THE HADITH OF ALLAH'S "DESCENT" 

By Dr. G. F. Haddad

The scholars differed concerning the meaning of Allah's "descent" in the mass-narrated (mutawatir) hadith:

Our Lord - Blessed and Exalted is He! - descends every night to the lowest heaven in the last third of the night and says: Who is supplicating Me so that I may answer him? Who is asking forgiveness from Me so that I may forgive him?1

Ibn `Asakir said:

The Mu`tazila said: [Allah's] "Descent" (nuzul) is the descent of any given sign of His, or that of His angels. The Mushabbiha and Hashwiyya said: Descent is the descent of His person (dhat) through movement (haraka) and displacement (intiqal). Al-Ash`ari took the middle road and said: Descent is one of His attributes.2

Al-Bayhaqi further reports that Al-Ash`ari said: 

"What is meant by the descent is an act brought to be by Allah in the nearest heaven every night, which [the Prophet -- Allah bless and greet him --] has named a descent, without movement nor displacement. Exalted is Allah above the characteristics of creatures!"3

Imam al-Haramayn said in his epistle al-Nizamiyya: 

"Whoever possesses one iota of reason harbors no doubt whatsoever that change, displacement, and removal are among the attributes of bodies."4

Al-Qurtubi said that the hadith is elucidated by that related by al-Nasa'i in his Sunan al-Kubra and `Amal al-Yawm wa al-Layla whereby the Prophet -- Allah bless and greet him -- said:

Allah waits until the first part of the night is over, then He orders a herald (munadiyan) to say: Is there anyone supplicating so that he may be answered, anyone begging for forgiveness so that he may be forgiven, any petitioner so that he may be granted his request?5

The above narration is confirmed by the hadith of `Uthman ibn Abi al-`As al-Thaqafi from the Prophet -- Allah bless and greet him --:

The gates of heaven are opened in the middle of the night and a herald calls out: Is there anyone supplicating so that he may be answered? Is there anyone asking so that he may be granted? Is there anyone afflicted so that he may be delivered? At that time there is no Muslim who invokes for anything except Allah answers him, except the adultress who runs after her pleasure and her intimate companion.6

Thus the calling out, in al-Qurtubi's view, is directly attributed to Allah in Bukhari and Muslim's narrations in order to highlight His regard and His emphasis, as when one says: "The sultan calls out for this," whereas it is actually a herald who calls out the sultan's order as elucidated in the above two versions. This is confirmed by Imam Malik's statement: "It is our Blessed and Exalted Lord's command which descends; as for Him, He is eternally the same, He does not move or go to and fro,"7 although it is established that Malik forbade discourse of any kind about the hadiths of Allah's attributes, preferring not to interpret the hadiths of descent one way or the other and that he said about them: "Let them pass without entering into modality."8

Nevertheless, not all the Salaf let them pass, as al-Bayhaqi relates from the Tabi`i Hammad ibn Zayd that he interpreted Allah's descent to the nearest heaven as "His turning to" (nuzuluhu iqbaluhu).9

Ibn al-Jawzi cautioned: "Since you understand that the one who descends towards you is near to you, content yourself with the knowledge that He is near you, and do not think in terms of bodily nearness."10 Ibn al-Jawzi actually read the verb "descend" in the hadith of Bukhari and Muslim as yunzilu ("He orders down") instead of yanzilu ("He comes down").11 This was also the Ash`ari imam Ibn Furak's reading according to Ibn Hajar who confirms its soundness in view of al-Nasa'i's narration. This furthers confirms al-Qurtubi's reading and the interpretations of Malik and Hammad ibn Zayd.

AL-BAJI'S COMMENTARY

Abu al-Walid al-Baji stated in his commentary of Malik's Muwatta':

The Prophet's -- Allah bless and greet him -- saying that our Exalted Lord descends every night to the nearest heaven is to inform us that supplication at that particular time is answered, petitioners are given what they request, and those who ask for forgiveness are forgiven. It warns us as to the great merit of that time and strongly encourages us to make abundant supplication, petition, and contrition at that time. It was narrated from the Prophet -- Allah bless and greet him -- in similar terms that Allah Almighty and Exalted said: "If My servant comes near Me one hand-span I come near him one cubit. If he comes near Me one cubit I come near him an arm's length. If he comes to Me walking, I come to him running."12 He did not mean by this hadith a coming-near in terms of distance, for such is impossible and inexistent. All he meant was the servant's coming-near in terms of good works, and Allah's coming-near in terms of answer and acceptance. In the same sense one says "So-and-so is near So-and-so," and they say of the leader "He is near his people" if he helps them a lot and welcomes them. This is well-known in the language of the Arabs.13

