An Esoteric Interpretation of the Mi’raj and the Prophetic Tradition ‘I Have a Time with God’ (li ma’a Allah waqt)

Abstract:  Miraj-e-Rasul falls on the 27th night of the Muslim month of Rajab (which, in 2013, falls on Wednesday, June 5th). The Qur’an states that on this night,  the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) was transported from Mecca to Jerusalem, and then taken to the heavens until he came to the Lote Tree (see note 4 below) before finally reaching the Divine Throne. The Qur’an does not offer any more specific details, but the version of the event in the Hadith traditions is more detailed. They describe how the angel Gabriel came to the Prophet Muhammad at night, placed him on a winged beast called Buraq and took him to Jerusalem. From there the angel Gabriel guided the Prophet through the seven heavens introducing him to the angels and the prophets residing in each of them. Finally, when they reached the Lote Tree Gabriel could go no further. From here the Prophet was transported alone on a silk carpet to the Divine Throne. In this important piece, Jehangir Merchant offers his interpretation of this miraculous night journey from earth to heaven, and the well-known tradition of the Prophet li ma’a Allah waqt.

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By Jehangir A. Merchant

While Muslim artists created marvellous miniatures depicting the Prophet’s mi’raj (ascension) between arrays of fanciful clouds in gold and radiant colours with delightful angels serving him, Muslim poets in their admiration of the event soared high into their imaginative world and portrayed the Prophet in all his glory, flying through the seven heavens to the Mysterious Beyond in the Holy Presence of his God. Over time, a considerable amount of literature grew around the mi’raj of the Prophet. The following is one such expression which can be found among esoteric circles in Islam:

God sent out Gabriel:

“My Muhammad shall come!” He said.
“Take Buraq, draw it before him,
My Muhammad shall mount!” He said.

“He shall go to the city of Medina,
In front of him angels shall fly.
The door of paradise shall open,
My Muhammad shall enter,” He said.

“My Muhammad shall come, shall come,
He shall see and look at My Throne;
He shall pluck the roses of Paradise,
My Muhammad shall smell them,” He said…’ [1]

The original theme of Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.s.) mi’raj upon which the wealth of mi’raj literature has grown, including the above excerpts, is referred to very briefly in the opening verse of chapter 17 of the Holy Qur’an entitled al-Isra (The Nocturnal Journey). [2] It says:

“Glory be to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Place of Worship (al-masjid al-haram) to the Far Distant Place of Worship (al-masjid al-aqsa) [3] whose precincts We have blessed, that We might show him Our signs. Lo! He alone is the Hearer, the Seer.”

The theme is further expanded in the first eighteen verses of Chapter 53, al-Najm (The Star):

“By the star when it sets, your compatriot errs not, nor is he deceived; nor does he speak of (his own) desire. It is nothing save an inspiration that is inspired, which One of Mighty Powers has taught him, endued with Wisdom. And he grew clear to view when he was on the uppermost horizon. Then he drew near and came closer till he was at the distance of two bows-length or even closer.

“And He revealed unto His servant that which He revealed. His heart lied not (in seeing) what he saw.

“Do you then dispute with him concerning what he saw? And indeed, he had seen Him yet another time, near the Lote Tree (Sidrat al-muntaha) [4] of the utmost boundary, near which is the Garden of Repose (jannat al-ma’wa). When the Lote Tree was shrouded (in mystery), his sight swerved not, nor did it wander. Verily he saw the greatest of the signs of his Lord.”

While the Hoy Qur’an doesn’t speak of the event any more than what we have quoted, the version of the event in the books of Hadith is more detailed. However, the mysterious words and phrases mentioned in the quoted Qur’anic verses such as the Sacred Place of Worship (al-masjid al-haram), the Far Distant Place of Worship (al-masjid al-aqsa) , the Lote Tree of the utmost boundary  (sidrat al-muntaha), the Garden of Repose (jannat al-ma ‘wa) go unexplained, as do the references in the literary expressions and the Hadith to the mount of the Prophet (Buraq), the ladder (al-mi’raj) and so on. In this short essay, I wish to offer my interpretation about these terms.

Fragment from page 7 of the Bustan of Sadi. The last two lines of poetry on this page extol the Prophet’s miraculous ascension to the heavens (mi’raj): One night he sat (on his flying steed Buraq) and passed through the heavens. / In majesty and grandeur, he exceeded the angels. / So impulsive, he urged (his steed) into the plain of closeness (to God) / While Gabriel remained behind him at the Lote Tree (of the Limit). Image: Wikipedia.

