The Nature of Muhammad's Prophetic Experience


1. The Story of the Mi'raj in the Hadith.

One of the most famous Islamic monuments in the world is the Dome of the Rock which stands on the site of the original Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. It is the third-holiest in the Muslim world after the Ka'aba in Mecca and Prophet's Mosque in Medina and commemorates the alleged occasion of Muhammad's ascent through the seven heavens to the very presence of Allah. It stands above the rock from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven. The narrative of this ascent is recorded in all the major works of Hadith in some detail, but there is only one verse in the Qur'an openly refer ring to the incident and in a limited context at that.

The traditions basically report that Muhammad was asleep one night towards the end of his prophetic course in Mecca when he was wakened by the angel Gabriel who cleansed his heart before bidding him alight on a strange angelic beast named Buraq. Muhammad is alleged to have said:

Some traditions hold that the creature had a horse's body and angel's head and that it also had a peacock's tail. It is thus represented in most Islamic paintings of the event. The journey from Mecca to Jerusalem is known as al-Isra, "the night journey". At Jerusalem Muhammad was tested in the following way by Gabriel (some traditions place this test during the ascent itself):

After this began al-Mi'raj, "the ascent". Muhammad passed the sea of kawthar, literally the sea of "abundance" (the word is found only once in the Qur'an in Surah 108.1), and then met various prophets, from Adam to Abraham, as well as a variety of angels as he passed through the seven heavens. After this Gabriel took him to the heavenly lote-tree on the boundary of the heavens before the throne of Allah.

This famous tree, as-sidratul-muntaha, is also mentioned twice in the passage in Surah 53 describing the second vision Muhammad had of Gabriel (Surah 53.14,16) where he also saw the angel 'inda sidrah, "near the lote-tree". Gabriel and Buraq could go no further but Muhammad went on to the presence of Allah where he was commanded to order the Muslims to pray fifty times a day:

Muhammad allegedly went back and forth between Allah and Moses till the prayers were reduced to five per day. Moses then told him to seek yet a further reduction but Muhammad stopped at this point and answered Moses:

Allah then said whoever observed the five times of prayer daily would receive the reward of fifty prayers. Muhammad then saw some of the delights of paradise as he returned to Gabriel and Buraq and then beheld the torments of the damned before going back to his bed in Mecca that same night. This, briefly, is the narrative of the ascent.

2. The Night Journey in the Qur'an.

As said already, the Qur'an has only one direct reference to this whole episode and it is found in this verse:

The "Sacred Mosque" (al-masjidul-haram) is interpreted to be the Ka'aba at Mecca and the "Farthest Mosque" (al-masjidul- aqsa) the Temple at Jerusalem (also referred to as al-baitul- muqaddas - the "holy house"). The great mosque which presently stands next to the Dome of the Rock is accordingly known today as the "al-Aqsa" mosque.

The verse is somewhat vague as it refers only to "signs" that Allah would show him. What is important, however, is the fact that the verse refers purely to the "journey by night" (asra), from Mecca to Jerusalem, and makes no mention of the ascent through the heavens (mi'raj) at all. Indeed the Qur'an nowhere directly refers to nor outlines the supposed ascent - a striking omission if it was a genuine experience. Some Muslim commentators have sought allusions to it elsewhere in the Qur'an but the passages quoted are too weak to be relied on with any certainty.

Those who know how large a part the Miraj, or miraculous journey on the Borak, bears in popular conceptions of Mohammedanism will learn with surprise, if they have not gone much into the matter, that there is only one passage in the Koran which can be tortured into an allusion to the journey to heaven. (Bosworth Smith, Mohammed and Mohammedanism, p. 186).

There are some who say that the vision referred to in Surah 53.6-18 (see page 100) refers to the Mi'raj, but we have already seen that Muhammad recited this very Surah at the time of the first emigration to Abyssinia, and the passage must therefore refer to one of the very early visions as the Mi'raj is only said to have taken place some years later just before the Hijrah. Another hadith supports this conclusion by identifying this passage more clearly:

The occasion Ayishah records is plainly identified as one of those where Muhammad had a vision of the approaching angel in the sky rather than a manifestation of the angel during their ascent through the heavens. If the verse had referred to the Mi'raj, Ayishah would have surely mentioned the fact, but it patently refers to an independent occasion.

Furthermore the narratives in the Hadith expose a glaring anachronism. After proclaiming that he had been to Jerusalem Muhammad was allegedly asked to describe the Temple. He is said to have replied:

Another tradition states that when the Qurayah disbelieved him, Muhammad answered "Allah lifted me before Bait-ul-Maqdis and I began to narrate to them (the Quraish of Mecca) its signs while I was in fact looking at it" (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 1, p. 109). There is a real problem here for the structure had been destroyed more than five hundred years earlier and the site at that time had become a rubbish-dump and was so discovered by Umar when he conquered Jerusalem some years later. It cannot be said that Muhammad saw a vision of the Temple as it had been before it was destroyed for the Quraysh were asking him to describe contemporary Jerusalem as he saw it that very night. How could he have counted the doors of a building that no longer existed?

The whole story of the Mi'raj as found in the Hadith may well be a pure fiction, a conclusion that will be reinforced through a study of its sources shortly. Here let it be said that it is not at all certain that Muhammad ever claimed that he actually ascended to heaven. It is possible that he merely related a striking dream, which he took as a vision, in which he imagined his journey to Jerusalem. Al-Hasan reported:

These words clearly teach that Muhammad never left his apartment the whole night. Furthermore the Qur'an plainly restricts the journey to the Isra as we have seen. It is probable that what was originally nothing more than a dream of a journey to Jerusalem has been transformed into an actual physical event which was followed by an ascent through the heavens to the throne of Allah himself.

The suggestion that even the Isra was only a dream is strengthened by the fact that the anachronism appearing in the Hadith is also found in the Qur'an for the latter also states that Muhammad was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem in Surah 17.1 quoted above. Although the Qur'an does not refer to the baitul-muqaddas but only to the masjidul-aqsa, it is clear that the same shrine is intended as the Qur'an in the same way describes the baitullah, the Ka'aba in Mecca, as the masjidul-haram. Furthermore the context establishes this interpretation for, only a few verses later, the Qur'an actually records the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem and here simply describes it as al-masjid (Surah 17.7 - the word today is only used of a Muslim mosque but in the Qur'an it is commonly used for any holy sanctuary).

Although Muhammad obviously knew of the destruction of the second Temple, it seems he believed that it had been rebuilt like the first one. The fact that he first chose Jerusalem as his qiblah before turning to the masjidul-haram in Mecca adds considerable weight to this suggestion for he would hardly have chosen the former if he had known that no masjidul-aqsa stood on the site at that time, where the mosque of this name now stands, but only a compost heap.

It seems appropriate to conclude that the experience Muhammad had was really only a dream which characterised his illusions about Jerusalem, and that the whole story of the Mi'raj is accordingly nothing more than a mythical fantasy imaginatively built upon it.

3. A Literal Event or a Mystical Experience?

Orthodox Muslims hold that the Mi'raj was a literal, bodily ascent to heaven, but others have suggested that it was purely a mystical experience. The distinction goes back to the early days of Islam and is summarised in the following quote:

To this day those who believe that Muhammad actually went up to heaven and back remain overwhelmingly in the majority and the event is commemorated once a year during the lailatul-mi'raj, "the night of the ascension", which falls on the 27th night of the Islamic month of Rajab. In more recent times, however, prominent Muslim authors have rejected the possibility of a physical ascent and have offered an assortment of alternative spiritual interpretations.

Haykal has a novel view - he alleges that the discoveries of modern science, e.g. the reproduction of images on television and voices on radios, etc., proves that forces of nature can be transferred from one place to another, and so concludes: "In our modern age, science confirms the possibility of a spiritual Isra' and Mi'raj . . . Strong and powerful spirits such as Muhammad's are perfectly capable of being carried in one night from Makkah to Jerusalem and of being shown God's signs" (The Life of Muhammad, p. 146). Quite what is meant by the latter statement, only the author can know. Nevertheless his interpretation is typical of modern attempts to cast the ascension into a mystical mould, reminiscent of the rationalistic interpretations of the "free-thinking" age of early Islam when similar attempts to explain the Mi'raj in rationalistic terms were made.

