Surah 17 of the majestic Quran, Al-Isra opens with an ayah which concisely describes the ascension:, where Allah says: “Glorified be He who took his servant for a journey by night from the Masjid Al-Haram to the Masjid Al-Aqsa, the surroundings we have blessed, in order to show him some of Our signs. Indeed , He is the all-Hearing, the all-Seeing.”
This verse talks about the most remarkable miracles of Muhammad (peace be upon him), the night journey (Isra). This journey had two phases: The horizontal from the Kaabah in Makkah, to the historic masjid in Jerusalem. The second was the vertical phase from Al-Aqsa to the divine throne.
The purpose of this journey we are told was “to show him Our signs”. The hadith literarture gives graphic details of this momentous journey. The verse begins with one of the Divine attributes, “Subhaan”, the Glorified. Let us look at the significance of this: The diameter of the universe according to the astronomers is 3 billion light years, an incredible distance unimaginable, to the human intellect. The question is how could such a fantastic distance be covered in such a short period of night? We need not search any further, since the Glorious Quran tells us it was Subhaan who took His servant from the sacred mosque to the furthest mosque. The Divine name Subhaan ‘the one who is flawless without defect or weakness’, the Glorified, The Quran claims the One who took His servant on this miraculous journey is the one who is free from every kind of weakness. The Lord of the universe, Who can create from nothing by the mere command of ‘kun’ (Be) and ‘fa-yakun’ (it becomes), by using the divine epithet “Subhaan”, the clouds of doubt vanish in the air! Hence the denial of the Miraj is not the denial of the miraculous journey, but the power of Allah.
Narratives of the Ascension from Hadith Literature
Detailed narratives of the ascension are found in the books of ahadith. Imam Bukhari in his Jami us-Sahih, in the “Book of Tawhid” has a chapter devoted to Miraj, whilst Imam Muslim’s Jami us-Sahih has a chapter called “Isra” in the “Book of the beginning of the revelation”.
The two original narrators that heard it directly from the Prophet (peace be upon him) appear to be Abu Darr and Malik ibn Sa’ad Ansari, whilst others such as Anas bin Malik, Abu Huraira, Abdullah ibn Abbas, Jabir ibn Abdullah, Abdullah ibn Masud and many more report it from these two original narrators.
According to Ibn Kathir, forty-five sahaaba have narrated this incident. Anas ibn Malik in Sahih Muslim begins his Hadith by saying “Abu Darr used to tell us…” suggesting that the miracle was mentioned many times and Abu Darr seems to be the source of the Madani Sahaaba narration.
Here we shall narrate the event according to the Jami us-Sahih of Imam Muslim. The Messenger (peace be upon him) says:
“One night I was asleep, in the Harim near the Kaabah when I was woken by Jibril. He informed me of the Divine will and took me to the well of Zam Zam, where upon he opened my chest and poured wisdom and faith into it. Then he sealed it. I was then presented with a beautiful Buraq. This is an animal larger than a mule but smaller than a horse. I mounted it.” It traveled at phenomenal speed. The Messenger (peace be upon him) was soon at the second precinct of Masjid al-Aqsa. There all of the prophets (peace be upon them) of the past ages were assembled and waiting for him (peace be upon him). He (peace be upon him) lead them in congregational prayer. This noble assembly marked the end of the horizontal part of the journey. From here, accompanised by Jibril, the Messenger (peace be upon him) travelled on the Buraq ascending the heavens. In the first heaven, He (peace be upon him) met Adam (peace be upon him), who greated Him with love and affection in the words, “Welcome O righteous Son!”
The ascension continued to the second heaven where He (peace be upon him) met Isa (peace be upon him) and Yayha (peace be upon him), then on to the third heaven where He (peace be upon him) was met by Yusuf (peace be upon him), on the fourth by Idris (peace be upon him), on the fifth by Harun (peace be upon him), and on the sixth by Musa (peace be upon him) and on the seventh He (peace be upon him) was greeted by Ibrahim (peace be upon him).
The journey continued beyond the heavens until He (peace be upon him) reached the Bait al Mamur – The Kaabah of the Angels, from where He (peace be upon him) ascended to the Lote tree of the uttermost boundary. This is the focal point of the Divine mercy. Jibril then reached the point where he was not allowed to travel any further. It was at this point that he parted from Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Prophet (peace be upon him) continued alone, but where to? That is beyond the point of human grasp.
The Glorious Quran alludes to it, in Surah An-Najm  Ayah 8: “Then he drew near, very near, like two bows lengths or even closer.” What happened there is also in the realm of a mystery. We are just told that He revealed to His servant (peace be upon him) what he revealed, in Ayah 10 of Surah An-Najm: “And He revealed to His servant what He revealed“.
Was the Ascension a dream or a physical journey?
The numerous ahadith reported in Bukhari, Muslim and other books do not indicate this journey was a dream. Qadi Iyaad al Malaki, in his commentary on Sahih Muslim says: “The majority of the pious predecessors and later jurists, scholars of Hadith and men of learning believe the Miraj to be bodily. Four reasons are given by the scholars for this conclusion: Firstly, the word ‘Abd’ in the ayah of the Miraj refers categorically to mind and soul together. Secondly, all the ahadith about the Miraj actually talk about the Prophet (peace be upon him) mounting the Buraq, eating, drinking, meeting past prophets, leading them in the prayer. All these are physical actions. No where is it mentioned that this was a dream.
Thirdly, if it was a mere dream, which the beloved Messenger (peace be upon him) narrated to the people of Makkah, why did they deny it? Surely don’t people see many weird and wonderful dreams? Fourthly, how could it have been a test of people’s faith if it was a mere dream? This is why the great Hanafi scholar, Imam Nasafi mentioned in his classical work “Aqaid an Nasafi”. “In the Miraj, he was taken to Masjid al-Aqsa and then to Sidrat-ul-Muntaha, and wherever Allah wished.” All this took place in a state of wakefulness and with the body. However it took place in the realm of the Barzakh, which is the state between the physical and spiritual. Hence spiritual laws govern the body and the spiritual elements appeared in the bodily form. In fact all the ‘strange’ events of Miraj were expressed in this state of Barzakh.
Shah Wali Allah’s comments on the Ascension: (Sirat un –Nabi, page 451, in Hujja Tullahil Balaagah) Shah Wali Allah goes on to interpret many of the scenes of the Miraj in light of the above. For example, the Hadith mentioned two cups were presented to the Prophet (peace be upon him). One was a cup of milk and the other was a cup of wine. He (peace be upon him) chose the cup of milk, and there upon the angel said: “You selected the natural state. If you had chosen the cup of wine, your entire nation would have been lead astray.” In this world for Barzakh, milk represented the natural state, and misguidance was in the form of wine.
The Purpose of the Ascension
The Quran explaines the reason for taking Muhammad (peace be upon him) on this miraculous journey as “to show him our signs.” The Messenger (peace be upon him) visited heaven and hell, met the prophets and the angels and above all his Majestic Lord. According to Imam Nawawi and Zarqaani, this took place on 27th Rajab, 17 months before Hijrah. This was the year which biographers call “the year of sorrow” when his beloved wife and caring uncle died. The Messenger (peace be upon him) was very sad that he (peace be upon him) lost two great supporters and comforters. The ascension was a “Divine treat” for him (peace be upon him).