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The ‘Arsh (The Supreme Throne of God)

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism-4

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Fethullah Gülen

Literally meaning an arbor, throne, roof, or the horizon of something, the word ‘Arsh is the title of an elevated realm that envelops all the heavens and the earth, surrounds all systems, and which is the arena of the first manifestation of Divine will and command concerning the material and immaterial worlds. While this elevated realm is known as the ‘Arsh, the area regarded as its opposite, that is, the ground, is the farsh (the ground, the floor). Scholars have clarified the meanings of and the differences between these two concepts by saying: “One ascends to the ‘Arsh while the Farsh is descended to,” and they have introduced the ‘Arsh and Farsh as two opposite poles. It is also due to this approach that while the line or spirals of ascension to the ‘Arsh have been described as ‘ arshiya (the spiral way and curves of ascension), the line or spirals of descent are known as farshiya (the spiral way or curves of descent).

It would be better to describe the ‘Arsh in a figurative sense as the horizon of the first manifestation of God Almighty’s Power and Grandeur. For this description also refers to God’s absolute freedom from matter and time. The Qur’anic statement, “ God’s establishing Himself on the ‘Arsh” is a reality whose meaning is not clear, because acts such as settling, sitting or being established, which are particular to the created and time and space, can never be contemplated in respect of God.

Ancient astronomy considered the ‘Arsh to be the ninth, most extensive firmament that surrounds all other firmaments. Astronomers also referred to the ‘Arsh as “the vastest firmament” and “the all-embracing firmament.” This approach could be viewed as accurate if we take into account the knowledge of astronomy in ancient times. Modern astronomy says different things. However, we should take into consideration what the Qur’an, the accurately reported hadiths, and the opinions of the illustrious interpreters of the Qur’an say on the matter.

The ‘ Arsh is the arena where God manifests His religious commands and His commands for creation and the operation of the universe as the Lord of the worlds; it is the luminous “area” where His Power and Grandeur are initially manifested, and it is above all the realms of creation. The mysterious nature of this realm is known by God alone, and it is a comprehensive mirror of God’s Attributes of Glory and His Names that originate in His Acts. Moreover— if it is permissible to say so—this realm is the “workshop” where all living and non-living creatures are formed. It is therefore impossible for those whose scope of sight is restricted to physical eyes and therefore to the material or physical dimension of existence to comprehend this arena.

Another important topic relevant to this matter is God’s establishment of Himself on the ‘Arsh. Many opinions have been put forward to explain the phrase, Istawa ala’l-‘Arsh (25:59). First of all, the original word for self-establishing, istawa, literally means rising or standing upright, and the preposition used to express the direction of the act, ‘ala, means on, over, or from above. So, in addition to the meaning of rising above, this phrase also implies assuming or manifesting a position of superiority. When used for God, Who is absolutely free from having any resemblance with the created, it means God’s manifesting and making known His Sovereignty and demonstrating His Power and Grandeur. The ‘Arsh is in no way related to matter, time, space, or direction, and as a result no physical, material feature or notion can be applied to it.

Secondly, as God is absolutely free from matter, from having a body, from being contained in time and space, or from being or having a substance, His self-establishing in no way resembles our sitting, settling, or being established. How can He or His Acts resemble the created or the acts of the created? This is explicitly stated in the Qur’an; while He is an all-overwhelming Power Who holds all the heavens and the earth in His grasp of Power, at the same time He is the All-Merciful and All-Compassionate Who is nearer to each human being than their jugular vein.

Thirdly, even when we speak about impotent beings like us, saying: “The king has been established on his throne,” we mean that a person has become a sovereign, subdued the people, and begun to put their decrees into force. Thus, the Divine Being’s absolute freedom from anything physical or corporeal makes it necessary to understand such expressions for Him in the same, figurative sense.

From the earliest days of Islam all righteous scholars have approached such expressions from this perspective and described God in the way that the respected Ibrahim Haqqi of Erzurum has described Him:

He is neither a body nor a substance, nor is He an accident, nor of matter.
He does not eat and drink, and is uncontained by time.
He is absolutely free from change, alteration, and transformation,
and from colors, and having a shape as well—
These are His Attributes in the negative.
……
There is no opposite, nor peer, of my Lord in the universe;
He is the All-Transcendent and exempt from having a form.

