Can Allah be seen and did Muhammad see his Lord?
The Quran suggests that Muhammad saw Allah, that he had a vision in which Allah appeared to him visibly:
By the Star when it plunges, your comrade is not astray, neither errs, nor speaks he out of caprice. This is naught but a revelation revealed, taught HIM by ONE terrible in power, very strong; HE STOOD POISED, being on the higher horizon, THEN DREW NEAR and suspended hung, two bows’-length away, or nearer, then REVEALED TO HIS SERVANT that HE REVEALED. His heart lies not of what he saw; what, will you dispute with him what he sees? Indeed, he SAW HIM ANOTHER TIME by the Lote-Tree of the Boundary nigh which is the Garden of the Refuge, when there covered the Lote-Tree that which covered; his eye swerved not; nor swept astray. Indeed, he saw one of the greatest signs of his Lord. S. 53:1-18 Arberry
The above refers to an unnamed comrade who hasn’t gone astray and who doesn’t speak out of caprice. Muslims unanimously take this to be an obvious reference to Muhammad. It goes on to say that he (Muhammad) was taught by one terrible in power, very strong (Allah), and that he (Allah) stood poised and drew near and revealed to his servant (Muhammad) the revelation. The expression “revealed to his servant” clearly shows that this is speaking of Allah and Muhammad, that Allah appeared to Muhammad in order to grant him revelation. The text cannot be saying that Gabriel appeared to Muhammad since this would imply that the latter is the servant of Gabriel.
Lo! I swear by the slinkers, the runners, the sinkers, by the night swarming, the dawn sighing, truly this is the word of a noble Messenger (rasoolin kareemin) having power, with the Lord of the Throne secure, obeyed, moreover trusty. Your companion is not possessed; he truly SAW HIM on the clear horizon; he is not niggardly of the Unseen. And it is not the word of an accursed Satan; where then are you going? It is naught but a Reminder unto all beings, for whosoever of you who would go straight; but will you shall not, unless God wills, the Lord of all Being. S. 81:15-29 Arberry
The above reference seems to be saying that Muhammad is the companion who is not possessed, the noble messenger having power who is secure with the Lord of the throne, i.e. Allah. There is even another text which identifies Muhammad as a noble messenger:
it is the speech of a noble Messenger (rasoolin kareemin). It is not the speech of a poet (little do you believe) nor the speech of a soothsayer (little do you remember). A sending down from the Lord of all Being. Had he invented against Us any sayings, We would have seized him by the right hand, then We would surely have cut his life-vein and not one of you could have defended him. S. 69:40-47 Arberry
If this is the case then S. 81:15-29 is another reference to Muhammad seeing Allah on a clear horizon.
In fact, specific Islamic narrations understood that these texts, specifically Sura 53, meant that Muhammad had actually seen his lord:
Chapter 78: THE MEANING OF THE WORDS OF ALLAH:” HE SAW HIM IN ANOTHER DESCENT” (AL-QUR’AN, LIII. 13). DID THE APOSTLE (MAY PEACE BE UPON HIM) SEE HIS LORD ON THE NIGHT OF HIS JOURNEY (TO HEAVEN)?
It is narrated on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas that he (the Holy Prophet) saw (Allah) with his heart. (Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Number 0334)
It is narrated on the authority of Ibn Abbas that the words: “The heart belied not what he saw” (al-Qur’an, Iiii. 11) and “Certainly he saw Him in another descent” (al-Qur’an, Iiii. 13) imply that he saw him twice with his heart. (Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Number 0335)
Carefully note here that Ibn Abbas understood Sura 53:11,13 to be referring to Muhammad seeing Allah, not Gabriel.
