How should “Allah’s being established on the throne” mentioned in the verse be understood?

The Details of the Question

- How can we unite Allah’s being free from space with it?
- How should we understood Allah Almighty’s
being established on the throne so that it would not be opposite to His being free from space?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

“Your Guardian-Lord is Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and is firmly established on the throne (of authority): He draweth the night as a veil o’er the day, each seeking the other in rapid succession: He created the sun, the moon, and the stars, (all) governed by laws under His command. Is it not His to create and to govern? Blessed be Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds.” (al-A’raf, 7/54)

ISTIWA: Raghib states the following: “The verb (istawa) is used in two ways. One of them is that it is attributed to two or more subjects (doers). (...) “Zayd and Amr istawa (became equal).” As a matter of fact, the following is stated in the Quran: “They are not comparable in the sight of Allah.” (at-Tawba, 9/19), “Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know?” (az-Zumar, 39/9) The other is used for something that is straight and measured in itself: “Endued with Wisdom: for he appeared (in stately form)” (an-Najm, 53/6), “In order that ye may sit firm and square on their backs” (az-Zukhruf, 43/13), “And when thou hast embarked on the Ark - thou and those with thee “ (al-Muminun, 23/28), “and it stands on its own stem” (Feth, 48/29) and statements like “somebody’s work became moderate”, “somebody managed his workers” in Arabic are like that. Its usage with the preposition ila necessitates a sense of istila. Its usage with the preposition ala (on) necessitates a sense of ending spontaneously or with intervention. Thus, istiwa lexically means to become level, to be stable, to settle, uluwwa, isti’la, that is, to ascend, to be high, in other words, to be superior, to become settled, to be equal or similar, to arrive straight or to mean.

ARSH (THRONE) essentially means “saqf”, which forms the highest part of a building or place. In comparison to the house, its ceiling, attic, loft, dome and terrace are included within the scope of the word Arsh. In addition, it is used for anything that is high and provides shade like a tent and veranda. Thus, Arsh means loftiness and superiority. Therefore, arsh is used commonly in the sense of “throne”, on which a king sits, and as metonymy for land, majesty and sovereignty. (...) It is said that it means your land was invaded and destroyed. When the land is proper and things go well, the following is stated: “He dominated his throne; he settled on the throne of his land.” In addition, it is also used for anything that upholds something, the essence of something, the administrators of a community, four small stars that are also called “awwa“, the constellations at the end of Leo and two bright stars, one of which is in the north and the other is in the south, coffin, the inner woodwork placed on the wall of a water well made of stone, roundish lump on the foot near toes and nest of a bird. It is used in several senses.   

As it is explained in Ayatul-Kursiyy, “His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth” (al-Baqara, 2/255), some scholars think Kursiyy and Arsh are the same thing; it means they think both of them mean “throne”. However, according to what is stated by the majority, Arsh is superior to Kursiyy. Thus, if Kursiyy is considered as the throne, Arsh is the palace and the ceiling of the palace that covers it or the surroundings of the whole land. And if Kursiyy is thought as the capital city based on the narration that it is the place of the foot of Arsh, Arsh is considered with the concept of “taht”. With the consideration of those two meanings, Arsh, in the religious terminology, is regarded as a high place that surrounds the whole realm and that is beyond any limits and human mind, and whose reality is known by Allah’s knowledge; the skies, sidrah and Kursiyy are imagined as being under it. It is an ending; and the imagination of the realm ends there. However, the existence of God Almighty does not end; it is not possible to observe the beauty of God Almighty without passing through Sidrah al-Muntaha (Lote Tree of the Utmost Boundary). As a matter of fact, the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) passed through sidrah al-muntaha in Miraj. According to the first view, encompassing Arsh is an encompassing related to space and according to the second view, it is a spiritual encompassing.   

It is necessary no to ignore the following at this point:

1. In terms of its literal meaning “throne” is a special object on which a king sits when he rules the country. However, what matters is not that object itself but the domination, majesty and sovereignty it denotes.

2. It is definite that Arsh, which is the equivalent of the word “throne” in Arabic, and which is over the skies and surrounds the whole universe, is not used in the literal sense in the Quran. Therefore, it has to be thought that there is a metaphor in its usage, or rather, though throne is a common noun, al-Arsh has to be considered a proper noun in terms of religious terminology. In that case, it cannot be claimed that Arsh has to be an object.    

