muhammad was fully aware that he could no longer rely on his own clan, the hashimites, for any measure of firm support.
he felt himself alone in the whole world. his few followers were no match for the forces opposing him. yet he firmly believed in the truth of the message he was preaching. his faith in god did not waver.
at this point something unusual happened to him.
one night, as the prophet was asleep in the home of his cousin umm hani in makkah, the angel gabriel came and woke him up and took him by hand to the mosque, where he found an animal smaller than a mule but slightly bigger than a donkey. the animal, which was a quadruped, also had two wings and floated easily as he moved with unimaginable speed.
the prophet's own description of his movement was that "he put his foot at the furthest point to his side". together, the prophet and gabriel rode the animal, which was called ai-buraq, a name derived from 'barq', meaning lightning. in no time at all they reached jerusalem in palestine .
there the prophet met abraham, moses, jesus and other noble prophets. he led them all in prayer. he was then brought three cups: one contained milk, another contained wine, and the third contained water. he drank the milk. when he had finished, gabriel said, "you and your nation are rightly guided."
when they had finished their business in jerusalem , they flew up to heaven. the prophet tells us that as they entered each of the seven heavens gabriel would confirm to its guardian angel that muhammad had already received his mission. in each heaven, he met one or other of the prophets who preached the message of god's oneness to mankind. among those mentioned in the authentic accounts of this very special journey were adam, jesus, john, joseph, moses and abraham.
he also saw examples of the suffering which would be endured by certain groups of people, as they would be condemned to hell in the hereafter. the description of these groups and their suffering is so vivid that one can almost see them in their plight, yet the suffering was so horrible that one would do anything to escape it.
muhammad's encounter with moses
the prophet was then admitted into paradise and saw examples of the happiness to be enjoyed by those who would seek god's pleasure and do his bidding. here the prophet was delighted with what he saw and expressed his wish that all his followers would be able to partake of such enjoyments. while he was in paradise he was informed of the obligatory prayers he and his followers were expected to offer. as he passed moses on his way back, moses asked him about this particular point of prayer. when muhammad informed him that muslims would be required to pray 50 times each day, moses counselled him to go back and pray god to reduce this requirement.
moses explained by saying: "prayers constitute a heavy burden and your nation is weak." the prophet acted on this advice, and god reduced this obligation to 40 prayers each day.
when he stopped by moses again, moses repeated the same advice. again the prophet acted on it. the whole procedure was repeated several times until the obligatory prayers for muslims were reduced to five daily. moses still thought they were hard to observe and counselled the prophet to request a further reduction. the prophet, however, felt too shy to do that.
the prophet then returned to makkah, having been absent only for part of the night; he returned just before dawn. on this unique trip, he witnessed the expanse of the universe as well as the link between our life in this world and the greater and larger life of the other world. god also wanted him to see other signs and symbols which filled his blessed heart with unshakeable faith.
since he was taken on that unique journey from the house of his cousin umm hani', where he was staying that night, it was to her house that he returned. everyone in the house soon woke up. when they had finished their dawn prayers, the prophet told umm hani' about his journey.
a firm believer, she accepted what the prophet related as true. when he was about to leave, intending to go to the mosque, she stopped him, saying: "i fear that people would not believe you if you tell them what you have just told me." the prophet made clear his intention to tell them "even though they would not believe me".
narrating the unthinkable
when he was sitting in the mosque, he was totally absorbed in his thoughts. abu jahl, the arch-enemy of islam, noticed that and came up to him to ask: "any news?" the prophet replied: "yes. i was taken last night to jerusalem." making sure that he had heard him correctly, abu jahl asked: "to jerusalem?" the prophet's clear answer came in the affirmative.
realizing that there was a chance to consolidate the opposition to muhammad and his message, abu jahl asked him: "if i call the others to come over, would you repeat to them what you have just told me?" unhesitatingly, the prophet said: "yes."thus abu jahl did what the prophet intended to do, that is, to gather the people so that he would tell them about his journey.
