The Miracle of the Night Journey and Heavenly Ascension of Prophet Muhammad
Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque to the Further Mosque the precincts of which We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs. He is the All-hearing, the All-seeing [Quran 17:1]
Every year on 27th Rajab, Muslims around the world commemorate one of the most significant and unique events in Islamic history, known as Al-Isra` and al-Mi’raj, the Prophet’s night journey from Mecca to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem from where he embarked on the second leg of the journey heavenwards. Muslims in general consider this journey a miracle from Allah conferred exclusively upon Prophet Muhammad. It represents the climax of his spiritual journey that culminated in the ultimate gift, meeting and conversing with Allah the Almighty.
As with all the other Prophets who were sent before him, Prophet Muhammad was severely tested. Throughout the majority of his mission, he was met with great opposition and enmity, vilified and attacked by proud disbelievers. Prophet Muhammad’s relentless preaching to the people to abandon idol worship and turn to the One True God, and the growing number of those who believed with him despite the persecution and pitiless torture meted out against them, so alarmed the idolaters of Quraysh and their allies that they sought out a new strategy to persecute the Muslims. They drew up a pact to boycott and sever all social and commercial relations with the Muslims and the Banu Hashim and Banu Abdul Muttalib who refused to abandon their tradition of protection of one of their own. But the three-year-long blockade against the Muslims proved to be counterproductive to the efforts of the Quraysh and its allies for it only strengthened the Prophet’s faith and made his followers even more determined to protect him against attack.
A few months after the boycott was lifted, two tragedies occurred that were to add to Muhammad’s troubles and test his faith and patience even more severely. Khadijah, Muhammad’s loyal wife who supported him with her love, goodness, and strong faith, passed away. With her death, Prophet Muhammad lost his sole source of comfort and reassurance against the heavy burdens of his cause. Shortly before this sad incident, his uncle, Abu Talib, who had so lovingly raised him and protected him throughout his mission, died. It was reported that he said of this time, “Quraysh never harmed me so much as after the death of Abu Talib.” With Abu Talib gone, it was an opportune time for the Quraysh to intensify their attacks against the Prophet and his followers. But his faith was unshaken and his conviction that Allah would give him the final victory never wavered. Whenever he saw his daughter, Fatima, cry at the insults and harm he endured, he would tell her, “Do not cry, O Fatima! Your father has Allah for his protector.”
Crushed under the malevolent conduct of the Quraysh against him and despairing of all hope to turn them around, the Prophet decided to solicit the support of other tribes and preach his faith elsewhere. Without divine commission, he traveled alone to the city of Ta`if where, he hoped, Islam would be accepted. There, he approached the tribal elders who not only rejected him but incited the people and servants to pelt him with stones and hoot him out of the city. Disgraced, exhausted, and bleeding, Prophet Muhammad left the city and took shelter near a wall. He raised his hands to heaven and prayed to Allah, saying, “O Allah! To You I complain of my weakness and of my lack of resources and the humiliation I have received. O, Most Merciful and Compassionate! You are the Lord of the oppressed and You are my Lord … I do not care for anything except Your pleasure. I seek refuge in Your light which illuminates all darkness … I pray that I should never incur Your wrath and displeasure … There is no strength or power except through You.”
It seemed that all doors were closed before him. But the Prophet displayed unshakable faith in Allah, patience, and perseverance in the face of insolent abuse and oppression. He was the living embodiment of the words of Allah the Almighty Who says, “And be steadfast in patience; for verily Allah will not suffer the reward of the righteous to perish” [Quran 11: 115]. And what better way to reward His servant than to confer upon him the miracle of the Isra` and al-Mi’raj? What better reward than to carry him to where no other prophet before him was taken, before the divine presence of Allah Himself?
