Shab e Miraj

Last night was Rajab 27 which is commonly believed to be the night of Miraj or the night of the ascension of Prophet Muhammad.

Here is what Fazlur Rahman had to say about it in Chapter 1 of his book Islam. He is discussing how externality of the Angel and the Revelation to Prophet Muhammad became an accepted doctrine among Muslims and then mentions the ascension:

The Quran refers to an important transforming experience or perhaps a series of such experiences of Muhammad in several Suras of the Quran (XVII, 1; LIII, 5-18; LXXXI, 23). In all of these places, the Quran alludes to the fact that the Prophet saw something ‘at the farthest end’ or ‘on the horizon’ and this shows that the experience contained an important element of the ‘expansion’ of the self. In LIII, 11-12, the Quran says: ‘The heart has not falsified what it has seen; shall you doubt what it has witnessed?’ But the spiritual experiences of the Prophet were later woven by tradition, especially when an ‘orthodoxy’ began to take shape, into the doctrine of a single, physical, locomotive experience of the ‘Ascension’ of Muhammad to Heaven, and still later were supplied all the graphic details about the animal which was ridden by the Prophet during his ascension, about his sojourn in each of the seven heavens, and his parleys with the Prophets of bygone ages from Adam up to Jesus. We may first concede the fact, which is rarely realized by opponents of ‘orthodoxy’, that a religion cannot live on purely ‘spiritualized’ dogmas and that reification is necessary even if only to serve the purpose of a ‘vessel’ for the spirit. We may further insist that it is really impossible to hold that something should occur of a purely spiritual nature without a physical concomitant, and we might even assert that a single event may be called spiritual or physical according to its setting or context, yet in either case the doctrine of a locomotive miraj or ‘Ascension’ developed by the orthodox (chiefly on the pattern of the Ascension of Jesus) and backed by Hadith is no more than a historical fiction whose materials come from various sources.

Here are the Quranic verses referred to in that passage. I am using Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s English translation.

17:1: Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless,- in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who heareth and seeth (all things).

53:5-18: He was taught by one Mighty in Power, Endued with Wisdom: for he appeared (in stately form); While he was in the highest part of the horizon: Then he approached and came closer, And was at a distance of but two bow-lengths or (even) nearer; So did (Allah) convey the inspiration to His Servant- (conveyed) what He (meant) to convey. The (Prophet’s) (mind and) heart in no way falsified that which he saw. Will ye then dispute with him concerning what he saw? For indeed he saw him at a second descent, Near the Lote-tree beyond which none may pass: Near it is the Garden of Abode. Behold, the Lote-tree was shrouded (in mystery unspeakable!) (His) sight never swerved, nor did it go wrong! For truly did he see, of the Signs of his Lord, the Greatest!

81:23: And without doubt he saw him in the clear horizon.

Without understanding the original Arabic and Arab linguistic and literature history, it is not possible for me to make a judgment on this matter. However, Fazlur Rahman’s account does seem plausible and Muslim orthodoxy has indeed given physical shape to a lot of things. Here is an example.

Quran 94:1-8: Have We not expanded thee thy breast?- And removed from thee thy burden The which did gall thy back?- And raised high the esteem (in which) thou (art held)? So, verily, with every difficulty, there is relief: Verily, with every difficulty there is relief. Therefore, when thou art free (from thine immediate task), still labour hard, And to thy Lord turn (all) thy attention.

This metaphorical language of the Quran got distorted into this colorful story in the Hadith in Sahih Muslim.

Anas b. Malik reported that Gabriel came to the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upo him) while he was playing with his playmates. He took hold of him and lay him prostrate on the ground and tore open his breast and took out the heart from it and then extracted a blood-clot out of it and said: That was the part of Satan in thee. And then he washed it with the water of Zamzam in a golden basin and then it was joined together and restored to it place. The boys came running to his mother, i. e. his nurse, and said: Verily Muhammad has been murdered. They all rushed toward him (and found him all right) His color was changed, Anas said. I myself saw the marks of needle on his breast.

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9 Comments.

  1. My personal belief is that the journey was physical rather than spirtual. spirtual journey wouldnt make sense. Nobody care for the dreams. do they? To me the additions are made not by arabs but by the peoples who “translated” ISLAM to native languages of the other parts of the muslim world. the different explanations of ISLAM are to my believe is the resultant of local so called “ulma” who were there ever since ISLAM spread across non-arab areas.
    That hadith never made any sense to me, why GOD would actually wana wash prophet SAWT’ heart? He was pure and innocent to extreme (like all other prophets) but ssSHh my muslim brothers wont like it.

    [PS: It would have been much nicer if you had used SAWT or PBUH with the prophet SAWT name. If you actually decide to edit your post remove the part of the comment in these brackets]

  2. I am pasting comments by a scholar Sheikh Mohammad Saleem who has argued keeping in context the arabic grammar and language issues. He teaches at Islamic Dawah Academy UK.

    Me’raj – Physical or Spiritual

    The Me’raj of Rasoolullah صلى الله عليه و سلم was physical i.e. with body and soul. He ascended the seven heavens and proceeded beyond that to the Sidratul Muntaha and further physically. In the mind of a mu’min (true believer), a doubt concerning the possibility of a physical ascent to the heavens does not occur. For a believer this is a fact which requires no logical reasoning. What doubt can there be concerning Allah’s سبحانه التعالئ power to do as He wishes?

    Nowadays with the advancement of modem technology the man is orbiting satellites and landing on the moon. If man has advanced so much, is it not possible for the Creator of man to carry His Beloved Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم physically with body and soul into the heavens and back within a very limited part of the night? Of course it is possible!

    *
    Me’raj was Physical

    1. “Glorified be He who carried His servant by night…” (Qur`aan 17:1)

    This verse from the Qur`aan describes the initial stages of the miraculous journey of our Beloved Nabee One can clearly ascertain from the words of this verse that the Me’raj was physical:

    a. Allah سبحانه التعالئ initiates the verse with the word subhan which means glorified be He Whose Self is pure from all defects and frailties and is above all kinds of weakness and helplessness. He is not dependent upon any means and He is not bound by any physical laws. Those things which look extremely strange to our imagination and which our imperfect wisdom thinks as quite impossible are not a bit difficult before the Power and Will of Allah سبحانه التعالئ. Thus, from the very outset, the event of Me’raj has been described as extraordinary and the word subhan belie the misconception that the event was only a dream.

    b. The journey of Rasoolullah صلى الله عليه و سلم is further expressed by the verb asra which is used for a journey of body and soul in the state of consciousness by night. This same verb is used elsewhere in the Qur`aan too. In Soorah Hood and Hijr, the instruction given to Prophet Loot عليه السلام by the Angels is;

    “So take away your people in a part of the night.” (11:81, 15:65)

    Similarly, Prophet Moosa عليه السلام is ordered by Allah سبحانه التعالئ.;

    “Take away my slaves by night.” (44:23, 20:77)

    In both cases, the Prophets are ordered to take their people physically with body and soul and not spiritually in dream.

    c. The word ‘abd (servant) is used to mean either the body only or body and soul together. It is not used to mean soul only.

    2. Another verse of the Qur`aan regarding Me’raj is:

    “We appointed the vision which we showed thee as an ordeal for mankind.” (17:60)

    The word ru`ya (vision) is used for two meanings: dream or vision / view / sight. The Commentators of the Qur`aan have given examples from Arabic poetry where ru`ya is used to mean vision/seeing and not dream. Imam Bukhari rahmatullahi-alayh has narrated from Abdullah Ibne Abbas the meaning of the word ru`ya in this verse with the following words: “It (the ru`ya) was an actual eye-witness (account) which was shown to Rasoolullah صلى الله عليه و سلم the night he was taken on a journey (through the heavens)”. (Bukhari Vol. 6 page 204)

    3. It is an accepted fact that when one relates a story or an event but does not say that it was a dream; it is naturally taken as an incident of consciousness. The verse of the Qur`aan describing the miraculous journey and the Ahadeeth do not mention or indicate that it was a dream. Hence this incident will be considered physical in the state of awakening.

    4. When the kuffar (disbelievers) of Makkah heard the details of the incident of Me’raj they rejected it. They jeered at the Muslims, made fun of Rasoolullah صلى الله عليه و سلم and called him a liar. They asked him to describe the Masjid in Jerusalem, which he had never seen before. Had it been only a dream they would neither have mocked at him, nor asked for any evidence. Similarly, there was no reason for their rejection as people often dream of strange things. It is apparent that they were asking for further details knowing that the journey was physical. Rasoolullah صلى الله عليه و سلم too, did not say that it was only a dream. Instead he substantiated his physical journey with another miracle which is reported by Bukhari and Muslim from Jabir Ibne Abdullah that Rasoolullah صلى الله عليه و سلم said, “When the disbelievers of Makkah rejected my night journey to Baytul Maqdis and made queries about the details of Baytul Maqdis, I stood in the Haraam and Allah سبحانه التعالئ opened the veils (between myself and) Baytul Maqdis. I was looking at it and informing them of the details they were asking for.

    5. The incident of Me’raj has been listed amongst the miracles of Nabee. What is so extraordinary about travelling such long distances in a mere dream?

    This is sufficient to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Rasoolullah صلى الله عليه و سلم travelled from Makkah to AI-Masjidul Aqsa and then ascended the heavens physically with body and soul in the state of awakening within a very limited part of the night.

