Nabil al-Haidari

The story of the Isrā’ and the Miʽrāj[1] is one that frequently excites much debate due to the contradictory expressions, obscurities and considerable incoherences voiced by proponents from the various tendencies and schools. The story of the Isrā’ is referred to in the Qur’ān: Glorified be He Who carried His servant by night from the Inviolable Place of Worship to the Far Distant place of worship the neighbourhood whereof We have blessed, that We might show him of Our tokens! [Qur’ān XVII,1]

And the tale of the Miʽrāj runs as follows:

Nor doth he speak of (his own) desire. It is naught save an inspiration that is inspired, which one of mighty powers hath taught him, one vigorous; and he grew clear to view when he was on the uppermost horizon. Then he drew nigh and came down till he was (distant) two bows’ length or even nearer, and He revealed unto His slave that which He revealed. The heart lied not (in seeing) what it saw. Will ye then dispute with him concerning what he seeth? And verily he saw him yet another time by the lote-tree of the utmost boundary, Nigh unto which is the Garden of Abode. When that which shroudeth did enshroud the lote-tree, the eye turned not aside nor yet was overbold. Verily he saw one of the greater revelations of his Lord. [Qur’ān LIII, 3-18]

The ascent of Muhammad into Heaven (from the Khamsa of Nizami 1539-43)

Qur’ānic commentators, doctors of law, scholastic philosophers and modernists[2] alike have all been at a loss as to how to interpret the above verses concerning the phenomenon of the Isrā’ and the Miʽrāj – are the two phenomena materially true? Are they something to be sensed spiritually through the spirit in a waking state? Or are they yet a dream or a vision, or something else still, whereby it is just the Isrā’ that is true and not the Miʽrāj? These are issues of logic, science and objectivity. For can one behold God with the eye? Or is He not to be beheld at all, either in this world or the next? Or perhaps only in the next world but not in this world?

The hadith relate the following:

God sent Jibrīl and al-Burāq, an animal smaller than a mule but larger than an ass, and He placed his hoof at its extremity, and this was the animal that once bore the Prophets before Muhammad, as has been told ... Jibrīl made al-Burāq kneel down before the Prophet, and the Prophet mounted al-Burāq and flew from Mecca to Jerusalem his second stopping point, so that he might tether al-Burāq with the ring that the Prophets before him used to tether al-Burāq ... Jibrīl set up the Miʽrāj ladder for the Prophet so that he might thereby ascend on high into the heavens ... And while he ascended he saw stars bound together by chains of gold  ... pure gold ... With seven hundred wings Jibrīl led him up beyond the first heaven in which each kingdom had its guardian angel so that no devils might scale thereunto nor any jinn eavesdrop upon the secrets of the heavens. There he saw men with muzzles like the muzzles of camels, each with angels tormenting them with molten rocks which they pelted into their mouths so that they exited from their behinds. And aside from these he saw ‘Azrā’īl the angel of death, so enormous in size that the distance between his eyes took 70,000 days to cover, and who set down in a massive book the names of those who are born and those who died! Elsewhere he espied a huge angel made half of fire and half of ice.

These are issues of logic, science and  objectivity

There he met with all the Prophets that preceded him, some in the lower heavens some in the higher heavens. The tales relate various themes, including that the Prophet met with all the Prophets together and prayed alongside them and indeed lead them in the prayer. He prayed alongside Moses and the two cousins John and Jesus ... and alongside Khidr[3], Idrīs[4] and others too. As for the Prophet Sālih of the she-camel[5], he was not among them (as to why this is so I have no idea). He entered into the presence of the throne of God and there prostrated himself, and witnessed the horrors of Hellfire. God brought him face to face with these furnaces so that He might reveal to him the obligation of prayer, as the hadith accounts record it:

God imposed upon the nation of Muhammad the duty to say fifty prayers over the space of one day and a night.

With this instruction the Prophet returned and met with Moses, who said to him:

Return to thy Lord and bid Him lighten this burden, since Thy nation is weak and will be unable to bear this.

