Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Chapter Four

The Revelation:
The Messenger of Allah



Islam, like Judaism and Christianity before it, is founded on the principle that there is one Supreme Being who created the whole universe and who has revealed his will, his laws and his truth through the medium of human messengers. Yet whereas the former two faiths are based on a progressive revelation through prophets called out from only one nation, the Israelites, Islam is unique in that its founder was an Arab from a people who had hitherto never known such a vocation and had been steeped in traditional pagan idolatry.

It is necessary to consider the whole course of Muhammad's experience of revelation to understand the heart and spirit of the Muslim faith. Of prime importance is an awareness of how he was prepared for it and what led him to the conviction that he was singled out as one of God's great messengers to mankind. There is a remarkable paradox at this point for he began his religious quest, not as an aspirant to prophetic office but rather as a somewhat mystical enquirer in the mould of oriental visionaries before him.

It is known that for some time he used to retire to Mount Hira outside Mecca to contemplate the meaning of life in undisturbed solitude. Here he was able to reflect and, without fear of social retribution, to doubt and question the beliefs of his own people. Down below he was accustomed to a bustling society where hundreds of people from all over Arabia mixed with each other in their daily lives. That, to any ordinary man, was the simple reality of life. The universe above and the earth below had no real relevance apart from the incessant activity of human and other forms of life on the surface of the earth. The worship of idols accordingly seemed to be entirely appropriate. Fashioned in images similar to the human frame, this multiplicity of deities seemed to be eminently consistent with life as men and women knew it.

High up on Mount Hira, as he searched the broad, silent horizons before him, things began to appear to be somewhat different to the seeker who, although in the prime of his life at the age of forty years, had determined to seek the true meaning of his existence. Up here the bustle of human traffic below seemed small and insignificant. If he could see them below at all, his people might have appeared more like ants than men. At the same time their idols began to seem equally negligible. From this distance they could not even be seen and Muhammad must surely have wondered if their existence was not simply the result of the imagination of those who worshipped them. As he scanned the horizon, however, he must have been impressed rather with an immense serenity, a tranquil silence stretching into the heavens in a realm far beyond the human scope of perception.

The haunting solitude and dramatic sense of an absolute unity of existence throughout the universe must have made him wonder whether there was not some other source of life. Pagan idols were all too human in form and number – must there not surely be some far greater Being beyond the earth who looked down on it in awesome solitude as Muhammad himself now did? A great and almost lonely God in eternal isolation from the physical worlds he had created below him?

This time of contemplation might have led to the rise of another oriental visionary who, at the appropriate time, could descend again to declare that he had finally discovered for himself the meaning of life. Gautama Buddha was just such a man. For a long time he too had retired to a solitary existence and a time of meditation under a chosen tree. The day finally came when he declared his mystical search for truth had finally yielded its light – all life and its trials could be resolved in one proverb, he proclaimed. Desire was the cause of all suffering – subdue your own personal desires and longings and then pain and suffering would have no effect or meaning. Contemplation should ultimately lead to enlightenment and the son of Arab merchants might have been expected to come to the same position in good time. With Muhammad, however, it did not. Assuredly the day came when he descended from Hira with a declaration that his quest was over, but it was not a climax of meditation that brought it, nor was he convinced that his discovery was necessarily beneficial.

His contemplations had been rudely interrupted. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly he had that strange vision of a supernatural being on the horizon. Instead of attaining a state of enlightenment he was boldly confronted with something which he later claimed was far beyond his expectations. The creature faced him no matter which way he turned to escape the phenomenon. It spoke just one word – Iqra! – "Recite!" From this moment everything changed for Muhammad. He was not to be an enlightened mystic but a prophet, called from above, from Allah himself, to reveal his truth to his people.

Yet Muhammad was not at all convinced at first that the vision was divinely commissioned. On the contrary he came down in fear from Mount Hira and told his wife Khadija that he wondered if he had not been visited by a jinn, a demonic spirit like those who he believed possessed the mad (majnun) poets around him. Was he too to become a crazed soothsayer like the rest of them? An account of his actual experience and immediate reaction reads as follows:

The Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, was terrified. Whenever he raised his head towards the heaven he saw him; so he returned hastily to Khadijah and conveyed this information to her. He said; O Khadijah! By Allah, I never hated anything so much as idols and soothsayers, and I am afraid that I shall myself become a soothsayer ... O Khadijah! I hear sounds and see light and I fear I am mad. (Ibn Sa`d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol.1, p.225)

He was seized with anguish and, when the second similar vision occurred sometime later, he again came down in terror, crying to her to cover him up, a sign that he feared he was being demonically assaulted. He was assured, however, that it was Allah himself, the one Supreme Being of the whole universe who had visited him, and from that time it is said that "the revelation was speeded up and followed rapidly" (Sahih Muslim, Vol.1, p.99). Over the next twenty-three years he never again had such a vision but the Qur'an consistently grew in content as the revelation came to him in dreams and other ways.


