Muhammad’s famous Night Journey (Isra and Miraj) is the basis of the Islamic claim to Jerusalem as an Islamic holy city. The only thing the Qur’an has to say about it is this the first verse of sura 17, which says that Allah took Muhammad from “the Sacred Mosque” in Mecca “to the farthest [al-aqsa] Mosque.” There was no mosque in Jerusalem at this time, so the “farthest” mosque probably wasn’t really the one that now bears that name in Jerusalem, but Islamic tradition is firm that this mosque is in Jerusalem.

Muhammad’s vision of this journey was as dramatic as his initial encounter with Gabriel. According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad described the vision to one of the Muslims as beginning “while I was lying in Al-Hatim or Al-Hijr,” that is, an area in Mecca opposite the Ka’bah, identified by Islamic tradition as the burial place of Hagar and Ishmael, when “Gabriel came and stirred me with his foot.” Soon after that “someone came to me and cut my body open from here to here” – and he gestured from his throat to his pubic area. The one who had come to him, Muhammad continued, “then took out my heart. Then a golden tray full of Belief was brought to me and my heart was washed and was filled (with Belief) and then returned to its original place. Then a white animal which was smaller than a mule and bigger than a donkey was brought to me.” This was the Buraq, which Muhammad further described as “an animal white and long, larger than a donkey but smaller than a mule, who would place his hoof a distance equal to the range of vision.” It was, he said, “half mule, half donkey, with wings on its sides with which it propelled its feet.”

“When I came up to mount him,” Muhammad reported according to Ibn Ishaq, “he shied. Gabriel placed his hand on its mane and said, ‘Are you not ashamed, a Buraq, to behave in this way? By God, none more honorable before God than Muhammad has ever ridden you before.’ The animal was so ashamed that he broke out into a sweat and stood still so that I could mount him.”

They went to the Temple Mount, and from there to heaven itself. According to a hadith, Muhammad explained: “I was carried on it, and Gabriel set out with me till we reached the nearest heaven. When he asked for the gate to be opened, it was asked, ‘Who is it?’ Gabriel answered, ‘Gabriel.’ It was asked, ‘Who is accompanying you?’ Gabriel replied, ‘Muhammad.’ It was asked, ‘Has Muhammad been called?’ Gabriel replied in the affirmative. Then it was said, ‘He is welcomed. What an excellent visit his is!’”

Muhammad entered the first heaven, where he encountered Adam. Gabriel prods Muhammad: “This is your father, Adam; pay him your greetings.” The Prophet of Islam duly greets the first man, who responds, “You are welcome, O pious son and pious Prophet.” Gabriel then carries Muhammad to the second heaven, where the scene at the gate is reenacted, and once inside, John the Baptist and Jesus greet him: “You are welcome, O pious brother and pious Prophet.” In the third heaven, Joseph greets him in the same words, and Muhammad and Gabriel go on, greeted by other prophets at other levels of heaven.

In the sixth heaven is Moses, occasioning another dig at the Jews. “When I left him,” Muhammad says, “he wept. Someone asked him, ‘What makes you weep?’ Moses said, ‘I weep because after me there has been sent (Muhammad as a Prophet) a young man, whose followers will enter Paradise in greater numbers than my followers.’”

In the seventh heaven, Muhammad meets Abraham, has further visions, and receives the command that the Muslims pray fifty times daily. But returning, Muhammad passed by Moses, who asked him, “What have you been ordered to do?”

Muhammad replied, “I have been ordered to offer fifty prayers a day.”

Moses offered him some advice: “Your followers cannot bear fifty prayers a day, and by Allah, I have tested people before you, and I have tried my level best with Bani Israel (in vain). Go back to your Lord and ask for reduction to lessen your followers’ burden.”

So Muhammad returned to Allah and got the number of daily prayers reduced to forty, but Moses still thought that was too many. Muhammad kept going between Allah and Moses until the number of daily prayers for the Muslims was only five. At this point Moses still doubted that Muhammad’s followers were up to this challenge: “Your followers cannot bear five prayers a day, and no doubt, I have got an experience of the people before you, and I have tried my level best with Bani Israel, so go back to your Lord and ask for reduction to lessen your follower’s burden.”

But this time Muhammad would not go back. “I have requested so much of my Lord that I feel ashamed, but I am satisfied now and surrender to Allah’s Order.”

The Prophet of Islam also described the other prophets for his followers: “On the night of my Al-Isra (Journey by Night) (to the heavens), I saw (the prophet) Musa (Moses) who was a thin person with lank hair, looking like one of the men of the tribe of Shanu’a; and I saw Isa (Jesus) who was of average height with red face as if he had just come out of a bathroom. And I resemble Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) more than any of his offspring does. Then I was given two cups, one containing milk and the other wine. Gabriel said, ‘Drink whichever you like.’ I took the milk and drank it. Gabriel said, ‘You have accepted what is natural, (True Religion i.e., Islam) and if you had taken the wine, your followers would have gone astray.’”

When they heard the stories of his Night Journey, the pagan Quraysh scoffed: “By God, this is a plain absurdity! A caravan takes a month to go to Syria and a month to return and can Muhammad do the return journey in one night?” Challenged by some who had been to Jerusalem, Muhammad claimed one further miracle in connection with the Night Journey: “When the people of Quraish did not believe me [i.e. the story of my Al-Isra (Night Journey)], I stood up in Al-Hijr [Rock City] and Allah displayed Jerusalem in front of me, and I began describing it to them while I was looking at it.”

Evidently, however, his descriptions weren’t altogether convincing: some Muslims abandoned their faith and challenged Muhammad’s most faithful follower, Abu Bakr, to do the same. According to Ibn Ishaq, Abu Bakr was contemptuous: “If he says so then it is true. And what is so surprising in that? He tells me that communications from God from heaven to earth come to him in an hour of a day or night and I believe him, and that is more extraordinary than that at which you boggle!”

Later Muhammad seems to have retreated from the claim that this was a bodily journey. His wife Aisha explained: “The apostle’s body remained where it was but God removed his spirit by night.”

Next week: “We put coverings over their hearts (and minds) lest they should understand the Qur’an.”

(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)