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Archive for April, 2022

“The prayer (al-ṣalāt) is the ascension (miʿrāj) of the believer.”

There was a night unlike any other night in the last 2000 thousands years. The night that the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace upon him and his family, journeyed through the heavens and earth. It is known as “The Night Journey and the Ascension (al-isrā wa’l-miʿrāj).”

In the month of Ramadan, when we are focused on our prayers (al-ṣalāt), we are constantly putting ourselves in touch with this special night. This was the night the 5 daily prayers of the Muslims was made obligatory. But it was more than that. It was the moment when the veil was lifted for one of us so that they could see everything we cannot.

Our daily lives in this world sometimes lead us to feel that this Earth is all there really is for us, and that the best we can hope for in the future is Elon Musk’s rhetoric about Mars. But someone has already gone far further. Ayatollah Ja’far Subhani has captured this eloquently in his book on the prophetic biography (sīrah) and I recreate it here (with various edits) for our reflection.

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The darkness of night had spread in the horizon and silence reigned over the face of nature. The time had arrived when the living creatures take rest and sleep so that they might recuperate for their activities on the following day. The Prophet was also not an exception to this law of nature and he wished to take rest after offering his prayers. However, he suddenly heard a voice. It was the voice of the Archangel Jibreel who said to him: “This night you have to perform a very unique journey and I have been ordered to remain with you. You will have to traverse different parts of the world mounted on an animal named ‘Buraq’.”

The Prophet commenced his grand journey from the house of Umm Hani (sister of the Commander of the Faithful) and mounted on Buraq proceeded to Baytul Maqdis, situated in Jerusalem, which is also called Masjidul Aqsa. After a very short time he dismounted there and visited different parts of the mosque as well as Bethlehem which is the birth place of ‘Isa and also saw various other places associated with different Prophets. At some of these places he also performed two rak’ats of prayers.

Thereafter he commenced the second part of his journey and proceeded from that place to the skies. He then observed the stars and the system of the world and conversed with the souls of the previous Prophets and also with the angels of the heavens. He saw the centers of blessing and torture (Paradise and Hell) and also saw the places of the dwellers of Hell and Paradise from close quarters, and consequently became fully aware of the secrets of creation, the extent of the Universe and the signs of the Omnipotent.

Then he continued his journey and reached ‘Sidratul-Muntaha’ (the Lote Tree of the Utmost Boundary) and found it fully covered with splendour, magnificence and grandeur. At this time his journey came to an end he returned through the way he had gone. During his return journey also he first came to Baytul Maqdis and then proceeded to Makkah. On the way he met a trading caravan of Quraysh who had lost a camel and were making a search for it. He drank some water from a container of theirs and threw the remainder on the ground and according to another narrative placed a cover on it.

It was before daybreak when he dismounted in the house of Umme Hani from the animal which had taken him to the heavens. She was the first person to whom he related this matter and on the day following that night he made it known to the assemblies of Quraysh as well. The story of his ‘ascension’ and grand journey which was considered by Quraysh to be something impossible spread from mouth to mouth in all centres and made the chiefs of Quraysh all the more perplexed.

According to their old habit Quraysh decided to refute him and said: “Even now there are some persons in Makkah who have seen Baytul Maqdis. If what you say is correct then give an account of its structure”. The Prophet not only described the structure of Baytul Maqdis but also mentioned the incidents which had occurred between Makkah and Baytul Maqdis and said: “On my way I met the caravan of such and such tribe who had lost a camel. They had a container full of water which was a part of their equipment. I drank some water from it and then covered it. At another place I met a group of persons whose camel had run away and had broken its leg”. Quraysh said: “Tell us about the caravan of Quraysh”. The Prophet replied: “I saw them at Tan’im (a place from where the ‘Haram’ commences). A brown camel was going ahead of them and they had placed a litter on it and are now entering Makkah”. Quraysh became very much excited on account of these definite news and said: “We shall now come to know about your truth or falsehood”. However, it was not long before Abu Sufyan, the leader of the caravan, appeared and people made known to him in detail what the Prophet had said.

The above account is a gist of what has been stated in the books of exegeses and traditions.

The event of the miʿrāj of the Prophet in the heavens has been mentioned clearly in two surahs of the Qur’an and has also been alluded to in other surahs. We give here briefly the verses which clearly make a mention of the miʿrāj. In Surah al-lsra’ it has been said: “Glory be to Him Who made His servant go by night from Masjidul Haram to Masjidul Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs. He alone hears all and observes all.”

