By Dr. G.F. Haddad

'Abd al-Malik ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Yusuf, Abu al-Ma'ali ibn Rukn al-Islam Abi Muhammad al-Juwayni al-Naysaburi al-Shafi'i, known as Imam al-Haramayn and Ibn al-Juwayni (419-478), al-Ghazzali's teacher, the jurist, scholar of legal pinciples, expert in kalâm and debate, Shaykh al-Islam, "the Glory of Islam, absolute Imam of all imams, main authority in the Law, whose leadership is agreed upon East and West, whose immense merit is the consensus of Arabs and non-Arabs, upon the like of whom none set eyes before or after," (Ibn 'Asakir) "whose work forms the connecting link between the respective methods of the Salaf and Khalaf" (al-Kawthari).

He is the main figure among the fifth generation of al-Ash'ari's students. Al-Bakhirzi compared him to al-Shafi'i and al-Muzani in fiqh, al-Asma'i in manners, al-Hasan al-Basri in preaching eloquence, and al-Ash'ari in kalâm. Ibn 'Asakir mentioned it and said: "Truly he is above that by far." Ibn al-Subki said: "Whoever thinks that there is anyone in the Four Schools that comes near his clarity of speech has no knowledge of him." "He felt bound to follow neither al-Ash'ari nor al-Shafi'i." Abu al-Ma'ali's father is considered, like him, a major authority of the Shafi'i school and among Ash'ari scholars.1

Famous for his intelligence, eloquence, learning, and charisma, Abu al-Ma'ali began to teach in Naysabur immediately after his father's death, only twenty and still a student in al-Bayhaqi's school. He took usûl from Imam Abu al-Qasim al-Iskaf al-Isfarayini and read the Qur'an under Abu 'Abd Allah al-Khabbazi. He took hadith first from his father, then from Abu Hassan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Muzakki, Abu Sa'd 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Hamdan al-Nasrawi, Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahya al-Muzakki, Abu Sa'd 'Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Hasan ibn 'Aliyyak, Abu 'Abd al-Rahman Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Nili, Abu Nu'aym al-Asbahani, and others.

Abu al-Ma'ali fled from Naysabur at a time when the anthropomorphist governor al-Kunduri and other Mu'tazili and Shi'i-inclined Hanafis used to curse the Companions as well as Imam al-Ash'ari from the pulpit every Jum'a. Among those imprisoned or compelled to leave at that time were Abu Sahl al-Bastami, al-Furati, Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, al-Bayhaqi, and others of the Shafi'is.2 He travelled to Baghdad, then Mecca where he taught and wrote for four years, earning his nickname of Imam of the two Sanctuaries. He then returned to Naysabur as the unchallenged grand mufti and headmaster of the newly-built Nizamiyya school where he remained for the next thirty years, forming generations of Shafi'i jurists and Ash'ari scholars and writing the following works:

Love of Knowledge

Imam al-Haramayn was humble and acknowledged his debt even to the unschooled if he had learned something from them, never belittling anyone. Inversely, he did not hide or gloss over his disapproval of something he disapproved of, even when it came to the words of his father or those of the famous imams.

The grammarian al-Mujashi'i said: "I never saw anyone crave after knowledge more than this imam. Truly he pursues knowledge for the sake of knowledge." Ibn 'Asakir related: "His pleasure and leasure consisted in the sessions of knowledge." "Whenever he spoke of spiritual states and probed the sciences of the Sufis in his early morning gatherings, he wept and made everyone weep at his words." Among his sayings:

"I do not eat or sleep out of habit, but only if sleep overcomes me whether by night or by day, and only if I need to eat, whatever the time."

"I did not utter one word of kalâm before first memorizing twelve thousand folios of the words of the qadi Abu Bakr [al-Baqillani] alone."