The fanciful nature of the traditional story of the Mi'raj has made more educated Muslims realise that the orthodox interpretation is perhaps more consistent with the marvellous tales of the Arabian Nights than the world of reality. Even the early biographer Ibn Ishaq had his doubts about the narrative. In his introduction to the Sirat Rasulullah, Guillaume states: "In his account of the night journey to Jerusalem and the ascent into heaven he allows us to see the working of his mind. The story is everywhere hedged with reservations and terms suggesting caution to the reader" (p. xix).

A famous biographer perhaps gets to the heart of the matter by suggesting that, as Muhammad was already looking northwards towards Medina for the future of his ministry and had decided to adopt Jerusalem as the qiblah, the imaginations of his mind by day probably became the fantasies of a dream by night: "The musings of the day reappeared in the slumbers of the night" (Muir, The Life of Mahomet, p. 117).

At this stage we are bound to ask on what authority it may be suggested that the story of the Mi'raj, as recorded in all its details in the traditions, was purely a mythical adaptation of a simple dream. Did later scribes put it all together as a pious figment of their fertile imaginations? Not at all. Another modern Muslim author gives us a clear indication as to why much of it is an acute problem to recent scholars.

Let us now, in closing, examine these sources on which early traditionists relied for their details of the story.

4. The Sources of the Alleged Ascent.

Stories strikingly similar to the Mi'raj are found in various religious works predating the time of Muhammad and it is virtually certain that later scribes borrowed elements from these to create the story found in the Hadith.

Stobart refers to Surah 17.1 as Muhammad's "simple account of what was probably only a dream prompted by his waking thoughts" and relieves him of responsibility for the fanciful narratives found in the Hadith:

Stobart refers to Jewish works where accounts similar to that of the Mi'raj are found, but perhaps the real origins of the Islamic account of Muhammad's ascent to heaven are those stories found in Zoroastrian works which are strikingly parallel to the Mi'raj. Tisdall states that "The story may have incorporated elements from many quarters, but it seems to have been in the main based upon the account of the ascension of Arta Viraf contained in a Pahlavi book called 'The Book of Arta Viraf"' (The Original Sources of the Qur'an, p. 226), where we find remarkable coincidences. Arta Viraf was a saintly priest who had a mi'raj of his own some four hundred years before the Hijrah:

There are numerous details in the narrative which correspond to those in the Hadith. Just as Gabriel guided Muhammad through the heavens, so Sarosh, one of the great Zoroastrian archangels, guided Arta Viraf. Likewise he came into the presence of Ormazd and visited paradise and hell as well.

The Zoroastrians also teach that there is, in paradise, a marvellous tree called humaya in Pahlavi which corresponds closely to the sidrah, the lote-tree of Islam. Indeed the Zoroastrians even relate that their founder also passed through the heavens and visited hell.

In his other book St. Clair-Tisdall comments that Ahriman, the Satan of Zoroastrianism, "closely corresponds with the Iblis of the Qur'an" (The Original Sources of the Qur'an, p. 230). It certainly seems that the whole account of the Mi'raj is a subtle adaptation done by Muslim divines sometime after the subjugation of Zoroastrian Persia during the Arab conquests in the early days of Islam.

We may conclude that tradition has nonchalantly adorned the story of Muhammad's dream with marvellous records of an ascent through the heavens. It is highly probable that Muhammad himself declared no more than that which we find in the Qur'an - that he had a vision or a dream in which he was carried to Jerusalem and there saw various signs. The isra of the Qur'an has been transformed into the mi'raj of the Hadith. In a very subjective way the former may well have been a vision or, more probably, a strange dream, but the latter does truly seem to be no more than a pious fiction drawn from the fables of other religious records and works.

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