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The Magnificent Journey: Al-Israa’ wal Mi’raaj

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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 Muhammad 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 Seerah and history regarding them. Those who have an ardent desire to explore it further can look it up there insha’Allah.

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 Muhammad? Where was he taken during that journey? Why there and not somewhere else?

Why did he meet with the prophets and led them in Salat? Why did Musa salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam interfere with the divine command of Salat for the benefit of the Ummah of Muhammad?

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.

Allah said:

“سبحان الذي أسرى بعبده ليلا من المسجد الحرام إلى المسجد الأقصى الذي باركنا حوله لنريه من آياتنا إنه هو السميع البصير”

“Glory to ((Allah)) 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, Seerah, 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 AlBukhari, in the book of ‘Beginning of Creation’ (Vl. 4, book 54, hadith 429) and in Saheeh Muslim in the book of ‘Iman’ (Book 1, ch. 75, hadith 309)

More details were even provided in other collections of hadith with different degrees of authenticity.

Imam 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 Allah with their mouths. But Allah 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 Makkah 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 Makkah 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 Ayah. 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.

Allah said:

“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 Allah 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 Makkah 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? [1]

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 Makkah straight to heaven?

Perhaps an indication to the answer can be found in a different hadith. Imam Ahmad, Ibn Majah and other scholars reported that Maymoonah bint Sa’ad or Sa’eed, a servant of the Prophet, asked: O Messenger of Allah! 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.”
Imam 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 Imam 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 Allah 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 Imam 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 Allah. 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 Al-Bukhari, Muslim and other collections of hadith.

It is not surprising at all why the Messenger of Allah 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 Muhammad 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 Allah 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.

Coming up:

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

[1] 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’.

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Sh. Yaser Birjas is originally from Palestine. He received his Bachelors degree from Islamic University of Madinah in 1996 in Fiqh & Usool, graduating as the class valedictorian. After graduating, he went on to work as a youth counselor and relief program aide in war-torn Bosnia. Thereafter, he immigrated to the U.S. and currently resides in Dallas, Texas. He is also an instructor at AlMaghrib Institute, where he teaches popular seminars such as Fiqh of Love, The Code Evolved, and Heavenly Hues.

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Avatar

    zfnd

    August 8, 2007 at 1:43 PM

    I’ve been looking for this perspective on journey of Al-Israa’ wal Mi’raaj for sometime, Great First Post!

    Jazakumallahukhair Shaykh Yaser! We can’t express how excited we are that you joined MM!

    -your students @ youthmatters

  2. Amad

    Amad

    August 8, 2007 at 1:46 PM

    Mashallah, that’s the first time I have read this angle of the the miraculous journey!

    jazakAllahkhair…

  3. Avatar

    Hassan

    August 8, 2007 at 1:50 PM

    Wow mash’Allah. Its just awesome. I know you do not want to go into tangents, but I can not resist asking a question, did prophet Muhammad PBUH led souls of other prophets in prayer, or were they resurrected to be in the prayer or were they in some special condition other than these two?

  4. Avatar

    Dispatches Undercover Mosque - FAKE!!!

    August 8, 2007 at 2:34 PM

    UK police are investigating and reporting Channel 4 to the proper authorities over the way how the “Undercover Mosque” program was edited and purposely distorted.

  5. Avatar

    Kamran

    August 8, 2007 at 2:35 PM

    as salamu`alaykum Sh Yaser!

    mashaAllah…it’s a beautiful article :) We miss you here ya sheikh!

  6. Avatar

    AnonyMouse

    August 8, 2007 at 3:12 PM

    Masha’Allah, an amazingly insightful post! I never knew that Jerusalem was really the “earthly gate to Paradise”… I’d just assumed that the reason for the Prophet (sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) went there was simply due to historical significance, and so that he could lead the other Prophets (‘alaihumus-salaam) in salaah to “prove” (although that doesn’t seem like the right word to use) the importance and magnificence of his position as Khaatim al-Anbiyaa.

  7. Avatar

    Niamah

    August 9, 2007 at 9:53 PM

    can we fast on this day? was wondering if its sunnah cuz iv heard alot of people saying that!

