[2/3] The Hadith of Allah’s “Descent”

Shaykh Gibril Fouad Haddad


Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 333) said: “To suggest a place for Allah is idolatry.”32 Similarly Ibn Hazm al-Zahiri – the declared enemy of the Ash`ari school – said: “By no means whatsoever is Allah in a place or in a time. This is the position of the vast majority of the scholars (al-jumhur) and ours as well, and other than this position is not permissible, for anything other than it is false.”33 He further states:

[Allah’s descent] is an act which Allah Almighty and Exalted does in the nearest heaven pertaining to an opening for the acceptance of supplication. It refers to the fact that that hour is the likeliest time for acceptance, answer, and forgiveness for those who strive, seek forgiveness, and repent.34

Even Sulayman ibn `Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab declared as an unbeliever anyone who attributed place to Allah: “Whoever believes or says: Allah is in person (bi dhatihi) in every place, or in one place, is a disbeliever (kafir).”35 Accordingly Hammad ibn Zayd’s statement that “He is in His place and He comes near His servants however He wishes,” if authentic, must be interpreted in a way to suggest other than the ascription of place, as did al-Bayhaqi with Ibn Rahuyah’s answer to the Jahmi.36


Literalists often quote Ibn `Abd al-Barr’s controversial words on the hadith of descent in al-Tamhid:

The hadith [of Allah’s descent] provides evidence that Allah is in (fi) the heaven, on (`ala) the Throne, above (fawq) seven heavens, as the Congregation (jama`a) said, and this is part of their proof against the Mu`tazila and the Jahmiyya’s claim that Allah is in every place and not on the Throne….

Part of the right owed Allah’s Speech is that it be taken in it literal sense (`ala haqiqatihi), until the Community concurs that what is meant is the metaphorical meaning, when there is no way to follow what is revealed to us from our Lord except in that way….

Istawa is known in the language and understood to be height (`uluw), rising above something, fixity in a place (al-tamkin), and settledness in it (al-istiqrar fih)…. and istawa is “settledness in height” (al-istiqrar fi al-`uluw). Allah said to us: “That you may mount upon (tastawu) their backs, and may remember your Lord’s favor when you mount (istawaytum) thereon” (43:13), “And it (the ship) came to rest (istawat) upon (the mount) al-Judi” (11:44), “and And when you are on board (istawayta) the ship, you and whoso is with you” (23:28).37


The above was firmly rejected by Ibn al-`Arabi in his commentary on the hadith of descent in al-Tirmidhi:

Some ignorant people have trespassed bounds in interpreting this hadith, claiming there is proof in it that Allah “is in the Heaven, on the Throne, above the seven heavens.” We say that this is a sign of tremendous ignorance.

What the hadith said is “He descends to Heaven” without specifying from where He descends or how He descends. Yet they said – and their proof is, again, based on the literal sense – {The Merciful established Himself over the Throne} (20:4).

We ask: What is the Throne in Arabic, and what is istawa?

They reply: As Allah said: “That you may mount upon (tastawu) their backs, and may remember your Lord’s favor when you mount (istawaytum) thereon” (43:13).

We say: Allah is Mighty and Higher than to have His istiwa‘ on His Throne compared to our sitting on the backs of animals.

They say: “And as He said: And it (the ship) came to rest (istawat) upon (the mount) al-Judi” (11:44).

We say: Allah is Mighty and Higher than a ship that sailed and then docked and stopped.

They said: “And as He said: And when you are on board (istawayta) the ship, you and whoso is with you” (23:28).

We say: Allah forbid that His istiwa‘ be similar to that of Noah and his people. Everything in the latter case is created, as it consists in istiwa‘ with an elevation and a settling in a place involving physical contact. The entire Umma is in agreement, even before hearing the hadith of descent and the arguments of those who rejected it, that Allah’s istiwa‘ does not involve any of those things. Therefore do not give examples from His creation for Him!…

They say: Allah said: “He rules all affairs from the Heaven to the Earth” (32:5).

We say: This is true, but it does not provide any proof for your innovation.

They say: All the firm believers in the Oneness of Allah raise their hands to the Heavens when supplicating him, and if Musa had not said to Pharaoh: “My Lord is in the Heaven,” Pharaoh would not have said: “O Haman… set up for me a lofty tower in order that I may survey the god of Moses” (28:38).

