In The Name Of Allah Most Gracious Most Merciful
Lailatul Isra wal Mir’aj
Dr Muhammad Rafiq Khan
سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي أَسْرَى بِعَبْدِهِ لَيْلاً مِّنَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ إِلَى الْمَسْجِدِ الأَقْصَى الَّذِي بَارَكْنَا حَوْلَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ البَصِيرُ (17:1)
· 17:1 LIMITLESS in His glory is He who transported His servant by night from the Inviolable House of Worship [at Mecca] to the Remote House of Worship [,at 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.
Respected Mothers and Fathers
Beloved Sisters and Brothers
Assalamu Alaikum warahmatullhi a barakatuhu.
I deem it an honour and a privilege to address you on this occasion.
All Thanks and Praises are due to Allahu Subhanahu Wa ta ala , Who is our Creator, our Lord , our Educator, our Nourisher and our Sustainer. We Beseech Allah Almighty to bestow His Choicest Blessings, Peace and Salutations upon His Beloved Rasul, our Leader and Master, Muhammad (SAW).
We gather to commemorate a very special event , the Isra and the Mi’raj, the heavenly ascent of the Prophet of Allah which occurred on the 27th night of Rajab, in the 9th year of the Prophetic mission.
Legend History Myth
In many mosques(masajid) in our midsts there are two important messages which are usually conveyed on this occasion; the first idea revolves around narrating the events which took place on this great and auspicious night with at times a tangential reference as to whether it was a physical event, a spiritual event or perhaps a combination of both; the other deals with the imminent appearance of Ramadan and hence the need to start preparing ourselves for this great month of spiritual rejuvenation. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this approach I am not of the opinion that repeating the same discourse year in and year out can lead us to a more fuller and deeper understanding of this very important event in the life of the Prophet of Allah(SAW). Furthermore we risk reducing it to a legend for which we have no rational explanation. We fail to engage this event and thus lose out on utilizing a most valuable resource for our spiritual and moral training and development.
I humbly submit to you that this distant approach to the Isra and the Mi’raj defeats the purpose of commemorating this event. Events never occur in isolation; they have a pre-history and a particular context. Events are a part of a process. We cannot disaggregate a process and focus solely on events. We lose something of the bigger picture. Thus both the antecedent and the a posteriori effects of the mi’raj must be given the importance they deserve so that a better understanding can be cultivated.
The Isra and the Mi’raj is but one aspect of the total Mission or Seerah of the Prophet of Allah. It is imperative that as followers of Rasul lullah (SAW) we have to be in constant engagement with the Seerah, studying it, reflecting on it, and drawing upon it as source of inspiration for the manifold challenges we face in our daily lives. One way to facilitate our engagement with the seerah is always to keep a kind of time –line of the Prophet’s mission firmly in our mind.iPerhaps the occasion of the Isra and the Mi’raj is an appropriate occasion to critically question whether we really consciously bring to mind the proposition,
what would Muhammad (SAW) have said about the problem I am facing with now
or do we simply drift into our own rational and secular ways of structuring our lives reflecting our paucity of understanding the complexity of our existence. If we fail to prioritise a proper understanding of the Seerah, we fail to engage the best example, the Uswatun hasana, Allah in His Majesty has deemed most superior for us. Nor do I think it as being sufficient to look at the Isra and the Mi’raj as a purely historical event completely shorn off its very deep spiritual and transcendent significance.
Tafaqqur : Contemplation and Reflection
Tonight I invite your attention for a little bit of reflection and contemplation as we humbly seek of Allah to expand our horizons of understanding about this heavenly ascension of the Prophet of Allah. It is a known fact that the Prophet of Allah was a human being like us. The Quraish found it strange that Allah could send a prophet such as Muhammad who in their eyes could perform no miracle, could do nothing extra-ordinary, would eat and drink and live like any ordinary human being. They could vouch for his integrity but did not feel that he had sufficient proof to bolster his claim for the office of Prophethood. They wanted to experience something extra-ordinary at the hands of an ordinary human being like themselves. However it is importatnt to realise that the Isra and the Mi’raj did not occur in response to the request of the Kuffar to witness miracles.
