MIʿRĀJ . The belief that Muḥammad ascended to heaven in the course of his life and beheld the secrets of the otherworld as no other person had ever beheld them is shared by all factions of Islam. In Muslim religious literature, the idea of the Miʿrāj, Muḥammad's ascension to heaven, is closely associated with that of the Isrāʾ, his nocturnal journey. Neither term appears as such in the Qurʾān, yet both developed in close connection with crucial, though ambiguous, Qurʾanic passages.
The term isrāʾ is taken from surah 17:1, "Glory be to him who carried his servant by night from the Holy Mosque to the Further Mosque, the precincts of which we have blessed, that we might show him some of our signs." It is reasonably certain that "his servant" refers to Muḥammad, "the Holy Mosque" to Mecca (sūrahs 2:144, 2:149, 2:150, 2:191, 2:196, 2:217, 5:2, 8:34, 9:7, 9:19, 9:28, 22:25, 48:25, 48:27), and "by night" to a journey begun by night (44:23), without reference to the journey's miraculous nature. Far less certain, however, is the intended meaning of "the Further Mosque" (al-masjid al-aqṣā ). Since the earliest prophetic traditions (ḥadīth ), this term has been explained either as a sanctuary on earth ("terrestrial" Jerusalem, the temple precinct) or in heaven ("celestial" Jerusalem, the environs of the divine throne). There is no apparent connection between the isrāʾ verse and a dream (ruʾyā ) shown to Muḥammad by God and mentioned in the same sūrah (17:60), although the ḥadīth would interpret this dream as a vision of Jerusalem that Muḥammad communicated to the unbelieving Meccans.
The association of "the Further Mosque" with the terrestrial Jerusalem, which became the most widely accepted explanation, seems to be supported by the Qurʾanic phrase "the precincts of which we have blessed," referring to the Holy Land (21:71, 21:81, 7:137, 34:18), although Palestine in general is referred to as the "nearer part of the land" (30:3). This explanation was favored under the Umayyads, who were intent on glorifying Jerusalem as a holy territory rivaling Mecca, then ruled by their opponent ʿAbd Allāh ibn Zubayr. The interpretation of "the Further Mosque" as al-Jiʿrānah, a place on the fringes of the holy precinct of Mecca from which Muḥammad set out on his pilgrimage (ʿumrah ) of Dhū al-Qaʿdah 630, has been rejected on decisive evidence (Maurice Plessner, "Muḥammad's Clandestine ʿUmra in the Ḏūʾl-Qaʿda 8 H. and Sūra 17,1," Revista degli studi orientali 32 : 525–530; Rudi Paret, "Die 'ferne Gebetsstatte' in Sure 17,1," Der Islam 34 : 150–152).
The association with the celestial Jerusalem was favored in the classical sources of ḥadīth and Qurʾān commentary, which tended to use isrāʾ for the ascension to heaven and thus linked Muḥammad's night journey with his ascension. This explanation, which also included the purification of Muḥammad's heart as a preparatory stage, tended to interpret the story as Muḥammad's divine initiation to his prophetic career.
As a term for ascension, the word miʿrāj, literally "ladder," appears to conceal a vaguely understood reference to Jacob's ladder (Gn. 28:12). The term was probably borrowed from the Ethiopic maʿāreg (Ethiopic Book of Jubilees 21:37) as a translation of the Hebrew sullām. The background for the cryptic references in the Qurʾān may be provided by various motifs: the apocalyptic images of a heavenly ladder that recur in Jewish heikhalot literature; symbolic notions of a seven-runged ladder on which the soul ascends through the gates of heaven, found in the liturgy of Mithras; and gnostic ideas of the ladder as a means of ascending to heaven, as in the Mandaean sumbilta and the Manichaean pillar of glory.