We say: You are lying about Musa (as), he never said that. But your conclusion shows that you are indeed the followers of Pharaoh, who believed that the Creator lies in a certain direction, and so he desired to climb up to Him on a ladder. He congratulates you for being among his followers, and he is your imam.

They say: What about Umayya ibn Abi al-Salt who said: “Glory to Him Whom creatures are unable to know in the way He deserves to be known, Who is on His Throne, One and One Alone, Sovereign and Possessor over the Throne of Heaven, unto Whose Majesty faces are humbled and prostrate”? And he – Umayya – had read the Torah, the Bible, and the Psalms.

We say: It is just like you, in your ignorance, to cite as proof, first Pharaoh, then the discourse of a pre-Islamic Arab supported by the Torah and the Bible, which have been distorted and changed. Of all of Allah’s creation the Jews are the most knowledgeable in disbelief and in likening Allah to creation.38

What we must believe is that Allah existed and nothing existed with Him; that He created all creation, including the Throne, without becoming subject to disclosure through them, nor did a direction arise for Him because of them, nor did He acquire a location in them; that He does not become immanent, that He does not cease to be transcendent, that he does not change, and that He does not move from one state to another.

Istiwa‘ in the Arabic language has fifteen meanings both literal and figurative. Some of these meanings are suitable for Allah and the meaning of the verse (20:4) is derived from them. The other meanings are not accepted under any circumstances. For example, if it is taken to mean being fixed in a place (tamakkun), settling (istiqrar), connecting (ittisal), or being bounded (muhadhat): then none of these are suitable for the Creator Almighty and Exalted and no-one should try to find His likeness in His creation.

One may refrain from explaining the verse, as Malik and others have said: “Istiwa‘ is known” – he means: its lexical sense- “and its modality is unknown” (wa al-kayfu majhul)39 – that is: the modality of whatever is suitable for Allah among the senses of istiwa‘: therefore who can specify such modality? – “and asking about it is innovation” – because, as we have just made clear, probing this matter is looking for dubious matters and that is asking for fitna.

Hence, from what the Imam of Muslims Malik has said, we can conclude that the istiwa‘ is known; that what is suitable for Allah is left unspecified; and that He is declared transcendent above what is impossible for Him. As for specifying what is not suitable for Him, it is not permissible for you, since you have completed the declaration of oneness and belief by negating likeness for Allah and by negating whatever it is absurd to believe concerning Him. There is no need for anything beyond that, and we have already explained this in detail.

As for the phrases: “He descends, He comes, He arrives,”and similar ones whose meanings it is impermissible to apply to His Essence: they refer to His actions… Al-Awza`i explained this when he said, about this hadith: “Allah does what he wishes.”40 It suffices to know or simply to believe that Allah is not to be defined by any of the characteristics of creatures and that there is nothing in His creation that resembles Him and no interpretation that can explain Him.

They said: We must say “He descends” without asking how. We say: We seek refuge in Allah from asking how! We only say whatever Allah’s Messenger — Allah bless and greet him — has taught us to say and what we have understood from the Arabic language in which the Qur’an was revealed. And the Prophet said: “Allah says: O My servant, I was ailing and you did not visit me, I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you did not give me drink…”41 None of this is suitable of Allah whatsoever, but He has honored all these actions by expressing them through Him. In the same way, the saying “Our Lord descends” expresses that His servant and angel descends in His name with His order pertaining to whatever He bestows of His Mercy, gives out of His generosity, and showers His creation out of His bounty.

The poet says:

I have descended – therefore do not suspect me of jealousy! – in the station of the generous lover.42

A descent can be either figurative or physical. The descending that Allah spoke about, if understood as physical, would mean His angel, Messenger, and slave. However, if you can understand it to mean that He was not doing any of this and that He then turned to do it in the last third of the night, thereby answering prayers, forgiving, bestowing, and that He has named this “descending from one degree to another and from one attribute to another,” then that – ironically – is addressed to those who have more knowledge than you and more intelligence, who are firmer in belief in Allah’s Unity and are less confused than you – nay, who are not confused at all!43

They say in ignorance that if He meant the descending of his Mercy he would not make that only in the last third of the night, because His Mercy descends day and night. We say: Yes, he singled out the night, and the day of `Arafa, and the hour of Jum`a, because the descent of His mercy in them is more abundant, and its bestowal is even greater then. Allah told us of this when He said: “And those who beg forgiveness in the early hours of the morning” (3:17).44