On the contrary the Isra and the Mi’raj exponentially increased the dilemma for the Quraish, for despite all the hardship, persecution and difficulties they threw at him he did not waver in his commitment to establish a commmunity based on faith and submission to One Supreme Transcendent Being. Nay , it was not only his refusal to back down his claims but rather his now emboldened approach towards establishing a faith-based community that made it very clear to them that Muhammad’s mission cannot be wished away. The Isra and the Mi’raj was no miracle or an act of illusion either; it defied any rational description. It was executed by Divine Order. If the Quraish by that time had not accepted the veracity of Muhammad’s claim there was little chance it would do so after the Isra and the Mi’raj.
Muhammad (SAW) was not preaching to a select audience; therefore the Quraishi or influential elites’ opinion was of little consequence to him; he was not going to play by their rules. He was instructed to follow a Divine plan.
Like everything else in life, if we want to be successful we cannot play by somebody else’s rules; we set our own parameters; we follow our own game plan.
Sometimes people do not accept anything because it makes a superior claim in theory but rather they want to see a more concrete manifestation before there is sufficient buy-in by old established patterns of behaviour and power formations. Perhaps their time to accept the truth of Muhammad’s claim would come later.
From Iman to Yaqin
Right now the central concern of the Isra and the Mi’raj was to strengthen the heart Muhammad by him being shown some of the signs which would take his faith to a deeper level of certainty (yaqin). This would naturally lead to a more determined approach on his part to establish the din of Allah for the benefit of all humanity. By the Mercy of Allah he no longer just believed but acted in the way he did because he came to have knowledge of a reality not known to us as mere mortals. The intensity of his efforts was simply ratcheted upwards. He had seen some signs by Allah that gave him a glimpse of the deeper reality that lies behind seemingly ordinary occurrences. If by revelation he had seen the thahiri (exoteric) it is through the Isra and the Mi’raj that he glimpsed some manifestation of the batini or the esoteric. Evens if his latest message of the Isra and the Mi’raj was sounding to the Kuffar as if Muhammad’s mission was further receding from a rational explanation it would make no difference to the vision and purpose with which the Prophet of Allah now saw his mission..
There is no god but God
His faith proclamation did not invite any person to the worship or veneration of any human being; its single greatest message was to invite people to the reality of
La ilaha illal la
There is no god but God.
There is no ilah but Allah
If ever there was a miracle in Islam it was simply this most provocative, life changing statement or command or instruction humanity at large was ever given. The entire edifice of our din , its foundational articles of faith, its law, its ethics, its metaphysics, its cosmology, its ideas of eschatology, prophetology , its knowledge of what constitutes our very being and so on is all based on this one unique creedal statement. That the Prophet of Allah could implement such a revolutionary teaching amongst a people who ascribed divinity to what their own hands created, who were steeped in a hierarchic tradition which discriminated against the poor and marginalised, which saw nothing abhorrent in possessing human beings as slaves, which in the birth of a new borne female infant could not a display a sense of joy and happiness but a curse to be buried alive, the introduction of and acceptance by a community of the Concept of One Ilah who is Allah and not their own fancy must indeed rank as a miracle if we want to call it as such. There was no greater moral or ethical principle which would could shake such a society to its very core than to introduce it to the concept of la ilaha illal lah.
A new epistemology
My humble understanding of the Isra and the Mi’raj is that it is one of those very significant moments which served to define a new path or trajectory for the prophetic mission. Allah in His infinite wisdom did not reveal the Qur’an all at the same time; similarly His Prophet too had to be prepared for his various roles and challenges which characterise any prophetic mission.
Whereas the textual revelation appeals primarily to the intellect through a process of tafsir, the Mi’raj represents another kind of learning or epistemology. It appeals to the heart which is another centre of intelligence; it receives its inspiration via a process of illumination and shows its effects by transforming the character, behaviour and personality of the one who is fortunate enough to receive its impact. It goes without saying that the Prophets of Allah have been the first in the line of receiving this form of ta’wil or disclosure of the real intent and purpose behind God’s written word captured in textual form.