سُبْحَنَ ٱلَّذِىٓ أَسْرَىٰ بِعَبْدِهِۦ لَيْلًۭا مِّنَ ٱلْمَسْجِدِ ٱلْحَرَامِ إِلَى ٱلْمَسْجِدِ ٱلْأَقْصَا ٱلَّذِى بَرَكْنَا حَوْلَهُۥ لِنُرِيَهُۥ مِنْ ءَايَتِنَآ ۚ إِنَّهُۥ هُوَ ٱلسَّمِيعُ ٱلْبَصِيرُ

This verse apparently mentions the following points:

1. In order to tell us that the Prophet travelled through these worlds in a short time, not with human strength but through Divine strength, the Almighty commences His statement with “Glory be to Him!” which points to the fact that Allah is free from all defects and needs. He has also not contented Himself with this and has introduced Himself as the Agent of the journey by saying ‘Asra’ (Allah made him perform the journey). This favour was bestowed upon him so that the people might not think that the journey was performed according to natural laws and with usual means, and might, therefore deny its possibility. It has therefore, been clarified that it was undertaken through Divine Will and special favour of the Allmighty.

2. This journey was undertaken at night.

3. Notwithstanding the fact that this journey commenced from the house of Umme Hani, daughter of Abu Talib, the Allmighty has mentioned its starting place to be Masjidul Haram. This is perhaps due to the fact that the Arabs consider all of Makkah to be the House of Allah and as such all its places are treated to be ‘Masjid’ and ‘Haram.’ Hence, Allah’s saying that: “He made him journey from Masjidul Haram” is perfectly in order. According to some narratives, however, the journey started from Masjidul Haram itself.

4. The Prophet performed the journey with his body and soul together and not with his soul only. The words ‘to His servant’ bear testimony to this, because the word ‘servant’ applies to ‘body with soul’. In case the miʿrāj had been only spiritual the proper words to be used would have been ‘to His servant’s soul.’

5. The object of this grand journey was to make known to the Prophet the various aspects of the existence of the great Universe. We shall elaborate this point later.

The other surah which clearly mentions the event of is ‘Surah al-Najm’ and the verses which you will read below were revealed in this connection. When the Prophet told the Quraysh that he had physically seen the Archangel Jibreel, when he brought the first revelation, they disputed with him. The Holy Qur’an replies thus to their objection: “Why do you contend with the Prophet about his having seen Jibreel? He beheld him once again near Sidratul Muntaha which is in the proximity of Paradise, which is the abode of good ones. It was when Sidratul Muntaha was covered with grandeur. His eyes did not wander, nor did they turn aside, for he saw some of his Lord’s greatest signs”.

The exegetes and the traditionalists have quoted many things about the miʿrāj and the things observed by the Prophet but all of them are not final and indisputable. The great Shi’ah commentator and expert Qur’anic exegete, the late Allamah Tabrasi, has divided these narratives into four groups:

1. One group of the narratives is final and indisputable, for example, the fact of the miʿrāj and some of its particulars.

2. The reports which have been quoted in a correct manner but have not reached the stage of finality, although they conform to the principles and verdict of wisdom, for example, survey of Paradise and Hell, journey in the skies and conversation with the souls of the Prophets.

3. The reports which are not apparently acceptable but are capable of interpretation, for example, the Prophet’s conversation during the night with the dwellers of Paradise and Hell which can be explained away by saying that he observed their phantoms, figures and qualities.

4. Exaggerated reports coined and circulated by the liars. For example, it is said at times that the Prophet sat that night with the Almighty or that he heard the sound of His pen.

Though it was appropriate that this grand event should have been properly recorded in all respects, yet, for some reasons, differences have risen about it and one of them is about the date of its occurrence. Two great historians of Islam (Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Hisham) say that this event occurred in the tenth year of the Prophet’s prophethood. The renowned historian Bayhaqi believes that it took place in the twelfth year of his prophethood. Some say that it occurred in the early days of his prophetic mission, whereas others say that the time of its occurrence was the middle period of the prophethood. And at times, in order to add up all these statements, it has been said that the miʿrāj of the Prophet took place more than once. However, we are of the view that the miʿrāj in which daily prayers were made compulsory took place after the death of Abu Talib which occurred in the tenth year of the prophethood of the Prophet.

We conclude this, because it is one of the established facts of history and tradition that during the night of miʿrāj the Allmighty ordered that the Prophet’s followers should offer prayers five times a day and it is also learnt from history that prayers had not been made obligatory till the death of Abu Talib, because when he was on his deathbed the chiefs of Quraysh approached him to settle the dispute between them and his nephew and to prevent him from his activities and to take whatever he wanted as a recompense for it. The Prophet who was present there addressed the chiefs thus: “I don’t want anything from you except that you should confirm that there is no god but Allah and give up worshipping the idols”. He uttered these words and did not at all mention ‘salat’ (prayers) or other articles of faith. This in itself shows that prayers had not been made obligatory till then, for, otherwise, mere declaration of faith devoid of a compulsory action like prayers would have been useless. And as regards the fact that he did not mention his own prophethood, it was because witnessing of monotheism implicitly means confirming of his prophethood...