 IBN `ABD AL-SALAM'S COMMENTARY

Ibn `Abd al-Salam said:

The meaning of His coming closer to us by descending to the nearest heaven, or by His drawing-near a cubit and an arm's length,14 is that He treats us with munificence (ikram) in the manner of the liege-lord that walks towards his servants and condescends to them, turning to them with full attention (muqbilan `alayhim) and examining their needs one by one. That is why He says: "Is there anyone supplicating so that I may answer him? Is there anyone asking so that I may grant him? Is there anyone seeking forgiveness so that I may forgive him?"15

 

IBN HAJAR'S COMMENTARY

Following is the text of Ibn Hajar's commentary on the hadith of descent:

Those who assert direction for Allah have used this hadith as proof that He is in the direction of aboveness. The vast majority of the scholars reject this, because such a saying leads to establishing boundaries for Him and Allah is exalted above that.16

The meaning of "descent" is interpreted differently:

* Some say that the external meaning is meant literally: these are the Mushabbiha and Allah is exalted above what they say.

* Some reject the validity of the hadiths cited in that chapter altogether. These are the Khawarij and the Mu`tazila in their arrogance. What is strange is that they interpret figuratively what is related to this in the Qur'an, but they reject what is in the hadith either out of ignorance or out of obduracy.

* Some have taken them as they have come, believing in them without specificity, declaring Allah to be transcendent above modality (kayfiyya) and likeness to creation (tashbih): these are the vast majority of the Salaf. That position is reported by al-Bayhaqi and others from the Four Imams, Sufyan ibn `Uyayna, Sufyan al-Thawri, Hammad ibn Salama, Hammad ibn Zayd, al-Awza`i, al-Layth, and others.

* Some interpreted them in a way that befits the linguistic usage of the Arabs.

* Some have over-interpreted them to the point that they almost tampered with their text.

* Some have made a difference between a kind of interpretation that is likely and current in the linguistic usage of the Arabs, and another kind which is far-fetched and archaic, interpreting in the former case and committing the meaning to Allah in the latter. This is reported from Malik, and among the Khalaf it is asserted decisively by Ibn Daqiq al-`Id (d. 702).17

Al-Bayhaqi said: 

"The safest method is to believe in them without modality, and to keep silence concerning what is meant except if the explanation is conveyed from the Prophet himself, in which case it is followed." The proof for this is the agreement of the scholars that the specific interpretation is not obligatory, and that therefore the commitment of meaning to Allah is safest....

Ibn al-`Arabi al-Maliki said:

It is reported that the innovators have rejected these hadiths, the Salaf passed them on as they came, and others interpreted them, and my position is the last one.18 The saying: "He descends" refers to His acts, not His essence. Indeed, it is an expression for His angels who descend with His command and His prohibition. And just as descent can pertain to bodies, it can also pertain to ideas or spiritual notions (ma`ani). If one takes the hadith to refer to a physical occurrence, then descent would be the attribute of the angel sent to carry out an order. If one takes it to refer to a spiritual occurrence, that is, first He did not act, then He acted: this would be called a descent from one rank to another, and this is a sound Arabic meaning.

In sum the hadith is interpreted in two ways: the first is: His command or His angel descends; the second is: it is a metaphor for His regard for supplicants, His answering them, and so forth.

Abu Bakr ibn Furak has said that some of the masters have read it yunzilu - "He sends down" - instead of yanzilu - "He descends" - that is, He sends down an angel. This is strengthened by al-Nasa'i's narration through al-Aghurr from Abu Hurayra and Abu Sa`id al-Khudri: "Allah waits until the first part of the night is over, then He orders a herald to say: Is there anyone supplicating so that he may be answered?..."19 There is also the hadith of `Uthman ibn Abi al-`As: "The gates of heaven are opened in the middle of the night and a herald calls out: Is there anyone supplicating so that he may be answered?..."20 Al-Qurtubi said: "This clears all ambiguity, and there is no interference by the narration of Rifa`a al-Juhani whereby "Allah descends to the nearest heaven and says: I do not ask about My servants anyone besides Myself,"21 for there is nothing in this which precludes the above-mentioned interpretation.