The anbiya (prophets)have Allah as their First Guide, Teacher and Protector. They are Allah’s chosen people to impart His Will to humanity. They are bearers of glad tidings but also warn against personal and societal violations of certain expected norms of behaviour. They are agents of social change; they speak truth to power and hence almost without exception face torment and untold personal hardship as they confront evils and injustices. Theirs is a herculean task and it tests their reliance on a Omnipotent and All Powerful God to the utmost.
Din, Aqida, Ummah,Culture and Civilization
Looking at Rasulullah ‘s life from this perspective makes it very clear that to implement Allah’s Will and to establish adl and qist, justice and fairness , was not going to be an easy task. He worked relentlessly to establish an understanding of the fundamentals of a our faith (din), distilling from these a set of creedal statements (aqida)to establish a confessional community ( ummah), and indeed a culture and a civilization which all serve to define and give meaning and significance to our lives. His Sunnah or pattern of life becomes a model or paradigm for us to follow. It is important for us to note that all of this did not come about without somebody paying a huge ransom on our behalf so that we can reap its benefits today. “One generation plants the trees so that the next can enjoy its shade” is a rather apt aphorism to describe the enormous debt we owe to Rasullullah for his endurance and perseverance in his mission.
What length did Muhammad(SAW) not undergo, especially on his fateful journey to Taif, just prior to the Mi’raj to ensure the survival of his ummah as a distinct faith and cultural entity? No Prophet is regarded as successful in his mission if he does not have a following. The very raison d’etre of his prophetic mission is to have a community of followers or an ummah. Faith or the culture of a community cannot be given any permanent expression in any objects or symbols; they may remind of a faith or a culture but the real seat of its occupancy rests within the hearts and consciousness of its followers; hence the quality of a any faith, religion or culture is ultimately determined by its followers and not by what we might hold up to be a theoretical understanding of the tradition concerned.
27th nights of Rajab and Ramadan; similarities and differences
One of the firsts things that struck me whilst reflecting this year on the Isra and the Mi’raj was that like the night of Lailatul Qadr in Ramadan both occur, calendar wise , at least, on the 27th night of each month. The first event in the cave of Hira marks the initiation of Islam whilst the second gives it an extra boost or a new lease of life, confirming and strengthening its chance of success.
Whereas the event in the Cave was a source of Inspiration from above, the heavenly journey comes across as a source of succour or a fulfilment of a soul’s aspiration to reach Allah. Nubuwwah or Revelation was a physically painful experience ; its effects were visible to those who observed it; the Mi’raj was different; it was a form of spiritual strength. The Prophet of Allah was in need of human comfort with the first wahy(revelation); he was bewildered, thinking that he was losing his mind; with the Mi’raj he is emboldened to go to the Ka’ba , despite the objections of Ummi Hani at whose house he was staying during the night of this event. This confident behaviour on his part marked a major attitudinal change in Rasul lul lah ‘s strategy. No where do e see a better example of this than when the Muhammad (SAW) and his companion Abubakr (R) were hiding in the cave whilst undertaking the Hijra to Medina. Would there have been any Islam in Medina if they were attacked? His answer to his companions fears, immortalised in the words of the Qur’an , ”La tah zan innalaha , ma’ana’ Fear not , Allah Is with us” (Qur’an 9:40) is a prime example of his unshaken faith which sustained his endurance and patience in the face of all sorts of difficulties , trials and tribulations.
Sunnat al Lah ; Sunnah of Allah
There is one very important lesson in this for all of us. If we are truthful, sincere and depend solely on Our Creator we will triumph. We will be successful for Allah does not tolerate oppressors and their oppression. No matter what the difficulties are, these are all temporary. This gives us hope and courage. It is not the sunnah of Allah to let oppression go on for ever; it did not stay here for ever, elsewhere its plight will be the same. Yes, we are human and we can despair like the very sahaba did; they asked Rasullulah, “ mata nasrullah?” “where is the help of Allah” and the Qur’an of course answers “ inna nasrallah i qarib” , “verily the Help of Allah is near”. (Qur’an 2; 214)It is precisely the confident mindset that the Qur’an builds amongst the salihin that they are often identified by the words of the Qur’an, “la khawfun alaihim wa la hum yahzanun” (Qur’an 10;62). They display the quality of istiqama (steadfastness) in all that they do. They are not given to panic and despair. They have the conviction that nobody can determine their destiny but Allah!
