The Mystical Experience of the Prophet Muhammad : The meaning of Mi’raj In the life of Islam

By : Prof Dr Syed Hussein Alatas

Isam revealed to us that the ultimate nature of reality is spiritual. Every event in the religious life of the Prophet Muhammad, however unimportant it may appear to some observers, contain certain meanings and values
which, when properly understood and followed, have the effect of moulding our life in concrete and visible forms of relationship.

Islam revealed to us the truth without which no human life would be durable, namely, that the ultimate nature of reality is spiritual. Since time immemorial, the attention of mankind has converged on the idea of the spiritual basis of existence. There had never been a single society recorded in history which had not a kind of religious institution. It is the very essence of the nature of man not to be satisfied with the purely material aspect of life. The whole annals of human thought and evolution itself are undeniable evidences of the attempt of man to transcend the world of matter and reach the region of the spirit. In tracing the evolution of human life Jalaluddin Rumi brought forward also the reality of man’s yearning for spirituality. He wrote (1)

I died from mineral and plant became,

Died from the plant, and took a sentient frame;
Died from the beast and donned a human dress;
When by my dying did I e’er grow less?
Another time from manhood I must die

To soar with angel-pinions through the sky.
Midst angels also I must lose my place,
Since ‘everything shall perish save His Face.
Let me be Naught! The harp-strings tellme plain
That ‘Unto him do we return again.

The purpose of religion is to awaken in man the longing to transcend matter. The desire to transcend the world of matter and explore the region of the spirit, is something which is innate in man, lying deep in the core of his being. In some hearts, this desire or longing is strong, in some it is weak and in yet others it is dormant. The aim of religion is to awaken this longing in mall so that he may attain a particular kind of consciousness which will make him arrange his life according to certain patterns of behaviour and thinking. A life based on religious consciousness should, however, not be identified with that based on philosophy or Weltanschaung. Religion is not mere thought of feeling or action, but it is the expression of the whole man. It combines in itself the theoretical, the emotional and the active elements in human life whereas non religious forms of life. Experience do not embrace all these factors. Religion lays the emphasis on the worship and adoration of the unconditioned cause of all possible conditioned phenomena of existence, whereas non religious systems lay the emphasis on conditioned phenomena.

Describing the nature of religion Professor A. C. Bradley rightly said, ‘Religion is not a mere state of activity of the intellect; it is worship – inward if not also outward. It implies and includes, no doubt, an intellectual activity, some idea, belief, theory, science or logos, concerning the object of worship. But this is very far from being all: religion is a movement of the whole soul.(2) The patterns of behaviour and thinking
suggested by religion constitute the framework on which is to be built the
ideal life.

Islam and the modern conditions of life. The ideal life in Islam, consists in reaching a harmony between our true self and our worldly experience. Our true self by its very nature already contains the essence of our spiritual existence. It is true that many people today, living in modern industrial societies, do not feel inclined to give a spiritual explanation of their existence. But this is only because the nature of their society and the kind of life they lead have conditioned their intellectual as well as emotional make-up. Modern society has made less and less possible that particular type of experience on which religion is based. It is the decisive, basic experience which is felt to reveal the meaning of life as a whole. It can so deeply impress our mind as to provide a mould into which further experiences flow.

Karl Mannheim attributed the acute crisis in modern life to the loss of this sort of experience which he termed “paradigmatic experience.” He wrote, “It is their disappearance without anything else to take their place which leads to the disintegration of modern life – experience and human conduct. Without paradigmatic experiences no consistent conduct, no character formation and no real human co-existence and co·operation are possible. Without them our universe of discourse loses articulation, conduct falls to pieces, and only disconnected bits of successful behaviour patterns and fragments of adjustments to an everchanging environment remain.(3)

Ibn Khaldun had rightly pointed out this conditioning influence of social factors on human nature and society. It was the Prophet Muhammad himself who discovered this truth when he said that every child was born a Muslim, and that it was his parents who made him a Jew, Christian or a Muslim. For this very reason Islam seeks to create favourable conditions for the necessary religious experience by means of indicating a social order and a pattern of life which ought to he followed by everyone who is and wishes to remain a Muslim.

The structure of movement in Islam com￾hines both the factors of constancy and change. Islam is constant in preserving the basic values of human life without which no society could function properly. But at the same time, Islam emphasizes change and progress in the attempt to adjust ourselves to new discoveries and circumstances. The universe, as pointed out by the Quran, is in constant change and creation, and our adjustment to this change is what according to Islamic terminology is called “Ijtihad.”

