Mi‘raj: Spiritual Ascension of Prophet Muhammad in Ismaili Thought

“The night of mi’raj is the one on which the Prophet revisited his original abode … It is not that only Hazrat ‘Ali’s progeny can attain this status. Whoever is determined enough will be able to reach the goal. It can come in stages, through repeated efforts.”

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III
(Dar es Salaam, September 29, 1899)

In the traditional, exoteric (zahir) understanding of Mi’raj (ascension), the Prophet Muhammad travels from the Ka’bah in Makkah to the Sacred Masjid in Jerusalem on the winged horse Buraq. In Jerusalem, after the Prophet Muhammad led a prayer of all Prophets, Buraq ascended with the Prophet through the seven heavens, after which the Prophet experienced his vision of Allah. However, in Ismaili philosophy, the mi’raj considers this understanding as symbolic of a deeper, esoteric (batin) explanation, or ta’wil.

In his book, Ismaili mazhab ki haqiqat awr uska nizam, Dr. Zahid Ali writes of a man who once asked Hazrat Imam al-Mu’izz (the 14th Ismaili Imam) about the interpretation of “sacred masjid” and the “farthest masjid,” mentioned in verse 17:1:

“Glory be to Him Who made His servant to go by night from the sacred masjid to the farthest masjid of which We have blessed the precincts, so that We may show to him some of Our signs.”

Holy Qur’an 17:1

The Imam replied: “The sacred masjid refers to Soul (nafs) and the ‘farthest masjid‘ means Intellect (aql).” These were clarified as the Universal Intellect (al-‘aql al-kull) and Universal Soul (al-nafs al-kull) by the 10th century Ismaili Da‘i, Abu Hatim al-Razi, who wrote:

“‘Glory to Him who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque to the Furthest Mosque’ (Qur’an 17:1). That is to say, he [the Prophet Muhammad] was elevated from the conjunction with the Universal Soul to the conjunction with the Universal Intellect.”

Shin Nomoto, Ph.D Thesis,
Early Ismaili Thought on Prophecy, (p 223)

In his interpretation of the Prophet’s mi’raj, Abu Hatim al-Razi noted that Buraq is derived from the Arabic verb baraqa (“to shine”), suggesting the horse symbolizes an illuminating experience or illuminating knowledge granted by a spiritual rank (hadd) of the higher world known as Khayal (Imagination). This light, which emanates from the Universal Soul, “shone” (baraqa) upon the Prophet and elevated him to the higher spiritual rank of Jadd (Good Fortunate), and finally to the Universal Soul and Universal Intellect. Similarly, according to Sayyidna Nasir Khusraw, “the Prophet attained the rank of Natiq and returned to the heaven of the Universal Soul by the spiritual mi’raj (ascent)” (Wajh-i Din, Discourse 15).

Literally, masjid means “place of prostration”; esoterically, according to Sayyidna Nasir Khusraw it signifies the submission of the soul and merging with the Higher Realities [see below]. Therefore, esoterically, during his mi’raj, the Prophet first attained annihilation (fana) in the Universal Soul (sacred masjid) and was then elevated further to merge with the Universal Intellect (furthest masjid).

Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah reminds us that all could, and should, return to the heaven of the Universal Soul:

“Once man has thus comprehended the essence of existence, there remains for him the duty, since he knows the absolute value of his own soul, of making for himself a direct path which will constantly lead his individual soul to and bind it with the Universal Soul of which the Universe — as much of it as we perceive with our limited vision — is one of the infinite manifestations.”

Imam Sulṭan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, Memoirs of Aga Khan, (Simon & Schuster, 1954)

According to Ismaili esotericists, such as Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani or the Ikhwan al-Safa, the Light of Allah, mentioned in Ayat al-Nur (24:35) of the Qur’an, is the Universal Intellect and the Light of the Intellect is the Universal Soul. Two lights, Light upon Light, as Ayat al-Nur mentions. In discourse 27 of his Wajh-i Din, Sayyidna Nasir Khusraw explains that: “Allah has to be worshiped through the Universal Intellect and the Universal Soul, who are His Names in a true sense.” And then, in discourse 51, he associates the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul with the Divine Names al-‘Ali (“The High”) — above which there is no “higher” rank (hadd) — and al-‘Azim (“The Great”), respectively.

