Isrā and Mi’rāj

1. Isrā and Mi’rāj

The Isrā and Mi’rāj (al-Isrā wal-Mi‘rāj) are the 2 parts of a Night Journey that, according to Islam, Muhammad () took during a single night around the year 621 CE.

It has been described as both a physical and spiritual journey.

A brief sketch of the story is in surah al-Isrā of the Quran, and other details come from the hadith, which are collections of the reports, teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammad ().

In the Isrā, Muhammad () travelled on the steed Burāq to "the farthest mosque".

Traditionally, later Muslims identified the mosque as a location in the physical world, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

At the mosque, Muhammad () led other prophets in prayer. He then ascended to the Heavens in the Mi’rāj. The remembrance of this journey is one of the most significant events in the Islamic calendar.

2. Islamic sources

The events of Isrā and Mi’rāj are referred to briefly in the Qur'an.

For greater detail, they have been discussed in Hadith literature, reported sayings of the prophet which supplement the Qur'an.

Of the hadith, 2 of the best known are by Anas ibn Mālik, who would have been a young boy at the time of Muhammad ()'s journey of Mi’rāj. Ibn Abbas is another source that challenges the usual description of the Mi’rāj. He was also a young boy at the time of the journey.

3. The Qur’an

Within the Quran itself, surah al-Isrā, the 17th chapter:

In it, the 1st verse briefly describes the Isrā. There is also some information in a later verse and another surah, an-Najm, which some scholars say is related to the Isrā and Mi’rāj.

Glory to Him who journeyed His servant by night, from the Sacred Mosque, to the Farthest Mosque, whose precincts We have blessed, in order to show him of Our wonders. He is the Listener, the Beholder. /Quran 17:1/

We said to you that your Lord encompasses humanity. We did not make the vision We showed you, except as a test for the people, and the tree cursed in the Quran. We frighten them, but that only increases their defiance. /Quran 17:60/

He saw him on another descent.
At the Lote Tree of the Extremity.
Near which is the Garden of Repose.
As there covered the Lote Tree what covered it.
The sight did not waver, nor did it exceed.
He saw some of the Great Signs of his Lord.

/Quran 53:13–18/

4. Masjid al-Aqsa

Thought to be referred to in the Quran as "The farthest mosque", al-Aqsa is considered the 3rd holiest Islamic site, after Mecca and Medina.

The place referred to in the Quran as "the Farthest Masjid" (Arabic: al-Masjid al-Aqsa), from surah al-Isrā, has been historically considered as referring to the site of the modern-day al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem interpretation was advanced by the earliest biographer of Muhammad () (ca. 570 - 632) – Ibn Isḥāq (ca. 704- 770) – and is supported by numerous hadiths.

The building of the Masjid in Jerusalem was not present during Muhammad ()'s lifetime,

and the term used for mosque (masjid) literally means "Place of prostration," and includes monotheistic places of worship,

but does not lend itself exclusively to physical structures but a location, as Muhammad () stated "The earth has been made for me (and for my followers) a place for praying."

Therefore, the phrase "Masjid al-Aqsa" means that there was a place, but not necessarily a building, where Muhammad () prostrated to God or worshipped Him, in the "Blessed Region."

When the Rashid caliph Umar conquered Jerusalem after Muhammad ()'s death, a prayer house was rebuilt on the site. The structure was expanded by the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Mālik ibn Marwan and finished by his son al-Walid I in 705.

The building was repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt, until the reconstruction in 1033 CE, by the Fatimid caliph Alī az-Zāhir (1005-1036), and that version of the structure is what can be seen in the present day.

Islamic scholars believe that Jerusalem is the originally intended interpretation of the Qur’an.

Muslims used to pray towards Jerusalem, but according to the following verses of their Quran, God changed this direction, the Qiblah, to instead direct to al-Masjid al-Haram:

We have made you [believers] into a just community, so that you may bear witness [to the truth] before others and so that the Messenger may bear witness [to it] before you.

We only made the direction the one you used to face [Prophet] in order to distinguish those who follow the Messenger from those who turn on their heels: that test was hard, except for those God has guided.

God would never let your faith go to waste [believers], for God is most compassionate and most merciful towards people.

Many a time We have seen you [Prophet] turn your face towards Heaven, so We are turning you towards a prayer direction that pleases you.

