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

Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani

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The meaning of descent (nuzul, tanzil) in Qur’an and hadith varies according to context and may mean revelation, bestowal, provision, or mercy. For example, the meaning of the verses: “Allah hath now brought down the fairest of statements” (39:23) and “Lo! We sent it down on the Night of the Decree” (97:1), is revelation. According to the masters of Qur’anic commentary, it means that Revelation came down from the Preserved Tablet upon the Prophet through Jibril’s intermediary, or that Jibril may have heard it directly from Allah just as Musa heard Allah’s speech — from the right and the left and the top and the bottom and not from any particular direction — upon which Jibril expressed it with an Arabic language which the Prophet made understood to his Community. This is the meaning of descent or revelation (nuzul). This is proven by Allah’s saying: “Lo! We have appointed it a Recitation (qur’an) in Arabic that haply ye may understand” (43:3).

The meaning of “descent” is not a displacement downward of Allah’s speech from Allah Himself on a height down to a depression. Allah said: “And He hath sent down (anzala) for you of cattle eight kinds” (39:6), “And We sent down iron” (57:25), and, of course, all these did not come from high on low. Ibn al-Jawzi refers to this in the section of his Daf` on the hadith of Allah’s descent to the nearest heaven.

The hadith in Bukhari and Muslim: “Our Lord descends every night to the lowest heaven when one-third of the latter part of the night is left, and says: Who supplicates Me so that I may answer him? Who asks forgiveness from Me so that I may forgive him?” is placed by al-Khattabi among the mutashabihat:

This belongs to the knowledge in whose outward expression we have been ordered to believe and not seek to disclose its inward sense. It is one of the many ambiguities (mutashabih) which Allah has mentioned in His book.

Of the hadith of Allah’s descent in Bukhari and Muslim Qurtubi said that it is elucidated by that related by Nisa’i in his Sunan and `Amal al-yawm wa al-layla on the authority of both Abu Sa`id al-Khudri and Abu Hurayra (r) whereby the Prophet (s) 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? Is there anyone begging for forgiveness so that he may be forgiven? Is there any petitioner so that he may be granted his request?

Nisa’i’s narration is confirmed by the hadith found in Ahmad’s Musnad, Tabarani, and al-Bazzar on the authority of `Uthman ibn Abi al-`As al-Thaqafi:

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 an adultress who runs after her pleasure and her intimate companion.

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.

Interpretation has to be employed here as with the words, “Our Lord descends to the nearest heaven” since one of the aspects of descent (nuzul) is the granting of favours, kind behaviour, acceptance and kindliness. Al-Wasiti said, “Whoever speculates that the Prophet himself drew near sees this in terms of distance. All that draws near to the Real hangs in the distance, i.e. far from the perception of its reality since the Real has neither nearness nor distance.”

Further proof of the figurative import of Allah’s “descent” from high is the hadith narrated by Tirmidhi and Ahmad on the authority of Abu Hurayra whereby the Prophet said: “By Him in Whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, if you were to extend a rope down all the way to the seventh earth, verily you would alight upon Allah!” Ibn Hajar interpreted this to mean His knowledge. This means that Allah’s knowledge encompasses everything according to the absolute principle that He is transcendent above place, and He is now as He ever was, before place was created. The same principle applies to the hadith of Allah’s “descent,” as Ibn Hajar demonstrates in his commentary on that hadith.