Mi'raj: A Physical or Spiritual Ascension?
In the Name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. May salutations of peace and blessings be upon our beloved Prophet Muhammad (Sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam) and upon his family, progeny, companions, and true followers until Judgment Day.
The issue of the Isra and Mi'raj is a contentious one among certain sects of Islam. The more dogmatic Ulama even go to the extent of declaring as Kafir (beyond the pale of Islam) anyone who denies the Isra and Mi'raj as being a physical, bodily experience of the beloved Prophet (Sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam). In Sha Allah, I shall present in this entry some strong evidence from the Islamic sources proving that the event of Israa and Mi'raaj was a spiritual ascension, and a Kashaf (vision that unveils) of a very high level.
The Israa refers to the night journey of the Prophet (peace be upon him) from Mecca to Jerusalem, where he visited and beheld Masjid al-Aqsaa, the third holiest shrine in Islam. The Mi'raaj refers to the ascension of the Prophet (Sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam) into the Heavens, accompanied by the Angel Gabriel, until he reached the Sidrat al Muntahaa and met personally with Almighty Allah. This was a very powerful event in the history of Islam which has immensely shaped Islamic philosophy and theology. I would suggest the respected reader to understand the occurrence of such powerful visions experienced by Prophets of God where they are shown the Heavens, the Throne of God, and other spectacular imagery that is beyond this world. For example, the intensely complex study of Merkabah mysticism will shed some light on the reality of our own Prophet's visions, i.e., the Israa and Mi'raaj.
First let us deal with the Israa (Night Journey to Jerusalem). The seventeenth Surah of the Holy Quran is in fact named after this event, and begins with the verse:
سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي أَسْرَىٰ بِعَبْدِهِ لَيْلًا مِّنَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ إِلَى الْمَسْجِدِ الْأَقْصَى الَّذِي بَارَكْنَا حَوْلَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْبَصِيرُ
Holy is the One Who took His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque [Mecca] to the Aqsa Mosque [Jerusalem] whose vicinity We have blessed, in order to show him from Our Signs. Verily, He [Allah] is the Hearer, the Seer. (Surah 17:1)
Those who argue that the Prophet (peace be upon him) travelled with his physical body and that it was not a spiritual vision cite this Verse as their strongest evidence. However, a deeper examination of the Verse reveals that it is implying that the Prophet (Sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam) was taken from Mecca to Holy Jerusalem in spirit and not body. The word Israa refers to a journey that is taken at Night, yet Allah has specifically mentioned Lail (Night) in this Verse in order to emphasize the point, which would otherwise seem redundant. The reason is because Night is associated with sleep and that is the time Allah takes the Soul of the human being:
وَهُوَ الَّذِي يَتَوَفَّاكُم بِاللَّيْلِ وَيَعْلَمُ مَا جَرَحْتُم بِالنَّهَارِ ثُمَّ يَبْعَثُكُمْ فِيهِ لِيُقْضَىٰ أَجَلٌ مُّسَمًّى ثُمَّ إِلَيْهِ مَرْجِعُكُمْ ثُمَّ يُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمْ تَعْمَلُونَ
And He is the One Who takes you at night and knows what you have committed by day. Then He revives you therein that a specified term may be fulfilled. Then to Him will be your return; then He will inform you about what you used to do. (Surah 6:60)
In this verse, the word “Night” is used as a clear reference to sleep when Allah takes the soul and a person loses consciousness. The physical body remains behind in the bed.
The other indication from this verse (17:1) that the Israa was a night vision is the phrase لِنُرِيَهُ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا (in order to show him something of Our Signs). The act of showing or seeing correlates to visions and dreams, even though dream or sleep is not explicitly mentioned. This is obvious from other verses of the Holy Quran:
وَدَخَلَ مَعَهُ السِّجْنَ فَتَيَانِ قَالَ أَحَدُهُمَا إِنِّي أَرَانِي أَعْصِرُ خَمْرًا وَقَالَ الْآخَرُ إِنِّي أَرَانِي أَحْمِلُ فَوْقَ رَأْسِي خُبْزًا تَأْكُلُ الطَّيْرُ مِنْهُ نَبِّئْنَا بِتَأْوِيلِهِ إِنَّا نَرَاكَ مِنَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ
And there entered the prison with him two young men. One of them said, "Indeed, I have seen myself pressing wine." The other said, "Indeed, I have seen myself carrying upon my head [some] bread, from which the birds were eating. Inform us of its interpretation; indeed, we see you to be of those who do good." (Surah 12:36)
Unlike in the case of Abraham's vision where Manaam (sleep) is explicitly mentioned, the dreams of Joseph's two companions of the prison are not explicitly mentioned as such in the verse (12:36) though it is understood without any difference of opinion that they were dreams seen in a state of sleep. Hence, it is very reasonable to believe that the act of showing the Prophet the Signs of Allah (17:1) was also through a spiritual vision.