In fragmentary Qurʾanic references, God is called "the Lord of the Stairways" (dhū al-maʿārij, 70:3; see also 43:33, 40:15), to whom the angels, the spirit, and the divine command "mount up" (taʿruju, yaʿruju ) in a day (70:4, 32:5). God knows what comes down from heaven and what goes up to it (34:2, 57:4). The notion of heavenly ascent appears to be implied when Pharaoh gives orders to build a tower so that he may reach the cords of heaven and climb up to the god of Moses (40:36–37), or when Muḥammad is challenged by his opponents to go up into heaven (17:93). To this he replies, "Let them ascend the cords" (38:10) and "Stretch up a rope to heaven" (22:15), for even if God opened to them "a gate in heaven" (15:14), or if they had "a ladder" into heaven (sullam, 52:38, 6:35) and were climbing to it (6:125), they would not believe.
Three Qurʾanic passages not explicitly referring to heavenly ascent appear nevertheless to be linked with Muḥammad's visionary experiences of heaven. Sūrahs 81:19–25 and 53:1–12 give a parallel account of a vision in which Muḥammad saw a divine messenger on the horizon, and sūrah 53:13–18 gives an account of a vision in which he beheld the greatest signs of God near the lote tree on the edge of Paradise. In both cases the heavenly messenger approaches the Prophet from a distance but does not carry him off.
On the basis of the Qurʾanic evidence it appears certain that miʿrāj and isrāʾ refer to experiences Muḥammad had prior to his emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622, since the relevant Qurʾanic passages can be traced back to that period. It cannot be ascertained, however, whether or not these experiences occurred toward the beginning of Muḥammad's prophetic activity in Mecca, although they seem to have their natural setting in that time.
The Qurʾanic references became associated with legends that proliferated rapidly during the first two centuries of Islam through the activity of the quṣṣāṣ, pious and popular storytellers. Their stories in turn were taken up and recast in the ḥadīth methodology of the Prophet's biography (sīrah ) with the aim of establishing a scholarly consensus (ijmāʿ ) concerning this legendary and mainly oral tradition. This consensus, reflected in the Sīrat Muḥammad by Ibn Isḥāq (d. 767), revised by Ibn Hishām (d. 834), admitted both interpretations of "the Further Mosque" and harmonized the two by assigning isrāʾ the particular meaning of the nocturnal journey to Jerusalem. This harmonization implied the elimination of an earlier tradition that made Mecca the starting point of the ascension and the substitution of Jerusalem, the starting point of Christ's ascension, where, perhaps since ʿAbd al-Malik's caliphate (685–705), the Prophet's footprint was shown to Muslim pilgrims.
Ibn Isḥāq's account of the miraculous events occurring during a single night combines all features in a continuous narrative, yet inverts the events. One night Muḥammad is asleep near the Kaʿbah at Mecca (or in the house of Umm Hāniʾ) when he is awakened by the angel Gabriel, who leads him to a winged animal called Burāq. Gabriel places the Prophet on the back of this steed, and they journey together to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem they meet several prophets, notably Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. By leading a public prayer service (ṣalāt), Muḥammad takes precedence over all the other prophets assembled there. When the Prophet finishes all that has to be done in Jerusalem, so the narrative continues, the beautiful ladder (miʿrāj ) on which the dying fix their eyes, and which the human souls ascend to heaven, is brought. Gabriel makes Muḥammad ascend it and brings him to the gates of the seven heavens, one after the other. At each gate Gabriel is asked to identify Muḥammad and testify that revelation has already been made to him. Then follows a long description of Muḥammad's experiences in the heavens, in each of which he meets one of the prophets. Finally, Muḥammad beholds the garden of Paradise (as, from the first heaven, he has witnessed the tortures of Hell) and appears before God's throne to converse with him. God then reduces the number of obligatory daily prayers incumbent on the Muslim community from the original fifty to five. Muḥammad returns to Mecca and the next morning informs the Meccans that during the night he has gone to Syria and come back again. The public, including his close companion Abū Bakr, is naturally skeptical at first, and many of the Prophet's followers apostatize.
