|Special Dispatch - Egypt
September 3, 2003
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Egyptian Ministry of Culture Publication: The Prophet Muhammad's 'Night Journey' was Not to Jerusalem but to Medina
Ahmad Muhammad 'Arafa, a columnist for the Egyptian weekly Al-Qahira, which is published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, wrote an article rejecting the established Islamic belief that the Prophet Muhammad's celebrated "Night Journey" (Koran 17:1) took him from Mecca to Jerusalem. 'Arafa, presenting a new analysis of the Koranic text, asserts that the Night Journey in Surat Al-Isra' (that is, "the Sura of the Night Journey") in the Koran does not refer to a miraculous journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, but to the Prophet's emigration (Hijra) from Mecca to Medina.
It should be noted that the belief that Muhammad's Night Journey (Koran 17:1) was a miraculous journey to Jerusalem is one of the most important foundations of the sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam. There is an extensive body of Islamic traditions related to this belief, and these are explicitly or implicitly rejected by the author. This article constitutes a dramatic departure from standard Islamic belief. The fact that this article was published in a government journal adds to its political significance. The following is a translation of the article, titled "Was the Prophet Muhammad's Night Journey to Palestine or Medina?" which was published on August 5, 2003:(1)
Where Is Al-Aqsa Mosque?
"'Praise be to Him who took His servant by night (Isra') from the Al-Haram [Sacred] Mosque [in Mecca] to the Al-Aqsa [literally 'the most distant'] Mosque, whose environs We did bless, so that We might show him some of Our signs, for He is the All-Hearing and All-Seeing One' (Surat Al-Isra':1).
"This text tells us that Allah took His Prophet from the Al-Haram Mosque [in Mecca] to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Thus, two mosques are [referred to] here, the first of which is the Al-Haram Mosque, and the second of which is the Al-Aqsa Mosque. 'Al-Aqsa' is a form of superlative which means 'the most distant.' Therefore, the place to which the Prophet was taken must be a mosque, and not a place where a mosque was to be established later, nor a place where a mosque had once stood. This place must be very far from the Al-Haram Mosque. It need not be [actually] built, as the Al-Haram Mosque [itself] was at that time merely an open space around the Ka'ba [and not a building].
"But in Palestine during that time, there was no mosque at all that could have been the mosque 'most distant' from the Al-Haram Mosque. During that time, there were no people in [Palestine] who believed in Muhammad and would gather to pray in a specific place that served as a mosque. Most of the inhabitants of Palestine were Christians, and there was among them a Jewish minority. Although the Koran refers respectfully to Jewish and Christian houses of worship, it does not call any of them a mosque, rather 'churches and synagogues' (Surat Al-Hajj :40). The construction of the mosque situated today in Jerusalem and known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque began only in the year 66 of the Hijra of the Prophet - that is, during the era of the Omayyad state, not during the time of the Prophet nor that of any of the Righteous Caliphs. So much for the mosque."
The Night Journey - The Prophet's Flight From His Enemies
"As for the word Isra', if we open the Koran and trace the instances in which it occurs we find the following [five] verses...(2) we find that [the verbal noun] Isra' means 'moving secretly from a place of danger to a safe place.' The meaning of the [Koranic] expression 'He took His servant by night' is that He ordered him to journey in secret from his enemies to a place where he and his mission would be secure. In other words, the text speaks of the Hijra of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina, and not of a visit to Palestine. [Indeed], the Hijra of the Prophet [to Medina] was carried out unbeknownst to his enemies.
"Let us go back to the beginning of Surat Al-Isra': Allah explains the reason for the Night Journey (Isra') by His words 'so that We might show him some of Our signs.' The exegetes and the transmitters of Hadith usually interpreted this as a reference to [Muhammad's] seeing the prophets and leading them in prayer. Some add [Muhammad's] ascent to heaven, and [his] seeing Paradise and Hell. How do we interpret the signs of Allah in this instance? Which of the interpretations is most acceptable?
"We [on the other hand] interpret this [i.e. the signs] as [signifying] the Prophet’s deliverance from his enemies who were cunningly plotting to murder or capture him, and Muhammad's founding of the [Islamic] state in Medina, his triumph at the Battle of Badr, his making the Al-Hudaybiyya Treaty, and then the conquest of Mecca, and the spreading of his call (Da'wa). These wer