  8. Pingback: Laylatul Mir’aj « Writeous Sister Speaks

  9. Avatar

    Imran

    August 11, 2007 at 10:49 PM

    MashaAllah great article, Shaykh Yaser. Looking forward to your next article.

  10. Pingback: Aaminah Hernández

  11. Pingback: Laylatul Mir’aj 1429 « Aaminah Hernández

  12. Pingback: Al-Israa' and Al-Mi`raj - LI Islamic Forum

  13. Avatar

    Faisal

    August 1, 2008 at 9:14 AM

    MashAllah a great article, indeed. Can’t wait for the next part.

    I have a question related to the following:

    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.

    When you say “except for few high priests”, is it implying that a few high priests knew about the arrival of the Prophet (Pbuh) in Jerusalem or they knew of the coming of the Prophet (Pbuh) in Makkah/Medinah.

    JazakAllah Khair

  14. Avatar

    Imtiaz

    August 1, 2008 at 9:46 AM

    Salaam Alaikum –

    my question is the same as brother Faisal above –

    I have read narrations, with little support that say – some people saw the gate of Masjid AlAqsa open when the night custodian locked it, there were marks on the ground to show an animal was stabled outside the masjid that none has ever seen before, there were other things….

    are those narrations related to that of “except a few high priests” ?

  15. Avatar

    Selena Gomez

    March 26, 2009 at 6:05 PM

    Wow I love This wonderful story!!!!

    MASHAA”AA ALLAH
    JAZAKUM ALLAHU KHARYUN.
    I WANT TO BE MUSLIM NOW!
    THANK YOU SHEICK YASER.
    I MIGHT EVEN WRITE MY OWN SONG
    ABOUT ISRAA AND MIRAGE
    AND SEND IT HERE!!!!!!!!

    • Amad

      Amad

      March 26, 2009 at 7:04 PM

      Selena, I am glad to see your enthusiasm. Are you a Muslim already or interested in converting? If you have questions or need any help regarding Islam, you can always contact info at muslimmatters dot org and one of the sisters who writes for MM can help you out…

      My only suggestion is that if you are thinking of becoming a Muslim, don’t wait too long because only Allah knows when our time here ends, so we should rush towards goodness.

  16. Avatar

    Dr. Abd Lateef Abd Fatah

    December 12, 2009 at 11:02 AM

    jazakum llah khaeran. shukrah. ma salam

  17. Avatar

    k.ibrahim

    January 13, 2011 at 2:20 PM

    Bismillah,ir-Rahman,ir-Rahim.
    Ashahadu An Laa illaaha illal llahu
    Wa Ash Hadu Anna Muhammadan Abdu Hu Wa Rasooluhu

    ”I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah
    who is without partner, and I bear witness that Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) is the Rasool.”
    “O Allah, Shower Your Peace come upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad, as you have brought peace to Ibrahim and his family. Truly, You are Praiseworthy and Glorious. O Allah, Shower your blessing upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad, as you have blessed Ibrahim and his family. Truly, You are Praiseworthy and Glorious”.
    Dear Brothers and Sisters in Islam, As-Salaam Alaikum!
    My Name is Khalid U.Ibrahim. I am in need of your (Du’a) Prayers for ALLAH’s Help and Protection. (Ya ALLAH!) OALLAH! I Beg of you to Bestow on us (the Believing Muslims) a Home, a Home of Safety, Security and Peace in this World Life, Out of the Reach of the Dajjal and his army, and also Grant us a Home of Safety,Security and Peace in the Life Hereafter,Out of the Reach of the Fires of Hell!.(Ya ALLAH!) OALLAH! I Beg of you to Increase our Faith and Devotion, and to Bless us with Peace in our Hearts and Souls.(Ya ALLAH!) Please Forgive All The Believing Muslims,(Ya ALLAH!) Please grant All the Believing Muslims the Best in this world Life and the Best in Hereafter, and(Ya ALLAH!) Please Protect us(the Believing Muslims) from own Nafs, and(Ya ALLAH!) Please Protect All the Believing Muslims from the hands of the Dajjal and his army.] {No One in this World care!} (Ya ALLAH!) OALLAH! I Beg of you for the means to do good, and to avoid evil, and Bless us to Love the poor, and I beseech you forgive us(the Believing Muslims) and have mercy on us. And When you subject the people of theWorld to trial, Protect us from being affected by it.(Ya ALLAH!) OALLAH! I Beg of you, your Love and Protection,and the Love of those who Love you, and Grant us the Love of all such actions that will bring us closer to you, with our Love and Devotion to you.(Ya ALLAH!) OALLAH! I thank you for all your Mercy and Protection that you have bestowed on us, and all that you have given us in these trouble times that we are facing,(Al-Hamdolillah!).