Influenced in part by the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic traditions, ḥadīth literature embellished the basic narrative of the Prophet's ascent to heaven with a great variety of detail that focused on the preparation for the ascent, the riding animal, and the experiences in heaven. It was also at this point that the story of the purification of Muḥammad's heart was prefixed to the ascension narrative. As Muḥammad is sleeping in the neighborhood of the Kaʿbah, angels appear, lay him on his back, open his body, and, with water from the well of Zamzam, wash his heart and bowels, cleansing them of doubt, idolatry, ignorance, and error. They then bring a golden vessel filled with wisdom and belief and fill his body with faith and wisdom. Purified in his heart and dedicated to be a prophet, Muḥammad is taken up to the lowest heaven.
The animal that carries Muḥammad to Jerusalem, Burāq (etymologically probably Arabic, "little lightning flash"), is depicted as a miraculous beast of exceptional fleetness. It is described as a brilliant steed of either gender, saddled and bridled, in size between a donkey and a mule, with a long back, shaking ears, and "a cheek like that of a man." Wings on its shanks propelled legs that moved in one stride as far as its eyes could reach. It was the riding beast of prophets in the past, Abraham in particular, and more recently Jesus. Upon the arrival in Jerusalem, according to some traditions, Gabriel tied it to a rock or ring, while, according to others, Burāq served as a flying steed for Muḥammad's ascension, taking over the function of the ladder. In its pictorial representations Burāq received a human face, a woman's head, and a peacock's tail. From the earliest extant image in a 1314 manuscript of Rashīd al-Dīn's Jamīʿ al-tawārīkh (Universal history) to the most splendid Persian and Turk-ish miniatures of later centuries, the steed, its rider, and its guide became a highly cherished motif of Islamic painting and poetry. Beautiful miniatures of Muḥammad's miʿrāj can be found, for example, in the fifteenth-century Miʿrāj-nāmah translated into Eastern Turkish by Mīr Ḥaydar and calligraphed in Uighur script by Mālik Bakhshī of Herat (see Marie-Rose Séguy, The Miraculous Journey of Mahomet, New York, 1977).
The meeting of the Prophet with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus at Jerusalem may be modeled on accounts of the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor (Mt. 17:1, Mk. 9:1, Lk. 9:28). Muḥammad encounters Adam as judge over the souls of the dead in the first heaven, Joseph in the third, and Enoch/Idrīs in the fourth. Jesus and John the Baptist appear together in the second heaven, whereas Aaron and Moses appear separately in the fifth and sixth. Moses weeps, realizing that Muḥammad is higher than himself in God's esteem and that his followers will be more numerous than his own. Muḥammad refuses his advice to ask God to reduce the obligatory daily prayers to fewer than five. Finally, in the seventh heaven, that of Abraham, Muḥammad finds himself in the presence of God's throne, reaches the lote-tree marking the limit of knowledge that creatures possess, and beholds the rivers of Paradise, where he is offered vessels of water, wine, milk, and honey but partakes of the milk alone.
Adaptations and Interpretations
The theme of the Prophet's ascension found its place in the literature of Islamic theology, philosophy, and Sufism. Muslim theologians were preoccupied with the question, already discussed since early times, of whether the night journey and ascension took place in a literal or a spiritual sense. Al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) strongly favored the belief, shared by the majority of Muslims, that the Prophet was transported literally, with his body and while awake. Others, in particular the Muʿtazilah, held that he was carried in spirit to Jerusalem and heaven while his body remained at Mecca; this view was supported by a statement attributed to Muḥammad's favorite wife, ʿĀʾishah. Al-Taftāzānī (d. 1389) states that the event happened in body and spirit but does not rule out its possible occurrence in sleep or in spirit alone. The question of whether or not Muḥammad saw God face to face on the occasion of the ascension constituted another debate within Islamic theology, in particular against the background of the controversy concerning the beatific vision of the believer.
