The Inner Journey – The Night Journey and Miraj of the Prophet

The great journey of Utnapishtim, as told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, has a parallel in the story told about the Prophet Muhammed.  This is the story of the Prophet’s night journey, and subsequent Miraj (which is an Arabic word which means ladder), where he rose to ‘heaven’ and experienced the Divine – he was in discourse with God!

We are told that the Prophet liked to go to the Kaaba enclosure at night. He would stand absorbed in prayer for many long hours. One evening he suddenly felt tired and in great need of sleep. He therefore lay down near the Kaaba and fell asleep. The angel Gabriel than came to him and shook him twice to awaken him, but Muhammad remained asleep: the third time the angel shook him, Muhammad awoke, and Gabriel took him to the doors of the mosque, where a white animal (looking like a cross between a mule and a donkey, but with wings) was waiting for him. He mounted the animal which was called Buraq and started to journey to ‘the farthest Masjid’, which was thought to have been in Jerusalem.[1]

This mysterious ‘sleep’ which overcomes the Prophet – a sleep, from which he cannot be woken until the third attempt, sounds like an experience of deep meditation, or Samadhi, where even the angel Gabriel could not waken him. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, during his forest journey, Gilgamesh was also overcome by a strange ‘sleep’, after felling the giant cedar of the forest. His beloved friend and companion Enkidu, too, could not awaken Gilgamesh from this mysterious sleep until the third time of trying.  It is only after coming out of this long and deep meditation, that Gilgamesh confronted the ‘monster’ Humbaba. We are not sure, who or what, Humbaba was. He seems to be some form of nature spirit and guardian of the cedar forest. But Humbaba is also referred to as ‘evil’, so this forest journey is an allegory for the inner journey, where Gilgamesh, is similar to the knight who slays the dragon. The forest itself represents the country of the living and appears to be like Dante’s deep dark forest.  This mysterious sleep can be understood as being the experience of Samadhi or deep meditation, from where the inner sacred journey begins. In both cases, it is a beloved guide or companion who guides our hero on his path. In the case of Muhammed, the steed is Buraq and the guide is Gabriel.

It is interesting that the psychopomp in the form of Buraq, the flying ‘horse’, is present in this story, just as it is in the fairy tales of The Fairy of the Dawn, The Little Hump-backed Horse, and Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram, which are mentioned in my book, The Witch as teacher in Fairy Tales.[2] The psychopomp is a steed and guide of souls, carrying them  from one realm to the other; they serve as guides through the various transitions of life. In the fairy tales, the little horse, for instance, is both the steed and guide for the hero, whereas in the story of the Prophet’s journey, Buraq is the steed, while Gabriel is the guide. I find it fascinating that that the little humpbacked horse, in the story of the same name, had long floppy ears like a donkey, and Buraq was said to be part donkey and part mule. The donkey is a symbol of humility and patience, and of course there is a strong connection with Jesus: Christ’s nativity and His entry into Jerusalem.

The ‘farthest Masjid’ is thought to be a location, rather than a physical structure. A place of prostration; a place where Muhammad prostrated before God and worshipped Him, in the Blessed Region. I find it interesting that it is described as the ‘farthest place’, while Utnapishtim is taken by the gods to live forever at the ‘mouth of the rivers’ and given the epithet ‘Faraway’ – a paradise like the garden of Eden called Dilmun.

Muhammad stated that “The earth has been made for me (and for my followers) a place for praying.”

Many believe that this place of prostration was in Jerusalem, where the al-Aqsa Mosque now stands. But spiritually it is the farthest inner place that one can be in. It is at the very Centre of our universe, where the Divine One  or God, is to be encountered.

After alighting from Buraq, the prophet performed prayer, and was tested by Gabriel on God’s command. Muhammad said: “Gabriel brought me a vessel of wine, a vessel of water and a vessel of milk, and I chose the milk”. Gabriel said: “You have chosen the Fitrah (natural instinct).”[3] This is a really beautiful symbol! Milk is divine nourishment and is used in initiation ceremonies as a symbol of rebirth. Milk is of the spirit, where water is of matter. Muhammad chose well and properly, so that the second part of the journey could then be undertaken.

At the same time also, we are told that Muhammad’s chest was opened and water from the well of Zamzam was poured on his heart giving him wisdom, belief, and other characteristics to help him on his ascent. This purification is also seen in the trial of the drinks.[4] It was the angel Gabriel who, in the time of Abraham, when Hagar was thirsting in the desert with her baby son Ishmael, that Gabriel brought forth water by hitting the ground with his wing. Fresh pure water emerged, and they were saved. This is sacred water of Life which comes from the Well of Zamzam and was used to purify him spiritually before his ascent.

The Prophet was raised with the Angel Gabriel beyond time and space. Indeed, Samadhi takes us to an inner realm which is outside of time and space.  Here Muhammad toured the ‘seven stages of heaven’ and spoke with the earlier prophets – Adam, Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Aaron, John the Baptist, and Jesus. One could say that he became one with the Spirit of Guidance. It is said that his vision of the heavens and of the beauty of those horizons permeated his being. Some accounts say that Muhammad meets four angels, as he travels through the heavens and that he is shown death and what hell looks like. The meeting with four angels is very significant. Four is the Divine Quaternity and for Jung was more powerful as a symbol than the number three. There are four cardinal points, seasons, winds, sides of a square, arms of the cross, rivers of Paradise, and many more. There are four streams of immortality.

