From the Violation of the Boycott to al Isra'
Calling the Tribes to lslam during the Holy Months
The pact into which the clans of Quraysh had entered for boycotting Muhammad and blockading the Muslims continued to be observed for three consecutive years. During this time Muhammad and his family and companions fortified themselves against attack in one of the hills within Makkah. In their isolation, however, they suffered all kinds of privations; often they could not find enough food to satisfy their hunger. It was not possible either for Muhammad or the Muslims to mix with other people or to talk to them except during the holy months, when the Arabs would come to Makkah on pilgrimage and all hostilities would cease. In those months, no killing, persecution, aggression or vengence was permitted. Muhammad used to approach the Arabs and call them unto the religion of God and warn them of His imminent punishment as well as announce to them the blessings of paradise. The pilgrims knew what Muhammad had suffered in the cause of his mission, and this stirred their sympathy and compassion for him as well as their sensitivity to his call. Indeed, this boycott imposed by Quraysh, and Muhammad's patient bearing of it for the sake of his cause, won for him and his cause many hearts. Not all men were as hard of feeling as Abu Jahl and Abu Lahab.
Blockade of the Muslims
The long duration of the blockade and, consequently, the great sufferings inflicted upon the Muslims by the Quraysh, caused a number of Makkans to realize the hardness and injustice to which their very brethren, in-laws, and cousins, had been subjected. Were it not for the few who compassionately furnished the Muslims food, the latter would have surely starved. Hisham ibn `Amr was the most compassionate to the Muslims in their tragedy. He used to load his camel with food and other supplies, take it during the night and pass by the entrance to the quarter where the Muslims were isolated. He would detach the reins of the camel and let it go free, whipping it on the sides so that the camel would enter into the quarter and be seized by the Muslims. The more Muhammad and his companions suffered, the more disturbed a number of Qurayshis became. Unable to withhold his compassion, Hisham ibn `Amr went to Zuhayr ibn Abu Umayyah, whose mother was `Atikah, daughter of `Abd al Muttalib. He said, "O Zuhayr, how could you eat and wear new clothes and marry and enjoy life when your uncles are locked up and isolated, unable to buy or purchase anything, to give or to take anyone in marriage? By God I swear that if the Muslims were the uncles of Abu al Hakam ibn Hisham and you had asked him to boycott them as he asked you to boycott the Muslims, he would have never fulfilled your request." Together the two men agreed to revoke the pact of the boycott and sought to convince others to do likewise, although secretly. Al Mut'am ibn `Adiyy, Abu al Bakhtari ibn Hisham, and Zam'ah ibn al Aswad agreed to denounce the pact of boycott and to work together for its repudiation.
One day after circumambulating the Ka'bah seven times, Zuhayr ibn Abu Umayyah addressed the Makkans : "O People of Makkah, would you that we eat food and enjoy ourselves while the Banu Hashim are dying one after another unable to buy or acquire anything? By God, I shall not sit still until this unjust pact of the boycott is revoked." Upon hearing this, Abu Jahl immediately rose and said to Zuhayr, "You are a liar. The pact is sacred and inviolable." At this, Zam'ah, Abu al Bakhtari, al Mut'am, as well as Hisham ibn `Amr, rose from their places to argue against Abu Jahl and to confirm Zuhayr in his request. At this show of strength, Abu Jahl realized that a previous agreement must have been reached between these men and that direct opposition to them might not prove advantageous. He therefore withdrew. A1 Mut'am rose to tear up the pact hanging on the wall of the Ka'bah only to find that insects had already devoured most of it except the opening words "In the name of God." At this, Muhammad and his companions were permitted to come out of their isolation and circulate in Makkah, to buy and to sell as usual, although the antagonism and hostility remained as they were, and each party continued to look forward to a day when it could overcome the other.