The Neoplatonic philosophers of Islam gave an allegorical meaning to the Prophet's ascension. The Epistles of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (Brethren of Purity), completed in 969, adopted the pattern of cosmological descent and eschatological ascent and interpreted the latter as the ascent (miʿrāj) of the human soul that abandons its bodily existence and returns to its angelic state of pure spirituality. Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī (d. 1057) wrote a parody, Risālat al-ghufrān (The epistle of forgiveness), on the traditional accounts of the miʿrāj. Two treatises of al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) are focused on the theme of ascension: his Miʿrāj al-sālikīn (The ladder of those who follow the path) elucidates the theme from seven different topical angles, while his Mishkāt al-anwār (The niche for lights) offers a Neoplatonic interpretation in purely psychological terms. Ibn al-Sīd al-Baṭalyawsī (d. 1127), in his Kitāb al-ḥadāʾiq (Book of gardens), describes the ascent of the purified spirits to the supernal world on "the ladder of ascensions" (sullam al-maʿārij) that follows a straight line connecting the terrestrial and celestial spheres.
For the Ṣūfīs, the night journey and ascension of the Prophet became the prototype of the soul's itinerary to God as it rises from the bonds of sensuality to the height of mystical knowledge. It is doubtful whether, as is frequently asserted, Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī (d. 875) claimed to have experienced miʿrāj himself, leading to mystical union with God. Al-Ḥallāj (d. 922) meditated on the theme in his Kitāb al-ṭawāsīn. Al-Qushayrī (d. 1074) collected accounts current among moderate Ṣūfīs in his Kitāb al-miʿrāj and included in it a discussion of the ascension attributed to Enoch/Idrīs, Abraham, Elijah, Moses, and Jesus. He reserved ascension in body and spirit for the prophets and conceded to the Ṣūfīs only the dream experience of ascent to heaven. Al-Hujwīrī (d. 1077) makes a clear distinction in his Kashf al-maḥjūb (Elucidation of the secrets) between the ascension of prophets, which occurs outwardly and in the body, and that of the saints, which takes place inwardly and in the spirit only. Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240) expounded the Prophet's night journey and ascension as a symbol of the soul's itinerary toward mystical union in his Kitāb al-isrāʾ and also devoted two lengthy sections of his Futūḥāt (Revelations) to the subject. In one section he has a mystic and a philosopher make the journey together; the philosopher has to stop short at the seventh heaven, while no secrets remain hidden from the mystic. In the other section applies the Prophet's ascension to the mystical experience of Ṣūfī ecstasy, recording his own mystical ascent and his conversations with the prophets about mystic themes.
The Miʿrāj provided an ideal type for the symbolic narratives created by Ṣūfī philosophers and poets intent on explaining the spiritual heights of mystical union. In the fine Persian Miʿrāj-nāmah, attributed to Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037) or Yaḥyā Suhrawardī (d. 1191), yet probably written by an anonymous eleventh-century author, the theme of the postmortem ascent of the soul to heaven under conduct of the angel is overshadowed by the ecstatic ascent of the mystic to the divine throne in imitation of the ascension of the Prophet, the archetypal mystic. This symbolic narrative may be understood, topically although not historically, as bridging the gulf between Ibn Sīnā's Arabic allegory, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, and ʿAṭṭār's (d. 1220) grandiose mystical Persian epic, Manṭiq al-ṭayr (Conversation of the birds), both of which, in their respective ways and not unlike the Persian Miʿrāj-nāmah, move from the level of the symbolic interpretation of the narrative to the plane of the existential exegesis of mystic ascent experienced in the human soul.
The theme of miʿrāj appears in many aspects in Persian Ṣūfī poetry from Rūmī (d. 1273) to Iqbal (d. 1938). For Rūmī the Miʿrāj became the symbol of the radical difference between discursive reason and mystical union. Gabriel, the symbol of reason and the guide of the heavenly journey, remains outside the divine presence while the Prophet, the symbol of the true lover of God, enjoys "a time with God" in the chamber of union and mystery. The Jāvīd-nāmah of Iqbal describes a contemporary version of the spiritual journey made by the poet from earth through and beyond the spheres to the presence of God.
