September 2, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 564

Egyptian Ministry of Culture Publication: The Prophet Muhammad's 'Night Journey' was Not to Jerusalem but to Medina

September 2, 2003
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 564

Ahmad Muhammad 'Arafa, a columnist for the Egyptian weekly Al-Qahira, which is published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, wrote an article rejecting the established Islamic doctrine that the Prophet Muhammad's celebrated "Night Journey" (Koran 17:1) took him from Mecca to Jerusalem. 'Arafa, presenting a new analysis of the Koranic text, asserts that the Night Journey in Surat Al-Isra' (that is, "the Sura of the Night Journey") in the Koran does not refer to a miraculous journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, but to the Prophet's emigration (Hijra) from Mecca to Medina.

It should be noted that the belief that Muhammad's Night Journey (Koran 17:1) was a miraculous journey to Jerusalem is one of the most important foundations of the sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam. There is an extensive body of Islamic traditions related to this belief, and these are explicitly or implicitly rejected by the author. This article constitutes a dramatic departure from a standard Islamic doctrine. The fact that this article was published in a government journal adds to its political significance. The following is a translation of the article, titled "Was the Prophet Muhammad's Night Journey to Palestine or Medina?" which was published on August 5, 2003: [1]

Where Is Al-Aqsa Mosque?

"'Praise be to Him who took His servant by night (asra) [2] from the Al-Haram [Sacred] Mosque [in Mecca] to the Al-Aqsa [literally 'the most distant'] Mosque, whose environs We did bless, so that We might show him some of Our signs, for He is the All-Hearing and All-Seeing One' (Surat Al-Isra'[17]:1).

"This text tells us that Allah took His Prophet from the Al-Haram Mosque [in Mecca] to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Thus, two mosques are [referred to] here, the first of which is the Al-Haram Mosque, and the second of which is the Al-Aqsa Mosque. 'Al-Aqsa' is a form of superlative which means 'the most distant.' Therefore, the place to which the Prophet was taken must be a mosque, and not a place where a mosque was to be established later, nor a place where a mosque had once stood. This place must be very far from the Al-Haram Mosque. It need not be [actually] built, as the Al-Haram Mosque [itself] was at that time merely an open space around the Ka'ba [and not a building].

"But in Palestine during that time, there was no mosque at all that could have been the mosque 'most distant' from the Al-Haram Mosque. During that time, there were no people in [Palestine] who believed in Muhammad and would gather to pray in a specific place that served as a mosque. Most of the inhabitants of Palestine were Christians, and there was among them a Jewish minority. Although the Koran refers respectfully to Jewish and Christian houses of worship, it does not call any of them a mosque, rather 'churches and synagogues' (Surat Al-Hajj [22]:40). The construction of the mosque situated today in Jerusalem and known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque began only in the year 66 of the Hijra of the Prophet – that is, during the era of the Omayyad state, not during the time of the Prophet nor that of any of the Righteous Caliphs. So much for the mosque."

The Night Journey – The Prophet's Flight From His Enemies

"As for the word asra, if we open the Koran and trace the instances in which it occurs we find the following [five] verses.… [3] Hence [the verbal noun] isra' means 'moving secretly from a place of danger to a safe place.' The meaning of the [Koranic] expression 'He took His servant by night' is that He ordered him to journey in secret from his enemies to a place where he and his mission would be secure. In other words, the text speaks of the Hijra of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina, and not of a visit to Palestine. [Indeed], the Hijra of the Prophet [to Medina] was carried out unbeknownst to his enemies.

"Let us go back to the beginning of Surat Al-Isra': Allah explains the reason for the Night Journey (Isra') by His words 'so that We might show him some of Our signs.' The exegetes and the transmitters of Hadith usually interpreted this as a reference to [Muhammad's] seeing the prophets and leading them in prayer. Some add [Muhammad's] ascent to heaven, and [his] seeing Paradise and Hell. How do we interpret the signs of Allah in this instance? Which of the interpretations is most acceptable?

"We [on the other hand] interpret this [i.e. the signs] as [signifying] the Prophet' s deliverance from his enemies who were cunningly plotting to murder or capture him, and Muhammad's founding of the [Islamic] state in Medina, his triumph at the Battle of Badr, his making the Al-Hudaybiyya Treaty, and then the conquest of Mecca, and the spreading of his call (Da'wa). These were palpable signs placed in the world of mankind, and they all resulted from the Prophet's Night Journey from Mecca to Medina.

