Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education

The Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education (NFIE) is a non-profit, tax exempt, religious and educational organization dedicated to serve Islam with a special focus on Tasawwuf(Sufism),

Sunday, June 10, 2012

 al-Isra’ and al-Mi’raj-Night Journey and Ascension

                          Hafiz Mohammad Muntazer

The night of the 27th of Rajab is known and celebrated as the date on which the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ made the most awe-inspiring journey imaginable. A visit to Jerusalem, then the Heavens, and greatest of all, a special audience with Allah Himself. In this article, we investigate the significance of this singular night.
In order to understand the full importance of the Night Journey and Ascension, it is vital to put it into the context of the life of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. At the time of its occurence, he had remained in Makkah thirteen years after he began to receive revelation despite the opposition and persecution of his tribe, the Quraysh. Abu Talib, the uncle of the Prophet ﷺ, was the great supporter of Muhammad ﷺ, alongside, of course, his beloved wife Khadijah. However, this support was suddenly taken away due to their deaths, which happened in close succession. This was the worst time for Islam; the Prophet ﷺ himself called it ‘the year of sorrow’.  After the death of Abu Talib in particular, the persecution by the Quraysh increased. Therefore, the Prophet ﷺ went to Ta’if, where he anticipated that some people would enter the fold of Islam. Unfortunatley, the people of Ta’if responded negatively and he was forced to come back full of sorrow.

A Welcome in the Heavens

At such a time of grief, Allah prepared for His Messenger ﷺ the unique Night Journey and Ascension to tell him that if the people of the earth rejected him, then the inhabitants of the Heavens were ready to welcome him. This journey was made also to show the Prophet ﷺ some signs of the Unseen (known in Arabic as the Ghayb), which strengthened him for the period after his migration (hijrah) which was soon to come.

The Definition of al-Isra’ and al-Mi’raj

Al-Isra’ is the Arabic verbal noun corresponding to the concept of ‘being made to travel by night’. This, therefore, directly refers to the miraculous journey in which the Prophet ﷺ was taken within a single night from the sacred Ka’bah to Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. It goes without saying that no conventional means of transport at the time could traverse the 765 miles between the two in such a short space of time. On the contrary, a journey by caravan would take weeks. However this miracle is clearly presented in the Qur’an:
Glory to Him who made His servant travel by night from the sacred place of worship [in Makkah] to the furthest place of worship, [in Jerusalem] whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him some of Our signs: He alone is the All Hearing, the All Seeing. (al-Isra’, 1)
The Qur’an is not so direct in defining the other part of the journey, al-Mi’raj, which linguistically refers to ‘being made to ascend’, in this case from Jerusalem up to the Heavens and ultimately to a place only Allah knows. It is as if the very sublimity and unfathomable nature of this experience requires expression in veiled, semi-poetic language. Thus the verses of the Qur’an which give some indication about it, are open to a range of interpretation. Here is one way in which they can be rendered into English:
By the star when it sets! Your companion [Muhammad] has not strayed; he is not deluded; he does not speak from his own desire. The Qur’an is nothing less than a revelation that is sent to him. It was taught to him by [an angel, Gabriel] with mighty powers and great strength, who stood on the highest horizon and then approached — coming down until he was two bow-lengths away or even closer — and revealed to God’s servant what He revealed. [The Prophet’s] own heart did not distort what he saw. Are you going to dispute with him what he saw with his own eyes? A second time he saw him: by the lote tree beyond which none may pass, near the Garden of Restfulness, when the tree was covered in nameless [splendour]. His sight never wavered, nor was it too bold, and he saw some of the greatest signs of his Lord. (al-Najm, 1-18)
From hadith reports we know that the Prophet ﷺ was accompanied by the angel Gabriel from the very beginning of his journey; he led all the prophets in prayer at al-Aqsa and also met several of the great prophets at different stages of his heavenly ascension. Furthermore, he reached the highest point in the Heavens and received the command of five obligatory prayers directly from Allah. While no Muslim doubts the importance and great honour of this meeting, there is a famous difference of opinion starting from the time of even the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ over whether he saw Allah with his physical eyes, just with the vision of the heart, or not at all. Thus ’Abdullah ibn Abbas narrated that he did really see Allah, while A’ishah strenuously rejected this as having occurred. Scholars have been similarly split on this issue and there is not space to go into more detail about it here.