Narrated AbdurRahman ibn A’ish
Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: I saw my Lord, the Exalted and Glorious in the most beautiful form. He said: What do the Angels in the presence of Allah contend about? I said: Thou art the most aware of it. He then placed HIS PALM between my shoulders and I felt its coldness in my chest and I came to know what was in the Heavens and the Earth. He recited: ‘Thus did we show Ibrahim the kingdom of the Heavens and the Earth and it was so that he might have certainty.’(6:75)
Darimi reported it in a mursal form and Tirmidhi also reported. (Tirmidhi Hadith, Number 237; ALIM CD-ROM Version)
Narrated Mu’adh ibn Jabal
Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) was detained one morning from observing the dawn prayer (in congregation) along with us till the sun had almost appeared on the horizon. He then came out hurriedly and Iqamah for prayer was observed and he conducted it (prayer) in brief form. When he had concluded the prayer by saying As-salamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah, he called out to us saying: Remain in your places as you were. Then turning to us he said: I am going to tell you what detained me from you (on account of which I could not join you in the prayer) in the morning. I got up in the night and performed ablution and observed the prayer as had been ordained for me. I dozed in my prayer till I was overcome by (sleep) and lo, I found myself in the presence of my Lord, the Blessed and the Glorious, IN THE BEST FORM. He said: Muhammad! I said: At Thy service, my Lord. He said: What these highest angels contend about? I said: I do not know. He repeated it thrice. He said: Then I saw Him put HIS PALMS between my shoulder blades till I felt the coldness of HIS FINGERS between the two sides of my chest. Then everything was illuminated for me and I could recognize everything. He said: Muhammad! I said: At Thy service, my Lord. He said: What do these high angels contend about? I said: In regard to expiations. He said: What are these? I said: Going on foot to join congregational prayers, sitting in the mosques after the prayers, performing ablution well despite difficulties. He again said: Then what do they contend? I said: In regard to the ranks. He said: What are these? I said: Providing of food, speaking gently, observing the prayer when the people are asleep. He again said to me: Beg (Your Lord) and say: O Allah, I beg of Thee (power) to do good deeds, and abandon abominable deeds, to love the poor, that Thou forgive me and show mercy to me and when Thou intendst to put people to trial Thou causes me to die unblemished and I beg of Thee Thy love and the love of one who loves Thee and the love for the deed which brings me near to Thy love. Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: It is a truth, so learn it and teach it.
Transmitted by Ahmad, Tirmidhi who said: This is a hasan sahih hadith and I asked Muhammad ibn Isma’il about this hadith and he said: It is a sahih hadith. (Tirmidhi Hadith, Number 245; ALIM CD-ROM Version)
These narrations obviously presuppose that Allah took the form of a man, a point reiterated by the next traditions taken from another Muslim source:
The Prophet saw Allah before death as is the doctrine of the majority of Ah al-Sunna thus related from al-Nawawi by al-Qari. The evidence for this is the hadith of Ibn ‘Abbas whereby the Prophet said: “I saw my Lord” (ra’aytu rabbi). Ibn Kathir cited it in his commentary on Sura al-Najm and declared its chain sound, but considered it part of the hadith of the dream cited below. Ibn Qayyim [see excerpt below] relates that Imam Ahmad considered such sight to be in the Prophet’s sleep but remains a true sight – as the dreams of Prophets are true – and that some of the Imam’s companions mistakenly attributed to him the position that the Prophet saw his Lord “with the eyes of his head.”
Al-Bayhaqi also narrated the hadith “I saw my Lord” in al-Asma’ wa al-Sifat with a sound chain but with the addition: “in the form of a curly-haired, beardless young man wearing a green robe,” a condemned, disauthenticated addition and concatenation with another hadith that refers to Gibril. Hence al-Suyuti interpreted it either as a dream or, quoting his shaykh Ibn al-Humam, as “the veil of form” (hijab al-sura)… (Islamic Doctrines and Beliefs: Volume 1: The Prophets in Barzakh, The Hadith of Isra’ and Mir’aj, The Immense Merits of Al-Sham, The Vision of Allah, Al-Sayyid Muhammad Ibn ‘Alawi al-Maliki, translation and notes by Dr. Gibril Fouad Haddad [As-Sunna Foundation of America 1999], pp. 137-138; bold and underline emphasis ours)
In a footnote the translator mentions another narration that says Allah appeared as a man!
