Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān; Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad (1980)
The Night Journey
The Prophet’s “Night Journey” (isrāʾ) from Mecca to Jerusalem and his subsequent “Ascension” (miʿrāj) to heaven are, in reality, two stages of one mystic experience, dating almost exactly one year before the exodus to Medina (cf. Ibn Saʿd I/1, 143). According to various well-documented Traditions – extensively quoted and discussed by Ibn Kathīr in his commentary on 17:1, as well as by Ibn Ḥajar in Fatḥ al-Bārī 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 were convinced that the experience was purely spiritual. Among the latter we find, in particular, the name of ʿĀʾishah, the Prophet’s widow and most intimate companion of his later years, who declared emphatically that “he was transported only in his spirit (bi-rūḥihi), while his body did not leave its place” (cf. Ṭabarī, Zamakhsharī and Ibn Kathīr in their commentaries on 17:1); the great Al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, 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-ʿabdihi (“He transported His servant by night”) occurring in 17:1, and contend that the term ʿabd (“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 asrā bi-ʿabdihi simply refers to the human quality of the Prophet, in consonance with the many Qurʾanic 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 āyātinā), 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 Kathīr 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. Fatḥ al-Bārī 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-dunyā)". In the words of yet another Tradition, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah (ibid.), the Prophet “passed by people who were sowing and harvesting; and every time they completed their harvest, [the