Interpreting Allah’s “Descent” and the “Ascent” of Good Words to Him

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The meaning of descent (nuzul, tanzil) in Qur’an and hadith varies according to context and may mean revelation, bestowal, provision, or mercy. For example, the meaning of the verses: “Allah hath now brought down the fairest of statements” (39:23) and “Lo! We sent it down on the Night of the Decree” (97:1), is revelation. According to the masters of Qur’anic commentary, it means that Revelation came down from the Preserved Tablet upon the Prophet through Jibril’s intermediary, or that Jibril may have heard it directly from Allah just as Musa heard Allah’s speech — from the right and the left and the top and the bottom and not from any particular direction — upon which Jibril expressed it with an Arabic language which the Prophet made understood to his Community. This is the meaning of descent or revelation (nuzul). This is proven by Allah’s saying: “Lo! We have appointed it a Recitation (qur’an) in Arabic that haply ye may understand” (43:3).

The meaning of “descent” is not a displacement downward of Allah’s speech from Allah Himself on a height down to a depression. Allah said: “And He hath sent down (anzala) for you of cattle eight kinds” (39:6), “And We sent down iron” (57:25), and, of course, all these did not come from high on low. Ibn al-Jawzi refers to this in the section of his Daf` on the hadith of Allah’s descent to the nearest heaven.

The hadith in Bukhari and Muslim: “Our Lord descends every night to the lowest heaven when one-third of the latter part of the night is left, and says: Who supplicates Me so that I may answer him? Who asks forgiveness from Me so that I may forgive him?” is placed by al-Khattabi among the mutashabihat:

This 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.

Of the hadith of Allah’s descent in Bukhari and Muslim Qurtubi said that it is elucidated by that related by Nisa’i in his Sunan and `Amal al-yawm wa al-layla on the authority of both Abu Sa`id al-Khudri and Abu Hurayra (r) whereby the Prophet (s) 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? Is there anyone begging for forgiveness so that he may be forgiven? Is there any petitioner so that he may be granted his request?

Nisa’i’s narration is confirmed by the hadith found in Ahmad’s Musnad, Tabarani, and al-Bazzar on the authority of `Uthman ibn Abi al-`As al-Thaqafi:

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 an adultress who runs after her pleasure and her intimate companion.

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