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The Night Journey of the Sāfī

“Exalted (is) He Who took His servant by night from Masjid al-Harâm to Masjid al-Aksâ, where We have blessed the surroundings of, so that We may show him Our signs. Indeed, he is all-seeing and all-hearing.”

The above brief reference to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem sets the start of, and gives its name to, the 17th chapter of the Holy Qur’an, Surah al-Isra’. Subsequently followed by his ascension to heaven, mi’raj, the supernatural complexion of the event has earned a significant place in Sufi tradition through accentuating the concepts of mystical dimensions and insān al-kamīl[1].

Although there are many disparate interpretations covering the details of the occurrence, the widely recognized components of this spiritual journey concisely congregate the following narrative. Transpiring on the 27th night of Rajab[2], also referred to as the Night of the Ascension, it is believed the Messenger of God (pbuh) was woken up from his sleep in Mecca by Archangel Gabriel, “the expander of forms”, who took the Prophet (pbuh) to the furthest place of worship[3] from the sacred place of worship[4] on a heavenly mount named Buraq, at, for lack of a better expression, the speed of light.

At the furthest place of worship, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) lead the prayer of all who had been missioned to spread the message of God since existence. Upon completion, Gabriel offered the Prophet (pbuh) two cups of beverages, milk and wine, and told him to choose. Reaching for the cup of milk instead of the wine, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) found out he had passed this test of God from Gabriel’s sigh of relief. The milk symbolized fitrah, meaning the pure and original disposition, which in this case translates into inherent goodness, essence and piety; versus wine, which the choice of would have led his entire following astray.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) then ascends to the heavens from where the Dome of the Rock stands today, which constitutes the second part of his night journey: mi’raj. Accompanied by Gabriel, he witnesses the whole of creation, both the physical and metaphysical realms— in fact, his portrayed experience of heaven and hell, indisputably, lays the foundation for Dante’s Inferno. On each level of Heaven, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) ‘meets and greets’ one of the, mentioned seven, earlier prophets: Adam, John the Baptist, Jesus, Joseph, Idris, Aaron, Moses and Abraham (as). The seventh level of Heaven brings the end of Gabriel’s company as they reach Sidret al-Muntahā, the Lote Tree. This tree marks the ultimate boundary for creation before the Divine Spheres. At this juncture, Gabriel advises The Messenger of God (pbuh) to continue his journey solo until he reaches kab al-kawsayn, the tangence of two arch-like spheres, where he comes in extreme proximity with the Lord. The exchanged conversation between the Creator and his beloved is gathered in the daily recited prayer at-Tahiyyat for Muslims, which consists of the salutations and acknowledgment for / of God, overheard by Angel Gabriel still awaiting by Sidret al-Muntahā. On his return, the Prophet brings back the gift of daily prayer, which is reduced from 50 to 5 times in a day as currently performed.

Conforming to this common depiction, the incident of Isra’ and Mi’raj carries many symbolic references that shape contemporary Islamic belief and uphold tasawufī thought. To begin with, the juxtaposition between Mescid-i Harâm and Mescid-i Aksâ underlines a previously established claim of Islam; with the statement “where we have previously blessed the surroundings of,” Allah reiterates that He did not inaugurate a “new” religion, but rather put forth the continuation of earlier messages to conclude His faith in an ultra-developed fashion. This idea parallels the concept of insan al-kamil, since though the elder prophets are held to the highest regards in Islam, as the bearer of the latest and most updated news in today’s terms, this attained title of perfection is unique to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In addition to him leading the prayer at Masjid al-Aqsa, as the epitome of creation, he had come closer to God than anything of its time— even Moses had fainted after talking with the Lord behind a burning bush, whereas “his [Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s] eyes neither swerved nor were turned away.”[5] For the Sufi, apart from the religious authority of the Messenger (pbuh), which is by no means subject to questioning within the tradition, his literal presence before Allah is a matter of great aspiration. To reach the Beloved is the ultimate goal for Sufis, therefore the achievement of it in the case of mi’raj further represents a pioneer figure for the Sufi to emulate.

Furthermore, the concept of annihilation in the Beloved is also present in this narrative though it adopts a different form. Regardless, it still serves towards the tasawufī understanding through the title of ibn al-waqt, the son of the moment. Devoting themselves entirely to the moment and receive what God sends down to them without reflecting on present, past, or future, the Sufi have been referred to as Sons of the Moment; yet even then, at the highest level of experience, which is when the sufi turns into a sāfī[6], it may be said:

The Sufi is the “son of the moment”

The Sāfī is submerged in the Light of the Majestic,

Not the son of anything, and free from “times” and “states”

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) during his Night Journey for this reason perfectly exemplifies the sāfī; in fact, he is the only true sāfī, which, on this account, serves as a synonym for the before alluded to term, insān al-kamīl.

[1] The most perfect human [2] The 7th and Holy Month of the Islamic Calendar [3] Masjid al-Aqsa, Jerusalem [4] Masjid al-Haram, Mecca [5] Schimmel, Annemarie, And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. [6] Schimmel, Annemarie, The Mystical Dimensions of Islam


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