The Hadith’s of Allah’s “Descent”

Summary

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 Mandah [27] – 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:

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