Infallibility of Muhammad in Conveying the Revelation
Some biographers claimed that the unbelievers who brought about the revocation of the boycott pact went to Muhammad and asked him to make some gesture of reconciliation toward the Quraysh in order to strengthen them in their attempts and to put a stop to further harm. They asked him to agree to give their gods a place, at least to grant them occasional recognition with the fingers of his hand as the Makkans were accustomed to do. The same biographers claim that Muhammad inclined toward doing some of this in gratitude for the good deeds just done to him. They even allege that he said to himself: "What blame is there if I do such a thing? God knows that I am innocent!" Other biographers report that the same men who helped revoke the pact of boycott went one evening to Muhammad, talked to him all night, and praised him so much and endeared themselves to him, calling him "Our Master, Our Master," until he was moved to answer some of their demands. The first version was reported by Said ibn Jubayr; and the second by Qatadah. In both versions, it is reported that God protected Muhammad against their subversion and revealed to him the following verse: "They have almost succeeded in inducing you, under promise of their friendship, to attribute to Us, against Our command, that which We did not reveal to you. Had We not confirmed you in your faith, you might have been tempted and hence fallen under the inescapable punishment."[Qur'an, 17:73-75]
It should be remembered that these verses were claimed to have been revealed in connection with the forged story of the goddesses which we have investigated earlier; the present reporters attribute it to the story of the revocation of the boycott pact. The same verses have also been claimed by ibn `Abbas, as reported by 'Ata', to have been revealed in connection with another story. That is the story of the delegation of Thaqif who came to Muhammad to ask him to declare their valley holy just as Makkah had declared her trees and birds and animals holy. It is claimed that the Prophet-may God's peace be upon him hesitated until these verses were revealed. Whatever the historical circumstances which occasioned the revelation of these verses, the verses themselves bespeak the greatness of Muhammad as well as his candidness. The same aspects of Muhammad's personality are equally in evidence in the verses we have reported from Surah 80. Indeed, they are supported by the history of Muhammad's life as a whole. Muhammad had repeatedly told the people that he was only a man, that as a man God had revealed to him certain messages for their guidance, and that without God's special protection in this regard he was as fallible as anyone. Muhammad did in fact err when he frowned in the face of ibn Umm Maktum and sent him away. He almost erred as reported above in the verses from the surah "al Isra' " as well as in the foregoing verses which tell of his inclination away from that which had been revealed to him and of the people's invitation to Muhammad to invent a revelation. But revelation did, in fact, come to Muhammad and condemned what he did in connection with the blind beggar, his near succumbing to Quraysh's temptation. Muhammad, however, reported all these revelations to the Quraysh people with equal truthfulness and candidness. Neither self-esteem nor pride nor any other human feeling prevented him from conveying the revelation, whether it was for or against him. The truth and the truth alone was the essence of his message. He declared the truth even if it were against himself. We are accustomed to expect the great man to bear resolutely and patiently whatever harm he might be exposed to on account of his conviction, but we hardly ever expect the great man to acknowledge that he almost succumbed to his temptations. Such temptations are usually not talked about, and most great men are contented to reckon with themselves strongly only in secret. He was therefore greater than the great, for his soul enabled him to rise to the height where it would acknowledge the truth even regarding its own struggle and proclaim it to the public. Such greatness that is greater than the great belongs exclusively to the prophets. It demands of the prophet the very utmost in truthfulness and candidness in the conveyance of the message of truth that comes from God alone.
