Islamic Studies Tanzīh and Tashbīh in Classical Islamic Theological Thought
Mustafa Shah
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0251


Debates and arguments surrounding the questions of tanzīh (transcendence) and tashbīh (anthropomorphism) were a dominant feature of the discourses of early and classical theological thought. Within these discourses, the former term, tanzīh, was intricately entwined with the conception of God’s absolute transcendence and pre-eminence; while, the term tashbīh retained a rather pejorative connotation as it was associated with the conceptualization and description of God and his divine attributes using human characteristics and qualities as analogues; indeed, the verb from which the verbal noun tashbīh is derived signifies the act of likening or equating. Theological movements and schools of thought were defined by their respective standpoints on the notions of tanzīh and tashbīh, although scholars who were accused of adopting anthropomorphic positions repudiated such allegations, claiming that they were essentially advocating tanzīh. While the Qurʾan includes imposing statements which describe God as being “without peer or equal” (Q. 42:11; and Q. 112:4), and refer to him as “omniscient, omnipotent and sublime” (Q. 2:255; Q. 6:101–6; Q. 42:19), it also makes ample use of metaphors, forms of comparison, and imagery to exemplify and describe the personal and close nature of his relationship with mankind. The Qurʾan even describes God as being “closer to man than his jugular vein” (Q. 50:16) in ways which underscore his divine immanence. The conceptual significance of such Qurʾanic dicta was soon pored over within rational theological discourses in which arguments about transcendence and anthropomorphism loomed large. The associated terminology which features in the discussions includes taʿṭīl (negation), which was a label used to deride those who “stripped or divested God of his attributes”; tajsīm, which in contrast was a term used to besmirch those who associated God with physical presence and form; also connected to this was the term ḥashwiyya which has negative connotations in the history of classical Islamic thought as it was used to impute and vilify those religious movements who were accused of anthropomorphism. Separately, taʾwīl, whose original meaning denotes interpretation or explanation, was used in a theological context to indicate the “obviation” of the literal meanings of language when conceptualizing God and his attributes. Within the tradition, there were also scholars who refrained from proffering opinions on the meaning of such sensitive Qurʾanic passages and dicta discussing the divine attributes, and they adopted a strategy referred to as tafwīḍ or “delegation.” Mapping the precise historical trajectory of the gestation of these concepts together with their sundry terminology and the reasons why they became such contentious topics in Islamic theology remains a tentative exercise: the earliest theological sources tend to be fragmentary, while later literary sources are separated in time from the periods to which they refer; and in such sources adversaries sometimes misrepresent the perspectives of opponents. Still, the significance of the discussions on tanzīh and tashbīh ensured that they remained at the forefront of developing classical theological discourses, even resurfacing in the context of debates about Islamic reform and modernity. Significantly, safeguarding a conception of God whose transcendence is unique lay at the heart of Islamic philosophical discussions.

Encyclopedia and Handbook Entries

The subjects of tanzīh and tashbīh along with selected terms connected with their synthesis have been treated in a number of encyclopedia entries, either together or as individual themes or topics. In the context of theological approaches to the conceptualization of the divine attributes, Gilliot 2007 situates these discussions within the vector of broader debates about tanzīh and tashbīh. Despite being written in the 1920s, Strothmann’s entry (Strothmann 1913–1936) on anthropomorphism sketches the broader context to the discussions, although it is based on a confined range of sources. Van Ess 2011 is typically in-depth and informative, offering one of the most detailed treatments of these two concepts. Providing a review of the historical context of the arguments about tashbīh, Holtzman 2011 identifies the position taken by different religious movements and scholars on the issues. Schöck 2016 introduces the theories of Jahm ibn Ṣafwān (d. 128/745) and Ḍirār ibn ʿAmr (d. 200/815); traditional sources intimate that the former figure was influential in arguing that the transcendence of God necessitated that he should not be defined using terms or descriptors which are applied to humans, while Ḍirār’s views on atomism were deemed revolutionary. Physically seeing God and the stance taken by different theological schools on the notion is examined in Gimaret 2012. Bennett 2016 discusses the philosophical system of the Muʿtazila, analyzing the movement’s doctrines on the divine attributes and nature of God. And useful historical context to the discussions on tanzīh and tashbīh is provided in Van Ess 1987. The views of the Karrāmiyya, a medieval Islamic sect renowned for its espousal of anthropomorphic depictions of the divine, are the subject of a reassessment in Zysow 2016. Finally, Williams 2009 reviews the origins of notions of tashbīh within the pre-Islamic and Semitic traditions with the express aim of understanding early Arab receptivity to such ideas.

  • Bennett, David. “The Muʿtazilite Movement (II): The Early Muʿtazilites.” In The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology. Edited by Sabine Schmidtke, 142–158. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    The chapter presents an account of their teachings on tawhid.

  • Ess, J. van. “Tas̲h̲bīh wa-Tanzīh.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Edited by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinrichs. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2001.

    A wide-ranging survey is offered in this entry which is based on a wealth of original research by the author.

  • Gilliot, Claude. “Attributes of God.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam THREE. 3d ed. Edited by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson, 176–182. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    Discussions on this subject were intrinsic to the wider debates about transcendence and anthropomorphism within theological movements and these are given some context in this survey.

  • Gimaret, Daniel. “Ruʾyat Allāh.” In The Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Vol. 8. Edited by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, et al., 649ff. 2d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

    This probes the various theological implications of the notion of the beatific vision, reviewing how presuppositions informed the debates.

  • Holtzman, Livnat. “Anthropomorphism.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam THREE. 3d ed. Edited by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson, 46–55. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    The distinctive feature of this study is its summary of the significance of discussions on anthropomorphism in early and classical materials.

  • Schöck, Cornelia. “Jahm b. Ṣafwān (d. 128/745–6) and the ‘Jahmiyya’ and Ḍirār b. ʿAmr (d. 200/815).” In The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology. Edited by Sabine Schmidtke, 55–80. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    In the history of the origins of discussions about tanzīh, tashbīh, the divine attributes, and the cosmology of creation, the contribution of these two figures is seminal.

  • Strothmann, R. “Tas̲h̲bīh.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 4 vols. Edited by M. Th. Houtsma, T. W. Arnold, R. Basset, and R. Hartman. Leiden, The Netherlands, and London: Brill, 1913–1936.

    An outline of the various discussions about tashbīh is attempted in this piece.

  • Van Ess, Josef. “Muʿtazila.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Edited by Mircea Elidade, 220–229. New York: Macmillan Press, 1987.

    Issues of influence and originality are covered in this brief overview of Muʿtazilī thought and its teachings on tawhid are explained.

  • Williams, Wesley. “A Body Unlike Bodies: Transcendent Anthropomorphism in Ancient Semitic Tradition and Early Islam.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 129.1 (January-March 2009): 19–44.

    This article does try to locate the discussions within the context of much broader debates about Islamic origins.

  • Zysow, Aron. “Karrāmiyya.” In The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology. Edited by Sabine Schmidtke, 252–262. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    The Karrāmiyya are traditionally portrayed in the classical sources as arch-anthropomorphists and in this chapter an evaluation of their historical position on tashbīh is presented.

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