This approach is one on which the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Muslim scholars agree, and the creed of Ahlu’s-Sunna[1] is based on this. The earliest scholars did not argue about such subtle matters and even avoided answering questions concerning them. When asked about God’s establishing Himself on the ‘Arsh, the respected Imam Malik[2] thought for a short while and answered: “ God’s establishing Himself on the ‘Arsh is a reality and the acceptance of it is incumbent on us. However, its very nature is incomprehensible, and asking about it is an innovation in the Religion.”[3]

However, when, in later times, certain trends of thought emerged among Muslims under the influence of foreign beliefs and philosophies, and in the face of false interpretations that imply corporeality, time, and place for God Almighty, scholars felt obliged to explain in what sense the Qur’an uses such words as istiwa and have tried to protect the masses against false ideas. They explain the meanings and implications of istiwa as follows:

  • Istiwa alludes to the faultlessness of the order of creation and the perfection of the Sovereignty or Domination that has established and continues this order. The fact that wherever the word istiwa is used in the Qur’an there is also reference to this Sovereignty and Administration proves this.
  • By reminding us of the usual Divine practice that is the true origin of everything and every event in the universe, the Qur’an implies that after God Almighty initially created the universe in a miraculous fashion, without applying any physical causes, He introduced the “natural” or physical causes into all events as veils before Divine Dignity and Grandeur.
  • Just as all things and events come into existence with the manifestations of God’s Knowledge, Power, and Will, they also subsist by His Authority and Subsisting, Which manifest themselves on and through the ‘Arsh.
  • Istiwa also means invading and surrounding completely. Thus, with this word it is emphasized that God’s Sovereignty is so forceful and encompassing that It can never be compared to human sovereignty or management.
  • The word istiwa also implies that although we are infinitely distant from God Almighty, He sees and knows everything perfectly from high above, yet is nearer to us than ourselves.

Reminding us of these meanings, respected scholars have tried to protect Muslims against false notions of God in connection with corporeality, time, and space and against falling into misguidance, equipping us with important arguments for thinking correctly. We are thankful to them for their sincere efforts. However, it would be more proper to act like Imam Malik if false assertions made by misguided sects are not in question, and refer the whole of the truth to the All-Knowing of the whole Unseen.

Some of the illustrious interpreters of the Qur’an have put forward the idea that the ‘Arsh and Kursiyy (the Supreme Seat) are the same and both constitute the arena where God’s Attributes of Glory and Divine Sovereignty are manifested. However, in addition to many verifying scholars, a hadith mentioned in al-Bidaya wa’n-Nihaya by Ibnu’l-Kathir and certain other reports referred to either the Prophet himself or his Companions show that the ‘Arsh and Kursiyy are different arenas of manifestation. The hadith and reports in question even state that the ‘Arsh is a million times larger than the Kursiyy. The ‘Arsh is more encompassing in comparison to the Kursiyy, to the same extent the Kursiyy is greater than the entire corporeal universe. In explaining the vastness and comprehensiveness of the ‘Arsh, it is said that the earth, the heavens, and all elevated realms such as Paradise, Hell, Sidratu’l-Muntaha and al-Baytu’l- Ma‘mur are encompassed by the ‘Arsh.

However, the vastness and comprehensiveness of the ‘Arsh should not be thought of on account of itself, but on account of its being the first arena where God Almighty’s Grandeur and Sovereignty are manifested. What gives it the greatest value and makes it unequalled among the elevated realms is that it is a mirror to overall Divine manifestation.

On account of being the primary arena where Divine Attributes of Perfection and the Names that originate in God’s Acts are manifested, the ‘Arsh also has a “relative” infinitude. In one respect, all other existent things and beings and all events start and end here. Time, space, and direction are not attributable to it. It is above all such things. Therefore, the ‘Arsh encompasses both this world and the next.

Even though we are unable to perceive exactly all these or other similar realities, we believe in the existence and features of the ‘Arsh in accordance with how this arena is mentioned in the Qur’an and the accurately-reported hadiths; we also admit that we are unable to comprehend its true nature and refer this knowledge to the All-Knowing of the whole Unseen. When we think of the ‘Arsh, we recall the first arena of the manifestation of God’s Attributes of Glory and the most luminous mirror of the Divine Names that originate in Divine Acts, and feel that we are gratified with the shadows that It sends over us from other worlds.

The ‘Arsh and the Kursiyy are above all other things and have a nature that transcends all time and space. However, it is not the ‘Arsh Itself which gives It this nature; since this nature is given to It by the Monarch of all eternity, Who is absolutely free from time and space, it is of a relative character.

Even though the mind always has great difficulty in comprehending such extremely subtle matters, and the sciences admit their inability to comprehend them, the spiritual intellect, which is always turned to God, somehow arrives at certain truths concerning these matters and can find many things which give it some sort of contentment. Even though humans suffer from a lack of words to express such truths, they can listen to different things from the tongue of their hearts, voice what they have grasped with praise and glorification of God, and desire to reach further and further truths. However, they should remain within the limits of their inborn capacities in the face of matters that they are unable to grasp, saying: “(The admission of one’s) incapacity to perceive Him is perception itself.”

