The miracle of al-Isra' differs from the other miracles in both definition and meaning, as well as in many other aspects. In fact, no other miracle has aroused as much controversy as the miracle of al-Isra'. All the other miracles involved natural observable phenomena and universal laws, which the miracles disrupted.
Allah as the Creator of this universe has the power to intervene in the laws of the universe for the sake of anyone of His worshippers or Messengers, which thereby gives rise to miracles. The observable miracle was usually ordained to consolidate faith in the hearts of believers in particular cases where the believers seemed to be overcome by distress, or when they were faced with difficult and desperate circumstance.
The purpose of this kind of miracle was to restore confidence in the Messenger, as well as in the power of Allah. But all of them were observable and tangible miracles which were usually performed before an audience, as was the case of the miracles of Abraham and Jesus. The difference between those miracles and the miracle of al-Isra' for whereas in the former miracles Allah disrupted the physical laws which controlled the forces of nature on this planet, in the presence of an audience, the miracle of al-Isra', involved the disruption of cosmic and heavenly laws away from witnesses. Furthermore, Muhammad (SAW) was the only human to be carried by night upon a heavenly horse,from the Sacred Mosque in Makkah to the Farthest Mosque Jerusalem, to be shown some of the greatest portents of Allah. Hadith includes details of that physical Journey in which Muhammad (SAW) was first transported to the site of earlier revelations (Jerusalem), and from there taken through the Seven Heavens to the Sublime Throne.
Some commentators take the physical Journey literally, but admit that there were other occasions on which spiritual journeys or visions occurred. In Muhammad's (SAW) case, they are more inclined to say that his body was transformed into a spiritual form. The sceptics, on the other hand, cast doubt on the whole event and deny the possibility of its occurrence. A third group find it too difficult for the human mind to conceive, and prefer not to become deeply involved in such mystical phenomena, but, however, lean toward the view that the Journey could have been a spiritual one, and that this does not detract anything from its significance.
To all these groups, it should be said that the physical journey is fundamental to the miracle. For we cannot possibly apply our own reason and logic to Allah's power and capability and it is beyond our mental ability to fathom such divine powers. If we therefore try to put restrictions on the miracle of al-Isra' by postulating that it is more logical to understand it as a spiritual journey than as a physical one, we are putting restrictions on Allah's power and freedom to do as He will. This is where we go wrong, because we are thinking and assessing Allah's power in terms of our own limited capacities and knowledge. It is inconceivable that mortals should set limits on the power of their Creator, Who is also the Creator of this universe and all its laws. Indeed there is an enormous gap between His power and ours which was initially bestowed upon us by Him. It is He Who gave us the power and knowledge that enabled us to discover these laws and make use of them for our benefit.
Observed miracles were aimed at strengthening the faith of those who watched them being performed, at a time when the supporters of the Messengers seemed to be confounded and in distress. But they were temporal miracles that could never be repeated, and whose effect was limited to those who watched them.
Their acceptance or rejection by those who did not see them being performed depended on those people's faith, and on many other factors. If these miracles had not been recorded in the Qur'an, many of us would have doubted that they had happened.
But the miracle of al-Isra' was unlike all these other miracles in that no one except Muhammad (SAW) saw it being performed, and it was not aimed at strengthening the believers' faith. In fact many of them did not believe Muhammad (SAW) when he told them of it. But if the miracle was not intended to consolidate the believers' faith, what was its purpose? The answer is that because Allah regarded prayer as the principal pillar of the five pillars of faith and a compulsory duty on all Muslims, He deemed it more worthy to convey these rules directly to Muhammad (SAW). Unlike other duties such as Hajj (pilgrimage), Sawm (fasting) and Zakah (the payment of alms), wherein Allah had made some allowance with regards to their observance, no such allowance or compromise was made regarding prayer. Prayer must be conducted in all circumstances, Neither sickness, war nor any other impediment exempts Muslims from fulfilling this compulsory obligation. Besides, as it forms a link between Allah and His worshippers, it should not be interrupted or neglected for any reason or pretext. In view of the strictness of this commitment Allah made minor allowances in the rules of practice in the cases of sickness, travelling, purification (ablution) and the Qiblah. Thus, for instance, a sick person can perform his prayers while lying in bed or sitting in a chair. Likewise, a traveller is exempted from adhering to the correct position of the Qiblah.
