The Night Journey experience, presented in classical accounts of the Prophet’s life as a gift from God and a consecration for the Messenger, the Elect (AI-Mustafa) was a real trial for Muhammad and those around him.
The Night Journey marked the boundary between those believers whose faith radiated in their trust in this Prophet and his message and the others, who were taken aback by the improbability of such a story.
A Quraysh delegation hastened to go and question Abu Bakr about his mad and senseless friend,but his immediate, forthright answer surprised them: ”If he says such a thing, it cannot but be true!”
Abu Bakr’s faith and trust were such that he was not in the least disturbed, even for a second. After that, he personally went to question the Prophet, who confirmed the facts.As a result, Abu Bakr repeated forcefully: ”I believe you, you have always spoken the truth.”
It is from that day on, the Prophet called Abu Bakr the epithet As-Siddiq (he who is truthful, who confirms the truth).
The trial that Muhammad’s Night Journey presented for his fellow Muslims occurred at a moment when they were struggling with a most difficult situation. Sunnah reports that a few Muslims left Islam, but most trusted Muhammad.
A few weeks later, facts confirmed some elements of his account, for instance the arrival of caravans whose coming he had announced (having seen them on his way back) and of which he had given a precise description.
Thanks to the strength of this faith, the community of Muslims would be able to face future adversity. From then on, `Umar ibn Al-Khattab and Abu Bakr were always to stand in the front line of this spiritual force.
Muslim scholars have, from the outset, pondered the question of whether the Night Journey was of a purely spiritual nature or whether it was also physical. The majority of scholars consider that the journey was both physical and spiritual.
All things considered, however, this question is not essential in the light of the teachings that can be drawn from this extraordinary experience undergone by the Messenger (peace be upon him).
There is first of all, of course, the centrality of the city of Jerusalem: at the time, the Prophet prayed facing the holy city (the first qiblah, or direction of prayer),and during the Night Journey it was on the site of the Temple that he led the prayer together with all the prophets. Jerusalem thus appears at the heart of the Prophet’s experience and teaching as a dual symbol, of both centrality (with the direction of prayer) and universality (with the prayer of all the prophets).
Later, in Madinah, the qiblah (direction of prayer) changed from Jerusalem to the Ka`bah to distinguish Islam from Judaism, but this by no means entailed a diminution of Jerusalem’s status, and in the verse:
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)
The references to the “Sacred Mosque“ (the Ka`bah, in Makkah) and the ”farthest Mosque“(Al-Aqsa, in Jerusalem) establish a spiritual and sacred link between the two cities.
The other teaching is of a purely spiritual essence: all revelation reached the Prophet in the course of his earthly experience, with the exception, as we have seen, of the verses that establish the fundamental pillars of faith (iman) and the duty of prayer (as-salah).
Night Journey & Prescribed Worship
The Prophet was raised to heaven to receive the teachings that were to become the foundation of Islamic worship and ritual, `aqeedah and `ibadat (religious duties of worship required of all Muslims who are of age and of sound body and mind), which require that believers should accept their form as well as their substance.
Unlike the field of social affairs (al-mu`amalat), which calls for the creative mediation of people’s intellect and intelligence, human rationality here submits,in the name of faith and as an act of humility, to the order imposed by revelation; God has prescribed requirements and norms that the mind must hear and implement and the heart must love.
Raised to receive the injunction of ritual prayer, the Prophet and his experience reveal what prayer must in essence be: a reminder of and an elevation toward the Most High, five times a day, in order to detach from oneself, from the world, and from illusions.
The mi`raj (the elevation during the Night Journey) is thus more than simply an archetype of the spiritual experience; it is pregnant with the deep significance of prayer, which, through the eternal world, enables us to liberate our consciousness from the contingencies of space and time, and fully comprehend the meaning of life and of life.
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).