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To Descend or not to Descend? That is the Question!

The Salafi versus Sunni-Shia Dilemma

According to the so-called authentic narrations attributed to Muhammad, Allah literally descends to the lowest heaven, the heaven that is supposed to be closest to the earth, at the last third of every night. The reports claim that Allah does so for the sole purpose of answering and forgiving the sins of all those who invoke him during that time.

The Evidence

Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “Every night when it is the last third of the night, our Lord, the Superior, the Blessed, descends to the nearest heaven and says: Is there anyone to invoke Me that I may respond to his invocation? Is there anyone to ask Me so that I may grant him his request? Is there anyone asking My forgiveness so that I may forgive him?” (See Hadith No. 246,Vol. 2) (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 586 https://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=93&translator=1&start=0&number=586)

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger as saying: Our Lord, the Blessed and the Exalted, 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 Me so that I may give to him? Who asks Me forgiveness so that I may forgive him? (Sahih Muslim, Book 004, Number 1656 https://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=004&translator=2&start=0&number=1550)

Yahya related to me from Malik from Ibn Shihab from Abu Abdullah al-Agharr and from Abu Salama from Abu Hurayra that the Messenger of Allah said, “Our Lord, the Blessed and Exalted, descends every night to the heaven of this world when the last third of the night is still to come and says, ‘Who will call on Me so that I may answer him? Who will ask Me so that I may give him? Who will ask forgiveness of Me so that I may forgive him?’ ” (Malik’s Muwatta, Book 15, Number 15.8.30 https://sunnah.com/urn/404990; bold and italicized emphasis ours)

5 Prayer (Kitab Al-Salat): Voluntary Prayers

(462) Chapter: What Part Of The Night Is Best (For Prayer)?

Narrated Abu Hurairah: The Messenger of Allah as saying: Our Lord who is blessed and exalted descends every night to the lowest heaven when the last one-third of the night remains, and says: Who supplicated Me so that I may answer him? Who asks of Me so that I may give to him? Who asks My forgiveness so that I may forgive him?

Grade: Sahih (Al-Albani)

Reference: Sunan Abi Dawud 1315

In-book reference: Book 5, Hadith 66

English translation: Book 5, Hadith 1310 (sunnah.com https://sunnah.com/abudawud/5/66)

8 The Book on Fasting

(39) Chapter: What Has Been Related About The Middle Night Of Sha’ban

Aishah narrated:

“I could not find the Messenger of Allah one night. So I left and found him at Al-Baqi. He said: ‘Did you fear that you had been wronged by Allah and His Messenger?’ I said: ‘O Messenger of Allah! I thought that you had gone to one of your wives.’ So he said: ‘Indeed Allah, Mighty and Sublime is He, descends to the lowest Heavens during the night of the middle of Sha’ban, to grant forgiveness to more than the number of hairs on the sheep of (Banu) Kalb.’”

Grade: Da’if (Darussalam)

Reference: Jami` at-Tirmidhi 739

In-book reference: Book 8, Hadith 58

English translation: Vol. 2, Book 3, Hadith 739 (sunnah.com https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi/8/58; underline emphasis ours)

Sunan Ibn Majah

Establishing the Prayer and the Sunnah Regarding Them

It was narrated that ‘Ali bin Abu Talib said:

“The Messenger of Allah said: ‘When it is the night of the middle of Sha’ban, spend its night in prayer and observe a fast on that day. For Allah descends at sunset on that night to the lowest heaven and says: ‘Is there no one who will ask Me for forgiveness, that I may forgive him? Is there no one who will ask Me for provision, that I may provide for him? Is there no one who is afflicted by trouble, that I may relieve him?’ And so on, until dawn comes.’”

Grade: Maudu’ (Darussalam)

English reference: Vol. 1, Book 5, Hadith 1388

Arabic reference: Book 5, Hadith 1451 (sunnah.com https://sunnah.com/urn/1287360; underline emphasis ours)

These next reports are all the more interesting since they depict Allah as descending in a visible, physical form, riding on a red camel with two garments! The narrations even state that Allah doesn’t ascend to heaven until the next day:

Qudsi Hadith No. 272

Abu-Umamah said, “On the evening of the Day of Arafah, God descends to the lower haven [sic], looks at the people standing on Mount Arafah, and says, ‘Welcome to my visitors and to those who came to my house. I swear by my Might that I shall descend to be with you and SIT amongst you myself.’ God descends to Arafah, gives the people everything they ask for and forgives them except for the injustice they committed against one another. God says to the angels, ‘Oh, my angels! I hold you as witnesses that I have forgiven them.’ Things stay this way until the sun sets and the pilgrims move on to Muzdalifah. God doesn’t ascend to heaven that night. At the break of dawn, while the pilgrims are in Muzdalifah, God forgives all the people’s sins including the injustice they committed against one another. Then God ascends to heaven and the people go to Mina.”

Sanad: Abu-Zur’ah Ahmad-Bin-Muhammad via his grandfather via Abu-Sa’id-Bin-Al-Hasan via Abu-‘Ali Al-Raqiqi via Abu-Zayd Hammad-Bin-Dalil via Sufyan Al-Thawri via Qays-Bin-Muslim via ‘Abd-Al-Rahman-Bin-Sabit via Abu-Umamah Al-Bahili.

Source: Al-Mawdu’at Al-Kubra by Ibn-Al-Jawzi.

Rating: Mawdu’ [306].

Qudsi Hadith No. 273

Asma’ said that God’s Messenger said, “I saw my Lord on the day of Arafah on Mount Arafah on a red camel with two garments saying, ‘I have pardoned [the pilgrims], accepted [their prayers], and forgiven [them] except for the injustice they committed against one another.’ On the night of Muzdalifah, God does not ascend to heaven. When the pilgrims gather in Muzdalifah, God say [sic], ‘I have forgiven their sins including the injustice they committed against one another.’ Then the pilgrims leave to Mina.”

Sanad: ‘Umar Salamun via Muhammad Al-Rifa’i via ‘Ali Al-Naysaburi via Hassan-Bin-Ghalib via ‘Abdullah-Bin-Lahi’ah via Yunus-Bin-Yazid via Muhammad-Bin-Ishaq via Yahya-Bin-‘Abbad via ‘Abbad via Asma’.

Source: Tarikh Dimashq by Ibn-‘Asakir.

Rating: Mawdu’ [307]. (1000 Qudsi Hadiths: An Encyclopedia of Divine Sayings, by Arabic Virtual Translator https://books.google.com/books?id=S0VUCAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false; capital and italicized emphasis ours)

Sufi Muslim Dr. Gibril F. Haddad claims that this report of Allah descending to the lowest heaven has been narrated by 23 of Muhammad’s companions:

1Narrated from Abu Hurayra by Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, al-Tirmidhi, Ahmad, Malik, and al-Darimi. It is narrated from twenty-three Companions, as stated by al-Kattani in Nazm al-Mutanathir. (The Hadith of Allah’s Descent, part 3 http://www.sunnah.org/aqida/haddad/Allah’s%20Descent3.htm)

Yet according to the following Salafi website, the number of companions that reported this hadith is actually 28:

This hadeeth was narrated from the Prophet by approximately twenty-eight of the Sahaabah and the Ahl al-Sunnah are unanimously agreed that it is to be accepted. (Islam Question & Answer, General Supervisor: Shaykh Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid, “Affirming that Allaah does descend (to the lowest heaven),” https://islamqa.info/en/answers/20081/affirming-that-allaah-does-descend-to-the-lowest-heaven)

The Objection

Suffice it to say, not all Muslims were/are comfortable with the notion of Allah literally, physically descending from and returning to his throne, which is supposed to be above the seven heavens. Both the Shia and non-Salafi Muslims among the Sunnis had to therefore come up with alternate ways of understanding the hadith, such as claiming that it isn’t the Muslim deity who actually descends, but an angel who comes down to speak on Allah’s behalf:

Abd al-Adhim bin Abd Allah al-Hassani narrated from Ibrahim bin Abi Mahmud who said, I said to al-Ridha:

‘O Son of the Messenger of Allah, what do you say about the hadith which people narrate from the Messenger of Allah, that he said:

“Allah descends in every night of Friday to the Earth’s Heavens.”’

He (al-Ridha) said: May Allah curse those who have cited the words from its place, by Allah, the Messenger of Allah has not said such a thing! Verily, he said:

“Allah sends down an Angel to the earth’s heavens in the last third of every night, and the first part of every night of Friday. And he commands him to call, ‘Are there any who asks, so that I can grant him? Are there any repenters that I should forgive him? Are there any asking for forgiveness, so I can pardon him? O the one who seeks good, come forward! O the one who seeks evil, keep away! and he (the angel) will continue calling by this until Fajr. And when it is Fajr, he (the angel) will return to the spot from the Kingdom of the Heavens.”

My father narrated that to me, from his grandfather, from his fathers, from the Messenger of Allah. (Sheikh al-Suduq, Man La Yahdharuh al-Faqih, Volume 1, p. 421)

The Refutation

The Salafi website, which I cited above, addresses these attempts of explaining away the plain meaning of Muhammad’s words. In so doing, they highlight just how utterly weak and desperate these replies happen to be:

It should be noted that the descent of the Lord – may He be exalted – to the lowest heaven is one of the actions that are attributed to Him and has to do with His will and wisdom. It is descending in a real sense, in a manner that befits His majesty and might. Allaah descends however He wills, whenever He wills. Glory be to Him, there is nothing like unto Him and He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing. It is not permissible to distort the meaning of the hadeeth by saying that what is meant is that His command or mercy descends, or that one of His angels descends. This is false for several reasons:

(i) This misinterpretation goes against the apparent meaning of the hadeeth. The Prophet attributed descent or the act of descending to Allaah, and the basic principle is that a thing is attributed to the one who does it, so if it is attributed to someone else, that is a distortion that goes against this basic principle. We know that the Messenger is the most knowledgeable of all people about Allaah, and that he is the most eloquent of mankind and the most truthful in what he says. There are no lies in his speech and it is impossible for him to attribute something to Allaah that is not one of His names or attributes or actions or rulings. Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning):

“And if he (Muhammad) had forged a false saying concerning Us (Allaah),

  1. We surely would have seized him by his right hand (or with power and might),
  2. And then We certainly would have cut off his life artery (aorta)” [al-Haaqqah 69:44-46]

Moreover the only intention of the Prophet was to guide mankind, so if he said, “Our Lord descends” and someone else says something that runs contrary to the apparent meaning of these words, such as saying that His command descends, then we say: Do you have more knowledge about Allaah than the Messenger of Allaah? The Messenger said, “Our Lord descends” but you say His command descends. Or are you more sincere towards the ummah than he was, since he (allegedly) concealed what he was supposed to tell them and told them something different. Undoubtedly the person who tells the people one thing but means something else is not sincere towards them. Or do you think that you are more eloquent than the Messenger of Allaah?! Undoubtedly such a misinterpretation implies that one is accusing the Messenger of some kind of shortcoming that a Muslim can never accept on the part of the Messenger of Allaah.

(ii) The descent of His command and mercy is not restricted to this part of the night, rather His command and mercy descend all the time. If it is said that what is meant is a specific command or specific mercy which does not happen all the time, the answer to that is that if we assume that this interpretation is correct, then the hadeeth indicates that where the descent of this thing ends is in the lowest heaven, so what benefit can it be to us if mercy descend to the lowest heaven without reaching us? Why would the Prophet even tell us about it?

(iii) The hadeeth indicates that the One Who descends says: “Who will call upon Me, that I may answer Him? Who will ask of Me, that I may give him? Who will seek My forgiveness, that I may forgive him?” NO ONE CAN SAY THAT EXCEPT ALLAAH, may He be exalted.

See: Majmoo’ Fataawa wa Rasaa’il al-Shaykh Muhammad ibn Saalih al-‘Uthaymeen, 1/203-210. (Ibid.; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Another Salafi site presents the same objections:

With this, it should be clear to every person who reads this ḥadīth that what is meant by “descends” here is that Allah Himself descends. We do not even need to say He descends “personally” because as long as the verb is associated with Him, then He himself does it. Still, some scholars did say, “He personally descends.” They resorted to saying that, compelled to adding “personally” only because there are those people who twist the meaning of ḥadīth, claiming that what really descends is the decision and decree of Allah. Others say it is Allah’s mercy that descends, and even others say it is one of his angels that descends…

All of these are incorrect. For one thing, Allah’s decision and decree are constantly descending, and not only during the last third of night as he says generally…

He arranges each matter from the heaven to the earth then it will ascend to him. [Sūrah al-Sajdah, 32:5]

And he says…

And to him the matter will return, all of it. [Sūrah Hūd, 11:123]

As for their statement that it is really only the mercy of Allah that descends to the worldly sky when the last third of night remains, Allah is above such deficiencies and insults! Mercy does not descend except at that time?! Allah says…

And whatever you have of blessing, it is from Allah. [Sūrah al-Naḥl, 16:53]

Every blessing and favor is from Allah, and they are the results of his mercy; they can be witnessed at all times.

We could then ask: What good does it do for us if mercy descends only down to the sky (and no further)?

As for those who say it is really only an angel that descends, we ask: Does it make sense that an angel would say, “Who is calling on me so I can answer him? Who is asking me for anything…”?!

So it is clear that these claims are distorted meanings, they are incorrect and proven so by the ḥadīth itself.

By Allah, such people who claim these things do not know more about Allah than Allah’s messenger, they are certainly not more sincere in advising the servants of Allah than his messenger, and they are not more precise and eloquent in speech than the messenger of Allah. (AbdurRahman.org, “Our Lord’s Descent” https://abdurrahman.org/2018/12/02/our-lords-descent/)

I will now sum up the key points of these Salafis, since I feel they adequately refute the arguments of those Muslims who simply cannot accept the fact that their prophet believed that his lord actually descends to the lowest heaven every night in a literal, bodily manner.(1)

First, the plain meaning of the hadith is that Allah is the one that actually descends, not something or someone else. Second, Muhammad was supposedly blessed with the most eloquent and articulate manner of speaking:

Abu Burda reported on the authority of his father: Allah’s Messenger sent me and Mu’adh to Yemen saying: Call people (to the path of righteousness) and give good tidings to the (people), and do not repel them, make things easy for them and do not make things difficult. I (Burda) said: Allah’s Messenger, give us a religious verdict about two kinds of drinks which we prepare in Yemen. One is Bit’ which is prepared from honey; it is a fermented Nabidh and is strong and turns into wine, and (the second is) Mizr which is prepared from millet and barley. Thereupon, Allah’s Messenger, who had been gifted with the most eloquent and pithy expressions, said: I forbid you from every intoxicant that keeps you away from prayer. (Sahih Muslim, Book 023, Number 4961 https://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=023&translator=2&start=0&number=4961)

Therefore, if Muhammad meant that it is the mercy or command of Allah, which comes down, or an angel, then he could have simply said so. Unfortunately for these Sunnis and Shias, that is not what their prophet said.

Third, the one who descends does so in order to grant forgiveness of sins to all those who invoke him. Since, forgiving sins is an exclusively divine function,

And those who, when they do an evil thing or wrong themselves, remember Allah and implore forgiveness for their sins – Who forgiveth sins save Allah only? – and will not knowingly repeat (the wrong) they did. S. 3:135 Pickthall

And invocation is an act of worship to be given to Allah alone,

And when My servants question thee concerning Me — I am near to answer the call of the caller, when he calls to Me; so let them respond to Me, and let them believe in Me; haply so they will go aright. S. 2:186 Arberry

Your Lord has said, ‘Call upon Me and I will answer you. Surely those who wax too proud to do Me service shall enter Gehenna utterly abject.’… He is the Living One; there is no god but He. So call upon Him, making your religion His sincerely. Praise belongs to God, the Lord of all Being. S. 40:60, 65 Arberry

The one descending cannot be a created angelic being, since no creature can pardon sinners or receive invocations. Therefore, it must be Allah who is doing the descending and not some created emissary.

Fourth, the Quran itself amply testifies that Allah actually can and will in fact descend from the heavens along with his angels on the last day:

Wait they for naught else than that Allah should come unto them in the shadows of the clouds with the angels? Then the case would be already judged. All cases go back to Allah (for judgment). S. 2:210 Pickthall

Wait they, indeed, for nothing less than that the angels should come unto them, or thy Lord should come, or there should come one of the portents from thy Lord? In the day when one of the portents from thy Lord cometh, its belief availeth naught a soul which theretofore believed not, nor in its belief earned good (by works). Say: Wait ye! Lo! We (too) are waiting. S. 6:158 Pickthall

Nay, but when the earth is ground to atoms, grinding, grinding, And thy Lord shall come with angels, rank on rank, And hell is brought near that day; on that day man will remember, but how will the remembrance (then avail him)? He will say: Ah, would that I had sent before me (some provision) for my life! None punisheth as He will punish on that day! None bindeth as He then will bind. But ah! thou soul at peace! Return unto thy Lord, content in His good pleasure! Enter thou among My bondmen! Enter thou My Garden! S. 89:21-23 Pickthall

The Islamic scripture further claims that Allah will come to the earth upon his throne, which shall be carried by eight angels:

And when the trumpet shall sound one blast And the earth with the mountains shall be lifted up and crushed with one crash, Then, on that day will the Event befall. And the heaven will split asunder, for that day it will be frail. And the angels will be on the sides thereof, and eight will uphold the Throne of thy Lord that day, above them. On that day ye will be exposed; not a secret of you will be hidden. Then, as for him who is given his record in his right hand, he will say: Take, read my book! Surely I knew that I should have to meet my reckoning. S. 69:13-20 Pickthall

Since the Muslim book boasts of being a clear and fully detailed writ, which provides a thorough explanation for all its passages,

Say: “Shall I seek for judge other than God? – when He it is Who hath sent unto you the Book, explained in detail.” They know full well, to whom We have given the Book, that it hath been sent down from thy Lord in truth. Never be then of those who doubt. S. 6:114 Y. Ali

One day We shall raise from all Peoples a witness against them, from amongst themselves: and We shall bring thee as a witness against these (thy people): and We have sent down to thee the Book explaining all things, a Guide, a Mercy, and Glad Tidings to Muslims. S. 16:89 Y. Ali

A Book, whereof the verses are explained in detail; – a Qur’an in Arabic, for people who understand; – S. 41:3 Y. Ali

This means that a Muslim must accept the plain meaning of the above verses, and must therefore accept the fact that Allah will physically descend to the earth on an actual throne that is literally carried by eight angels. There’s simply no way around this, unless, of course, the Muslims want to deny the Quran’s repeated claim of being a perspicuous and detailed scripture.

The following narrative provides further corroboration that Allah is literally, physically seated on an actual throne, since the latter groans from the weight of Allah’s body:

Jabir b. Mut‘im told that a nomadic Arab came to God’s messenger and said, “People are suffering distress, the children are hungry, the crops are withered and the animals are perishing, so ask God to grant us rain, for we seek you as our intercessor with God and God as our intercessor with you.” Thereupon the Prophet said, “Glory be to God, glory be to God,” and he continued declaring God’s glory till the effect of that was apparent in the faces of his companions. He then said, “God’s state is greater than that. Woe to you! Do you know how great God is? His Throne is above the heavens thus (indicating with his fingers something like a dome over him), and it groans on account of Him as a saddle does because of the rider.” Abu Dawud transmitted it. (Mishkat Al Masabih, English Translation With Explanatory Notes By Dr. James Robson [Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, Booksellers & Exporters, Lahore, Pakistan, Reprinted 1994], Volume II, Book XXVI – Fitan, Chapter XVII. The Beginning of Creation and Mention of the Prophets, pp. 1226-1227; bold emphasis ours)

What the foregoing shows is that Muhammad believed that his god was an actual corporeal being who possessed a body of some kind, and who literally, physically descends and ascends at the last third of every night. Since this is the case, the Muslims have no grounds to object to the possibility of God taking on a physical human body in order to dwell as a man among human beings. They must come up with some other reasons for rejecting the possibility of God becoming a man by nature without ceasing to be truly, fully divine.

After all, if their god can still be considered divine, even though he has a corporeal form that limits him to the dimensions of time, space and place, having an actual body that he descends and ascends in, then what possible objection can the Muslims have against the Christian belief that God became an actual human being in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ without ceasing to be perfectly divine?

Endnotes

(1) There’s an additional problem with Muhammad’s believing that his lord physically descends from his throne during the last third of every night. Muhammad must have thought that the earth is flat, since if he assumed that the planet was a sphere then he would have surely known that there are certain areas on the globe where it would be daytime. Hence, what would be nighttime in one place would be daytime in another area. Muhammad’s claim that his god descends at the last third of every night only makes sense if he erroneously thought that the earth was flat, which in turn led him to believe that it would be nighttime everywhere on the planet.

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