Ibn Hajar’s Commentary on the Hadith of Descent

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Ibn Hajar says the following in his commentary on the hadith of Bukhari and Muslim on Allah’s “descent” to the lowest heaven:

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 (al-jumhur) reject this, because such a saying leads to establishing boundaries for Him and Allah is exalted above that.

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 and they display 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 obstinacy.
    • 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 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).

[Ibn Hajar reports Ibn Daqiq al-`Id's words in full elsewhere:

We say concerning the various attributes that they are real and true according to the meaning Allah wills for them. As for those who interpret them, we look at their interpretation: if it is close to the rules of language in use among the Arabs we do not reject it, and if it is far from them we relinquish it and return to believing while declaring transcendence.]

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 (tafwid) is safest…

Ibn al-`Arabi al-Maliki said:

It is reported that the innovators have rejected these hadiths, the Salaf let them pass as they came, and others interpreted them, and my position is the last one. 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 concern bodies, it can also concern 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.

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