3. Arsh may be a general object but its aspects and being an object will end in it; therefore, imagination of object, space and aspect beyond it will be contradictory. It is necessary to think the understanding of “Sidrah al-Muntaha” very well at this point.

4. The word “ala” is not an adverb related to space or time in terms of its literal meaning. It expresses isti’la (elevation). Elevation and superiority express an aspect (direction) but the understanding of al-Arsh encompasses all places and directions; therefore, this aspect cannot have been thought in that isti’la. For this reason, “on the Throne” expresses an elevation (isti’la) beyond space and direction, a great highness, which is the real elevation. It is an elevation that encompasses all aspects and it is not possible to encompass it since it is not limited with any conditions and quantity. We can compare the relation expressed by that elevation to the relation of the cause to effect, dominant to submissive, the things whose existence is possible to the one whose existence is obligatory, and the creatures’ being in need of the creator.   

5. Istiwa is not used only in the physical sense. When it is said, “he controlled his work”, it is definite that this istiwa is physical. In our topic, the doer is Allah Almighty: “There is nothing whatever like unto Him” (ash-Shura, 42/11). In that case, it is not possible to think the divine istiwa in the physical sense necessitating a distance, a spatial gap between Allah and the creatures below the Throne because the following is stated in a verse: “But We are nearer to him than ye, and yet see not.” (al-Waqia, 56/85).

6. What is meant even in a king’s sitting on the throne is not a physical sitting but having the quality of being a king. It is such a meaning that it expresses that the throne sits tall thanks to the king, not the king sitting tall thanks to the stone. The continuity of a king on his throne does not mean he continues sitting physically on the throne but continuing ruling the country. However, this meaning is not absolute and real but relative and temporary for kings and thrones. Its absolute realness is related to Allah Almighty. In that case, it is necessary to understand that what is meant by istiwa in that sense is that it occurred in Allah with an obligatory existence in the absolute sense, that is, not with a possible being like physicality and spirituality.  In order to understand it, it is necessary to perceive that the reality of existence is not peculiar to the body and physicality, that even physicality is a temporary and relative existence and that it is necessary to transcend physicality and spirituality in order to know God Almighty. Therefore, those who cannot feel any existence beyond physicality and any height beyond physical height are regarded excused religiously to some extent.  

7. Istiwa (establishment) is attributed to a doer (subject) and is connected with Arsh (the Throne) with the preposition ala (on); therefore, it does not indicate that Allah is not level with or equal to the level of Arsh but that He is superior to and greater than Arsh. That is, the meaning is not “He established with the Throne” but “He established on the Throne”. It rejects and refutes the views that unite Allah with realm and proves a decent oneness reminding the infinity of the statements “He is witness to all things”, “He encompasses all things” and “There is nothing whatever like unto Him”. In that case, it is necessary to approve a high glorification freeing Him from their thoughts, not a simile.

Therefore, great scholars hold one of the following two views regarding the issue: The first one is the view of Salaf: They definitely accept that Allah is high in terms of space and direction but they do not interpret Allah’s establishing Himself on the Throne; they believe in it in the way that Allah wishes and leaves its reality to Allah’s knowledge acting upon the following verse: “But no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah.” (Aal-i Imran, 3/7). That is the view that is preferred and trusted by Ahl as-Sunnah:

“O my cousin! The Lord of the Throne is on the Throne but without the quality of settling on it.”

Once, somebody asked Imam Malik b. Anas about the istiwa in the verse: “What is istiwa like?” Imam Malik bent his head a bit and meditated; he perspired suddenly and said, “Istiwa is known but it is impossible to know its quality; it is wajib to believe in it and this question is bid’ah. I think you are a heretic.” Then, he had the man dismissed. The same meaning was reported from many salaf scholars. According to Hanafis, what is really reported is that “Establishment on the Throne is an attribute of Allah without the quality of settling on it”.