Death of Abu Talib and Khadijah
After the repudiation of the boycott pact, Muhammad and his companions emerged from their quarters. Muhammad immediately resumed his call to the Quraysh and to the tribes that used to come to Makkah during the holy months. Despite the spreading of his fame among the Arab tribes and the number of his followers, neither he nor they were quite yet safe from injury, and nothing he could do would have guaranteed such safety. A few months later two tragedies were to add to his troubles. First, the death of Abu Talib, his protector, and then that of Khadijah, his wife. Abu Talib died at about the age of eighty. When Quraysh knew of his approaching end, they feared that the conflict with the Muslims would reach a new height now that their leadership would pass into the less temperate hands of Hamzah and `Umar, well known for their hardness and determined hostility. The leaders of Quraysh went up to Abu Talib and addressed him as he lay on his deathbed
"O Abu Talib, we hold for you great respect and we appreciate your counsel and wisdom. Now that you are about to leave us, and, knowing the conflict that has arisen between us and your nephew, do please call him and ask him to give us assurance as we are wont to give you for him, that he will leave us alone and we will leave him alone, that he will leave us to practice our religion and we shall leave him to practice his." Muhammad and his companions came to the meeting in his uncle's house. After he was told about their purpose he said
"Yes, indeed! All I want from you is this one word of assurance which, if given, will bring you mastery of all Arabia as well as Persia, namely . . ." "Speak out," interrupted Abu Jahl, "by your father we shall give it to you! Not one word but ten." Muhammad continued: "Namely, that you witness with me that there is no God but God and repudiate all that you worship besides Him." Some of them said to Muhammad: "Do you want to make all the gods one?" Turning to one another, the men of Quraysh said: "By God, this man is not going to give you any word of assurance such as you require." The leaders of Quraysh left Abu Talib's house without satisfaction, and Abu Talib died a few days later, the situation between him and the Quraysh being more hostile than ever before.
Later on, Khadijah, who supported Muhammad with her love and goodness, her purity, gentleness and strong faith, passed away. At her death, Muhammad lost an angel of mercy who reassured and reconciled him whenever he felt crushed under the burdens of his cause. Henceforth, Muhammad was forever to miss the believing eyes of Khadijah and her reassuring smile, just as he had lost in Abu Talib his protection and refuge from his enemies. How deeply these tragedies must have cut into Muhammad's heart! Surely they were strong enough to shake the most determined soul, to bring doubt and despair to the most resolute, and to leave behind the greatest degree of emptiness and despondence.
Increase of Quraysh's Hostility
Soon thereafter, the Quraysh were to increase their attacks against Muhammad. An example of the least of such injuries was the covering of Muhammad's head with soil thrown at him by one of the plebeians of Quraysh. Muhammad withdrew to his home where his daughter, Fatimah, moved to tears by the sight of her father, washed his head for him. It is certainly painful to us to hear our children cry, and more so to hear our daughters cry. Indeed, every tear dropped from a daughter's eye is a ball of fire fallen upon our hearts, causing us to cry in pain. The daughter's sob and painful murmur fall heavily upon the father's heart, and Fatimah's cries must have choked a compassionate father such as Muhammad. However, what was he to do to reassure a person who had just lost her mother and who is now appalled by the insults heaped upon her father? Nothing but to orient himself all the more to God, and to proclaim his conviction that God would give him final victory. He said to his daughter: "Do not cry, O Fatimah ! Your father has God for protector." Often Muhammad would be heard saying: "By God. Quraysh never harmed me so much as after the death of Abu Talib."
Muhammad's Excursion to Ta'if (628 C.E.)
The Quraysh doubled and redoubled their injuries to Muhummad and his followers until Muhammad could bear it no longer. Alone, and without telling anyone, he undertook a trip to the city of Ta'if where he solicited the support of the tribe of Thaqif after calling them to Islam. When they refused, he asked them not to spread the news of their refusal to his enemies that they might not rejoice at his failure. The tribe of Thaqif, however, not only repudiated Muhammad's call but sent their servants to insult him and throw him out of their city. He ran away from them and took shelter near a wall which belonged to `Utbah and Shaybah, sons of Rabi'ah. There, he sat under a vine pondering his defeat, within sight of the sons of Rabi'ah. He raised his hands to heaven and prayed with noticeable pain
"O God, please consider my weakness, my shortage of means, and the little esteem that people have of me. Oh, most Merciful God, You are the Lord of the oppressed, and You are my Lord. To whom would You leave my fate? To a stranger who insults me? Or to an enemy who dominates me? Would I that You have no wrath against me! Your pleasure alone is my objective. Under the light of Your faith which illuminates all darkness and on which this world and the other depend, I take my refuge. I pray that I may not become the object of Your wrath and anger. To You alone belongs the right to blame and to chastise until Your pleasure is met. There is neither power nor strength except in You."
