¡ Glory be to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque, whose precincts We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs. Truly He is the Hearer, the Seer.
1 This verse refers to the Prophet’s Night Journey (al-isrāʾ), considered by most to have taken place a year or two prior to the migration to Madinah (R, Z). The Prophet was reportedly taken upon a winged horse, named Burāq, and led by the Archangel Gabriel to Jerusalem; from there he ascended through the seven heavens and came before God Himself. The whole experience occurred outside the realm of ordinary time, because, despite the great distance between Makkah and Jerusalem, the Prophet is said to have made the journey and returned in a single night; according to some, the door of his house, through which he passed when he left on the journey, was still swinging on its hinges when he returned. This event is foundational in the life of the Prophet Muhammad and for Islamic spirituality, and most of the Prophet’s Companions agreed that this miraculous journey took place physically and not only spiritually, although a few maintained that it was an inner, purely spiritual journey. Mainstream Islamic tradition holds, however, that the Ascension (miʿrāj) was bodily as well as spiritual and considers it a special miracle granted to the Prophet, although spiritual ascension is believed by some Muslims, particularly Sufis, to be a possibility open to all Muslims who follow a spiritual path in this life. Indeed, a well-known ḥadīth states, “The canonical prayer (ṣalāh) is the ascension (miʿrāj) of the believers.”
Detailed accounts of the Night Journey exist in the Ḥadīth, and the event resonates throughout Islamic literature, especially in mystical works, where the journey is seen as the prototype for all spiritual journeying toward the encounter with God. This central spiritual event in the life of the Prophet has also been the subject of some of the greatest masterpieces of Islamic miniature painting and poetry. Elements of the account of the Prophet’s Night Journey may have even influenced accounts of mystical journeying in
other traditions, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, whose architecture of the heavens is similar to that described in accounts of the Prophet’s ascension, some of which had reached the Latin West.
Jerusalem is considered the third most sacred site for Muslims primarily because of the Prophet’s miraculous journey to the city and his heavenly ascension from the site of the ancient Jewish Temple located there. In fact, after the Prophet’s return from the Night Journey and for several years thereafter, the Prophet and the Muslim community prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, making the city the first direction of prayer (al-qiblat alūlā), which also contributes to its sacred status in Islam. The direction of prayer was changed from Jerusalem to Makkah in the year 2/624, after the revelation of 2:143-44, which instructed the Prophet and the Muslim community to turn in prayer toward the Sacred Mosque in Makkah; see commentary on these verses.
Despite the importance of the Prophet’s Night Journey and Ascension, the Quran’s mention of this event is brief and elliptical. The present verse is considered to refer to the first, “horizontal,” part of the journey, from Makkah to Jerusalem (isrāʾ), while 53:1-18 contains allusions to the Prophet’s experience during the “vertical” part of the journey, that is, his Ascension (miʿrāj) through the seven heavens to the Divine Throne and the encounter with God. In the present verse, then, His servant is a reference to Muhammad who was carried . . . by night from the Sacred Mosque in Makkah to the Farthest Mosque, referring to the site of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which today is the site of the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock, inside which is the rock from which the Prophet ascended to the Divine Throne. Carried . . . by night translates asrā . . . laylan. The verb asrā by itself means to travel at night, and thus the additional qualifier, laylan, by night or “in a night,” emphasizes that this journey from Makkah to Jerusalem and back again—a journey that would ordinarily have taken over a month at that time —was accomplished in a single night (R, Z). Although a few have identified the Sacred Mosque with the environs of Makkah generally (Ṭ, Z), the literal reading of the verse indicates that he left from the Sacred Mosque itself (Z). The literal interpretation is further supported by a ḥadīth describing how the Prophet was roused for the journey by the Archangel Gabriel as he lay between sleeping and waking in the sanctuary (ḥaram) that immediately surrounds the Kaʿbah (IK, R, Z).
The Farthest Mosque translates al-masjid al-aqṣā, which is also the name given by Muslims to the mosque built in Jerusalem in the first/seventh century near the site of the ancient Jewish Temple, which had been destroyed centuries earlier by the Romans. The precincts of the Jerusalem Temple are referred to as the Farthest Mosque, according to some, because it was the farthest sacred place visited by the Prophet and the farthest place in which he prayed during his lifetime (Ṭ), although he had likely traveled farther, to Damascus, for trade before he became a prophet. The precincts We have blessed
refers to Jerusalem and its environs, comprising the Biblical land of Canaan; see also 7:137; 21:71, 81. Some reports indicate that the blessedness of the land referred to its fertility and its abundant fruits and crops (Ṭ), although others indicate that it was blessed with both worldly and spiritual bounty, since many prophets had worshipped or received revelation there (R, Z). Our signs may include the miraculous journey itself as well as the visions and encounters with past prophets, angels, and God Himself that the Prophet reportedly experienced during its course.