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

It is clear that in the tradition of Bukhari and Muslim the calling out is directly attributed to Allah 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 made clear in the other two versions. And it is with respect to the latter that Imam Malik reportedly said: “It is our Blessed and Exalted Lord’s order which descends; as for Him, He is eternally the same, He does not move or go to and fro,” although it is established that Malik forbade discourse of any kind about the hadiths of Allah’s attributes, that he preferred 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.”

Nevertheless, not all the Salaf let them pass, as Bayhaqi relates from the Tabi`i Hammad ibn Zayd that he interpreted Allah’s descent to the nearest heaven as His drawing near to His servants. That is also the position of Ibn al-Jawzi in his Daf` shubah al-tashbih: “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.” It should also be pointed out that Ibn al-Jawzi, read the verb “descend” in the hadith of Bukhari and Muslim as yunzilu (“He orders down”) instead of yanzilu (“He comes down”). This was also Ibn Furak’s reading according to Ibn Hajar who confirms its soundness in view of Nisa’i's narration. This furthers confirms Qurtubi’s reading and Hammad’s interpretation.

Al-Sufuri relates in his Nuzhat al-majalis:

Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni was asked: “Does Allah lie in a specific direction?” He replied: “No.” He was asked: “From where did you obtain this knowledge?” He said: “From the saying of the Prophet: “Do not say I am superior to Yunus ibn Matta.” This prohibition is related to the fact that Yunus said from inside the fish at the bottom of the sea: “There is no God save Thee. Be Thou glorified. Lo! I have been a wrong-doer” (21:87). And Allah conversed with Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, above seven heavens and heard Muhammad’s speech just as audibly as He heard that of Yunus. If the Lord of Truth were in a specific direction He would have heard one speech better than the other.”

In accordance with the above, His saying: “Unto Him good words ascend” (35:10) means: good words please Him. Abu Hayyan explains the “ascent” of the words as Allah’s acceptance of them, and this is also the explanation given by Bayhaqi as quoted by Ibn Hajar in Fath al-bari. Clearly, words are not in themselves endowed with locomotion.

Al-Qadi `Iyad says in his al-Shifa’ in the section entitled “His Proximity and Nearness”:

Ja`far ibn Muhammad (al-Sadiq) said: “Allah’s drawing-near in the verse: “He drew near and hung suspended and was two bows’ lengths away or nearer” (53:9) has no definition or limit. The slave’s drawing-near is limited.” He also said: “Howness cannot be applied to drawing near. Don’t you see how Jibril was veiled from His drawing-near? Muhammad drew near to the gnosis and belief in his own heart. He was suspended near by his heart’s tranquility with what drew him near. Doubt and hesitation were removed from his heart.”

Know that what is said about drawing near and nearness to or from Allah has nothing to do with nearness of space or proximity in space. As we mentioned from Ja`far as-Sadiq, “Howness cannot be applied to drawing near.” The Prophet’s drawing near to his Lord and his nearness to Him is made clear by his position, the honor of his rank, the splendor of the lights of his gnosis, and his witnessing the secrets of Allah’s unseen world and His power. From Allah to him came kindness, intimacy, expansion and generosity.

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