By ‘Allāmah Muhammad Asad || 18 Februrary 2023
THE PROPHET’S “Night Journey” (Isra’) from Mecca to Jerusalem and his subsequent “Ascension” (Mi’raj) to heaven are, in reality, two stages of one mystic experience, dating almost exactly one year before the exodus to Medina (cf. Ibn Sa’d III, 143). According to various well-documented Traditions – extensively quoted and discussed by Ibn Kathir in his commentary on Surah al-Isra’, l7:l, as well as by Ibn Hajar in Fath al-Bari VII, 155 ff. – the Apostle of God, accompanied by the Angel Gabriel, found himself transported by night to the site of Solomon’s Temple at Jerusalem, where he led a congregation of many of the earlier, long since deceased prophets in prayer; some of them he afterwards encountered again in heaven. The Ascension, in particular, is important from the viewpoint of Muslim theology inasmuch as it was in the course of this experience that the five daily prayers were explicitly instituted, by God’s ordinance, as an integral part of the Islamic Faith.
Since the Prophet himself did not leave any clear-cut explanation of this experience, Muslim thinkers – including the Prophet’s Companions – have always widely differed as to its true nature. The great majority of the Companions believed that both the Night Journey and the Ascension were physical occurrences – in other words, that the Prophet was borne bodily to Jerusalem and then to heaven – while a minority was convinced that the experience was purely spiritual. Among the latter we find, in particular, the name of ‘A’ishah, the Prophet’s widow and most intimate companion of his later years, who declared emphatically that “he was transported only in his spirit (bi-rūhihi), while his body did not leave its place” (cf. Tabari, Zamakhshari and Ibn Kathir in their commentaries on 17:1); the great Al-Hasan al-Basri, who belonged to the next generation, held uncompromisingly to the same view (ibid.). As against this, the theologians who maintain that the Night Journey and the Ascension were physical experiences refer to the corresponding belief of most of the Companions – without, however, being able to point to a single Tradition to the effect that the Prophet himself described it as such. Some Muslim scholars lay stress on the words asrā bi-‘abdihi (“He transported His servant by night”) occurring in 17:1, and contend that the term ‘abd (“servant”) denotes a living being in its entirety, i.e., a combination of body and soul. This interpretation, however, does not take into account the probability that the expression asra bi-‘abdihi simply refers to the human quality of the Prophet, in consonance with the many Qur’ānic statements to the effect that he, like all other apostles, was but a mortal servant of God, and was not endowed with any supernatural qualities. This, to my mind, is fully brought out in the concluding words of the above verse – verily, He alone is all-hearing, all-seeing” – following upon the statement that the Prophet was shown some of God’s symbols (min āyātina), i.e., given insight into some, but by no means all, of the ultimate truths underlying God’s creation.
The most convincing argument in favour of a spiritual interpretation of both the Night Journey and the Ascension is forthcoming from the highly allegorical descriptions found in the authentic Traditions relating to this double experience: descriptions, that is, which are so obviously symbolic that they preclude any possibility of interpreting them literally, in “physical” terms. Thus, for instance, the Apostle of God speaks of his encountering at Jerusalem, and subsequently in heaven, a number of the earlier prophets, all of who had undoubtedly passed away a long time before. According to one Tradition (quoted by Ibn Kathir on the authority of Anas), he visited Moses in his grave, and found him praying. In another Tradition, also on the authority of Anas (cf. Fath al-Bari VII, 158), the Prophet describes how, on his Night Journey, he encountered an old woman, and was thereupon told by Gabriel, “This old woman is the mortal world (ad-dunya)”. In the words of yet another Tradition, on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (ibid.), the Prophet “passed by people who were sowing and harvesting; and every time they completed their harvest, [the grain) grew up again. Gabriel said, ‘These are the fighters in God’s cause (al-mujahidun).’ Then they passed by people whose heads were being shattered by rocks; and every time they were shattered, they became whole again. [Gabriel] said, ‘These are they whose heads were oblivious of prayer…. Then they passed by people who were eating raw, rotten meat and throwing away cooked, wholesome meat. [Gabriel] said, ‘These are the adulterers.'”
In the best-known Tradition on the Ascension (quoted by Bukhari), the Prophet introduces his narrative with the words: “While I lay on the ground next to the Ka’bah [lit., “in the hijr”], lo! there came unto me an angel, and cut open my breast and took out my heart. And then a golden basin full of faith was brought unto me, and my heart was washed (therein) and was filled [with it]; then it was restored to its place…” Since “faith” is an abstract concept, it is obvious that the Prophet himself regarded this prelude to the Ascension – and therefore the Ascension itself and, ipso facto, the Night Journey to Jerusalem – as purely spiritual experiences.