The second one is the view of the scholars who came after salaf scholars and who searched a true interpretation based on the evidences from the Quran and rational evidences by excluding the wrong possibilities that are not permissible to attribute to Allah and who preferred it to refute those who tried to bring about the doubt of embodiment (tajsim) and unification (ittihad) from the words of salaf scholars. There are mainly three or four views about it:

     1) As it is seen above, in Arabic, the phrase “established on the Throne” is used metaphorically to express the regularity and order of something, which is the opposite of the phrase “his rule collapsed”. In that case the clearest and most appropriate meaning of the phrase “and is firmly established on the throne” in the verse is metaphorical indicating that “He always controls all His creatures, governs them regularly and shows His power and will fully”. This meaning is clear and the verse continues as follows:

“He draweth the night as a veil o’er the day, each seeking the other in rapid succession: He created the sun, the moon, and the stars, (all) governed by laws under His command.” The phrase

and is firmly established on the throne (of authority), regulating and governing all things“ (Yunus, 10/3)

in the chapter of Yunus is something that indicates it or an interpretation of it. Hasan al-Basri expresses it as “He governed His work”, indicating the same meaning as a metaphor. That is establishment is attributed to Allah in terms of being His command and work. That the word “thumma (then)” is used is like an indication of it. Since the first creation moments occurred without being similar or compared to anything and did not include any repetition and resemblance and it occurred with the creation of various creatures for the first time, in other words, since the six days had not started to repeat and since the first creation did not include any continuity, istiwa (establishment) is unthinkable at that time.

“And His Throne was over the waters.” (Hud, 11/7)

As the verse above indicates, the divine manifestations at that time express various movements that do not settle in any level. For example, a cloud (a smoke) was created and a heavenly body is created from smoke, fire from the heavenly body, soil from the fire, water from the soil, plants and animals were created from the water while there was no custom, continuity, and establishment yet. They are all extraordinary and diverse. However, creation did not consist of only such an abstract movement of difference and change; it continued with a more or less resemblance in change and repetition; and after the creatures that underwent a general change and whose contents were different, various combined and similar creatures were created with minor changes; the creatures started to be changed and improved; creation afterwards and extinctions continued; for example, fire and water were created from cloud, and life from water and soil were created several times; then, plants from plants, animals from animals and humans from humans started to be created; after that, a regularity and continuity became manifest in various works, which is called “sunnatullah” (the sunnah of Allah), “adatullah” (the custom of Allah). The attribute of istiwa can be considered from then on. The delay in the phrase “created and then established” indicates it. To sum up, istiwa can be considered neither as a deed nor simply in terms of change, but in terms of repetition and resemblance. It means an actual attribute of Allah, who is free from increasing and changing, only in terms of the harmony among His acts. As a matter of fact, Sufyan ath-Thawri expresses it as follows: “He did something on Arsh; He called it istiwa.” Some other scholars state that all of them occurred in accordance with the will of Allah explained in the following verse:

“Moreover, His design comprehended the heavens, for He gave order and perfection.” (al-Baqara, 2/29)

It indicates the actual attribute in the sense of the continuity of the work mentioned in the metaphor regularly and the occurrence of His will. However, it includes the doubt of istiwa being the attribute of the creatures. However, the verse attributes istiwa to Allah by declaring it to be on Arsh; it expresses the establishment of the dominant power in domination, not the establishment of the submissive one in submissiveness.  

     2) Istiwa meaning istila. In that sense, it means “After creating beings, He held all of them under His power and command.” Its relationship with the following verse is clear: “It is He that doth encompass all things.” (as-Sajda, 41/54). However, establishment (istiwa) is more comprehensive than encompassing (ihata). Ibn Arabi said, “We do not know istiwa in the sense of istila.” However, it is known that a poet answered him by quoting the following line from a poem:

“Bishr invaded (istala) Iraq without sword and shedding blood.”

     3) Arsh is in the sense of land and country; istiwa is in the sense of istila. It is closely related with other meanings and it also indicates some uses. Firstly: It attracts attention to its meaning. Secondly: It includes the meaning about Allah’s domination over human dominations who regard themselves as absolute dominant more than other meanings. Thirdly: It insists on Allah’s sublime and absolute perfection with all His essential attributes, not in terms of His actual attributes only. From this viewpoint, the delay in the meaning of thumma (then) is not between creation and establishment but in terms of the stage of expression.   

