MUHAMMAD’S NIGHT JOURNEY
By Barry Webb
What it is: The basis of the story is that one night while Muhammad was sleeping in Mecca, the angel Gabriel came and woke him and had him mount the mighty steed Buraq, usually described as a steed with supernatural powers. Buraq took Muhammad to Jerusalem where he found Abraham, Jesus, and other prophets. There Muhammad led these great prophets in prayer. Muhammd then mounted a ladder and climbed all the way into the seven heavens where he once again sees all the prophets, as he ascends through the various levels of heaven. He eventually reached the seventh heaven where he talks with God.
Even though it takes 100,000 light years just to cross our one galaxy of the Milky Way in a starship, Muhammad manages to do the entire universe in just one night . . . while climbing a ladder!
Muhammad’s “night journey,” or laylat al-isra’ w-al-mi’raaj, is one of the most amazing stories found in Islamic culture. As we can see, it is very fanciful, and at times humorous. As a result, many Islamic scholars have discounted it, believing that it is not mentioned in the Qur’an and is nothing but stories that found their way into the ahadeeth (a collection of supposedly sacred sayings of Muhammad inspired by the angel Gabriel). The problem for these Islamic scholars (by trying to deny the night journey) is that it actually is in the Qur’an, or at least sort of.
The 17th chapter (or sura) of the Qur’an is actually titled al-isra’ (meaning the “night journey). The first verse of that sura says: Glorified is he who caused his servant to travel by night from the inviolable Mosque (Mecca) to the furthest Mosque (Jerusalem).
While it is true that no more details of this fantastic journey are given in the Qur’an, Muhammad’s biography by ibn Ishaq (written 130 years after Muhammad’s death) provides several versions of this story, apparently passed down by word of mouth from those who knew Muhammad.
Before I get into the details of this story, I have to say something about that 17th sura which mentions the night journey. Muslim scholars classify it as one of the “middle Meccan” suras. I find that assumption to be outrageous for a couple of reasons:
First, Most authentic (so-called) Mecca suras are written in a childish, choppy style of short two, or three word “sentences,” like children’s nursery rhymes. Whereas all of the Medina suras are written in a flowing, easier to read, prose with (usually) superior syntax and grammar (in the original Arabic). And, the surat al-isra’ is written in the style of the Medina suras.
Second, Muhammad’s final wife, ‘Aisha, is often quoted as a witness who said that “his body never left the room” indicating that it was only a vision, and not a physical journey (even though other accounts do make it out to be an actual physical journey). And, Muhammad did not marry ‘Aisha until late in his life, shortly before he returned to Mecca to conquer it. Meaning that this sura had to be a Medina sura.
Third, this “night journey,” whatever it was, allegedly took place “when Islam had spread in Mecca among the Quraysh and all the tribes” (ibn ishaq, 263, p.181). This sentence describes a time late in Muhammad’s life after he had returned from Medina to conquer Mecca. Because his earlier stay in Mecca only netted him a max of 200 followers, all from among the citizens of Mecca, and none from any of the other tribes–according to the Islamic sources themselves.
FIRST STOP: JERUSALEM
Buraq was truly an amazing animal because each of his strides covered a distance as far as the eye could see. Buraq had also been around for a long, long time, since other prophets before Muhammad had ridden on him. The Arabic word buraaq, is derived from barq meaning “lightning.” So, you might say that the steed Buraq was as fast as lightning.
The story begins while Muhammad was sleeping in the Hijr (refers to Mecca) the angel Gabriel woke him during his sleep. Gabriel then led Muhammad outside and there was good old Buraq. The animal is described as white, half mule and half donkey (an interesting trick since mules are sterile), and it had wings on its sides with which it propelled its feet (an interesting anatomical feature, indeed).
Buraq was more than surprised to see Muhammad. Heavenly steed that he was he “shied” when Muhammad approached him. Gabriel then admonished the white steed saying “Are you not ashamed, O Buraq, to behave in this way? By God, none more honorable before God than Muhammad has ever ridden you before.” The poor animal was so ashamed that he broke out into a sweat and stood still so Muhammad could mount him.
Muhammad and Gabriel then arrived at Jerusalem (none of the accounts ever say what means of transportation Gabriel used to get there). Visiting the temple at Jerusalem Muhammad found Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and a bunch of other prophets, whereupon Muhammad led them all in prayer (showing Islam’s superiority over all other religions).
THE ASCENT TO HEAVEN
A popular folk belief among many Muslims is that Muhammad rode the steed Buraq from Jerusalem up to heaven. However, the accounts given in ibn Ishaq say that Muhammad used a ladder. “A ladder was brought to me finer than any I have ever seen.” Muhammad and Gabriel then mounted it until they came to one of the gates of heaven called the Gate of the Watchers. There they were greeted by an angel called “Isma’il,” and under his command were twelve thousand angels each of which had twelve thousand other angels under their command. That comes to something like 144 Billion angels, an obvious takeoff on the 144,000 of “super saved” individuals of Christian tradition (The Revelation 7:3-8).
