The Prophet liked to go to the Ka`bah enclosure at night. He would stand there in prayer for long hours. One evening, he suddenly felt deeply tired and in great need of sleep. He therefore lay down near the Ka`bah and fell asleep.
Muhammad (peace be upon him) has related that the Angel Gabriel then came to him. Gabriel shook him twice to awaken him, but Muhammad slept on; the third time the angel shook him, Muhammad awoke, and Gabriel took him to the doors of the mosque, where a white animal looking something like a cross between a mule and a donkey, but with wings) was waiting for them. He mounted the animal, which was called Al-Buraq, and started with Gabriel toward Jerusalem.
There Muhammad met a group of prophets who had preceded him (Abraham, Moses, and others, peace be upon them), and he led a group prayer with them on the Temple site. When the prayer was over, the Prophet was raised with the Angel Gabriel beyond space and time.
On his way, rising through the seven heavens, he again met the various prophets, and his vision of the heavens and of the beauty of those horizons permeated his being.
He at last reached Sidrat Al-Muntaha (the Lotus of the Utmost Boundary). This was where the Prophet received the injunction of the five daily prayers and revelation of the verse that established the `aqeedah (elements of the Muslim creed). (There were initially to be fifty prayers, but the number was reduced to five after successive requests from the Prophet acting on Moses’ advice.)
The Messenger believes in that which has been revealed unto him from his Lord and (so do) believers. Each one believes in Allah and His angels and His scriptures and His messengers – We make no distinction between any of His messengers – and they say: “We hear, and we obey. (Grant us) Thy forgiveness, our Lord. Unto Thee is the journeying”. (Al-Baqarah 2:285)
Muhammad was taken back to Jerusalem by the Angel Gabriel and Al-Buraq, and from there to Makkah. On the way back, he came upon some caravans that were also traveling to Makkah. It was still night when they reached the Ka`bah enclosure.
The angel and Al-Buraq left, and Muhammad proceeded to the home of Um Hani, one of his most trusted Companions. He gave her an account of what had happened to him, and she advised him not to tell anybody about it, which Muhammad refused to do.
The Qur’an Tells the Story
Later on, the Qur’an was to report this experience in different passages. One is in the Surah whose title, Al-Israa’ ( the Nocturnal Voyage), directly refers to the event:
Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless,- in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who hears and sees (all things). (Al-Israa’ 17:1)
It is also in Surat An-Najm (The Star):
It is no less than inspiration sent down to him: He was taught by one Mighty in Power, endued with wisdom: for he appeared (in stately form); while he was in the highest part of the horizon. Then he approached and came closer, and was at a distance of but two bow-lengths or (even) nearer. So did (Allah) convey the inspiration to His Servant- (conveyed) what He (meant) to convey. The (Prophet’s) (mind and) heart in no way falsified that which he saw. Will you then dispute with him concerning what he saw? For indeed he saw him at a second descent, near the Lote-tree beyond which none may pass. Near it is the Garden of Abode. Behold, the Lote-tree was shrouded (in mystery unspeakable!) (His) sight never swerved, nor did it go wrong! For truly did he see, of the signs of his Lord, the Greatest! (An-Najm 53:4-18)
The Night Journey and ascension were to give rise to many comments, both when the Prophet recounted the facts and later among Muslim scholars. When Muhammad went to the Ka`bah and reported his experience, jeers, sniggers and criticisms quickly followed.
The Quraysh believed that at last they had proof that the so-called prophet was indeed mad, since he dared claim that in one night he had made a journey to Jerusalem (which in itself required several weeks) and that he had, furthermore, been raised to the presence of his One God. His madness was obvious.
To be continued…
The article is an excerpt from the author’s book In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad, Oxford University Press (2007).