A Vision or a Physical Journey?

Going to a much further extreme, some people claim that the entire Night Journey and Ascension was a spiritual vision, rather than a physical experience. However, as we shall see, the evidence to support this claim is lacking and the majority of Islamic scholars, early and late, agree that the it was indeed a physical not solely spiritual journey.  There is much evidence that clarifies this judgement. The Qur’anic verse already quoted (al-Isra’, 1) states that Allah took His ’abd (servant) from Makkah to Jerusalem at night.  The linguists and exegetes agree that the word “’abd” here applies to body and soul together. The soul itself is not called ‘abd. Furthermore, in another verse in the same surah (al-Isra’, 93), Allah has mentioned the scorning denial that the disbelievers made at even the thought of an ascension to the Heavens on the part of the Prophet ﷺ. If the journey referred to was a vision they would not need to deny it and the matter would not be given much importance, as in a vision, just like a dream, it is common to go to strange places and see wondrous things.

A Test for Believers and Non-Believers

Al-Isra’ wa al-Mi’raj was a test for all mankind. The nonbelievers started to laugh at the Prophet ﷺ and made mockery of him because they found it impossible to accept. However, for the believers it was a trial, some of them accepted it and some of them had doubts. This latter group came to Abu Bakr and related to him what they had been told about the journey of the Prophet ﷺ. Abu Bakr said: “By God, if Muhammad himself has said so then it must true”. From that day he was given the title of ‘al-Siddeeq’ by the Prophet, which means the verifier of the truth.

The Spiritual Mi’raj of Muslims

Journey to the higher heavenly world in soul or in body too, has always been a part of prophethood. Each one of them had special experiences according to his rank. However, Islam made this experience available for all Muslims five times a day so every Muslim can share in al-Mi’raj. How is this? Through prayer, as we learn in a hadith, “Salah is the Mi’raj of the believer.”

A Comfort for the Prophet ﷺ

The event of al-Mi’raj occurred before the Prophet’s ﷺ hijrah (migration to Madinah) when he was experiencing extremely difficult times. It gave him glad tidings, which indicated that his problems had come to a halt and he was revealed the last verses of al-Baqarah (285-6) as a form of blessing. Also, Allah gave the Prophet ﷺ the chance to see some of His signs. The sighting of these signs, and their goodness made the Prophet ﷺ stand firmly during the hijrah. It is reported that after this incident he did not feel any weakness or downheartedness at all.

Al-Isra’ wa al-Mi’raj and al-Aqsa

It is important to reflect upon why al-Aqsa in Jerusalem was chosen as the place for the Prophet ﷺ to travel to and also to begin his ascension to the heavens. Firstly, the Holy Land enjoys a special significance in relation to the phenomenon of ascension to heaven. It is from this place that Jesus ascended (having not been killed according to the Qur’an) and it is said that the gate by which supplications enter the higher realms is also located above Jerusalem. Another important point is that by linking Jerusalem to Makkah, the fact that the messages of different prophets came from the same source is highlighted. The fact that Muhammad ﷺ was sent to all mankind, not just particular tribes or peoples, the universality of his message, is also brought to the fore.  Finally by connecting Masjid al-Aqsa to the Ka’bah, Allah  is indicating that it should be revered and protected just as His Holy House in Makkah is. This point comes across in the writing of Dr. Ramadan al-Buti: “These supernatural events point, likewise, to the commitment which Muslims of all times and ages should demonstrate to preserving this Holy Land and protecting it from the covetous aspirations of intruders and the enemies of religion”.


The Night Journey and Ascension of the Prophet ﷺ is a true event that occurred physically without any doubt. It happened while he was suffering in order to give him glad tidings and showed him that the period of problems was going to come to an end and the next phase of Islam was going to start. This gave the Prophet ﷺ confidence and he never felt downhearted again.  It also was a great sign for the Muslims and the non-Muslims alike, a sign of Allah’s love for His Beloved ﷺ and marks the beginning of the five daily prayers becoming obligatory. So, in a way, Muslims commemorate this miraculous event every day, as well as in the month of Rajab.