… and from Umm al-Tufayl by al-Tabarani (6:158 #3385). The latter chain actually states: “I saw my Lord in the best form of a beardless young man” and was rejected by al-Dhahabi in Tahdhib al-Mawdua’at (p. 22 #22)… (p. 139, fn. 257)
How interesting. Some Muslims were forging narrations in which they had Allah appearing as a young man!
The Quran also says that no one can see Allah:
Such is GOD your Lord, there is no god except He, the Creator of all things. You shall worship Him alone. He is in control of all things. No visions can encompass Him, but He encompasses all visions. He is the Compassionate, the Cognizant. S. 6:102-103 Khalifa
It is not fitting for a man that God should speak to him EXCEPT by inspiration, or from behind a veil, or by the sending of a messenger to reveal, with God’s permission, what God wills: for He is Most High, Most Wise. S. 42:51 Y. Ali
In light of this plain denial of anyone being able to see Allah it is therefore not surprising to find conflicting views and narrations which deny that Muhammad saw his lord:
I said to ‘Aisha, “O Mother! Did Prophet Muhammad see his Lord?” Aisha said, “What you have said makes my hair stand on end! Know that if somebody tells you one of the following three things, HE IS A LIAR: Whoever tells you that Muhammad saw his Lord, IS A LIAR.” Then Aisha recited the Verse:
‘No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision. He is the Most Courteous Well-Acquainted with all things.’ (6.103) ‘It is not fitting for a human being that Allah should speak to him except by inspiration or from behind a veil.’ (42.51) ‘Aisha further said, “And whoever tells you that the Prophet knows what is going to happen tomorrow, is a liar.” She then recited:
‘No soul can know what it will earn tomorrow.’ (31.34) She added: “And whoever tells you that he concealed (some of Allah’s orders), is a liar.” Then she recited: ‘O Apostle! Proclaim (the Message) which has been sent down to you from your Lord…’ (5.67) ‘Aisha added. “But the Prophet saw Gabriel in his true form twice.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 378)
‘Aisha said, “If anyone tells you that Muhammad has seen his Lord, HE IS A LIAR, FOR ALLAH SAYS: ‘No vision can grasp Him.’ (6.103) And if anyone tells you that Muhammad has seen the Unseen, he is a liar, for Allah says: ‘None has the knowledge of the Unseen but Allah.’” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 477)
It is narrated on the authority of Masruq that he said: I was resting at (the house of) ‘A’isha that she said: O Abu ‘A’isha (kunya of Masruq), there are three things, and he who affirmed even one of them fabricated the greatest lie against Allah. I asked what they were. She said: He who presumed that Muhammad (may peace be upon him) saw his Lord (with his ocular vision) fabricated the greatest lie against Allah. I was reclining but then sat up and said: Mother of the Faithful, wait a bit and do not be in a haste. Has not Allah (Mighty and Majestic) said: “And truly he saw him on the clear horizon” (al-Qur’an, lxxxi. 23) and “he saw Him in another descent” (al-Qur’an, liii. 13)? She said: I am the first of this Ummah who asked the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) about it, and he said: Verily he is Gabriel. I have never seen him in his original form in which he was created except on those two occasions (to which these verses refer); I saw him descending from the heaven and filling (the space) from the sky to the earth with the greatness of his bodily structure. She said: Have you not heard Allah saying: “Eyes comprehend Him not, but He comprehends (all) vision. And He is Subtle, and All-Aware” (al-Qur’an, vi. 103)? (She, i. e. ‘A’isha, further said): Have you not heard that, verily, Allah says: “And it is not vouchsafed to a human being that Allah should speak unto him otherwise than by revelation, or from behind a veil, or that He sendeth a messenger (angel), so that he revealeth whatsoever He wills. Verily He is Exalted, Wise” (al-Qur’an, xlii. 51) She said: He who presumes that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) concealed anything from the Book, of Allah fabricates the greatest lie against Allah. Allah says: “O Messenger! Deliver that which has been revealed to thee from thy Lord, and if thou do (it) not, thou hast not delivered His message” (al-Qur’an, v. 67). She said: He who presumes that he would inform about what was going to happen tomorrow fabricates the greatest lie against Allah. And Allah says: “Say thou (Muhammad): None in the heavens and the earth knoweth the unseen save Allah” (al-Qur’an, xxvii. 65). (Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Number 0337)
Here, Aisha recites Suras 6:103 and 42:51 to prove that Muhammad could not have seen his lord, and explicitly stated that if anyone claims otherwise then he or she is a liar. Thus, according to one of the mothers of the Muslim believers, one whom many even recognize as being a scholar of Islam, men such as Ibn Abbas are liars for contradicting the Quran!
