The entire message of Islam, both textually as well as in subject matter, is divine in origin and essence. Its unique and all-embracing quality connects all physical and material realities of the diverse cosmos to one single eternal and absolute reality- the God. Islam entails an appreciated dialogue between dhal (shadow viz. creation) and asal (absolute reality viz. the Creator) and fundamentally negates the idea of pantheism which implies God’s merger with God’s creation. Establishing accurate balance, Islam gives significant consideration to the nature of relation between matter and form; law and ethics; system and spirituality. While traversing the conception of interconnectedness between God and His creation, it describes the vista of transcendental values, orders and applications more meaningfully and much relevantly. In today’s world, where materialism is believed to have won the war against religion, the spiritual paradigm of religions, including Islam, is rapidly falling down.
However, fall of ‘spirituality’ in Islam is not only because of this reason, but, also due to the profound emphasis given to its (Islam’s) socio-political structures pertaining to codification of laws and formation of systems. Probably, that is why the omnipotence and omnipresence of God’s divine love vis-à-vis the functional connectivity to His creation is increasingly abandoned. Subsequently, most of the‘ideological’ religious activism, which eventually developed in the post-colonial era, is bereft of the ‘equilibrium ’between the two indivisible realities viz. spirituality and system. In this backdrop, elucidating the Prophet’s spiritual journey and highlighting its contemporary significance, as far as transcendental message of Islam is concerned, becomes imperative.
Isra: From Masjid al-Haram to Masjid al-Aqsa
The story of Prophet’s ascension, a history making journey, is precisely recorded in the Quranic text and elucidated in several authentic Prophetic narrations. Scholars are unanimously agreed upon that mi’raj, preceded by ‘aam al-huzn(the year of sorrow), in which Prophet(pbuh) lost his highest material support in the form of his wife Khadijah and uncle Abu Talib, occurred on the 27th night of Rajb during the 10th year of Mohammad(pbuh)’s proclamation of Prophethood. According to reports, the miraculous journey has a quite simple beginning. As part of his regular practice, this night Prophet(pbuh) had gone back to the Ka’ba to perform the night prayer without knowing that he would be visited by the angel Gabriel and would be taken for an extra-ordinary journey. The angel Gabriel came to Prophet while he was sleeping, after finishing prayer, splitting open his heart (shaq al- sadr) and cleaned it with water of zamzam(blessed water). After that, the Prophet(pbuh) was given a horse-like figure to ride called the buraq (angel-horse faster than lightening) to start his ground journey (isra) from Makkah to bait al-aqdas (Jerusalem). The visit to bait al-aqdas(house of sanctity), the direction of prayer prior to Ka’ba, during isra fundamentally emphasizes the commonality of the revelations of Muhammad, Jesus and Moses and reiterates the sacredness of all Abrahamic faiths. In Jerusalem Prophet Mohammad(pbuh) led all the previous Prophets of Islam, from Adam to Jesus, in prayer which talks volumes about ‘commonality of prophets’ and at the same it was an open indication regarding the finality of Prophethood (khatam al-nabuwa) in the form of Prophet Mohammad(pbuh).
The ground journey or isra is mentioned in the Quran in the following verse:
“Glory to the one who took His servant on a night journey from the sacred place of prayer (Ka’ba) to the furthest place of prayer (masjid al-aqsa) upon which We have sent down our blessing, that We might show him some of Our signs” (Quran 17:1).
This narrative connects together Makkah as the city of the Ka’ba, built by Abraham(pbuh) and renovated by Muhammad(pbuh), to Jerusalem, the biblical city of King Solomon, and the land where Jesus walked. In today’s world were institutionalized efforts are being made to promote culture of ‘religious tolerance’ this narrative is significant to highlight the ‘common origin’ of all Abrahamic faiths.
Prophet’s direct(or behind hijab) Meeting with God
As mentioned above, the ascension of Prophet was destined from earth to heaven, from reality to absolute reality, so Jerusalem was not the end point. Thus, Prophet(pbuh) continued his journey and left Jerusalem to meet the Lord of Jerusalem, the Lord of Mecca, and the Lord of all the worlds (rab al-‘aalameen). He was then raised into the heavens with prestigious companion – Gabriel. While crossing each level of the heaven, Prophet Mohammad(pbuh) met some of the grand (ululazam) prophets namely: Adam, Jesus, Joseph, Enoch, Aaron, Moses, and Abraham. He was then taken to the sacred lote-tree (sidrat-ul-muntaha) of the furthest boundary, bringing him closer that any being, including the angels, have ever been to God. In the Quranic narrative, there are some clear evidences which acknowledge pinnacle of Muhammad’s heavenly ascension, a divinely experience where the dhal (shadow) found itself closely involved with Asal (reality). However, there is no human language that could narrate the actuality and essence of the situation because words express human feelings and feelings are function of time and space. Thus, to define an experience, which is not bound to conception of time and space, in human language would be considered as the highest ‘probability’ but not the exact. Throwing light over Prophet’s divine meeting with Allah, Quran says:
By the star when it sets. Your companion has not gone astray nor is he deluded. He does not speak out of desire. It is nothing less than an inspiration inspired. Taught to him by one of great power and strength that stretched out over while on the highest horizon. Then drew near and descended at a distance of two bows’ lengths or nearer. He revealed in his servant what he revealed. (Quran 53:1-10)
This passage is highest form of spiritual content throughout the text of Quran. It is simultaneously categorical and veiled. It has apprehended the spiritual imagination of Muslim scholars, particularly mutakalimoon (Muslim philosophers), for centuries together. These verses are actually combination of saying, unsaying and imagination which, according to scholars, provides an ‘inviting context’ in which the reader is not just supposed to read words on a page rather he/she is actively involved in the production of the meaning of the text. According to some exegeses, the phrase “Your companion” clearly refers to Muhammad and simultaneously affirms his masoomiyat (a state of being free from the possibility of error) by saying that “he is not going astray”.
The story turns a little bit elliptical and mysterious when the encounter between “Great Power” and Prophet(pbuh) is mentioned in the next following verses. While solving this mystery, Muslim scholars have produced a number of writings, offering variant opinions, regarding the precise meaning of these verses. This diversity of opinion proved really meaningful in understanding the nature of relationship not just between God and Muhammad, but indeed between God and humanity. According to one dominant theological interpretation, Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) is said to have had a vision of Gabriel, not of God, during his spiritual journey. This tradition advocates the principle of “God to remain God and humanity to remain humanity — with the twain never meeting”. Yet in another interpretation, propounded by Sufis (Muslims having mystic leaning), the ‘mysterious encounter’ is imagined powerfully in a different way. According to this interpretation, the one “Mighty in power” is none other than God. This difference of interpretation also tells us a great deal about the ways in which all Muslims enthusiastically imitate the exemplary life of the Prophet in all physical and spiritual aspects of life.
Apparently looking paradoxical, there is a great commonality among all of these interpretations, namely the reverence for Muhammad (t’azeem-i-Mohammad) who guides them, purifies them, and introduces them onto path of God. The only difference between the two is that , on one hand, theologians revere Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) as the absolute interpreter of God’s divine will and believe that he attained spiritual experiences — like encounter with God (in hijab)— that are specific to him only. On the other hand, the Sufis revere Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) that they wish for a Muhammadi (like Mohammad, if not exactly the same) encounter with God. In short, apart from the discourse whether or not Prophet saw God, the night ascension has obvious spiritual ramifications on the immediate Muslim society, then moving into the next and will continue till last Muslim takes his last breath.