You are on page 1of 17

Vision and Ascension:

Sürat al-Najm and its Relationship with

Muhammad's mfräj1
Josef van Ess

Ascension to Heaven is something Jesus and Muhammad, or the religious imagery of

Christianity and Islam, have in common. But the differences are perhaps more
profound than the similarities. In Christianity, Jesus's ascension is the logical conse-
quence of resurrection. The Qur'an, on the contrary, does not talk about resurrection;
Jesus is raised to Heaven immediately from the cross without having died upon it.
When Muhammad ascended to Heaven he did not abide there; he returned to earth.
Jesus had finished his earthly mission and he had apparently failed; when he went up
to Heaven this was to show that, in spite of his crucifixion, he belonged to the realm of
God. Muhammad's ascension, however, stood at the beginning of his career; he was,
on this occasion, initiated into his task, a task the success of which was evident to
everybody in his community. We should not forget that only in Western languages is
the term 'ascension' applied to both events; in Arabic there is a verbal difference
between Muhammad who experienced his müräj and Jesus who was raised to Heaven,
rafcfahu 'llähu ilayhi, as the Qur'an says (4:158; cf.3:55). No Muslim ever compared
Muhammad to Jesus in this respect. This fact leaps all the more to the eye since com-
parisons as such were not avoided, at least not during the earliest phase of Islam; they
are reflected in hadith. But they refer to other prophets and they are based on genu-
inely Qur'anic ideas: Abraham, it was said, was the friend of God (khalïl Allah), Mo-
ses was spoken to by God, at Mount Sinai (he is dubbed kallm Allah) and Muhammad,
finally, was the one to ascend to Heaven and to see God in person. This is more than a
comparison, it is a climax: intimacy with God (Abraham), hearing Him (Moses), see-
ing Him. A climax which presented the case in a new form, but also had its own

I do not want to discuss here the micräj stories as such. One related aspect has to be
stressed, though. Muhammad does not abide in Heaven. He is not reunited with God
after having temporarily been sent to earth by him; he only meets God, in an audience.
And this audience has a specific purpose: God tells him how many prayers his commu-
nity should perform per day. In the beginning the Almighty is quite demanding; he
mentions the number of fifty prayers. Muhammad has to bargain with Him and he
manages to get the number down to five. This reminds us of the scene described in the
Old Testament where Abraham bargains, in a similar way, with respect to the few
48 Journal of Qur'anic Studies

righteous living at Sodom and Gomorrah whom God should spare when 'He rained'
on these towns 'stones of baked clay' as described in the Qur'an (11:82). But it is
Moses who advises Muhammad to proceed in this way, Moses whom he has met
during his journey through the spheres which he performs under Gabriel's guidance.
Moses and Abraham are the last two prophets whom he passes by, those who are
closest to God in their cosmic relevance - and those who were compared with him in
the rhetorical climax mentioned above.
We can imagine how fascinating these stories were for the audience of their time. But
they had one disadvantage: none of this was at first glance to be found in the Scripture
itself. If anything, the Qur'an offered only one vague allusion to it, in süra 70 where
God is called the 'Lord of the Stairways (or Ladder)', dhü yl-macärij and where the text
then continues: 'To Him the angels and the Spirit mount up in a day whereof the
measure is fifty thousand years'. But this did not fit; Muhammad was not mentioned
there. Therefore the exegetes had to pursue their search and in the course of time they
came up with two other passages which seemed to allude to the event. The first one
was the beginning of süra 17, an isolated verse again which, devoid of any further
explanation, remained cryptic in many respects: 'Glory be to Him, who carried His
servant (Muhammad as it seems) by night from the Holy Place of Worship (probably
at Mecca) to the Further Place of Worship the precincts of which we have blessed, that
we might show him some of Our signs.' 'Some of our signs': this could refer to mi-
raculous experiences Muhammad had had on his journey in Heaven, possibly the en-
counter with God Himself. The 'precincts' which had been blessed by God evoked,
because of other Qur'anic passages, the image of the Holy Land. Therefore many
people started speculating early on whether the 'Further Place of Worship', which was
accompanied by this epithet, might possibly be Jerusalem. Already in the first century
AH, Jerusalem was graced with a mosque on the precincts of the former Salomonic
Temple, a mosque which was identified with the 'Further Place of Worship' and
named after it: al-Masjid al-Aqsä. Muhammad had - this was the result of all these
combinations - miraculously traveled by night to Jerusalem. However, this could not
yet be called ascension. He remained on the surface of the earth; he had moved
horizontally, not vertically. It is true that he had reached the place from where Jesus
had ascended to Heaven. But the Muslims did not want to compare him to Jesus in this
respect, as we have seen. Let us therefore look first at the second passage.

This second Qur'anic testimony was longer, though almost as equivocal as the first. Its
importance lay in the fact that it seemed to give a description of Muhammad's encoun-
ter with God. For, at the beginning of süra 53, the Qur'an reports two visions which
the Prophet had had at a certain time. These are quite unusual texts, since normally
according to the Qur'an Muhammad does not see God, but listens to him. The Qur'an
presents itself - or is understood - as the account of auditory experiences; this is how
the revelation normally takes place. In this instance the situation is different. We will
Vision and Ascension 49

