Does God descend (literally) every night to the lowest heaven?

Imam Muslim narrates the following hadith in his Sahih:

أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ‏ ‏صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ‏ ‏قَالَ يَنْزِلُ رَبُّنَا تَبَارَكَ وَتَعَالَى كُلَّ لَيْلَةٍ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ الدُّنْيَا حِينَ يَبْقَى ثُلُثُ اللَّيْلِ الْآخِرُ فَيَقُولُ ‏ ‏مَنْ يَدْعُونِي فَأَسْتَجِيبَ لَهُ وَمَنْ يَسْأَلُنِي فَأُعْطِيَهُ وَمَنْ يَسْتَغْفِرُنِي فَأَغْفِرَ لَهُ ‏

“Messenger of God – May Peace and Blessings of God be upon him – said, ‘Our Lord – Blessed and Exalted is He! – descends every night to the lowest heaven in the last third of the night and says: Who is supplicating Me so that I may answer him? Who is asking forgiveness from Me so that I may forgive him?”

Shaykh ul-Islam, Imam An-Nawawi says in his Sharh Sahih Muslim,

“This hadith is from the hadith of the Sifat (attributes) of God, the Exalted, and regarding it there are two well-known madhdhabs (schools of thought): the first, and it is the madhhab of the salaf (the rightly guided predecessors) and some of the Mutakallimin (scholars of kalam) that it is to believe in their [i.e. the attributes] reality according to what befits God, the Exalted, and that the literal meaning that we commonly apply to ourselves is not what is meant, and that one does not speak regarding its interpretation while holding the belief that God, the Exalted, is free from the attributes of the created, and from translocation, and movement, and the rest of the attributes of created beings.

The second is the madhdhab of the majority of the Mutakallimīn, and a group from amongst the Salaf; and it is what is reported from Imām Mālik and al-Awzā’ī that they are interpreted figuratively but only according to their appropriate contextual meanings. On this basis there are two interpretations (ta’wil).

  1. The first is the ta’wil of Imam Malik ibn Anas and other than he, that its meaning is the descent of His mercy and decree and His angels. As is said regarding the Sultan (King) that ‘he did so and so’, when actually [the task] has been performed by those under his command [and not by him (Sultan) personally]]
  2. And the Second interpretation is that it is an Isti’arah (metaphor) to signifiy turning to (iqbal) to those who supplicate to Him with fulfillment by answering [the du’aa] and showing lutf (kindness, generosity) [to those beseeching Him]. And God knows best.

[Sharh Sahih Muslim; Kitab Salat al-Musafirin, number 1261]

Imam al-Qurtubi al-Maliki said in his Tafseer:

“God, the Exalted, is not attributed with transferring from one place to another. How can transfer and movement be attributed to Him when He exists without a place and is clear of time, and periods and intervals do not lapse on Him?”

Imam al-Faqih al-Asfaraini, the well-known Scholar of Creed, said in his book At-Tabsiru fid-Deen:

“The slave must know that anything which dictates creationism such as limits, extremes, place, direction, stillness and movement is impossible to apply to (God), the One who is clear of all the attributes of the creations.”

Imam Ahmad ar-Rifa`i said in his book Al-Burhan al-Mu`ayyad:

“Do not sanction attributing to God a directional above or below, a location or a physical hand or an eye or interpreting the word Nuzul as a physical descending or ascending.”

Al-Hafidth ibn al-Jawzi al-Hanbali said in his book Daf`u shubahtit-Tashbeeh:

“It is obligatory upon us to firmly believe that the Self of God is not confined to place, nor attributed with change or moving.”

Al-Hafidth an-Nawwawi, the well-known Shafi`i Hadith scholar said in his explanation on Sahih Muslim:

“Verily God the Exalted, does not resemble any of the creations and is clear of bodily concepts, moving, occupying any direction and of all the creations characteristics.”

Imam al-Bayhaqi said in his book, Al-Asma’ was-Sifat, page 488:

“God, the Exalted, is not in a place. Movement, coming to rest, and sitting are among the attributes of bodies.” [and God is not a body].

Shaykh az-Zarqani said in his elucidation to the book Muwatta of Imam Malik:

“Imam al-Baydawi said: ‘since it is confirmed through irrefutable proofs that God is clear of notions of body and dwelling, it follows that it is impossible that God would be moving from one [higher] place to another lower place.”

Al-Hafidth az-Zabidi said in his book Ithafus-Sadatil Muttaqin:

“God, the Exalted is clear of changing from one state to another, moving from place to place and physical attachment and detachment, for they are all attributes of the creations.”

As-Sanusiyy says in his al-Aqidah al-Sanusiyyah:

“God is not attributed with death, light rays, darkness, color, spirit, stillness, movement, shape, form, parts, divisibility, limits, countability, mode, mass, location or direction because these attributes need to be specified by a creator and must therefore have a beginning.”

Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali says in Fath al-Bari – his Commentary upon Sahih al-Bukhari – chapter on facing towards the direction of the Qibla:

وقال ابن رجب الحنبلي رحمه الله: ومراده أن نزوله ليس هو انتقال من مكان إلى مكان كنزول المخلوقين
“What is meant by it is that His Nuzul (lit. descent) is not (in terms of) spacial movement from (one) place to (another) place, like the descent (Nuzul) of created things.“

The interpretation of the hadith by Ahlus-Sunnah – who clear God from occupying place, directionality, and boundaries –  is that the descent (Nuzul) mentioned in this hadith means that the Angels of Mercy descend by the order of God to the lower sky according to the night-time of every land. The Angels would say: Your Lord says: ‘Is there any one who is making supplication so that I will answer his supplication? Is there anyone who is asking me for forgiveness so that I will forgive him? Is there any one who is asking for things so that I will give him?’

The Angels convey just what God ordered them to convey. This is the meaning of the hadith as explained by the scholars of orthodox sunni Islam (Ahlus Sunnah). For these reasons, you have to either say that Nuzul does not mean that God Himself is descending, and then either give a plausible interpretation, or simply affirm the Nuzul while believing it does not mean that God is descending.

And Allah knows best.

Sources:
http://sunnianswers.wordpress.com
http://alsunna.org
http://www.seekingilm.com/archives/962
http://studentofthedeen.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/ibn-rajab-al-hanbali-on-allahs-nuzul/

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