู†ูู‘ุฒููˆู„ู ููŽู‚ูŽุงู„ูŽ ูŠูŽู†ู’ุฒูู„ู ุจูู„ูŽุง ูƒูŽูŠู’ูู

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: Sharแธฅ al-โ€˜Aqฤซdah al-แนฌaแธฅฤwแป‹yah 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 Allahโ€™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, โ€œO 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.โ€ The Prophet laughed and he recited the verse:

ูˆูŽู…ูŽุง ู‚ูŽุฏูŽุฑููˆุง ุงู„ู„ูŽู‘ู‡ูŽ ุญูŽู‚ูŽู‘ ู‚ูŽุฏู’ุฑูู‡ู

They have not estimated Allah as is due to him. (39:67)

Source: แนขaแธฅฤซแธฅ al-Bukhฤrฤซ 7013, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi=Agreed  upon its authenticity

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 Allahโ€™s existence; we can only know that He is infinitely transcending our own existence.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.