Those who think that the miʿrāj took place earlier than the tenth year of the prophethood of the Prophet are very much mistaken, because from the eighth up to the tenth year he was economically boycotted and sought refuge in the ‘Valley of Abu Talib’ and the pitiable condition of the Muslims did not make it expedient that they should have been subjected to an additional responsibility like ‘prayers‘…

The quality of the miʿrāj of the Prophet has been a subject of discussion for long and much has been said about its being physical or spiritual, although the Qur’an and the traditions clearly state that it was physical. However, some scientific notions have prevented a group of persons from accepting this reality. Consequently they have resorted to their own interpretations and considered the miʿrāj of the Prophet to be purely spiritual and have said that only his spirit travelled through all the worlds and then returned to his sacred body. Some have gone a step further and say that all these events were a vision and the Prophet saw different places and travelled through them in a dream. The statement of the last group is so distant from logic and reality that it should not at all be considered as a part of the traditions and opinions relating to the miʿrāj. The reason for this is that when Quraysh heard that Muhammad had claimed that he had travelled through all these places during a night they became very uneasy and got up seriously to give him the lie, so much so that this event became the subject of discussion in all the assemblies of Quraysh. In the case that his traveling through these worlds had been only a vision there was no point in Quraysh rising up to refute him and to create all the tumult. This is so because if a person says that one night, while asleep, he has dreamt this and that it cannot become an object of dispute and strife, for a dream is after all a dream and many impossible things can be seen in it…

Spiritual miʿrāj means meditation about the things created by the Almighty and observation of His Grandeur and Beauty and absorption in thoughts about Him and glorifying His name and eventual freedom from material ties and worldly interests and crossing through all possibilities and entering into internal and non-material stages. And after going through all this process a special proximity to Allah is acquired, and it is not possible to define it. If spiritual miʿrāj means meditation about the Grandeur of the Almighty and the extent of the creation, such a miʿrāj is undoubtedly not peculiar to the Prophet of Islam as many Prophets and other enlightened and pure-hearted persons have also enjoyed this position, whereas the Qurtan mentions his miʿrāj as something peculiar to him and an extraordinary distinction for him. Furthermore, the Prophet had been in the aforesaid condition during many nights whereas the miʿrāj has been proved to be related to a particular night...

If the scholars of the past have said something on account of their belief in ancient astronomy, they can be excused and are not much to blame, but it is not proper for us, during the present times, to ignore the Qur’anic realities on account of a hypothesis which has been refuted by contemporary science. Some of those interested in natural sciences, who are anxious to fix a natural cause for every event and a physical agent, for every phenomenon, have chosen to deny the very basis of the miʿrāj and think that modern natural and scientific laws do not confirm to the miʿrāj of the Prophet…

But the Prophet of Islam went on the miʿrāj with the blessing of Allah to Whom the entire creation belongs and Who is the Creator of this wonderful system. It is He who has given gravity to the earth and cosmic rays to the sun, and has created different layers in the atmosphere. And He can take these things back and control them whenever He likes. In the event that the historical journey of the Prophet was accomplished under the command of Allah all these laws decidedly surrender before His absolute Will and are in the grip of His power every moment. In these circumstances, what difficulty should there be if the Lord who has given gravity to the earth and cosmic rays to the heavenly bodies should take His chosen servant out of the centre of gravity with His unlimited power and without any apparent means? Allah who has created oxygen can certainly create air for His chosen Prophet in the areas where air does not exist.

The efficacy of a miracle is basically different from that of the natural causes and the strength of man. We should not consider the strength of Allah limited like our own. If we cannot perform a job without means we should not say that the Omnipotent cannot also perform it. From the point of view of difficulty and its solution the bringing to life of the dead, the transformation of a rod into a snake, and keeping Prophet Yunus alive in the belly of a fish in the depth of the sea, the events which have been confirmed by the Heavenly Books and have been narrated for us, are not unlike the miʿrāj of the Prophet of Islam. In short all the natural causes and external impediments are controlled and conquered by the Will of Allah. His Will does not concern only that which is an impossibility, but besides that He can do whatever He likes, whether or not man possesses strength for it or not…

A person asked the fourth Imam: “Is there a particular place for Allah?” He replied: “No”. The man said: “Then why did He make His Prophet journey through the skies?” The Holy Imam replied: “He made him ascend so that he might become aware of the expanse of the Universe and see and hear wonderful things, the like of which had not been seen and heard by the eyes and ears before.”

It is no doubt necessary that the last Prophet should enjoy such a position that he should rely on this vast information and should be able to send a message to the people of the 21st century, who are still thinking of traveling to Mars, that he did this journey without any means and his Creator was kind to him and made him fully aware of the system of creation.

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