Turn your face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque:

wherever you [believers] may be, turn your faces to it. Those who were given the Scripture know with certainty that this is the Truth from their Lord: God is not unaware of what they do.

/— Quran, Chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah) verse 143-144/

5. Hadith

From various hadiths we learn much greater detail:

The Isrā is the part of the journey of Muhammad () from Mecca to Jerusalem.

It began when Muhammad () was in the Great Mosque, and the ArchAngel Jibrā’īl (Gabriel) came to him, and brought Burāq, the traditional Heavenly steed of the prophets.

Burāq carried Muhammad () to al-Aqsa Mosque, the "Farthest Mosque", in Jerusalem.

Muhammad () alighted, tethered Burāq to the Temple Mount and performed prayer, where on God's command he was tested by Gabriel. It was told by Anas ibn Mālik that Muhammad () said:

"Jibrā’īl brought me a vessel of wine, a vessel of water and a vessel of milk, and I chose the milk.

Jibrā’īl said: “You have chosen the Fitrah (natural instinct).”

In the second part of the journey, the Mi’rāj (an Arabic word that literally means "ladder"), Jibrā’īl took him to the Heavens, where he toured the 7 stages of Heaven,

and spoke with the earlier prophets such as Abraham (Ibrāhīm), Moses (Musa), John the Baptist (Yahya ibn Zakarīyā), and Jesus (Isa).

Muhammad () was then taken to Sidrat al-Muntaha – a holy tree in the 7th Heaven that Gabriel was not allowed to pass.

According to Islamic tradition, God instructed Muhammad () that Muslims must pray 50 times per day;

however, Moses told Muhammad () that it was very difficult for the people and urged Muhammad () to ask for a reduction, until finally it was reduced to 5 times per day.

6. The Mi’rāj

There are different accounts of what occurred during the Mi’rāj, but most narratives have the same elements:

Muhammad () ascended into Heaven with the Angel Gabriel and met a different prophet at each of the 7 levels of Heaven;

first Adam, then John the Baptist and Jesus, then Joseph, then Idrīs, then Aaron, then Moses, and lastly Abraham.

After Muhammad () meets with Abraham, he continues on to meet God without Gabriel.

God tells Muhammad () that his people must pray 50 times a day, but as Muhammad () descends back to Earth, he meets Moses who tells Muhammad () to go back to God and ask for fewer prayers because 50 is too many.

Muhammad () goes between Moses and God 9 times, until the prayers are reduced to the 5 daily prayers, which God will reward 10-fold.

That again, Moses told Muhammad () to ask for even lesser but Muhammad () felt ashamed and said that even with lesser prayer times, his followers might not even perform diligently and said he is thankful for the 5.

Al-Tabarī is a classic and authentic source for Islamic research. His description of the Mi’rāj is just as simplified as the description given above, which is where other narratives and hadiths of the Mi’rāj stem from, as well as word of mouth.

While this is the simplest description of the Mi’rāj, others include more details about the prophets that Muhammad () meets:

In accounts written by Muslim, Bukhārī, Ibn Isḥāq, Ahmad ibn Hanbal and others, physical descriptions of the prophets are given.

Adam is described first as being Muhammad ()’s father, which establishes a link between them as first and last prophets. Physical descriptions of Adam show him as tall and handsome with long hair.

Idrīs, who is not mentioned as much as the other prophets Muhammad () meets, is described as someone who was raised to a higher status by God.

Joseph is described as the most beautiful man who is like the moon. His presence in the Mi’rāj is to show his popularity and how it relates to Muhammad ()’s.

Aaron is described as Muhammad ()’s brother who is older and one of the most beautiful men that Muhammad () had met. Again, the love for Aaron by his people relates to Muhammad () and his people.

Abraham is described with likeness to Muhammad () in ways that illustrate him to be Muhammad ()’s father.

Jesus is usually linked to John the Baptist, who is not mentioned much. The physical descriptions of Jesus vary, but he is said to be tall with long hair and either red or white skin.

Moses is different than the other prophets that Muhammad () meets in that Moses stands as a point of difference rather than similarities.

Some narratives also record events that preceded the Heavenly Ascent:

Some scholars believe that the opening of Muhammad ()’s chest was a cleansing ritual that purified Muhammad () before he ascended into Heaven.

