The event of al-Isra wal Mi‘raj was one of the miracles of the noble Messenger (pbuh) that occurred in the twelfth year of his prophetic mission in Makkah. Before we discuss the circumstances in which it occurred, let us recall what the noble Qur’an says about this great event in Prophetic history. There are two aspects intimately linked with each other. The Prophet’s Isra (nightly journey) from Masjid al Haram in Makkah to Masjid al Aqsa in Jerusalem (Al-Quds) is narrated in the first ayah of Surah al-Isra (aka Surah Bani Isra’il).
The ayah says: “Limitless in His glory is He [Allah] Who transported His servant by night from the Inviolable House of Worship [at Makkah] to the Remote House of Worship [at Jerusalem]—the environs of which We had blessed—so that We might show him some of Our symbols; for, verily, He alone is all-hearing, all-seeing” (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 Jerusalem (Al-Quds). The Dome of the Rock, a more imposing structure that is usually confused with Masjid al Aqsa, identifies the spot where the heavenly steed, Buraq, was tethered. From Al-Quds, the noble Messenger ascended to Heaven. This is referred to as al-Mi‘raj. Its details are narrated in Surah An-Najm.
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 in the month of Rajab, one of the sacred months in Islam, and 27th of Rajab will fall on March 10-11, 2021. 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 operation to liberate Jerusalem the next day. 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 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.
Abu Lahab, another uncle of the Prophet, succeeded Abu Talib as chief of the Banu Hashim clan to which the Prophet belonged. Abu Lahab was a cruel man and a staunch enemy of the Prophet. Far from protecting his nephew, he joined the Makkan mushriks in tormenting him. It was in these circumstances that the Prophet (pbuh) decided to go to Taif, located some 40 kms from Makkah in the hope that the Hawazin and Banu Thaqif tribes might accept the message of Islam.
Unfortunately, the Taif chiefs proved even more hostile. Not only did they reject the message of Islam, they also set the hooligans of the town upon the Prophet who pelted him with stones causing massive injuries and profuse bleeding. These were the most difficult and trying times for the noble Messenger (pbuh). He felt most vulnerable with few supporters around him.
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 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 very similar challenges. Masjid al Aqsa as well as the whole of Palestine are under Zionist occupation. Palestinians—Muslims and Christians—are greatly tormented. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed and are being killed on a daily basis. They are evicted from their homes at gunpoint. Night raids on their homes are routine. Some 4,200 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.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought