Imam an-Nawawi interprets hadith an-Nuzul (the hadith whose apparent meaning would be that God descends)

Title page of Sharh Sahih Muslim by an-Nawawi volume 6Hadith Nuzul Tawil an-Nawawi volume 6 page 279

Imam an-Nawawi wrote a commentary of the collection of hadith of Imam Muslim. When he reaches the prayer chapter, and he has to explain the hadith whose apparent meaning is that Allah descends during the third part of the night, and which starts with ‘Yanzilu Rabbuna ila s-samaa’i d-dunya“, he says, volume 6, page 279:

With respect to this hadith (hadith al-nuzul) and the like of it of the hadiths about the Divine attributes and their verses, there are two well-known approaches: the approach of most of the Salaf and some of the speculative theologians [mutakallimun] is to believe in their true nature according to what befits Him, Exalted Be He, and that their literal meanings that are commonly acknowledged with reference to us [dhahiriha] are not intended. We are  to not discuss their meanings but all the while believing in God’s being exalted, Glory to Him, from having all the other characteristics of creation such as transference from place to place [intiqal] and movements [harakat] and the other states of the creation.

The second is the approach of most of the speculative theologians and a portion of the Salaf. It is narrated from Malik  and Awza’i that they said they are to be interpreted in a way befitting them according to their non-literal meanings. Accordingly, the report is to be interpreted with two [different forms of] interpretations. One of them is an interpretation by Malik ibn Anas and others, who said: it is His Mercy (rahmah),  His Order (amr) and His angels who descend, as it can be said: ‘the Sultan did so and so’ when actually [the task] has been performed by those under his command [and not by him personally] The second type of explanation is that this is a figurative meaning, i.e. the meaning would be that those who supplicate to Allah will be rewarded, that [their supplication] will be granted, and that they will receive ‘good things‘ (al-lotf).

Points to remember:

  • Imam an-Nawawi died in 676 after Hijrah, i.e. more than 700 years ago.  He was from Nawa, a village approximately 80km away from Damascus. He was a Shafi‘ i scholar and wrote several  jurisprudence manuals in this school. He did notwrite this particular explanation to refute Ibn Taymiyya (who was about 15 years old when an-Nawawi died), or the Wahhabis (who appeared during the twelfth century after the Hijrah).
  • He is the author of “The Gardens of the Righteous” ( Riyaad as-Saaliheen) and the collection of 40 hadiths which is so well-known nowadays. He has always been considered as a great scholar.
  • In this quote, he summed up the two correct ways to approach this kind of non-explicit narrations, and what these methods have in common is that they do not take the literal meanings of those texts.
  • He also narrates the interpretations made by scholars from the Salaf. in a nutshell he explains that sometimes, the subject of a verb is not the one who performs the action, as when it is said in Arabic  ‘Banal-Amiru l-Madinata” i.e. literally ‘The Prince built the town’ even though he did not put himself bricks above other bricks. However ‘the prince’ can be the subject of ‘built’ in the sentence, because he is the one who ordered  that the town be built.  Here it is the same reasoning, i.e. ‘Rabbuna’ is the subject of ‘yanzilu’ but this does not mean that it is Allah who descends. This is a way of speech in Arabic (even in English it works, for example if you say ‘Manchester City Council built three schools’, everyone knows that it is not the Lord Mayor Harris Lyons, together with the councillors, who went to build them, but that the Council ordered for them to be built). Therefore Imam an-Nawawi here is giving us a possible interpretation.

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