Meraaj or Ascension

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Physical Journey or Mystical Experiment?

By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

Some even argue that Asra refers to ‘journey by night’ and not bodily lifting as the same term has been used at two more places in the Holy Quran to refer to Prophet Moses’ leaving Egypt with his bondsmen to escape Firaun’s persecution. .

Several companions of the Holy Prophet, including his wife Ayesha were convinced that it was a spiritual experiment, not a physical journey.

Come Rajab, the seventh month of the Islamic calendar, there will be celebration of Shab e Meraaj or the night of Ascension. A non-Quranic belief has gained ground among Muslims that the Holy Prophet made a physical journey to the Heavens (skies) at the behest of Allah subhanahu wa taala. Several hadith are quoted in this context. The narrative has been woven around with myths and legends to develop into a story which does not seem to be in sync with rational teachings of Islam. Much of these do not stand to reason.
It appears a lot of these myths bear the stamp of Israelite traditions which distorted the teachings of the Divine books that were revealed prior to Islam. It will be pertinent to refer to the verse of the Quran in this context. The verse that alludes to the experience of Ascension or Meraaj is the first verse of Surah Bani Israil (alternatively known as Surah Asra too). Here are some translations:
Abdullah Yusuf Ali translates it thus in his Translation and Commentary on The Holy Quran:
Glory be to Him who transported His bondsman by night from the Sacred Masjid to the Remote Masjid whose precincts We have blessed, so that We might show him some of Our signs! Surely! He is all-hearing, all-seeing.
Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall has the following to say in his The Glorious Quran:
Glorified be He who carried His servant by night from the Inviolable Place of worship to the Far Distant Place of Worship, the neighbourhood whereof We have blessed, that We might show him of Our tokens! Lo! He only He is the Hearer, the Seer.
Muhammad Asad in his The Message of the Quran :
Limitless in His glory is He who transported His servant by night from the Inviolable House of Worship (at Mecca) to the Remote House of Worship (at Jerusalem)””the environs of which We have blessed””so that We might show him some of Our symbols: for, verily, He alone is all-hearing, all-seeing.
Physical Journey or Mystic Experiment
The accounts that are generally related to the Quran and conveyed to the audiences stress the point that it was a physical journey in two stages from Masjidul Haram in Makkah to Masjid Aqsa on burraq (an animal known as Centaur in Greek mythology) in Jerusalem and ascension to the heavens from there. But the verse actually refers to the Distant Mosque (Aqsa means distant in Arabic) and not the specific one which exists by name Masjid ul Aqsa in today’s Jerusalem. It is useful to be reminded that the Masjid ul Aqsa that stands in Jerusalem today did not exist in the Prophet’s time. The Heikal e Sulaimani constructed by Prophet Hazrat Sulaiman, peace be upon him, had been demolished by Byzantine King Titus in 70 AD. When the second caliph Hazrat Umar entered Jerusalem upon conquest by Muslim armies, he prayed at an open place and refused the offer by the priest of the Holy Sepulcher, lest Muslims lay claim to the Sepulcher under the excuse of its sanctity. It was only during the Umayyad caliph Malik bin Marwan that Masjid Aqsa was first constructed in 691 AD. Therefore there is no question of Aqsa referring to Masjid ul Aqsa which was to come up in future.
In view of these historical facts most English translators have opted for the term ‘Distant Mosque’, not necessarily the one in Jerusalem. Translators like Yusuf Ali further explain the Isra as ‘nightly journey’ as not a physical transportation but a vision. Yusuf Ali says in his commentary: “Glory be to Him, Who transported His bondsman (i.e., Muhammad) by night (of Miraj in a vision, while he was in the state of slumber) from the Sacred Mosque (of Makkah) to the Remote Masjid (of Jerusalem).
Muhammad Asad has taken a very clear stand on Miraj being a mystic experiment rather than a physical journey. He says the Prophet himself did not leave any clear-cut explanation of this experience and even the Prophet’s companions have widely differed as to its true nature. He however endorses that a great majority of companions believed that both the Night Journey and the Ascension (lifting to the heavens) were physical experiences, while a minority is convinced that the experience was purely spiritual. Among the latter is Prophet’s wife Hazrath Ayesha, who declared emphatically that “he was transported only in spirit (bi-ruhhi), while his body did not leave its place (cf. Tabari, Zamakhshri and Ibne kathir in their commentaries). He further says that Hassan al-Basri, who belonged to the next generation, held uncompromisingly to the same view.
Several of the accounts pertaining to Miraj in Hadith sound apocryphal. For instance, the Hadith in Sahih Bukhari (no. 339) mentions that angel Jibraiel entered the house of the Prophet as the roof of the house of the Prophet ripped itself apart. He then opened His breast, washed it with water of Zamzam, filled it with faith and wisdom from a platter of gold and then closed it. Canada based author Shabbir Ahmed comments that if faith and wisdom were surgically poured into the chest of the exalted Prophet, peace be upon him, does not he cease to be a model for humanity? He says Asra refers to night journey and Surah Bani Israel in all probability refers to beginning of the Messenger of Allah’s migration from Makkah to Madinah by night. He says Asra (night journey) should not be confused with Meraaj (Ascension). The Quran uses the same term Asra at two more places to refer to night journey of Prophet Moses in Surah Shuraa, {And We inspired to Moses, “Travel by night with My servants; indeed, you will be pursued. 26: 52} and Surah Taha {And We indeed revealed to Musa, saying “Walk away by night with My bondsmen, then strike a dry path for them in the sea, do not apprehend being captured, and do not fear. 20: 77). Ahmed’s guess is that the ‘Distant Mosque’ referred to in the Surah Bani Israel points to the place in Madinah where regular congregational prayers were being held prior to the Holy Prophet’s advent into the city. He rejects the bodily Ascension as being a Biblical theme, and having nothing to do with the Quran.
Detailed accounts in Hadith also speak of the Prophet visiting people in hell and heaven undergoing punishment and enjoying the rewards of their deeds. It could not have been a real physical experiment as one could easily question as to how some people could be rewarded or punished prior to the Day of Judgment (Qiyamah) happening? Unless it was a mystical experiment, it will not meet the ends of justice if individuals are punished or rewarded by Allah before the definite deadline about which the Quran is so elaborate.