The ‘Night Journey’

Surah 17 (Al-Isra/The Night Journey): 1

Immaculate is He who carried His servant on a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque, whose environs We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs.

Indeed, He is the All-hearing, the All-seeing.


Based upon several accounts received by Ibn Ishaq, the above brief passage in the Qur’an is treated by Muslims as referring to a story that, if true, would be by far and away the most remarkable incident of Muhammad’s life, namely, God’s transporting him overnight from Mecca to Jerusalem on a winged horse called Buraq (a journey traditionally referred to as ’al-’Isrā’, ‘the night journey’), and once there, raising him through the seven heavens to talk with God directly (‘al-Miʿrāj’, ‘the ascent’). According to one of these accounts, on his arrival at Jerusalem, Muhammad found Abraham, Moses and Jesus already gathered there to greet him. An even more impressive and better-known account has Muhammad ascending through the heavens, meeting past prophets on his way:

First heaven: Adam,

Second heaven: Jesus and John son of Zachariah,

Third heaven: Joseph son of Jacob,

Fourth heaven: Idris (possibly Enoch? see 〈14.〉),

Fifth heaven: Aaron,

Sixth heaven: Moses, and

Seventh heaven: Abraham.

Muhammad was also granted a vision of Hell where he saw some of the people being tortured for their sins: those who in life had devoured the wealth of orphans being forced to eat fire, usurers being trampled by camels and women who had borne illegitimate children hanging by their breasts. As Muhammad commenced his descent to earth, Moses is said to have encouraged him to repeatedly return to God to intercede with Him to reduce the required number of daily prayers, which Muhammad does, eventually persuading God to reduce the prayer cycle from fifty prayers a day, in stages, down to just five, see 〈53.〉


Visions of ascending to heaven/the presence of God are familiar to Judaism and Christianity, see 〈13.〉 The story of Muhammad’s ascent, with his endorsement by a selection of past prophets also carries a particular echo of the transfiguration of Jesus in which Jesus is seen by three of his disciples, transformed into a dazzlingly radiant form and conversing with Moses and Elijah, (Matthew 17.1-8 , Mark 9.2-8 and Luke 9.28-36 ). The repeated beseeching of God for reductions in the number of daily prayers carries an echo of Abraham’s intercession for Sodom (Genesis 18.16-33 ).


With regard to the isra, a connection has been suggested with the first or second century Jewish text known as the Apocalypse of Baruch in which Baruch talks with God and past prophets and is miraculously carried to the walls of Jerusalem by angels. The similarity of the name Baruch with that of Muhammad’s flying steed is, if a coincidence, a remarkable one.


Popular Muslim belief has it that the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount in Jerusalem is a shrine built by the Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Malik to venerate the location from where Muhammad ascended to heaven. However, this explanation for the structure is manifestly implausible. The significance of the rock around which Abd al-Malik built his  shrine is that it is the highest natural point of Mount Moriah, the location of the Holy of Holies of the two Jewish temples to have previously been built on the site, the point upon which the Ark of the Covenant once rested and traditionally the rock upon which Abraham had prepared to sacrifice Isaac, see 〈2.〉 The building of the Dome of the Rock is of great importance to understanding the religious faith of the Arab conquerors of Jerusalem. As one circles the Jerusalem stone, one may look up and see a series of mosaic passages from the Qur’an that focus almost exclusively upon the non-divinity of Jesus and might be regarded as anti-Christian propaganda. They do not include {17.1} which surely would have been included if the purpose of the shrine had been to mark the Night Journey of Muhammad.


Even setting to one side the evidence of the Dome of the Rock, the text of {17.1} falls a long way short of what one might have expected to read if it had indeed been drafted to refer to the miraculous nocturnal journey and celestial ascent described in Islamic tradition. {17.1} does not identify the servant nor their destination, other than as ‘masjid al-aqṣā‘ or ‘farthest place of worship’. This description is hard to reconcile with the then-deserted Temple Mount which could not, as a matter of logic, have been the furthest place of worship from Muhammad wherever he had happened to be. Nor does the Qur’an give any hint that the journey included two legs, a ‘horizontal’ trip across the earth’s surface, followed by a ‘vertical’ elevation through the heavens; nor to any encounter with God and His former prophets, which is surely by far the most memorable part of the supposed trip. Therefore, the traditional story of the Night Journey can be dismissed with some confidence as a late invention, possibly contrived to provide a Muhammadan gloss upon the awkward fact that Islam’s oldest and second most prominent monument is a project to revere the foundation stone of the Jewish Temple.

A proposed reinterpretation

The word ‘’asrā’ that is translated as making a journey by night is employed on five other occasions in the Qur’an, each time used by God to instruct an escape from a position of danger, to be followed by the destruction of those who made the escape necessary.


The motif of a journey by night is employed on five other occasions in the Qur’an, on each occasion indicating an escape from a position of danger to be followed by the destruction of those who made the escape necessary. Three times it appears as God’s instruction to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, {20.77}, {26.52} and {44.23}, and twice as the warning given to Lot to leave Sodom, {11.81} and {15.65}. Since Moses’s receipt of the law is mentioned in {17.2}, it seems likely that there is an allusion to him contained in the reference to ‘God’s servant’ in {17.1}.


If, as it has been suggested above 〈2.〉, the Qur’an’s references to the Masjid al-Haram are in fact references to the site of the Jerusalem Temple, then the true meaning of the verse  would seem to be a reference to God’s servants leaving Jerusalem prior to the punishment of its wicked inhabitants.  {17.4-8}, produced at 〈88.〉 below, proceed to refer to the two occasions on which the Jewish Temple had been destroyed, by the Babylonians and by the Romans, and so this interpretation of {17.1} would seem to be at least corroborated, if not confirmed.


The servant making the night journey may invoke the memory of Moses but cannot be a direct to Moses, since Moses died before he could enter the Promised Land and there is no tradition of him going to the site of the Jerusalem at all.  However, the above interpretation does fit well with the historical scenario that will be proposed below, namely that a party of Jews, excluded from Jerusalem and Edessa (‘God’s servants’ making an Exodus-style ‘journey by night’ from the Temple, prior to God’s vindication of their fidelity) found refuge in a distant ‘place of prostration‘, and there were exposed to God’s ‘signs’, i.e. the announcement of the Qur’an at Yathrib, just as Moses had revealed the law at Mount Sinai.
See 〈36.〉 The First Permission to Fight,

also 〈39.〉 Changing the Qibla, 〈56.〉 The Hajj and 〈96.〉 The Last Day.