`Addas, the Christian
For some time, the sons of Rabi'ah watched Muhammad until a feeling of compassion and sympathy for him began to stir within them. They sent their Christian servant, `Addas by name, with a bunch of grapes. Before Muhammad partook of the grapes, he said: "In the name of God." `Addas was surprised and said, "That is not what the natives of this country usually say." Muhammad then asked him about his religion and his country of origin, and when he learned that he was a Christian from Nineveh, he said, "Are you then from the City of the Righteous Jonah, son of Mathew?" Still more surprised, `Addas asked, "What do you know about Jonah, son of Matthew?" Muhammad answered, "That was my brother; he was a true prophet and so am I." Moved with emotion, `Addas covered Muhammad with kisses. The two sons of Rabi'ah were surprised at what they saw although they remained unmoved by Muhammad's religious claims. When their servant returned to them they counseled him: "O `Addas, do not allow this man to convert you from your faith. Your faith is better for you than his."
Muhammad Offers Himself to the Tribes
The news of the injuries inflicted upon Muhammad lightened the hostility of the tribe of Thaqif, but it never succeeded in moving them to follow him. The Quraysh knew about this expedition and increased their injuries. Nothing, however, could dissuade Muhammad from continuing his call. At every season, whenever the tribes of Arabia came to Makkah, he offered himself and his cause to them, informed them that he was a commissioned prophet, and asked them to believe in him. His uncle `Abd al `Uzza, son of `Abd al Muttalib, otherwise known as Abu Lahab, would not let him; he would follow Muhammad everywhere he went to dissuade the people from listening to him. Muhammad, for his part, did not only preach his religion to the tribes in the pilgrimage season in Makkah, but sought those tribes in their own quarters. He visited the tribe of Kindah and the tribe of Kalb, of Banu Hanifah, Banu `Amir ibn Sa'sa'ah, each in its own province. None of them responded favorably to him, and they all repudiated his call sometimes with insults, as did the tribe of Banu Hanifah. The tribe of Banu `Amir felt more ambitious and imagined that they could assume a position of leadership should the cause of Muhammad triumph. But when Muhammad told them, "The matter belongs wholly to God; He places leadership wheresoever He wishes," they turned away and repudiated his call like the rest.
Did all these tribes repudiate Muhammad's call for the same reasons for which Quraysh did before them? We have seen the disappointment of the tribe of Banu `Amir upon the frustration of their ambition of leadership and power. As for the tribe of Thaqif, they had a different opinion. In addition to the cool atmosphere and vineyards which made it a summer resort, the city of Ta’if was the center of worship of al Lat, for it was in its midst that the idol stood and on its account the city had become a place of pilgrimage. Should the tribe of Thaqif follow Muhammad, the goddess al Lat would lose her place of worship, the city its pilgrimage site, and ensuing hostility with Quraysh would soon cut off all summer visits by the Makkans. Every tribe had thus its own reason, economic or other, for which it refused to accept Islam besides the personal attachment to the religion of the fathers and the worship of old idols.
Muhammad's Engagement to `A'ishah
The rejection of Muhammad by the tribes increased his isolation, as the doubled and redoubled injuries of the Quraysh increased Muhammad's pain and grief. The period of mourning for Khadijah passed, and Muhammad thought of marrying again in the hope of finding consolation in a new companion. He also thought that marriage might even furnish a new occasion for strengthening the bond of brotherhood and commitment between himself and the earlier converts to Islam. He therefore asked Abu Bakr for the hand of his daughter, `A'ishah. Since she was still too young to marry, the engagement was announced, but the marriage was postponed for three more years until `A'ishah reached the age of eleven. In the meantime, Muhammad married Sawdah, the widow of one of the Muslim companions who emigrated to Abysinnia but died upon his return to Makkah. In both these instances, it is hoped that the reader will have a glimpse of the principle regulating Muhammad's later domestic life which we shall discuss in a forthcoming chapter.