Muhammad ()’s chest was opened up and water of Zamzam was poured on his heart giving him wisdom, belief, and other necessary characteristics to help him in his ascent. This purification is also seen in the trial of the drinks.

It is debated when it took place—before or after the ascent—but either way it plays an important role in determining Muhammad ()’s spiritual righteousness.

7. Ibn Abbas Primitive Version

Ibn Abbas Primitive Version narrates all that Muhammad () encounters throughout his journey through Heaven. This includes seeing other Angels, and seas of light, darkness, and fire.

With Gabriel as his companion, Muhammad () meets 4 key Angels as he travels through the Heavens. These Angels are:

1.  the Rooster Angel
(whose call influences all earthly roosters),

2. Half-Fire Half-Snow Angel
(who provides an example of God’s power to bring fire and ice in harmony),

3. the Angel of Death
(who describes the process of death and the sorting of souls), and

4. the Guardian of Hellfire
(who shows Muhammad () what hell looks like).

These 4 Angels are met in the beginning of Ibn Abbas narrative.

They are mentioned in other accounts of Muhammad ()’s ascension, but they are not talked about with as much detail as Ibn Abbas provides.

As the narrative continues, Ibn Abbas focuses mostly on the Angels that Muhammad () meets rather than the Prophets:

There are rows of Angels that Muhammad () encounters throughout Heaven, and he even meets certain deeply devoted Angels called cherubim. These Angels instil fear in Muhammad (), but he later sees them as God’s creation, and therefore not harmful.

Other important details that Ibn Abbas adds to the narrative are the Heavenly Host Debate, the Final Verses of the Cow Chapter, and the Favour of the Prophets. These important topics help to outline the greater detail that Ibn Abbas uses in his Primitive Version.

Some debates that Ibn Abbas narrative brings about have to do with his description of Muhammad ()’s encounter with God:

Ibn Abbas illustrates God as a human who touches and speaks to Muhammad () as a human would. This is seen as an abomination and thus takes away Ibn Abbas’s authenticity.

In an attempt to re-establish Ibn Abbas as authentic, it seems as though a translator added the descent of Muhammad () and the meeting with the prophets.

The narrative only briefly states the encounters with the prophets, and does so in a way that is in chronological order rather than the normal order usually seen in ascension narratives.

Ibn Abbas may have left out the meeting of the prophets and the encounter with Moses that led to the reduction of daily prayers because those events were already written elsewhere.

Whether he included that in his original narrative or if it was added by a later translator is unknown, but often a point of contention when discussing Ibn Abbas’s Primitive Version.

8. Modern observance

The Lailat al-Mi’rāj, also known as Shab-e-Mi’rāj in Iran, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh is the Muslim holiday celebrating the Isrā and Mi’rāj.

Some Muslims celebrate this event by offering optional prayers during this night, and in some Muslim countries, by illuminating cities with electric lights and candles.

The celebrations around this day tend to focus on every Muslim who wants to celebrate it. Worshippers gather into mosques and perform prayer and supplication.

Some people may pass their knowledge on to others by telling them the story on how Muhammad ()'s heart was purified by the archangel Gabriel, who filled him with knowledge and faith in preparation to enter the 7 levels of Heaven.

After Salāh, food and treats are served.

Al-Aqsa Mosque marks the place from which Muhammad () is believed to have ascended to Heaven.

The exact date of the Journey is not clear, but is celebrated as though it took place before the Hegira and after Muhammad ()'s visit to the people of Tā'if.

It is considered by some to have happened just over a year before the Hijrah, on the 27th of Rajab; but this date is not always recognized. This date would correspond to the Julian date of February 26, 621, or, if from the previous year, March 8, 620.

The al-Aqsa Mosque and surrounding area, marks the place from which Muhammad () is believed to have ascended to Heaven, is the 3rd-holiest place on earth for Muslims.

Many sects and offshoots belonging to Islamic mysticism interpret Muhammad ()'s night ascent – the Isrā and Mi’rāj – to be an out-of-body experience through non-physical environments, unlike the Sunni Muslims or mainstream Islam:

The mystics claim Muhammad () was transported to Jerusalem and onward to the Seven Heavens, even though "the apostle's body remained where it was."

Esoteric interpretations of the Quran emphasise the spiritual significance of Mi’rāj, seeing it as a symbol of the soul's journey and the potential of humans to rise above the comforts of material life through prayer, piety and discipline.