It does not appear that the genuiness of those early visions can be questioned. An impostor would more likely have had a constant recourse to such manifestations but the very fact that Muhammad never again made such claims testifies to the sincerity of the initial experiences. They were unique and out of character and the Qur'an itself emphasises the reality of what he perceived.

While he was in the highest part of the horizon, then he approached and came closer, and was at a distance of only two bow-lengths or even nearer. So the revelation came to His servant, what He revealed. His heart in no way falsified what he saw. Will you then dispute with him about what he saw? Surah 53:7-12

The reality of his visions is supported as well by his initial reaction to them. Had he conceived them in his own mind as a fantasy to justify his prophetic aspirations he would assuredly have given them divine sanction from the start, but his initial fear that they were of diabolical origin gives much credit to the authenticity of his experience. On the other hand, while admitting the sincerity of his claims, the Christian is entitled to question the origin of the visions in the light of his own first impressions.

To question the revelation in any way for the Muslim, on the other hand, is to contemplate the unthinkable. There is so much in that first command – Iqra! – that tempers the whole character of Islam. "Recite!" was the order. Muhammad was bewildered at first as to the meaning of the command until its purpose was made clear: "Repeat after me!" Then he got the message – he was simply to repeat everything he heard. The very title of his book, al-Qur'an, "the Recitation", is derived from that initial decree and so much of the character of Islam flows from it.

It was almost as if the angel, as Islam has it, was saying to him: "You did well to doubt the traditions of your ancestors. Your efforts to find the truth through contemplation and meditation were commendable and your willingness to question idolatry testify to your sincerity. But now the truth comes to you by eternal decree, by the command (amr) of Allah, and it would not be appropriate to doubt this. To question in ignorance is acceptable but to doubt what is revealed is an abomination and a sure sign of unbelief. Repeat after me! Simply do as you are commanded!"

This explains the dour, absolute character of the revelation in Islam and the awesome grip it has over its adherents. A true Muslim can never honestly question the divine origin of his faith, not even to possibly strengthen his conviction in the process. Islam means submission and a true Muslim, one who submits, displays his sincerity in doing so without question. Faith in Islam is not an adventure into the unknown – it is a simple response to the known, to what is revealed, a placid resignation to what is prescribed without ever daring to intelligently enquire whether it is really God's truth or not. The Qur'an uses the word amr on more than a hundred occasions to emphasise that what is revealed is God's express command to be immediately obeyed (cf. Surahs 10:24, 16:1, 20:93). The whole essence of the matter is summed up in this text:

The Truth comes from Allah alone, so be not of those who doubt. Surah 3:60

The command not to be one of the doubters, falaa takum-minal- mumtariin, occurs regularly in the Qur'an (Surahs 2:147, 6:114, 10:94) and it emphasises the nature of true Muslim faith. The basics of Islam are all rigidly prescribed. The five times daily prayers are defined in every respect. The call to prayer is the same every day, the ritual of ablutions is likewise always exactly the same every time a Muslim goes to mosque, and each raka`at in the mosque, the prayer ceremony, is an exact repetition of the previous one. Every ritual in the Hajj Pilgrimage to Mecca is precisely defined and the observance of the Ramadan fast likewise never changes. The repetitive nature of the practices of Islam is derived directly from that first command, Iqra!, and the true Muslim just repeats what has been revealed without ever having to think about it or being allowed to question it. In the Qur'an Abraham is simply commanded Aslim! ("Submit!") and his reply is merely to respond aslamtu ("I have submitted") (Surah 2:131). Such is Muslim faith. Islam cannot comprehend an Abraham who, in the Bible, challenges and questions the command of God when he decrees he is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because such an action seemed to him to be in conflict with the very character of God whom he knew to be just and righteous (Genesis 18:23-25). To argue with God, as Moses also did (Exodus 31:11-12), is to the Muslim unthinkable.

The contemplative Muhammad immediately changed as the Qur'an began to be revealed to him. Unlike Buddha he did not thereafter believe that the transcendental life was the object of religious reform, nor was he concerned with a mystical adventure into the depth of the Divine Spirit.  His religion was basically practical with commands about everyday life and his office always remained one of being the recipient and never the discoverer of truth. That first vision and the striking force of its first command to simply repeat what was to be revealed characterises the whole spirit of Islam down to this day.





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Muhammad is introduced to Buraq, an angelic beast which is to carry him up through the heavens ultimately into the presence of Allah himself.



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The nocturnal ascent has always been a popular theme with Muslim artists. The Prophet is always depicted in the company of numerous angels.