begin by examining this passage from Arberry's translation, although its wording
contains certain preliminary decisions which I shall have to cancel afterwards: 'By the
Star when it plunges, your comrade (the person meant seems to be Muhammad him-
self) is not astray, neither errs, nor speaks he out of caprice. This is naught but a revela-
tion revealed, taught him by one terrible in power, very strong; he stood poised, being
on the higher horizon, then drew near and suspended hung, two bows'-length away, or
nearer, then revealed to his servant that he revealed. His heart lies not of what he saw
... ' and, immediately afterwards, the report concerning the second vision: 'Indeed, he
saw him come down another time by the Lote-Tree of the Boundary nigh which is the
Garden of the Refuge, when there covered the Lote-Tree that which covered; his eye
swerved not, nor swept astray. Indeed, he saw one of the greatest signs of his Lord.'
Again a ' sign of the Lord', similar to the sign the Prophet was promised to be shown at
the 'Further Place of Worship'; this is what may have brought both passages together.
The location remained even vaguer than in the first case. But the two visions them-
selves are described in a thought-provoking way. Strangely enough the report is made
in the third person. People could think that God Himself was speaking; He seemed to
disclose a secret which, apart from Himself, only the Prophet could have known.
However, the wording of the Qur'an did not make it sufficiently clear who it was
whom the Prophet had seen. Whoever read or heard this passage had to make the
decision himself. Modern Muslim exegesis normally insists that it was Gabriel whom
the Prophet had seen on this occasion. But whenever these verses were incorporated
into the traditions pertaining to Muhammad's ascension we may be pretty sure that
those who were responsible for doing so included them into this context because they
believed in a vision of God. For this vision was the culminating point of the climax as
we saw; the audience which was granted to Muhammad by God was more than the
auditory event which had already been accorded to Moses on Mount Sinai. The only
problem was that the concept of God being seen by man soon came to constitute a
theological scandal, or at least a problem to be addressed with utmost delicacy. For
vision implied anthropomorphism and anthropomorphism (tashblh) turned out to be a
vexing issue for Islam as it did for Judaism once both religions started thinking in
theological terms. It never has been so for Christianity, for in Christianity anthropo-
morphism became self-evident by reason of the Incarnation. It would be somewhat
audacious to pretend that Christian theology made things easier by this dogmatic
device. Incarnation is a postulate rather than an argument. We are not surprised to hear
Tertullian say in his treatise De carne Christi 'On the flesh of Christ': Certuni est quia
impossibile, '(the Incarnation) is a certitude because it is impossible'. A Muslim would
be shocked by such a statement; something which is muhäl, 'absurd', cannot be certain
or true. But to argue in favour of the vision of God would also give rise to problems.
The contradiction emerges already in the Qur'an itself. For in a later passage, in süra
81:23, one of the visions is alluded to again: 'Your companion is not possessed. He
50 Journal of Qur'anic Studies

truly saw him on the clear horizon'. Again, simply 'him'. But here the person who was
seen is called in a preceding verse a 'noble messenger, having power' and a 'messen-
ger' is normally an angel, certainly not God himself. Does this solve our problem?
Perhaps for Muslims of our days, but not so for the interpreters of the Qur'an we are
talking about. And apart from the approach of the believer, there is the historical di-
mension. Avoiding anthropomorphism by interpreting statements about God as state-
ments about an angel was an old device of Jewish theology. The angel Metatron has to
play this role in certain places;2 the Kabbala later on followed the same line. The angel
could then take over the functions of the creator, as a kind of demiurge, 'somebody
who is obeyed', a mutäc as the Muslims used to say; 3 this is, as a matter of fact, the
term which comes up here in süra 81. The frame conditions of the statement have
visibly changed. The verse is certainly later than süra 53; for now the vision is not
described in detail, it is simply mentioned again as something previously known. The
audience may have lived in Medina, some Jews possibly being among them. In any
case, the secondary quotation does not exclude that earlier on, in süra 53, it was God
whom the Prophet is thought to have seen, for there, in süra 53, the text says, in con-
nection with the first vision, when the person whom Muhammad saw in fact came
quite close to him: 'He revealed to His servant that he revealed'. 'His servant' can only
be God's servant there, namely Muhammad. But then 'he' who revealed was not the
'noble messenger' ; it would have to be God Himself and God would also be the object
of the vision. Accordingly we are forced back to our earlier assumption.

However, according to süra 53, the Prophet did not see God while he was in Heaven.
He saw him somewhere on earth, for he saw Him 'on the higher horizon' and then
'coming down another time' (nazlatan ukhra). It is thus not the Prophet who ascends
to God, God rather descends to him. It is true that, immediately afterwards, we are told
that he saw Him 'by the Lote-Tree of the Boundary nigh which is the Garden of the
Refuge'; this sounds like a code for Paradise, the 'Garden of the Refuge' being the
abode where the blessed will find refuge during or after Judgment (cf.32:19) and the
'Lote-Tree' marking the boundary of the sanctissimum where God Himself resides.
But God could descend to it nevertheless, for in those early days Paradise was fre-
quently imagined to be on earth. We need therefore not follow the suggestion of earlier
orientalists (starting with Grimme and Caetani up to Richard Bell and Régis Blachère),
namely that the 'Garden of the Refuge' was simply a plantation near Mecca and the
Lote-Tree some well-known tree marking the boundary of the Meccan Sanctuary.
Muslim exegesis never saw any reason to deny that the encounter took place in Para-
dise, even if it were somewhere on earth. The 'Lote-Tree of the Boundary' became
something like the emblem of Muhammad's ascension; even when reports of the mfraj
make no other reference to sürat al-Najm, the sidrat al-muntahä remains as the thresh-
old leading to God's own realm, the seventh Heaven; it is there that the four rivers of
Paradise originate. The tree existed in the reality of the Arabian peninsula; it could
Vision and Ascension 51

grow up to height of twelve metres.4 Whoever thus wanted to interpret these Qur'anic
passages was confronted with two sets of alternatives: God or an angel, Heaven or
earth. This meant altogether four possibilities. Moreover one had to keep in mind that
the Qur'an spoke about two visions, not about one only. For an ascension one of them
would have been sufficient - although, if the Prophet had to haggle about the number
of prayers, even two of them were perhaps not enough.