Al Isra' (621 C.E)
It was during this period that al Isra' and al Mi'raj had taken place.[Al Isra' means the night journey the Prophet was reported to have taken from Makkah to al Masjid al Aqsa, the distant mosque, or Jerusalem. AL Mi'raj means the Prophet's ascension to heaven and his visit to paradise and hell, later to serve as model for Dante's La. Diutna Comedia. See M. Asin Palacios, La. evcatologia musulmana en la Divina Comedia, Madrid, 1919; 2nd edition, Madrid, 1943. -Tr.]. On the night of al Isra'. Muhammad was staying in the house of his cousin, Hind, daughter of Abu Talib, who was also called Umm Hani'. Hind related that "The Prophet of God spent the night in my quarters. He recited his night prayers and went to sleep. Just before dawn, the Prophet of God awoke us and we all prayed the dawn prayer together. When the prayer was through, he said, "O Umm Hani', I prayed with you the night prayer in this place; then I went to Jerusalem and I prayed there, and. as you see, I have just finished praying with you the dawn prayer.' I answered, `O Prophet of God, do not tell this to the people for they will belie you and harm you.' He said, `By God I shall tell them.'"
Was al Isra' in Body or in Soul?
Those who claim that al Isra' and al Mi'raj of Muhammad-may God's peace be upon him had taken place in soul rather than in body refer to this report of Umm Hani'. They also refer to another report by `A'ishah which says, "The body of the Prophet of God-may God's peace and blessing be upon him was never missed from his bed. Rather, God caused him to travel in soul alone." Whenever Mu'awiyah ibn Abu Sufyan was asked about al Isra' of the Prophet, he used to answer, "It was a true vision from God." Those who share such a view confirm their claim with the Qur'anic verse, "The vision which We have shown you is but a trial to the people."[Qur'an, 17:60] According to the other view, al Isra' from Makkah to Jerusalem took place in body. In confirmation of this, they mention that Muhammad had related what he saw in the desert on the way hither and add that his ascension to heaven was in soul. Others hold that both al Isra' and al Mi'raj were in body. As a result of this great controversy, thousands of books have been written on the subject. We have a view of this matter which we shall give shortly, a view that somebody else may have held before us. Before we proceed, however, we shall give the story of al Isra' and al Mi'raj as it was reported in the biography books.
Al Isra' as Given in Literature
The Orientalist Dermenghem has reported the following eloquent story culled from a number of biography books. We shall quote it as he related it
"In the middle of a solemn, quiet night when even the night-birds and the rambling beasts were quiet, when the streams had stopped murmuring and no breezes played, Mahomet was awakened by a voice crying: `Sleeper, awake!' And before him stood the Angel Gabriel with radiant forehead, countenance white as snow, blond hair floating, in garments sewn with pearls and embroidered in gold. Manifold wings of every colour stood out quivering from his body.
"He led a fantastical steed, Boraq (`Lightning'), with a human head and two eagles' wings; it approached Mahomet, allowed him to mount and was off like an arrow over the mountains of Mecca and the sands of the desert toward the North . . . The Angel accompanied them on this prodigious flight. On the summit of Mt. Sinai, where God had spoken to Moses, Gabriel stopped Mahomet for prayer, and again at Bethlehem where Jesus was born, before resuming their course in the air. Mysterious voices attempted to detain the Prophet, who was so wrapped up in his mission that he felt God alone had the right to stop his steed. When they reached Jerusalem Mahomet tethered Boraq and prayed on the ruins of the Temple of Solomon with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Seeing an endless ladder appear upon Jacob's rock, the Prophet was enabled to mount rapidly to the heavens.