  18. Avatar

    Naim

    July 3, 2011 at 7:39 PM

    Thanks Sheikh for the details of piecing together with authentic sources, what happened to our beloved Prophet(pbuh) in the night of Al-Miraj.

    On a separate note: I’ve read through the details in another site, and I think that site is made by Shia muslims, and their narration might have been changed a bit, but I am not exactly sure. They have a lot of details, but they are not citing where they are getting most of their information from, so it is really hard to believe what is going on. For example, I know that Sheikh Yasir Qadhi mentioned in his lecture that our beloved Prophet(pbuh) didn’t actually “see” Allah, but rather directly heard, without any intermediaries, His voice. Our Prophet(pbuh) didn’t see Allah’s Divine Beauty, but heard His speech. However, this Shia website claims that Allah made our Prophet(pbuh) see a glimpse of His Divine Beauty, so our Prophet(pbuh) saw a little bit of Allah’s Divine Beauty. Also the Shia source mentions that the butterflies in the Sidrat-ul-Muntaha are actually Angels, but most Sunni sites say that those are just butterflies made of gold, and they are not Angels.
    Surely, Allah Subhanahu wa ta’ala knows best.

    Here is the link, http://www.muhammadanreality.com/7thheavenmuhammadanreality.htm#The Four Streams of Paradise, if anyone know any info about their narration regarding Al Miraj or any of the other articles, please post something about it.

    -Jajakallah Khair

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In light of the spread of COVID-19, Muslims especially in this time are in need of guidance. The Legacy Institute has released a research paper by Shaykh Hasib Noor in order to expound on Prophetic Guidance on Epidemic Disease: Coronavirus 2020.

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The story of Umar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) is also narrated and explained in detail in the paper: Download Here

‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) narrates the events when ‘Umar ibn AlKhattab raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) set out for Sham (Levant: Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, etc). When he got as far as a place called ‘Sargh’, the commanders of the army, Abu ‘Ubaydah ibn Jarrah and his companions met ‘Umar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him)and told him that a plague had broken out in Sham. ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas said, ‘Umar said to me, ‘Call the early Muhajirun (the earliest Muslims and those who were the immigrants to Madinah) for me,’ I called them, sought their consultation and informed them that a plague had broken out in Sham. They disagreed. Some of them said, ‘You have set out on a matter and we do not think that you should retreat from it.’ Others said, ‘You have the rest of the people as well as the Companions of the Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), and we do not think that you should expose them to this plague.’ ‘Umar then said, ‘Leave.’ Then he said, ‘Call the Ansar (the helpers, the citizens of Madinah that gave refuge to all the migrants that came to the city) for me,’ and I called them and he consulted them. 18 Ibn Majah 4042 and Bukhari 3176

Their reaction was as the Muhajirun and disagreed as they had disagreed. He said, ‘Leave.’ Then he said, ‘Call those who are here of the elders of Quraysh who emigrated the year of the Conquest of Makkah.’ So I called them, and none among them disagreed about it. They said, ‘We think that you should return with the people and not expose them to this plague.’

So ‘Umar made an announcement among the people: ‘I am returning in the morning, so return as well.’ Abu ‘Ubaydah ibn Jarrah said, ‘Are you fleeing from the decree of Allah?’ ‘Umar said, ‘If only someone other than you had said that, Abu ‘Ubaydah!’

Yes, ‘we are fleeing from the decree of Allah to the decree of Allah‘. Do you think that if you had camels and they went down into a valley which had two sides, one of which was fertile and the other barren. Is it not that if you grazed them on the fertile side, then that grazing would be by the decree of Allah, and if you grazed them on the barren side, then that grazing would also be by the decree of Allah?’ ‘Abdul Rahman ibn ‘Awf -who had been absent on some errand- then came and said, ‘I have some knowledge regarding this issue. I heard the Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) say, “When you hear that [a plague] is in a land, do not go to it and if it occurs in a land that you are already in, then do not leave it, fleeing from it.’”