The game of exegesis always implies theological decisions. But these theological
decisions do not grow out of unbridled imagination; they usually follow patterns which
are available in the religious environment. As is well known, the idea of the heavenly
journey was widespread in the Ancient World; I need not refer to the considerable
corpus of secondary literature produced on this topic. A large number of categories,
concepts, symbols, metaphors etc. had been developed in the Old and New Testaments
and could be taken up; Uri Rubin's book on the 'Eye of the Beholder' gives numerous
examples.5 The issue of 'influences' is not our central concern here; what mattered
was the existential decision, the Vorentscheidung, the pre-judgment of the interpreter.
Those who were afraid of anthropomorphism soon came to imagine that Muhammad
had merely seen an angel, namely Gabriel, and only on earth at that. The Prophet was
then initiated by Gabriel into his task and received from him his first revelation. This is
also, our exegete would continue to say, the reason why the event got into the Qur'an;
for Gabriel, at this moment, appeared to Muhammad for the first time, and in his real
angelic nature at that. We may wonder whether those who interpreted the vision this
way had the biblical book of Revelation, chapter 10 in mind: Ί saw another mighty
angel come down from Heaven, clothed with a cloud, and a rainbow was upon his
head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire'; after all, this
angel carries a little book, a writing, in his hand which John then eats - a metaphorical
way of expressing initiation and revelation. But this is a mere historical problem that
needs further investigation. What is important for our discussion is the observation
that whoever thought of an angel here had to solve the problem of why the Prophet had
to see Gabriel twice; he could also not entirely ignore the grammatical problem
previously mentioned, namely what to do with the recalcitrant pronoun in 'His
servant'. Nevertheless this scenario was broadly accepted; we find it already in Ibn
Ishäq's biography of the Prophet, a text composed in Medina, during the first half of
the second hijrl century.

Such an approach gained little for the ascension argument; its protagonists would have
been better off ignoring the passage altogether. This however was again an option
which most people were not willing to accept. Therefore, the vision of God continued
to be considered a viable possibility. But then one could no longer avoid speculating
about the exact nature of the vision, thus making the Qur'anic description more
explicit. How this was done comes out from the first testimonies of theological reflec-
52 Journal of Qur'anic Studies

tion we normally have, from prophetic tradition. Hadlth is frequently nothing else but
exegesis in disguise. A chain of transmitters precedes each tradition in order to guaran-
tee trustworthiness. The first example we will examine is interesting in so far as these
persons are incorporated into a kind of frame-story.

Yahyä reports: I asked Abu Salama: Which part of the Qur'an

was revealed first? He answered: Süra 74 (yä ayyuhä Ί-
muddaththir). I said: But I have been told it is süra 96 (iqra bismi
rabbika). Abu Salama answered: Long ago I put the same ques-
tion to Jâbir b. cAbdallah, and he also said: Süra 74.1 reacted
then the same way you did now: But I have been told it is süra
96,1 said, and he replied: I can only tell (you) what I heard from
the Messenger of God himself, namely: I (this is now Muhammad
speaking) had retreated to Mount Hirâ for contemplation. When
I had finished my spiritual exercises I descended to the bottom of
the wâdï. I heard a voice calling me, and I looked around, in front
of me, behind me, to my right, to my left. (But then) Lo, there He
was, sitting upon His throne, between Heaven and earth. I went
to Khadija and said to her: 'Cover me with a mantle and pour
cold water on me! ' Then the revelation came upon me: Yä ayyuhä
Ί-muddaththir, Ό thou shrouded in thy mantle, arise and warn!
Thy Lord magnify... ' .6

What is revealed to Muhammad is the beginning of süra 74, God's appeal by which he
becomes a prophet and the call to magnify Him. This is also the gist of the story. The
scholars did not agree on which Qur'anic revelation had been the oldest and this
quarrel was resolved here in favour of süra 74. On such questions reference was made
to authoritative opinions of the early community; therefore the controversy is
presented in the form of a prophetic tradition. The chain of informants shows that the
dispute took place at Medina; it was there, in the town where the Prophet had died, that
it was thought that the most accurate information about Muhammad's life and experi-
ences was available.

The Prophet thus sees God in all His greatness and sovereignty, sitting on His throne.
This does not surprise us; we are familiar with such visions from the Bible and the
Ancient Near East. But taken as an interpretation of süra 53 it is unusual. For though it
is true that the Qur'anic passage refers to Muhammad having seen God 'on the higher
horizon', 'between Heaven and earth' as the hadlth says in its exegetical reformula-
tion, we don't hear anything about God being seated. According to the Qur'an he
rather 'stood poised, being on the higher horizon' as Arberry puts it. At this point we
have to resort to the tools of philology; translations are always interpretations and in
the case of the Qur'an they often still depend on medieval Muslim exegesis. For the
Vision and Ascension 53

Arabic verb behind 'He stood poised' (istawa) is equivocal; it only means 'he held
himself upright'. But this can also be done when sitting and whenever the word istawä
is used elsewhere in the Qur'an with regard to God it appears in the combination 'He
held Himself upright on His throne'. It could therefore also be understood this way in
our passage. On the other hand, whenever the vision was transferred to Gabriel the
throne had to disappear; an angel does not sit on a throne, he stands. He is standing
then, as says Ibn Ishäq, with his feet juxtaposed,7 'on the higher horizon' and gradu-
ally 'draws near'. In our hadlth, on the contrary, it is clear that the throne 'drew near';
it then 'hung suspended' or came down like a bucket (dalw) in a well (tadallä) until it
was only 'two bows'-length away, or nearer'. It was in this situation of intimacy, his
ear close to the mouth of God, that the Prophet received his first revelation.
To be precise, we should admit that, according to the story, he received his revelation
only when he was back home, after having been shrouded in his mantle. But what he
was told then is nothing else but what he would have heard from the mouth of God
Himself: 'Arise and warn! Thy Lord magnify!'. At this very moment he was not yet
asked to transmit a specific message; he simply went through an initiation. From now
onward he was to magnify the Lord, and he seems to repeat this mandate to himself
having come home and covered himself with a mantle in order to concentrate - this at
least seems to be the significance of this striking practice. In the moment of his vision
he was not yet able to receive the message; the voice which he heard seemed only to
call him, and then he was completely overwhelmed by what he saw.