"In contrast, the signs cited by the exegetes and the transmitters of Hadith are not of this world. They are [to be understood] either as shown to the Prophet metaphorically, or that the Prophet's physical nature underwent a change that permitted him to actually see them [that is, the heavenly sights]. Either way, these would not be signs, because the precondition for a sign being truly a [divine] sign is that it be actually seen, and that the man who sees it is in his real physical form. Furthermore, the fact that the reason for the Night Journey is explained with His words ' so that We might show him some of Our signs ' indicates that the Night Journey was a precondition for seeing these signs – that is, he [Muhammad] would not see any of these signs unless he went to a specific place." The Night Journey Was to Medina, Not Jerusalem

"But we say that the triumph of the Prophet's call (Da'wa) was dependent on the journey to Medina, where the Ansar [i.e. the Prophet's supporters in Medina] were. In contrast, the Prophet's journey to Jerusalem is not a precondition for him seeing some or all of the prophets that preceded him, because the miracle of their being resurrected or the Prophet's admission into their [heavenly] abode does not depend on his journey to Jerusalem. Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that all the prophets [who preceded Muhammad] were buried in Jerusalem and took it as a place of worship, it would be more fitting that they would come to him, to Mecca, out of esteem for him and for Mecca, which was about to be the new center of worship of God.

"If we move another step forward in the holy text, we find that it says in what appears to be an explanation of the reason for signs seen by the Prophet: 'He is the All-Hearing and All-Seeing One.' This means that Allah took His Prophet from the Al-Haram Mosque to the most distant mosque because He heard and saw things which have connection with this event. Can anyone claim that the Prophet asked Allah to show him Palestine, or the site of the Temple of David, or a number of the prophets that had been sent [by Allah] before him, or the celestial world and Paradise and Hell? If anyone claims this, he is fabricating a lie about the Prophet.

"We, however, say that Allah [the All-Hearing One] heard the Prophet's supplication to protect him from the cunning plot of his own tribe [the Quraysh], and to provide for his mission a safe haven within the Arab environment. And He [the All-Seeing One] perceived their plot to murder or capture him [the Prophet]. Therefore, the Isra', which is the equivalent of emigrating (Hijra) in secret, took place on the very same day they decided to murder or capture him."

The Medina Mosque

"One of the traditions about the Hijra of the Prophet relates: 'He then continued on his way to Medina and entered it after 12 nights had passed from the month of Rabi' Al-Awwal. The Ansar [i.e. his supporters in Medina] gathered around him, each of them trying to grab the bridle of his camel and asking him to be his guest. But he [the Prophet] said: Let her [the camel] alone, for she has orders. His camel kept walking through the narrow paths and the alleyways of Medina until she reached a mirbad (a place where dates are put to dry) [4] belonging to two orphan youths of the Banu Al-Najjar [clan], in front of the house of Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari. Then the Prophet said: 'Here is the stopping place, Allah willing. This place had been used by As'ad Ibn Zurara as a praying place before the Hijra of the Prophet, and he [Ibn Zurara] used to lead his friends in prayer there.' The Prophet then gave an order that this place be built as a mosque, and he bought its land for 10 dinars.' This is an abridgement [of this tradition] from the book Fiqh Al-Sira by Al-Buti. [5] The word 'praying place' [musalla] occurring in the above text is the equivalent of the word masjid [mosque]. In other words, this traditional account confirms that the final destination of the Hijra of the Prophet which was carried out secretly was a mosque -– that is, a praying place -– in Medina. "In conclusion, the Night Journey (Isra') was not to Palestine; rather, it was to Medina. It began at the Al-Haram Mosque [in Mecca] after the Prophet had prayed there with his companion, [6] and both of them had left it, and the journey ended at the mosque of As'ad ibn Zurara, in front of the house of Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari, in Medina, where the Prophet built the mosque known as the Mosque of the Prophet. The details of the journey of the Hijra are the very same details of the Night Journey (Isra'), because the Night Journey is indeed the secret Hijra."

[1] Al-Qahira (Egypt), August 5, 2003.

[2] This Arabic verb means "to lead or carry [someone] in a night journey" or "to cause [someone] to set out on a night journey." From this verb is derived the verbal noun isra', which is the name of the 17th chapter (Sura) of the Koran.

[3] The author cites here and interprets five Koranic verses in which this verb appears - 11(Hud):81; 15(Al-Hijr):65; 20 (TaHa):77; 26 (Al-Shu'ara'):52; 44 (Al-Dukhan): 23 - so as to establish the meaning of isra' in Koranic usage.

[4] The author gives here, in parentheses, an interpretation of the term mirbad, which he rightly assumes to be unfamiliar to present-day readers. Another meaning of this word also given by the classical Arab lexicographers, “a place in which camels and other animals are confined or stationed,” (cf. Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon) seems to be more suitable in this case.

[5] The religious scholar Dr. Muhammad Sa'id Ramadan Al-Buti.

[6] According to the generally accepted Islamic tradition, this companion was Abu Bakr.

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