Every year, on the night of the 27th of Rajab according to the Islamic calendar (August 10th of this year 2007), Muslims around the world celebrate the magnificent journey of the Prophet Muḥammad salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam. They commemorate the miraculous trip the Prophet undertook to Jerusalem, the heart of the ancient world and the center of faith, and then his ascension to the seventh heaven to stand before the Divine and meet with his Lord Subhanahu wa Ta'aala.
Fourteen hundred years ago Al-Israa' wal Mi'raaj or 'The Night Journey' brought to the world something that changed the course of history.
This article is neither about discussing the validity or invalidity of this celebration, nor it is about the argument over the actual date and year this journey took place. Furthermore, it is not designed to create a narrative discussion over the details of this journey, how and what had happened there, or what the Prophet had seen there entirely. Those kinds of discussions must be done separately, and there are many opinions mentioned in books of sīrah and history regarding them. Those who have an ardent desire to explore it further can look it up there inshā'Allāh.
Our discussion here –from a believer's perspective- is about the essence of this journey. The subtle messages embedded with every bit of the story. Why did it happen? Why the Prophet Muḥammad? Where was he taken during that journey? Why there and not somewhere else?
Why did he meet with the prophets and led them in ṣalāh? Why did Musa salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam interfere with the divine command of ṣalāh for the benefit of the Ummah of Muḥammad?
There has been a lot of controversy amongst Muslim scholars over the factual details of this journey, but they argued little, if ever, about the actuality and the certainty of its occurrence. The incident is a fact that has been mentioned in the Qur'an and the authentic Sunnah of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam.
“سبحان الذي أسرى بعبده ليلا من المسجد الحرام إلى المسجد الأقصى الذي باركنا حوله لنريه من آياتنا إنه هو السميع البصير”
“Glory to ((Allāh)) who did take His servant for a journey by night from the sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts we did bless, – In order that we might show Him some of Our Signs: for He is the One who heareth and seeth (All things).” Al-Israa' 17:1
The hadith of the Israa' was narrated with multiple versions in many of the various collections of Hadith, sīrah, and history books. With so many details mentioned therein, despite the questionable authenticity of some, a person can draw a clear and a vivid picture of the whole journey.
Anas narrated a hadith found in Saheeh Bukhāri, in the book of 'Beginning of Creation' (Vl. 4, book 54, hadith 429) and in Saheeh Muslim in the book of 'īmān' (Book 1, ch. 75, hadith 309)
More details were even provided in other collections of hadith with different degrees of authenticity.
Imām Ibn katheer rahimahullah in his Tafseer (see Ibn Katheer) of the beginning of surah Al-Israa'17, compiled almost all the different narrations of the hadith from more than 15 different companions
He then concluded with a quote from Al-Hafiz Abu Al-Khattab `Umar bin Dihyah from his book At-Tanwir fi Mawlid As-Siraj Al-Munir:
“Even though some reports do not fulfill the conditions of Sahih, nevertheless the Muslims agreed unanimously on the fact that the Israa' happened, and it was rejected only by the heretics and apostates.
“يريدون ليطفئوا نور الله بأفواههم والله متم نوره ولو كره الكافرون”
(They intend to put out the Light of Allāh with their mouths. But Allāh will bring His Light to perfection even though the disbelievers hate (it).) Al-Saaf (61:8).”
Many questions arise in the mind of any person who comes across this hadith or the story of the night journey.
To answer these questions we will highlight select parts of the story regardless of their order of events. It is worth noting this discussion on the story of Al-Israa' wal Mi'raaj is not intended to place any final judgment or form any particular opinion on any of its details. It is only an attempt to open the subject for further research and discussion.
Part One: From Mecca to Jerusalem: Why not the Heavens?
First we must distinguish between the two parts of this journey i.e. the two trips the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam made during that night: the Israa' and the Mi'raaj.
Al-Israa': The trip from Mecca to Jerusalem
Al-Mi'raaj: The trip from Jerusalem to Heavens
The English translation of the 'Israa' and Mi'raaj' is commonly simplified with the term 'The Night Journey'. But that does not make clear the two distinctive trips done during that night. Nevertheless, the term 'the night journey' still carries the literal meaning of the first trip the 'Israa'. Perhaps it can also be said that the second part of the journey the 'Mi'raaj' is understood from the same term, since it was done during the same night according to the majority of scholars.
