Did the Salaf interpret the Face of Allah (Most High)? That is, what is meant by these attributions?

ⓘ Supported by Al Medina 313.



Islamic Text

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ

In the Name of Allah Most Merciful Most Kind

Short Answer

Yes, some of the Salaf did interpret the Face of Allah (Most High) and such interpretation has been soundly narrated from them Salaf. Others did not interpret. However, it is Kufr to believe the Face of Allah Most High is literally a face like that of a human.

Approaches to these texts

In both the Qur’an and Sunnah, there are texts which use language such as the following:

فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّوا فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ

So wherever you turn, there is the Face (Wajh) of Allah. (Surah al-Baqarah, 115).

However, prior to discussing such Ayat, it is imperative for all Muslims to study Aqeedah (Muslim Creed). This is because not doing so can lead to devastating mistakes that undermine one’s Imaan. It is absolutely reprehensible to believe that Allah Most High is similar to his creation in any manner.

Therefore, the early scholars of this Ummah (the Salaf) had two approaches when speaking about verses like the one above. Either Taweel (interpretation) or Tafweed (resignation). With Taweel they would provide an interpretation based on evidence. This would keep people safe from the dangerous error of Tashbeeh (anthropomorphism). With Tafweed, Tashbeeh is negated but no interpretation is provided.

Classical Scholars from the Salaf

Imams Ibn Abi Shaybah and al-Tirmidhi narrated Taweel from Imam Mujahid with regards to the Face of Allah (Most High). Since Imam Mujahid is from the Salaf, this is a clear proof against those who say the Salaf did not engage in Taweel. Further, this shows that the Salaf did interpret the face of Allah (Most High), which is something some individuals negate.

حَدَّثَنَا وَكِيعٌ قَالَ: حَدَّثَنَا النَّضْرُ بْنُ عَرَبِيٍّ قَالَ: سَمِعْتُ مُجَاهِدًا يَقُولُ: {فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّوا فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ} [البقرة: 115] قَالَ: قِبْلَةُ اللَّهِ، وَأَيْنَمَا كُنْتُمْ مِنْ شَرْقٍ وَغَرْبٍ فَاسْتَقْبِلُوهَا

Wakee informed us saying, al-Nadr bin Arabi informed us saying, I heard Mujahid say: So, wherever you turn, there is the Face (Wajh) of Allah. (Surah al-Baqarah, 115). (Meaning) The Qiblah of Allah. So, wherever you are in the east or the west, face it. (Musanaf Ibn Abi Shaybah, 3377 The Sanad is Mutasil with reliable narrators).

وَيُرْوَى عَنْ مُجَاهِدٍ، فِي هَذِهِ الآيَةِ: {فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّوا فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ} [البقرة: 115] قَالَ: «فَثَمَّ قِبْلَةُ اللَّهِ» حَدَّثَنَا بِذَلِكَ أَبُو كُرَيْبٍ قَالَ: حَدَّثَنَا وَكِيعٌ، عَنِ النَّضْرِ بْنِ عَرَبِيٍّ، عَنْ مُجَاهِدٍ، بِهَذَا

It is narrated from Mujahid regarding the Ayah: So wherever you turn, there is the Face (Wajh) of Allah. (Surah al-Baqarah, 115). He said (it means), there is the Qiblah of Allah. This was narrated to us by Abu Kurayb, who said we were informed by Wakee from al-Nadr bin Arabi from Mujahid. (Tirmidhi, 2958).

