Isra wal mi‘raj is an important event in Prophetic history. Muslims must study the events leading to the mi‘raj and what lessons they can derive from them today.
Limitless in His glory is He [Allah] who transported His conforming subject [Muhammad] by night from the Inviolable Sanctuary [in Makkah] to the Remote Sanctuary [in Jerusalem] — the environs of which We had blessed — so that We might show him some of Our symbols: for, verily, He alone is all-hearing, all-seeing (17:01).
The opening ayah of Surah al-Isra’ of the glorious Qur’an tells us about the night journey of the noble Messenger (pbuh) when he was transported from al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah to al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and thence onto mi‘raj (the journey to Heaven). This event is believed to have occurred in the 12th year of the Prophet’s (pbuh) mission in Makkah. Muslims worldwide commemorate this event with great fervor. Some also highlight the miraculous nature of this event. Recounting the Prophet’s (pbuh) miracles and feeling good about them may be useful but far more important is understanding the background of the circumstances that led to Isra’ and Mi‘raj.
Those familiar with Islamic history know that the Prophet’s (pbuh) last years in Makkah were extremely painful. The Qurayshi chiefs stubbornly refused to accept the divine message. The Prophet (pbuh) had lost his beloved wife Khadijah (ra) as well as his kind uncle Abu Talib who protected him from the vicious attacks of the Quraysh at the end of the 10th year in Makkah soon after the three-year siege of Muslims and their allies had ended.
Deeply disappointed by the Qurayshi chiefs’ rejection, the Prophet (pbuh) attempted to approach the people of al-Ta’if outside Makkah in the hope that they might accept his message. The Ta’if experience turned out to be even more distressing. Instead of accepting his message, al-Ta’if’s chiefs set upon him the town hooligans who pelted him with stones driving him out of the city. The noble Messenger ( upon him) suffered grievous wounds causing him to bleed profusely. Even more painful was the Taif chiefs’ manner of rejection of his message.
It was in these grim circumstances that he made his moving lament to Allah (swt), “Into whose hands will You entrust my affairs: into the hands of strangers that will ill-treat me, or my enemies that will reject and humiliate me?” The noble Messenger’s (pbuh) plea to Allah (swt) did not go unanswered. Immediately the angel appeared and informed him that Allah (swt) had heard his lament and if he wanted, the people of al-Ta’if could be destroyed. The noble Messenger (pbuh), sent as a mercy to all the worlds, did not want any harm to come to them; instead he prayed for their guidance.
Following this painful experience, there was an explosion of divine mercy culminating in the Isra’ and Mi‘raj. In Jerusalem, the noble Messenger (pbuh) led all the earlier Prophets (a) in salah. This signaled his assumption of the imamah (leadership) of all the earlier Prophets (a). The ascent to Heaven was Allah’s (swt) reward for His beloved Messenger (pbuh) who had suffered so much in the process of his mission.
When Muslims hold celebrations for the Isra’ and Mi‘raj, they must understand the background to this momentous event. The Isra’ and Mi‘raj are not meant to merely make us feel good; they are the culmination of a long period of arduous struggle to establish the din of Allah (swt) on earth. We must ask: why did Allah (swt) put his beloved Messenger (pbuh) through so many trials and tribulations? Surely, Allah (swt) did not intend him to suffer so much! Allah (swt) wanted to show to us that in the process of establishing Islam, there will be challenges, some very difficult, chaperoned by numerous sacrifices. These are meant to distinguish the truly committed from those who merely verbalize their iman.
Islam was not established in a day. The Prophet (pbuh) had to struggle for 23 years; the first 13 were spent under very difficult and trying circumstances. Even after he and his companions migrated to Madinah and established the Islamic State, there was no respite. The Makkan mushriks as well their Yahudi allies continued their disruptive tactics, repeatedly attacking Madinah to eliminate the Islamic power presence. The noble Messenger (pbuh) and his committed followers made enormous sacrifices for the sake of Islam — with their wealth and with their lives (61:11). It was only after these sacrifices and struggle that Islam secured a power base in the Arabian Peninsula.
If some Muslims believe that by indulging in rituals, they would be able to establish Islam, then they know nothing about the message of the Qur’an and the Sunnah and Sirah of the noble Messenger (pbuh). The celebration of the Isra’ and Mi‘raj would be another ritual that they indulge in without making any difference to their lives. It is time to move beyond rituals.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT).