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 (if the traditional chronology regarding the Qur’an is to be believed), 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.”
Muhammad was especially proud of sura 17, which goes by the titles “The Night Journey” and “The Tribe of Israel.” Of suras 17, 18, and 19 he said: “They are among the earliest and most beautiful Surahs and they are my treasure.” And according to his favorite wife, Aisha, he “used to recite Bani Isra’il [sura 17] and Az-Zumar [sura 39] every night.”
After the cryptic allusion to the Night Journey in verse 1, the chapter continues (in verses 2-8) with a warning to the Jews. Allah previously warned them that twice they “would they do mischief on the earth and be elated with mighty arrogance” (v. 4). Ibn Kathir elaborates: “Allah tells us that He made a declaration to the Children of Israel in the Scripture, meaning that He had already told them in the Book which He revealed to them, that they would cause mischief on the earth twice, and would become tyrants and extremely arrogant, meaning they would become shameless oppressors of people.” The crime of “mischief on the earth,” fasaad fi al-ardh, is punishable according to Qur’an 5:33 by crucifixion, or the amputation of hands and feet on opposite sides.
Who were the servants of Allah “given to terrible warfare” who entered the homes of the Jews? Ibn Kathir doesn’t trust accounts from Jewish sources, apparently including Jewish Scriptures: “some of them are fabricated, concocted by their heretics, and others may be true, but we have no need of them, praise be to Allah. What Allah has told us in His Book (the Qur’an) is sufficient and we have no need of what is in the other books that came before. Neither Allah nor His Messenger required us to refer to them.” For the Jews’ disobedience to Allah “their humiliation and subjugation was a befitting punishment.”
Then Allah repeats warnings of the impending judgment (vv. 9-21). No one can bear another’s burdens (v. 15) — although 29:13 says that the unbelievers will “bear their own burdens, and burdens along with their own.” Allah always sends messengers to a disobedient people before he destroys it (v. 16), and warns Muslims that those who long for the transitory things of this life will be given them, but will be punished in hell (v. 18).
After that, Allah enunciates a moral code (vv. 22-39), the “wisdom wherewith thy Lord hath inspired thee” — that is, Muhammad (v. 39). Muslims should:
1. Worship Allah alone (v. 22);
2. Be kind to their parents (v. 23);
3. Provide for their relatives, the needy, and travelers, and not be wasteful (v. 26);
4. Not kill their children for fear of poverty (v. 31);
5. Not commit adultery (v. 32);
6. Not “take life — which Allah has made sacred — except for just cause,” and to make restitution for wrongful death (v. 33 — see the discussion here of 2:178);
7. Not seize the wealth of orphans (v. 34);
8. “Give full measure when you measure, and weigh with a balance that is straight” (v. 35);
9. “Pursue not that of which thou hast no knowledge” (v. 36);
10. Not “walk on the earth with insolence” (v. 37).
Allah thereupon once again excoriates the unbelievers for their perversity (vv. 40-71). The unbelievers “utter a most dreadful saying” in claiming that Allah has daughters, while they have sons (v. 40). The Qur’an reveals the truth, but only makes them resist it even more (v. 41). All creation reveals Allah’s glory (v. 44). Allah prevents the unbelievers from understanding the Qur’an (v. 46), and they accuse Muhammad of being “bewitched” (v. 47). They deny that Allah can restore the dead to life (vv. 49-52, cf. 98-99), yet their idols have no power (vv. 56, 67). All populations will be destroyed utterly or at least punished (v. 58), but Allah doesn’t send a miracle to confirm Muhammad’s message because others rejected miracles in the past (v. 59). The refusal of Satan to bow down to Adam is retold in vv. 61-65 — see the discussion of 7:11-25. The unbelievers should be mindful that Allah might bring a natural disaster upon them (vv. 68-69).
The unbelievers even tried to tempt Muhammad away from the truth (verses 72-77). There are varying accounts of what form this temptation took. The Ruhul Ma’ani says that the pagan Quraysh asked Muhammad to replace the verses announcing Allah’s punishment with verses about his mercy, and vice versa — which would make the verses of mercy much more plentiful. But Allah kept Muhammad from being thus beguiled.
Allah then once again reiterates many of the same themes, returning most often to the wonders of the Qur’an itself (vv. 78-100). The Qur’an is “a healing and a mercy to those who believe,” while “to the unjust it causes nothing but loss after loss” (v. 82). The “whole of mankind and Jinns,” working together, couldn’t produce anything like it (v. 88). Yet still men are ungrateful (v. 89) and demand a miracle, which they will not get (vv. 90-96). No one can guide one whom Allah leaves straying (v. 97).
More repetition follows, as Allah returns to the story of Moses with Pharaoh, recounting that Allah gave Moses “nine clear signs,” but Pharaoh remained obstinate and denied Moses’ claims in language reminiscent of the Quraysh’s dismissal of Muhammad in v. 47 (v. 101). Allah gives the children of Israel the land (v. 104) — that is, Jordan and Palestine, according to the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas. There are several prominent “moderate” Muslims who have made much of this, telling Jewish groups that the Qur’an guarantees Jews the land of Israel without getting around to telling them also that the Qur’an also says Jews are accursed for rejecting Muhammad (2:89) and that the Muslims are the true children of Abraham (3:67-68) and thus the true inheritors of this promise.
Allah concludes the sura with more praise of the Qur’an, which has brought the truth, such that the pious receive it with grateful humility (vv. 105-109). Then comes Allah’s instruction to Muhammad to say, “Call upon Allah, or call upon Rahman [the Compassionate]: by whatever name you call upon Him, for to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names” (v. 110). Apparently, the Meccans thought that Al-Rahman, the middle term of the Islamic invocation Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim, “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,” was a deity distinct from Allah, and Muhammad is instructed to tell them that they are but two different names for the same being. According to Ibn Kathir, “one of the idolators heard the Prophet saying when he was prostrating: ‘O Most Gracious, O Most Merciful.’ The idolator said, he claims to pray to One, but he is praying to two! Then Allah revealed this Ayah [verse, or sign].” Several historians have noted that Al-Rahman was the name of a pagan god in pre-Islamic Arabia, and was also used frequently by Jews and Christians — suggesting that Muhammad was trying to bring together several conceptions of the divine in order to unite the peoples of Arabia under Islam. There is even a hint of this in the Qur’an, when the unbelievers exclaim: “Has he made the gods (all) into one Allah? Truly this is a wonderful thing!” (38:5).
Sura 18, “The Cave,” another Meccan sura, occupies a unique place in Muslim piety. Muhammad said that one who memorized the first ten verses of this chapter (or, in some versions, the last ten) would “be secure against the Dajjal” — the Islamic version of the anti-Christ. Another ahadith has him saying that if a Muslim recites Sura 18 on Friday, “it will illuminate him with light from one Friday to the next.” Another version says that one who does this will be “immune for 8 days from all fitnah [upheaval, sedition] that will happen.” It also contains some key material for Islamic folklore and Sufi mysticism.
According to Ibn Ishaq, this chapter was revealed after the pagan Quraysh sent an emissary to the Jewish rabbis of Medina, asking them about Muhammad’s prophetic claims. The rabbis responded: “Ask him about three things which we will tell you to ask, and if he answers them then he is a Prophet who has been sent (by Allah); if he does not, then he is saying things that are not true, in which case how you will deal with him will be up to you. Ask him about some young men in ancient times, what was their story. For theirs is a strange and wondrous tale.” Allah tells that story in verses 9-26.
The rabbis continued: “Ask him about a man who travelled a great deal and reached the east and the west of the earth. What was his story?” That story is in verses 83-98. “And ask him about the Ruh (soul or spirit) — what is it? If he tells you about these things, then he is a Prophet, so follow him, but if he does not tell you, then he is a man who is making things up, so deal with him as you see fit.” So this sura is offered, at least in this view, as a validation of Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet.
Allah begins in verses 1-8 by again praising the Qur’an, in which there is no “crookedness” (v. 1). Maulana Bulandshahri comments: “This means that there are neither iniquities nor muddling of words in the Qur’an. There is also no shortage of eloquence in it, nor any discrepancies.” Allah has made it clear in order to warn the unbelievers of his impending terrible punishment (v. 2), as well as to warn those who say Allah has begotten a Son (v. 4) — that is, the Christians, as well as the Jews who, according to 9:30, claimed that Ezra was the son of God.
Allah, ever solicitous of his prophet, consoles Muhammad for his grief over the unbelievers’ obstinacy (v. 6), and reminds him that the attractions of this life are merely a test (v. 7).
Then in verses 9-26 Allah tells the story of the “companions of the Cave and of the Inscription” (Al-Kahf and Ar-Raqim, v. 9). Al-Kahf is the cave in which the young men slept for 300 or 309 years (v. 25, with the difference being the discrepancy between the solar and lunar calendars), miraculously protected by Allah. There is no agreement on the meaning of Al-Raqim; some say it refers to a nearby valley or mountain, while Anas and Sha’bi contend it was the name of their dog, who was with them and is mentioned in verses 18 and 22. Sa’id bin Jubayr said it was “a tablet of stone on which they wrote the story of the people of the Cave, then they placed it at the entrance to the Cave” — hence, “the Inscription.”
These were, according to Ibn Kathir, “boys or young men” who were “more accepting of the truth and more guided than the elders who had become stubbornly set in their ways and clung to the religion of falsehood.” They acknowledge the oneness of Allah and reject the idols of their people; Allah protects them from the idolaters by sheltering them in the cave (vv. 14-16).