Al-Baydawi said:

Since it is established with decisive proofs that the Exalted is transcendent above having a body or being circumscribed by boundaries, it is forbidden to attribute to Him descent in the sense of displacement from one place to another place lower than it. What is meant is the light of His mercy: that is, He moves from what is pursuant to the attribute of Majesty entailing wrath and punishment, to what is pursuant to the attribute of Generosity entailing kindness and mercy."22

SOME MISLEADING REPORTS FROM THE SALAF

One of the Jahmi scholars said to Ishaq ibn Rahuyah: "I disbelieve in a Lord that descends from one heaven to another heaven," whereupon he replied: "I believe in a Lord that does what He wishes."23 This response is also narrated from Fudayl ibn `Iyad, Yahya ibn Ma`in, and al-Awza`i.24 Al-Bayhaqi narrates the incident with a sound chain through al-Hakim from Ishaq ibn Rahuyah, and he identifies the Jahmi scholar as Ibrahim ibn Abi Salih, then comments: "Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Hanzali made it clear, in this report, that he considers the descent (al-nuzul) one of the attributes of action (min sifat al-fi`l). Secondly, he spoke of a descent without `how'. This proves he did not hold displacement (al-intiqal) and movement from one place to another (al-zawal) concerning it."25

Beyond disputation or misleading concision, Ahl al-Sunna accept and believe all the authentic reports that came from the Prophet -- Allah bless and greet him --, including the hadith of Allah's "descent" to the nearest heaven, and they believe, at the same time, in a Lord that does what He wishes and befits Him. This was elaborated by Ibn Jahbal al-Kilabi in his lengthy refutation of Ibn Taymiyya's belief on Allah's "direction" (jiha), "aboveness" (fawqiyya), and "descent" (nuzul).

No doubt related to the above is Ibn Taymiyya's addition from Ibn Rahuyah whereby he said: "He is able to descend without the Throne being vacant of Him" (yaqdiru an yanzila min ghayri an yakhlua al-`arshu minhu)! This is identical with Hammad ibn Zayd's reported view that "He is in His place and He comes near His servants however He wishes" (huwa fi makanihi yaqrubu min khalqihi kayfa sha').26 Ibn Taymiyya also attributes this position to Ibn Mandah27 - Abu Bakr al-Najjad's student - who composed a book he named al-Radd `Ala Man Za`ama Anna Allaha Fi Kulli Makan Wa `Ala Man Za`ama Anna Allaha Laysa Lahu Makan, Wa `Ala Man Ta'awwala al-Nuzula `Ala Ghayri al-Nuzul ("Refutation of Those Who Claim That Allah Is In Every Place, and Of Those Who Claim That He Is Not In Any Place, and Of Those Who Interpret the Descent to Mean Other than the Descent").28

AL-KHATTABI'S COMMENTARY

Bayhaqi follows up on the narration of Ibn Rahuyah's reply with the following explanation by Abu Sulayman al-Khattabi:

One does not imagine of the descent of One Who is not governed by the attributes of bodies that it pertains to the meanings of a descent from top to bottom, or a displacement from above to below. It is only a report of His power and benevolence towards His creatures, His pity for them, His responsiveness to their supplications, and His forgiveness of them. He does what He wishes, modality is not applied to His attributes, nor quantity to His acts. Glory to Him! "There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him, and He is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing." (42:11).... And the position of all the Predecessors concerning the above is just as we said, and it was narrated narrated thus from a group of the Companions.29 One of the shaykhs among the hadith scholars who are foremost references in the knowledge of narrations and narrators slipped and turned away from this path when he narrated the hadith of descent and then remarked: `If someone asks how our Lord descends to the heaven, the answer is: He descends as He wishes; if he asks: Does He move (hal yataharrak) when He descends? The answer is: If He wishes, He moves, and if He does not wish, He does not move.' And this is a gross and crucial mistake (khata' fahish `azim)! For Allah Almighty is not described by movement, since movement and stillness follow one after the other in the same entity: it is specifically possible to attribute movement to whatever can be attributed stillness, and both of them are among the accidents of originated matter (min a`rad al-hadath) and the attributes of creatures. Whereas Allah is exalted high above them, {There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him.} (42:11) If that shaykh had trodden the path of the pious Predecessors and had not ventured into what is of no concern to him, he would not have come out with a statement such as this gross mistake. I only mentioned this so that such manner of talk should be cautiously avoided, for it does not result in good nor in the benefit of guidance. We ask Allah protection from misguidance, from speaking in prohibited terms, falsehood, and impossibilities.30

Al-Khattabi in his commentary on Abu Dawud also states:

This [hadith] belongs to the knowledge in whose outward expression we have been ordered to believe and not seek to disclose its inward sense. It is one of the many ambiguities (mutashabih) which Allah has mentioned in His book.3

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