The Prophet then sallied back and forth between God and Moses until God lightened the obligation to five prayers ... Finally the Prophet descended the Miʽrāj, mounted al-Burāq and rode back to Mecca.

Jibril from The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence (14th century)

This strange, fantastical tale is one that is very similar to the tales and legends of the Thousand and One Nights in which there are fantastical descriptions of Jibrīl, and of al-Burāq who miraculously transported him in the Isrā’ at first from the Kaʽaba, then to Jerusalem and then on into the heavens (I do not understand how the stars come to be linked with chains).

There is also the vision of the various angels and their attributes, and the occasional conversation the Prophet had with them, and there are his various meetings and conversations with the Prophets, and indeed his leading of all of them in prayer, with them duly following him. This also follows his journey to attain to the vision of God Himself unaccompanied by Jibrīl, who had previously warned him: “If thou dost approach forward the size of one ant thou shalt be burned.” Muhammad then approaches on his own, fearful and afraid to gaze upon God and speak with Him. Here God goes on to reveal to him the obligation of praying fifty times, after which the Prophet returned.

But Moses, who alone of the Prophets had knowledge of the Unseen, knew that the nation of Muhammad would not be able to bear the burden of fifty prayers. This is something that neither Muhammad nor the Lord God himself – who imposed the fifty prayers – was capable of perceiving. Muhammad then journeyed back and forth after Moses requested the lightening of the burden, until it became fixed at five. Muhammad said that he felt embarrassed to return back to God for the purpose of this reduction that Moses had requested of Him.

Muhammad’s conversation with God and his gazing upon Him would constitute a study all of its own. Some have raised objections to the vision of God on the grounds that God is not a being defined by space and thus visible. Or, conversely, He is in the image of Adam, as reported in the hadith of the Sunnis and the Shīʽa. Then there is the beatific vision that some believers presume is to take place in the next world, judging from what it says in the Qur’ān:

That day will faces be resplendent, Looking toward their Lord [Qur’ān LXXV,22-23]

which implies that one can actually gaze upon God. But this also runs against something else that is said in the Qur’ān:

Naught is as His likeness [Qur’ān XLII,11] or

Vision comprehendeth Him not, but He comprehendeth (all) vision [Qur’ān VI,103] or

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth [Qur’ān XXIV,35],

or as is stated in some hadith of al-Bukhārī and Muslim that are considered ‘sound’:

the greatest gift conferred upon believers is to see God with one’s own eyes on the Day of Resurrection.

Let us now take a look at the following verses:

And verily he saw him yet another time, By the lote-tree of the utmost boundary[6], Nigh unto which is the Garden of Abode [Qur’ān LIII,13-15].

Was the Qur’ān influenced by the beliefs of the Jews in Medina?

The question is, who is the subject here? Some, such as Ibn ʽAbbās, Anas ibn Mālik, Abū Hurayra and al-Tabarī, say this refers to God; others such as al-Zamakhsharī, Ibn Kathīr, ʽĀ’isha (who said “Muhammad did not see his Lord”), or Abī Dharr (“I asked this of the Prophet and he replied: “Who am I to behold Him?”’) say it refers to Jibrīl, and that the vision of God is therefore ‘spiritual’ (that is, they saw His spirit). Still others are confused about the matter and remain uncommitted.

In Jewish belief there is a special angel named Metatron who performs these functions. Was the Qur’ān influenced by the beliefs of the Jews in Medina? Is not the Torah a pre-Qur’ānic source which the Prophet considered a light and guidance? The Qur’ān terms him Mutāʽ (‘One to be obeyed’)[7], as al-Ghazālī considered him to be in his work Mishkāt al-Anwār and elsewhere. The Prophet saw him ‘yet another time’, that is, when he descended back to earth, not when he ascended to heaven. This only adds to the problem of God and His presence on earth, in heaven, or between the two. Was it God, then, or was it an angel?