At this point we should perhaps pause for a moment and look back. Our discussion so
far has consisted mainly of hypotheses. The material we possess - and which I cannot,
of course, present in detail here - is contradictory because of its axiomatic bias and the
secondary literature also starts from divergent presuppositions. The first hypothesis is
the easiest to corroborate: Muhammad saw, according to the report in süra 53, God
and not Gabriel. This is, as I said, not in agreement with the canonical biography of the
Prophet. Nor is it, properly speaking, my hypothesis; what I want to say is simply that
this interpretation was favoured by a certain number of early mufassirün. We need
only consult Tabari's Tafslr in order to access all the relevant material. Tabarï himself
was not particularly fond of anthropomorphism; he got into trouble with the Hanbalites
of his time for this same reason. Consequently, he interpreted the visions of sürat al-
Najm as visions of an angel, of Gabriel at that. But in spite of this he cites 'Abdallah b.
Abbäs and Anas b. Malik as those among the Companions of the Prophet who
believed them to be visions of God and then, with the same opinion, cIkrima, the slave
and disciple of Ibn cAbbäs.8 He even mentions a statement by Ka°b al-Ahbär who
carefully noted that Muhammad had seen God twice and then added, with all the
authority of an expert in Judaism but not entirely in correspondence with the Old
54 Journal of Qur'anic Studies

Testament, that similarly Moses had talked to God twice.9 This reminds us again of
the old climax and in point of fact, it was Ibn cAbbas to whom it was attributed: Abraham
- Moses - Muhammad, the vision being the deepest experience of the divine,10 a
vision of God 'in his most beautiful shape' (fì ahsani süratin) as Ibn cAbbas was
supposed to have said,11 i.e., in his form as a merciful and gracious God, not in the
terrifying, tremendous appearance He will assume as the Lord of the Last Judgement.

But there existed also counter-traditions which stressed God's transcendence. They
were connected with cÄ'isha, Muhammad's favourite wife, to whom statements about
intimate experiences of her husband are frequently attributed; she emphatically denies
his having ever seen God, under any circumstances.12 Apart from such traditions we
are confronted with compromises of different sorts. People could say that the ascen-
sion together with the vision as well as the night journey to Jerusalem had only been a
dream; this sounded especially convincing in Arabic, where there is no special word
for 'dreaming' but where one simply says 'he saw in his sleep'. People could also
pretend that the Prophet had not seen God in reality, 'with his eyes', but only spiritu-
ally, 'in his heart'. This could also ultimately amount to a dream, a veracious dream of
course, for, as is said in the prophetic tradition, 'the eyes of the Prophet may sleep, but
his heart does not.'13 One knew from 39:42 that the sleeper's soul ascends to God
whereas his body remains in situ. And above all: the report about the first vision in
süra 53 ended with the sentence 'His heart lies not of what he (Muhammad, or it: the
heart) saw.'14 Finally, anthropomorphism could be avoided by dematerializing the
object of the vision. Let me document this again by a hadlth. The last informant says
there after the chain of transmitters has been reproduced:
Ί said to Abu Dharr al-Ghifârî, the well-known companion of
the Prophet: If I had met the Prophet I would have asked him a
—What question?
—I would have asked him whether he had seen God. Abu Dharr
replied: But this is exactly what I myself once asked him.
—And what did he say?
—Light! How could I have seen Him?!'15
The last sentence is not easy. Moreover there are variant readings. But the intention of
the hadlth is obvious: light does not have a form; when God therefore reveals Himself
as light he does not appear in any specific shape and the vision results in the Prophet
being literally dazzled. This seemed to be the philosophers' stone: vision granted only
together with transcendence.

