Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān; Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad (1980)

grain] grew up again. Gabriel said, ‘These are the fighters in God’s cause (al-mujāhidūn).' 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 Bukhārī), the Prophet introduces his narrative with the words: “While I lay on the ground next to the Kaʿbah [lit., “in the ḥijr”], 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 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 ʿĀʾishah, Muʿāwiyah or Al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī. 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, Ibn al-Qayyim (Zād al-Maʿād II, 48 f.):

“ʿĀʾishah and Muʿāwiyah maintained that the [Prophet’s] Night Journey was performed by his soul (bi-rūḥihi), while his body did not leave its place. The same is reported to have been the view of Al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī. But it is necessary to know the difference between the saying, ‘the Night Journey took place in dream (manāman)’, 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 (amthāl) 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] witnessses after death [lit., mufāraqah, “separation”].

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Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān; Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad, Dar Al-Andalus Limited, 3 Library Ramp, Gibraltar, Consulted online at “Quran Archive - Texts and Studies on the Quran” on 28 Sep. 2022: http://quran-archive.org/explorer/muhammad-asad/1980?page=1015