The Quran’s lore has thus far surprised me in being so generally familiar. Most of the stories we’ve read have related to biblical accounts. Their didactic value may be different, and occasionally additions or alterations come out of nowhere (like Mrs. Al-Aziz’s banquet), but they are nonetheless familiar. While some non-Biblical inclusions like Hud and Shu’ayb should stand out as new, their stories have been presented to us in repetitive chains of prophets and aren’t distinct stories in and of themselves. This retold material has been plenty interesting, but I also think it is hard for me to take it for its own merit. I cannot read the Quran’s accounts without supplementing or comparing them to their Biblical counterparts. Like I said in al-A’raaf, I don’t need the Quran to spell out the actions of Moses’ showdown with the court magicians because the Biblical account fills the imagery in for me. I understand the divisions between Jacob’s sons because I know the drama of Jacob’s marriages. Though I don’t know how much the Quran intended to rely on this, it cannot be escaped. I cannot read the stories without comparing and contrasting my own knowledge, and lamenting the Biblical themes which I think they lack.
Surah al-Kahf provides an alternative. Here we have four stories, none of which share any narrative in the Bible. This is exciting, because it gives me a chance to read a Quranic narrative without preconceptions as to what the story should be. It perhaps gives me better chance to be focused on what the narratives do say rather than what they do not. And it also gives me the ability to evaluate how complete a Quranic story feels within its own words.
I’m only going to focus on the stories today. Transitioning in and out of these stories are the usual sermons and sayings about the earthly temptations, The Day of Judgement, Paradise and Hell, the role of prophets, and condemnations of shirk. While that material constitutes about 38% of the 110 ayat, I did not find anything that adds to or disrupts my accumulated understanding of those themes. There are some high points and low points in those sermonettes that I could point out, but I’d rather trust you to read it and spend my writing time looking at the fresh material.
Above is one of the most widely known depictions of Muhammad’s Night Journey. It is a product of a less restricted phase of Iranian artistic culture in the 1500’s AD. I had seen this picture before I started my Quran project, and it comes to my mind foremost when I hear al-israa w-al-mi’raaj, particularly that odd human-headed animal (al-buraq). Yet all of it, all of it, comes from tradition. Last week, I said that one ayah of the surah explicitly mentioned The Night Journey and that two others very likely were references to the event. I looked around online to find when we will get more, but could only locate one future surah, the 53rd, with one more chunk of mysterious ayat that probably reference events from the journey. And that seems to be it for the Quran.
So if the lessons from the event didn’t make it into the Quran, what are Muslims supposed to get from al-israa w-al-mi’raaj? How important is it to them? What purpose does it even serve in the religion? Well, the ayah I referenced in closing last week will give us one answer, and I’ll get to that by the end of today’s post. But first, we must take note of the majority content of this surah, which is full of details and subtexts that set up the relationships of Islam.
Today’s surah has two common titles: al-israa or bani isra’iil. While those names sound similar they are radically different. Al-Israa means “the night journey.” Perhaps it tells us something about the world of Arabia that they have a special word for traveling at night. The title bani isra’iil means “Children of Israel.”
Ever since seeing that there was a surah ahead called “The Night Journey,” I’ve been excited to get to it. Muhammad is credited with only two miraculous signs in his lifetime, one being the Quran and the other being an event known as al-israa w-al-mi’raaj, “the night journey and the ascension.” I know it’s an important miracle to Muslims and so I have been eager to read the Quran’s account of it. Alas, as happens so often, the title is relevant to only one ayah out of the 111. Still, a mention of the Night Journey is a much rarer event in the Quran than recounts of the bumpy history of the Children of Israel, and thus I’ll follow popular usage and call this surah by its more distinctive feature.