Ibn al-Sam'ani in Dhayl Tarikh Baghdad narrated from Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Abi 'Ali al-Hamadhani that Imam al-Haramayn said: "I read fifty thousand times fifty thousand [folios]. Then I left behind the people of Islam and their Islam of outward sciences in those books. I took to the vast sea and probed what Muslims deem prohibited to probe. I did all this in the pursuit of truth. I used, in bygone times, to flee from imitation. Now I have returned from all this to the word of truth: 'Cling to the faith of old women' ('alaykum bi dîn al-'ajâ'iz).3 If Allah does not catch me with His immense kindness so that I shall die with the faith of old women and my final end be sealed with the uprightness of the People of Truth and the pure declaration: lâ ilâha illallâh - then woe to al-Juwayni's son!"

He died of jaundice and was buried in his house after a huge throng attended his funeral bare-headed. Unrestrained manifestations of grief by four hundred of his over-zealous students lasted for days in Khurasan. Ibn 'Asakir said: "I believe that the marks of his hard work and striving in Allah's Religion shall endure until the rising of the Hour."

False Reports

Some anti-Ash'ari commentators have misconstrued al-Hamadhani's report cited above to read like a disavowal of kalâm on the part of Imam al-Haramayn. They have derived this conclusion from the sentence "Now I have returned from all this to the word of truth: 'Cling to the faith of old women.'" However, this sentence cannot be separated from what precedes and follows it, by which Ibn al-Juwayni meant not kalâm, but, as he said, the search for the truth independently of imitation, even outside Islam. He couched his ultimate abandonment of this search in terms of "the faith of old women," a formula that denotes basic faith unscathed by ignorance of all but absolute essentials. This is similar to Abu Sa'id al-Shahham's dream that Abu Sahl al-Su'luki said after his death: 'Allah forgave me for questions old women used to ask me.'"4 Note also that this report comes only through al-Hamadhani, whom Ibn al-Subki declared unreliable as a narrator.

Ibn al-Sam'ani also narrated from the hadith master Abu al-'Ala' Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Fadl, from the hadith master Muhammad ibn Tahir al-Maqdisi that the latter heard Abu al-Hasan al-Qayrawani in Naysabur say: "I heard Abu al-Ma'ali say: 'Do not occupy yourselves with kalâm, if I had known where it would take me I would not have occupied myself with it.'" This report reads like a tendentious summary of al-Hamadhani's report to strengthen the revised image of Imam al-Haramayn as finally disavowing kalâm. Ibn al-Subki comments: "It is indeed very strange that no-one reported this story from this great imam whose students filled the earth except al-Qayrawani who is unknown, and only through Ibn Tahir who is known for his enmity to Imam al-Haramayn! I tend to believe it is a forgery."5

The hadith master Salah al-Din Khalil ibn Kikaldi al-'Ala'i cited al-Dhahabi's brief notice on Imam al-Haramayn in Siyar A'lam al-Nubala' as an example of al-Dhahabi's bias against Ash'aris, while Ibn al-Subki considers that his teacher did his best to slight the Imam.6 This is borne out by the fact that al-Dhahabi indiscriminately adduces the following weak or forged reports detrimental to the imam:

Abu Ja'far al-Hamadhani heard al-Juwayni say: "Allah was when there was no place, and He is now as He ever was."10 Al-Hamadhani said: "Tell us then, O teacher! About this imperious necessity in which we find ourselves. There is not one knower of Allah who says 'O Allah!' except he finds in his heart an imperious necessity to seek out the height (al-'uluw). He does not turn right nor left. How can we rid ourselves of this necessity?" Or he said: "Do you have a remedy by which we can get rid of this necessity in which we find ourselves?" Whereupon the imam exclaimed: "O dear! There is nothing left now except bafflement." Then he slapped his hand on his head, came down his chair, and went into an inordinate long period of silence. Later he said: "Al-Hamadhani baffled me."