There have been exoteric and esoteric interpretations of mi’raj among Muslims. According to the esoteric interpretation, the mi’raj was a spiritual journey; it was a fitting example of a mystical experience, a breaking through into the unseen world, and a symbol of the rise of the soul from the bonds of the material world to the heights of mystical knowledge through the temple of the heart as noted in the following verses:

“On the path of God
Two places of worship mark the stages.
The material temple,
And the temple of the heart,
Make your best endeavour
To worship at the temple of the heart”. [5]

The Ismaili missionary Pir Shams, in speaking of the heart, says:

…dil manhe deval pujiye
Ane dil manhe dev dwar;
Dil manhe sanhiya aap vasey,
Dil manhe apey didar-re.

Translation:

In the heart worship your Lord,
In the heart is the Lord’s abode;
In the heart the Lord dwells,
In the heart His Face unveils.

The fulfilment of ritual polishing and worshipping in this inner sanctuary of the heart is symbolized by the Prophet’s retirement from his prayers. The journey begins in the heart, the Sacred Place of Worship (al-masjid al-haram ). Love is represented by the celestial steed (Buraq) that carries the Prophet to a place in heaven (at-masjid al-aqsa, the Far Distant Place of Worship) where the angels sing praises of Allah.

The Love that we speak of here is divine, and it reminds the soul of its eternal home and leads it to the overwhelming vision of the Divine Light. Rumi says:

Love entered the mosque and said:
“o master and guide,
Tear the shackles of existence — why are you still in
the fetters of the prayer rug?
Let your heart not tremble because of the blow of my sword;
Put down your head if you want to travel
from knowing to seeing!” [6]

Buraq, the heavenly mount of the Prophet, is the symbol of Love. It has strong wings which carry the lover toward the roof of the Beloved:

That is Love, to fly heavenward,
To tear a hundred veils in every moment….[7]

The Prophet enters the temple in heaven (al-masjid, al-aqsa) and sees the assembly of Angels and Prophets and receives the salute of welcome from each of them in turn. Then he is brought three vessels containing wine, honey and milk. He drinks the milk, upon which Gabriel said to him, “O Muhammad! You have been rightly guided.” The contents of the three vessels respectively represent the three states — the state of ‘intoxication’ as in the case of the mystics, the state of ‘annihilation’ (fana) as experienced by Moses who fell senseless to the ground while God revealed Himself at the mountain [8] and the state of ‘prophetic sobriety’ as shown by the Prophet who returns from the Divine Presence without fainting.

Now begins the ascension by means of a ladder (al-ma‘arij) of sublime beauty, to the seventh heaven and into the presence of God.

“I turned my face and looked upward;
I found a ladder (al-ma‘arij)
with alternate rungs of silver and gold” – the Prophet Muhammad. [9]

The aspiring soul climbs the ladder that leads to the roof of the Beloved and instantly finds itself in a sate of awe and bewilderment as it recognises that:

“He (Allah) is the Lord of the Ways of Ascent (Dhu ‘l-ma‘arij) by which the Angels and the Spirits ascend unto Him in a day whereof the measure is fifty thousand years.” (Holy Qur’an, 70:3-4)

While ascent (al-ma’arij) in its simple meaning gives a clue to the upward direction of the Prophet’s journey, it proclaims very emphatically that if God has placed man on this earth, He has also set up a ladder for man to climb up to Him. No wonder Allah calls Himself the Lord of the Ways of Ascent (Dhu ’l-ma‘arij).

The rungs of ladder of silver and gold are spiritual stations which are interconnected, yet individually they are distinct and different from each other. Like each step of a ladder, each spiritual station is a rallying point in which the experience of the previous station finds its completion, but where at the same time there is a new level of development and a new departure. It would be wrong to assume each station as an entirely separate experience. There is interpenetration and, what is more, progress is an interrupted climb, it is oscillatory, swinging between the higher and lower spiritual stations:

“(He knows) all that comes down from heaven and all that ascends to it.” (Holy Qur’an, 57:4)

The Prophet and Angel Gabriel arrive at the ‘Lote Tree of the utmost boundary’ (sidrat al-muntaha) at which point Gabriel declares his inability to continue the journey. Rumi explains this as the weakness of the discursive reason which, though useful as a guide on the initial steps of the Path, becomes useless once the seeker has reached the Chamber of Union:

“Reason speaks, like Gabriel: O Ahmad,
If I advance one step, He will burn me.” (Mathnavi, 1:1066)

Ibn al-Arabi, the great Muslim mystic and philosopher attributes ascension to the contemplation and love for the Divine, rather than reason. In his Futuhat (ii: 356-375), he makes a believer and a philosopher journey together, but the philosopher stops at the seventh whilst the believer journeys on to feast in the Divine Presence of His Creator.

Beyond the ‘Lote Tree of the utmost boundary’ the Prophet journeys alone. It is the precinct of God Himself. The Prophet experiences the Divine Presence as a column of infinite veils of Light, denied to Gabriel who says:

“Between me and Him (God) are 70,000 veils of Light.”