The central point of the Islamic way of life is that loyalty belongs only to God. The Islamic way of life connotes inter alia the fulfilment of our duties to our fellow being and ourselves, and the attempt to disentangle ourselves from the world. By this it meant not running away into monastic seclusion or taking the line of least resistance, but the endeavour to purge our soul from what is row and undesirable. The Prophet once expressed his objection to monasticism because this, he said, dissociated us from others thus preventing us sharing each other’s burdens together. The process of disentangling ourselves from the world is the outcome of the Islamic demand that loyalty belongs only to God. By identifying our loyalty to God we follow the dictates of our own ideal nature. Loyalty to God is the spring by which the noble qualities in man are released.

It is only in this way that the warmth, enthusiasm and vigour of contributing our share to human welfare come into play. A life purely based on non religious rationalism could not produce the necessary warmth, vigour and enthusiasm. Another point is that if our loyalty is not directed to God, some other object of worship which has created only disastrous results, such as the race, the nation or the class, wiIl draw man’s innate desire to worship a being more powerful than himself. Thus it is clear that the consequences of being loyal to God above everything else can only favour the development of human welfare as a whole. The state of mind and emotion of one who devoted himself first and foremost to God was vividly expressed by the Persian Muslim poet, Khwaja of Kirman (1281-1341 C.E.). He wrote the following verses in connection with his though on God:

“Pass us not by, for our thought is set on Thy constancy,
Our heart on the hope of Thy promise, and our soul on Thy faith;
If it be Thy pleasure to thwart our pleasure, that matters little;
Our object in this world and the next is Thy pleasure.
Hereafter, since we have staked our head in following Thee,
Drive us not from Thy presence, for our heart follows after Thee.
I put my neck under the yoke and bow my head in service.
Forgive me, if Thou wilt, or slay me: it is for Thee to judge.
He who is Thy slave becomes freed from all:
He who is Thy friend becomes a stranger
to his own kin.””(4)

Kant’s humanism

It is thus clear to us that no higher workable principle of morality exists besides worship and adoration of God. The famous and meritorious German philosopher, Immanuel Kant fonnulated a doctrine of morality which could be regarded as the highest development of that philosophical trend of thought called humanism. Humanism preached that man should be treated for his own sake and that morality should be based on loyalty to our own conscience. This creed denied the necessity of religion and revelation but only emphasized the duty to be good. But us Professor A. C. Bradley put it, when humanism based itself on mall, it meant the good in man. This presupposed the existence of a standard to distinguish between good and evil and the conscience itself did not create the values but only adopted an assimilated them. Thus humanism, and every other system of thought which includes a value judgement, did not create but adopted the values. It is another form of revelation with the only difference that it is not attributed to God but to the Unknown.

Stages of Development

In the first stage of our spiritual development, the passion dictates the thought and action (Nafs ammara). In the second stage, the thought controls the passion and action (Nafs lawwama). In the last stage, thought and feeling become one (Nafs mutmainnah).(10) It is to reach this stage that the Prophet Muhammad said “Takhallaqu bi Akhlaq Allah” (Create in yourselves the attributes of God).

Mi’raj as the highest form of religions experience in the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

All the teachings of Islam and the events pertaining to the life of the Prophet, such as the Mi’raj, aim at revealing the truth which could transform man into “Insan kamil.” The Mi’raj is the highest form of religious experience in the life of the Prophet. In it the Prophet perceived the hidden realities and intensely felt the communion with God. His spiritual separation with the world that night denotes the goal to which human life is moving, an inconceivable but real existence beyond the reach of our present faculties. The reality of the Prophets experience was later proved by his devout followers like al-Ghazzali and some other sufis, although not in a completely similar nature and degree.

Although the experience of the sufis was not entirely the same as the Mi’raj (Ascension), yet essentially it was the same, for they too, in their visions saw certain aspects of reality which it was impossible to recollect or to express in words. This inability of the sufis to express their experience verbally does not invalidate their claims to the truth and reality of their experience.

Our conceptual mode of apprehending reality is only one of the possibilities. The results of researches in the psychical life of individuals suggest other possibilities of non conceptual mode of consciousness. The celebrated American philosopher and psychologist, William James, demonstrated this troth in his studies on mysticism. He wrote, “It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we calI it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.

We may go through life without suspecting their ,existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. (5)

Islm, as defined in the Quran, ‘The nature created by God wherein He has
created man.” True human nature, as this his verse indicates, is nothing but Islam. Diversities in man and his surroundings belonging to the nature of existence, it is logical that Islam provides the ways by means of which the possible differences of religious expression could take place, the one not cancelling the other but instead complementing one another. The rationalist, on the one hand, selects for his intellectual framework, certain essence of Islam which suits his bent of mind. The mystically inclined, on the other hand, found in the Mi’raj, that truth whose nature forms the basis of their belief.

The Mi’raj, or the profoundest spiritual experience of the Prophet, thus denotes the higher possibility in the realm of words urged in the Qur’an to denote the three stages of the spiritual development of man. The aim of Islam as I have mentioned before, is the creation of more or less perfect individuals from whom emanates the stream of ideal qualities that
would permeate the whole of life. When writing of such indviduals. Muhammad Iqbal, the Muslim philosopher poet of Pakistan, said, “He is the completest ego, the goal of humanity; the acme of life both in mind and body; in him the discord of our mental life becomes a harmony.

