Surah 17: The Night Journey, Part 1

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.

The Night Journey

The first ayah of our surah praises God for taking Muhammad from The Sacred Mosque [in Mecca] to al-masjid al-aqSaa, “the farthest mosque.” God is also said to have made the surrounding area of the latter sacred. There are no further details, so the most we can do right now is some linguistics.

The word masjid (which through several iterations was handed down to English as “mosque”) comes from the routes s-j-d, carrying the idea of bowing in worship, and the prefix ma-, which is often used in Arabic morphology to mean “thing of,” or “place of.” (BTW, Arabic morphology is super involved and you don’t want to take my teeny explanation as the entire rule.) While Western minds are used to thinking of mosques as buildings with domes and towers, a mosque is in its basic sense a place of prayer. Early mosques were probably just open-air gardens or courtyards with a marker towards their qibla. Kahn Academy provides a great survey of mosque architecture as it developed and integrated into other cultures.

The word aqSaa is the superlative form of “distant.” There is no perfect distinction in Arabic between “more distant” and “most distant.” Technically, saying al-aqSaa, “the more distant,” (rather than plain aqSaa) is how you’d say “most distant.” However, another rule in Arabic is that adjectives must match their relevant nouns in case, including whether they are definite or indefinite. Therefore, since aqSaa is being used to describe “the mosque,” it has to match as “the more distant.” This is where my knowledge gets a little patchy, as I don’t know if there’s any way to distinguish between the two words in such situations. Does al-masjid al-aqSaa means “the more distant mosque” or “the most distant mosque?” A similar situation exists around the phrase allahu akbar, and usually people favor the idea that the grammar indicates “most” since the phrase doesn’t continue with a specific comparison.

Why all this fuss over tiny nuances?

unsplash-logoSander Crombach
Funny you should ask that…

Tradition has claimed that “the most distant place of prayer” is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Now you can imagine why people get nitpicky at the word meanings. That masjid does not require a building is a worthy point, as there was no building on the site in Muhammad’s time. To call Temple Mount in Jerusalem “the most distant” place of prayer is a strain. Most churches and synagogues across the known world, excepting those in Egypt as the crow flies, were more distant to Mecca than was the Temple Mount. One way of explaining this is to argue that the place is called “the more distant place of prayer” as Jerusalem was more distant to Muhammad than the Sacred Mosque was. Another possible explanation is that the Quran is saying masjid but meaning “temple.” Indeed, when the Jerusalem Temple seems to be mentioned later, it is still called by the broader word masjid. The Quran could be implying that only two valid temples have existed in human history, making Jerusalem the most distant from Muhammad of the two. After all, Christians didn’t build temples, and synagogues do not share the same functions as temples. There is an interesting conversation to be had about the differences between normative places of corporate prayer such as mosques, synagogues, or churches compared to specialized ritualistic temples such as the Jerusalem Temple and the Meccan Ka’ba. That is waaaay outside the scope of our current material. We’ll need more Quran to actually get a sense of the situation.


Ayat 2-8 talk to the Jews, reminding them of their heritage and the scripture that God provided to them through Moses. Within Moses’ scripture, it is said that God warned the Jews they would twice become corrupted. The surah tells of the fulfillment of that warning, but not in details that precisely tell us the history. God punishes the first spat of corruption with a comprehensive invasion that pries into their very homes. He then blesses the Jews with a return victory and increases them in wealth and progeny. At their second downfall, God again brings an invading force that enters into their Temple (it adds retroactively that this also happened the first time) and destroys everything.

This account does map broadly to the historical events of the fall of Judah to Babylon, the much later Maccabean revolt and short lived Hasmonean dynasty, and the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome. The amount of details missing –the split kingdoms, the stages of return from exile, the multiple reconstructions of the Temple, and the rise of Christianity within this time– does make this summary of events very unsatisfying, but the intent of these passages is not about proving the Quran through historical accuracy. Instead, the point is to summarize Jewish history in terms of “do good, receive good; do bad, receive bad.” This is a pretty normal take of religious Jews on their own ancient history, but hearing it from a non-Jewish source communicates two potential readings. One reading could be threatening: Jews are told that God says they deserve all their tragedies, which puts them beyond pity. There is also potential that whoever is wielding this story might feel called upon to dish out God’s punishment themselves, and that such a narrative is available should the Jews become “inconvenient” to their neighbors. Ayah 8 warns Jews that while they are not beyond the reach of God’s mercy, He is ready to resume the cycle of punishment if they do not obey. This carrot-and-stick message is a classic way for people in power to demand compliance, and its instance here targets the Jews specifically as people needing to be brought into compliance. The second reading option is that this is a non-hostile appeal to Jews through common beliefs. Ayat like these mayn’t be threatening the Jews as much as trying to appeal to their cultural narrative and values. Many Jews already seek to improve their geo-political circumstances through religious reform. Fervent Jews may even be exasperated by the lack of results or the disunity within the community, and so the Quran is trying to attract such Jews to Islam through a common narrative of do good, receive good. “Maybe those reforms aren’t working because their material is old and corrupted,” Muslims could preach, “and Islam is really just a purer form of Judaism that had been lost until Muhammad. Becoming Muslim really is the same thing as becoming a true Jew.” There are many factors that determine whether a reading of these kinds of ayat are hostile or not, but in my estimation it is not helpful that the Quran gives so little positive depiction of the Jewish character. Their perceived degeneracy has received a lot of screen time and explicit description. Such a view of their character lends itself easily to the idea of punishment.