But soon, for the Prophet, the Supreme Mystery was to unfold Itself. A drama is enacted. The Prophet asks that the eye of the heart be opened in him, and like Moses, he supplicates: “…My Lord! reveal Yourself to me, that I may look upon You.”

He is not to be denied the Vision. A Voice summons him:

“O soul at peace! Return unto your Lord, well-pleased, and pleasing in His Sight…” (Holy Qur’an, 89:27),

and the Prophet enters the Garden of Repose (jannat al-ma’wa). But the Voice summons again: “Come yet nearer.”

He does not see, nor does he apprehend. There is Silence, all-engulfing Silence. There is nothing for him to do, but to draw near and go closer till he is at a distance of two bows-length or even closer. Again the Voice speaks: “Ask,” and the Prophet prays again: “My Lord! reveal Yourself to me, that I may look upon You.”

And He, The Lord of Majesty and Reverence, reveals Himself unto His servant, that which He wishes to reveal. The Prophet’s eyes do not swerve and nor do they wander. He sees the greatest of the signs of his Lord — His Vision.

When the Prophet returns from this spiritual journey of the ‘Far Distant Place of Worship’ and the ‘Proximity of God’, the bed on which he had laid was still warm. This explains the secret of the “Eternal Now in God.” In this connection the Prophet has said:

“I have a time with God” (li ma’a Allah waqt).

In spiritual life, serial time no longer exists. The moment a soul breaks through created time and reaches the ‘Eternal Now in God’, everything created is annihilated in its experience. The serial time is torn. Finally, the Prophet says: “And He revealed to me secrets that I am not allowed to communicate to you.”

His yearning for the ‘exalted station’ becomes intense, and as often as he feels this longing he turns to Bilal and says: “O Bilal, comfort us by the call to prayer.” Thus to the Prophet every time of prayer is an ascension (mi’raj) and a new nearness to God.

The mystical interpretation of the mi’raj is all the more revealing, since:

“…The Prophet, although created as the most perfect being, still remains a servant…The opening words of Sura 17 – ‘praised be He Who travelled with His servant at night’ – indicate that even in the moment of rapture the Prophet is still called abduhu, ‘His Servant.’ That implies that ‘servant’ is the highest possible name for a human being who, however, is able to speak to God without being extinguished.” [10]

The Prophet’s journey beyond the ‘Lote Tree of the utmost boundary’, all by himself, is an affirmation of the exalted destiny of man:

“Although Adam had not got wings,
yet he has reached a place that was not destined even for angels.” [11]

And as by the verse “You have indeed in the Apostle of God a beautiful pattern of conduct,” (Holy Qur’an, 33:21), Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) is made an example to be followed; his mi’raj, to the believers, is indicative of the rise of the soul from the plane of material existence to the proximity of God.

“You have been in the station of dust, you have made a hidden journey:
When you have reached the state of Adam, be careful lest you establish yourself there;
You continue the journey, and you travel up to heaven,
And you move bit by bit so that God may give you freedom.” [12]

Date posted: June 13, 2012.
Last updated: June 2, 2013.

Copyright: Jehangir A. Merchant.

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[1]. Yunus Emre, Divan, p575, CCLIV quoted in Poetry in Honour of the Prophet by Annemarie Schimmel in As Through a Veil Mystical Poetry in Islam, p.1 83, Columbia University Press, New York, 1982.

[2]. The chapter gets its title ‘al-isra’ from the first verse itself Subhanal lazi asra hi abdihi lailan, “Glory be to Him Who carried His servant by night…”.

[3]. al-masjid al-haram in its exoteric interpretation is the Holy Ka’ba at Makkah and al-masjid al-aqsa is the Mosque of Jerusalem which was the Qibla of the Muslims until about 16 months after Hijra when Ka’ba was established as the Qibla. While commanding the highest respect of all Muslims, they are also given an esoteric interpretation by many Muslims.

[4]. In ancient times, Arabs often planted a tree to mark the end of a road. The cosmic tree or lote tree which is also called the “tree of the extreme limit” marks the end of the universe. The Prophet described the lote tree as a large tree not resembling any of the trees of paradise. The tree has an infinite number of branches, and every branch has an infinite number of leaves and an angel sits on each leaf. Springs of water, milk, wine and honey flow from the trunk. See The Islamic World edited by John Esposito and Abdulhussein Sachedina, p.117, Oxford University Press.

[5]. The Persian Mystics, Wisdom of the East Series, p.35.

[6]. Mawlana Rumi, Diwan-i Kabir, quoted in As Through a Veil Mystical Poetry in Islam by Annemarie Schimmel, p.129,130, Columbia University Press, New York 1982.

[7]. ibid, p.130.