In the Nusoos (texts) above, Imam Mujahid interpreted ‘The Face of Allah Most High’ as referring to the Qiblah of Allah (Most High). Meaning the direction you face when praying. This is a commendable approach because it keeps people far from imagining anything physical for Allah Most High, which would be an unmitigated disaster for one’s Iman. Imam Ibn Abi Hatim linked this to Imam Hasan al-Basri too:

حَدَّثَنَا الْحَسَنُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ الصَّبَّاحِ، ثنا حَجَّاجُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ الْأَعْوَرُ، عَنِ ابْنِ جُرَيْجٍ، أَخْبَرَنِي إِبْرَاهِيمُ بْنُ أَبِي بَكْرٍ، عَنْ مُجَاهِدٍ فِي قَوْلِهِ: {فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّوا فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ} [البقرة: 115] حَيْثُمَا كُنْتُمْ فَلَكُمْ قِبْلَةٌ تَسْتَقْبِلُونَهَا، الْكَعْبَةُ. وَرُوِيَ عَنِ الْحَسَنِ نَحْوُ ذَلِكَ

We were informed by al-Hasan bin Muhammad bin al-Sabaah, (he said) we were informed by Hajjaj bin Muhammad al-A’war, from Ibn Jurayj, (he said) Ibrahim bin Abi Bark informed us, from Mujahid regarding the Ayah: So wherever you turn, there is the Face (Wajh) of Allah. (Surah al-Baqarah, 115). (He said, it means), wherever you are, you have a Qiblah to face, (it is) the Ka’bah. Something similar was narrated from al-Hasan. (Tafseer Ibn Abi Hatim, 1122).

In another Ayah which mentions ‘The Face of Allah (Most High)’ we find Imam Muqatil interpreting it as the ‘Essence’ (Dhaat) of Allah Most High. So, depending on context, the scholars of the Salaf would interpret such verses in varying ways. For example, consider the following ayah:

كُلُّ شَيْءٍ هَالِكٌ إِلَّا وَجْهَهُ

 Everything will perish except His Face. (Surah al-Qasas, 88).

This ayah is explained as the following:

الا وجهه يعنى الا هو. (تفسير مقاتل بن سليمان)

Except his Face. Meaning except Him (His Essence, Dhaat). (Tafseer Muqatil bin Sulayman).

Later Classical Scholars

Latter scholars also followed this example and made Taweel of Wajh (Face). Including Imam al-Bukhari.

صحيح البخاري: {كُلُّ شَيْءٍ هَالِكٌ إِلَّا وَجْهَهُ} [القصص: 88]: إِلَّا مُلْكَهُ، وَيُقَالُ: إِلَّا مَا أُرِيدَ بِهِ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ

Everything will perish except His Face. (Surah al-Qasas, 88). (Meaning) Except his Kingdom. And it has been said, that which was done for His Face (His sake). (Sahih al-Bukhari).

Imams Ibn Katheer and al-Qurtubi both interpreted similar verses in their highly regarded Tafseer collections:

وَيَبْقى وَجْهُ رَبِّكَ ذُو الْجَلالِ وَالْإِكْرامِ [الرَّحْمَنِ: 27] فَعَبَّرَ بِالْوَجْهِ عَنِ الذَّاتِ. (تفسير القرآن العظيم)

Rather the Face of your Lord will abide full of Majesty and Glory. (Surah al-Rahman, 27). He (Most High) mentioned the Face referring to the essence. (Tafseer Ibn Katheer).

(وَيَبْقى وَجْهُ رَبِّكَ)
أَيْ وَيَبْقَى اللَّهُ، فَالْوَجْهُ عِبَارَةٌ عَنْ وُجُودِهِ وَذَاتِهِ سُبْحَانَهُ. (الجامع لأحكام القرآن)

Rather the Face of your Lord will abide. Meaning Allah (Most High) will abide. The Face is referring to His (Most High) existence and essence. (Imam al-Qurtubi, al-Jami Li Ahkaam al-Quran).

As we see from the Nussoss (texts) above, the Salaf engaged in Taweel (interpretation). Some ignorant people negate Taweel for the Salaf. They claim that it is misguidance to interpret verses like those above. This is demonstrably false. We also find some of the great Imams of Ahl al-Sunnah who wrote after the time of the Salaf and concurred with the approach of Taweel.

And Allah Most High Knows Best

-Answered by Shaykh Noorud-deen Rashid (03.09.2022)