"The first heaven was of pure silver and the stars suspended from its vault by chains of gold; in each one an angel lay awake to prevent the demons from climbing into the holy dwelling places and the spirits from listening indiscreetly to celestial secrets. There, Mahomet greeted Adam. And in the six other heavens the Prophet met Noah, Aaron, Moses, Abraham, David, Solomon, Idris (Enoch), Yahya (John the Baptist) and Jesus. He saw the Angel of Death, Azrail, so huge that his eyes were separated by 70,000 marching days. He commanded 100,000 battalions and passed his time in writing in an immense book the names of those dying or being born. He saw the Angel of Tears who wept for the sins of the world; the Angel of Vengeance with brazen face, covered with warts, who presides over the elements of fire and sits on a throne of flames; and another immense angel made up half of snow and half of fire surrounded by a heavenly choir continually crying: `0 God, Thou hast united snow and fire, united all Thy servants in obedience to Thy Laws.’ In the seventh heaven where the souls of the just resided was an angel larger than the entire world, with 70,000 heads; each head had 70,000 mouths, each mouth had 70,000 tongues and each tongue spoke in 70,000 different idioms singing endlessly the praises of the Most High.
"While contemplating this extraordinary being, Mahomet was carried to the top of the Lote-Tree of Heaven flowering at the right of God's invisible throne and shading myriads of angelic spirits. Then after having crossed in a twinkling of an eye the widest seas, regions of dazzling light and deepest darkness, traversed millions of clouds of hyacinths, of gauze, of shadows, of fire, of air, of water, of void, each one separated by 500 marching years, he then passed more clouds of beauty, of perfection, of supremacy, of immensity, of unity, behind which were 70,000 choirs of angels bowed down and motionless in complete silence. The earth began to heave and he felt himself carried into the light of his Lord, where he was transfixed, paralyzed. From here heaven and earth together appeared as if imperceptible to him, as if melted into nothingness and reduced to the size of a grain of mustard seed in the middle of a field. And this is how Mahomet admits having been before the Throne of the Lord of the World.
"He was in the presence of the Throne `at a distance o f two bows' Length or yet nearer' (Koran, liii), beholding God with his soul's eyes and seeing things which the tongue cannot express, surpassing all human understanding. The Almighty placed one hand on Mahomet's breast and the other on his shoulder to the very marrow of his bones he felt an icy chill, followed by an inexpressible feeling of calm and ecstatic annihilation.
"After a conversation whose ineffability is not honored by too precise tradition, the Prophet received the command from God that all believers must say fifty prayers each day. Upon coming down from heaven Mahomet met Moses, who spoke with him on this subject:
" `How do you hope to make your followers say fifty prayers each day? I had experience with mankind before you. I tried everything with the children of Israel that it was possible to try. Take my word, return to our Lord and ask for a reduction.'
"Mahomet returned, and the number of prayers was reduced to forty. Moses thought that this was still too many and made his successor go back to God a number of times. In the end God exacted not more than five prayers.
"Gabriel then took the Prophet to paradise where the faithful rejoice after their resurrection an immense garden with silver soil, gravel of pearls, mountains of amber, filled with golden palaces and precious stones.
"Finally, after returning by the luminous ladder to the earth, Mahomet untethered Boraq, mounted the saddle and rode into Jerusalem on the winged steed."[Emile Dermenghem, The Life of Mahomet, New York: Lincoln MacVeagh, 1930, pp. 132-135.]
Ibn Hisham's Report about al Isra'
Such is the report of the Orientalist Dermenghem concerning the story of al Isra and al Mi'raj. Every item he reported may be readily found, perhaps with greater or lesser detail, in many of the biographies. An example of the fertility of the reporters' imagination may be read in ibn Hisham's biography. Reporting on Muhammad's conversation with Adam in the first heaven, ibn Hisham wrote: "Then I saw men with lips like those of camels. In their hands were balls of fire which they thrusted into their mouths and collected from their extremities to thrust into their mouths again. I asked, 'Who are these, O Gabriel?' He said: 'These are men who robbed the orphans.' I then saw men with large bellies, the likes of which I have never seen before even on the road to the house of Pharaoh where the greatest punishment is meted out to the greatest sinners. These are trodden upon by men who when brought to the fire run like maddened camels. Those whom they tread upon remain immobile, unable to move from their place. I asked, 'Who are those, O Gabriel?' He answered, 'Those are the usurers.' I then saw men sitting at a table loaded with delicious and fat meat as well as spoilt and stinking meat. They were eating of the latter and leaving the former untouched. I asked, 'Who are these, O Gabriel?' He answered, 'These are men who left their own women whom God had permitted them to enjoy and ran after other women illegitimately.' I then saw women hanging from their breasts and asked, 'Who are these, O Gabriel?' He answered, 'These are women who fathered on their husbands children not their own.' . . . He then took me into Paradise where I saw a beautiful damsel with luscious lips. As I was attracted by her I asked her, 'To whom do you belong?' She answered: 'To Zayd ibn Harithah.' The prophet of God-may God's peace and blessing be upon him announced this glad tiding to Zayd ibn Harithah."