‘Umar praised Allah [due to him making the correct decision] and then left.”21

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Changing the factual past in an attempt to gain political authority is one of the paradoxes of modern populism, where the target audience is presented a twisted and fake past as a nostalgic idealistic image. Populist politicians reminisce publicly about the benefits and pleasures of the days of yore, where facts often have to make room for emotions. 

This false representations of a national past on a micro-level is internationally recognizable, but it nonetheless becomes increasingly apparent on a macro-level. The modern European continent is such an example, where right-wing populism is rapidly gaining ground and threatens to achieve political successes.

The populist branch within the Flemish Nationalist thought lends itself particularly to such interpretations of the past, and makes severe historical mistakes in an attempt to uphold and protect that history.

Historically speaking, there’s no truth in an independent Flanders based on the territory of the current Flemish Region. The historical and geographical Flanders is the areas designated as Zealand, East- and West-Flanders and French-Flanders all the way up to Dunkirk. The provinces of Antwerp and Flemish Brabant belonged historically to the duchy of Brabant, and the modern-day province of Limburg was a patchwork of small governments under influence of the Holy Roman Empire, the largest of which was the County of Loon, part of the Prince-Bishopric of Liège.

And yet, nostalgic references are made to the Battle of the Golden Spurs, the County of Flanders and the Flemish Lion by right-wingers. These are mere emotional ideals for a people desperately in search of its own identity amidst a rapidly changing world.

That all of this “past” needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The average Limburgian shares less history with his West-Flemish countryman than with someone from Liège, often doesn’t matter any more.

It’s emotional support, and a form of political opportunism.

Das Abendland

In an almost romanticized narrative, Europe is presented as the so-called Abendland, the Evening Land, a common territory inhabited by people and societies that share a homogeneous cultural unity and a common history. It’s from this populist utopia that the resistance grows against the so-called illusion that Europe was partly formed by external influences and ideas from other continents around the world. It’s from this outset that an isolationist and supremacist historical thinking is pursued. It doesn’t come as a surprise that such theories aren’t only wrong on a historical level, but form an acute danger that threatens to separate people, based on ghosts from the past and vague ideals.

This Eurocentric thinking, in which Europe is considered the initiator and not the receiver, persists throughout colonial and post-colonial European thought. Besides, this trend is also observable in our modern Western high school system, where education tends to look at human history through a purely European lens, as if it was the exclusive result of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, Christianity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Years of history classes are being taught within this framework, offering students just a limited amount of tools to effectively look beyond their own geographical and historical area. This is disastrous for the 21st century’s educational system. Such outdated curriculum only serves the interests of populists and idealists.

The history of the several African civilizations, more focus on the earliest states of the Fertile Crescent and some time on the rise and development of the United States were severely lacking during my high school experience, and I had to wait until university to be taught these subjects. What I found most lacking, however, was any in-depth attention for the complex relationship between Europe and the Islamic World.

The Absent Crescent

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Albanian Muslims in traditional clothing – 1873

The narrative that Europe is the sole result of a Judeo-Christian tradition with roots in ancient Greek and Roman antiquity needs to be swept aside, once and for all. By no means was there in Europe at any point up until the Second World War an example of cultural, religious or social unity. On the contrary! The continent has always been a patchwork of warring tribes, feudal kingdoms and modern nation states that had in most cases little more in common than their shared geographical position on the European land mass.

More than one third of Europe was under strong Islamic influence for several centuries; in the west, the Iberian Peninsula known as al-Andalus and in the east, Greece and the Balkan all the way up to Vienna. Important Islamic cities like Cordoba, Granada, Sarajevo and Istanbul are still standing in all their glory as we speak, effectively forming visual and tangible landmarks of the Islamic presence on the European continent. This part of history and its influence on modern Europe, however, is predominantly kept silent in the rich historical corpus this continent possesses so abundantly, just as much as in the average high schools so paramount in the formation of our youngest generations.