Al-Isra` wal Mi’raj
The great journey of al-Isra` and Mi’raj took place around one year before the Prophet’s migration to Medina. Within the Quran, the event is mentioned only briefly. The first verse of chapter 17 references the first phase of the journey; Allah the Almighty says, “Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque to the Further Mosque the precincts of which We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs. He is the All-hearing, the All-seeing” [Quran 17: 1]. Scholars agree that the Mi’raj, the second phase of the journey, is the subject of the following verses of Chapter Al-Najm, “By the star when it sets! Your companion has not strayed; he is not deluded; he does not speak from his own desire. The Quran is nothing less than a revelation that is sent to him. It was taught to him by [an angel] with mighty powers and great strength, who stood on the highest horizon and then approached—coming down until he was two bow-lenghts away or even closer—and revealed to God’s servant what He revealed. [The Prophet’s] own heart did not distort what he saw. Are you going to dispute with him what he saw with his own eyes? A second time he saw him: by the lote-tree beyond which none may pass near the Garden of Restfulness, when the tree was covered in nameless [splendor]. His sight never wavered, nor was it too bold, and he saw some of the greatest signs of his Lord” [Quran 53: 1-18].
Details of the Prophet’s journey is found in the vast body of hadith and sirah literature. The exact details however fluctuate from one text to another. There is a difference of opinion among scholars on several points of the story such as for instance where the Prophet was staying when he was visited by the archangel Jibril, where he was offered the cups of milk and wine, and where the splitting of the chest took place. All narratives however agree that Jibril wakes Muhammad from his sleep and leads him to the Buraq — a white mount, smaller than a mule and larger than a donkey — which takes him off to his journey. The Buraq carries the Prophet to the ‘Farthest Mosque’, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. At some point, Jibril splits open the Prophet’s chest, removes his heart, and washes it with Zamzam water. He then brings a vessel made of gold containing wisdom and faith which he empties into the Prophet’s heart and then closes up his chest. The Prophet is offered two cups from which to drink, one containing milk and the other containing wine. The Prophet chooses to drink the milk. Jibril tells him, “Praise be to Allah Who guided you to the fitrah (right path)” [Bukhari].
With Jibril as his companion, the Prophet sets off on the Buraq at phenomenal speed to Al-Aqsa Mosque where he finds Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, among a company of the prophets assembled and waiting for him. The call to prayer is then made and the Prophet is invited to lead them in prayer. This part of the journey, the Isra`, represents the Prophet’s horizontal journey across the visible physical world. It is distinct from the Mi’raj and serves as a prelude to it.
The Isra` contains initiation features. The sanctification and purification of the Prophet, represented by the splitting of his chest is a necessary preliminary to his ascension to the heavens. It prepares him for the journey to another dimension beyond time and space and opens up his heart to what he is about to see and experience. More important, it prepares him for the splendid culmination of his journey, the meeting with his Lord.
The Isra` is also paramount in that it is symbolic of two things; first it shows Allah’s grace and favor upon the Prophet. Allah chooses none but him to lead all other prophets and messengers in prayer thereby consolidating his superior status. Second, it declares the universality of Islam and signifies that it is the seal of all other messages and laws.
The next part of the journey is marked by Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to the heavens. Here, all the laws of nature and the concepts of time and space as we know cease to apply and everything the Prophet experiences and sees is beyond human comprehension. At each of the seven heavens, the Prophet accompanied by Jibril, encounters a gate and a watcher. At the gate of the lowest heaven, Jibril asks the gate-keeper to open the gate.
The gate-keeper asks, “Who is it?”
“It is Jibril,” he answers.
The gate-keeper says, “Who is accompanying you?”
Jibril says, “It is Muhammad.”
The gate-keeper then says, “Has he been called?”
Jibril says, “Yes.”
The gate-keeper says, “He is welcomed. What a wonderful visit this is!”
As the Prophet and his companion continue to travel upward to the other levels of heaven, the same questions are asked by the gate-keeper of each heaven and the same responses are given.
At every heaven, the Prophet encounters a prophet. In the first heaven, he meets Adam, the father of mankind. The Prophet greets Adam with the greetings of peace. Delighted to see the greatest of his descendants, Adam, replies, “Welcome my son, welcome O Prophet of Allah!” Gabriel then takes the Prophet up to the other heavens where he encounters Jesus and Yehya in the second heaven; Yusuf in the third heaven; Idris in the fourth heaven; Harun in the fifth heaven; Musa in the sixth heaven; and finally Ibrahim, the father of prophets in the seventh heaven. In each heaven, Prophet Muhammad greets the prophet residing in it with greetings of peace and he is greeted back with, “Welcome dear brother, and welcome O Prophet of Allah!”