After his initial visions the Qur'an is said to have come in various ways to Muhammad. There are numerous records to indicate that the addition of any portion of the book was invariably accompanied by a form of outward manifestation. Ayishah detailed some of these forms in the following tradition:

Verily, al-Harith Ibn Hisham said: O Apostle of Allah! How does revelation dawn upon you? The Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, said: Sometimes it dawns upon me in the form of the ringing of a bell, and that is very hard on me; (ultimately) it ceases and I remember what is said. Sometimes the angel appears to me and speaks and I recollect what he says. Ayishah said: I witnessed the revelation dawning upon him on an extremely cold day; when it ceased, I noticed that his forehead was perspiring. (Ibn Sa`d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol.1, p.228)

There are numerous references in the Hadith literature to the actual appearance of the angel, identified later in his life as Jibril (Gabriel), and most of these state that he appeared in human form to the Prophet. The Qur'an, however, clearly limits his actual visions to the first two occasions when he claimed to have had a striking manifestation of the angel filling the sky all around him and it is not clear exactly what sort of revelation of the angel is intended. It may be simply that he saw him in a dream or subconscious state in an ethereal form but it is obvious that he was persuaded that it was one specific supernatural being that was so regularly communicating with him. Another record of his early experiences mentions other external manifestations:

Ubada b. Samit reported that when wahi descended upon Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him), he felt a burden on that account and the colour of his face underwent a change. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.4, p.1248)

Another record of these manifestations mentions other outward signs seen by one of his companions: "The Prophet's face was red and he kept on breathing heavily for a while and then he was relieved" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.476). If all these records are correct then there appears to be strong support for the claim that he was experiencing definite states of personal transformation as the various texts of the revelation came to him. Muslims will immediately claim that these prove that his Qur'an was no flight of fancy or a forged composition subtly contrived in his own imagination from day to day. It was, they claim, Allah's own revelation of his divine word which the Prophet was receiving.

There are evidences in the early records of his life, however, which indicate that he used to lapse into states of semi-consciousness and be overcome by fits long before the start of his prophetic mission. Mention has already been made of an incident in which he experienced a fit while in the care of Halima, his foster mother, while he was still a boy. She and her husband were deeply alarmed as it was believed that evil spirits were the cause of such trances and they determined to return him to his real mother as soon as they possibly could. Halima's own record of this occasion reads:

His father said to me, "I am afraid that this child has had a stroke, so take him back to his family before the result appears". So we picked him up and took him to his mother who asked why we had brought him when I had been anxious for his welfare and desirous of keeping him with me. I said to her ‘God has let my son live so far and I have done my duty. I am afraid that ill will befall him, so I have brought him back to you as you wished’. She asked me what happened and gave me no peace until I told her. When she asked if I feared a demon possessed him I replied that I did". (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.72)

The story has been embellished in Islamic tradition with the kind of typical fantasies that abound around the early years of his life, in particular his birth, so it is not easy to ascertain the exact experience that he had. He is said to have been visited by two men in white clothing who opened up his heart, removed a black spot, cleansed it with snow and closed it up again. In defending his integrity Amina is said to have claimed that she had seen a light go forth from her while she was still pregnant with him till it reached the castles of Busra in Syria. These may all be accretions of later times as throughout the Qur'an the impression given is that his initial visions were the first supernatural evidences that he experienced, but there can be little doubt that they have been woven around a definite incident in his life of which the above quotation gives more than a hint.

It does appear that Muhammad underwent some strange physical changes in his manner and appearance which accompanied the inspiration of the Qur'an text though whether this happened every time a new passage was revealed cannot be determined. It is once again interesting to find that from records within Islam's own early heritage evidences appear to suggest that the source of these manifestations was not immediately presumed to be celestial and that a suspicion of occultic origin was often first suggested. 


Muslim writers as a rule have never bothered to enquire whether there was an inward aspect to the revelation. It has always been believed in Islam that the inspiration was entirely external. Muhammad was merely the passive recipient of a divine text inscribed long before his time in the eternal realms and which was being delivered to him portion by portion from an eternal original on a heavenly tablet. The angel simply dictated the book to him – his role was to act as the faithful communicator of it. Nothing was believed to have been fashioned or derived from his own impressions, perceptions or opinions. It was a chance inspiration and he had no part in its content or spirit. It was the Kitabullah, the Word of God alone without any contribution from the Prophet.

On the other hand the Qur'an is the foremost authority for the Muslim world's knowledge of Muhammad and if it in no way reflects anything of his growing prophetic consciousness it cannot really help anyone to discover the spirit of the man. Biblical prophetic writings abound with divine orations yet they are always recorded in texts either written by the respective prophet about his experiences or by others who never fail to absorb the impact on the prophet himself. If the Qur'an contains no more than a divine oracle handed down to Muhammad it surely leaves a wide gap between the character of the divine nature on the one hand and the consciousness of the human spirit on the other. There is evidence from the Qur'an to suggest that there was a very definite subjective element in the book's composition. Many of its passages tend to indicate that their final form was a codification of certain striking perceptions he experienced which he firmly believed were being revealed to him by external sources. The final text, however, may well have been a record in his own words of the inspiration he was receiving.