It is mere randomness that determined that Judaism and Christianity, both religions arisen from Semitic societies, are considered to be European and Islam, which equally emerged from a Semitic society, to be non-European. The fact that European Muslim scientists and philosophers like Ibn Zuhr, al-Zahrāwī, Ibn Rushd or Ibn-Ẓafar al-Ṣiqillī were often much more relevant to modern European science and philosophy than the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, is long forgotten.

True European Islam

This Islam, that was equally and simultaneously influenced and touched by the proximity and contact with other European people, constitutes true European Islam, i.e. the Islam that grew on the European continent and which left its mark on the future development of states influenced by its presence.

That abhorrent mixture of Islam and liberal, secular and humanist ideals that people nowadays wish to propagate as ‘European Islam’ by presenting it as an acceptable alternative of the Islamic religion within Europe is in my opinion nothing more than a product of the European superiority thinking and undoubtedly also the inferiority complex lots of immigrants suffer from. European Islam predates all of this politicized circus for several centuries, and doesn’t need any dilution or mixing in order to be accepted as European.Click To Tweet

That abhorrent mixture of Islam and liberal, secular and humanist ideals that people wish to propagate as ‘European Islam’ by presenting it as an acceptable alternative of the Islamic religion within Europe is nothing more than a product of a European superiority complex and undoubtedly also the inferiority complex lots of immigrants suffer from. European Islam predates all of this politicized circus for several centuries, and doesn’t need any dilution or mixing in order to be accepted as European.

People like Ivan de Veenboer and Jan Janszoon probably don’t immediately ring a bell, and yet they were among the first Dutch Muslims who actively served as seafarers under the Ottoman Empire.

Ivan de Veenboer was an infamous Dutch corsair who sailed the Mediterranean Sea and converted to Islam somewhere at the start of the 17th century. He received the honorary title of ‘Sulaymān-Reis’  from the Dey of Algiers and was promoted to captain and commander of the Algiers corsair fleet, a promotion that heralded a highly successful career. His chief mate was another Dutch corsair, Jan Janszoon. He converted to Islam as well, and assumed command as Murād-Reis over the Fleet of Salé, a powerful squadron of seventeen privateers under Ottoman command. The word Reis is a derivative of the Arabic word for commander, raʾīs, and was given as an honorary title.

In 1566, the Ottoman Empire — under Sulaymān the Magnificent — as the sole foreign power offer its aid to the Dutch rebels of William of Orange. The Protestant Dutch were involved in a violent rebellion against Catholic Spain, and found an ally in the Ottomans. In 1574, Selīm II took Tunisia from the Spanish Empire in a successful attempt to lower the Spanish pressure on the Low Lands.

The History of  the Geuzen

The Geuzen, the Dutch guerrilla and privateering forces who opposed the Spanish Catholics during the Eighty Years’ War, wore a badge with the inscription: “Rather Turkish than Pope.” When the village of Sluis fell under control of the Dutch rebels in 1604, they found several Muslims among the Spanish galley slaves. The Dutch immediately chose to grant them their freedom and to transport them to the shores of North Africa as a sign of gratitude towards the Ottomans.

The Ottoman Caliph Aḥmed I asked the Dutch revolutionaries to send him an ambassador, effectively becoming one of the first world leaders to recognize the sovereignty of the Dutch Republic.Click To Tweet
HUIK_-_rouwkleding_-_Bernard_Picart,_1733
Two Dutch women wearing a so-called huik – 1733

The Ottoman Caliph Aḥmed I asked the Dutch revolutionaries to send him an ambassador, effectively becoming one of the first world leaders to recognize the sovereignty of the Dutch Republic. That ambassador’s name was Cornelius Haga, who arrived with a delegation in Istanbul in 1611. In 1612, he agreed on a very advantageous trade agreement with the Turks, exempting the Dutch from several taxes. Haga remained at the caliph’s court until 1639.

It’s regrettable that such examples are barely covered when speaking about the history of Europe, even in high school. This point of view can build a much broader insight among students with regard to the role of Islam and the Muslims in Europe.

Missed Opportunities and Right-Wing Historians

The fact that the average history lesson doesn’t speak a word about the complex relationships between European nations and Muslim empires, like the Umayyads and Abbasids, is a missed opportunity. In particular because the global history of the European nations can’t be detached from these Muslim empires and vice versa.