Although the young men remained in the cave for three centuries, when they were asked how long they had been there, they answered: “We have stayed (perhaps) a day, or part of a day” (v. 19). Allah “turned them on their right and on their left sides” (v. 18) — presumably to preserve their bodies from decay while they slept, for, says Ibn Abbas, “If they did not turn over, the earth would have consumed them.”
Their dog, meanwhile, was “stretching forth his two fore-legs on the threshold” (v. 18) — in other words, he wasn’t precisely inside the cave, so that he wouldn’t keep angels from entering it. “He was sitting outside the door,” explains Ibn Kathir, “because the angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog, as was reported in As-Sahih, nor do they enter a house in which there is an image, a person in a state of ritual impurity or a disbeliever, as was narrated in the Hasan Hadith.”
Bukhari records that tradition, in which Muhammad says: “Angels do not enter a house wherein there is a dog or a picture of a living creature.” Nevertheless, continues Ibn Kathir: “The blessing they enjoyed extended to their dog, so the sleep that overtook them overtook him too. This is the benefit of accompanying good people, and so this dog attained fame and stature. It was said that he was the hunting dog of one of the people which is the more appropriate view, or that he was the dog of the king’s cook, who shared their religious views, and brought his dog with him.”
This is an adaptation of the Christian story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (although the Qur’an is less sure of their number — see v. 22), who are revered as saints in Byzantine Christianity. These are young men who sought refuge in a cave from the pagans in the pre-Christian Roman Empire, were miraculously protected, and who woke up after the Empire had been Christianized. (Ibn Kathir, however, thinks the story is pre-Christian, since the Jewish rabbis know of it and ask Muhammad about it as one of their tests of his prophethood.)
In verses 27-44, after a brief invocation of the gardens of Paradise (vv. 27-31), Allah offers an extended parable about a man who valued the things of this world more than obedience to Allah. The message is the same as that of Luke 12:15-21: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Then in verses 45-59 Allah repeats warnings of the impending Day of Judgment (v. 49). Satan’s refusal to bow down to Adam is recalled again, and Allah warns people not to follow Satan in his disobedience (v. 50). Here Satan is identified as one of the jinns, as opposed to his identification as an angel elsewhere — see the discussion of 7:11-25. Those whom the unbelievers have associated as partners with Allah will be of no avail on that Day (v. 52). Allah has sent messengers, but the unbelievers scoff at them (v. 56). They will be destroyed (v. 59).
Sura 18’s importance in Muslim piety is affirmed in numerous ahadith. In one, a man was reciting the sura when “a cloud came down and spread over that man, and it kept on coming closer and closer to him till his horse started jumping (as if afraid of something). When it was morning, the man came to the Prophet, and told him of that experience. The Prophet said, ‘That was As-Sakina (tranquility) which descended because of (the recitation of) the Qur’an.’” As-Sakina is an adaptation of the Hebrew Shekinah, which refers in Jewish tradition to God’s presence in the world, and the cloud clearly recalls the cloud that accompanies God’s presence in Biblical passages such as Exodus 40:35. Like other Biblical concepts imported into Islam — notably, Jesus as the “Word of God” — it doesn’t have this strong a connotation in Islamic thought.
Sura 18 contains one of the strangest, most arresting stories in the entire Qur’an: that of the journey of Moses and Khidr, one of the great road-trip stories of all time (vv. 60-82). Moses, traveling with his servant, forgets the fish they had carried along for their meal (vv. 60-64). Returning to retrieve it, they encounter “one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed Mercy from Ourselves and whom We had taught knowledge from Our own Presence,” (v. 65). In Islamic tradition this man is identified as Al-Khadir or Al-Khidr, or, more commonly, Khidr, “the Green Man.” Some identify him as one of the prophets, others as a wali, a Muslim saint. Abu Hayyan Al-Gharnati, a fourteenth-century commentator on the Qur’an, points to v. 82, in which Khidr says he didn’t act “of my own accord,” to argue that he was a prophet — for if he was prompted by someone else, who could have prompted a man so holy as to instruct a prophet like Moses except Allah himself? However, another fourteenth-century Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiyya, noted that “the majority of the ulema [Islamic scholars] believe that he was not a Prophet.”
At the beginning of their encounter, Moses asks Khidr: “May I follow you,” so that “you teach me something of the (Higher) Truth which you have been taught?” Khidr is leery (vv. 67-68), and finally agrees as long as Moses agrees to ask him no questions (v. 70). Moses agrees.
Khidr and Moses then get on a boat, which Khidr immediately scuttles — whereupon Moses breaks his promise for the first time, and upbraids Khidr (v. 71); Khidr reminds him of his promise (vv. 72-73). Shortly thereafter, Khidr murders a young man in an apparently random act, and Moses criticizes him again (v. 74).