But it also shows, of course, that people did not want to deny the event as such; an
angel was not enough. This was not just a transitory or isolated phenomenon. We find
evidence for it everywhere. Let me adduce only one example, a testimony which may
Vision and Ascension 55
look exotic but shows, as in a mirror, the broad consensus which supported the idea.
About AH 160 a strange person, a 'heretic' according to the perspective of our Muslim
sources, started a rebellion against the cAbbasid government in Eastern Iran and
Central Asia. This was the Muqanna, a man who veiled himself and was said to have
performed miracles; Jorge Luis Borges has written a short essay about him.16 He
believed that God incarnated Himself in the prophets, first in Adam when he created
him according to His image, also in Jesus and finally in Muhammad. The moment He
slipped into Muhammad coincided with the latter's vision, for never was God so close
to him, 'two bows'-length or nearer' as is said in süra 53, or 'like an arrow to its bow'
as the heresiographer formulates with regard to the Muqanna's own pretension to be
another - and probably the last - incarnation of God. The only new idea in his doctrine
was the concept of incarnation (hulül); in order to make it palatable to his audience he
proceeded from an exegesis of süra 53 which he cannot have invented himself. It
seems rather to have been common knowledge among those whom he wanted to win
over. This brings me to my second hypothesis:
II - Muhammad saw God sitting on His throne. This is now an assumption which
contradicts not only the communis opinio of the Muslims but also of Western Islamicists,
for although Western scholars for philological reasons normally take the visions of
süra 53 to have been visions of God,17 they nevertheless believe Muhammad to have
seen God standing 'on the higher horizon', like a figure projected against the sky. The
Muqanna, however, thought differently, for we are told in the same heresiographical
passage that God, after each manifestation or incarnation, returned to his throne.18 The
Muqanna thus understood Muhammad's vision in the sense that when God 'drew near'
to the Prophet in order to unite Himself with him He left his throne.
Again it would be easy to produce more texts in support of this. But we do not need
them, for we can refer to a testimony which mentions this concept in immediate
connection with Muhammad's miQräj. It is a hadith, an apocryphal one which, in its
entire length (about twenty pages in print), is only quoted in Suyûtï' s La 'all al-masniïa
fi'l-ahädlth al-mawdüca. However, Tabari quotes part of it,19for the isnäd starts again
with Ibn cAbbas; he is followed by Dahhâk b. Muzähim who represented the exegeti-
cal tradition connected with Ibn cAbbäs' name in Eastern Iran. Ibn Muzähim lived in
the town of Balkh, i.e., in the area of the ancient Bactrian Empire, a melting-pot of
religions and civilizations, where a small Arabic aristocracy controlled the trade route
towards Central Asia. The hadlth says when the heavenly journey reaches its culmi-
nating point:
Ί looked at Him (i.e., God) with my heart until I was sure that He
was present and that I really saw Him. For suddenly He removed
the curtain and there He was, sitting on His throne in all His
dignity and glory ... He bent over a little bit in His dignity
56 Journal of Qur'anic Studies

towards me and bade me draw nearer. For this is the word of the
Scripture where He reports how He treated me and glorified me
(53:5-10): '... He who is terrible in power, very strong. He held
himself upright which, in this context, can only mean: on the
throne, being on the higher horizon. Then he drew near and hung
suspended, two bows'-length away, or nearer... And he revealed
to His servant that He revealed', namely the task He had decided
to impose on me.20
The 'task' referred to here is obviously Muhammad's prophetic mission. Anas b. Malik
- or those who referred to him - had put it in more concrete terms: God reveals to
Muhammad the fifty prayers which He wants to impose on his community.21 Dahhäk
b. Muzähim was less precise; he wanted to describe Muhammad's vision. And he does
so with some caution: Muhammad has to close his eyes; even Gabriel (who knew, of
course, the effect of this sight) covers them with his hands. But for the moment the
prophet has been struck by the insupportable power of the light and this is what he sees
now in his heart: God sitting on His throne, coming near to him in order to touch him
and to transfer his revelation in a truly corporeal way: 'He put one of his hands be-
tween my shoulder-blades, and for some time I felt the coolness of his fingers coming
through to my heart... ' This brings me to my third hypothesis:
III - The throne vision was the point where the literary motif of the ascension, which
was originally foreign to the Qur'an, could sneak in. If the Scripture seemed to
confirm the Prophet's having seen God sitting on His throne there was no obstacle to
imagining that he had ascended to Heaven in order to see Him where the throne was
located. However, the new context implied different emphasis. All of a sudden there
was the possibility of, even the urge to, combining the two visions mentioned in süra
53 into a single event where Muhammad would have seen God 'on the higher horizon'
and then again - or at the same time - in the 'Garden of the Refuge', 'by the Lote-Tree
of the Boundary'. Moreover, the direction had changed; it was now the Prophet who
moved and not God and the Prophet moved upward, not downward as did God - or the
angel - in the Qur'an. Muslim theology was on the point of discovering that God does
not move at all; He is immutable. This was a transcendentalist axiom and for the
transcendentalists it could be the first step in overcoming their repugnance against the
motif of the ascension as such. Finally, Muhammad's miraculous movement from one
place to another facilitated the introduction of the other Qur'anic motif where he seemed
to travel or to be carried off in a miraculous way: namely his Night Journey to

This second miraculous event does not have to occupy us here. It originally belonged
to a different setting, in spite of the indissoluble bond with the motif of the ascension
which was created afterwards. In Ibn Ishäq's biography of the Prophet both reports are
Vision and Ascension 57
still isolated from each other; Ibn Sa d even assigns them to different dates. There
were, however, two things which paved the way for the attempt to combine them: a)
According to religious imagery, God's throne could also be located in Jerusalem, his
terrestrial throne to be precise, the throne from which He created the world and to
which He will return at the end of times in order to sit in judgement on all mankind,
and b) In the beginning the night journey was sometimes understood as a nocturnal
translation to a heavenly place of worship, namely to the bayt ma'mür, the 'House
inhabited'of 52:4 which, in scholarly speculation, was interpreted as the equivalent of
the terrestrial kacba at Mecca, a celestial Jerusalem as it were. This brings us to an
entirely new dimension of our topic; we cannot deal with it here.22 But let us note at
least that, under these circumstances, the isrä' could also end with a vision of God and
that this vision was then described in the same way as was done with respect to the
mfräj: the Prophet meets God in a garden on the Haram al-Sharlf, the ancient Temple
Mount, in a hortus conclusus as it is said (fi hazlra), i.e., amidst the enclosure formed
by the walls of the Herodian - or, as people believed at that time, Salomonic - temple.
He sees Him there sitting on a throne, in the shape of a youth bearing a crown of
light,23 and then God touches him as a proof of intimacy.