when the prophet had finished his story, everybody was expressing disbelief in one way or another. some people clapped, some put their hands over their heads and others jeered. one of them asked about the caravan the quraysh had sent to syria. the prophet gave a detailed answer on its conditions and specified its arrival time.
they went out at the appointed time and, to their surprise, there was the caravan in exactly the same condition the prophet had described. yet that did not influence or weaken their opposition to the prophet.
as the prophet's account of his journey was completed, there were many unbelievers going around into every quarter in makkah to relate what sounded to them the most incredible story ever told. some of them went straight to abu bakr, the prophet's closest friend, to tell him and to find out what his reaction would be.
abu bakr first accused them of bringing him false stories. when they assured him that muhammad actually claimed to have made the return journey to jerusalem overnight, abu bakr's answer was: "if he has actually said this, he is telling the truth." when they expressed their amazement that he would believe such a singular story, abu bakr said: "what is so surprising? i believe him when he says something even more incomprehensible. he says he receives revelations from god and i believe him."
abu bakr then went to the mosque where people were still gathered around the prophet expressing their disbelief. he asked the prophet whether he made the statement that he went to jerusalem and came back on the same night. when he heard the prophet's affirmative reply, abu bakr said: "i believe you; you always tell the truth." then he asked the prophet to describe jerusalem.
as the prophet went on with his description, abu bakr kept repeating his words: "i believe you; you always tell the truth." the prophet was so pleased with abu bakr that he gave him the title assidiq, which denotes 'a true and firm believer'. this was abu bakr's most cherished title which he kept for the rest of his life.
a small number of people rejoined the unbelievers after accepting islam. the prophet, however, was not influenced by their apostasy. he continued to preach his message with unshaken determination.
direct confrontation with adversity
two points need to be made here: the first concerns the example provided by the prophet for all advocates of islam. he faced the quraysh with his story, fully aware that he would be accused of telling lies. that did not influence his determination to do what was required of him.
the interests of his message came first. people's accusations could not weaken his resolve.
the point is that people may accept the idea of revelations but turn away from islam for lesser reasons. in this case they found it difficult to accept the idea that god could take his messenger on a journey like this while they believed that he would inspire him with his words, sending down his angel messenger to convey his message.
in other cases people may opt for disbelief for even less important reasons. that, however, should not weaken our resolve to follow in the footsteps of the prophet and his noble companions.
there is no doubt that the night journey was a very effective morale booster for the prophet. he was, after all, a human being who shared in all human emotions of sorrow, grief, pleasure and delight. only a short time earlier he had lost his wife khadijah, who was his main source of comfort, and his uncle abu 'talib, who ensured that muhammad received all the support and protection to which he was entitled, according to the traditions of the arabian society. then came that disappointing trip to 't'if, which was intended to broaden the base of the islamic message.
it is only natural that muhammad should feel downhearted after those three major jolts which affected both his personal and his public life. there was no question that his sorrow would affect his faith. nevertheless, his losses were, by human standards, of huge proportions. hence, a comforting gesture which gave him first-hand experience of the smallness of this world in relation to the wider universe, and the triviality of what one may experience in this life in relation to what lies in store in the next life, would, as the expression goes, do him the world of good.
there is no doubt that his night journey had a lasting effect on the prophet. it boosted his confidence in himself and in his message; it enhanced his aspirations and helped put his efforts in the service of his faith on a higher level. subsequent events show that there was a marked change in his attempts to set the course for his message.
universality of the islamic message
the night journey was of great significance in more ways than one. note, for example, that at jerusalem, muhammad led the other prophets in prayer. it is a well established islamic concept that the messages of all prophets were basically the same. they all called on mankind to believe in god, the one and only deity. with islam, these messages were brought to their full and complete form.
with muhammad, the line of prophethood reached its end. for the prophets to pray together at jerusalem signifies the continuity of their messages and their unity of rank and purpose. jerusalem thus occupies a unique position as a sacred place for all followers of the divine religions.
that unique prayer of the prophets, led by muhammad, also signifies that as islam has crowned all divine messages and brought them to their final form, jerusalem, the spot revered by all religions, belongs to the muslims who follow muhammad, the recognized leader of all prophets.