Similarly there is the question of heaven and its location (‘the Garden of Abode’), and whether it is a created entity or something that is yet to be created! Or the question of Hellfire, how this was created, what was its nature and where it is located. In the hadith it is stated:

I gazed upon Him in my heart to be sure that I had seen Him, and the veil was raised and He was seated upon His throne

which reminds us of the Qur’ānic verse: Then mounted He the Throne [Qur’ān VI,54]. The question here is why did he not see God standing up and what actually does ‘mounted’ mean, or similar descriptions referring to God, His actions and reactions as contained in the Qur’ān:

Then he drew nigh and came down, Till he was (distant) two bows’ length or even nearer [Qur’ān LIII,8-9].

The Beatific Vision (from Dante's Divine Comedy) by Gustave Doré

There is here an entire world of language and terminology (which we might deal with in a further study) of rhetorical matters and exposition, of tropes of metaphor and metonymy and other things besides. There are implications to Muhammad’s dialogue with God since at times it shows up God’s lack of knowledge of things and their consequences, and even God’s downright ignorance of the fact that his people would be incapable of performing fifty prayers – whereas Moses on the other hand did realize this. Yet the doctors of law consider Muhammad superior to Moses for the former’s being the ‘Seal of the Prophets,’ and that his Message abrogates their Messages being, as he was, God’s beloved. Similarly, Ibrāhīm is held to be superior to Moses for having been chosen by God to be His ‘friend’[8], and for having made him into an entire people in himself (Lo! Abraham was a people obedient to Allah, by nature upright, and he was not of the idolaters [Qur’ān XVI,120] ). For which reason He perfected his choice of him as a leader of all nations:

And (remember) when his Lord tried Abraham with (His) commands, and he fulfilled them, He said: Lo! I have appointed thee a leader for mankind [Qur’ān II,124].

In the Qur’ān mention is made of a personage who is perhaps Khidr. This figure possessed greater knowledge than Moses and indeed rendered the latter advice on things of the future which he had no knowledge of, and God Himself advised Moses to follow him. The Qur’ān also states:

So they twain set out till, when they were in the ship, he made a hole therein. (Moses) said: Hast thou made a hole therein to drown the folk thereof? Thou verily hast done a dreadful thing. He said: Did I not tell thee that thou couldst not bear with me? (Moses) said: Be not wroth with me that I forgot, and be not hard upon me for my fault. So they twain journeyed on till, when they met a lad, he slew him. (Moses) said: What! Hast thou slain an innocent soul who hath slain no man? Verily thou hast done a horrid thing. He said: Did I not tell thee that thou couldst not bear with me? [Qur’ān XVIII,71-75]

It appears that the other person (possibly Khidr, as is contained in the tales) – even though he was not a prophet nor a messenger, was yet wiser than Moses, and Moses lost his patience with him. Yet this tale of the Miʽrāj is self-contradictory when it indicates that Moses was wiser than God and His Prophet Muhammad, as implied by the Nation's future incapacity to bear the burden of fifty prayers. What does the Qur’ānic verse (Dhū al-Maʽārij), mean when it says:

The angels and the Spirit ascend unto Him in a Day whereof the span is fifty thousand years [Qur’ān LXX,4]?

Perhaps the doctors of law found the comparison of the two Ascensions problematic

Here some serious confusion appears among the commentators, the eighth century modernists, the scholastics and doctors of law concerning the Isrā’ and Miʽrāj. For the Isrā’ is a horizontal journey over the Earth while the Miʽrāj is a vertical one heavenwards. And how is it that a day is made to be equivalent to fifty thousand years? Is there more than one Miʽrāj? What are these Miʽrājes and how did they happen? Moses and Ibrāhīm were the last of the Prophets that Muhammad met with, yet Moses turns out to be smarter than Ibrāhīm. Why? This all reminds us of the story of Abraham in the Old Testament, and also of the story of Christ Himself and his Ascension unto heaven. However the latter did not then return to Earth, while Muhammad did return. Perhaps the doctors of law found the comparison of the two Ascensions problematic for potentially causing some embarrassment as to which of the two was the superior. Yet there is in fact not a single hadith relating Muhammad’s questioning the Miʽrāj of Moses or comparing it with his own Miʽrāj, despite the huge number of hadith that have come down to us. Perhaps Jesus returned to God and conjoined with Him in something more akin to a fusing or a dissolving, as some have seen it, while Muhammad merely returned to the Earth. In addition Muhammad merely had an ordinary mother and father, while Christ's mother was Mary:

