Transcendency of Allah in Islam
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
A fundamental attribute of Allah is His transcendence (al-‘Ulu) above and beyond the creation upon the Throne. Allah is not surrounded by the creation nor does He dwell within it. He is wholly separate, distinct, independent, and superior over the entire universe.
وَهُوَ مُسْتَغْنٍ عَنِ الْعَرْشِ وَمَا دُونَهُ مُحِيطٌ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَفَوْقَهُ وَقَدْ أَعْجَزَ عَنِ الْإِحَاطَةِ خَلْقَهُ
Allah is independent of the Throne and whatever is beneath it. He surrounds everything and is above it, and what He has created is incapable of surrounding Him.
Source: Aqeedah At-Tahawi
The Quran informs us in many verses that Allah is “the Most High” and above the heavens upon the Throne.
سَبِّحِ اسْمَ رَبِّكَ الْأَعْلَى
Glorify the name of your Lord, the Most High.
Surat Al-‘Ala 87:1
And Allah said:
وَهُوَ الْعَلِيُّ الْعَظِيمُ
He is the Most High, the Most Great.
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:255
And Allah said:
الرَّحْمَٰنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَىٰ
The Most Merciful is established upon the Throne.
Surat Ta Ha 20:5
And Allah said:
إِنَّ رَبَّكُمُ اللَّهُ الَّذِي خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ فِي سِتَّةِ أَيَّامٍ ثُمَّ اسْتَوَىٰ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ
Verily, your Lord is Allah who created the heavens and the earth in six days and then established Himself above the Throne, arranging the matter.
Surat Yunus 10:3
Likewise, verses speak of angels and good deeds “rising” and “ascending” to Allah.
تَعْرُجُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ وَالرُّوحُ إِلَيْهِ فِي يَوْمٍ كَانَ مِقْدَارُهُ خَمْسِينَ أَلْفَ سَنَةٍ
The angels and the spirit will ascend to Him during a day the extent of which is fifty thousand years.
Surat Al-Ma’arij 70:4
And Allah said:
إِلَيْهِ يَصْعَدُ الْكَلِمُ الطَّيِّبُ وَالْعَمَلُ الصَّالِحُ يَرْفَعُهُ
To Him ascends the good word and righteous work raise it.
Surat Fatir 35:10
Moreover, the Quran refers to itself as “the revelation” (36:5) which literally means “coming down.”
In keeping with the fundamental principle of interpreting Allah’s attributes, we do not ask “how” Allah is established on the Throne, nor do we give it an esoteric interpretation or liken it to created objects. Rather, we believe in its apparent meaning as it has been related by revelation and we acknowledge that only Allah knows its true reality.
Ibn Taymiyyah reported: A questioner asked, “How does Allah settle upon the Throne?” It was said to him as Rabiah and Malik and others, may Allah be pleased with them, have said:
الِاسْتِوَاءُ مَعْلُومٌ وَالْكَيْفُ مَجْهُولٌ وَالْإِيمَانُ بِهِ وَاجِبٌ وَالسُّؤَالُ عَنْ الْكَيْفِيَّةِ بِدْعَةٌ
The settling is known, the how is unknown, belief in it is obligatory, and asking about the how of it is an innovation (bidah).
Source: Majmu’ Al-Fatawa 3/25
This understanding of Allah’s transcendence is the orthodox belief of the earliest Muslim scholars, as recorded by Adh-Dhahabi in his book Al-‘Ulu lil ‘Ali Al-‘Adhim.
In contrast, Islam does not accept the philosophical idea of pantheism (wahdat al-wujud) or indwelling (hulool), that Allah is everywhere or otherwise dwelling within His creation. Such beliefs violate the concept of monotheism (tawheed) by ascribing the attributes of Allah to the creation and often lead to the worship of creation itself. Many cult leaders and religious charlatans have deceived their followers by convincing them that they are manifestations of Allah on earth.
However, while the essence of Allah is separate and above the creation, this does not mean the attributes of Allah are not observable within the creation. For example, we can say that “Allah is with us” if we mean that He is with us by His knowledge and not by His essence.
وَهُوَ مَعَكُمْ أَيْنَ مَا كُنتُمْ ۚ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ بَصِيرٌ
He is with you wherever you are, for Allah sees what you do.
Surat Al-Hadeed 57:4
And Allah said:
لَا تَخَافَا ۖ إِنَّنِي مَعَكُمَا أَسْمَعُ وَأَرَىٰ
Fear not. Verily, I am with you both, for I hear and I see.