In the same Surah, another verse explicitly states that the Prophet (Sallallahu alaihi wasallam) was granted a Ru'yah which generally refers to a vision especially one seen in a state of sleep:
وَمَا جَعَلْنَا الرُّؤْيَا الَّتِي أَرَيْنَاكَ إِلَّا فِتْنَةً لِّلنَّاسِ وَالشَّجَرَةَ الْمَلْعُونَةَ فِي الْقُرْآنِ
And We did not make the Vision which We showed you except as a trial for the people, and (also) the Cursed Tree (as mentioned) in the Qur'an (17:60)
The great Imam of the Salaf, al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110 AH) – may Allah have mercy on his soul – interpreted this verse as not only referring to the Mi'raj of the Prophet (Sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam) but also compared it to the vision that Abraham had sacrificing his son in a dream:
Reference: Tafsir Ibn Jarir; v.14, p.446
Regarding the Mi'raj (ascension of the Prophet into Heaven), the Holy Qur'an states that it was a vision of the heart (and not necessarily a vision of the eyes):
مَا كَذَبَ الْفُؤَادُ مَا رَأَىٰ
The heart [of the Prophet] did not lie about what it saw (Surah 53:11)
This Verse correlates to the saying of the Prophet (Sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam):
يَا عَائِشَةُ ، إِنَّ عَيْنَيَّ تَنَامَانِ , وَلا يَنَامُ قَلْبِي
“O Aa'ishah! Verily my eyes sleep, but my heart does not sleep.” (Hadith)
These being the basic proofs from the Holy Quran concerning the Israa and Mi'raaj being a spiritual and not bodily ascension, let us now move on to the evidence contained in the Hadith.
The narrations concerning the Mi'raaj are present in Bukhari Sharif, the most authentic book after the Holy Quran itself:
عَنْ مَالِكِ بْنِ صَعْصَعَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمَا ، قَالَ : قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ : " بَيْنَا أَنَا عِنْدَ الْبَيْتِ بَيْنَ النَّائِمِ وَالْيَقْظَانِ ، وَذَكَرَ بَيْنَ الرَّجُلَيْنِ فَأُتِيتُ بِطَسْتٍ مِنْ ذَهَبٍ مُلِئَ حِكْمَةً وَإِيمَانًا فَشُقَّ مِنَ النَّحْرِ إِلَى مَرَاقِّ الْبَطْنِ ، ثُمَّ غُسِلَ الْبَطْنُ بِمَاءِ زَمْزَمَ ، ثُمَّ مُلِئَ حِكْمَةً وَإِيمَانًا وَأُتِيتُ بِدَابَّةٍ أَبْيَضَ دُونَ الْبَغْلِ ، وَفَوْقَ الْحِمَارِ الْبُرَاقُ فَانْطَلَقْتُ مَعَ جِبْرِيلَ حَتَّى أَتَيْنَا السَّمَاءَ الدُّنْيَا
Malik b. Sa'sa'ah (may Allah be pleased with them both) said: The Prophet (Sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam) said: While I was beside the House (Ka'bah) in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness, (an angel recognized me) as the man lying between two men. A golden tray full of wisdom and belief was brought to me and my body was cut open from the throat to the lower part of the abdomen and then my abdomen was washed with Zamzam water and (my heart was) filled with wisdom and belief. Al-Buraq, a white animal, smaller than a mule and bigger than a donkey was brought to me and I set out with Gabriel until I reached the nearest Heaven...” (Sahih al-Bukhari; Hadith #3207)
This Hadith explicitly states that the Prophet (Sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam) was in a state between sleep and wakefulness when the Angel came to him, cut open his belly and washed his heart with Zamzam water. This was obviously part of a vision, as the body of the Prophet (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam), from our point of view, remained as it was. This is why the Prophet (Sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam), while recounting this event, began by stating that he was in a state between sleep and wakefulness.