Let me conclude now and, in summarizing, bring in a last factor: chronology. There is
one thing we have to be clear about right away: I have been talking about exegesis and
not about reality. We shall never know what Muhammad really saw, and even he
himself before talking about the event had to interpret it. The formulation in süra 81 is
clear: he had seen a 'venerable messenger', i.e., an angel (which does not necessarily
mean Gabriel). The statements in surat al-Najm are certainly earlier, and they are also
more explicit; but with regard to the question we asked they remain ambiguous. Moreo-
ver, in spite of being early they do not seem to be the immediate expression of the
event as such, for in this case we would not expect two apparitions to be mentioned at
once. On the other hand, the text is obviously homogeneous; the rhyme remains the
same throughout the entire süra, with exception of the last six verses (57-62). We can
therefore not explain the combination of the two visions as the outcome of later redaction,
under TJthmän or before. The hypothesis which suggests itself in this situation is: The
beginning of sürat al-Najm does not describe one event which happened immediately
before, but rather refers to two of them in order to underline, by their singularity, the
veracity of something else. Where is then the 'Sitz im Leben' of the sural

This is not a question to which we can give a definite answer. But going back to Tabari
again, to his Tafslr24 as well as his Tärlkh,25 we are left with the impression that, for
him, sürat al-Najm was connected, in its first half, with the affair of the 'satanic verses'.
As is well known, the three pagan goddesses are mentioned in verses 19-20, immedi-
ately after the report about the second vision and they are mentioned there and no-
58 Journal of Qur'anic Studies

where else in the Qur'an. We need not assume that the 'satanic verses' ever formed
part of the süra - on the contrary, they are refuted there. But their rhyme is the same.
When the Qur'an says that Lät, TJzzä, and Manät cannot be of any relevance for the
new religion, the audience is supposed to connect this with the false revelation which
had been spread. This is at least how we may be allowed to interpret Tabarî - and the
sources he used. The consequences for our topic are enormous. Thematically, the em-
phasis would shift from the visions to the refutation of the ill-advised theologoumenon;
the instrument by which the three goddesses were supposed to exert their influence,
i.e. intercession (shafäca), is still the topic of verse 26. The beginning of sürat al-Najm,
however, would then be nothing else but a solemn start, the introduction of a speech, a
sermon perhaps, held by the Prophet when, as is also suggested by the reports we find
in Tabarî,26 those who had emigrated to Ethiopia came back, people who had heard
what had happened in Mecca only through rumours and who were eager to know what
the Prophet really thought about the subject. The greatest possible authority and
persuasion would have been needed in order to invalidate the inculpations; in order to
reach this goal the Prophet could have referred to his encounters with the heavenly
power, the 'numinous' as we say today. 'Your comrade is not astray, neither errs, nor
speaks he out of caprice. This is nought but a revelation revealed, taught him by one
terrible in power, very strong', if we follow Arberry's translation. What was important
was the encounter as such; the question who it was whom he had encountered could
remain, for the moment, unanswered. I leave this hypothesis as it is; my concern is
exegesis and not reality.

On the exegetical level we are confronted with a totally different situation. When the
mufassirün began their work the Qur'an had become a Scripture, the canonized collec-
tion of all the texts revealed to Muhammad. It is true that, during the first generations,
one did not forget that sürat al-Najm had some connection with the 'satanic verses'.
But this was not relevant, for even if the event had ever occurred it had remained an
episode; the 'satanic verses' never had a chance to form part of the final redaction of
the Qur'an. The two visions of sürat al-Najm, instead of being an allusion made by the
prophet to something previously known, as a proof of his veracity in a delicate
moment, were now taken to be an immediate testimony of his first contact with God or
his messenger. In the same time, the second reference to the event, in süra 81, came to
the fore. Being part of the 'Book' this sentence was now on the same level as süra 53;
a 'Book' had to be consistent. In a way the scholars continued to be aware of the fact
that revelations had been reactions to specific situations; this is why they talked about
asbäb al-nuzül. But as far as the contents were concerned the passages had to be
balanced against each other. The jurists soon elaborated the category of abrogation
(naskh) in order to solve the ensuing difficulties. But in our case this device did not
work; theological statements could not be assumed to have been made in a different
way at different times.
Vision and Ascension 59

Under these circumstances we cannot but be struck by the high degree of acceptance
which the anthropomorphic interpretation of sürat al-Najm found in the early commu-
nity. We can, of course, not be sure whether the discussion really goes back to the
generation of the sahäba; much of what was related about the urgemeinde is projec-
tion rather than reality. Ibn cAbbäs has been treated as a kind of mythological figure in
recent scholarship.27 cÄ'isha may have witnessed how the statements concerning her
husband's visions in what was to become a Holy Scripture afterwards became less
equivocal, or how the Prophet himself became increasingly more cautious in interpret-
ing them, but her statements are sometimes phrased in a way as to contain polemical
remarks against later theological currents, especially of a Shiite type. At the time when
the visions occurred she was not yet born. We may be pretty sure that the question
became a matter of serious dispute only later on, perhaps not before the end of the first
century. During Hishäm b. cAbdalmalik's caliphate, some time between AH 105 and
120, Jâd b. Dirham was executed in Iraq, allegedly for having denied that Abraham
was God's friend and that Moses had been addressed by God Himself on Mount Sinai;
Jäd had obviously rejected the climax attributed to Ibn cAbbäs and consequently also
Muhammad's vision of God.28 His 'heresy' was, however not so 'new' a biaKa as the
heresiographers pretend. He stood in a tradition, and there seems to have been a certain
continuity between süra 81, cÄ'isha's statement and his rejection of anthropomor-
phism, although he himself may have already been influenced by Neoplatonism in
Harrän where he had lived.
As to the stories about Muhammad's ascension, they also seem to have flourished
mainly in Iraq; there the idea of the heavenly journey was deeply rooted in Hellenistic
gnosticism and apocalyptic or mystical Judaism. In Mecca and Medina the scholars
remained cautious; Ibn Ishäq who did not believe the Prophet to have seen God Him-
self did not grant Muhammad's ascension a prominent place in his narrative either and
accepted it only in an attenuated version. In Syria people apparently preferred to think
rather in terms of the night journey; Jerusalem was what they were interested in. They
did not object to Muhammad's having seen God and even having been touched by
Him, but they did not have any need for the motif of the ascension. Yet this latter motif
turned out to be the stronger one, probably simply due to the fact that, with the event of
the Abbasids, Iraq became the political and intellectual center of the Islamic world.
From there it spread to Eastern Iran; already in the Umayyad period Iraqi troups had
settled there. Our most extensive report came, as we saw, from Balkh; Dahhäk b.
Muzähim, to whom it was attributed, claimed to have got it from Ibn cAbbäs. Even
here we are, as far as authenticity is concerned, not yet on safe ground. However, the
oldest testimony which can be reliably dated is found again in Iraq. The only problem
is that in this case the motif is not connected with Muhammad; it is used by - or with
respect to - a heretic who pretended to be a prophet himself: a Shiite by the name of
Abü Mansür al-Ijl.
6ο Journal of Qur'anic Studies

