Al-Isra’ and Al-Mi‘raj
(the miraculous night journey from makkah to the farthest mosque in jerusalem, and the ascent through the spheres of heavens)
the last days of the makkan phase of the prophet’s life are noted for alternate fortunes ranging between two extremes: gradual success and continual persecution. however, glimpses of propitious lights were looming on the distant horizon, to ultimately materialize in the event of the prophet’s night journey to jerusalem and then ascension through the spheres of the heavens.
as for its exact date, it is still controversial and no common consent has been reached. however, the majority of jurists is in favour of a date between 16-12 months prior to migration to madinah. the following is a epitome of the details of that miraculous event narrated on the authority of ibn al-qayyim.[za'd al-ma'ad 2/49; tareekh-e-islam 1/124; rahmat-al-lil'alameen 1/76]
the messenger of allâh [pbuh] was carried in body from the sacred mosque in makkah to the distant mosque in jerusalem on a horse called al-buraq in the company of gabriel, the archangel. there he alighted, tethered the horse to a ring in the gate of the mosque and led the prophets in prayer. after that gabriel took him to the heavens on the same horse. when they reached the first heaven gabriel asked the guardian angel to open the door of heaven. it was opened and he saw adam, the progenitor of mankind. the prophet [pbuh] saluted him and the other welcomed him and expressed his faith in muhammad’s prophethood. he saw the souls of martyrs on his right and those of the wretched on his left.
gabriel then ascended with the prophet to the second heaven, asked for opening the gate and there he saw and saluted john, son of zachariya (yahya bin zakariya) and jesus, son of mary. they returned the salutation, welcomed him and expressed their faith in his prophethood. then they reached the third heaven where they saw joseph (yusuf) and saluted him. the latter welcomed the prophet and expressed faith in his prophethood. the prophet, in the company of gabriel, then reached the fourth heaven where he met the prophet enoch (idris) and saluted him. prophet enoch returned the salutation and expressed faith in his prophethood. then he was carried to the fifth heaven where he met the prophet aaron (harun) and saluted him. the latter returned the salutation and expressed faith in his prophethood. in the sixth heaven he met moses (musa) and saluted him. the latter returned the salutation and expressed faith in his prophethood. muhammad [pbuh] on leaving, saw that moses began to weep. he asked about the reason. moses answered that he was weeping because he witnessed a man sent after him as a messenger (muhammad) who was able to lead more of his people to the paradise than he himself did. then prophet muhammad [pbuh] reached the seventh heaven and met abraham (ibrahim)[aws] and saluted him. the latter returned the salutation and expressed faith in his prophethood. then he was carried to sidrat-al-muntaha (the remotest lote tree) and was shown al-bait-al-ma‘mûr [(the much frequented house) which is like the ka‘bah (sacred house) encompassed daily by seventy thousand angels, so that the angels who once encompassed it would not have their turn again till the resurrection]. he was then presented to the divine presence and experienced the thrill of witnessing the divine glory and manifestation at the closest possible propinquity. there the lord revealed unto his servant that which he revealed, and ordained fifty daily prayers for him. on his return, he spoke to moses that his followers had been enjoined to pray fifty times a day. moses addressing the prophet [pbuh] said: "your followers cannot perform so many prayers. go back to your lord and ask for a remission in number." the prophet [pbuh] turned to gabriel as if holding counsel with him. gabriel nodded, "yes, if you desire," and ascended with him to the presence of allâh. the all-mighty allâh, glory is to him, made a reduction of ten prayers. he then descended and reported that to moses, who again urged him to request for a further reduction. muhammad [pbuh] once more begged his lord to reduce the number still further. he went again and again in the presence of allâh at the suggestion of moses for reduction in the number of prayers till these were reduced to five only. moses again asked him to implore for more reduction, but he said: "i feel ashamed now of repeatedly asking my lord for reduction. i accept and resign to his will." when muhammad [pbuh] went farther, a caller was heard saying: "i have imposed my ordinance and alleviated the burden of my servants."
there is however some difference as regards the issue whether the prophet saw allâh with his physical eye or not. some interpreters say that seeing allâh with his naked eyes was not confirmed. ibn ‘abbas, on the other hand, says that the word ru’ya as used in the noble qur’ân signifies the observation with the help of the eye.
in sûrah an–najm (chapter —the star) we read:
"then he approached and came closer." [al-qur'an 53:8]
here (he) refers to archangel gabriel, and this context is completely different from that in the prophetic tradition of isra’ and mi‘raj, where ‘the approach’ relates to that of the lord, glory is to him.
some significant suggestive incidents featured the ‘night journey’ of the prophet, of which we could mention:
- the prophet’s breast was cleft by gabriel, his heart extracted and washed with the water of zamzam —a sacred spring in makkah.
- in the same context, there were brought to him two gold vessels. there was milk in one, while the other was full of wine. he was asked to choose either of them, so he selected the vessel containing milk and drank it. he (the angel) said: "you have been guided on al-fitrah or you have attained al-fitrah. had you selected wine, your nation would have been misled." [it is a symbolic way of saying that good and evil in the form of milk and wine were brought before the prophet and he instinctively made a choice for the good. it is very difficult to render the arabic term ‘fitrah’ into english. it denotes the original constitution or disposition, with which a child comes into this world, as contrasted with qualities or inclinations acquired during life; besides it refers to the spiritual inclination inherent in man in his unspoilt state].