As Muhammad travels through this “lowest rung of heaven” he sees sinners being tortured for their sins. In the second heaven he sees Jesus and John the Baptist (but I thought that he had just seen Jesus back down in Jerusalem?).
In the third heaven Muhammad sees Joseph, and in the fourth heaven the prophet Idris. Idris, in Islamic tradition is the first of the prophets after Adam. He is identified with the Enoch of the Bible, and with the Greek Hermes Trismegistus, and the Egyptian god of wisdom Thoth.
On to the fifth heaven Muhammad sees Aaron, brother of Moses. In the sixth heaven is Moses himself. In the seventh heaven he meets Abraham. Abraham then takes Muhammad into “paradise” where he sees “a damsel with dark red lips. And I asked her to whom she belonged, because she pleased me much when I saw her, and she told me ‘Zayd bin Haritha.'”
Now, this is really interesting on a couple of levels. First, because Zayd bin Haritha in real life was Muhammad’s adopted son, and it was Zayd’s wife in real life about whom Muhammad lusted over. So he had a “vision” where Allah tells him that it is permissible for him to marry his adopted son’s wife, and that it would be wrong for him “to deny that which Allah has caused you to desire” (Qur’an 33:37). And, so Muhammad did indeed marry his adopted son’s wife. So, in this trip to heaven we see Muhammad having yet another vision implying sexual lust, over Zayd’s wife.
Second, this idea of entering “paradise” and seeing a beautiful maiden reminds me of the ancient Indo-Iranian myth of the worthy soldier, priest, or ruler being met on the bridge linking earth with “paradise” being met by a beautiful young maiden.
Thirdly, this episode plays into the “babes in heaven” fantasies of Islam which reached its apex in the 72 virgins lore of the Islamic ahadeeth.
FIFTY SHADES OF PRAYER, or IS IT JUST FIVE?
While roaming the 7th heaven, Muhammad comes face to face with God. God tells him that he has to go back down to earth and tell the people that they have to pray 50 times a day. So, Muhammad begins his trek back down through the layers of heaven. As soon as he steps down into the sixth heaven he runs dab smack into Moses and tells Moses that God ordered him to command the people to pray 50 times a day. Moses says that’s way too much. People are weak, they could never stick with that tough of an assignment. So, Muhammad goes back up to the 7th heaven to argue with God and got the number reduced down to 40. Stepping back down to the 6th heaven he told Moses the results, and Moses said, “nah, that’s still to high, go back up there and keep trying.”
So, up and down Muhammad went arguing with God to get the sentence reduced, and then being prodded by Moses to get back up there and tell God that it is still too much. So, finally God agrees to reduce the number of prayer calls to just five times a day.
Thus, Muslims believe that this little story is the reason why Shari’a law demands Muslims to pray five times a day, even though the Qur’an never mentions more than three prayer calls a day. This part of the story was obviously invented to deflect the Muslims’ ability to recognize the real reasons why shari’a demands five prayers a day in conflict with the Qur’an. And, this real reason is that the idea of the five prayer calls a day is one of the many Persian Zoroastrian customs the inventors of Islam imported into their religion.
DANTE’S INFERNO AND ISHTAR’S DESCENT INTO THE UNDERWORLD
In reading Muhammad’s journey through the seven layers of heaven, any student of western literature would easily recognize Dante’s inferno.
But there are even earlier parallels. The Babylonian fertility goddess Isthar’s descent into the underworld where the dead go, for example. First off, Ishtar encounters “gates,” just as Muhammad encountered “gates” up in the various levels of heaven . . . where the dead people go.
Each “gate” that Ishtar goes through, takes her through a layer of the underworld.
But guess how many layers, or “gates” Ishtar encounters and goes through in the underworld? Yeah, that’s right, seven–paralleled by Muhammad’s seven heavens.
In order to enter each new level, Ishtar has to remove an article of clothing until she is completely naked upon reaching the seventh level (a precursor of Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Viels”).
There, Ishtar also has to divest herself of her life (and her body) and face Ereshkigal, the Goddess of the underworld devoid of everything except her spirit. Perhaps presaging Muhammad’s alleged “out of body experience.”
And, of course, the Ishtar story was borrowed from an even earlier Sumerian story of the Sumerian fertility goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld involving, yes, seven layers.
The ladder that Muhammad ascended to heaven on reminded me of the story about “Jacob’s ladder” in Genesis 29:10-13.
A new testament parallel is found in I Peter 3:18-22. In this story Jesus Christ, like Ishtar, is put to death in the flesh, but with his spirit still vibrant “he also went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” What prison are these “spirits” in? The prison of the same underworld that Ishtar and Inanna visited, the 1st layer of heaven that Muhammad visited.