I cannot deal with him here; suffice it to say that he belonged to the ghulät, the lunatic
fringe of early Shiism. He was executed in the twenties of the second hijrl century; he
had started a rebellion. His adherents justified his claim by pretending that he had
ascended to Heaven. God had talked to him in Persian, they said, and addressed him by
the title 'my son' (yä pasar)', afterward He had sent him back to earth in order to
proclaim His word. Abu Mansür apparently considered himself to be a son of God; his
adherents called him the Logos (al-kalima) and took the oath by that term. They looked
upon him as the Messiah since God had touched his head with His hand. The verb for
touching a person's head, patting it as one does with a child, is masaha in Arabic, and
mash, the Arabic equivalent to Hebrew meshah, the Messiah, is simply the passive
participle to this verb. The word itself does not primarily mean 'to anoint' like Hebrew
mashah or Aramaic meshah; Abü Mansür's adherents - and possibly he himself- thus
understood the Messiah in their own, Arabic way. This was a very imaginative manner
of taking up the motif. We may be pretty sure that Abu Mansür wanted to vie with
Muhammad in this respect, but the model he followed was Jesus.

What is important for us is that he failed; the outcome of his preaching was simply a
riot, the occupation of a mosque perhaps. Whoever arrogated the motif of the ascen-
sion to himself no longer remained unpunished. Only a prophet could pay a visit to
God and meanwhile the vast majority had decided Muhammad to have been the last
prophet, the 'seal of the Prophets'. The Shiites did, in a certain way, not belong to this
majority; this is why they still retained early views for some time. This also applies to
anthropomorphism; they adhered to it even after they had calmed down, so to speak,
and stopped producing new prophets. But in the long run they, too, changed their
mind; not only did they dissociate themselves from people like Abu Mansür, but they
also became transcendentalists as most of the Sunnis had already become. All of them,
Sunnis and Shiis alike, have remained so until today; they owe this common outlook
mainly to the impact of Mu'tazilite theology. When in the period of the Mamluks,
during the ninth hijrl century, somebody in Cairo pretended to have ascended to heaven
in order to see God and to talk to Him, he was simply put into a lunatic asylum.

Muhammad's ascension, however, had a long and triumphant history, in art and in
literature, even in a Latin text like the Liber Scalae Machometi which may have influ-
enced Dante in his Divine Comedy. Normally the Prophet was no longer believed to
have seen God during his encounter; he only heard His voice, preferably from behind
a veil. But the event was not understood as being mere dream either; it was a reality, a
miracle. And even the vision of God was not completely ruled out, though in a differ-
ent context. Sunni Islam went through a protracted discussion about whether the ru 'yä
bVl-absär, the beatific vision after the Last Judgment, should be part of the creed; it
was finally decided that in Paradise all Muslims will see God, albeit only intermit-
tently, as in a theatre when the curtain, the veil, rises as a token of divine grace. But
Vision and Ascension 61

then the world will have come to an end and vision is part of eternal bliss. The Prophet,
on the contrary, had a task to accomplish; therefore he had to return to earth. His
glorification marked the beginning, not the end of his career. He became a symbol of
Muslim identity and in this respect his uniqueness is more strongly felt today than ever
before. But his uniqueness is nowadays mainly defined in this-worldly categories,
especially in connection with his achievements as a leader of his community. His
supernatural encounter with the divine remained an isolated event; the Scripture itself,
though evoked in its support, prevented its full deployment. In this respect Islamic
theological thinking, if compared to Christian speculations and perhaps to its advan-
tage, stopped half-way.

