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In this connection, a hadith has been related by Malik in his Muwatta' and by Muslim in his Sahih, that Muawiya ibn al-Hakam came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and told him, "I am very newly from the Jahiliyya, and now Allah has brought Islam," and he proceeded to ask about various Jahiliyya practices, until at last he said that he had slapped his slave girl, and asked if he should free her, as was obligatory if she was a believer. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) requested that she be brought, and then asked her, "Where is Allah?" and she said, "In the sky (Fi al-sama)"; whereupon he asked her, "Who am I?" and she said, "You are the Messenger of Allah"; at which he said, Free her, "for she is a believer" (Sahih Muslim, 5 vols. Cairo 1376/1956. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1403/1983, 1.382: 538). Imam Nawawi says of this hadith:
This is one of the "hadiths of the attributes," about which scholars have two positions. The first is to have faith in it without discussing its meaning, while believing of Allah Most High that "there is nothing whatsoever like unto Him" (Qur'an 42:11), and that He is exalted above having any of the attributes of His creatures. The second is to figuratively explain it in a fitting way, scholars who hold this position adducing that the point of the hadith was to test the slave girl: Was she a monotheist, who affirmed that the Creator, the Disposer, the Doer, is Allah alone and that He is the one called upon when a person making supplication (du'a) faces the sky--just as those performing the prayer (salat) face the Kaaba, since the sky is the qibla of those who supplicate, as the Kaaba is the qibla of those who perform the prayer--or was she a worshipper of the idols which they placed in front of themselves? So when she said, In the sky, it was plain that she was not an idol worshipper (Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi. 18 vols. Cairo 1349/1930. Reprint (18 vols. in 9). Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1401/1981, 5.24).
It is noteworthy that Imam Nawawi does not mention understanding the hadith literally as a possible scholarly position at all. This occasions surprise today among some Muslims, who imagine that what is at stake is the principle of accepting a single rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadith as evidence in Islamic faith (`aqida), for this hadith is such a single hadith, of those termed in Arabic ahad, or "conveyed by a single chain of transmission", as opposed to being mutawatir or "conveyed by so many chains of transmission that it is impossible it could have been forged".
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