Internalising the spirit of Mi’raj
How do we imbibe this spirit of the Isra and the Mi’raj into our lives? Others before also reflected upon it and some Great Sufis, such as Bayazid Bistami and Ibn Arabi for example , also experienced something akin to the Mi’raj of the Prophet of Allah entering into a form of communication and conversation with their Lord. Our own needs are more modest. We want to gain nearness to Allah; to have a sense of peace and tranquillity in our lives. We want these veils which mask our understanding and which separate us from our Lord, such that we cannot evens perform two ra kaat of salah with no stray thought entering our minds to be something of the past; we want to master our own weaknesses and failure to curb our temptations to do wrong; how much have we not done to violate the trust and hope which Allah placed on us when He set us forth on this earth? What have we done to this pure nature or Fitrah Allah has Created us with.? How are we going to meet Our Lord one day and can we be certain that we are returning our souls in state that is pleasing to our Lord and Creator?
These are the issues we grapple with as human beings and these are the feelings of utter humility which accumulate within us as we humbly supplicate before our Lord and Rabb. This is where the month of Rajab comes into play. This month is called Shahrul lah or the month of Allah. What do we mean by this is Allah’s month? Surely every month is Allah’s Creation? Quite true, but sometimes when something is so common we assume it is a given and we cannot imagine a reality without it. It simply eludes into the background. By reifying or accentuating a part of it we place a renewed focus on it thereby enhancing our meaning of it in the process.
Unlike in Ramadan, where many of us just often tend to relax after iftar or think of going downhill after the middle of the month, Rajab simply says the whole month belongs to Allah; all its time of days and nights, of hours and minutes. If it is Allah’s time He is in sense looking at us with a special favour as towards whom He can be Generous with. I humbly submit to you that we cannot truly imbibe the spirit of the Isra and Mi’raj if we do not observe this month of Rajab with the appropriate respect and decorum it deserves. Rajab comes from the root Rajaba which means to respect; this is Allah’s month, so out of respect for Him if we can curb our excesses can we imagine what we stand to gain.
Let me share with you a beautiful quotation I culled from a book entitled the Muslim Jesus by a contemporary scholar Tarif Khalidi
Jesus said, “Oh God , who is the most honourable of men?” God Replied , “ He when alone knows that I am with him, and so respects my Majesty that he would not want me to witness his sins”
I am absolutely astounded when I reflect on the writings, reflections and supplications of the past great sufi masters. They knew the value of this month. This is the turning around- and disciplining time of the ruh or soul. Many traditions implore us to be more spiritually engaged during this month by knocking at Allah’s door and appealing to Him to help us become a more pious (salih) , Allah fearing, ethically and morally conscious person, a person with good character , good ahlaq and adab; good behaviour and excellent conduct, who is a pleasure to be with; someone who is kind , compassionate, in control of his or her feelings , particularly that of anger and disappointment.
It is because the salihin understood the meaning of Rajab that they strive so assiduously to become more Allah-conscious during this month. They knew of the special blessings and favours Allah bestows upon those who seek Him during this month.
There is no better way to do so than to engage in prayer in the early hours of the morning, well before the fajr prayer , beseeching Allah through salatut tahajjud , thikrullah and supplication, istighfar and salawat upon the Allah’s beloved Rasul. This was the practice of the Prophet of Allah evens before the five daily salahs became compulsory on the night of Mi’raj. There is something pure, sincere, selfless, noble and symbolic of one’s submission witnessed by forsaking one’s sleep to get up for prayer. It is away from the eyes of people and any disturbances; it is the best time for the soul to engage its Lord in communication. Listen to what theQur’an has to say of those who forsake their sleep at night;
Their sides shun their beds in order to pray to their Lord in fear and hope; they give to others what we have given them (Qur’an 32;16)
To quote Tarif Khalidi once again
Jesus said, ‘Talk much to God, talk little to people.” He was asked , “How do we talk much to God?” Jesus answered, “Converse with Him in solitude , pray to Him in solitude.”
This prayer was so loved by Rasullulah that he once remarked that if it was not for the fact that it might cause hardship to his Ummah he wished that it could be made a fard or compulsory form of prayer.
