Allah ﷻ - Understanding His Existence, Divine Names & Actions
Countering anthropomorphic (human like) view of Allah ﷻ
Firstly, we Muslims are not supposed to ask how and why of Allah’s actions, we accept His actions in the Quran as they are and do not inquire anything more. The ultimate reality of His actions is only something He knows best. The earliest generations of Muslims called the salaf, did not pose such questions about Allah ﷻ and accepted His actions in the Quran as they are. Such questions arose in the minds of the upcoming Muslim generations causing fitnah (confusion) and the scholars had to gear up to answer them otherwise there was a fear of Muslims creating an anthropomorphist (human resemblance) view of Allah ﷻ in their minds. To prevent such views to take root in the minds of the Muslims the scholars attempted to interpret actions of Allah ﷻ so that they can be understood correctly. For instance the following verse has been usually the center topic of such debates from medieval times which claims that Allah ﷻ occupies a throne:
(Al Quran 20:05) Al Rahmanu ala’l arshi istawa - The Most Merciful [who is] above the Throne established.
What I have learned from the scholars is that in this verse the establishment of the throne is not to be understood literally. Literalism should not be applied when understanding the actions of Allah ﷻ as that is what leads us to create a human image of Allah ﷻ in our minds which is forbidden due to the fact that Quran says: “There is not anything like Him (whatsoever).”
There has been a difference in understanding such actions of Allah ﷻ by various scholars of Islam for the past almost fifteen centuries. The majority school i.e. the scholars of Ahle Sunnah Wa’al Jama’ah (people of the way and consensus) i.e. majority Muslims have usually understood these actions in a figurative manner and explained them as opposed to a literalist manner. Since Quran is in classical Arabic there is much figurative speech involved in the language therefore many verses related to Allah’s actions such as the act of 'occupying the throne', need to be understood keeping the language in mind. The words ala’l arshi istawa meaning "establishing over the throne" or "occupying the throne" is to be understood in the same manner as we understand figurative speech in the sentence "the president’s seat got toppled" where it’s not the actual seat that got toppled but it is his power that is lost which means he is the president no more. In another instance there is a hadith of Prophet ﷺ where he said: “The Muslim is he who the Muslims are safe from his tongue and his hand.” Over here the "hand" that the he is referring to is not only the literal hand but also means that they are safe from any sort of his 'power' and 'influence' to harm others.
Similar to this when Quran says He is "occupying the throne’" it is to be understood as His power and sovereignty. Istiwa means "occupying" or "established" is His power and the Arsh which is His "throne" represents His sovereignty, as per scholars, and so it would mean He is in complete control of the entire sovereignty of the universe. When understanding actions of Allah ﷻ what we need to always remind ourselves is the following verse “there is not anything like Him (whatsoever).” This we need to keep in mind because figurative interpretation of His actions are also not a final interpretation. Figurative is just an interpretation to help the limited human mind grasp the meaning so they can be prevented from falling in to error. The ultimate meaning of Allah’s actions is only in His complete knowledge.
Imam Ibn Kathir in his tafsir shares a very important understanding of this verse: “and then He rose over (istawa) the Throne” which we should keep in mind and that is how famous Imams have understood it from the time of salaf (early Muslims):
“The people had several conflicting opinions over its meaning. However, we follow the way that our righteous predecessors (salaf) took in this regards such as Imam Malik , Imam Al Awzai , Sufyan Al Thauri , Al-Layth Bin Saad , Imam Shafi , Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal , and the rest of the scholars of Islam, in past and present times. Surely, we accept the apparent meaning of Al-Istawa, without discussing its true essence, equating it (with the attributes of the creation), or altering or denying it (in any way or form). We also believe that the meaning that comes to those who equate Allah with the creation is to be rejected, for nothing is similar to Allah ‘(There is nothing like Him, and He is the All-Hearer, the All-Seer. Al Quran 42:11)’. Indeed, we assert and affirm what the Imams said, such as Nuaym bin Hammad Al-Khuzai, the teacher of Imam Al-Bukhari (author of Sahih Bukhari), who said, ‘Whoever likens Allah with His creation, will have committed Kufr (disbelief). Whoever denies what Allah has described Himself with, will have committed Kufr (disbelief). Certainly, there is no resemblance (of Allah with the creation) in what Allah and His Messenger have described Him with. Whoever attests to Allah's attributes that the plain Ayaat (verses) and authentic Hadiths have mentioned, in the manner that suits Allah's majesty, all the while rejecting all shortcomings from Him, will have taken the path of guidance.’” Thus we Muslims neither ask how nor why of Allah's actions, we accept it as they are as we cannot comprehend our Lord fully due to the limitations of our minds and knowledge. Some matters will only be cleared for us in the hereafter and this is one of them.
 Salaf means the first three generations of Muslims.
 Fitnah means trial or tribulation. In this context it implies confusion.
 Al Quran 42:11
 Al Quran 42:11
 Al Quran 7:54
Meaning of Istawa - I. I. Kathir 2003