There is more:
Al-Shaibini reported to us: I asked Zirr b. Hubaish about the words of Allah (the Mighty and Great): “So he was (at a distance) of two bows or nearer” (al-Qur’an, liii. 8). He said: Ibn Mas’ud informed me that, verily, the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) saw Gabriel and he had six hundred wings. (Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Number 0330)
Al-Shaibani narrated on the authority of Zirr who narrated it on this authority of Abdullah that the (words of Allah): “The heart belied not what he saw” (al Qur’an, liii. 11) imply that he saw Gabriel (peace be upon him) and he had six hundred wings. (Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Number 0331)
Zirr b. Hubaish narrated it on the authority of ‘Abdullah (that the words of Allah): “Certainly he saw of the greatest signs of Allah” (al-Qur’an, liii. 18) imply that he saw Gabriel in his (original) form and he had six hundred wings. (Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Number 0332)
It is narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the (words of Allah): “And certainly he saw him in another descent” (al-Qur’an, Iiii. 13) imply that he saw Gabriel. (Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Number 0333)
Chapter 79: PERTAINING TO HIS (PROPHET’S) WORDS: HE IS A LIGHT; HOW COULD I SEE HIM? – AND HIS WORDS: I SAW THE LIGHT
It is narrated on the authority of Abu Dharr: I asked the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him): Did you see thy Lord? He said: He is a Light. How could I see Him? (Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Number 0341)
Abdullah b. Shaqiq reported: I said to Abu Dharr: Had I seen the Messenger of Allah, I would have asked him. He (Abu Dharr) said: What is that thing that you wanted to inquire of him? He said: I wanted to ask him whether he had seen his Lord. Abu Dharr said: I, in fact, inquired of him, and he replied: I saw Light. (Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Number 0342)
The same source cited earlier that is translated by Haddad also records the views of those who denied that Muhammad saw his lord, noting the contradictions:
Others considered Ibn ‘Abbas’ narration to refer to a vision with the eyes of the heart, as elucidated by Ibn ‘Abbas’ other narrations in Sahih Muslim and al-Tirmidhi (hasan): “He saw him with his heart.” Another narration from Ibn ‘Abbas in Muslim states: “He saw him with his heart twice,” in his commentary on the verses <The heart lied not (in seeing) what it saw> (53:11), <And verily he saw him, yet another time> (53:13)…
Many sound reports show that the Companions differed SHARPLY whether the Prophet saw Allah or not. Ibn ‘Abbas related that he did, while Ibn Mas‘ud, ‘A’isha, Abu Hurayra, and Abu Dharr related reports TO THE CONTRARY, stating that the verses of Sura al-Najm and other Suras referred to Gibril, and that the Prophet said that he saw light. (Haddad, pp. 144-145; underline and capital emphasis ours)
A narration by al-Tirmidhi from al-Sha‘bi cites two positions in context:
Ibn ‘Abbas met Ka‘b [al-Ahbar] in ‘Arafa and asked him about something, whereupon Ka‘b began to shout Allahu Akbar! Until the mountains answered him. Ibn ‘Abbas said: “We are the Banu Hashim!” Ka‘b said: “Allah has apportioned His vision and His speech between Muhammad and Musa. Musa spoke with Him twice and Muhammad saw him twice.” Masruq said: “Later I went to ‘A’isha and asked: ‘Did Muhammad see his Lord?’ She replied: ‘You have said something that makes my hair stand on end.’ I said: ‘Do not rush!’ and recited [the verses which conclude with] the verse <Verily he saw one of the greater revelations of his Lord> (53:18). She said: ‘Where is this taking you? It was about Gibril. Whoever tells you that Muhammad saw his Lord, or concealed something which he was commanded [to reveal], or knew the five things which Allah mentioned <Lo! Allah! With Him is knowledge of the Hour. He sends down the rain [and knows that which is in the wombs. No soul knows what it will earn tomorrow, and no soul knows in what land it will die. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware]> (31:34) – HE HAS TOLD AN ENORMOUS LIE. Rather, he saw Gibril, who he did not see in his actual form except twice: once at the Lote-Tree of the Farthest Boundary (sidra al-muntaha) and once in Jiyad [in Mecca], with his six hundred wings, he had filled the firmament.’” (Ibid., pp. 147-148; underline and capital emphasis ours)
Ibn al-Qayyim in Zad al-Ma‘ad said:
The Companions differed whether the Prophet actually saw his Lord that night [of isra’ and mi‘raj] or not. It is authentically narrated from Ibn ‘Abbas that the Prophet saw his Lord, and also authentically related that Ibn ‘Abbas said: “He saw Him with his heart.” It is also authentically related from ‘A’isha and Ibn Mas‘ud THAT THEY DENIED SUCH VISION, saying that Allah’s words <And verily he saw him, yet another time, at the Lote Tree of the Farthest Boundary> (53:13) refer to Gibril. It is also authentically related from Abu Dharr that the latter asked the Prophet: “Did you see your Lord?” and he replied: “[I saw] a huge light, how could I see Him?” (nurun anna arah?). That is: light came in between myself and His sight, as stated in the wording: “I saw light” (ra’aytu nuran). Uthman ibn Sa‘id al-Darimi said that the Companions all agreed that the Prophet did not see Him. Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya – may Allah sanctify his soul! – said:
Ibn ‘Abbas’s[sic] statement that “He saw Him” does not contradict that claim, nor his statement that “He saw Him with his heart.” For it is also authentically related that the Prophet said: “I saw my Lord- glorified and exalted is He!” However, the latter was not during the isra’ but in Madina, when the Prophet was occupied and could not be with the Companions at the time of the dawn prayer, after which he told them about his vision of Allah during his sleep at night. It is on that evidence that Imam Ahmad based himself when he said: “Yes, he saw him in reality (na‘am ra’ahu haqqan), for the dream-vision of Prophets are real.” This is absolutely true, but Ahmad did not say that he saw Him with the eyes of his head while awake. Whoever said that he did, is mistaken. Ahmad said one other time: “He saw Him” and another time: “He saw Him with his heart.” These are two statements narrated from him on the issue. The third statement whereby “He saw Him with the eyes of his head” comes from the free paraphrase of some of his companions. Ahmad’s texts are present with us, and nowhere are such words found in them. (Ibid., pp. 148-150; capital emphasis ours)
To summarize the confusion and contradictions:
- Did Muhammad see Allah or did he see Gabriel?
- Were Ibn Abbas and the majority of the people of Sunna correct that Muhammad did see his lord?
- Or were Aisha, Ibn Masud, Abu Hurayra, and Abu Dharr correct that it wasn’t his lord that he saw, but Gabriel?
- Can a believer see Allah in this life whether in a vision and/or in a visible form?
- Or can a person only know Allah from revelation, through a messenger, and/or behind a veil where Allah remains hidden?
- If Allah can be seen, then was Aisha wrong for quoting Suras 6:103 and 42:51 to prove the contrary?
- Or was Aisha correct that Allah cannot be seen, which means that Ibn Abbas and the others were all liars (according to her own words) for teaching the contrary?
- And if even those closest to Muhammad couldn’t figure this out, but contradicted each other, how can any Muslim expect to be able to settle this confusion?