Al-Isra wal Mi‘raj is an important landmark in prophetic history. It occurred on the night of Rajab 27 in the twelfth year of the Prophet’s mission in Makkah. This year it falls on February 17-18. While Muslims celebrate this event highlighting its miraculous nature, it is equally important to reflect on the circumstances leading to it.
Throughout the 23-year-struggle of the noble Messenger (pbuh) to convey the message of Islam, he had to endure many challenges. Ridicule, torture, exile, boycott and the murder of some of his companions were common. The Prophetic mission lasted 13 years in Makkah and another 10 in Madinah.
Al-Isra wal Mi‘raj occurred exactly halfway through his prophetic mission that provided some relief from the unending oppression and suffering. Al- Isra means the miraculous nightly journey of the Prophet (pbuh) from Masjid al Haram in Makkah to Masjid al Aqsa in Al-Quds/ Jerusalem. This is narrated in the first ayah of Surah al-Isra (aka Surah Bani Isra’il). Mi‘raj is the noble Messenger’s ascension to Sidratul Muntaha in Heaven from Masjid al-Aqsa. Its details are narrated in Surah An-Najm.
Before we go into details, it may help to understand the Muslims’ plight in Makkah at the time. Life was extremely difficult for the Prophet (pbuh) and his small group of followers. Amid all the difficulties, two events were particularly painful. One was the loss of his beloved wife Khadijah (ra) as well as his kind uncle Abu Talib who had cushioned him from the wrath of the Makkan mushriks.
The year in which the Prophet (pbuh) lost his two closest relatives is referred to as ‘Am al-Huzn (the year of grief). It was the tenth year of his mission in Makkah. The deaths occurred as a direct result of the three-year siege in Sh‘ab abi Talib, a barren ravine in which the Makkan chiefs had isolated the small group of Muslims and their supporters.
The other painful experience was the Prophet’s unsuccessful mission to Taif, located some 40 kms south of Makkah. Far from accepting the message of Islam, the chiefs of Hawazin and Banu Thaqif tribes of Taif set the hooligans of the town upon the Prophet (pbuh). They pelted him with stones inflicting serious bodily injury. He bled profusely as a consequence of this attack.
It was following these two heart-wrenching events that al-Isra wal Mi‘raj occurred. Tafsir scholars agree that it occurred in the twelfth year of his mission in Makkah, coinciding exactly with the mid-point in his prophetic mission. It proved a harbinger of other more hopeful events that followed including the hijrah (migration) to Madinah.
What is al-Isra wal Mi’raj? There are two inter-related events. The ayah relating to al-Isra says:
“Exceptionally exalted is He [Allah] who advanced His subject [Muhammad] on a night journey from al-Masjid al-Haram [the Inviolable Masjid in Makkah] to al-Majid al-Aqsa [the Distant Masjid in al-Quds, also called Jerusalem]—an area blessed by Us so that We may show him [Muhammad] demonstrations of Our [extraordinary] power. Certainly, He is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing” (The Ascendant Qur’an: 17:01).
According to Prophetic narration, he (pbuh) led all the earlier prophets in prayer at the location where the Masjid al Aqsa stands today in Al-Quds/Jerusalem. We need to bear in mind that no such structure existed at the time. There is also another more imposing structure, the Dome of the Rock, that is sometimes confused with Masjid al Aqsa, also referred to as the Qibli Masjid because it served as the first qibla of Muslims before it was reverted back to the Ka‘aba in al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah.
The Dome of the Rock is built on the spot where the heavenly steed, Buraq, was tethered. The entire walled compound is referred to both as Masjid al Aqsa and al-Haram al-Sharif—the sacred sanctuary.
Muslims took possession of Jerusalem in 638 CE from the Christian Pontiff Sophronius. Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra) was the Khalifah of the Muslims. He personally went to Jerusalem to take possession of the keys to the city. With Muslim rule, Jerusalem and the whole of Palestine (the holy land) witnessed the flowering of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
Unfortunately, Jerusalem was lost to the Crusaders in the year 1099CE because of Muslim infighting in and around Palestine, much like today. However, under the command of Salahuddin Ayyubi, Muslim fighters reclaimed Jerusalem in 1187CE. It was the 27th night in the month of Rajab. This is the night in which the Prophet’s (pbuh) Isra wal Mi‘raj had occurred.
We are again in the month of Rajab, one of the sacred months in Islam, and the 27th of Rajab falls on February 17-18. In an interesting episode, Salahuddin’s army was camped on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It was the night of 27th Rajab. He instructed his commander to visit the tents of all the soldiers. Those involved in worship during the night would participate in the battle the next morning to liberate Jerusalem. The sleeping soldiers were to be excluded from battle. Allah granted the Muslim army victory because they were truly committed to His cause.
Let us briefly recall the circumstances in Makkah that preceded the great event of al-Isra wal Mi‘raj. For 12 years, the noble Messenger (pbuh) had delivered the message of Islam to the people of Makkah but only a handful from among the 5,000 or so inhabitants accepted Islam. Most of them were downtrodden people: slaves, the poor and weak, and women. The Makkan elite subjected Muslims to intense persecution. About 100 men and women were forced to seek refuge with the Christian ruler in Abyssinia across the Red Sea.
The three years from the seventh to the 10th of his mission in Makkah were extremely difficult. Muslims were isolated in Sh‘ab Abi Talib, a barren ravine outside Makkah where they were completely besieged. In the 10th year when the siege ended, the Prophet (pbuh) lost two of his closest supporters: his beloved wife Khadijah (ra) who had comforted and supported him throughout their married life, and his uncle Abu Talib who had protected him from the wrath of the Makkan mushriks. The visit to Taif turned out to be even more painful.
It was in these trying circumstances that Allah honoured him with Isra and Mi‘raj. Through Isra (nightly journey from Masjid al Haram to Masjid al Aqsa), Allah granted him the leadership of all the Prophets. In Mi‘raj, Allah honoured him by revealing the mysteries of Heaven and took him to Sidratul Muntaha (highest point in the cosmos). He returned with the five daily Salat as a gift of Mi‘raj.
Every year, Muslims celebrate the event of al-Isra wal Mi‘raj. Often, this great event is marked by describing the miraculous nature of the nightly journey. While important, the more relevant message of this great event would be to recount the circumstances in which it occurred. Today, Muslims are facing similar challenges.
Masjid al Aqsa as well as the whole of Palestine are under zionist occupation. Palestinians—Muslims and Christians—are brutalized and tormented. With the rise to power of an even more extremist regime—if such a thing is possible—life for Palestinians has become even more difficult. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed and others, especially the youth, are being killed on a daily basis. They are evicted from their homes at gunpoint. Night raids on their homes are routine.
Some 4,500 Palestinians, including women and children, languish in Israeli prisons. They face physical as well as sexual abuse. The Israeli court system is totally rigged to support the occupier’s policies.
Life for the Palestinians is extremely harsh. They are boxed in from all sides. On the occasion of the celebration of Isra wal Mi‘raj, Muslims would do well to remember the suffering of the Palestinian people, the illegal occupation of Masjid al Aqsa as well as of Palestine and think of ways to liberate them.
That would be a far more productive way to celebrate this great event in Prophetic history.