But whereas there is no cogent reason to believe in a “bodily” Night Journey and Ascension, there is, on the other hand, no reason to doubt the objective reality of this event. The early Muslim theologians, who could not be expected to possess adequate psychological knowledge, could visualize only two alternatives: either a physical happening or a dream. Since it appeared to them – and rightly so – that these wonderful occurrences would greatly lose in significance if they were relegated to the domain of mere dream, they instinctively adopted an interpretation in physical terms and passionately defended it against all contrary views, like those of ‘A’ishah or al-Hasan al-Basri. In the meantime, however, we have come to know that a dream-experience is not the only alternative to a physical occurrence. Modern psychical research, though still in its infancy, has demonstrably proved that not every spiritual experience (that is, an experience in which none of the known organs of man’s body has a part) must necessarily be a mere subjective manifestation of the “mind” – whatever this term may connote – but that it may, in special circumstances, be no less real or “factual” in the objective sense of this word than anything that man can experience by means of his physiological organism. We know as yet very little about the quality of such exceptional psychic activities, and so it is well nigh impossible to reach definite conclusions as to their nature. Nevertheless, certain observations of modern psychologists have confirmed the possibility – claimed from time immemorial by mystics of all persuasions – of a temporary “independence” of man’s spirit from his living body. In the event of such a temporary independence, the spirit or soul appears to be able freely to traverse time and space, to embrace within its insight occurrences and phenomena belonging to otherwise widely separated categories of reality, and to condense them within symbolical perceptions of great intensity, clarity and comprehensiveness. But when it comes to communicating such “visionary” experiences (as we are constrained to call them for lack of a better term) to people who have never experienced anything of the kind, the person concerned – in this case, the Prophet – is obliged to resort to figurative expressions: and this would account for the allegorical style of all the Traditions relating to the mystic vision of the Night Journey and the Ascension.
At this point I should like to draw the reader’s attention to the discussion of “spiritual Ascension” by one of the truly great Islamic thinkers, Ibn al-Qayyim (Zad al-Ma’ad II, 48 f.): “‘A’ishah maintained that the [Prophet’s) Night Journey was performed by his soul (bi-rūhihi), while his body did not leave its place. The same is reported to have been the view of Al-Hasan al-Basri. But it is necessary to know the difference between the saying, ‘the Night Journey took place in dream (manāman), and the saying, ‘it was [performed] by his soul without his body’. The difference between these two [views] is tremendous. What the dreamer sees are mere reproductions (amthal) of forms already existing in his mind; and so he dreams [for example] that he ascends to heaven or is transported to Mecca or to [other] regions of the world, while [in reality] his spirit neither ascends nor is transported…
“Those who have reported to us the Ascension of the Apostle of God can be divided into two groups – one group maintaining that the Ascension was in spirit and in body, and the other group maintaining that it was performed by his spirit, while his body did not leave its place. But these latter [also] do not mean to say that the Ascension took place in a dream: they merely mean that it was his soul itself which actually went on the Night Journey and ascended to heaven, and that the soul witnessed things which it [otherwise) witnesses after death [lit., mufāraqah, “separation”]. Its condition on that occasion was similar to the condition [of the soul] after death. But that which the Apostle of God experienced on his Night Journey was superior to the [ordinary experiences of the soul after death, and, of course, was far above the dreams which one sees in sleep. As to the prophets [whom the Apostle of God met in heaven], it was but their souls which had come to dwell there after the separation from their bodies, while the soul of the Apostle of God ascended there in his lifetime.”
It is obvious that this kind of spiritual experience is not only not inferior, but, on the contrary, vastly superior to anything that bodily organs could ever perform or record; and it goes without saying, as already mentioned by Ibn al-Qayyim, that it is equally superior to what we term “dream-experiences”, inasmuch as the latter have no objective existence outside the subject’s mind, whereas spiritual experiences of the kind referred to above are not less “real” (that is, objective) than anything which could be experienced “in body”. By assuming that the Night Journey and the Ascension were spiritual and not bodily, we do not diminish the extraordinary value attaching to this experience of the Prophet. On the contrary, it appears that the fact of his having had such an experience by far transcends any miracle of bodily ascension, for it presupposes a personality of tremendous spiritual perfection – the very thing that we expect from a true Prophet of God. However, it is improbable that we ordinary human beings will ever be in a position fully to comprehend spiritual experiences of this kind. Our minds can only operate with elements provided by our consciousness of time and space; and everything that extends beyond this particular set of conceptions will always defy our attempts at a clear-cut definition.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the Prophet’s Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, immediately preceding his Ascension, was apparently meant to show that Islam is not a new doctrine but a continuation of the same divine message which was preached by the prophets of old, who had Jerusalem as their spiritual home. This view is supported by Traditions (quoted in Fath al-Bari VII, 158), according to which the Prophet, during his Night Journey, also offered prayers at Yathrib, Sinai, Bethlehem, etc. His encounters with other prophets, mentioned in this connection, symbolize the same idea. The well-known Traditions to the effect that on the occasion of his Night Journey the Prophet led a prayer in the Temple of Jerusalem, in which all other prophets ranged themselves behind him, expresses in a figurative manner the doctrine that Islam, as preached by the Prophet Muhammad, is the fulfillment and perfection of mankind’s religious development, and that Muhammad was the last and the greatest of God’s message-bearers.
- Asad, Muḥammad (2012) The Message of The Qur’ān, Islamic Book Trust: Kuala Lumpur.
- Asad, Muḥammad (2002) Sahih al-Bukhāri: The Early Years of Islam, Islamic Book Trust: Kuala Lumpur.