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The Prophet’s Night Journey: Spiritual or Physical?

24 April, 2017
Q Salam. I have a question for you. Was al-Isra a spiritual or a physical journey?


Salam Jasmine,

Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.

Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) Night Journey from Makkah to Jerusalem and hence to heaven, and his return to his home town on the same night, was, to a contemporary mind, very much a miracle. Caravans, during this time, took a whole month to cover the distance between the two cities.

How, then, could Muhammad make a return journey overnight, and have an excursion to Heaven in the same trip?

Even to those accustomed to today’s jet travel and to the notion of supersonic speed, the event can only be classified as supernatural. Hence questions have always been raised about the true aim of this journey and its nature. More precisely, people, as you have, wonder whether it was a spiritual or physical Journey.

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The Quran answers the first question clearly. The chapter entitled The Night Journey or Al-Israa’, opens with this verse:

{Limitless in His glory is He who made His servant go by night from the Sacred Temple [of Makkah] to the further Temple [of Jerusalem] whose surroundings We have blessed that We might show him some of Our signs. He alone hears all and sees all.} (Al-Israa’ 17:1)

The whole object of the journey, then, was that the Prophet would have a chance to see some of God’s signs. What these were, we are not told. Seeing them, however, had a greatly reassuring effect on Prophet Muhammad, since it enabled him to experience at first hand the limitless ability of God the Creator.

This was bound to put the dispute in which he had been engaged with the Makkans into perspective. It exhibited before his eyes the true nature and the real might of the two camps: his own, in which God is an active participant, and that of the unbelievers.

Hence, it is not surprising that the following years of his life were free of any feelings of weakness or downheartedness. He remained to the last day of his life unaffected by adversity, certain that he would be victorious as long as he and his followers were true believers, sincere in their intentions and actions.

Here, one should emphasize that the journey was not a miracle with the aim of persuading the unbelievers to accept the faith. It was not one of the type of miracles which was given to other Prophets as evidence of their truthfulness.

The unbelievers had actually challenged the Prophet to go up into heaven, but he refused their challenge, as he refused all their other challenging requests. His answer to all such requests was:

{Say, glory be to my Lord. I am only a human Messenger.} (Al-Israa’ 17:93)

When he actually rose to heaven, he did not portray the fact as a reply for their challenge. Hence, one needs to understand the Night Journey in its proper light: it was an act of God to reassure His Messenger at a time when such a reassurance was needed for the proper conveyance of His message.

The majority of Islamic scholars are of the opinion that the Night Journey was not purely ‘spiritual’. They believe, as does the present author, that the Prophet did physically, in body and spirit, go on this journey.

Some people may find this hard to believe because it involves preternatural powers. The answer is that whatever powers such a journey required, they were easy for God to provide.

Look back only one hundred years and imagine what would have been the reaction of people if someone had told them that anyone would be able to travel the distance between Bahrain and London in a little over four hours, in luxurious comfort.

Now reflect on travelling speeds, if one maintains the rate of progress achieved in this field in the present century. Would supersonic travelling have seemed natural?

Indeed, the term “natural” is certainly relative. What is natural today was preternatural to our ancestors and may become, in our grandchildren’s view, primitive.

“Natural”, in essence, signifies little more than “familiar”. One need only look, with open eyes and mind, at the world to find that there are many miraculous facts which are readily accepted as natural for no reason other than their familiarity.

Every childbirth is a miracle, but it is simply overlooked because it occurs so often. One need only reflect over it a little to understand its miraculous nature.

In tackling such events as the Night Journey, one needs to remember only that they occur because God has willed that they should occur.

To Him there is no such’ thing as “natural” or “preternatural”. He has created all the laws of nature, whether they are familiar or not.

To Him the operation of all laws is equally easy. What is not understood of His actions is readily accepted, because the fact that His power is limitless is already accepted.

I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.


Please continue feeding your curiosity, and find more info in the following links:

How Can You Live The Night Journey of the Prophet

The Night Journey: Shift in Spiritual Authority