As salatu mi’rajul Mu’minin
There are multiple levels at which the symbol of salah is intricately linked with the message of Mi’raj. When the Prophet of Allah arrives in Jerusalem , at Baitul Muqaddas or the Blessed House , he leads all his anbiya predecessors in salah before he goes on to the presence of Allah during his Mi’raj. In the very presence of Allah, whilst in state of jalsa, or the sitting position of the formal prayer cycle he praises Allah and Greets his Lord......something we do every day; we vicariously engage in a similar act of meeting with our Lord when we recite our Tashahhud supplication of Attahiyatu Al mubarakatuhu etc. ..Allah Almighty returns the greeting upon Muhammad (SAW).......Muhammad in turn requests Allah Almighty to send his peace and blessings upon those who are the salihin or the Allah conscious folk of his Ummah, something which is not without any spiritual significance.
No religious or faith based community can survive without its followers. It is the followers who carry a certain tradition; removing anyone of them will not cause the tradition to collapse for the message they espouse is deeply embedded within the hearts of each of its members. In this way our culture and tradition survives. Because we value our individual members , especially the salihin amongst us we pray for their peace and benediction.
Alastu bi rabbikum
Evens more significant as a symbol of this great spiritual event of the isra and mi’raj, salah or the traditional way of communicating with Allah Almighty focuses our attention of that event in primordial times which affirmed our ubudiyyah or servanthood before Allah; the qur’an reminds us of the question posed to all souls before they were sent to this earth; ‘‘am I not your Lord? “ (“ Alastu bi rabbikum” ). ( Qur’an 7;172) Every ruh in its primordial state was made in a state of purity or fitrah. It is totally obedient during this stage. Its nature is to obey and to worship Allah alone. Its earthly sojourn is a period of a trial. When we return to Allah we give an account of what we have done with this pure state; have we enhanced it or have we defiled it by our process of neglect.
Being on this earth however does not mean we have been left to our own devices. Allah in His Mercy has given us the institution of prayer, which if we perform it correctly with due attention and diligence and in state of submission to Allah, performing our prayer as if we are seeing Him, with excellence and integrity, salah becomes a Divinely ordained act whereby we can re-enact the spirit of submission made to Allah when we were in our pure state of fitra. That should be our higher goal; not merely to stay away from wrongful- and sinful deeds and becoming remorseful only to lapse again .
We depend on Allah’s Mercy and we hope we will be worthy recipients thereof but Rajab is also about creating within us that yearning to be liberated from our weaker tendencies and to aspire towards becoming closer to Allah and reaching for our own Mi’raj. There is nothing wrong with dreaming and aspiring for something very high and noble. Allah will reward us for using our imagination in His service and in our desire to overcome our human frailties.
At the very core of this salah is a simple Divinely taught form of prayer or communication between an ‘abd (servant) and Rabb (Lord). There is debate amongst the scholars when exactly sura fatiha was revealed; also known as the ummul kitab (the essence of the Divine writ), fatihat al kitab or the openining of the kitab , surat al hamd or the sura of praise, asas al quran or the foundation of the quran, or sab al mathani or the seven oft repeated verses...revealed according to one source from a treasure beneath the throne of Allah. This happened very early on in the prophetic mission in Makka.
The reason I mentioned this is because it is the heart of prayer. According to a hadith report nothing like it had been revealed in the torah, the gospel, the psalm or evens in the Qur’an. It is the first surah to be revealed in a complete form. Reason why I mention this is because of a beautiful hadith which captures the dialogue between us as ordinary human beings and how Allahu Subhanahu wata ala in His Divine Majesty responds to every one of the seven verses we read in this supplication
The slave of Allah enters into an intimate dialogue with his Lord. This is really the heart of all our worship.
The hadith I quoted reveals very clearly that prayer is not a one way activity. There is a response from Allah above. This is not something isolated but occurs in so many other forms of worship as well. Whether it be reciting salawat, or making an athkar of Laila ha illal la or simply expending some energy towards directing the focus of one’s life there is a Divine response which far exceeds in generosity what we can ever expect from our meagre deeds at times.