The fact that the average history lesson doesn’t speak a word about the complex relationships between European nations and Muslim empires, like the Umayyads and Abbasids, is a missed opportunityClick To Tweet

From Islamic Andalusia and Sicily through the Crusades all the way up to the Ottoman support for Ireland during the Great Famine, European states constantly existed in interaction with neighboring Muslim countries. Keeping silent about all of this benefits only the far-right populist establishment. Right-wing historians, like the Belgian Wim Van Rooy, go as far as denying the entire Islamic civilization and all of its achievements throughout the centuries, calling it an invention of 20th century Arab Gulf states.

The fact that the historical role played by Islam in Europe is reduced to an absolute minimum in popular modern historiography only contributes to a wrong understanding of the current question of Islam in the West. Islam existence on the continent has a long history, and didn’t just slip through the net as a result of mass immigration after the Second World War, as claimed by several populists.

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Marmaduke Pikthall

Many prominent Muslims lived on the continent in the early 90’s. Let’s take the example of Evelyn (Zainab) Cobbold was a Scottish noblewoman who converted to Islam after having spent several years in Algiers and Cairo. The 65 year old was, as a matter of fact, by 1933 the first British Muslim woman that ever performed the pilgrimage (Ḥajj) to Mecca.

British writer and journalist Marmaduke (Muḥammad) Pikthall, praised by great writers like H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence, converted to Islam publicly in 1917. In 1930, he published an English translation of the Quran, and in 1936 he was buried in the Muslim section of the famous Brookwood cemetery in London.

Sir Archibald (ʿAbdullāh) Hamilton, Etienne Dinet, Claude Alexandre de Bonnevalle, the Hungarian Jozef Bem and even the younger brother of Vlad Dracul, Radu, were all early European converts to Islam, and the list is much longer.

Can’t all of this be considered a common part of European history?

Mahomets Gesang

Goethe known for his love and fascination for the poetry of Saʿdī al-Shīrāzī, dedicated a poem of his to the Prophet Muḥammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) Mahomets Gesang, Song of Muhammad.

The Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw didn’t make his admiration for the Prophet Muḥammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) much of a secret as well. His famous quote still emits a serene respect: “I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality.” In the January 1933 issue of the Lahore The Light magazine in which he made this comment, Shaw added that “he forecast that within a century, Islam would be the religion of Europe.”

According to him, Islam was dismissed for centuries by Europeans as pagan heresy and nonsense, depicted as the embodiment of evil, but 18th and 19th century thinkers like Goethe, Gibbon and Carlyle brought a positive change in how Islam is viewed. All four of these thinkers, including Shaw, deviated from the contemporary traditional European historiography and observed instead the Middle-East, the Greek-Orthodox Church and the development of Islam. Not only did they get to know the Prophet Muḥammad as a religious symbol, but as an efficient political leader and a genius strategist.

Connection Instead Of Polarization

This entire message, however, won’t ring a bell to most, including Muslims themselves. It’s a message that gets lost amidst the deafening sound of disinformation, political opportunism and populist interests. If this information would be made into a new standard of European historiography and common knowledge, both in school as in public, more connections and mutual understanding will grow as opposed to the rising polarization of today.

Teach students to make connections. Teach them to look at the bigger picture, to understand the historical reality that nations simply need to interact with each other in order to survive, apart from culture or religion.Click To Tweet

Teach students to make connections.

Teach them to look at the bigger picture, to understand the historical reality that nations simply need to interact with each other in order to survive, apart from culture or religion. No one fell from Mars and left his mark on earth. Everything we can observe today arose as the result of a long historical process. When our newest generations then learn to think and reason inclusively and see the shared collectiveness of our world history, they’ll walk the Earth with an open-mind and they’ll be less inclined to think in terms like “supremacy” or “exclusivity”.

The last thing I want to do with this long read is to preach and to sum up lists of “how good Islam is”. No, but I do wish historical justice in the ugly face of the contemporary mass-populism. I want to demonstrate that the Islamic religion forms an integral part of European history, and that this religion can just be European as well, without the need to substitute its norms and values.

I want to demonstrate that the Islamic religion forms an integral part of European history, and that this religion can just be European as well, without the need to substitute its norms and values.Click To Tweet

We don’t need to search for a European Islam, because it already exists for centuries.

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