BI-LA KAYFA: ISLAM’S COP OUT TERM

This post will be short and to the point.

Bi-la kayfa (“without [asking] how”). A theological principle of not questioning revelation when it may perplex or defy human understanding. This concept is most closely associated with al-Ash’ari, but has been also used by others, such as Ibn Hanbal. Al-Ash’ari invoked the notion bi-la kayfa wa la tashbih (“without asking how or making comparison”) most notably in respect of the Koran’s so-called “anthropomorphizing” expressions which speak of God as having human attributes – such as the “Hand of God” or the “Face of God,” or God’s being “seated” on a throne. Although God could not physically have a hand, according to al-Ash’ari and Ibn Hanbal, these expressions have to be accepted literally as they are, “without asking how.”    

These expressions have also been interpreted not literally, but figuratively, today as in the past. The use of the term “anthropomorphizing” in Western writings on the subject of Islam may be misleading, because the references are isolated and do not actually entail anything beyond the level of certain concepts; they do not in fact imply an “anthropomorphic” idea of God. The device of bi-la kayfa reflects the need felt by theologians in the past to reconcile the fact that if the Koran has symbolic planes of meaning, it must first of all be accepted as true on the literal plane. Because there was the equal imperative to acknowledge God as completely incomparable, solutions had to be sought of which bi-la kayfa was the closest at hand. Moses Maimonides adopted the principle for Jewish theology.  

Resorting to the principle bi-la kayfa is similar to the recourse to “divine mystery” in Catholicism when dogma and metaphysics cannot be reconciled on the purely theological plane without surpassing theology itself by antimony. John Milton, as a radical, or even Puritan Protestant, also accepted similar anthropomorphic expressions in the Bible literally, and even believed in creation through emanation. See ISTAWA’. (The New Encyclopedia of Islam, edited by Cyril Glasse [Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Fourth edition 2013], p. 101)

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