Surat Ta Ha 20:46
In the same way, we can observe the mercy of Allah in the creation through its various blessings. Acts of mercy within the creation and the benefits we receive from rain, provision, and guidance are reflections of Allah’s beautiful name, the Merciful (Ar-Rahman).
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
جَعَلَ اللَّهُ الرَّحْمَةَ مِائَةَ جُزْءٍ فَأَمْسَكَ عِنْدَهُ تِسْعَةً وَتِسْعِينَ جُزْءًا وَأَنْزَلَ فِي الْأَرْضِ جُزْءًا وَاحِدًا فَمِنْ ذَلِكَ الْجُزْءِ يَتَرَاحَمُ الْخَلْقُ حَتَّى تَرْفَعَ الْفَرَسُ حَافِرَهَا عَنْ وَلَدِهَا خَشْيَةَ أَنْ تُصِيبَهُ
Allah has made mercy into one hundred parts. He kept ninety nine parts with Himself and sent down one part to the earth, so the creation is merciful such that a horse raises its hoof over its child for fear of hurting it.
Source: Sahih Bukhari 5654, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Although the essence of Allah is exalted, independent, and transcendent over creation, He is at the same time near to us by His knowledge, care, and mercy.
وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ ۖ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ الدَّاعِ إِذَا دَعَانِ
When My servants ask you concerning Me, then indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me.
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:186
Some of the idol worshipers before Islam accepted the transcendence of Allah but they mistakenly believed Allah was too exalted to approach and worship directly, so they worshiped idols and saints believing these would intercede with Allah for them.
وَيَعْبُدُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّهِ مَا لَا يَضُرُّهُمْ وَلَا يَنفَعُهُمْ وَيَقُولُونَ هَٰؤُلَاءِ شُفَعَاؤُنَا عِندَ اللَّهِ
They worship other than Allah that which neither harms them nor benefits them and they say: These are our intercessors with Allah.
Surat Yunus 10:18
Therefore, Allah is exalted and transcendent while simultaneously being intimate, personal, and approachable for direct worship.
Muslims might become confused by the expression that Allah is “in the heaven” as it appears in the Quran and Sunnah as follows:
أَأَمِنتُم مَّن فِي السَّمَاءِ أَن يَخْسِفَ بِكُمُ الْأَرْضَ فَإِذَا هِيَ تَمُورُ
Do you feel secure that He who is in the heaven would not cause the earth to swallow you and suddenly it would sway?
Surat Al-Mulk 67:16
Mua’wiyah ibn Al-Hakim reported: I said, “O Messenger of Allah, I have a servant girl whom I slapped.” This upset the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him. I said to him, “Shall I emancipate her?” She was brought and the Prophet asked:
Where is Allah?
She said, “In the heaven.” The Prophet said:
Who am I?
She said, “You are the Messenger of Allah.” The Prophet said:
أَعْتِقْهَا فَإِنَّهَا مُؤْمِنَةٌ
Free her, for she is a believer.
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 3282, Grade: Sahih
As mentioned earlier, Allah is not surrounded by the creation in any way, so how can He be in the heaven? The answer is that it is well-known among specialists in Islamic creed and the Arabic language that the word “in” (fee) does not always mean “inside” but can also mean “upon” or “above.”
Ibn Taymiyyah writes:
قَوْلُهُ فِي السَّمَاءِ بِمَعْنَى عَلَى السَّمَاءِ كَمَا قَالَ وَلَأُصَلِّبَنَّكُم فِي جُذُوعِ النَّخْلِ أَيْ عَلَى جُذُوعِ النَّخْلِ وَكَمَا قَالَ فَسِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ أَيْ عَلَى الْأَرْضِ
The statement ‘in the heaven’ means over the heaven as in the verse ‘Pharoah said: I will crucify you in the trunks of palm trees,’ (20:71) meaning upon the trunks of palm trees. Likewise in the verse, ‘So travel in the earth…’ (9:2) meaning upon the earth.
Source: Majmu’ Al-Fatawa 16/101
The Prophet asked the girl where Allah was and she replied by saying, “in the heaven,” which demonstrated that she understood Allah to be above His creation and not dwelling within an earthly temple or an idol. The purpose was not to illicit a complex theological response from her but rather to see if she understood that Allah was not one of the many idols in and around Mecca.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.