How are the anthropomorphic expressions used in the Quran understood?
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of physical and emotional human traits and characteristics to God. Whereas some verses use anthropomorphic expressions in their description of God, there are others which advocate God’s absolute transcendence and pre-eminence. For instance, there are numerous verses in the Quran that explicate that there is nothing comparable to God; or that God has no equal; or that God cannot be comprehended by sight etc. This is also supported in the tradition of the Prophet. For instance, the Prophet is reported to have said: God existed, and nothing was yet created ; or You are eminent and there is none above you. On the other hand, certain verses depict God with some anthropomorphic expressions. For instance, Quran 5:64 explicates:
“And the Jews says, “The hand of Allah is chained.” Chained are their hands, and cursed are they for what they say. Rather, both His hands are extended; He spends however He wills...”
Similarly, Quran 10:3 states:
“Indeed, your Lord is Allah, who created the heavens and the earth in six days and then established Himself upon the Throne, arranging the matter [of his creation] …”
The seemingly contradictory nature of these two sets of verses has led many to question how do Muslim scholars interpret the verses that contain anthropomorphic expression in relation to God?
The prevalent opinion amongst Muslim theologians is that God’s nature is ineffable and therefore, He cannot be attributed with human traits and characteristics. With regards to the anthropomorphic verses of the Quran, scholars have then argued that they must be read and interpreted metaphorically . Accordingly, although God is beyond description, due to limitations of human language and communication, the Quran resorts to explaining concepts such as the power or the might of God using effective metaphors. For instance, when the Quran says that God’s “hands are extended,” this phrase metaphorically depicts God’s power and ability to do anything He wills; when the Quran says that God “established Himself upon the Throne,” this phrase metaphorically depicts God’s majesty and lordship .
Furthermore, there are also other verses in the Quran that describe God undertaking humanlike actions. For instance, Quran 8:17 mentions:
“And you threw not, [O Muhammad],when you threw, but it was Allah who threw so that He might test the believers with a good test. Indeed, Allah is Hearing and Knowing.”
Or another example is from Quran 4:164 wherein God mentions“… And Allah spoke to Moses with [direct speech].” Both these verses are interpreted as conveying that God is carrying out actions via mediums. In 8:17, for instance, God Himself never committed the humanlike act of throwing, rather He inspired the Prophet to do so. Whereas with regards to 4:164, God Himself did not speak to Moses, but He did so via the medium of a burning bushas attested by other verses in the Quran.
In essence, the Islamic understanding of God is that He is transcendent and pre-eminent. He is free of all human physical and emotional characteristics. Anything (including the Quran, sunna, or even poetry of saints and sages) that depicts God to have any humanlike characteristics and traits is due to the limited capacity of language, communication, and the material composition and thus must be read and understood in a metaphorical sense.
 Quran 42:11
 Quran 112:4
 Quran 6:103
 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 4:73. For Shiʿi sources see al-Kāfī, 2:95-100; 104-107.