The Hadith’s of Allah’s “Descent”

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‘:

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