In another narration of Bukhari it is stated:
أَنَسَ بْنَ مَالِكٍ ، يَقُولُ : " لَيْلَةَ أُسْرِيَ بِرَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مِنْ مَسْجِدِ الْكَعْبَةِ أَنَّهُ جَاءَهُ ثَلَاثَةُ نَفَرٍ قَبْلَ أَنْ يُوحَى إِلَيْهِ وَهُوَ نَائِمٌ فِي الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ ، فَقَالَ : أَوَّلُهُمْ أَيُّهُمْ هُوَ ، فَقَالَ : أَوْسَطُهُمْ هُوَ خَيْرُهُمْ ، فَقَالَ : آخِرُهُمْ خُذُوا خَيْرَهُمْ ، فَكَانَتْ تِلْكَ اللَّيْلَةَ فَلَمْ يَرَهُمْ حَتَّى أَتَوْهُ لَيْلَةً أُخْرَى فِيمَا يَرَى قَلْبُهُ ، وَتَنَامُ عَيْنُهُ ، وَلَا يَنَامُ قَلْبُهُ ، وَكَذَلِكَ الْأَنْبِيَاءُ تَنَامُ أَعْيُنُهُمْ وَلَا تَنَامُ قُلُوبُهُمْ ، فَلَمْ يُكَلِّمُوهُ حَتَّى احْتَمَلُوهُ فَوَضَعُوهُ عِنْدَ بِئْرِ زَمْزَمَ ، فَتَوَلَّاهُ مِنْهُمْ جِبْرِيلُ ، فَشَقَّ جِبْرِيلُ مَا بَيْنَ نَحْرِهِ إِلَى لَبَّتِهِ حَتَّى فَرَغَ مِنْ صَدْرِهِ وَجَوْفِهِ ، فَغَسَلَهُ مِنْ مَاءِ زَمْزَمَ بِيَدِهِ حَتَّى أَنْقَى جَوْفَهُ ، ثُمَّ أُتِيَ بِطَسْتٍ مِنْ ذَهَبٍ فِيهِ تَوْرٌ مِنْ ذَهَبٍ مَحْشُوًّا إِيمَانًا وَحِكْمَةً ، فَحَشَا بِهِ صَدْرَهُ وَلَغَادِيدَهُ يَعْنِي عُرُوقَ حَلْقِهِ ثُمَّ أَطْبَقَهُ ، ثُمَّ عَرَجَ بِهِ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ الدُّنْيَا
Narrated Anas b. Malik (Allah be pleased with him): The Night the Messenger of Allah (Sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam) was taken for a journey from the Sacred Mosque (of Makkah) Al-Ka'bah, three (Angels) came to him (in a dream) while he was sleeping in Al-Masjid al-Haram before the Divine Revelation was revealed to him. One of them (Angels) said, “Which of them is he?” The middle (second) angel said, “He is the best of them.” Only that much happened on that night and he did not see them till they came on another night. The Prophet saw them, his eyes were asleep but his heart was not and so is the case with the Prophets: Their eyes sleep while their hearts do not sleep. So those Angels did not talk to him till they carried him and placed him beside the well of Zamzam. From among them Gabriel took charge of him. Gabriel cut open (the part of his body) between his throat and the middle of his chest (heart) and took all the contents out of his chest and abdomen and then washed it with Zamzam water with his own hands till he cleansed the inside of his body, and then a gold tray containing a gold bowl, full of belief and wisdom was brought and then Gabriel stuffed his chest and throat (blood vessels) with it and then closed it (the chest). He then ascended with him to the Heaven of the world...” (Sahih al-Bukhari; Hadith #7517)
This Hadith also explicitly states that the Prophet (Sallallahu alaihi wasallam) was sleeping when the Angel Gabriel came to him, cut open his heart, washed it with Zamzam water, then took him and ascended with him into Heaven. The Prophet's (Sallallahu alaihi wasallam) eyes were asleeping though his heart was awake, as the hearts of the Prophets never sleep. This is a long Hadith which then goes on to describe the details of the event of the Mi'raj, but it concludes with the following words:
قَالَ : فَاهْبِطْ بِاسْمِ اللَّهِ ، قَالَ : وَاسْتَيْقَظَ وَهُوَ فِي مَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ
Gabriel said (to the Prophet): “Descend, with the Name of Allah”. The Prophet (Sallallahu alaihi wasallam) then woke up and he was in the Sacred Mosque. (ibid)
The concluding words of the Hadith are self-evident that the Prophet (Sallallahu alaihi wasallam) experienced the vision of Mi'raj while in a state of sleep (while his heart was awake), but at the time of descent, he was instructed to take the Name of Allah and his eyes awoke and he saw that he was in the Sacred Mosque. These are the concluding words of a Vision and disprove the idea that the Prophet (Sallallahu alaihi wasallam) ascended into Heaven with his earthly body.
Apart from the Hadith of Bukhari Sharif, there are also the statements of eminent Companions who were of the belief that the Israa and Mi'raj of the Prophet (Sallallahu alaihi wasallam) was a spiritual ascension and not bodily:
أَنَّ عَائِشَةَ كَانَتْ تَقُولُ : مَا فُقِدَ جَسَدُ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ، وَلَكِنَّ اللَّهَ أَسْرَى بِرُوحِهِ
The mother of believers, Aa'ishah (Allah be pleased with her) used to say: “It wasn't the body of Allah's Messenger Sallallahu alaihi wasallam, but his soul which Allah took on the Night of Israa.”
أَنَّ مُعَاوِيَةَ بْنَ أَبِي سُفْيَانَ ، كَانَ إِذَا سُئِلَ عَنْ مَسْرَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ، قَالَ : " كَانَتْ رُؤْيَا مِنَ اللَّهِ صَادِقَةٌ
Amir Mu'awiyah (Allah be pleased with him) when asked about the Israa (Night Journey) of Allah's Messenger (Sallallahu alaihi wasallam) said: “It was a True Vision from Allah.”
In Sha Allah, I shall present more evidence and arguments in future entries of this Blog which prove that both the Israa and Mi'raaj were a spiritual ascension and not bodily/physical.