The miracle itself required this two-stage journey, for Muhammad (SAW) had to inform his followers of the rules of prayer which Allah had imparted to him personally in the absence of any other witness. This privacy and the fact that he was acting as vice-regent whose task was to carry the worthiest of Allah's commands to His worshippers required a great deal of honesty on the part of Muhammad (SAW).
In fact, the Isra' was a twofold necessary prelude to the Mi'raj, for in addition to providing him with terrestrial evidence to confirm his story on his return it also consolidated his faith and prepared him for the second stage of his journey.
The Isra' was a terrestrial portent involving the journey from Makkah to Jerusalem. The journey between the two places, at that time, was not something which was impossible, as caravans in those days could travel the distance in three or four weeks, or perhaps longer, according to the travellers' means. The miracle, therefore, nullified the laws of time as we know them on earth. Thus, Muhammad (SAW) was carried from Makkah to Jerusalem, then to the heavens and back in one single night. At first, people were doubtful of what Muhammad (SAW) described. They soon became convinced that the miracle had happened, however, when he gave them a detailed account of the caravans he had seen travelling between the two cities, and an accurate description of Jerusalem. This preliminary convincing of His followers and their acceptance of the first part of the miracle prepared them to accept the second part of the journey, and removed from their minds all doubt that Allah had truly disrupted the cosmic laws, thus making it possible for Muhammad (SAW) to ascend to heaven. The terrestrial portents were, therefore, a necessary prelude aimed at convincing the Muslims of the truth of the second, less readily credible, miracle which culminated with his arrival at the Heavenly Throne of Allah.
The Isra' was, then, a miracle aimed at providing evidence that Allah had violated the terrestrial physical laws to enable Muhammad (SAW) to travel between Makkah and Jerusalem in a very short time, or perhaps in no time at all,and that if He was able to violate the terrestrial laws, He was likewise able to violate the cosmic laws. It could also be said that the Isra' was a miracle of consolidation and affirmation aimed at bringing closer to the human mind the truth of the events that took place afterwards.
There are some sceptics who argue that it is now possible for man to fly from Makkah to Jerusalem in half an hour or so, but this does not detract from the miracle in any way. Allah's miracles will remain intact and unmatched till the end of time. Jesus, for instance, cured leprosy and blindness with a mere touch of his hand. Nowadays, medicine can cure these illnesses, but never in the same way as Jesus did. Likewise, it may be possible for man to fly from Makkah to Jerusalem in a few minutes, but never will he be able to fly bodily as did Muhammad (SAW). For this flight was a divine miracle and will remain as such, challenging man, until the end of time, never to be reproduced or matched by him.
But if Allah had spoken to Moses while he stood on earth, why did He raise Muhammad (SAW) to the heavens to instruct him on the rules of the prayer? Why did He not speak to him on earth as He spoke to Moses?
To answer these questions one must take into account Allah's mercy, the limitations set on the human mind and the fact that when Allah wants to impart to man some spiritual phenomena which He deems to be beyond his limited intellectual capacity, He always relates it to another event that is less mysterious and easier for him to perceive. In this way, He affirms his faith and at the same time protects him from all beguiling attempts by those who plot against religion or try to cast doubt on the miracle's occurrence. For Allah knew that one day some people would become fascinated with the discoveries of science, and would forget about Allah's power, as is clearly stated in verse:
" .. Lo! those on whom you call beside Allah will never create a fly though they combine together for the purpose . . . So weak are both the seeker and the sought!" ( 22:73)
Indeed, though science has made it possible for man to land on the moon and probe beyond our planetary system but cant understand Allah creation . Thereare many other verses about life and death and resurrection which bring these phenomena closer to man's intellect, all of which accentuate man's impotence in matters related to creation.
So why did Allah raise Muhammad (SAW) to His Throne to instruct him about the duties of prayers, .and not simply speak to him on earth as He did in the case of Moses? One must bear in mind that the Planner and Designer of this act is Allah, Whose power is not limited -in time or space. We should not try to assess this power in terms of our own limited human powers.
When we talk about divine acts we should not look at them in the light of our definitions of time and space, for both of these have been created by Allah for the purpose of organizing life in the universe. But these laws have no bearing on Allah's unrestricted Will which is not limited to time or space. It is therefore futile to assess the validity of the miracle of al-Isra' or even to try to conceive of it in terms of our own definitions of time, space and potential. We should, rather, try to understand it in terms of Allah's unlimited divine attributes and powers. For instance, the meaning and action implied by the word translated 'raised' in Allah's .terms is entirely different from the meaning we usually ascribe to it. For 'to raise', in man's terms, means 'ascension' in Allah's terms. The act here is relative to the power, and it is by this same divine power and will that Muhammad (SAW) was given a higher rank than that of the angels. We should bear in mind that it is Allah Who made the laws governing the earth and the heavens, and being the Maker and Maintainer He has the power to operate them as He will. Certainly, no one in his human form can reach the heavens or go beyond the immediate world unharmed as Muhammad (SAW) did.
We all know that the stars and the planets are controlled by strict, integrated laws and must function in total harmony according to these laws. Any disruption in the functioning of any of the planets in our solar system would certainly upset this harmony and bring about the disintegration of the whole system. Indeed, this solar system was carefully planned and created to serve man and ensure his survival on earth. To make this survival possible all elements of nature have been subdued and harnessed..We also know that there are millions of other solar systems like ours, all of which have their own laws and whose secrets are known only to Allah.
Allah suspended all these laws to enable Muhammad (SAW) to travel unharmed from this solar system to the highest and farthest heaven, and to allow him to witness what no other human had ever seen. This does not mean that the Journey was accomplished according to the laws of time and space as we know them. Witnessing indicates that he was raised from this solar system to a higher heaven, and that such a journey must have involved some kind of transmutation (or change) of bodily form and state. Allah, being aware of the limitations of the human mind to readily conceive such overwhelming mysteries as those demonstrated in the miracle of al-Isra', has endowed us with the capacity of dreaming in order to show us glimpses of these mysteries and the ways in which it might operate. For example when we are awake, we live our normal worldly life which is governed by the material world and its laws. Yet all these laws seem to vanish once we are asleep and we seem to be governed by new laws that are entirely different from the customary physical laws that govern our actions and movements when we are awake. Thus we see strange places to which we have never been before, meet persons who have long been dead, fly unaided and remain. suspended in midair, travel from one country to another instantaneously and so forth. All these things vanish once we are awake and begin to resume our daily activity.
What does all this mean? It is obvious that the laws which apply to our movements and actions when we are asleep are entirely different from the laws of conscious activity. During sleep, a person sees with his eyelids closed, speaks while his tongue is motionless and hears voices and sounds that are never uttered or vocalized. All this happens during sleep because the human nature has changed, and with this change the laws which govern conscious vision, speech and all other sensations are suspended. Now, if this can happen to us when we are asleep and our bodies are motionless, then surely Allah can subject the waking body to the same laws as when it is asleep, and allow it to perform greater and more incredible acts than those it can perform under the influence of sleep. With this visualization in the front of our minds it would be possible for us to assimilate all the events that took place during Muhammad's (SAW) journey. The miracle should be accepted because nothing is too difficult for Allah to perform. The only difference between the miracles of Muhammad (SAW) and Moses is that whereas Muhammad (SAW) was shown some of Allah's signs in the heavens Moses was shown some of His signs on earth
Allah spoke to Moses at the place where the miracle happened. All the divine portents which Allah revealed to all His other Messengers took place on earth. Muhammad (SAW) was the only Messenger to be spoken to in the heavens and the only Prophet allowed to see some of Allah's heavenly signs.
The ascension to the heavens and Allah's conversation with him should not, however, prompt us to assume that Allah resides permanently in the heavens, for, indeed, as we have said before, He is not limited to time or place and is omnipresent. The fact that Allah spoke to Moses on earth and to Muhammad (SAW) in the heavens gives indisputable evidence of His omnipresence, and invalidates the unfounded view that He raised Muhammed (SAW) to Heaven because this is where He is to be found. Surely, Allah is present everywhere and can speak to anyone He chooses anywhere, on earth, in the heavens or in any other place in His endless universe.
The Isra' and the Mi'raj must, therefore, have been realised both bodily and spiritually. This is only one of the many miracles which Allah performed to support His Messengers, during which the laws of nature were disrupted. As in Abraham's miracle, He neutralized the burning property of fire, He likewise cancelled the laws that govern the horizontality of water to enable Moses to cross the sea, and gave Jesus the power to disrupt the laws of life and death and to cure the diseased and the sick.