It is perhaps in that very word "inspiration" that one finds the heart of the matter. The usual Qur'anic word for its own revelation is wahi, a word which does not really indicate a dictated communication. It appears both as a noun and verb in the following verse:

It is no less than an inspiration which is being revealed to him. Surah 53:4

The original Arabic text of the verse states simply that it is "an inspiration inspired", emphasis being made by using the same word twice in the text. This word as used in other texts of the Qur'an does not mean something sent down by revelation (the Qur'an usually uses the word nazzala to describe this) but rather something suggested or even prompted in the spirit of its subject or instinctively placed in the heart. A very good example of the use of the word in this context in the Qur'an itself appears in this text:

And your Lord taught the bee to construct its cells in hills, in trees and in edifices. Surah 16:68

The word used for "taught" in this verse is again awha, the verbal form of the noun wahi. It surely does not mean that God sent an angel down with a revelation to be dictated to the bee so that it could learn where to build its hives. Rather this instinctive knowledge derives from an inspiration, an impulse within the bee that makes it respond to the purpose for which it was made. So likewise it appears that there was a subjective side to the Prophet's own experience of the Qur'an as one finds many passages where he produces a reasoned response to a critical challenge, a forceful defence of his marital relationships or a logical argument to justify a particular course of action. To deny him any part in this process is to suggest that there was no development or growing maturity in his prophetic consciousness and that he was always spoonfed with the correct approach to any situation.

Muslims nonetheless reject this approach as it opens the door to a suggestion that the Qur'an might well be to some extent a product of Muhammad's own thoughts rather than the express Word of God. To them this appears to question the whole revelation of the Qur'an as any suggestion that their Prophet might have had any part in its composition might well lead to the conclusion that it was ultimately all his own work. There are definitely passages, however, where one finds the Qur'an expressing the mind of Muhammad himself such as this one:

O you who believe! Do not enter the Prophet's houses until leave is given to you for a meal and not while it is still being prepared, but enter when you are invited and, when you have taken your meal, disperse without seeking familiar talk. Surah 33:53

This text is said in the Hadith literature to have been revealed as a response to an occasion where Muhammad was irritated at his guests for chatting together and not noticing his displeasure even when he left and entered the room on a number of occasions:

When Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) married Zainab bint Jahsh, he invited the people to a meal. They took the meal and remained sitting and talking. Then the Prophet (showed them) as if he is ready to get up, yet they did not get up. When he noticed that he got up, and the others too, except three persons who kept on sitting. The Prophet came back in order to enter his house, but he went away again. Then they left, whereupon I set out and went to the Prophet to tell him that they had departed, so he came and entered his house. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.297)

There are many other similar texts which are equally subjective and which are characterised in good measure by Muhammad's own personal temperament. There was very definitely an intimate relationship between his inmost personality and the Quran's general character and the dogma that it was mechanically dictated to him appears to miss a most important facet of its own spirit. After Muhammad's death Ayishah was once asked what he was like and she replied that his nature was as the Qur'an. There may have been some external manifestations each time a passage came into being but these would reveal very little about Muhammad himself or his book. It is in his inner spirit and the link between his own insights and the book's striking moods and tones that one will find, perhaps, the real heart of his inspiration.

In no way is it suggested that Muhammad was actually composing the Qur'an or manipulating it to suit himself as he went along. There was at all times a definite link between his own consciousness and what was coming to him and his involvement may well have been purely incidental.


In some passages of the Qur'an one can very clearly see progress in the development in the text where it can hardly be said that the mind of the Prophet, or even the thoughts of some of his companions, has not in some way impressed itself. His close companion 'Umar, for example, on more than one occasion ventured to give him advice on a certain matter and very soon afterwards this advice became part of the revelation. The following tradition records a few examples:

Narrated Anas: "Umar said, ‘I agreed with Allah in three things’, or said, ‘My Lord agreed with me in three things. I said "O Allah's Apostle! Would that you took the station of Abraham as a place of prayer". I also said, "O Allah's Apostle! Good and bad persons visit you! Would that you ordered the Mothers of the believers to cover themselves with veils". So the Divine Verses of Al-Hijab (i.e. the veiling of the women) were revealed. I came to know that the Prophet had blamed some of his wives so I entered upon them and said "You should either stop (troubling the Prophet) or else Allah will give his Apostle better wives than you". When I came to one of his wives, she said to me, "O Umar! Does Allah's Apostle not have what he could advise his wives with, that you try to advise them?" Thereupon Allah revealed:- "It may be, if he divorced you (all) his Lord will give him instead of you, wives better than you muslims (who submit to Allah) ..." (66:5)’." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.11-12)

