Did the Prophet Muhammad physically ascend to the heavens on this night?
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.