In essence what was revealed to the Prophet on this night was nothing more than a Tajalli or a theophany or a glimpse into the world of the Real; the spiritual existence of which we by our weak state cannot fathom at times. We feel that the reality we are exposed to here is the ultimate reality. But Allah is not limited by time and space and by the constraints of history. He gives special favours and blessings to whom He Wills.
Hope and history
It is therefore strange for us to fathom how the Rasul of Allah , when Muslim political and military power was still in its infancy could confidently predict that the land of the mighty Eastern Roman –and the Persian (Sassanid) empires, the two superpowers of the day would one day be under Muslim dominion. This confident expression was not mere wishful thinking or clairvoyance on the part of the Rasul of Allah but an expression of knowing how right and just his mission was. Success must sooner or later come his way. Those opposing his ways due to their own internal contradictions will eventually be brought low.
Nobody thought that an orphan, ostracised, banished, persecuted and forced into exile would one day come out triumphant. The odds in history are stacked against such an outcome. Yet some days we are surprised as the poet Saemus Heany writes
History says , don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed –for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So one day Insha Allah it will be with us too. We may not count much in today’s terms but we have truth on our side. We have hope of a better future and the message of mi’raj is a source of hope for us. In every epoch we can achieve only that much; let’s do our share and do it sincerely and not wilfully neglect anything we have to do and the future generations will not judge harshly. For ten years the Prime minister of Turkey was a person called Turgut Ozal. He played a crucial role in steering modern Turkey towards a more Islamic direction paving the way for the first really pro-Islamist party to get into power. This despite the vast and formidable array of Kemalist forces entrenched at all levels in the country. He died suddenly at quite a young age with a heart attack. He was a very silent member of the Naqshabandi movement in Turkey.
In conclusion I want to stress two points...
Return to humanity
Firstly the Prophet of Allah shows his utter love and devotion to his Ummah. He returns to earth to share with us his experiences and to show us the way to Allah. Yet many a Sufi reflecting on the pinnacle of achievement of the Prophet of Allah say that if they had to receive that honour of being in that state of closeness to Allah they would never ever have forsaken it for anything else in the entire cosmos.
The Rasul of Allah came back to earth for us. Can we ever tire of sending our Peace and Salutations upon this Noble Messenger of Allah? There are many books and articles I read about the Rasul of Allah yet the one passage which touched me deeply and which made an indelible impression on my mind refers to the period of his life when he was still a child. He was never held in the arms of his father. At a very tender age he is left in the care of a wet nurse. He spent a few precious years with his own mother. Yet this too had to be snatched away from him when his mother dies when he is only six years of age. How poignant for us to reflect that the poor orphan child who needed all the support and comfort from the world is the very one form whose bosom humanity at large will receive comfort and succour form till the day of Qiyama!.
Pluralism in faith
Secondly, our faith tradition is not an inwardly -looking exclusivist way of spiritual development. Muhammad(SAW) met and honoured and was in turn deeply honoured, revered and respected by all the prophets who preceded him. They asked him to be their imam in prayer and supplication before Allah(SWT) at Baitul Muqaddas. No matter what our external theological differences might be, spiritually we are in unison for indeed each of us have been blessed with the same ruh
Wa na fahtu fihi mirruhihi ; Qur’an 38:72)
This is significant for one of the verses revealed on the night of Mi’raj is ayat Amanar rasul...a portion of the Qur’an we recite everyday. It contains the key phrase
La nu farriqu bayna ahadim mirrusuli (Qur’an 2; 285) “ we make no distinction between the messengers”.
Yes we can be 100% Muslim and still love nabi Isa or Musa or any other prophet very deeply and draw lesions from their lives for in no way does the core message of their teachings contradict the path Allah and His Rasul expect us to follow. Thus to be respectful of religious pluralism and to cultivate interfaith links and respect to other faith communities is a sign of good adab on our part.
The key message of the Isra and the Mi’raj is one of hope that those who believe must triumph in the end. Through the perfection of the institution of Salah all of us can experience the spiritual joy and ecstasy of a Mi’raj. Allah Almighty rewards patience and perseverance in His Own Inimitable and Wise way
Thawabam min’ indil la
Wallahu ‘inda huthnu thawab
As a reward from Allah;
The Best reward is with Allah. (3;195).
Wallahu ‘alamu bi thawab.