This report comes only through al-Hamadhani, whom al-Dhahabi himself reported described as "little knowledgeable in the science of hadith,"11 and Ibn Tahir, already cited for his enmity to the Imam. However, the greatest weakness of the report is in its internal incoherence, as it casts al-Hamadhani as an expert in the contents of the hearts of knowers of Allah and as claiming that he is one of them. It also makes blatant anthropomorphists of all the knowers of Allah. More importantly, it is highly unlikely that a master of debate such as Ibn al-Juwayni would concede defeat by such an elementary question, as Ibn al-Subki pointed out:

Was the Imam powerless to reply: "You have lied, O accursed one! For the knower of Allah does not harbor thoughts of corporeal aboveness for Allah, and only an ignoramus who believes that Allah has a direction sets such limits." We say: No knower of Allah says: "O Allah!" except he no longer see any directions. If the direction of aboveness was being sought, then, certainly, the worshipper would not have been prohibited from looking in that direction nor threatened with punishment if he did. As for the report that he cried out in bafflement and later said: "al-Hamadhani baffled me," it is a shameless lie. I wonder, what is it that that al-Hamadhani brought up as insinuation or proof so that one might say that he baffled him? If one such as the Imam was baffled and did not know what to think, then woe to the Imams of Muslims from the year 478 to this day! For the earth did not produce, from his time, one more knowledgeable of Allah than him. By Allah! What would be the position of al-Dhahabi and his likes if the Imam were to find himself baffled by such a question? This would be a disaster! I wish I even knew where this Abu Ja'far al-Hamadhani stands from the Imams of investigation and kalâm, and the verifiers among the imams of Muslims.

Even if the report were authentic, Ibn al-Juwayni's bafflement can more likely be interpreted to signify a rhetorical declaration of his opponent's ignorance. This device is used by Ibn al-Juwayni himself in his Nizamiyya:

If they [anthropomorphists] say to us: "So then you end up with confusion and bafflement!" we reply: Minds are baffled when it comes to understand Allah's reality, yet categorically affirm the existence [of Allah] to be transcendent above and exempt of the attributes of dependency."12

Al-Albani's Speculation

As for Albani's speculation13 that Ibn al-Juwayni's bafflement was the starting-point for his supposed return to a "Salafi" doctrine which culminated with his Nizamiyya, it is a clear proof that Albani did not read the Nizamiyya, which strongly reiterates the Imam's lifelong condemnation of anthropomorphism in many places. Albani's misreading stems from an isolated passage of the Nizamiyya - quoted many times by al-Dhahabi in his works - to which the anthropomorphist-inclined cling in order to purport, again, a denial of kalâm by the Imam.

The passage in question is found thus quoted in al-Dhahabi's Siyar:

The methods of the ulamas have differed on the outward expressions (al-zawâhir) of the Book and the Sunna, whose meaning the People of Truth could not ascertain <and which they could not take in the sense dictated by the understanding of the authorities in language>.14 As for the imams of the Salaf, they refrained from figurative interpretations, taking these outward expressions in the way that they came while turning over their meanings to the exalted Lord.15 The position we favor and consider our doctrine before Allah is to follow the Salaf of the Community. It is preferable to follow and leave innovation. The unambiguous proof transmitted to that effect is that the Consensus of the Community is a proof that must be followed and the reference-point of most of the Law. The Companions of the Prophet Allah bless and greet him , as a matter of course, avoided addressing the meanings of those expressions and trying to comprehend their contents, although they were the purest elite in all Islam. They, alone of all people, carried the burdens of the Law. They left no stone unturned in clearly defining the foundations necessary to all Muslims, exhorting each other to preserve them, teaching people whatever they needed to know. If the figurative interpretation of those verses and external expressions were warranted or obligatory, their attention would have turned to it with greater diligence, perhaps, than to the branches of the Law. Therefore, if their time and that of the Successors were typified by the shunning of figurative interpretation, then such shunning constitutes a definite proof for the right way to follow.16

It is therefore incumbent on those possessed with Religion to firmly believe in the Lord's transcendence above all the attributes of created beings and not probe the figurative interpretations of complex passages, entrusting their meanings to Allah Almighty.... The verse of the Establishment (20:5), that of the Coming (89:22), His saying There remains but the countenance of your Lord (55:27), That ran before Our eyes (54:14), and whatever is authentically narrated from the Prophet -- Allah bless and greet him -- such as the hadith of descent and others: let all these be taken according to the principles we have mentioned.17

Asha`ri to the Last - Condemning Anthropomorphism

Following is an earlier passage of the Nizamiyya where the Imam details some of the guiding principles according to which he recommends that the above verses and hadiths be read:

No attribute of which possibility (al-jawâz) forms a portion can be used to describe the exalted Godhead. For preternity (qidam) and possibility are complete opposites. To elaborate: the quality of being created (al-hudûth) is characterized, with regard to us, by possibility; therefore, we declare Allah transcendent above it. Being formed of parts (al-tarkîb), possessing measure and form (al-taqaddur wa al-tasawwur), with regard to us, is characterized by possibility. There is no combination of parts except that a hypothetical variant is also possible. Nor is there any limit (hadd), dimension (qadr), length (tûl), or width ('ard) except their likes and variants are rationally possible. All these attributes, because they are possible, depend on specifications set by their Creator. Exalted is He above such attributes! This is the meaning of the statement of the liege-lord of humanity -- Allah bless and greet him --: "Whoso knows himself knows his Lord."18 Meaning, whoever knows himself to be utterly dependent knows his Lord's utter exemption of his own [human] attributes. For all Allah's Names are transcendent above any signification of need and He is utterly exempt of it. Accordingly, it is obligatory to declare the transcendence of the Creator of the worlds above the least attribution of any particular direction....

There lies the slippery path and greatest danger of misguidance for people! It is at this point that the masses of human beings separate into two factions and only the saved group who are on the right stand their ground firmly. We must now point out the reason for this split and clarify what impelled the People of Truth19 to stand firm and avoid splintering.

Some groups described the Lord in terms above which He is actually transcendent in His majesty such as confinement (al-tahayyuz) in a particular direction (jiha). Some extremists went so far as to attribute Him shape and representation - Exalted is He high above the claims of heretics! What made them do this is that they sought their Lord among perceptible objects, within the figments of their imaginations and the whisperings and phantasms of their thoughts. This is a complete swerving from [affirming] the true attributes of the Godhead. What difference is there between those people and those who worship celestial bodies?20 Even if the ancient people of bygone times and those of latter days banded together in defining the Spirit (al-rûh) according to that method, they would be unable to do so. Yet the spirit is only one of Allah's creatures. However, it is conceived of rationally, not sensorily. Allah said, among the unambiguous verses of His Book which is well-guarded from any kind of corruption: {They ask you concerning the Spirit. Say: The Spirit is by command of my Lord, and of knowledge you have been vouchsafed but little} (17:85).

Another group took the road of nullification (ta'tîl). Their minds held back from any comprehension of Allah's reality and they concluded that whatever thought cannot circumscribe does not exist. Had they been granted success they would have understood that knowing Him to exist is not rendered inconceivable by our impotence ('ajz) to comprehend His reality. The example of the Spirit, which we just cited, refutes them. For there is no doubt as to the existence of the Spirit. Yet there is no way to comprehend its reality. Nor can its existence be denied on the grounds of our impotence to comprehend its reality. A blind man knows colors through common hearsay yet he does not comprehend their reality. This, then, is the reason for the deviation of the nullifiers of the divine attributes (al-mu'attila), and they stand opposed to those who liken Allah to created beings (al-mushabbiha).

As for the party of truth, they kept to the straight path and treaded the ways of absolute truth. They understood that contingencies are in need of a Creator uncharacterized by the attributes that point to dependency. They understood that if the Creator were described with such attributes He would have resembled His creatures. Yet they did not lean towards negation on the grounds that they could not comprehend the reality of the Godhead. Nor did they deem inconceivable the existence of Him Who must categorically be asserted to exist even with our impotence to comprehend His reality....