Side note within this topic: Ayah 101 says that God confirmed Moses with nine clear signs. Exodus fans will wrinkle their noses at this, as there were ten plagues and also the snake-staff and many other miracles. This is fruitless ground for quibbling, as each account has to be taken at its word and there are no external means to argue either way, but I do wish I could see how it went down when Muhammad did what the Quran told him to and asked the Children of Israel to remember the “nine signs” sent to Moses.

Do Good, Receive Good; Do bad…

Having taken evidence from the broad strokes of Israel’s history, the Quran applies it to individuals. Ayat 9-12 transition us to this new focus, although they feel a little scatty upon first reading. Good Quran–hellfire–fickle prayers–the sky! Extend grace to them and you can find a rational progression of thought in their themes. The Quran promotes itself as guide to the straightest/truest (translated “most suitable” by Sahih) ways, bringing good news to believers who do righteous deeds of their promised rewards in Heaven. Those who do not believe in the afterlife –we assume this further implies they are acting without fear of consequences– are promised punishment. This sets the authority of the message and raises the stakes. Ayah 11 feels a little ambiguous, since it’s hard to tell what its comment about the men are supposed to mean. Is it noting the fickle intentions of mankind’s heart? That may be, but it also could be portraying unguided mankind’s ignorance. A man might think he’s praying for good, but shortsightedness/hastiness could mean that his prayers would only be destructive if they were answered. Ignorance and fickle character combines later in ayah 18 concerning those unbelievers who are demanding Muhammad to produce a sign from God despite being warned such a sign would bring about their immediate condemnation (particularly note the matched concept of destructive hastiness). So I think ayah 11 is about man needing guidance because by himself he knows not how to tell evil from good. This follows up with ayah 12, in which the sun and moon are described as signs and guidance from God. The idea is that God has built order and guidance into the universe, and that He’s trying to guide men into that order. Thus the stage is set up to describe those who are or aren’t receptive to guidance.

Those who awake judgement to meet their condemnation are said to find a book of their deeds open and awaiting them. They will be forced to read their deeds so that they will understand how they have earned their punishment (ayat 13-14). Later, ayah 71 describes the same event but with a different sequence. Men shall be resurrected and given an account of their lives. Whoever receives their account in their right hand will have no injustice done to them. It says that they will read their accounts, but the wording in this ayah lacks the compulsion that is in ayah 14. To make sense of this difference sequence of events, we have to make significance of the use of the right hand in the latter ayah. In Arabic culture, as in many past cultures, the right hand symbolized the good side, the side of favor. The left hand is particularly taboo because…well…left hands were used for toilet needs. This is still a thing, and it’s more than just Arabs who carry this particular connotation. So receiving your record in your right hand could mean that you’ve received a positive sentence and control of your life. Ayah 71 would thus be describing those who come to judgement to receive their reward, in contrast with the portentous sequence of events in ayah 14 toward those who are condemned. It is weird that ayah 71 concludes that those who receive their books will not receive any “injustice/wrong.” This idea of not receiving any injustice is commonly cited when referencing someone going to Hell, as their punishment is supposed to be deserved and justly measured. Why would those going to Paradise, who are in essence escaping justice through mercy, be described as having escaped injustice? Or perhaps we do not really know what to make of ayah 71 and the usage of the right hand does not mean good things.

(Tangent, Shia Muslims make a big deal of the word imaamihim in ayah 71.)

All judgement is said to derive from ones deeds, for good or ill, and no one shares burdens with anyone else. There is also the idea that the deeds aren’t enough unless paired with intent, and that God honors intent. At odds with this high regard for individualized judgement, however, is that the surah mixes imagery of eternal deed-specific judgement with earthly societal punishment and yet it makes no distinction between the two. For example, in ayat 13-17, the individualized condemnation of the afterlife is paired with the mass condemnation of earthly cities. Societal punishments are a sticky thing in religions with concepts of individualized justice, Judaism and Islam in particular, because such mass punishments affect all people more or less equally, regardless of each individual’s guilt. Toddler and despot alike suffer in a city destroyed by hailstorm or earthquake. On the opposite side, ayah 20 depicts God providing gifts to both the righteous and unrighteous (“to them and to those”) unconditionally because it is in His nature to be generous. That ayah continues into ayah 21, which says that God blesses people unequally, and that inequality will be magnitudes greater in the afterlife. (Note, Sahih tries to separate the ideas by using the conjunction “but” between the statements in ayah 21, though the literal word in the text is “and”.) It would be hard to look at this earthly life and say that the disparity of prosperity reflects a system of justice. By using God’s administration of earthly life to illustrate God’s justice that will operate in the afterlife, the surah presents a confusing image of whether God is in fact just. Is it asking us to look at the earth and read events of prosperity and suffering as divine justice? I doubt it, but I am not sure how to make sense of what it is otherwise trying to do. Ayah 16 is about visualizing God’s punishments and the reality of his wrath. Ayah 20 perhaps is just depicting the libertarian God, who can do with his blessings as He pleases. These purposes might just be fine if they weren’t being related to individualized justice.