1 I have treated the topic at length in an article which appeared in: M. A. Amir-Moezzi (ed.), Le
voyage initiatique en terre d'Islam: ascensions célestes et itinéraires spirituels, Bibliothèque de
L'École des hautes études: section des sciences religieuses, 103 (Louvain, Peeters, 1996), pp.
27-56.1 refer the reader to it for further documentation. Endnotes are added here only where
new material has been used or where it seemed absolutely necessary.
2 For this figure cf. now Steven M. Wasserstrom, Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of
Symbiosis under Early Islam (Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 181 ff.
3 Cf. the role the mutäc plays in Ghazâlï's Mishkät al-anwär.
4 Cf. now EI 2, IX, pp. 549 f., s. v. sidr (R. Kruk).
5 Uri Rubin, The Eye of the Beholder: The Life of Muhammad as Viewed by the Early Muslims:
a textual analysis, Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, 5 (Princeton, Darwin Press, 1995).
6 Al-Bukhârï, Sahlh, Kitäb al-Tafsir 65 (sürat al-Muddaththir).
I Ibn Hishäm, cAbd al-Malik, al-Slra al-nabawiyya; trans. F. Wüstenfeld as Das Leben
Muhammed's nach Muhammed Ibn Ishak (2 vols., Göttingen, Dieterichsche Universitäts-
Buchhandlung, 1858-60), pp. 153-6.
8 Al-Tabarï, Jämf al-bayän can ta'wll äy al-Qur'än Cairo, 1373/1954), 27:48,5 ff. (Tkrima);
45,4 ff. (Anas b. Mälik); 48, pu. f. (Ibn cAbbäs); cf. also al-Balädhuri, Ahmad b. Yahyä, Ansah
al-ashräf, ed. M. Hamidullah, Dhakhä'ir al-carab, 27 (Cairo, Ma°had al-Makhtütät bi-Jämicat al-
Duwal al-cArabiyya and Dar al-Macärif, 1959), 1:256, no. 591.
9 Al-Tabarï, Jämf al-bayän, 27:51,17 ff.
10 Ibid., 48,7 f.
II Ibid., 48,12 f., in the context of a well-known hadlth which again alludes to the climax.
12 Ibid., 50,14 ff.
13 A. J. Wensinck and J. P. Mensing, Concordance et indices de la tradition musulmane (8
vols., Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1936-88), 7:48a.
14 Ibn cAbbäs allegedly already pointed to this fact (al-Tabarï, Jämf al-bayän, 27:48,3 f.).
15 Ibn Khuzayma, Kitäb al-Tawhld (Cairo, 1354/1935), p. 134,4 ff.
16 Jorge Luis Borges, Έ1 tintorero enmascarado Hákim de Merv' in Carlos V. Frias (ed.),
Obras completas (1923-1972) (Buenos Aires, Emece Editores, 1974), pp. 324 ff.
17 Cf. W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Mecca (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1953), pp. 42 f.
18 It is now to be found in W. Madelung and P. E. Walker, An Ismaili Heresiography: The
'Bäb al-shaytän' from Abu Tammäm's Kitäb al-shajara, Islamic History and Civilization, 23
(Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1998), p. 76,4 ff. of the Arabic text; cf. P. E. Walker, 'An Isma'ili version of
62 Journal of Qur'anic Studies

the heresiography of the seventy-two erring sects' in F. Daftary (ed.), Mediaeval Isma *Ui history
and thought (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 171.
19 Al-Tabarï, Jämic al-bayän, 27:48,18 ff. and before.
20 Al-Suyûtï, Lac,äll al-masnücafi'l-ahädlth al-mawdüca, 1:74,14 ff.
21 Al-Tabarï, Jämic al-bayän, 27:45,7 f.
22 For a more detailed treatment cf. my article <cAbd al-Malik and the Dome of the Rock. An
Analysis of some Texts' in J. Raby and J. Johns (eds.), Bayt al-Maqdis: cAbd al-Malik1 s Jerusa-
lem, Oxford Studies in Islamic Art, 9 (Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 89-103.
23 For the motif as such cf. now D. Gimaret, Dieu à Vimage de Vhomme. Les anthropo-
morphismes de la sunna et leur interprétation par les théologiens (Paris, les Éditions du Cerf,
1997), p. 158 f.
24 Al-Tabarï, Jämic al-bayän, 27:186 ff., i.e., not in connection with sürat al-Najm but with
sürat al-Hajj, v. 52.
25 1:1192,3 ff.; cf. Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, pp. 101 ff.
26 Al-Tabarï, Jämic al-bayän, 17:187, -5 etc.; cf. the story as told by °Urwa b. al-Zubayr in
Rubin, The Eye of the Beholder, pp. 160 f.
27 Cf. Claude Gilliot, 'Portrait «mythique» d'IbncAbbäs', Arabica, 32:2 (1985) p. 62.
28 Cf. my Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra: eine Geschichte des
religiösen Denkens im frühen Islam (6 vols., Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 1991-5), 2:452 ff. Ibn
Abbäs' opinions may here been propagated by his pupil Ikrima who traveled widely and lived
until 105/723-4.
^ s
Copyright and Use:

As an ATLAS user, you may print, download, or send articles for individual use
according to fair use as defined by U.S. and international copyright law and as
otherwise authorized under your respective ATLAS subscriber agreement.

No content may be copied or emailed to multiple sites or publicly posted without the
copyright holder(s)' express written permission. Any use, decompiling,
reproduction, or distribution of this journal in excess of fair use provisions may be a
violation of copyright law.

This journal is made available to you through the ATLAS collection with permission
from the copyright holder(s). The copyright holder for an entire issue of a journal
typically is the journal owner, who also may own the copyright in each article. However,
for certain articles, the author of the article may maintain the copyright in the article.
Please contact the copyright holder(s) to request permission to use an article or specific
work for any use not covered by the fair use provisions of the copyright laws or covered
by your respective ATLAS subscriber agreement. For information regarding the
copyright holder(s), please refer to the copyright information in the journal, if available,
or contact ATLA to request contact information for the copyright holder(s).

About ATLAS:

The ATLA Serials (ATLAS®) collection contains electronic versions of previously

published religion and theology journals reproduced with permission. The ATLAS
collection is owned and managed by the American Theological Library Association
(ATLA) and received initial funding from Lilly Endowment Inc.

The design and final form of this electronic document is the property of the American
Theological Library Association.