Islam Qur'anic Commentary The Qur'an

Prophet Muham­mad’s Night Jour­ney and Ascen­sion to Heaven

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From Muham­mad Asad’s com­men­tary, The Mes­sage of The Qur’an

Surah 17 (Al-Isra’), verse 1 reads as :

Lim­it­less in His glo­ry is He who trans­port­ed His ser­vant by night from the Invi­o­lable House of wor­ship [at Mec­ca] to the Remote House of Wor­ship [at Jerusalem] — the envi­rons of which We had blessed — so that We might show him some of Our sym­bols : for, ver­i­ly, He alone is All-Hear­ing, All-Seeing.”

Muham­mad Asad’s com­men­tary on this verse is as follows :

The Invi­o­lable House of Wor­ship” (al-masjid al haraam) is one of the des­ig­na­tions giv­en in the Qur’an to the Tem­ple of the Ka’bah, the pro­to­type of which owed its ori­gin to Abra­ham (see Surah 2) and was the first Tem­ple set up for mankind” (Surah 3, aya’t 96), i.e., the first ever built for the worship.

Appen­dix : The Night Journey”

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. lbn Sa’d 11, 143). Accord­ing to var­i­ous well-doc­u­ment­ed Tra­di­tions — exten­sive­ly quot­ed and dis­cussed by Ibn Kathir in his com­men­tary on 17:1, 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(P) 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(P) was borne bod­i­ly to Jerusalem and then to heav­en — while a minor­i­ty were con­vinced that the expe­ri­ence was pure­ly spir­i­tu­al. Among the lat­ter we find, in par­tic­u­lar, the name of Ayesha(R), the Prophet’s wid­ow and most inti­mate com­pan­ion of his lat­er years, who declared emphat­i­cal­ly that he was trans­port­ed only in his spir­it (bi-ruhi­hi), 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(P) him­self described it as such. Some Mus­lim schol­ars lay stress on the words asra 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’?c 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 ayati­na), 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 whom had undoubt­ed­ly passed away a long time before. Accord­ing to one Tra­di­tion (quot­ed by Ibn Kathir on the author­i­ty of Anas), he vis­it­ed Moses(P) in his grave, and found him pray­ing. In anoth­er Tra­di­tion, also on the author­i­ty of Anas (cf. Fath al-Biri VII, 158), the Prophet(P) 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(P) 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-muj­jahidun).’ 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(P) intro­duces his nar­ra­tive with the words : While I lay on the ground next to the Ka‘abah [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(P) 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 Ayesha, Mu’awiyah 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, lbn al-Qayy­im (Zad al-Ma’ad II, 48 f.):

Ayesha and Mu’awiyah main­tained that the [Prophet’s] Night Jour­ney was per­formed by his soul (bi-ruhi­hi), 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 (man­a­man)’, 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., mufaraqah, 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 which 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 at-Bari VII, 158), accord­ing to which the Prophet(P), dur­ing his Night Jour­ney, also offered prayers at Yathrib (now called Med­i­na), 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(P) 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(P), is the ful­fill­ment and per­fec­tion of mankind’s reli­gious devel­op­ment, and that Muhammad(P) was the last and the great­est of God’s message-bearers. Prophet Muhammad's Night Journey and Ascension to Heaven 26Endmark

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1 Comment

  1. Abdul Ilah Kassem Reply

    Well writ­ten. I was look­ing to know more than I already knows. My main mes­sage is the us or the word”g.d” I was read­ing and my brain was talk­ing to say­ing, are you read­ing a chris­t­ian and or jew­ish paper about the Night Jour­ney’? I was pro­nounc­ing Allah and the Prophet”apostol”
    I know very well that the Majes­tic Word Allah, is not trans­lat­able what so ever, and no mat­ter in what lan­guage any paper made be a mus­lim or non mus­lim about the reli­gion of Allah and about His Prophet”. Please, notice what is writ­ten in Explic­it Qur’an do not calls of oth­er Ila­ha than Allah. Do not on oth­er Ilah than Allah. Few vers­es oblige us not to trans­late the Majes­tic Word Allah in oth­er lan­guages. When the Majes­tic Word Allah trans­lat­ed in any oth­er lan­guage, the paper loos­es its effect and the read­er will loose inter­est of con­tin­u­ing read­ing. In my case, I con­tin­ued pro­nounc­ing Allah and Prophet instead of the translation.
    Dear respect­ed broth­er, please, help us to stop using the trans­la­tion of the Majes­tic Word of Allah. In papers, con­fer­ences, gath­er­ing, meet­ings, mosques and oth­er events, when using the Majes­tic Word of Allah.
    Please, refer to the fol­low­ing Explic­it verses(there are more than 60 vers­es) 20:08 ; 25:68 ; 38:65
    I asks for­give­ness for my say­ing, yours, the mus­lims and all the peo­ple of the world.

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