the night journey also stresses the universality of the islamic message. muhammad is taken to jerusalem which, at the time, was inhabited by non-arabs. he is engaged there in the most religious of human activities before he is taken to heaven. it would have been just as easy for god to raise muhammad to heaven from his home in makkah. the fact that he chose to take him to jerusalem first, to lead his fellow prophets in prayer, endorses the fact that islam is a message for mankind, not for the arabs alone.
in those congregational prayers of the prophets one also sees a reference to the fact that all the distortion which crept into earlier messages had been pushed aside. a fuller and more complete version of these messages has been revealed and guaranteed by god to remain intact for the rest of time. that version is islam.
was it a physical journey?
muhammad's night journey from makkah to jerusalem and hence to heaven, and his return to his home town on the same night, was, to a contemporary mind, very much a miracle. caravans took a whole month to cover the distance between the two cities. how, then, could muhammad make a return journey overnight, and have a side excursion to heaven in the same package?
even to those accustomed to today's jet travel and to the notion of supersonic speed, the event can only be classified as supernatural. hence questions have always been raised about the true aim of this journey and its nature. more precisely, people wonder whether it was a 'spiritual' or physical journey.
the qur'an answers the first question clearly. the chapter entitled the night journey or al-israa', opens with this verse: (limitless in his glory is he who made his servant go by night from the sacred temple [of makkah] to the further temple [of jerusalem] whose surroundings we have blessed that we might show him some of our signs. he alone hears all and sees all.) (al-israa' 17:1).
the whole object of the journey, then, was that the prophet would have a chance to see some of god's signs. what these were, we are not told. seeing them, however, had a greatly reassuring effect on muhammad, since it enabled him to experience at first hand the limitless ability of god the creator.
this was bound to put the dispute in which he had been engaged with the makkans into perspective. it exhibited before his eyes the true nature and the real might of the two camps: his own, in which god is an active participant, and that of the unbelievers.
hence, it is not surprising that the following years of his life were free of any feelings of weakness or downheartedness. he remained to the last day of his life unaffected by adversity, certain that he would be victorious as long as he and his followers were true believers, sincere in their intentions and actions.
here, one should emphasize that the journey was not a miracle with the aim of persuading the unbelievers to accept the faith. it was not one of the type of miracles which was given to other prophets as evidence of their truthfulness.
the unbelievers had actually challenged the prophet to go up into heaven, but he refused their challenge, as he refused all their other challenging requests. his answer to all such requests was: "glory be to my lord. i am only a human messenger." (al-israa' 17:93)
when he actually rose to heaven, he did not portray the fact as a reply for their challenge. hence, one needs to understand the night journey in its proper light: it was merely an act of god to reassure his messenger at a time when such a reassurance was needed for the proper conveyance of his message.
the majority of islamic scholars are of the opinion that the night journey was not purely 'spiritual'. they believe, as does the present author, that the prophet did physically, in body and spirit, go on this journey. some people may find this hard to believe because it involves preternatural powers. the answer is that whatever powers such a journey required, they were easy for god to provide.
look back only one hundred years and imagine what would have been the reaction of people if someone had told them that anyone would be able to travel the distance between bahrain and london in a little over four hours, in luxurious comfort.
now reflect on travelling speeds, if one maintains the rate of progress achieved in this field in the present century. would supersonic travelling have seemed natural? indeed, the term 'natural' is certainly relative. what is natural today was preternatural to our ancestors and may become, in our grandchildren's view, primitive.
'natural', in essence, signifies little more than 'familiar'. one need only look, with open eyes and mind, at the world to find that there are many miraculous facts which are readily accepted as 'natural' for no reason other than their familiarity. every childbirth is a miracle, but it is simply overlooked because it occurs so often. one need only reflect over it a little to understand its miraculous nature.
in tackling such events as the night journey, one needs to remember only that they occur because god has willed that they should occur. to him there is no such' thing as 'natural' or 'preternatural'. he has created all the laws of nature, whether they are familiar or not. to him the operation of all laws is equally easy. what is not understood of his actions is readily accepted, because the fact that his power is limitless is already accepted.