Therefore we say: Whoever sets out to find the Disposer of his affairs and then rests satisfied that there is an Existent Being that his mind ended up with, is an anthropomorphist. And if he rests satisfied with pure negation then he is a nullifier. But if he categorcally asserts an Existent Being and at the same time acknowledge his impotence to comprehend His reality then he is a Muslim monotheist (muwahhid). The latter is what the Trusting and Truthful [Abu Bakr] means when he said: "Impotence to comprehend is comprehension" (al-'ajz min al-idrâk idrâk). If they say to us: "So then you end up with confusion and bafflement!" we reply: Minds are baffled when it comes to understand Allah's reality, yet categorically affirm the existence [of Allah] to be transcendent above and exempt of the attributes of dependency."21

The above excerpt shows that Imam al-Haramayn did not depart, in the Nizamiyya from the established stand of early and late Ash'aris concerning Allah's Attributes. On the contrary, he reiterates in concise form the condemnations of anthropomorphism spelled out in his earlier al-Irshad fi Usul al-I'tiqad.22 Adducing the Nizamiyya passage where the Imam states his preference for tafwîd in order to suggest an improbable shift on his part towards anthropomorphism shows ignorance of the principles for which he strove in his life and works, and which culminated in his last word on kalâm.

Main sources: Ibn al-Subki, Tabaqat al-Shafi`iyya al-Kubra 5:165-222 #477; Ibn `Asakir, Tabyin Kadhib al-Muftari p. 272-278; al-Dhahabi, Siyar A`lam al-Nubala' 14:16-21 #4313.


1Munir 'Abduh Agha published an epistle entitled ithbat al-istiwâ' wa al-fawqiyya written in modern anthropomorphist style and attributed it to Rukn al-Islam Abu Muhammad al-Juwayni. None of the early sources mention that the latter ever authored such a work, nor does al-Dhahabi cite it in his encyclopedia of anthropomorphist views entitled al-'Uluw, nor Hajji Khalifa in Kashf al-Zunun. The only person who takes Agha's attribution of this work seriously to our knowledge is Albani in his Mukhtasar al-'Uluw (p. 277).

2See Ibn al-Subki's TSK (3:390-393, 4:209-210) for an account of this fitna.

3Something similar is attributed to 'Umar ibn al-Khattab in al-Qari's al-Asrar al-Marfu'a. On the phrase "Now I have returned from all this" Ibn al-Subki comments: "Ash'aris have two well-known positions regarding the affirmation of the Attributes and whether they are let pass according to their literal meaning but in confirmity with transcendence, or whether they should be interpreted. The first position is that which is traced back to the Salaf and forms the Imam's choice in al-Risala al-Nizamiyya as well as in other passages of his kalâm works. So his 'return' means a return from interpretation (al-ta'wîl) to relegation (al-tafwîd). Neither the latter nor the former are condemned for it is a question of ijtihâd. I mean the question of interpreting on the one hand or relegating together with transcendence. The great problem and terrible disaster consists in letting them pass according to literal meaning while believing that the latter is the actual meaning and that it is not impossible for it to apply to the Creator. And that is the creed of the idol-worshipping anthropomorphists. {Those in whose hearts is doubt} (3:7), their doubt impels them to pursue that which is allegorical {seeking to cause dissension}. Allah's curses be upon them uninterruptedly! How bold they are in committing lies, and how little is their understandings for realities!" Ibn al-Subki, TSK (5:191-192).

4 Abu Sa'id al-Shahham said: "I saw Abu Sahl al-Su'luki in my sleep and said to him: 'O Shaykh!' He replied: 'Drop the title of shaykh.' I said: 'What about those spiritual states?' He said: 'They availed us nothing.' I said: 'What did Allah do with you?' He said: 'He forgave me for questions which old women used to ask me.'" SAN (12:341-344 #3366); TKM (p. 184-187). Ibn al-Qayyim, Madarij (2:39).

5Al-Dhahabi also cites the report from Ghanim al-Mushili, without chain.

6We have cited Ibn al-Subki's remarks to the same effect with examples from al-Dhahabi's notices on Imam al-Ash'ari and others. See above, p. 28-29.

7He also attacked al-Ghazzali. See our biographical notice on the latter.

8Ibn al-Juwayni, al-Irshad (p. 103-105) cf. Ibn al-Subki, TSK (5:194-207).