Whether in ibn Hisham's or in other biographies of the Prophet or in the books of Qur'anic exegesis, the reader will find many details besides the above mentioned. It is certainly the historian's right to question how closely these reports have been scrutinized and investigated by their collectors, with the view to finding out how much of them may be truly ascribed to the Prophet and how much was the invention of the fancy of the Sufis and others. Although there is no room here to undertake such investigation, nor to decide the issue of whether or not al Isra' or al Mi'raj were both in body or in soul or the one in body and the other in soul, there is still no doubt that every one of these views has reasons which their advocates claim to be legitimate. There is no a priori reason why one may not adhere to one of these views rather than another. Whoever wishes to hold the view that al Isra' and al Mi'raj were in soul and not in body, could turn to the evidence of the reports we have already cited as well as to the Qur'anic emphasis that
"I am but a human like you unto whom a revelation is, given that your God is one God;" [Qur'an, 18:110] that the book of God is the sole "miracle" of Muhammad; and that "God does not forgive any association of aught with Him but He forgives to whomsoever He wishes anything else."[Qur'an, 4:48]
Whoever holds a view of al Isra and al Mi'raj such as this is perhaps better entitled to inquire about the meaning of these ideas. And that is precisely the issue to which, perhaps for the first time ever, we want to address ourselves in the following sections.
Al Isra' and the Unity of Being
As phenomena in the spiritual life of Muhammad, al Isra' and al Mi'raj carry great and noble meanings that are greater than the foregoing descriptions have suggested much of which being the product of pure imagination. In the moment of al Isra' and al Mi'raj, Muhammad grasped the unity of being in all its totality and perfection. In that moment, neither space nor time could prevent his consciousness from encompassing all being; whereas our consciousness, determined by weaker perceptive and rational faculties, is incapable of transcending the limitations of space and time. In that moment, all frontiers fell before Muhammad's insight; and all being was, as it were, gathered in his soul. In that moment, he came to know totality from beginning to end and represented this totality as the self-realization of the forces of goodness, truth, and beauty in their struggle against and conquest of evil, untruth, and fraud. All this happened to Muhammad by God's grace.
No one is capable of such transcendent vision except by means of superhuman power. If any of the followers of Muhammad were unable to match him in his struggle to rise to or to achieve such vision and perception, there should be neither blame nor surprise. Men's degrees of endowment differ, and their vision of the truth is always determined by these limitations which our ordinary powers are unable to transcend. There is perhaps an analogy between Muhammad's understanding of the universe at that moment and that of any other person who has risen to the highest level of consciousness possible for man. It is that of the story of the blind men who, upon being brought into contact with the elephant, were asked to identify it. It will be remembered that the first thought it was a long rope because he had touched its tail; the second, a thick tree because he had touched its leg; the third, a spear because he had touched its ivory; and the fourth, a moving round tube because he had touched its trunk. These views are to the unimpaired view of the elephant as the understanding of most of us to that of Muhammad, implied in al Isra' and al Mi'raj, of the unity and totality of being. In Muhammad's vision, the finitude of space and time disappeared, and he beheld the universe all "gathered up" and present. Men capable of such great moments of consciousness see the details of space-time and problems of worldly living as mathematical atoms appended to the person without ever affecting him. None of them affect in the least the life of his body, the beat of his heart, the illumination of his soul, the enlightenment of his consciousness, nor his vibration with energy and life. For by existing, such a person enters into communion with all existence and all life, as it were, ipso facto.