During this heavenly journey, Prophet Muhammad sees several signs of Allah. He is shown Bayt al-Ma’moor (the qiblah of the angels) that sits above the Ka’bah, and scenes from paradise and hell. In hell, he sees people being tortured for sins such as fornication, usury, backbiting, and misappropriating the property of orphans. In paradise, the Prophet sees people enjoying the wondrous rewards promised to them by Allah in recompense for their faith and good deeds.The wonders he sees in paradise go beyond “what the eye has ever seen, what the ear has ever heard, and what the mind has ever conceived.”
Jibril then escorts the Prophet to his next destination through the seventh heaven to the uppermost boundary, Sidrat al-Muntaha (the Lote-tree) whose fruits are as big as jugs and its leaves as big as elephant ears. He sees four rivers flowing out from beneath the tree, two visible ones and two hidden ones. The Prophet asks, "What are these, O Jibril? He replies, "As for the hidden ones, they are two rivers of Paradise. The visible ones are the Nile and the Euphrates."
At Sidrat al-Muntaha, Jibril asks Mohammed to proceed alone. No one from among all of Allah’s creation has ever gone beyond Sidrat al-Muntaha for beyond it lies the throne of Allah the Almighty. Prophet Muhammad proceeds alone and reaches the climax of his journey. He stands in the presence of Allah the Almighty at a distance of “two bow-lengths away or even closer.”
We do not have the details of the exchange that went on between Allah and His beloved Prophet. What we do know however, is that during this meeting Allah commissioned Prophet Muhammad and his community with prayer, the cornerstone of Islam after monotheism. Allah tells him, “I have placed a religious duty on you and your community of fifty prayers every day and every night.”
On his descent through the heavens, Prophet Muhammad meets Musa once more who asks him about the commission he received from his Lord. When Musa learns about the number of prayers enjoined upon the community of Muhammad, he advises him to go back and implore Allah to reduce the number. The Prophet hurries back until he reaches the Tree and asks Allah to lighten the burden of his community. Allah agrees and reduces the number of prayers. When the Prophet returns to Musa and informs him of what has transpired, he is again advised to return to his Lord and ask for a further reduction. The Prophet continues to go back and forth between Musa and his Lord until Allah reduces the number to five daily prayers with each one counting as ten.
Prophet Muhammad’s journey through the heavens comes to an end. He descends from the heavens to Jerusalem, unthethers the Buraq, mounts the saddle and goes back to Mecca. The Prophet wastes no time to inform the people of his journey and encounter with Allah in the hope of winning the hearts of the idolaters over to Allah. The very next morning, he recounts his journey to the people of Mecca. He is at once ridiculed and accused of lying. To test the veracity of his wondrous claims, the people ask him to describe Al-Aqsa Mosque which he does in detail. They ask him to describe the caravans he saw en route, and he says, “I saw the caravan of so-and-so. They had lost one of their camels and were searching for it.” In spite of all the details attesting to his truthfulness, the idolaters continue to mock him for his story and accuse him of lying and insanity.
The Prophet’s Isra` and Mi’raj was indeed wonderful. The passage from Mecca to Jerusalem and then up to the heavens, the communication between the natural and the spiritual order, and coming in the presence of the Divine was the greatest and most singular event in the Prophet’s mission and in the entire history of Islam. It was an exclusive gift from Allah to His beloved Prophet to support him at a time when he was overwhelmed by disappointments and to show him his lofty status. It served to remind him that not only has Allah not forsaken him, but that He chose him alone from among all creation to reveal to him the heavenly and divine mysteries.
The Isra` and Mi’raj, though an exclusive physical experience for Prophet Muhammad, prefigures in many aspects of Islam. It is possible therefore for Muslims to experience the journey and partake of its spiritual blessings and bounties. The journey may be viewed symbolically to represent our own journey in this world towards resurrection.
Our own spiritual journey in this world to the next, may be seen as reflective of the Prophet’s Isra` and Mi’raj. However, we do not have to travel through space and time to attain the divine presence of Allah or to see His signs. His signs are everywhere for those who reflect. He says, “And He shows you (always) His signs” [Quran 40: 81], and “And say, “Praise be to Allah Who will soon show you His signs” [Quran 27: 93]. In many places in the Quran, Allah invites us to ponder His signs. Only those who observe and reflect can see that the universe is entirely composed of the signs of Allah and attest to His truth. Some of the signs of Allah which we experience everyday are enumerated in the words of Allah, “It is He who sends down rain from the sky: from it you drink, and out of it (grows) the vegetation on which you feed your cattle. With it He produces for you corn, olives, date-palms, grapes and every kind of fruit: verily in this is a sign for those who give thought. He has made subject to you the Night and the Day; the sun and the moon; and the stars are in subjection by His Command: verily in this are Signs for men who are wise. And the things on this earth which He has multiplied in varying colors (and qualities): verily in this is a sign for men who celebrate the praises of Allah (in gratitude). It is He Who has made the sea subject, that you may eat thereof flesh that is fresh and tender, and that ye may extract therefrom ornaments to wear; and you see the ships that plough the waves, that you may seek (thus) of the bounty of Allah and that you may be grateful. And He has set up on the earth mountains standing firm, lest it should shake with you; and rivers and roads; that you may guide yourselves; And marks and sign-posts; and by the stars (men) guide themselves. Is then He Who creates like one that creates not? Will you not receive admonition? If you would count up the favors of Allah, never would you be able to number them: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Quran 16: 10-18].
The Isra` started from the Holy Mosque with certain initiation features. Prophet Muhammad’s heart is washed and purified and filled with wisdom and faith in preparation for his divine meeting with Allah the Almighty. Similarly, Muslims who wish to attain the divine presence of Allah must purify their hearts, strive in the cause of Allah against all temptations, stand firm in the face of suffering, and demonstrate steadfastness of faith. Allah the Almighty says, “And their Lord has accepted of them, and answered them: "Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female: Ye are members, one of another: Those who have left their homes, or been driven out therefrom, or suffered harm in My Cause, or fought or been slain,- verily, I will blot out from them their iniquities, and admit them into Gardens with rivers flowing beneath;- A reward from the presence of Allah, and from His presence is the best of rewards" [Quran 3: 195]. It is these servants of Allah who will reside in paradise, their faces bright “looking towards their Lord” [Quran 75: 23]. Jarir Ibn Abdullah narrated, “The Prophet came out to us on a night of full moon and said, ‘You will see your Lord on the Day of Resurrection as you see this (full moon)” [Bukhari]. Purity of heart and steadfastness of faith therefore represent our own Mi’raj towards our Lord, the Creator.
This does not however mean that a Muslim who truly wishes to come in the presence of his Lord and commune with Him, must await this splendid reward in the hereafter. Every Muslims can attain divine presence through ritual prayer. Allah the Almighty says, ““And when my servants ask you concerning me, tell them I am near” [Quran 2: 186]. And the Prophet said, “When any of you stands in prayer, he is in communication with his Lord, so let him pay attention to how he speaks to Him” [Bukhari].
The fact that Prophet Muhammad led the prophets and messengers of Allah in prayer, demonstrates two things. First, that all the prophets and messengers were sent from Allah. We must therefore believe in all of them and respect them. Second, the message with which the Prophet came, Islam, is the last of all heavenly religions and, as such, is the universal religion to which all the people must submit until the Day of Resurrection.
The Isra` and Mi’raj carry many great and noble meanings. Those meanings are not only relevant to the Prophet but to all Muslims and believers. At the Prophet’s time, the journey brought glad tidings to the believers and strengthened their faith. Similarly, when commemorating this occasion, Muslims are instructed to remember that for us, the Isra` and Mi’raj represents an inward journey towards the depths of our hearts, in search of Allah the Almighty, by which we will be able to realize our ultimate journey towards the eternal bliss of coming in His presence.