In fact, a believer is a person of fairness and justice who acknowledges in advance that there may be many things that they cannot know in addition to that which they know. Even though they believe that their heart is so vast as to be able to contain worlds, they are aware that one of the most important depths of this faculty is knowing its innate deficiencies and limits of comprehension. For this reason, the heart continuously admits its inherent impotence and poverty, never removing its eyes from the All- Knowing of all that is Unseen.

Bediüzzaman Said Nursi[4] made remarkable considerations about the ‘Arsh. He wrote:

The ‘ Arsh (The Supreme Throne of God) is a combination of the Divine Names the First, the Last, the All-Outward, and the All-Inward. With respect to the Name “ the All-Outward,” Which forms one dimension of this combination, the Supreme Divine Throne is the envelope that encompasses all things and the universe is its contents. With respect to the Name “ the All- Inward,” It is like the heart of creation or the contents of the envelope, which is the universe. When viewed with respect to the Name “ the First,” the Supreme Divine Throne marks the start of the creation, which is indicated by: His Supreme Throne was upon the water (a fluid) (11:7). With respect to the Divine Name “ the Last,” It refers to the finality of existence, which is implied in the hadith: “The ceiling of Paradise is God’s Supreme Throne.” Therefore, due to its share in the manifestations of the four Names mentioned, we can view the ‘Arsh as a combination that embraces the universe from all directions.[5]

In addition to this consideration, Bediüzzaman puts forward another view of the ‘Arsh, which is as follows:

In respect of His Lordship (creating, upbringing or raising, maintaining, and domination), God Almighty has made the earthly creatures an ‘arsh, (which can be viewed as the projection of the Supreme Divine Throne ( al-‘Arshu’l-‘A’zam and regarded as an imperial medium for His control of the universe or for the conduction of His decrees). He has made the air an ‘arsh for His commands and will, the light an ‘arsh for His knowledge and wisdom, the water an ‘arsh for His mercy and grace, and the earth an ‘arsh for His giving of life, reviving, preserving, and providence. He circulates three of these elements around earthly creatures.[6]

If the Ka‘ba is a projection or mirror of something from the realms beyond, if humankind is the polished mirror of another thing, and the physical realms are the garden or vineyard or the green house of metaphysical ones, then it is quite natural that the elements of air, water, light, and earth are mirrors of projections of some things or truths that belong to the elevated realms.

The views of Sufis about the ‘Arsh are somewhat different. Even though they do not reject the considerations of the interpreters of the Qur’an and theologians, in addition to mentioning it with such names as the Universal Intellect, the Universal Soul, and the Divine Signs of Creation, based on the verse, His Supreme Throne was upon the water (a fluid) (11:7), they have tended to call it the Supreme Throne of Life and the Supreme Throne of Livelihood. Sufis have also given the ‘Arsh the title the Supreme Throne of the All-Merciful because it surrounds all particles, all compounds, all the heavens, the earth, and all the realms of existence, and the title the All-Supreme Throne due to its being a mirror of the truth of the Supreme Preserved Tablet. If they have also called the heart of a believer the Supreme Throne of God, they have done so because they have viewed it (the heart) as the House of God.

This approach is widespread among the Sufis. While the respected Ibrahim Haqqi of Erzurum says,

The heart is the House of God; purify it from whatever is other than Him,
So that the All-Merciful may descend into His palace at night.

another saintly friend of God speaks as follows:

The heart of a believer is the Supreme Throne of the All-Merciful;
Breaking it is a sin and transgression.

[1] Ahlu’s-Sunna wa’l-Jama‘a is the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who follow the Prophet’s and His Companions’ way in thought, creed, and action. (Tr.)
[2] Imam Malik ibn Anas (711–795): He has born, lived, and died in Madina. He was one of the most highly respected scholars of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and the Maliki School of Law was named after him. (Tr.)
[3] al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li-Ahkami’l-Qur’an, 7:219–220.
[4] Bediüzzaman Said Nursi (1877–1960): One of the greatest Muslim thinkers and scholars of the 20th century. He wrote about the truths and essentials of the Islamic faith, the meaning and importance of worship, morality, and the meaning of existence. He is very original in his approaches. Sözler (“The Words”), Mektubat (“The Letters”), Lem’alar (“The Gleams”), and Şualar (“The Rays”) are among his famous works.
[5] al-Mathnawi al-Nuri – Seedbed of the Light (trans.), New Jersey, 2007, p., 150.
[6] The Letters (Trans.), New Jersey, 2007, p., 316.