Ibn Hajar’s Commentary on the Hadith of Descent

Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani

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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.

In sum it 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 Nisa’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?…” 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?…” Al-Qurtubi said: “This clears all ambiguity, and there is no interference by the narration of Rufa`at al-Jahni whereby “Allah descends to the nearest heaven and says: No-one other than I asks about My servants” 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.

Let us turn to the two footnotes appended by Bin Baz to Ibn Hajar’s words here, because they are indicative of his entire approach to this landmark of Muslim scholarship. It is a remarkable fact that his supposed commentary of Fath al-bari is actually a rampant evisceration of the doctrine of Ahl al-Sunna and its replacement under the same name by that of anthropomorphism. This is particularly flagrant in the aspersions of which most of the “commentary” consists when it comes to hadiths touching on the attributes. For example, when Ibn Hajar mentions that “the vast majority of the scholars” reject the assertion of a direction for Allah, Bin Baz inserts the following footnote:

What he means by “the vast majority of the scholars” is the vast majority of the scholars of kalam. As for Ahl al-Sunna — and these are the Companions and those who followed them in excellence — they assert a direction for Allah, and that is the direction of elevation, believing that the Exalted is above the Throne without giving an example and without entering into modality. The proofs from the Qur’an and the Sunna for this are innumerable, so take heed and beware. And Allah knows best.

We have taken note of this statement and we let the readers decide for themselves whether a single one of the above statements is true, other than that Allah knows best. We also take note of Bin Baz’s indiscriminate expulsion of all kalam scholars from the fold of Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama`a by his separating them into two discrete groups. Kalam scholars include Ash`aris, and we have already shown who they are so that it is clear that their enemies are none other than the enemies of Islam. As to the heresy of those who attribute a direction to Allah, we refer the reader to the section further down where the position of Ahl al-Sunna is stated concerning them.

Bin Baz’s reaction to the quotation of Ibn al-`Arabi’s position (“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”) is particularly virulent:

This is an obvious mistake which goes against the plain import of the texts that have come to us concerning the descent, and likewise what is cited of Baydawi later is null and void. The correct position is that of the Pious Salaf who believed in the descent and let pass the texts as they came to them, asserting Allah’s descent in the sense that befits Him, without asking how nor giving an example, just as the rest of His attributes. That is the safest, straightest, most knowledgeable, and wisest way. Therefore hold on to it, cling to it stubbornly, and beware what contravenes it so that you may reach safety. And Allah knows best.

We have already mentioned that the Salaf did apply interpretation in many places and therefore it cannot be “an obvious mistake” to interpret the hadiths of the attributes. We have also mentioned al-Khattabi’s, al-`Izz ibn `Abd al-Salam, al-Nawawi’s, and al-Subki’s prudent explanations whereby interpretation is an obligation in the face of innovations that thrive on dubiousness, such as tajsim, with which the Salaf did not have to deal in the way that the Khalaf experienced. There is no better illustration of the soundness of their rulings than Bin Baz’s blatant declaration that Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama`a attribute a direction to Allah. Here now is the actual position of Ahl al-Sunna concerning those who attribute a direction to Allah.