By Sh. Abdur Rahman Khan
Isra and Me’raj is the momentous event during which the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, peace be upon him, travelled to Jerusalem and then ascended through the heavens to stand in the presence of Allah. This is commonly believed to have taken place on the 27 of Rajab, which will fall on Saturday, May 16 this year.
Isra refers specifically to the night journey from Masjid al-Haram in Makkah to Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. In the first verse of Surah al-Isra, Allah states, “Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.”
Me’raj refers to the journey from Masjid al-Aqsa to the seventh heaven and the presence of Allah. Regarding this, Allah states, “While he was in the higher [part of the] horizon. Then he approached and descended. And was at a distance of two bow lengths or nearer.” [Qur’an 53:07-09]
The evidence contained within the Qur’an confirms that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ travelled in one night from Makkah to Jerusalem, and from there, through the seven heavens and into the presence of Allah.
He ﷺ is the only human being to ever traverse the boundaries of the seen and unseen, witness the great signs of Allah, and return to earth and relate what he saw. Unfortunately, there are a few issues regarding the Isra and Me’raj which can often create confusion. It is important to understand this historical event based on authentic sources and scholarship.
When did Isra and Me’raj occur?
The early scholars differ as to the exact date of the event. Imam al-Qurtubi says there are at least five opinions and as-Suyuti states that there are over a dozen different views.
Despite the lack of a specific date, the general scholarly consensus holds that Isra and Me’raj happened roughly within the range of one and a half to three years prior to hijrah, the migration of the Prophet ﷺ to Madinah.
At the time, he was experiencing some of the most difficult moment of his life, such as the death of his beloved wife Khadijah, radi Allahu ‘anha, may Allah be pleased with her, and his uncle Abu Talib, the ongoing persecution of the believers, his stoning by the people of Taif, and his lack of protection in Makkah.
The absence of consensus with regards to the precise date illustrates the lack of classical importance given to Isra and Me’raj as a celebration. Rather, it seems as if the emphasis is on the lessons and commands the journey contained.
Did the Prophet ﷺ See Allah during the Me’raj?
Numerous hadith clarify that the Prophet ﷺ did not visually see Allah.
Abu Dharr, radi Allahu ‘anhu, narrates that he asked the Prophet, “‘did you see your Lord (at Me’raj)?’ The Prophet replied saying, ‘I saw light. How can I see Him?’” [Sahih Muslim]
Aisha radi Allahu ‘anha said, “Whoever claims that Muhammad saw his Lord has indeed invented a great lie against him.” [Sahih Muslim]
It is narrated in Sahih Bukhari that Masruq said, “I said to Aisha, ‘O Mother! Did Prophet Muhammad see his Lord?’ Aisha said, ‘What you have said makes my hair stand on end!’ Then she added, ‘Know that if somebody tells you one of the following three things, he is a liar:
‘Whoever tells you that Muhammad saw his Lord, is a liar,’ and she recited the verse, ‘Vision perceives Him not, but He perceives [all] vision; and He is the Subtle, the Acquainted.’ [Qur’an 06:103]; and the verse, “And it is not for any human being that Allah should speak to him except by revelation or from behind a partition or that He sends a messenger to reveal, by His permission, what He wills. Indeed, He is Most High and Wise.’ [42:51]
She continued, ‘And whoever tells you that the Prophet knows what is going to happen tomorrow, is a liar,’ and she recited, ‘No soul perceives what it will earn tomorrow.’ [31:34]
And she said, “And whoever tells you that he concealed (some of Allah’s orders), is a liar,’ and she recited, ‘O Messenger, announce that which has been revealed to you from your Lord,’” [05:67]
Ibn Abbaas is known to have mentioned that the Prophet saw Allah on the night of Me’raj. However, Ibn Taymiyya clarifies this statement, saying that when Ibn Abbas said ‘He saw Him’, he means that the Prophet saw Allah with his heart, not with his eyes.
Was the Travel Physical or Spiritual?
As believers, we accept that the Prophet’s ﷺ physical journey was one of the miracles of Allah and a test of belief. The Quraysh mocked the Prophet for his journey, and had it been purely spiritual, it would not have been objectionable.
Allah states, “And [remember, O Muhammad], when We told you, “Indeed, your Lord has encompassed the people.” And We did not make the sight which We showed you except as a trial for the people, as was the accursed tree [mentioned] in the Qur’an. And We threaten them, but it increases them not except in great transgression. [17:60]
Allah informs us in the Surah Najm that the Prophet physically saw the greatest signs of Allah: “The sight [of the Prophet] did not swerve, nor did it transgress [its limit]. He certainly saw of the greatest signs of his Lord.” [17-18]
Reasons for the Journey
Allah has provided every prophet miracles in order to strengthen their resolve in the propagation of the message. For example, he spoke to Prophet Musa alayhisalam, on him be peace, to strengthen his resolve before he went to Pharaoh.