9Ibn al-Juwayni, al-Irshad (p. 195-224).

10See post entitled "Allah Is Now As He Ever Was."

11In SAN (14:564 #4836).

12Ibn al-Juwayni, al-Nizamiyya (p. 16).

13In his edition of Mukhtasar al-'Uluw (p. 277).

14The passage in parentheses was omitted by al-Dhahabi. This omission is highly significant as it shows that al-Dhahabi, following Ibn Taymiyya, considers that the outward expressions in question can be taken in their outward sense. This is precisely the position of the anthropomorphists which Ibn al-Juwayni's phrase precludes and which he strongly condemns in other passages of the Nizamiyya. Al-Dhahabi omits the phrase again in his citation of the passage in al-'Uluw.

15Al-Kawthari comments: "This means that whatever is widely known to be applicable to Allah in absolute terms in the Sunna, we apply to Him in absolute terms, without probing the meaning and so as not to suggest any false notion. The term 'outward' (al-zâhir) here stands in contradistinction to the term 'arcane' (gharîb) as in Malik's statement: 'The best knowledge is the outward and the worst knowledge is the arcane.' What is meant here is not the outward which is a sub-type of clarity." Nizamiyya (p. 23 n. 1). Cf. the Tâbi'î Ibrahim ibn Abi 'Abla's (d. 152) statement: "Whoever learns the aberrations of knowledge learns much evil." In SAN (6:486).

16Al-Kawthari comments: "By the terms 'figurative interpretation' (ta'wîl) is meant the transposal (sarf) of the meaning to a single sense among all the possible meanings that conform with Allah's transcendence - the latter being inferred from categorical, explicit proofs - without specific support for such transposal. The latter case amounts to arbitrarily deciding what Allah means and what His Prophet -- Allah bless and greet him -- means. As for the specific designation of a meaning through various indices (qarâ'in), there is no way out but to accept it. There are narrations to that effect from the Companions and Succesors. What the author did here is to show the maximum precaution in Allah's Religion, for which he should be given credit." Al-Nizamiyya (p. 24 n. 1).

17Abu al-Ma'ali ibn al-Juwayni, al-Nizamiyya (p. 23-25), from the chapter entitled "What is incumbent to assert regarding Allah." Cf. al-Dhahabi, SAN (14:20-21) and Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari (1959 ed. 13:409).

18Narrated from 'A'isha by al-Mawardi in Adab al-Dunya wa al-Din as follows: "The Prophet -- Allah bless and greet him -- was asked: 'Who among people knows his Lord best?' He replied: 'Whoever knows himself best.'" Cited in Kashf al-Khafa' (2:343). The actual wording quoted by Ibn al-Juwayni is that of Yahya ibn Mu'adh al-Razi as reported from Ibn al-Sam'ani by al-Zarkashi in al-Tadhkira (p. 129) and al-Suyuti in al-Durar al-Muntathira (p. 258 #420). Al-Qari in al-Asrar al-Marfu'a (p. 337-338 #506) said: "Its meaning is deduced from Allah's saying {And who forsakes Ibrahim's religion save him who fools himself} (2:130) meaning: he ignores his own soul so that he does not know its Lord." Another, contrapositive proof is the verse {And do not be like those who forgot Allah, so Allah caused them to forget themselves} (59:19).

19I.e. Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamâ'a.

20Cf. al-Razi's statement: "The anthropomorphist does not worship Allah whatsoever because he only worships an image he fashioned for himself in his imagination, and Allah is transcendent above such things." In al-Qari's, Sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar (p. 90).

21Ibn al-Juwayni, al-Nizamiyya (p. 14-16), chapter entitled "What is impossible to apply to Allah Almighty."

22Chapters entitled "What is obligatory to assert concerning Allah's Attributes" (p. 51-68), "The Affirmation of His knowledge with the Attributes" (p. 125-131), and elsewhere.


Allah's Blessings and Peace on the Prophet, his Family, and all his Companions.

© As-Sunna Foundation of America
[permission granted to reproduce with author's consent.]