Morals and Values

I’ve always found it bizarre that the Abrahamic religions aren’t more aligned in American politics. Despite their many differences, it cannot be denied that all these religions have very similar morals and values. Ayat 23-39 survey a broad range of moral principles, the likes of which you’d find in any conservative Christian or Jewish community: Worship only the True God; Honor your parents and be thankful to them; Honor the rights of family, strangers, and the destitute and be generous to them all; Be neither stingy nor extravagant (this is the meaning of the metaphor in ayah 29 about your hand’s proximity to your body); Do not kill children who you think you cannot afford to raise; Don’t have unlawful sex; Do not kill, except through judicial right; Be honest with money and measurements; Don’t act in ignorance or foster an ego; Pray regularly. While there are several meaningful differences between the various Abrahamic moral codes, a united group of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons, and others would be able to hold powerful sway in American legislature, take that as you will. That these groups aren’t able to unite in American politics makes fodder for an interesting discussion elsewhere.

That Islam promotes such general and constructive morals as found in this surah is part of why the Quran as a whole seems to be so incredulous that more people aren’t converting. After all, it’s calling people to simply be fair at least, and merciful at best. It’s calling for personal restraint and moderation, but not asceticism. It calls for a spiritual life combined with a secular one of trade and family. How could anyone object to that?

Naturally a lot of the difference comes in the framing theology around those morals, which cycles back to my point in Talking About Violence and the Quran about how we approach religion. Do people pick their religions because they like the practices it promotes? Not necessarily. But even religious people regularly promote their moral values as the reason to convert. The inevitable result is that when someone doesn’t convert, the rejected party is disposed to think, “So you don’t agree with universal honesty and goodness? Then you must be eeeeevil.” Of course, telling someone that they are deliberately being evil is not very inviting and doesn’t help attract people to your religion much, and a vicious cycle starts from there. Now, I’m not saying that the Quran puts all its investment in its moral values. On the contrary, we’ve seen that it puts a great deal more emphasis on its axiom of The God. Yet the Quran has concluded before that its rejectors are plainly and intently evil. It regularly describes its own practices in contrast to selections of the pagans’ to highlight the point. We’ll look more next week at what this surah says about its rejectors.

List of Lore

I have a large amount of material to cover next week in Part 2, so I’m going to mention the lore within today’s post. There is reference to Noah (ayah 3, 17), the she-camel of Thamud (ayah 59), a revisitation of the storm-tossed-ship scenario (ayat 66-67), and Satan’s fall in Eden (ayat 61-65). The Eden story is worth looking over on account of what questions it doesn’t answer and what questions it raises. It doesn’t answer my questions about the relationship between angels and jinn. Satan, a jinn, is punished for disobeying a command given to the angels. You might be incredulous at this point that I’m trying to make a distinction between angels and jinn, since the Quran has made seemingly no such distinction, but I only trying to do so because Muslim tradition does so. So the Quran hasn’t answered my question concerning Satan’s failure in following a command not understood as having been given to his kind. Today’s portrayal is also curious for having God much more responsible for Satan’s role in the world. Satan asks for a postponement of his punishment specifically so that he can drag down humanity too, whereupon God agrees and describes/prescribes how Satan will spread suffering, delusion, and damnation. This is an added detail to the Problem of Evil that bothers some Muslims and that they struggle with.

New to our lore is a passing reference to there being seven heavens (ayah 44). There is nothing explained about them, and one could argue that their mention only serves as an expression of magnitude. I know that it is common in Hebrew and Christian tradition to regard the number 7 as a symbol of completeness in reference to the seven days of the Genesis 1 creation narrative. If Islam shares this symbol, then the ayah could be including the entirety of heaven, or maybe even uniting all the definitions of heaven, in its statement about how all creation worships God. There were also various ideas of there being seven heavens in antiquity, and the Quran could be drawing on one of those ideas. This article by al-Islam allows room for both ideas.

Artists naturally enjoy more literal attempts at interpretation.

Final Mentions of the Night Journey

I said in the beginning of this that there was only one ayah that mentioned Muhammad’s Night Journey and Ascension, but this is not strictly correct. The mention of the seven heavens might very well be an allusion to the event. Traditional histories record Muhammad as having described in his ascension a journey through seven layers of heaven. The other mention, albeit oblique, could be “the sight which We showed you” in ayah 60. That reference makes a great stopping point for today, as it pivots our attention towards the surah’s material that I shall cover next week: the testing and rejection of the unbelievers.

If you are itching to know more about al-israa w-al-mi’raaj, I would recommend this collation of the traditional accounts. It is very long, but will offer you a comprehensive view of what Muslims believe (or must be willing to believe to some amount or degree) happened to Muhammad. A Shia breakdown of those traditions can be found here. I haven’t read them all yet, they are so long, but they may help understand some references in the Quran that we would otherwise miss in the future.

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