Event Review: Knowing God through the Lens of Imam Ashari & Imam Ghazali
Shaykh Ninowy expounds on the fundamental beliefs of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah[box_dark]Who: Shaykh Muhammad bin Yahya an-Ninowy
What: Seminar “Knowing God Through the Lens of Imam Ashari & Imam Ghazali”
Where: Madrasah Aljunied Auditorium
When: 9 & 10th June 2012
By: Sout Ilaahi[/box_dark]
Contrary to what the title of the seminar might suggest, Knowing God through the Lens of Imam Ashari & Imam Ghazali by Shaykh Ninowy did not focus specifically on the aforementioned scholars or their works. It was instead a crash course on Aqidah Tahawiyah, the oldest authentic text of aqidah of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah. Shaykh Ninowy explained that though short, such an important book would normally take a year to cover, but he asked everybody to fasten their seatbelts as he would try to cover as much as possible in his 1 ½ day lecture, part of Sout Ilaahi’s Sacred Text Series.
The speaker, Shaykh Muhammad bin Yahya An-Ninowy, a Syrian born scholar based in Atlanta, Georgia, began by giving a brief introduction to Imam Abu Jaafar Ahmad bin Muhammad At-Tahawi, the author of Aqidah Tahawiyah, and some of the concepts he would be discussing, including the Ashari, Maturidi and Athari schools of aqidah and the notion of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah.
During his reading and explanation of Aqidah Tahawiyah, Shaykh Ninowy stopped at several points to challenge popular but unfounded notions of God, including the depiction in cartoons and popular culture as a bearded old man in a robe seated above the clouds, surrounded by angels. He asked that everybody in the audience watch what their children watch and what they watch so as not to be susceptible to such erroneous conceptions of Allah.
Laisa ka mith lihii shai’
The Shaykh explained that Tauhid was the ‘Oneness’ of Allah, which he described as referring not to the mathematical concept of ‘one’ but to the absolute uniqueness of the Creator. Tauhid rewires the brain, the Shaykh stated, although many people worship Allah without knowing Him, and the technical fulfillment of deeds does not necessarily entail their eligibility for acceptance by Allah.
What Shaykh Ninowy stressed over and over again was verse 11 from Surah Ash-Shura in the Qur’an “Laisa ka mith lihii shai”, translated as “There is nothing like Him”. When encountering Qur’anic verses or hadith which seem to suggest anthropomorphic depictions of Allah, we should always keep that verse in mind. Anything we can imagine is not Allah, and is in fact from the creations of Allah.[quote]Shaykh Ninowy also emphasised and got the audience to repeat with him to drill in the following points: that Allah is Eternal with no beginning, Everlasting with no end, not created, not similar to the creation and not subject to change.[/quote]
The Shaykh stated that the Qur’an had both muhkamat and mutashabihat verses, a fact stated in the Qur’an itself. While muhkamat verses had only one definition, he explained that mutashabihat verses are open to several definitions linguistically and gave the sometimes contentious example of verse 5 from Surah Taha, “Ar-Rahman ala arshi istiwah”, commonly translated as “The Merciful established Himself above the Throne”.
While taken at face value, it seems to be attributing direction, space and posture to Allah, the Shaykh gave examples of alternative interpretations. The word “Arsh”, for example, could be translated not only as throne, but as dominion or kingdom. Similarly, “Istiwah” while translated literally as “above”, can also be taken to refer to reaching puberty, sailing comfortably or plants ripening. Istiwah also means to subjugate or govern. In the context of the verse, it could be taken to mean that Allah subjugated the throne.[box_light]It was essential, Shaykh Ninowy said, to either interpret such mutashabihat verses in a way that was suitable to Allah or to leave the truth of their meanings to Allah, that is, to simply say that we do not know.[/box_light]
While stating that he did not want to criticise any individuals or groups, Shaykh Ninowy critiqued what he referred to as a “Superman” aqidah, that is, believing that Allah has limbs and senses, but that they were not like those of humans. He stated that it was likening the Creator to His creation, and was akin to believing that Allah was simply a being with superpowers.
Could God create another God?
At several points during his lecture Shaykh Ninowy addressed the questions that are sometimes asked of Allah, such as whether He could create another god, or whether it were possible for God to create a stone that He could not lift. The Shaykh explained that such questions were self-contradictory and denied the omnipotence of Allah.
In the first situation, if one ‘god’ were able to hide information from the other, or if he were able to manage the universe without the other, it would make the other redundant and thus not God. If each were dependent on the other, that would mean that neither was omnipotent as God is not in need of anything. The second situation seemed to perceive Allah anthropomorphically, as a man with muscles whereas God is not like His creation and not dependent on physical strength.
Choice & Free Will
On the topic of choice and free will, Shaykh Ninowy stated that Allah created creation and created their power to choose between right and wrong and between belief and disbelief. This, he said, was the opinion held by Imam Al Ghazali and Imam Haramain, and was closer to the Maturidi opinion rather than that of the Ashari school. In His Eternal Knowledge, Allah knows what we will do with the capacity given to us.
This provoked many questions on the concept of choice and how it relates to the decree of Allah.
Quoting the opinion of the scholars of tazkiyah, Shaykh Ninowy stated that Allah shows humanity His Mercy by facilitating our good deeds, giving us the strength, capacity and will to do our prayers for example, and then attributes them to us and rewards us accordingly.
At the end of the course, those who attended were issued with an ijazah of sanad for Aqidah Tahawiyah from Shaykh Ninowy and Madina Institute, and a general ijazah from the Shaykh. The ijazah would count towards credit for a degree from Madina Institute, and attendees would be able to take an online test on the text to qualify for the credit.
Knowing God represented a unique experience to study from a classical religious work from a world-renowned scholar of Prophetic descent, and one hopes for Sout Ilaahi and others to continue to provide Muslims in Singapore with such opportunities to expand their knowledge.[divider]
Ahmad Zhaki Abdullah
Ahmad Zhaki holds a degree in English Literature from the University of London. He is a full-time executive at a local training institute and a part-time writer.