Later popular accounts of the Prophet's ascension collect and systematize the material scattered in the older sources, largely augmenting the matter without increasing its depth. Al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505) presents a fine disquisition on the traditions of isrāʾ and miʿrāj, discussing their nature, time, place, and details in Al-āyah al-kubrā fī sharḥ qiṣṣat al-isrāʾ. Al-Nuʿmānī, a disciple of Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 1449), collects a medley of traditions, theological views, and mystical statements concerning the Prophet's night journey and ascension in Al-sirāj al-wahhāj (The glowing lamp). The most popular miʿrāj book down to modern times is the Kitāb al-isrāʾ wa-al-miʿrāj of al-Ghaythī (d. 1573), on which Dardīr (d. 1786) wrote a gloss. Al-Barzanjī's (d. 1766) Qiṣṣat al-miʿrāj appears to be modeled on al-Ghaythī's work. The Uighur Miʿrāj-nāmah, composed in 1436/7, documents the spread of the legend in Central Asian languages.
The Christians of the Middle Ages possessed a certain knowledge about the Muslim legends surrounding Muḥammad's miraculous journey to heaven. This is evidenced by the famous Latin version of the legend, apparently prepared by Ibrāhīm al-Ḥakīm, a Jewish physician active at the court of Alfonso X of Castile (1264–1277). This Latin version (Liber scalae ) and a French translation from Latin (Eschiele Mahomet ) became the focal point of the discussion surrounding the question of Dante's Muslim sources in his Commedia (raised by the Spanish Jesuit Juan Andrès about 1780, again advanced by Ozanam in 1838 and Labitte in 1842, and clearly formulated by Blochet in Les sources orientales de la divine comédie, Paris, 1901).
Historians of religions have long realized the significance of Muḥammad's ascension as a theme in comparative religion. D. W. Bousset's groundbreaking study "Die Himmelsreise der Seele," Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 4 (1901): 136–169, 229–273, set the stage for an inquiry into the soul's ascent to heaven in world religions. Following Bousset's line of research and Edgar Blochet's study of the theme in "L'ascension au ciel du prophète Mohammed," Revue de l'histoire des religions 40 (1899): 1–25, 203–236, Geo Widengren has traced the Iranian motifs of Muḥammad's Miʿrāj in two works, The Ascension of the Apostle and the Heavenly Book (Uppsala, 1950) and Muḥammad, the Apostle of God, and His Ascension (Uppsala, 1955), which attempt to establish an "ideal" ritual of the Prophet's ascension. Marie-Thérèse d'Alverny documents the theme of the soul's ascent in Latin sources of medieval philosophy in "Les pérégrinations de l'âme dans l'autre monde d'après un anonyme de la fin du douzième siècle," Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen-Âge 15–17 (1940–1942): 239–299, while Alexander Altmann demonstrates the impact of Muslim sources on the theme of the ascension in Jewish religious philosophy in "The Ladder of Ascension," Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem, edited by E. E. Urbach, R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, and Chaim Wirszubski (Jerusalem, 1967), pp. 1–32. The problems of typological similarity between Muḥammad's Miʿrāj and shamanic experiences of ascension are outlined by Mircea Eliade in Shamanism (New York, 1964) and taken up by J. R. Porter in "Muḥammad's Journey to Heaven," Numen 21 (1974): 64–80.
The question of Muslim sources in Dante's Commedia has been treated systematically by Miguel Asín Palacios in his important work La escatologia musulmana en la Divina comedia (Madrid, 1919), translated and abridged by Harold Sunderland as Islam and the Divine Comedy (New York, 1926). The controversy Asín Palacios's book stirred up is recorded in the second Spanish edition (Madrid and Granada, 1943). The basis of the discussion was significantly broadened with the independent publication of the French and Latin versions of the legend: Il "Libro della scala" e la questione delle fonti arabo-spagnole della Divina commedia, edited by Enrico Cerulli (Vatican City, 1949), and La escala de Mahoma, edited by José Muñoz Sendino (Madrid, 1949). The trends of more recent discussion on the point can be traced in Peter Wunderli's survey "Zur Auseinandersetzung über die muselmanischen Quellen der Divina Commedia," Romanistisches Jahrbuch 15 (1964): 19–50, and Enrico Cerulli's Nuove ricerche sul Libro della scala e la conoscenza dell'Islam in Occidente (Vatican City, 1972).
Gerhard BÖwering (1987)