The source of this confusion can be traced back to the translation of the name of Surah Al-Is'raa, which in the dictionary means 'the journey by night'. The word Israa' identifies the first trip and is mentioned in the first āyah. The second trip, however, was not mentioned there but in another surah.
Besides the details of the Mi'raaj which were mentioned in many ahadith, the Qur'an also mentions it in Surah al-Najm 53: 13-18, proving its occurrence.
“ولقد رآه نزلة أخرى * عند سدرة المنتهى * عندها جنة المأوى * إذ يغشى السدرة ما يغشى * ما زاغ البصر وما طغى * لقد رأى من آيات ربه الكبرى*”
13. For indeed He saw Him at a second descent,
14. Near the Lote-tree beyond which none may pass:
15. Near it is the Garden of abode.
16. Behold, the Lote-tree was shrouded (in Mystery unspeakable!)
17. (His) sight never swerved, nor did it go wrong!
18. For truly did He see, of the Signs of His Lord, the Greatest!
Abdullah bin Mas`ud said, “When the Messenger of Allāh was taken on the journey of Israa', he ascended to Sidrat Al-Muntaha, which is a tree in the sixth heaven, and where everything terminates. Everything which ascends from the earth is held there and then is taken afterwards, and everything that descends to the earth is held there and then is taken down” (Reported by Ahmad and Muslim).
There is some debate Sidrat Al-Muntaha was found in the seventh heaven (according to the hadith of Anas and most narrations) or in the sixth (according to the hadith of Ibn Mas'ud). The second trip, the ascension to the seventh heaven, did indeed happen even though Ibn Masoud used the term 'Israa' to speak about the Mi'raaj.
Since the two trips happened during the same night journey, the term 'The night journey' was assumed to be for both.
Trip one was the 'Israa' or 'the journey by night'. This trip was clearly defined in the Qur'an in surah Al-Israa' 17:1. It was the journey of the Prophet on the back of Al-Buraaq the animal which carried him that night from Al-masjid Al-Haraam (the sacred masjid) in Mecca to Al-masjid Al-Aqsa (the farthest masjid) in Jerusalem.
Trip two was the 'Mi'raaj' i.e. the 'ascension' or 'the stairway, ladder or elevator'. This trip was mentioned in surat Al-Najm 53, and the hadith cited earlier. The transportation used in this trip is not clear. Some narrations suggested that Al-Buraaq was used again in this trip, but a hadith from Abu Sa'eed Al-khudree mentions a different method, a 'stairway' or a 'ladder'.
Al-Bayhaqi in Dalael Al-Nubuwwah narrates, the Messenger salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam said: “The Mi'raaj was brought to me. It is the 'stairway' which the souls of the children of Adam ascend on. No creation has ever seen anything of such beauty as of the Mi'raaj.”
This hadith was also narrated in other collections of hadith, however, all of them cited the same source, Abu Haroun AlAbdi on the authority of Abu Sa'eed. Abu Haroun is deemed to be weak and unreliable. Nevertheless, Ibn Katheer accepted the Mi'raaj as the way of ascension.
Ibn Katheer rahimahullah asserts this in his summary of the whole story. After the compilation of all the different narrations he said: “Then the Mi`raj was brought to him, which is a 'stairway' or a ladder with steps which one climbs up. So he went up on it to the first heaven, then he went up to the rest of the seven heavens.”
This hadith is very clear on the method. The word Mir'aaj is used here to name the stairway as well as to describe the ascension.
In light of the hadith of Abu Sa'eed according to Ibn Katheer, the linguistic meaning of the word itself in the Arabic dictionary, and considering the miraculous nature and beauty of this Mi'raaj, could this Mi'raaj be viewed as a heavenly escalator, shining with silver and gold? 
Is Jerusalem truly the earthly gate to heaven? Was that the reason why the Mi'raaj was stationed there? Why did the Prophet have to stop in Jerusalem on his way to the seventh heaven? Couldn't he just travel from Mecca straight to heaven?