- the prophet [pbuh] told that he saw two manifest rivers, — the nile and the euphrates — and two hidden ones. it appears that the two manifest rivers, the nile and the euphrates, symbolically describe the area in whose fertile valleys, muhammad’s message will settle, and the people whereof will always remain the adherent bearers of islam that will be passed on from generation to another. they can by no means suggest that they well up from the garden.
- he had the opportunity to see malik, the guardian of hell, with a cheerless frowning face. therein, he saw the hell dwellers, of whom were those who unjustly eat up the property of the orphans. they have flews similar to those of camels, swallowing red-hot stones and then issuing out of their backs. there were also the people who take usury with bellies too big to be able to move around; they are trodden by the people of pharaoh when these are admitted into hell. in the same abode, he saw the adulterers offered tasty fatty meat and rotten smelly one but they make option for the latter. the licentious women were also there hanging from their breasts.
- the ‘night journey’ raised a good deal of stir among the people and the sceptical audience plied muhammad with all sorts of questions. he told them that he saw the camels of makkan merchants to and fro. he also guided them to some of their animals that went astray. he informed them that he had drunk some of their water while they were fast asleep and left the container covered.
the disbelievers, however, found it a suitable opportunity to jeer at the muslims and their creed. they pestered the prophet [pbuh] with questions as to the description of the mosque at jerusalem, where he had never gone before and, to the astonishment of many, the prophet’s replies furnished the most accurate information about that city. he supplied them with all the news about their caravans and the routes of their camels. however, all this increased in them nothing but flight from the truth, and they accepted nothing but disbelief.
for the true muslims, however there was nothing unusual about the night journey. the all-mighty allâh, who is powerful enough to have created the heavens and the earth by an act of his will, is surely powerful enough to take his messenger beyond the heavens and show him those signs of his at firsthand which are inaccessible to man otherwise. the disbelievers on their part went to see abu bakr on account of this event, and he readily said: "yes, i do verify it." it was on this occasion that he earned the title of as-siddiq (the verifier of the truth). [ibn hisham 1/399]
the most eloquent and most concise justification of this ‘journey’ is expressed in allâh’s words:
"... in order that we might show him (muhammad) of our ayât (proofs, evidences, signs, etc.)" [al-qur'an 17:1].
the divine rules as regards the prophets goes as follows:
"thus did we show abraham the kingdom of the heavens and the earth that he be one of those who have faith with certainty." [al-qur'an 6:75]
to moses, his lord said:
"that we may show you (some) of our greater signs." [al-qur'an 20:23]
in order that:
"he be of those who have faith with certainty."
the prophets, after seeing allâh’s signs, will establish their faith on solid certainty too immune to be parted with. they are in fact eligible for this divine privilege because they are the ones who will bear burdens too heavy for other ordinary people to carry, and in the process of their mission, they will regard all worldly ordeals and agonies too small to care about.
there are simple facts that emanate from this blessed journey, and flow along into the flowery garden of the prophetic biography; peace and blessings of allâh be upon its author, muhammad. the story of ‘the night journey’ as we see in the noble qur’ân is epitomised in the first verse of the sûrah isra’(chapter 17 — the journey by night) then there is a quick shift to uncover the shameful deeds and crimes of the jews, followed by an admonition saying that the qur’ân guides to that which is most just and right. this arrangement is not in fact a mere coincidence. jerusalem was the first scene of the night journey, and here lies the message directed to the jews and which explicitly suggested that they would be discharged of the office of leadership of mankind due to the crimes they had perpetrated and which no longer justified their occupation of that office. the message suggested explicitly that the office of leadership would be reinstituted by the messenger of allâh [pbuh] to hold in his hand both headquarters of the abrahamic faith, the holy sanctuary in makkah and the farthest mosque in jerusalem. it was high time for the spiritual authority to be transferred from a nation whose history got pregnant with treachery, covenant-breaching and aggression to another nation blessed with piety, and dutifulness to allâh, with a messenger who enjoys the privilege of the qur’ânic revelation, which leads to that which is best and right.
there, however, remains a crucial question waiting to be answered: how could this foreseen transition of authority be effected while the champion himself (muhammad) was left deserted and forsaken stumbling in the hillocks of makkah? this question per se uncovered the secrets of another issue which referred to a phase of the islamic call and the appearance of another role it was about to take up, different in its course and noble in its approaches. the forerunners of that new task took the shape of qur’ânic verses smacking of direct and unequivocal warning accompanied by a severe ultimatum directed to the polytheists and their agents:
"and when we decide to destroy a town (population), we (first) send a definite order (to obey allâh and be righteous) to those among them [ or we (first) increase in number those of its population] who are given the good things of this life. then, they transgress therein, and thus the word (of torment) is justified against it (them). then we destroy it with complete destruction. and how many generations (past nations) have we destroyed after noah! and sufficient is your lord as an all-knower and all-beholder of the sins of his slaves." [al-qur'an 17:16, 17]
together with these verses, there were others revealed to show the muslims the rules and items of the civilization upon which they could erect their muslim community, and foreshadowing their ownership of a piece of land, exercising full freedom over it and establishing a coherent society around whose axis the whole humanity would rotate. those verses in reality implied better prospects for the prophet [pbuh] comprising a secure shelter to settle in, and headquarters safe enough to empower and embolden him to communicate his message to all the world at large; that was in fact the inner secret of that blessed journey. for this very wisdom and the like we deem it appropriate to suggest that ‘the night journey’ took place either before the first pledge of ‘aqabah or between the two; after all, allâh knows best.