A spiritual Isra' and Mi'raj cannot be different in its meanings of beauty, majesty, and transcendence than a bodily one[The Arabic text has "spiritual" at both poles of the comparison, which I assume to be a misprint. -Tr.]. In itself, the story is a very strong figurization of the spiritual unity of all being. Muhammad's detour for a stop on Mount Sinai where God spoke to Moses face to face, at Bethlehem where Jesus was born, and the spiritual meeting of Muhammad, Jesus, Moses and Abraham in the moment of prayer is another very strong figurization of the unity of religious experience and life, a unity constitutive of the world as it tends to value and perfection.
Al Isra' and Modern Science
In our modern age, science confirms the possibility of a spiritual Isra' and Mi'raj. Where there is a meeting of genuine forces, that which shines forth is genuine reality; just as a meeting of the same forces of nature configured by the genius of Marconi produced the real effect of lighting a light in distant Australia by means of an electric radiation directed at it on the waves of space from his ship in Venice. In this age of ours, science has confirmed the possibility of prestidigitation, of broadcast of sound through space by means of the radio, as well as of pictures and writing, all of which was considered too fanciful even for the imagination. The forces latent in nature are still being discovered by science, and every new day brings a new surprise. Strong and powerful spirits such as Muhammad's are perfectly capable of being carried in one night from Makkah to Jerusalem and of being shown God's signs. That is not opposed to reason, especially when the moral of it is the figurization of divine truths, of extraordinary meanings of beauty and transcendence, and of the unity of spirit and world so clearly achieved in the consciousness of Muhammad. Though extraordinary and unique to Muhammad, the experience is certainly possible for man upon removal of the illusions of this world, penetration of ultimate reality, and relation of oneself and the world thereto.
Doubt of Quraysh and Apostasy of Some Muslims
The Arabs of Makkah, however, were incapable of understanding such meanings. Therefore, as soon as Muhammad related his Isra', they could not progress beyond the question of the possibility or otherwise of instantaneous bodily transport to Jerusalem. Even those who followed Muhammad and believed in him were troubled by doubt. Some said, "This is clear and decisive. By God, camels run continually for a whole month to reach al Sham and another whole month to return. Would Muhammad achieve such a feat in one night?" Many of the Muslims apostatized. Those who were troubled by doubt went to Abu Bakr and related to him Muhammad's claim. Abu Bakr answered, "Surely you are telling me lies." They said, "There is Muhammad in the mosque telling the people of his trip." Abu Bakr answered, "By God, if Muhammad himself has said so, then it is true. He tells us that the word of God comes to him directly from heaven to earth in an hour of night or day and we believe him. Isn't this a greater miracle than what you are doubting today?" Abu Bakr came to the Prophet and listened to him describing Jerusalem and its mosque. When he finished, Abu Bakr said, "You said the truth, O Prophet of God." From that day on Muhammad called Abu Bakr "al Siddiq."[Al Siddiq, i.e., he who believes the truth to be true. -Tr.]
Al Isra' in Body
Those who claim that al Isra' took place in body explain, in support of their view, that when the Prophet proclaimed the news, Muslims and non-Muslims asked him for proof. Muhammad described to them a caravan of camels he had encountered on the road to Jerusalem. He related how he led the leaders of that caravan to one of their beasts which had gone astray in the desert, how he drank from a water jar carried on the back of one of those camels, and how he lowered the lid of the jar after he drank from it. They related that the Quraysh had inquired about that caravan and that the reports of the caravan leaders confirmed Muhammad's claim and description. On the other hand, those who believe that al Isrd' took place in spirit do not find such reports unbelievable now that science in our own days has confirmed the possibility of hypnotism and of the hypnotized one to report about events far removed from him. For a spirit holding in unity and presence the spiritual life of the universe in toto, for one so endowed with vision and power so as to penetrate the secret of all life from eternity to eternity, such a feat is not at all surprising.