The highest power is united in him with the highest knowledge. In his
life, thought and action, instinct and reason, become one. He is the last fruit of the tree of humanity, and all the trials of a painful evolution are justified, because he is to come at the end. He is the real ruler of mankind; his kingdom is the Kingdom of God on earth. Out of the richness of his nature he lavishes the’ wealth of life on others, and hrings them nearer to himself. The more we advance in evolution, the nearer we get to him. In approaching him we are raising ourselves in the seale of life. The development of humanity both in mind and body is a condition precedent to his birth. For the present he is a mere ideal; but the ‘evolution of humanity is tending- toward the production of an ideal race of more or less unique individuals who will become his fitting parents.(6)

To reach this stage of perfection, which Iqbal called “niyabat-i-ilahi” or divine vicegerency on earth, we direct our minds and hearts for guidance to the Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace!). His life and religious experience are the points of departure from which we hope to reconstruct ailing humanity. He was the embodiment of perfection. His happiness is our happiness, his grief our grief, his concern is our concern, and his ideal is our ideal.

The Muslim and the spiritual crisis in Europe

If Muslim ignore the historical role of religion as a power in moulding human life, the present state of affairs in the West would be theirs in the decades to come. We shall not trace the causes of what is now happening in the West, but only describe the phenomena of a society which is undergoing a spiritual crisis of immense importance to the future of other peoples with which it has come into contact.

As everyone knows, religion in the West has lost its function as a vital force in shaping human life. Lying deep beneath the smooth surface of Western society, are the disturbances and unrest which at times erupted in the forms of catastrophic events in the physical as well as the physchical planes. Whole nations went to war without knowing its real canser. The psychical atmosphere became polluted. People distrust one another and each try to excel the other not in Amal lbadah’ (the act of worship) but in self-aggrandizement. They live in a society in which might if right in which moral scruples are considered as a sign of weakness; in which despair and uncertainty have seized the minds and hearts of the people: in which they are not only weary of finding a way out but also of maintaining their hope.

Despite the material splendour we find here, and the amazing rapidity in the progress of technology, Western society, viewed as a whole, is an abnormal one. (7) The very construction of its social order produces people whose views on life are sectional and whose faculties develop disharmoniously. Progress in science is not accompanied by similar progress in moral power. This disproportionate development of the human faculty generates deplorable consequences in the internal as well as external lives of individuals and groups.(8) One of the most heart-rending phenomena that eats away the fabric of Western society, is the general loss of belief in everything that has to do with the value and meaning of life. All
sorts of social problems arise from this.

The American social scientist, Profesor Wirth, wrote, “The world has been splilltered into countless fragments of atomized individual and groups. The disruption in the wholeness of individual experience corresponds to the disintegration in culture and group solidarity. When the bases of unified collective action begin to weaken, the social structure tends to break and to produce a condition which Emile Durkheim has called ‘” anomie” bv which he means a situation which might be described as a surt of social emptiness or void. Under such conditions suicide, crime and disorder are phenomena to be expected because individual existence no longer is rooted in a stable and integrated social milieu and much of life’s activitv series its sense and meaning.(9)

The above description shows us the fate of a people who have lost their faith in religion and everything elss. The Muslims can prevent such a crisis in their respective countries, if only a form of planning is introduced, and the people taught the true teachings of Islam and if the forces of vested interests can be kept within their proper limits. Reforms and reconstruction can be brought about by means of Islam. Did not Islam, during the lifetime of Muhammad accomplish the most farreaching change in history? Has not Islam stood the test of Time more than any other system known to us? I am fully convinced that the Muslims will prefer the Islamic way of life to any other if they only realize the full implication of Islam in regard to the requirements of our age.

*This article was published in Progressive Islam Vol 1 No 4-5, 1954, Amsterdam.


1.E.G. Browne, Persian Literature under Tartar Domination
2. A.C. Bradley, Ideals of Religion.

3. Karl Mannheim, Diagnosis of Our Time.

4. E.G. Brown, Persian Literature under Tartar Domination

5. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

6. Mohamad Iqbal, Secrets of Life (Translate : R.A. Nicholson)

7. Karl Mannheim, Man and Society in age of Reconstruction

8. Ibid

9. Preface to Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia

10. Al Ghazali, Some Morals and Religious Teachings of al Ghazali being selections of the Ihya Ulumiddin (Translate Prof Nawab Ali)

Syed Hussein Alatas was a Malaysian scholar, academician, writer and sociologist.  He was appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya in 1988. Syed Hussein authored number of books such as The Problem of Corruption, The Myth of Lazy Natives and Intellectual in Developing Studies.

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