The Renewer of the eighth Islamic century and teacher of Ibn Hajar, Shaykh al-Islam Zayn al-Din al-`Iraqi said about Ibn `Abd al-Barr: “He is one of those who hold that Allah has a direction, therefore beware of him.”45 The Shafi`i imam Ibn Jahbal al-Kilabi indicated Ibn `Abd al-Barr’s isolation from the position of most scholars, particularly Malikis, on the questions of istiwa‘ and descent:

Concerning what Abu `Umar ibn `Abd al-Barr said, both the elite and the general public know the man’s position and the scholars’ disavowal of if. The Malikis’ condemnation of it, from the first to the last of them, is well-known. His contravention (mukhalafa) of the Imam of North Africa, Abu al-Walid al-Baji, is famous.46 It reached a point that the eminent people of North Africa would say: `No-one in North Africa holds this position except he and Ibn Abi Zayd!’ although some of the people of knowledge cited an excuse for Ibn Abi Zayd in the text of the great qadi Abu Muhammad `Abd al-Wahhab [ibn `Ali ibn Nasr al-Baghdadi (d. 422)] al-Baghdadi al-Maliki47 – may Allah have mercy on him.48


Al-Qari commented the following on the hadith of descent:

“Our Lord descends” means that His command descends to one or more of His angels, or that His herald descends.

“Blessed and Exalted is He” means: Abundant are His goodness, Mercy, and the marks of His beauty. Also, He is exalted above the attributes of creatures pertaining to ascent and descent, and elevated with His splendor, magnificence, and majesty above the properties of contingence. It was said that “Blessed and Exalted” are parenthetical clauses inserted between the verb and its circumstantial modifier [of time, place, etc.] to warn about transcendence, so that no-one falsely imagine that the attribution of the modifier to the verb is real.

“Every night to the lowest heaven”: Ibn Hajar said: “Meaning His order and mercy descend, or His angels.”49 This is the figurative interpretation of Imam Malik50 and others; it is indicated by the sound narration: “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, etc.”51 A second figurative interpretation – also attributed to Imam Malik – is that it is a metaphor (isti`ara) to signify turning to (iqbal) 52 the supplicant with fulfillment, kindness, mercy, and the acceptance of remorse in the manner of the generous, especially kings when they alight near the needy and weak.

Al-Nawawi said in Sharh Sahih Muslim:

There are, concerning this hadith and those like it among the hadiths and verses of the divine Attributes, two well-known schools of thought. The school of the vast majority of the Salaf and some of the scholars of kalam holds that we must believe in their reality according to what befits Allah Almighty and Exalted, but that the literal import we commonly apply to ourselves is not meant, nor do we say anything to interpret them figuratively, believing firmly that Allah is utterly transcendent above the properties of contingence (huduth).53 The second school is that of the majority of the scholars of kalam and a number of the Salaf – related from Malik and al-Awza`i – and holds that they are interpreted figuratively but only according to their appropriate contextual meanings. On that basis, this hadith has two interpretations.54

Then he cited the two interpretations we mentioned above. From what he said, as well as from the words of the godly scholar Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi, Imam al-Haramayn, al-Ghazzali, and others both among our own Imams and the rest, it is understood that the two schools agree upon the dismissal of the literal meaning of the following: the “coming” (al-maji’), the “form” (al-sura), the “person” (al-shakhs), the “leg” (al-rijl), the “foot” (al-qadam), the “hand” (al-yad), the “face” (al-wajh), “anger” (al-ghadab), “mercy” (al-rahma), the “establishment over the Throne” (al-istiwa’ `ala al-`arsh), the “being in the heaven” (al-kawn fi al-sama’), and others. Understood literally, all these would necessarily result in definitely false impossibilities entailing positions whose status is disbelief (kufr) by Consensus. Due to this, all of the Khalaf and Salaf were compelled to dismiss the literal meaning of the word.

