This metaphoric Qur’anic expression concerns God’s Messenger’s unparalleled nearness to God during his Ascension. From the viewpoint of Sufism, it denotes rising beyond the horizons of Divine Acts and Names and reaching the peak of Attributes or even going beyond it. Reaching the peak of Attributes is called Nearness relating to the Attributes, and going beyond it is Nearness related to the (Divine) Being Himself. However, we should point out that this nearness is our nearness to the Being Who is nearer to everything than itself, and is the feeling of self-annihilation in the lights of His Existence through freedom from duality in the state of spiritual pleasures. Travelers who experience this cannot see, know or feel anything other than Him, see what they see as His making them see, feel what they feel as His making them feel, hold what they hold by His making them hold, and obtain what they obtain by His making them obtain. With all the atoms of their bodies, they become eloquent voices speaking of Him.
This nearness is the fruit of ascension toward God. In the universal level it was represented by him whose existence is the ultimate cause for the creation of the universe, upon him be peace and blessings. Those performing spiritual travel under his guidance can have a share in it, each according to his or her rank. A traveler, the elements of whose bodily existence come from stone, dust, clay, air and water, enters the way of being perfected through belief, righteous deeds, sincerity and pursuing God’s good pleasure. Freed from imprisonment in the dungeon of corporeality and traveling on the horizons of life in heart and spirit, the traveler is saved from the loneliness and solitude that originate from being distant from God, and reaches the point of friendship with God. In other words, as the traveler was originated by God in the beginning, so finally he or she returns to Him. One’s being originated or sent to the world is a descent and called the arch of descent, and one’s returning to God through Him and acquiring nearness to Him is ascension and called the arch of ascension. Since the picture formed of these two (curved) arches resembles a circle formed of two archery bows facing each other, their meeting point at the top has been described as the distance between two bows (53:9). It denotes that the Messenger reached as far as the line or boundary of the realm of mortality and contingency, which adjoins the (Divine) realm of eternity and absolute necessity.
The expression “or nearer” signifies that the two (hypothetical) lines or boundaries, one belonging to the realm of mortality and contingency and the other to the (hypothetical) Divine realm of eternity and absolute necessity, have joined each other and become as if one boundary. It therefore refers to the furthest point of nearness to God as far as that which a created being can reach in journeying toward God. This nearness belongs only to God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings.
As mentioned before, every human being is caught up in two movements, one of descent and the other of ascension. The Sufis call the former the arch of descent, and the latter the arch of ascension. Although some Muslim philosophers have viewed this as a cycle based on the theories of Divine emanation and appearance, which are likely to open a door to heretical doctrines such as monism, incarnation and union, in reality this cycle is the education, purification and development of the spirit, making it into a polished mirror to God by means of belief, righteous deeds, sincerity, purity of intention and struggle against the carnal soul. This is another title on the way to becoming a perfect human being. It is a way that everyone can follow. That is something that Nadiri expresses most memorably:
What does it mean that we have taken up our residence
at the highest point of rising, or at a point nearer (to Him)?
We have made the way leading to the station of
two bows’ distance a straight and easy path, like an arrow,
by treading it time and again.