The Meaning of Isra' and Mi'raj in Islam

The Islamic Prophet's Night Journey and Ascension

Al-Aqsa Mosque
Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem. David Silverman/Getty Images

The Setting

The year 619 CE. was known as the “Year of Sadness” in Islamic history. (It is also sometimes called the "Year of Sorrow.") The Muslim community was under constant persecution, and in that year the Prophet Muhammad’s beloved wife of 25 years, Khadeeja, and his uncle, Abu Talib, both died. Without Abu Talib’s protection, Mohammad and the Muslim community experienced ever-increasing harassment in Makkah (Mecca).

The Prophet Muhammad visited the nearby city of Taif to preach the Oneness of God and to seek asylum from Meccan oppressors from a tribal benefactor, but  he was eventually mocked and run out of town.

In the midst of this adversity, Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad had an illuminating, other-worldly experience, which is now known as Isra’ and Mi’raj (the Night Visit and Ascension). As the tradition has it, during the month of Rajab, the Prophet Muhammad made a night-time trip to the city of Jerusalem  (Isra’), visited the Al-Aqsa mosque and from there was raised up into heaven (mi’raj). While there, he came face-to-face with previous prophets, was purified and received instructions about the number of prayers the Muslim community should observe each day. 

History of the Tradition

The history of the tradition itself is the source of debate, as some Muslim scholars believe that originally there were two legends that gradually became one.

In the first tradition, Mohammad is said to have been visited as he slept in the Ka'aba in Makkah by the angels Gabriel and MIchael, who transported him to heaven, where they made their way through the seven levels of heaven to the throne of God, meeting Adam, Joseph, Jesus and other prophets along the way.

The second traditional legend involves Mohammad's  night journey from Makkah to Jerusalem, an equally miraculous journey. Over time in the early years of Islam, scholars have suggested that the two traditions merged into one, in which the narrative has Mohammad first journeying to Jerusalem, then being raised up to heaven by the angel Gabriel. Muslims who observe the tradition today view the "Isra and Mi'raj" as one story. 

As the tradition has it, Muhammad and his followers perceived the Isra and Mi'raj as a miraculous journey, and it gave them strength and hope that God was with them despite recent setbacks. Soon, in fact, Mohammad would find another clan protector in Makkah-- Mut'im ibn 'Adi, the chief of clan Banu Nawfal. For Muslim's today, Isra' and Mi'raj has the same symbolic meaning and lesson--salvation despite adversity through the exercise of faith. 

Modern Observance

Today, non-Muslims, and even many Muslims, have scholarly debates over whether this the Isra and Mi'raj  was an actual physical journey or merely a vision. Others suggest that the story is allegorical rather than literal. The majority view among Muslim scholars today seems to be that Muhammad truly traveled in body and soul, as a miracle from God, but this is by no means a universal view.

For example, many Sufis (followers of Islamic mysticism) hold the view that the event tells the story of Mohammad's soul ascending to heaven while his body remained on earth. 

The Isra’ and Mi’raj is not universally observed by Muslims. For those that do, the 27th day of the Islamic month of Rajab is the traditional day of observance. On this day, some individuals or communities conduct special lectures or reading about the story and the lessons to be learned from it. Muslims use the time to remember, the importance of Jerusalem in Islam, the schedule and value of daily prayer; the relationship among all of God’s prophets; and how to be patient in the midst of adversity.