  3. I hope Michelle had a great birthday yesterday!

    Physical/spiritual? I’ve no idea. I feel that this is a dimension of experience that can’t be defined within the limitations of “normal” human experience (sensory + “spiritual”).

  4. Personally, based on what meagre knowledge i have from what i have read about the topic, the arguments seem more well grounded for the side that beleives that the experience WAS physical.

    There can be more to this than we think. Movement/ communication/ experiences can be in ways more than ‘spiritual’ or ‘physical.’ To put an experience like the MAIRAJ into words is contricting a sea into a small bottle. Islam always uses what seems like metaphors or generalizations because a lot of concepts would be impossible to understand till our minds have progressed that far. We are human with our limitations. What we cannot understand, we reject.

    For example, try explaining the concept of the internet to someone 60 years ago. You would be called crazy to talk of something which you can see fiction or fact on, can communicate on, can talk on, can even design new WORLDS of their own on…you can communicate in real time with someone…it would’ve seemed crazy beyond words.

    I think the mairaj involves concepts which are beyond our ability to fully grasp right now.

    The most important thing is; we are again arguing about how, where, when…where as we should be concentrating on WHY. The physical ascension..or a spiritual one has the same meaning for us. We believe in HIS infinite power. We believe that this happened. On WHAT level is hardly our concern. It doesnot make a difference in the life of a practicing Muslim.

  5. I agree with Saad and Specs. The fact is that we see and imagine everything according to our mental capability which is limited. In no way we can equate our wisdom and knowledge to that of the Creator (Allah, soob-hanohoo wa Ta’ala)). Man, with the wisdom (granted by Allah), has produced many intellegent machines but wisdom of man has to be there to set and run those machines, may it be computer, sputnic or anything else. Also these machines can do only the job which their creator (man) has made them for. This is why the famous philosopher poet Dr Iqbal said:
    Tadbeer kay per jaltay hain taqdeer kay aagay.
    and
    Baykhattar kood giya aatish-e-Namrood main ishq
    Aqal hey mehway tamaasha lab-e-baam abhi

  6. Badtameez:

    spirtual journey wouldnt make sense. Nobody care for the dreams. do they?

    That depends on the purpose of miraj which is not very clear to me at least.

    To me the additions are made not by arabs but by the peoples who “translated” ISLAM to native languages of the other parts of the muslim world.

    This is a common argument and there is a grain of truth in it. However, if we look at Islamic history, we see a lot of influence of Christian, Greek, Zoroastrian and even Indian ideas. These discussions created different schools of thought and there were reactions to that as well. All of this happened during the heyday of Arab Islam.

    It would have been much nicer if you had used SAWT or PBUH with the prophet SAWT name.

    I find it not of much use and distracting to the thrust of the writing.

    Saad: Thanks for that info.

    Koonj: Interesting thought, though I am too ignorant and too much of a rationalist to understand it.

    Specs: I agree that it doesn’t make much of a difference in our lives. However, one of the main reasons for my writing this was to try to think about historicity of early Islam and our sources for the same.

    BTW, I think your Internet example is terrible.

    Everyone: What are your thoughts about the details of the ascension as mentioned in the Hadith? For example, the bargaining over prayers, meeting with other Prophets, the almost anthropomorphization of God for the meeting, the travel to the Far Mosque (Masjid Aqsa), etc. Do all these events sound equally plausible and accurate?

    Also, what do you say about the splitting of the Prophet’s chest as reported in the Hadith above?

    And finally, what about Fazlur Rahman’s main point about giving external physical shape to all these events (splitting of chest, miraj, revelation) by the early Muslims?

  7. All things need thorough study which I do not consider myself to cope with. We are human beings, some know more some know less but our practical life may not be directly proportional to our knowledge. Some-one’s research may be right or wrong or partly right.
    This person, if he is Dr Fazlur Rehman who who came back to Pakistan in 1961 and was straight-away accepted by the Ayub goverment as Islamic scholar, then I had several disagreements with him as a young man. The glaring was, he said and wrote that their are only three prayers in a day which are our duty (Farz).

  8. I would like to know whether all these nights, be it shab e miraj, shab e barat etc. Are these all farz on us ?..or is it a personal choice to be awake and pray ? …And also can you tell me the things that has to be done on these nights. what has to be done and how does everything else follow ?

  9. Our knowledges are limited to that extent as determined by Allah. But everything described in the holy Quran is scientific as it has been proving gradually by the scientists. Now, we need time to discover all things in the holy Quran, as process of proving anything is time-consuming. The science behind the holy Miraj shall obviously be discovered, may it be either during our life time or during the time of our next generation. So, have uncnditional & profound faith in Almighty Allah, the Omniscient,– this is the foremost way to discover Him & His Science.