The first incident mentioned by `Umar refers to an occasion when he and Muhammad were walking around the Ka`aba and the Prophet suddenly stopped and said that he had been made aware that he was standing on the exact spot where the prophet Abraham had prayed after building the structure with the help of his son Ishmael. `Umar then enquired whether it should not be taken as a place of prayer to which Muhammad replied that nothing like this had been revealed to him. Later on that very night, however, he called `Umar out to disclose that the following verse had just been revealed to him:

Remember we made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take the Station of Abraham as a place of prayer. Surah 2:125

The other two occasions refer to similar incidents where portions of the Qur'an were revealed confirming what `Umar himself had just stated or exclaimed. The irony of the situation is found in the timing of each respective revelation. Not only did Allah give Muhammad exactly the same advice as `Umar but he did so almost immediately after the close companion of the Prophet had spoken. His words "My Lord agreed with me in three things" are striking and it seems that his advices in each case struck Muhammad as being particularly sound and, in his own subjective way, he allowed them to crystallise in his mind in the same form as the other revelations were coming to him and accordingly they became part of the Qur'an text in a very short time.

Another typical incident where `Umar's remonstrations with the Prophet led to a Qur'anic revelation corroborating his stance is recorded in the following tradition:

When `Abdullah bin Ubai died, his son `Abdullah bin `Abdullah came to Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) who gave his shirt to him and ordered him to shroud his father in it. Then he stood up to offer the funeral prayer for the deceased, but `Umar bin Al-Khattab took hold of his garment and said, "Do you offer the funeral prayer for him though he was a hypocrite and Allah has forbidden you to ask forgiveness for hypocrites?" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.155)

Muhammad replied that Allah had given him a choice in the matter whether to pray for the forgiveness of hypocrites or not, cautioning him nonetheless that even if he were to ask forgiveness for them seventy times, Allah would not forgive them (Surah 9:80). So he determined that he would ask more than seventy times whereupon they all prayed the funeral prayer over `Abdullah ibn Ubayy's grave but a revelation came to them immediately confirming `Umar's reservations:

Never pray for any of them upon his death, nor stand at his grave, for they have rejected Allah and His Apostle and died in a state of perverse rebellion. Surah 9:84

There are many other passages in the Qur'an where revelations came in similar circumstances, or even to suit the event (such texts being known as al-asbab an-nuzul – "sent down for the occasion"), and the very occurrence of such phenomena in the Qur'an text strongly supports the impression that much of the composition of the book, if not all of it, was subjective in nature. The traditional dogma that it was simply dictated to the Prophet without any personal involvement on his part in its final compilation does not appear to be well-founded in the circumstances.





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Muhammad, seated on Buraq, is conducted through the heavens during his nocturnal ascent accompanied by angels who attend to his needs. The angel leading him is said to have been Jibril, the angel of revelation.




Towards the end of Muhammad's days in Mecca just before his relocation to Medina he had a strange experience which he claimed all took place in one night after he had retired to sleep. The Angel Gabriel is said to have summoned him to ride on a celestial beast named Buraq. This creature had a horse's body, angel's head and, according to some of the traditional records of the event, a peacock's tail. He was led from the Ka`aba in Mecca on a heavenly journey to the great rock in Jerusalem where the original Jewish Temple stood. From here he is said to have ascended through the heavens, meeting angels and former prophets along the way, until he went alone into the presence of Allah. From there he went down to see the terrors of hell before returning to Mecca.

The reaction of the pagan Arabs was one of ridicule and cynicism. Even his own followers found the story hard to accept as it was out of character with all they had hitherto experienced of his mission. Those who were his closest companions, however, accepted the story implicitly and it is commemorated annually in Islam by the festival of Lailatul-Mi`raj, the "Night of the Ascent" which falls on the 27th night of the month of Rajab.

Virtually nothing is said of this event in the Qur'an. Many writers and commentators have sought to interpret Surah 53:6-18, a passage which describes a striking vision which Muhammad experienced, as a reference to the Night Ascent, but the passage appears to refer to one of his initial visions at the time when the revelation began. In any event he is said to have recited this Surah many years earlier in the company of the Quraysh at Mecca before the emigration to Abyssinia (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.363) so the passage cannot refer to this experience. The only text which definitely alludes to it is this one:

Glory be to Him who took his servant on a night journey from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthermost Mosque whose precincts We have blessed so that We might reveal to him our signs. Surah 17:1

The verse speaks of the Prophet being taken from Masjid al-Haram, the "Holy Mosque" meaning the Ka`aba at Mecca, to Masjid al-Aqsa, the "Farthermost Mosque" meaning the Temple at Jerusalem. This initial flight over the Arabian desert is known as al-Isra', "the Journey". Islamic tradition adds that he was accompanied by a host of angels who ministered to him and, when he arrived at Jerusalem, he dismounted and prayed with pious Jews and Christian monks. An account of his journey follows:

I was brought al-Buraq who is an animal white and long, larger than a donkey but smaller than a mule, who would place his hoof at a distance equal to the range of vision. I mounted it and came to the Temple (Bait-ul Maqdis in Jerusalem) then tethered it to the ring used by the prophets. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.1, p.101)

While he was there it is said that three angels visited him, offering him bowls of wine, honey and milk. Some traditions, such as the following one, say there were only two and what then happened is described in this narrative of the event:

Allah's Apostle was presented with two cups, one containing wine and the other milk on the night of his night journey at Jerusalem. He looked at it and took the milk. Gabriel said, "Thanks to Allah Who guided you to the Fitra (i.e. Islam); if you had taken the wine, your followers would have gone astray". (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.196)

After this the journey into the heavens, al-Mi`raj, followed. It is widely reported in the Hadith literature but obtains no mention in the Qur'an. Muhammad first visited the sea of kawthar, the sea of "abundance". The word occurs only once in the Qur'an in Surah 108:1. He then went on to different levels in Paradise and met the former prophets such as Abraham, David, Joseph and the rest who conversed with him. Then the Angel Gabriel took him to a lote-tree on the border of the many heavens in Paradise before the throne of Allah.

Then I was made to ascend to Sidrat-ul-Muntaha (i.e. the lote- tree of the utmost boundry). Behold! Its fruits were like the jars of Hajr (i.e. a place near Medina) and its leaves were as big as the ears of elephants. Gabriel said, "This is the lote-tree of the utmost boundry". (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.5, p.147)

The inclusion of the sighting of this celestial tree probably derives from the mention of Muhammad's vision of the great Angel `inda-sidrah, "near the lote-tree" (Surah 53:13-14). Neither Gabriel nor Buraq could go beyond this point but the Prophet was summoned into the presence of Allah himself after passing through a stage of glorious light. Here he was commanded to tell the Muslims that they were to pray fifty times daily:

Then Allah enjoined fifty prayers on my followers. When I returned with this order of Allah, I passed by Moses who asked me, "What has Allah enjoined on your followers?" I replied, "He has enjoined fifty prayers on them". Moses said "Go back to your Lord (and appeal for reduction) for your followers will not be able to bear it".   (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.1, p.213)

Allah, on his petition, reduced the number of prayers to forty but again Moses replied that his people would not be able to bear it. So it went on until it was no more than five. Yet again Moses protested that this would be too much for them to bear but Muhammad then stopped.

I replied that I had been back to my Lord and asked him to reduce the number till I was ashamed, and I would not do it again. (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.187)

Allah then responded that whoever kept the five times a day prayer would receive the credit and reward of fifty prayers. After the Prophet had seen some of the fairest delights of Paradise and met some of its most noble women he visited the compartments of hell where demons guarded and tormented the damned before he returned home.


Today the whole event is symbolised by the magnificent Dome of the Rock, al-Qubbat-as-Sakhra, which stands above the rock in Jerusalem from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven. It stands on the site of the original Jewish Temple and just alongside it is the equally famous Masjid al-Aqsa, a large mosque named after the description given of the original structure on the site in Surah 17:1. While most Muslims and the early traditions say that Muhammad's ascent to heaven was in his physical body in an actual journey there are numerous Muslim writers and scholars who believe it was only a mystical experience, a striking dream which he had that night. In one of the earliest records of his life we read this report:

One of Abu Bakr's family told me that Aisha, the Prophet's wife, used to say: "The apostle's body remained where it was but God removed his spirit by night". (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.183)

The whole story appears to be founded on legendary material rather than an actual event for a number of reasons. It is probable that Muhammad simply had a strange dream one evening which has been embellished into the account we have in the Hadith literature today. To begin with it is said in these records that after Muhammad began to declare his experience in Mecca he was challenged by the Quraysh to describe the Temple he had seen in Jerusalem. He answered:

I stood at al-Hijr, visualised Bayt al-Muqaddas and described its signs. Some of them said: How many doors are there in that mosque? I had not counted them so I began to look at it and counted them one by one and gave them information concern- ing them.  (Ibn Sa`d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol.1, p.248)

He is said to have forgotten how the Temple (called in Islam Baitul-Muqaddas, the "Holy House") appeared but a vision was given to him immediately of its precincts and he was able to describe it to them. A similar tradition of this incident reads:

Allah lifted me before Bait-ul-Maqdis and I began to narrate to them (the Quraish of Mecca) its signs while I was in fact looking at it. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.1, p.109)

These traditions contain a patent anachronism. The great Temple that had stood on the site had been destroyed by the Roman army under Titus some five hundred years earlier. Later Roman governors refused to allow it to be rebuilt and, after the conversion of Rome to the Christian faith at the time of the Emperor Constantine, the Christian leaders of the city, then known as Aelia Capitalonia, used the site purely as a rubbish dump which was how `Umar found it when he conquered the city some years after Muhammad's death. It has to be asked how Muhammad could have seen and described in such detail a building that had been burnt down so many centuries earlier.

Secondly the story of Muhammad's nocturnal ascent has obvious parallels in other religious legends and writings dating from some centuries before Islam. There are records in the Jewish Haggidah that are similar to the Mir`aj and narratives in the dreams of the Midrash are also analo- gous to it. Nonetheless it is from Zoroastrian works that the closest parallels can be drawn. In an old Pahlavi book known as The Book of Arta Viraf there is a story of a saintly priest from whom the book gets its name, Arta Viraf, who went into a trance one night. His spirit immediately went up to the heavens under the guidance of an archangel named Sarosh and it passed from one utopia to the next until it finally reached the presence of Ormazd, the great deity of the whole universe. When Arta Viraf had seen everything that was in the heavens and the happy state of their many inhabitants Ormazd commanded him to return to earth as his messenger and he commanded him to tell the Zoroastrians all that he had seen and heard. The parallels between this story and the Mi'raj are so obvious that it must be presumed that the latter event is an adaptation of the earlier one and that it has simply been given an Islamic content.

The Zoroastrians also taught, long before Islam, that there is a marvellous tree in Paradise called humaya in Pahlavi which corresponds very closely to the sidrah, the lote-tree of Islam. The coincidences are too many and so prominent that it can hardly be doubted that Islam is indebted to Zoroastrianism for its Mi`raj narrative.

In a similar Zoroastrian work, the Zerdashtnama, there is also an account of how Zoroaster himself ascended into the heavens before he obtained permission to visit hell where he found Ahriman, the devil. As these works predate Islam by some centuries it must be presumed that the Mi`raj, as so graphically described in the Hadith, is really only an adaptation of similar fanciful stories found in other religious legends.





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After visiting the various portals of heaven Muhammad is taken to see the torments of the damned. He meets Ridwan, the keeper of the fires of hell.



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While in Paradise Muhammad is said to have led all the angels of heaven and former prophets in prayer to Allah just as he led his people on earth.




When Muhammad began his mission he saw himself as no more than a warner to his people (Surah 74:2). His initial reaction to the call he received was in fact to conceal his experience and it took some time before he began to preach publicly and even then he believed his charge was primarily to turn his nearest kinsmen to the path of Allah.

Three years elapsed from the time that the apostle concealed his state until God commanded him to publish his religion, according to the information which has reached me. Then God said, ‘Proclaim what you have been ordered and turn aside from the polytheists’. And again, ‘Warn thy family, thy nearest relations, and lower thy wing to the followers who follow thee’. And ‘Say, I am the one who warns plainly’. (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.117)

It appears that he had no ideas of grandeur in those early days. He faced considerable opposition as he simply called the pagan Arabs away from the adoration of idols to the worship of the one true God. He severely warned them that a calamity could befall Mecca if they did not repent and acknowledge his message and it seems he saw himself in the role of a prophetic herald sent to rescue his people from the pending wrath of God. There was no awareness at this stage that he might have been called to be a universal messenger to reach all the nations with God's final message for mankind.

His humility likewise restrained him from claiming to be a miracle- worker or to have divine characteristics and he plainly told them "I am but a man like yourselves – it is an inspiration that has come to me that your God is only one God" (Surah 18:110). As time went on, however, he saw his category as that of a messenger to his own peoples like most of the messengers who had gone before him. He believed that it was Allah's purpose to send an apostle to every people (Surahs 10:47, 16:36) and that he was simply an Arab prophet sent to the Arab people. Thus his scripture, al-Qur'an, was not in the Hebrew or Greek language like the scriptures sent before him such as the Tawraat given to Moses and the Injil given to Jesus. It was in plain simple Arabic so that Allah's message to the Arabs could be plainly understood by them.

We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an in order that you might understand it. Surah 12:2

In fact he saw it as a considerable kindness to his own people that a messenger should have been sent to them from their own ranks. "Allah did confer a great favour on the believers when he sent among them a messenger from among themselves" (Surah 3:171). In time he saw this as the supreme purpose of his vocation – to lead them into the knowledge of the basic truths about God just as the people with a scripture before his time had been led. Muhammad's initial understanding of his purpose is summed up very succinctly in this verse:

It is He Who has sent amongst the Unlettered an apostle from among themselves, to rehears to them His Signs, to sanctify them, and to instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom, for they had previously been in obvious error. Surah 62:2

He began to distinguish between the alien Jews and Christians as the "People of the Book" (Ahl al-Kitab) and his own Arab kinsmen as "the Unlettered" people (al-Ummiyyun) to whom he had expressly been sent (Surah 3:20) so that they too might become a People of the Scripture. It is not known when his perspective on his own calling dramatically rose to that of Allah's final, universal Prophet to all nations but there are signs in the Qur'an that he came in time to regard himself as a unique prophet – an Unlettered Prophet who had never been instructed in any previous Scripture (an-nabbiyal-ummi) whose coming had nonetheless been foretold in the previous revealed Scriptures:

Those who follow the Apostle, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures), in the Law (at-Tawraat) and the Gospel (al-Injil). Surah 4:157

Once he had moved to the city of Medina and had begun to reach and conquer other peoples his vision expanded until he regarded himself as the greatest of all prophets, sent to reveal God's final religion and to perfect it, and to call all the nations to submit to it.


It is significant that in the very next verse following that in which the Qur'an addresses him as a unique prophet foretold in the former revelations he is spoken of as a guidance to all mankind. "Say, 'O Mankind! I am sent unto you all as the Apostle of Allah, to whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He; it is He who gives both life and death. So believe in Allah and His Apostle, the Unlettered Prophet" (Surah 7:158). From this time on Muhammad spoke of himself in terms that set him apart as the final universal messenger to all the nations of the world. He is recorded as saying:

There has never been a Prophet amongst the prophets who was not bestowed with a sign amongst the signs which were bestowed (on the earlier prophets). Human beings believed in it and verily I have been conferred upon revelation (the Holy Qur'an) which Allah revealed to me. I hope that I will have the greatest following on the Day of Resurrection. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.1, p.90)

Amongst the apostles I will have the largest following on the Day of Resurrection, and I will be the first to knock at the door of Paradise. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.1, p.133)

The image of Muhammad developed from that of being purely a prophetic warner to his own people to one of messianic proportions. The Qur'an describes him as a "universal" messenger to mankind (Surah 34:28) bringing them glad tidings and serious admonitions, and it not only commands the believers to send their blessings upon him but even states that Allah himself and all his angels do so:

Allah and His Angels send blessings on the Prophet: O you who believe! Also send blessings on him and salute him with all respect. Surah 33:56

He is elsewhere addressed with the illustrious title rahmatalil-alamin meaning that he is a "messenger to the worlds" (Surah 21:107) and in yet another place he is called khataman-nabiyyin, the "seal of the prophets" (Surah 33:40). No prophet was to follow him as he was the greatest of all the apostles of Allah with his final revelation for all mankind. Obedience to Him became synonymous with obedience to his Apostle (Surah 64:12) and by the end of his life his vocation had come full circle.

From being a prophet only to his own as yet unscriptured peoples, he had become the Prophet whose Qur'an and religion, al-Islam, had now superseded all that went before them. Judaism and Christianity, respected initially as the recipients of truth in contrast to the ignorance of the pagan Arabs, had now become of no further relevance to Allah's purposes and Islam alone was the true religion (Surah 3:19) with virtually no scope for anyone who should henceforth choose any other path.

If anyone desires a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him and in the Hereafter he will be among the lost. Surah 3:85

For this reason Islam, as it developed, never came alongside its predecessors such as Judaism and Christianity as a special religion of the Arabs or as simply an alternative faith of equal standing with them. It had become the full and final revelation replacing and superseding everything that had gone before it and nothing would surpass it. Muhammad's vision of himself as the final seal in Allah's plan for the ages finds expression very clearly in these words attributed to him:

The similitude of mine and that of the Apostles before me is that of a person who built a house quite imposing and beautiful and he made it complete but for one brick in one of its corners. People would go round it, appreciating the building, but saying: Why has the brick not been fixed here? He said: I am that brick and I am the last of the Apostles. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.4, p.1235)

A study of the whole subject of the revelation in Islam and the prophetic character of Muhammad reveals a unique personality whose vision and perspectives grew as time went on, yet allowing always for a clear consistency in this process of development. It all began with one word, Iqra!, and from that command a revelation of a scripture grew into the book today known as the Qur'an and a man grew in stature as a down-to-earth, practical prophet who nevertheless believed that he had a direct contact with the Supreme Being of all creation in heaven who eventually set him apart as his final messenger to all mankind. Christians might well challenge the credibility of his call to be a true prophet but without an understanding of the remarkable course of his apostolic experience it is impossible to understand the whole spirit of Islam or appreciate why it has such a tremendous hold on its adherents.





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Muhammad, dressed in traditional all-white pilgrimage clothing, leads his followers to Mecca. His intention was to peacefully perform the prescribed rites but he was advised to return with his entourage the following year.