The difference between Jesus and Muhammad here is that Jesus preaches to these sinners to give them one more chance to see the light so they can repent and find a better resting place in the afterworld. Muhammad, on the other hand, simply passes right on by these sinners suffering in torment totally unconcerned about their fate. I think that illustrates the different attitudes of the two religions: Christianity is about helping others. Islam is entirely self-absorbed like its Jew-hating, infidel beheading, sex-slaving “prophet.”
After ministering unto the sinners, Jesus then ascends up to the highest level, to God’s right hand. This is, of course, echoed by Muhammad’s ascending up to the highest level of heaven to be in God’s presence (and Ishtar’s reaching the seventh level of the underworld to face Ereshkigal).
THE BOOK OF ENOCH
But now, we turn to the best example of all, and this is Enoch’s ascension into heaven. Genesis 5:22 mentions that “Enoch walked with God: Enoch walked with God; and he was not; for God took him.” This passage could simply mean that Enoch died. But the full story of Enoch was fleshed out in a collection of apocryphal literatures written in the century before and century after the birth of Christ. The book of Enoch itself is believed to have been written during the earliest years of Christianity, and had a considerable influence on the New Testament writers.
Enoch’s ascension is told in the first book of Enoch: 3-22. Unlike Jesus and Ishtar, but like Muhammad, Enoch did not really have to die because he lived to come back to earth to tell his sons about his journey–just as Muhammad was to return to earth to tell his followers about his journey.
Unlike Muhammad, Enoch did not have to climb all the way up to heaven on a ladder, no, he was born aloft on the wings of angels. Strangely though, Enoch describes 10 heavens, rather than seven. However, at one point of this journey, Enoch is stranded and left alone on the 7th level of heaven. He cries out to God to help him, and shortly who should show up to accompany him through the eighth, ninth, and tenth levels? None other than the angel Gabriel, who was to play the same role for Muhammad six and a half centuries later.
Muhammad’s much ballyhooed night journey to Jerusalem and ascension to heaven was cobbled together from a long list of previous such journey’s to the seven layers of the afterworld, and the face-to-face meetings with God. Inanna, Ishtar, Enoch, Jesus, and Muhammad all have similar experiences of going through “layers” in the afterworld before meeting up face-to-face with deity.
The Muhammad story itself reads more like a disjointed dream than an actual experience. Even Islamic scholars today are beginning to recognize that the night trip to Jerusalem never did occur. For one thing, in the seventh century it took a full month to travel from Mecca to Jerusalem, so to claim that Muhammad did it one night sort of negates the veracity of the story. Even his wife ‘Aisha claimed that his body never left the room.
Another serious problem with the Muhammad story is the claim that he prayed in masjed al-aqsa (the furthest mosque) in Jerusalem. There were no mosques in Jerusalem until after the Arab conquest in the late 630s. Jerusalem was taken in 638, six years after Muhammad’s death. The masjid al-aqsa was not built until around 700, probably in 705.
Therefore, it is safe to say that this entire story of the night journey to Jerusalem was back-written many decades after Muhammad’s death.
These facts are important for today’s Israeli-Palestinian struggle. This is because the only claim that Arabs and Muslims have to Jerusalem is this alleged tenuous dream of Muhammad which was back-written decades after Muhammad’s death–even if there was such a person a this Muhammad.
For decades I have always said that the only reason Jerusalem is important to Islam is because it is important to Christians and is the only holy site for the Jews. Therefore Islam just had to steal it away.
Muslims can counter by saying that Jerusalem is important because it was the first gibla (meaning the city that Muslims must face when they pray). In fact, some of the early “mosques” are alleged to be oriented towards Jerusalem instead of Mecca.
But this is because the Arabian portion of Islam evolved out of the Jewish Ebionite Christianity which was popular in Arabia during the 5th and 6th centuries. And, the “northern” portion of Islam was cobbled together from elements of the Christianity of the followers of Bishop Arius, the Gnostics, and Talmudic Christianity, all of which, like the Jewish-Christian Ebionites in Arabia, would have venerated Jerusalem as the holy city. Besides, Mecca did not become an important site in Islam until at least 630 when Muhammad conquered it, if one believe the traditional Islamic interpretation of Islam’s origins. In the skeptic’s view, that shown by history, linguistics, and archaeology, that of the “out-of-Arabia” origin of Islam, Mecca was not chosen as Islam’s holy site until sometime around 700 A.D.
Ironically, the “out-of-Arabia” view of the origins of Islam gives Muslims a much stronger connection to Jerusalem than does their own made up, back-written stories about Muhammad’s night journey and ascension to heaven.
Barry Webb logged a 25-year career as an Arabist for the National Security Agency, has two MA degrees in related subject areas, is currently a senior fellow with Americans for Intelligence Reform www.intelreform.org, and is the author of Confessions of an (ex) NSA Spy: Why America and its Allies are Losing the War on Terror. His website is www.barrywebbauthor.com
MUHAMMAD’S NIGHT JOURNEY