Perhaps an indication to the answer can be found in a different hadith. Imām Ahmad, Ibn Majah and other scholars reported that Maymoonah bint Sa'ad or Sa'eed, a servant of the Prophet, asked: O Messenger of Allāh! Give us an answer (judgment) on Bait Al-Maqdis –Jerusalem-? He said: “The land of Mahshar –congregation- and Manshar –resurrection. A land where you should go visit, and pray therein…”
Al-Sindi in his commentary on Ibn Majah said: “That means on the Day of Qiyaamah (Resurrection) people will be directed to move towards (Jerusalem) for their congregation as indicated by other ahadith.”
imām Muslim narrated a hadith from Hudhayfah in which the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam counted ten signs of the Day of Judgment. One of the signs of Day of Judgment mentioned in the hadith was the fire which will erupt in Yemen and then move the people as they escape it until it gathers them all into their 'Mahshar' i.e. congregation station.
AlMubarakpuri in his commentary on Sunan Al-Tirmidhi, after narrating the above hadith, quoted imām Al-Qaree saying: “Some say that the land of congregation will be Al-sham (Jerusalem and its surrounding) based on a report from an authentic hadith. But it seems that the congregation will start there or maybe the land will expand in order to fit all the creation of the world.”
From the above narrations it seems that Jerusalem i.e. Bait Al-Maqdis is the land of congregation 'AlMahshar'. Whether this congregation is happening before the actual start of the Hour or after the resurrection begins the conclusion is the same. Eventually people will be taken to the earthly station of their congregation before their ascension to heaven. And that earthly station is Bait Al-Maqdis.
Jerusalem or Bait Al-Maqdis was and still is the seat of divine revelation and center of faith. Many Prophets and Messengers of Allāh resided there. Others were commanded to make it the destination of their immigration. During the time period of Banu Israel (the children of Israel) prophets once ruled the land and when one died another succeeded him, all by divine assignment. The divine connection was constant and had suffered no interruption for so many generations. For that reason it was made Qudus, or a sacred and purifying land.
Abul Waleed AlBaji in Al-Muntaqaa, a commentary on AlMuwatta' by imām Malik, said about Bait Al-Maqdis: “The reason the people of Bait Al-Maqdis were privileged with such a title (holy or purifying land) was when they once acted upon the obedience of Allāh. They had many prophets amongst them and the rest were companions of the prophets. This was probably because they had been commanded to reside and remain there in Jerusalem.
Similar to this is the order of Hijrah (immigration) to Madeenah which was given to the early Muslims. Residency in Madeenah has since become a source of purification to its residents, purifying them from their sins.”
Such reports attesting to the virtue of Madeenah can be found in Sahih Bukhāri, Muslim and other collections of hadith.
It is not surprising at all why the Messenger of Allāh had to stop in Jerusalem on his way to heavens. It is obvious that he needed to arrive at the gate to heavens and that was in Jerusalem.
The arrival of Prophet Muḥammad salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam at Jerusalem had many implications on the concept of religious guidance and leadership. His physical arrival there when there was no mention of him or his message amongst the people of the Holy Land – except for few high priests- meant a lot to the universality of his message. His historical meeting with the prophets and messengers of Allāh and especially the prophets of Banu Israel was another sign that the winds of change were about to blow. This was an announcement of a new establishment, the establishment of a new chapter in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It has now received a new addition to its tradition, a Muslim tradition. His arrival at Jerusalem was the beginning of the story, the story that changed the course of history.
Part Two: Ascending the throne of religious leadership
A thematic examination for the surah 17 would probably tell why.
Surah 17, Al-Israa' is also called the chapter of 'Banu Israel' or 'The Children of Israel'. It is not coincidence that the beginning of this surah which speaks about the incident of Israa' was followed by the destiny of the chosen ones 'The Children of Israel'.
Al-Israa'or that night journey happened to take place in Jerusalem, the home of the children of Israel.
Footnotes See the commentary of Abdullah Yusuf Ali at the very beginning of surah 17 Al-Israa' and the influence of this Mi'raaj literature on the medieval literature of Europe, according to Professor Miguiel Asin in his book 'Islam and the divine comedy'.