[8]. “And when Moses came at the appointed time and his Lord had spoken to him, he said: ‘My Lord! reveal Yourself to me, that I may look upon You’. He said: ‘You will not see Me, but look upon the mountain; if it remains firm in its place, then only will you see Me.’ And when his Lord revealed His Glory to the mountain, He crushed it to fine dust. Moses fell down senseless, and when he came to himself he said: ‘Glory be to You! I turn unto You in repentance. I am the first of the believers.” (Holy Qur’an, 7:143)

[9]. Henry Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, p. 1 74, Spring Publications, Texas.

[10]. Mystical Dimensions, p.220.

[11]. Khwaja Mir Dard, Urdu Diwan, ed. Khalil ur-Rahman Da’udi, Lahore, 1962 quoted in Mystical Dimensions.

[12]. Mawlana Rumi, Diwan-i Kabir, v.2837, quoted in The Triumphal Sun by Annemarie Schimmel, East-West Publications, The Hague, 1978.

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This piece by Jehangir Merchant is a revision of the original piece which first appeared in the March 1985 issue of  Ilm (Volume 9, Number 2) published by the Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom. Alwaez Jehangir edited and contributed several articles for the flagship Ismaili magazine during his long tenure with the UK institution. He now lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his wife Alwaeza Maleksultan. His other articles on this website include:

1.Jehangir Merchant’s Thank You Letter to the Fatimid Ismaili Icon, Da’i Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi
2. Ghadir-Khumm and the Two Weighty Matters (which includes Alwaez’s detailed profile)
3. The Story of Noah’s Ark in the Holy Qur’an
4. Great Moments in Ismaili History: The Establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate
5. he Parable of Moses and Khidr in the Holy Qur’an: An Ismaili Interpretation
6. Text and Explanation of “Eji Shah Islamshah Amne Maliya”
7. A Translation and Brief Commentary of Pir Sadardin’s Ginan “Jem Jem Jugatsu Preet Kareva”
8. The Frontispiece of the Ismaili Jamatkhana in Mashhad, Iran

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10 thoughts on “An Esoteric Interpretation of the Mi’raj and the Prophetic Tradition ‘I Have a Time with God’ (li ma’a Allah waqt)

  1. I recall hearing from my night school teacher a similar interpretation almost 20 years ago. In that Buraq was referred to as Nafs. This was referred in Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s farman that Nafs (Shaitan) is like a horse whose rider is Momin. I also recall an interpretation of Miraj was given by Nasir-Khusraw probably in his book Wajeh-Deen. I read that book in Urdu long time ago but havent been able to find its English translation. Each time we ponder about esoteric meaning of a Ginan or Quarnic verse, it unleashes a wealth of knowledge with room to use our intellect to find more inner meanings. Thank you Mr. Merchant for sharing this wonderful article. If you have any information about the interpretation of fall of Adam I would be very interested in knowing it.

    May Almighty continue to bless you for your wonderful service.
    Arif

  2. The stations in the spiritual ascent of Mi’raj evoke in my imagination a reflection of the stations or “makaam” that one crosses during one’s life. The created soul is led, as it were, from station to station, in a straight path which is simultaneously non-linear or interdependent as Alwaez points out.
    Allah knows best the purpose or significance behind each makaam which becomes physically manifested and etched into matter and space of the cosmos, until it returns to its origin when everything perishes save the face of He who is above the cosmos.
    The promise of Mi’raj dispels the fear of separation when He who is most merciful of all merciful guides his servant to a restful station, nafs al mutma-inna. In the Tariqah the rightly guided soul is summoned at the appointed stations for “time with God” in preparation for the ultimate station. The soul as servant of its Lord yearns for Salaat, Ibadat, Dhikr, Seva and Khidmat. Through these graces the servant sees Him in Haqiqat and even if he does not, Allah sees him. For in Marifat, Allah alone is the seer.

  3. Thank you very much Mr. Merchant for providing us with the esoteric (batini) meaning of the Miraaj of the Prothet (s.a.s).
    I have been born in the Ismaili Muslim family. And seeing my Mom’s absolute devotion to the Practice of the Religion and the absolute Love for the Imam and Allah, made my faith much more stronger. I owe my Mom great deal.

    Anyway, almost everybody would say that we (Ismaili Muslims) are “Batini”, but when one asks them they would say they have to keep it secret….But I think now is the time that we should let the world khow why we (Ismaili Muslims) are called “Batini”.
    Thanks to Allah and thanks to Women and Men like Mr. Merchant and many others who are willing to share their knowledge with the Humanity.
    What a great Siva (service)

  4. What a wealth of knowledge. I shall forward this to our Reading Group and Vice Administrator of Baitul-Ilm hoping it will be forwarded to all teachers on their team!

  5. Beautifully written Mr Merchant! Thanks for sharing your knowledge! Allah always bless you! Peace & love,

    Rashida Kanji,
    Toronto,, Ontario

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