Similarly, in Muhammad's (SAW) miracle Allah broke His own terrestrial and cosmic laws. Muhammad's (SAW) bodily 'Night Journey' from Makkah to Jerusalem in a matter of seconds or minutes was a terrestrial miracle in which all known physical laws were rendered inoperative. But, in addition to this, Allah also halted all the cosmic laws from operating while Muhammad (SAW) travelled in space. The verse in which Allah tells us that Muhammad (SAW) "drew nigh and came down till he was (distant) two bows' length or even nearer" (al-Najm 53:8-9) has some bearing, for although the verse appears to be referring to measurable distance, the true meaning is different. This is due to the fact that we take time and space as a basis for the estimation of proximity and distance. But as both time and place are created by Allah, then in Allah's judgement there is no time or place, nor should we apply our own laws to Him. Allah, in His continual mercy for mankind, gives us examples relative to life which bring that which is beyond human intellect closer to our understanding and perception.
If, for instance, one said that X is closer to Y's heart than M, would one not be talking about physical distance? For being physically close to someone does not necessarily imply emotional closeness or understanding. The same thing could be said about two persons who, though they may be living under the same roof, live in entirely different worlds of thought, emotion and interests. Therefore being near a person does not at all imply closeness of heart, nor is nearness to or farness from a person essentially concerned with distance. Accordingly, we should not take the verse "Till he was (distant) two bows' length or even nearer" (53:9) to indicate shortness of distance, but rather nearness to the heart, and this can only be reached through Allah's uncovering to His favourite servants the secrets of His universe and of all His creatures.
If Allah, in His grace, revealed to Muhammad (SAW) the secrets of the heavens and showed him some of His great portents, we should not attempt to evaluate them in terms of our physical definitions of time and place or try to subject the miracle to the same laws, nor should we attempt to calculate the distance that Muhammad (SAW) travelled. For the same reason we should not ask how long he took to complete his journey, for to Allah there is no such thing as distance or time. But we can say that all this truly happened, because He Who created time and place and everything else can easily change their laws or render them inoperative so that a miracle may take place. All that which we have said about Muhammad's (SAW ascension to the heavens can also be said about his closeness to Allah, for such closeness actually means a closeness of heart and soul, as in the case when the angelic messenger Gabriel appeared to Muhammad (SAW) to inform him of his destined role. This, perhaps, is the reason why Muhammad (SAW) fell into a trance-like state at the moment of revelation. These abnormal circumstances were clearly observable to others. The revelation was an ecstatic experience during which Muhammad (SAW) gave every evidence of being in direct contact with the source of the message.
According to traditional accounts, Gabriel commanded Muhammad (SAW) to 'recite' in the name of Allah. When Muhammad (SAW) failed to respond, the angel embraced him as he repeated the command, until Muhammad was compelled to repeat:
"Read: In the name of thy Lord who creates, Creates man from a clot. Read: And thy Lord is the Most Bounteous, Who teaches by the pen, Teaches man that which he knew not." (al-'Alaq 96:1-5)
When Muhammad recounted to his followers what he had witnessed in the Heavens, some of them, particularly his close companion Abu Bakr, believed him. He had complete faith in his integrity and needed no other evidence than Muhammad's (SAW) own words. Those who doubted his story became convinced of its truth when he told them of the caravans which he saw travelling between Makkah and Jerusalem, and gave them a detailed description of the latter city. Indeed Allah had planned things in such a way that the earthly portents became a convincing prelude to believing the greater portents revealed to Muhammad (SAW) in the Heavens, for if his followers were convinced of the truth of the first stage of the journey of al-Isra' then they would of the first stage of the journey of al-Isra' then they would be more inclined to believe the second journey of al-Mi'raj, This was the miracle of the Isra' and the Mi'raj - a miracle in which Allah rendered inoperative the laws of this universe and of the heavens in order to show His Prophet some of His greatest portents, and to impose on him the rules of prayer, considered to be the worthiest and most holy part or pillar of faith, and the link between man and Allah. The aim of the miracle was to honour and affirm Muhammad (SAW) himself, rather than to consolidate faith in the hearts of worshippers, and therefore, did not require witnessing .
But what can we learn from this miracle? In fact, it shows us signs of Allah's infinite power and His capacity to bestow immense favours and powers on whomever He chooses, as well as how high Muhammad was to his God. It also provides us with evidence that Allah is present everywhere, both in the heavens and on earth.