Muhammad meets angels called cherubim who instil fear in him, but he later sees them as God’s creation, and therefore not harmful.[5] I find this interesting as it carries the same feeling with it, as Petru’s encounter with the Fairy of the Dawn, in the story of the same name. In that story Petru travels through the various realms, overcoming ‘monsters’ and gaining helpful guides, deeper and deeper towards the Centre, where, as he progresses, he must overcome The Fairy which could be likened to a powerful angel, in her terrible and powerful aspect. The hero was told not to look at her, and indeed he almost loses himself, when he does look at her. It was only when he played his little flute that she went back to sleep again, thus allowing him to continue his quest[6]

Muhammad was then taken to a holy tree in the seventh heaven that Gabriel was not allowed to pass.[7] In the story of the Fairy of the Dawn, the hero Petru, also must leave his horse and guide at the point in the road where the final realm begins. When we enter the Divine space, we must go alone, without anything at all from any other realm, even the angelic.  This a strange and frightening realm.

It is here that Muhammad meets with God, who tells him that his people must pray fifty times a day. I was fascinated with this part of the story: – to pray fifty times a day would mean to be in continual prayer – in other words, wherever we are on this earth is a place of prayer and of unity with the Divine. But the number fifty represents a Jubilee, after the completion of the 7×7 cycle. It is in the forty ninth room that Petru finds the Fairy of the Dawn, and the Water of Life. Fifty represents a return to the beginning and the primordial start. There is a strong relationship between the quaternity (four), and the number fifty, as there are fifty lunar months in four years. Fifty is a divine number. Five is the number of man – forming the pentagon. It also represents the marriage between heaven and earth. and so it is that five daily prayers which are decided on. By praying five times a day, God will reward humankind tenfold, by raising humankind to heaven. This experience shows us the deep significance of prayer, which through the Eternal Word, enables us to liberate our consciousness from the contingencies of space and time, and fully comprehend the meaning of life and of Life.[8] Prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam.

There is a so called ‘primitive version’ of the Miraj, by Ibn ‘Abbas, where Muhammed meets four angels as he travels through the heaven showing him fire, ice, hell, and the process of death. But Ibn Abbas describes Muhammad’s encounter with God as a human who touches and speaks to Muhammad as a human would. I find this very touching and illuminating from a spiritual perspective. As we have seen in the story of Golden Chisel, we create for ourselves an Ideal of God – an Ideal which, when complete, speaks to us and relates to us in a very human and personal way. When the Divine becomes a personality for us, we have achieved the final stage of integration into the One, of Fana fi Allah. At this level we are able to talk with Allah and feel this great Love and Guidance in our lives. It is said that God made man in His own Image, and we make our own Ideal of God in our own image according to our understanding and beliefs.  This is ever changing as we evolve. We are part of the One, and the One is part of us. As we say in our Zikar: La El La Ha, El Allah Hu which means, none exits save God, God alone is.

In the story of Gilgamesh, just after he meets Utnapishtim the Faraway, Gilgamesh says ‘I look at you now, Utnapishtim, and your appearance is no different from mine; there is nothing strange in your features. I thought I should find you like a hero prepared for battle, but you lie here taking your ease on your back.—‘.[9] Gilgamesh experiences Utnapishtim, who was raised to Godhead, as a human being just like himself, and who relates to him as such. This is a very profound understanding of our relationship with the Divine and helps us to understand this relationship. We expect our encounter with the God to be extraordinary, and so when we actually experience it, we can miss this true experience by not recognising it. We are expecting something else. We expect enlightenment to be mind-blowing but it not.  It is something pure and simple – something which can bring us to tears, in the knowing of Love and how we too have been guided. Enlightenment can creep up to us without our being aware.

It is said that Muhammad was then returned to Jerusalem by the angel Gabriel and Buraq, and from there to Mecca. On the return journey, he came upon some caravans that were also travelling to Mecca. It was still night when they reached the Kaaba enclosure. The angel and Buraq left, and Muhammad proceeded to the home of Um Hani, one of his most trusted Companions, and with whom he had been staying.  He gave her an account of what had happened to him, and she advised him not to tell anybody about it, but which Muhammad refused to do, so when Muhammad reported his experience at the Kaaba, he was met with disbelief. They thought that he was mad. But his most faithful followers simply said that if the prophet said that this is what happened, then it must be true.

A few weeks later, facts confirmed some elements of his account; the arrival of the caravans whose coming he had announced, having seen them on his way back, and of which he had given a precise description.

This demonstrates that the prophet’s night journey and Miraj or ascent, are both a spiritual journey as well as a physical one. There is a state of rising to an inner realm where there is a counterpart of the physical body. This state is called the Alam-e-mithal by Sufis.[10] This can be achieved by intense meditative practice under guidance by a Teacher.

This story of the Prophet’s Night Journey and Miraj are the most profound and revealing insight into the inner journey – into the realm of Alam-al-mithal. Accounts of this journey are to be found in so called Fairy Tales, and ancient stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In my next blog, we will delve into the near-death experience of C. G. Jung, which can be understood as such a journey.

[1] http://www.islamicity.org/5841/the-night-journey/

[2] Daly, Nuria. The Witch as Teacher in Fairy Tales, Balboa Press 2017

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isra_and_Mi%27raj

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] Daly, Nuria The Witch as Teacher in Fairy Tales, Balboa Press. 2017

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isra_and_Mi%27raj

[8] http://www.islamicity.org/5841/the-night-journey/

 

[9] Sandars, N.K. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Books 1972

[10] Hazrat Inayat Khan. The Mystical Meaning of the Resurrection

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