They differed only with regard to the following: Should we dismiss the literal meaning while believing firmly that Allah Almighty and Exalted described Himself with whatever befits His majesty and magnificence, without interpreting it figuratively as something else? This is the way of most of the Salaf, and it involves a non-specific type of figurative interpretation (ta’wil ijmali). Or should we dismiss the literal meaning while believing firmly that Allah Almighty and Exalted described Himself with whatever befits His majesty and magnificence, and interpreting it figuratively as something else? This is the way of most of the Khalaf, and it consists in a specific type of figurative interpretation (ta’wil tafsili).55

The Khalaf did not want, in adopting the latter, to deliberately contravene the pious Salaf – we seek refuge in Allah from such a notion about them! However, it was only out of the necessity in which their times placed them, because of the abundance of the mujassima and Jahmiyya among other misguided sects, and their sway over the minds of the general public. By adopting specific figurative interpretation, they aimed to deter them and prove their doctrines false. Thereafter, many of them expressed regret and said: “If we had the pious Salaf’s purity of doctrine and enjoyed the scarcity of naysayers which they enjoyed in their time, we would not probe into the figurative interpretation of any of these.”

It is by now clear that Malik and al-Awza`i – major figures of the Salaf – interpreted this hadith in its specifics. Similarly did Sufyan al-Thawri interpret istiwa‘ over the Throne as the decision of Allah’s command, its equivalent being “Then turned He (thumma istawa) to the heaven when it was smoke” (41:11).56 Among those who did the same is Imam Ja`far al-Sadiq. Indeed a whole group of them, as well as later scholars, said that whoever believes Allah to be in a particular physical direction is an unbeliever, as al-`Iraqi has explicitly stated, saying:

This is the position of Abu Hanifa, Malik, al-Shafi`i, al-Ash`ari, and al-Baqillani. All the groups have agreed upon interpreting such texts as “And He is with you wheresoever you may be” (57:4), {There is no secret conference of three but He is their fourth[, nor of five but He is their sixth, nor of less than that or more but He is with them wheresoever they may be]} (58:7), “Wheresoever you turn, there is Allah’s countenance” (2:115), “We are nearer to him than his jugular vein” (50:16), “There is no heart except it lies between the two fingers of the Merciful,”57 and “The Black Stone is Allah’s right hand on earth.”58 This agreement makes plain to the reader the validity of the authorities’ decision that the pause in the verse

None knows its explanation (ta’wil) save Allah And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge [They] say: We believe therein“59 (3:7)

is after the clause “who are firmly grounded in knowledge,” not Allah’s name.60

I say: The vast majority consider that the pause comes at Allah’s name, and have declared it a mandatory pause (waqf lazim).61 This is the literal meaning, for ta’wil is the meaning which Allah Almighty and Exalted meant, and in reality none knows that meaning except Allah Almighty and Exalted, and there is no God beside Him. One that speaks concerning its meaning is speaking only according to what is shown to him, and no-one can say: “This interpretation is what Allah meant” categorically.62

The disagreement, in the final analysis, is verbal. Hence, many of the latter-day authoritative scholars have avoided designating the interpretation (ta`yin al-ta’wil) as any given item among the suitable items of a word, leaving its designation to Allah’s knowledge. This is a median position between the two schools and a pleasing taste of the two springs. Ibn Daqiq al-`Id chose another median position, saying:

If interpretation stems from an evident and prevalent figurative understanding, then it ought to be applied without reserve. If it stems from a far-fetched, aberrant figurative understanding, then it ought to be left out. If one is as good as the other, then difference in its permissibility or impermissibility is a matter of juridical effort. This matter does not present any danger to the two sides of the argument.

I say: Reserving judgment in this matter is only for lack of a preponderant alternative, although reserving judgment is supported by the position of the Salaf, among them the Greatest Imam [Abu Hanifa], and Allah knows best.

Al-Qadi [`Iyad] said:

What is meant by His descent is the approach of His Mercy, the increase of His kindness toward His servants, and the acceptance of their contrition, in the custom of generous kings and clement liege-lords when they alight near a needy, suffering and weak people.

It was narrated: “Allah comes down from the highest heaven to the lowest heaven.”63 That is: He shifts from all that is necessitated by the Attributes of Majesty – such as the rejection of the arrogant, indifference to them, the subduing of enemies, and the exacting of punishment from the wicked – to all that is necessitated by the Attributes of Beauty, such as forbearance, mercy, the acceptance of contrition, gentleness toward the destitute, fulfillment of needs, leniency and alleviation in the commands and prohibitions, and pardon towards apparent sins. Hence it was said that this is a figural manifestation (tajalli suri) and not a real descent (nuzul haqiqi). The difficulty is thereby resolved, and Allah knows best.64

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