Early Islamic sources preserve references to Muhammad's extraordinary journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and/or from the earth to the heavens. The narrative of the night journey (isra˒) and ascension (mi˓raj) developed its own unique form in the hadith reports of the eighth and ninth centuries.
The Qur˒anic proof-text for the Mi˓raj is the elliptic opening verse of Sura 17: "Glorified be the one who caused his servant to journey by night from the sacred prayer-site to the furthest prayer-site whose precincts we have blessed in order to show him some of our signs. . . ." Muslim consensus reads the verse as a reference to Muhammad's miraculous journey from the Ka˓ba ("the sacred prayer-site") to either the Temple in Jerusalem or a heavenly temple ("the furthest prayer-site"). The sound hadiths of Bukhari and Muslim show that both the terrestrial and the celestial night journeys were considered potentially authentic by early traditionists.
Early exegetes such as Muqatil b. Sulayman al-Balkhi (d. c. 767) and Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (d. 923) collated the "night journey verse" (17:1) with the visionary passage from the beginning of the Sura of the Star (53:1–18). The latter passage describes a pair of visions, one at "a distance of two bows or nearer," the other at "the lote tree of the boundary." Exegetes disagree about whether these verses describe Muhammad's vision of God or of Gabriel, but they generally agree in placing the "lote tree of the boundary" in the heavens and thus in relating the passage to the Mi˓raj.
At least some early Muslims considered the night journey and ascension to refer to two separate events. The biography of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq (d. c. 767) in the recension of Ibn Hisham (d. 833) treats the two separately but in succession. The biographer Ibn Sa˓d (d. 845) goes even further by attaching two different dates to the events. While the date of the journey(s) remained a source of controversy, the idea that the journey from Mecca to Jerusalem was immediately followed by the ascension from Jerusalem through the seven heavens became the majority opinion in the centuries that followed.
The night journey and ascension narrative begins typically with the Prophet asleep in Mecca and awakened by one or more angels. In some versions, these angels open the Prophet's chest and cleanse his heart (94). Then the magical beast Buraq bears Muhammad to Jerusalem where he performs the prayer at the Temple in the company of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muhammad is offered a choice of two or three cups of different drinks. He proves his right guidance by avoiding the wine and selecting the milk.
The angel Gabriel then takes Muhammad up through the heavens. At each level an angelic gatekeeper interrogates Gabriel before allowing entrance. In each Muhammad encounters one or more Abrahamic prophets, offers his greeting, and then departs for the next level. The typical order of encounter, already present in Ibn Hisham's account, consists of Adam in the first heaven, Jesus and John the Baptist in the second, Joseph in the third, Enoch (Idris) in the fourth, Aaron in the fifth, Moses in the sixth, and Abraham in the seventh. After meeting Abraham in the seventh heaven near the celestial temple known as the frequented house (al-bayt alma˓mur), Muhammad arrives at the lote tree, experiences a revelation, and receives the ritual duty to pray fifty times a day. He descends to Moses, who sends him back to request that the burden be reduced. God removes a portion of the duty, but Moses sends Muhammad back again and again until the number of daily ritual prayers is reduced to five. Some accounts include Muhammad's return and his efforts to prove his experience to a skeptical Meccan community.
By the ninth century this spare narrative was amplified by storytellers. Evidence for this popular tradition can be found in the extended narratives preserved in the Qur˒an commentaries on the "night journey verse" by al-Tabari and the early Shi˓ite exegete ˓Ali b. Ibrahim al-Qummi (d. c. 919). The account of Muhammad's young companion Ibn ˓Abbas (d. c. 687) circulated widely and remains highly popular.
The Mi˓raj tradition served to bring various modes of Islamic literature into conversation. The pivotal Sufi traditionists Abu ˓Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (d. 1021) and ˓Abd al-Karim al-Qushayri (d. 1072) each composed important works on the early mystical interpretations of Muhammad's night journey and ascension. Mystics such as Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. c. 850), Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), and Farid al-Din ˓Attar (d. c. 1220) made the Prophet's journey into a paradigm for their own journey toward mystical union. For philosopher Ibn Sina (d. 1037), the Mi˓raj serves as a neoplatonic allegory. For the litterateur Abu ˓Ala˒ al-Ma˓arri (d. c. 1058) it stimulated an imaginative parody of contemporary attitudes toward literature, linguistics, and morality.
The Mi˓raj also became a site of literary and cultural contestation and intercourse among different religious and geographical worlds. The thirteenth-century Latin and old French translations of the Liber Scale indicate the story's influence among European intellectuals, including Dante. In the East, it was translated into Persian and Turkish and inspired numerous poetic works. A fifteenth-century eastern Turkish manuscript accompanied by stunning Persian miniatures illustrates the story's influence on painting. At some point Muslims began to commemorate the night of the ascension during the month of Rajab, which has become an important popular holiday. Some Islamic Mi˓raj material shows clear signs of engagement with other traditions. One Mi˓raj narrative attributed to al-Bistami draws upon material from Jewish Merkava and Hekhalot ascent narratives of the Jewish mystics describing journeys through celestial palaces to the divine throne. Christian apocalyptic writings such as the Apocalypse of Paul also contain important parallels, as do inter-testamental and apocryphal texts such as the Ethiopic Book of Enoch. The initiatic features of the Mi˓raj (e.g., ritual dismemberment, meeting past elders, receiving a divine commission) has led some to note similarities to patterns from shamanic tradition.
In general, the Mi˓raj interpretation of the visions of Qur˒an 53 offers a paradigm of "ascent" by the Prophet toward revelation in contrast to the dominant Qur˒anic motif of "descent" (tanazzul) of the revelation toward the Prophet, two contrasting paradigms that were in similar play throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages. One could read many Mi˓raj traditions as expressions of a symbolic cosmology that served as a common cultural language for religious, philosophical, literary, and cultural contact and as a symbolic field that differing cultural worlds attempted to appropriate as their own.
An interpretation of Muhammad's vision of ascension appears in the volume two color plates.
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Frederick Colby Michael Sells