     4) “He established Himself on the Throne” is also interpreted as follows: “Everything is equal in terms of Allah. Nothing is closer to Him than another thing because Allah is not like objects that leave a place and go to another place.” It is a remarkable meaning in terms of rejecting distance and proving justice in particular. That is, Allah established Himself on the throne with such istila that the skies and the things in the sky are not closer to or distant from Him than the earth and those on the earth; they are equal. It should not be concluded from it that istiwa is used in the sense of equality because the purpose is an essential or relative quality that is the necessity of equality. As a matter of fact, the other meanings of istiwa are thought by giving up equality. The example of this meaning in terms of space is the equality in the position of center according to the middle point between two things and according to the circular region; the rate of equality belongs to two sides or the points on the circular region. Its meaning is thought as compared to them in the center. Thus, the meaning of the Throne suggests the idea of centrism along with the meaning of encompassing. However, it should not be forgotten that the rate of the various points behind the circumference to the center is not the same; the distance is different. However, as the verse

“It is He Who is Allah in heaven and Allah on earth” (az-Zukhruf, 43/84)

indicates, such a difference cannot be thought in terms of divine proportion; this example explains that divine istiwa cannot be a criterion for this geometrical meaning and it is necessary to remove all distance conditions to understand it. In fact, the understandings of space, direction and distance are also below the Throne; they are not “over the Throne”. Allah observes and controls everything all the time. There is nothing that is similar to Him. Therefore, His istiwa cannot be compared to any istiwa whose nature is certain. It is necessary to think of the words used for His divine essence and attributes as religious realities, not as literal meanings. Therefore, it would be sheer ignorance in terms of religion and reason to forget the fulfilment of the system, command and will, which are the lofty necessities of the Throne, to forget istila (invasion) and isti’lâ (elevation), the limit of power and absolute justice and to think that Allah is leaning against the Throne and sitting, standing or lying on it all the time like a person who is sitting or standing on a on a throne, chair or roof just because the word istiwa is used in the sense of sitting, standing or settling literally. Although such a meaning is lexically possible, it is impossible in terms of religion and reason. The meanings explained above aim to explain this and to reject such a delusion; each of those meanings is true. The high prose of the Quran allows all of them in terms of language, religion and reason. However, the best thing to do is to think of all of them as a whole and to meditate on the reality of divine istiwa, which is not possible to comprehend because there is a principle even in the concepts of creation, the skies, the earth, six days and the Throne that is beyond our understanding. In that case, it is necessary to confess that the reality of istiwa, which is superior to all of them, is beyond our level of understanding. Therefore, the interpretation to believe in is the interpretation of the majority of Salaf: Allah created the skies and the earth at special times and then established Himself on the Throne in the sense that He willed and free from the doubts of huduth (occurring afterwards), disappearing, having a place and direction. However, it does not mean that there is nothing we can understand in that high prose; it will be explained in the remaining part of the verse.

Look! He draws the night as a veil over the day. He covers those two opposite beings, which are among the widest manifestations of elevation and domination, by covering one of them with the other constantly. After He makes the light in the realm cover the darkness, He makes the darkness cover the light. It indicates the following verse, one of them with the words and the other with its implication:

“He makes the Night overlap the Day” (az-Zumar, 39/5) and “and the Day overlap the Night.” (az-Zumar, 39/5)

The night’s covering (overlapping) the day is clear since it is the real doer of the word night is the doer (subject) of the verb overlap: “He makes the Night overlap the Day” (az-Zumar, 39/5). That is, it is seen every evening that Allah covers the spirits and souls in the realm, and rolls up the day, which seems to encompass and dominate everything, the feeling of brightness that spreads over space and time, the day of the eye and the day itself with an order He gives in the evening and places it in darkness, invaded by the night. The day disappears from the horizon and feelings, enters into a realm in darkness and the world becomes a different world. The things that shine fade away; the things that fade turn; colors and shapes wear black garments; the places that spread are rolled up; the times that do not stop are overtaken; eyes become dark; hearts narrow; you see that the day and everything under its command keep down, hide, are defeated and imprisoned under an image in the night. You even lose consciousness, sleep and are buried in the darkness of non-existence. He makes you overwhelmed. When the day runs after the night or when the night runs after the day hurriedly like an excited lover, Allah brings the night despite the enthusiasm of the day and covers the day with the night, making the winner loser and the loser winner. He makes that covering continue all the time. In that covering, there is an observation of creation in terms of the first instance and an evidence of divine istiwa in its repetitions. Thus, neither the day can overtake and defeat the night nor the night can overtake and defeat the day:

“Nor can the Night outstrip the Day.” (Yasin, 36/40)

As this movement of turning continues, they follow each other under a disciplined management from above and below, in and out, declaring Allah’s domination all the time. The realm becomes neither a state of day only nor a state of night in terms of space and time, and objects and subjects. Similarly, they cannot form two independent states since one of them cannot be constant in one part of the realm and the other in the other part all the time. Each of them passes a point of istiwa alternately; one of them covers the other under the management and influence of a superior power, handing over to each other. They hand over under such a management that they do not only follow each other and unite but they also cover and enter into each other. The day becomes the successor and predecessor of the night; they are under and over each other, inside and outside of each other, and superior and inferior to each other. Yesterday’s day overtakes the night and is hidden in and under it. However, neither the day is transformed into the night nor the night into the day. Their appearances are hidden; their changes are regular; their elevations are equal; they are interchanged alternately and are stable. However, when the nature and rapid demand of the day are considered, one thinks that the day should not allow the night to overtake it once it defeats the night and covers it; it should be dominant over the night, should not fade when it invades the night and should adhere to its establishment tight. Similarly, when the nature of the night is considered, one thinks that the night should adhere to its establishment tight and the day should not appear. When one considers both of them, he thinks that there should not be a transfer or a movement between them and that one of them should stop and prevent the other. It means there is a continuity and nature that can be attributed to created beings like the demand of the night and the day. When an abstract thing is considered on its own, it assumes an attribute of continuity and it is said to be the necessity of its nature or essence. However, its nature is not influential and dominant on its own. As a matter of fact, what obliges the night and the day to act contrarily to their nature is something beyond them and their nature. In that case, real obligation is beyond nature like creation. For instance, when it is viewed in terms of nature, it is thought that an object that is moved will move forever in space and it is called inertia. In fact, that is the decree of the law of rhythmic movement of all rational movements that are regarded to be logical and that take place as a necessity of the nature of things. However, when we search, we see that there is no such movement in the world. There is nothing that is not exposed to the resistance of its opposite and that cannot be stopped or changed as a necessity of its nature. It is such a point that it shows us that the nature of things is not dominant but submissive. It shows that the necessary cause that determine events is beyond nature and that inertia is not an evidence that proves it.

When it is considered that the whole realm does not act contrarily to the movement of the day and night in space and time, and in visible and invisible things, that the realm is in the day or the night wholly or partially, that time is more comprehensive than space, that space fits in a moment of time in the form of the night or the day and that the night and the day draw two opposite boundaries of the nature of time as the light and darkness lengthen, it is immediately understood that the light and the darkness, which cover the whole realm, are two evidences of a command and deed and the divine istiwa that becomes manifest on the Throne every day as the following verse of the Creator, who makes the night and the day overlap each other and the owner of the command that covers and manages all created beings, indicates:

“Every day in (new) Splendor doth He (shine).” (ar-Rahman, 55/29)

The same decree and command occur in the mutual and alternate turns and decrees of all opposites like push and pull, movement and inactivity, hot and cold, wet and dry, life and death, and sorrow and joy, in the duality of various natures like the plus and minus of electricity and even the formation of nature, which is single. All separations of those that come together, the unifications of those that separate from each other, and the turning and alterations of opposites are direct witnesses showing Allah’s istiwa on the nature of His creatures. However, since the night and the day include all of them, “drawing the night as a veil over the day” is the most general and clearest official declaration of this deed on natures in the visible and invisible things: It reminds all the contrary relations in the opposite relationship mentioned in the verse “each seeking the other in rapid succession”, describes the states of the two opposites, which undergo the fate of change during that time of being covered, in terms of the viewpoint of nature, and explains and shows the characteristic of the command of covering, which reverses and changes this state, which is beyond nature and which shows the correct istiwa.

(Elmalılı Hamdi Yazır, Hak Dini Kur’an Dili, the interpretation of the verse in question)

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