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Anthropomorphism in Islam

The Challenge of Traditionalism (700-1350)

Livnat Holtzman

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Explores the problem of anthropomorphism: a major bone of contention in 8th to 14th-century Islamic theology

More than any other issue in Islamic theology, anthropomorphism (tashbih) stood at the heart of many theological debates, and was mostly discussed within the circles of traditionalist Islam. The way a scholar interpreted the anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Qur’an or the Hadith (for instance, God’s hand, God’s laughter or God’s sitting on the heavenly throne) often reflected his political and social stature, as well as his theological affinity. This book presents an in-depth literary analysis of the textual and non-textual elements of aḥadith al-ṣifat – the traditions that depict God and His attributes in an anthropomorphic language. It goes on to discuss the inner controversies in the prominent traditionalistic learning centres of the Islamic world regarding the way to understand and interpret these anthropomorphic traditions. Through a close, contextualized, and interdisciplinary reading in Hadith compilations, theological treatises, and historical sources, this book offers an evaluation and understanding of the traditionalistic endeavours to define anthropomorphism in the most crucial and indeed most formative period of Islamic thought.

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Chapter 1: The Narrator and the Narrative: A Literary Analysis of Ahādīth al-sifāt
I. A Preliminary Remark on Hadith and Narratology
II. The Framing Narrative
III. The Embedded Narrative
IV. The Narrator and His Audience
V. The Motives of the Narrator
VI. The Narrator’s Role

Chapter 2: A Tale of Two Narrators: Some Historical, Geographical, and Cultural Considerations
I. Two Different Narrators
II. The Proliferation of the Abu Razin Narrative
III. Two Narrators and One Narrative: The Tribal Connection
IV. The Proliferation of the Jarir Narrative
V. The Jarir Narrative and the Miḥna

Chapter 3: Gestures and Aḥādīth al-Ṣifāt
I. The Prophet’s Gestures: Iconic, Metaphoric, and Deictic
II. ‘The Instance of Narrating’: The Narrator and His Audience
III. The Performing Trend
IV. The Ultimate Performer of Aḥādīth al-Ṣifāt
V. The Predicament of the Traditionalists

Chapter 4: The Diversified Solution to the Challenge of Islamic Traditionalism: Aḥādīth al-Ṣifāt and Bi-Lā Kayfa
I. Drawing the Borderlines of the Traditionalistic Discourse
II. The Earliest Debate
III. Transmission, Censorship, and Euphemisms
IV. The All-Inclusive Tanzīh: The Ashʿarite Solution
V. Expanding the Borders of the Traditionalistic Discourse

Chapter 5: Iconic Books and Gestures: Aḥādīth al-Ṣifāt in the Public Sphere
I. The Iconicity of the Qadiri Creed
II. The Three Dimensions of Kitāb al-Tawḥīd
III. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s Response to Kitāb al-Tawḥīd
IV. Ibn Taymiyya’s al-Ḥamawiyya al-Kubrā and Two Iconic Gestures
V. Iconic Gestures and the Hashwiyya

Final Remarks and Conclusions
Appendix I: Full Translations of Lengthy Traditions
1. A Marginal Version of Ḥadīth al-Nuzūl
2. The Lengthy Ḥadīth al-Ruʼya
3. The Lengthy Ḥadīth Fidāʼ al-Muʼmin from Ibn ʿAsakir’s Tārīkh Dimashq
Appendix II: Full Translation of ‘the Ḥadīth of Allegiance’ of Abu Razin
Appendix III: Chains of Transmission
Appendix IV: Chains of Transmission
Appendix V: Chains of Transmission

I. Primary Sources
II. Secondary Sources

About the Author

Livnat Holtzman is an expert in Islamic theology. She specializes in traditionalist theology from the inception of Islam until the 15th century, and has published extensively on the thought of Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya. Currently she is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.


An informative and engaging study of the Islamic tradition’s attempts to grapple with conceptions of anthropomorphism across a range of historical settings… it represents a formidable survey of a complex topic that has for centuries defined classical Islamic theological discourses.

- Mustafa Shah, University of London

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