O Mary! Lo! Allah hath chosen thee and made thee pure, and hath preferred thee above (all) the women of creation [Qur’ān III,42]

As the Qur’ān itself puts it, Mary is superior to Muhammad’s mother Āmina bint Wahab. And as for the father of Jesus this was nothing less than a miracle, as the Qur’ān itself states, since Jesus had no father. In the Qur’ān the following two phrases occur:

But Allah took him up unto Himself [Qur’ān IV,158]

(And remember) when Allah said: O Jesus! Lo! I am gathering thee and causing thee to ascend unto Me [Qur’ān III,55]

And, in contradistinction to the Gospels, the Qur’ān holds that Jesus was not slain nor crucified, whereas for the Christians the crucifixion is a certainty.

God would appear to have granted these doctors of law some special mandate

No less strange in the Miʽrāj is Muhammad’s journey to Heaven and Hell to speak with their inhabitants and ascertain what it was that brought them there and how some of them were able to exchange one abode for the other. Some of this conflicts with many doctrines promoted by the doctors of law who stipulate that faith and Islam are the sole conditions for entering unto Paradise. In the Miʽrāj, however, the Prophet meets with infidels, polytheists, Jews and Christians, of whom he enquired whether they had given food to dogs or carried out similar acts of kindness and beneficence. So the conditions stipulated by the doctors of law for entry into paradise should therefore be null and void. In which case God would appear to have granted these doctors of law some special mandate or carte blanche to decide who it is that gets to enter into Heaven or Hell. Granted, of course, that they themselves get to enter Heaven.

 


[1] The Isrā and Miʽrāj are two parts of a night journey which Muhammad is to have taken over the course of a single night around the year 621, mounted upon the steed Burāq, to arrive at the ‘farthest mosque’, following which (the Miʽrāj phase) he ascends to heaven where he addresses God, who gives him details on how to pray. (Ed.)

[2] The term ‘modernist’ here refers to the litterati of the 8th century AD, who post-dated the classical ‘ancients’ (Ed.)

[3] Described in the Qur’ān as a righteous servant of God and possessed of great wisdom and mystic knowledge. The name has been linked with the Ugaritic god Kothar (as in Kothar-wa-Khasis – ‘skilful and wise’), the god of the smithy.  In the texts of Ras Shamra Kothar was known as the helper of Baal (Ed.)

[4] Another ancient prophet mentioned in the Qur’ān, and characterised as "trustworthy" and "patient." Traditionally Idris has been identified with the Biblical Enoch, and therefore Islamic tradition usually places Idris in the early Generations of Adam (Ed.)

[5] An Arab prophet of ancient Arabia mentioned in the Qur’ān, who prophesied to the tribe of Thamud. The preaching and prophecy of Saleh is linked to the story of the She-Camel, which was the gift given by God to the people of Thamud when they desired a miracle to confirm the truth of the message Saleh was preaching to (Ed.)

[6] The Lote Tree marks the end of the seventh heaven, the boundary beyond which no creature can pass. Scholars have linked this to the Biblical ‘burning bush’ on Mt Sinai {Exodus III,2 and Deutoronomy XXXIII,16], where the divine theophany was experienced by Moses. The Swedish scholar A. J. Wensinck devoted a study to the Lote-tree of Paradise motif in the history of religions, in his Tree and Bird as Cosmological Symbols in Western Asia, referring it back to the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, where it stands at the eastern end of the Earth, and constitutes the tree of light and of life (Ed.)

[7] [Qur’ān LXXXI,21]

[8] The title ‘friend’ (khalīl) comes from the Qur’ānic Sūra IV verse 125:  Who is better in religion than he who surrendereth his purpose to Allah while doing good (to men) and followeth the tradition of Abraham, the upright? Allah (Himself) chose Abraham for friend.(Ed.)