The Glorious Night Journey – Al Isra wal Mi’raj

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Surah Al Isra of The Majestic Quran opens with an ayah, which concisely describes the ascension, Allah says: “Glory to Him Who took His noble servant on a night journey from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque whose surroundings we made holy to show him Our signs.

This verse talks about the most remarkable miracle of Prophet 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 (Mi’raj) from Al-Aqsa to the Divine throne.

Purpose of this journey

The purpose of this journey we are told was “to show him Our signs”. The hadith literature 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 astronomers is 93 billion light-years, an incredible distance, unimaginable to the human intellect. The question is how could such a distance be covered in such a short period of the night? We need not search any further since the Majestic Quran tells us, it was the Subhaan who took His servant from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest 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 Mi’raj is not the denial of the miraculous journey, but the power of Allah.

According to Imam Nawawi and Zarqaani, the Mi’raj took place on the 27th night of 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 lost two great supporters and comforters. The ascension was a “Divine treat” for him (peace be upon him).

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 the Mi’raj, 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 who heard it directly from the Prophet (peace be upon him) appear to be Abu Dharr and Malik ibn Sa’ad Ansari, whilst others such as Anas bin Malik, Abu Hurairah, 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 sahaba have narrated this incident. Anas ibn Malik in Sahih Muslim begins his Hadith by saying “Abu Dharr used to tell us…” suggesting that the miracle was mentioned many times and Abu Dharr seems to be the source of the Madani Sahaaba narrations.

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 Jibreel. He informed me of the Divine will and took me to the well of Zam Zam, whereupon 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 travelled 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, accompanied by Jibreel, the Messenger (peace be upon him) travelled on the Buraq ascending to the heavens. In the first heaven, He (peace be upon him) met Adam (peace be upon him), who greeted Him with love and affection with the words, “Welcome! 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 utmost boundary. This is the focal point of Divine mercy. Jibreel 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 Majestic Quran alludes to it in Surah An-Najm, verse 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 Iyad 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 Mi’raj to be bodily. Four reasons are given by the scholars for this conclusion: 

  1. The word ‘Abd’ in the ayah of the Mi’raj refers categorically to mind and soul together. 
  2. All the ahadith about the Mi’raj talk about the Prophet (peace be upon him) mounting the Buraq, eating, drinking, meeting past prophets, and leading them in prayer. All of these are physical actions. Nowhere is it mentioned that this was a dream.
  3. If it was a mere dream, which the beloved Messenger (peace be upon him) narrated to the people of Makkah, why would they deny it? Surely people see many weird and wonderful dreams? 
  4. 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 Mi’raj, 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 appear in the bodily form. All the ‘strange’ events of Mi’raj were expressed in this state of Barzakh.

Shah Waliallah’s comments on the Ascension (Sirat un–Nabi, page 451, in Hujja Tullahil Balaagah) he goes on to interpret many of the scenes of the Mi’raj 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 thereupon the angel said: “You selected the natural state. If you had chosen the cup of wine, your entire nation would have been led astray.” In this world for Barzakh, milk represented the natural state, and misguidance was in the form of wine.

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