The Isra and Me’raj served a similar function. It was a gift to the Prophet to provide him support and solace during the time of his difficulty and sorrow. It was also a means of strengthening his steadfast commitment prior to the hijrah, which would be the start of a new host of struggles and challenges for Islam.
What the Prophet Experienced and Witnessed
The Prophet ﷺ was in the hatim, the open portion of the Ka’bah, when Angel Jibreel came to him, opened his chest, and washed it in a bowl of Zam zam.
Next, Rasulullah ﷺ mounted an animal called Buraq, whose speed of travel was beyond comprehension. The distance between Makkah and Jerusalem in that time would take one month. The Buraq transported the Prophet in the twinkling of an eye.
The Prophet said, “The animal’s step (was so wide that it) reached the farthest point within the reach of the animal’s sight. I was carried on it, and Gabriel set out with me till we reached the nearest heaven.”
At Bayt al-Maqdis in Jerusalem, he met all the Prophets of Allah and led them in prayer before starting his ascent up. Later the Prophet recounted, “When the Quraysh questioned me concerning my night journey, I stood up in al-Hijr (the unroofed portion of the Ka’ba) and Allah displayed Bayt al-Maqdis before me, and I started to inform them about its signs while looking at it.”
In Jerusalem, Angel Jibreel presented the Prophet with two cups, one containing wine and the other milk. Abu Hurairah narrates that the Prophet chose the cup of milk. At this, Angel Jibreel said, “Praise be to Allah Who guided you to al-fitra (the right path); if you had taken wine, your nation would have gone astray.’”
In the next step of his journey, the Me’raj, from Jerusalem to the seventh heaven, Muhammad ﷺ witnessed the various rewards and punishments of Allah and met a number of Prophets.
He ﷺ said, “When I was taken up to heaven I passed by people who had nails of copper and were scratching their faces and their breasts. I asked, ‘Who are these people, Gabriel?’ He replied, ‘they are those who were given to back biting and who aspersed people’s honor.’”
The Prophet ﷺ saw Malik, the keeper of the Fire who, unlike other angels, did not smile. This distressed Rasulullah SAS and he asked Angel Jibreel, “Why did he not smile like the other angels?” Jibreel replied, “He has not smiled since the day he was created, and if he were to have smiled at anyone, it would have been you.”
In the first heaven, Rasulullah ﷺ met Adam alayhisalam; in the second Yahya and Isa alayhimusalam; in the third Yusuf alayhisalam; in the fourth Idrees alayhisalam; in the fifth Haroon alayhisalam, in the sixth Musa alayhisalam; and in the seventh, Ibrahim alayhisalam, who sat with his back leaning on Bayt al-Ma’moor.
Bayt al-Ma’moor is the sacred house of Allah in Heaven, similar to the Ka’bah on earth. Every day, 70,000 unique angels worship around it; one angel never receives a second chance to worship there.
The Prophet ﷺ ascended till he reached Sidrat al-Muntaha, the ultimate boundary of Allah’s creation. It is a color changing tree around which fly gold butterflies. He ﷺ is reported to have said to his Companions, “I ascended till a point where I could hear the squeak of pens.”
Qadhi Iyadh said, the highness of the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺrank over that of the other prophets is evidenced by the level of ascendance into the heavens, which surpassed all creation.
Allah describes what occurred next in Surah Najm: “And he revealed to His Servant what he revealed. The heart did not lie [about] what it saw. So will you dispute with him over what he saw? And he certainly saw him in another descent. At the Lote Tree of the Utmost Boundary. Near it is the Garden of Refuge. When there covered the Lote Tree that which covered [it]. The sight [of the Prophet] did not swerve, nor did it transgress [its limit]. He certainly saw of the greatest signs of his Lord. [Qur’an 53:14-18]
At this point, Rasulallah ﷺ received three gifts directly from Allah: the concluding verses of Surah Baqarah, the forgiveness of his Ummah’s serious sins, and the five daily prayers. After an initial command of fifty prayers, Allah brought it down to five daily prayers through his mercy. Prayers were a gift to the Prophet and the Ummah, a way to maintain regular communication with the divine.
Staying true to the spirit of Isra and Me’raj means a commitment to the five prayers, not the celebration of a specific day. Prayer is the principle means of ascending to Allah.
Allah says, “And seek help through patience and prayer, and indeed, it is difficult except for the humbly submissive [to Allah]. Who are certain that they will meet their Lord and that they will return to Him.”[Qur’an 02:45-46]