The next verse of Surat al-Nur tells us that this Light — the Light of Allah, the Universal Intellect — is found “in houses which Allah has permitted to be exalted, and His Name to be remembered therein. His tasbih is recited therein in the morning and in the evenings” (Qur’an 24:36).

The Imams and Ismaili Hujjats teach us that worship and recognition (ma’rifah) of Allah, the Absolute Reality, is attained through the Imam, because, after the Prophet, the Imam is the Living Supreme Name (Ism-i A’zam, Nam-i Buzurg) of Allah and the true House of Allah 1 that He exalted and wherein His Real Name — ‘Aliyyu’l-‘Azim — is to be remembered.

Ayat al-Nur also assures us that “Allah guides to His Light whomsoever He will.” As Ismailis, we have been blessed with recognition of the Greatest Mercy of Allah: the Imam of the Time, who guides his murids to the Light of Allah. Thus, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah informs us that:

“It is a Muslim’s highest duty, by intensive prayer and spiritual abandonment of self to the great Universal Soul of the Universe, to get the supreme blessing of direct communion with Absolute Reality.”

Imam Sulṭan Muḥammad Shah Aga Khan III
Reincarnation or Companionship on High?
[Emphasis added].

Interestingly, during the Prophet’s mi’raj, ritual prayer was instituted by Allah. Furthermore, according to the Prophet, “prayer is the ascension of the believer” (as-salatul mi’rajul-mu’min). Michel Chodkiewicz observes that it is a paradoxical mi’raj, for, only when the mu’min lowers his entire being, in the act of total prostration (sujud), is he then raised.2 Aware of this, the great 12th/13th century Sufi Shaykh, Ibn al-‘Arabi, identifies the mi’raj with the “earth” of one’s body and proclaims: “It is in your fall that your elevation comes, and it is in your earth that your heaven is found.” 3

For Sayyidna Nasir Khusraw, the “Heaven” or “Paradise” sought through prostration towards the earth — physically and spiritually, is none other than the Universal Soul itself:

“Prostration is to throw oneself to the earth, which signifies that when the Natiq [i.e. Prophet Muhammad] had the vision (ru’yat) from the spiritual world all at once, he surrendered all his beliefs to the Universal Soul. The earth symbolizes the Universal Soul, who is the sustainer of all souls, just as the earth is the sustainer of all bodies.”

Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw (Wajh-i Din, Discourse 27)

When we pray the Holy Du’a or perform the special ‘ibadat bandagi in the Bayt al-Khayal, during the Waqt-i Nurani (“Time of Enlightenment”), we are seated on the floor, on the earth. We might, therefore, think of ourselves as already close, symbolically, to our “original abode”. When totally immersed and lost in prayer, when performing sujud, physically and spiritually, we take ourselves a step closer in fulfilling Allah’s command to:

Prostrate yourself and come closer.

Holy Qur’an, 96:19

And so, through intensive prayer and spiritual abandonment of self — of submitting our soul, through our ba’yah (literally, “selling” our soul) to the Lord of mankind (the Imam) whose pure soul is united with the Universal Soul and whose perfect intellect is effaced in the Universal Intellect — we may, In’sha Allah, experience or glimpse a moment of fana, or annihilation, of our soul into the great Universal Soul.

The Qur’an informs us the Prophet is an excellent example or beautiful model to follow (33:21), so when we sit in Jamatkhana — the house of the Imam wherein Allah’s Real Name is remembered — on Shab-i Mi’raj, and indeed every morning and every night, may we be inspired to seek the Light of Allah and let us think of our time in prayer and sujud as an opportunity where we may experience our own personal mi’raj.

About the author

Khayal ‘Aly (Adil Dhanidina) holds an MA in Islamic Studies from the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where his research focuses on Ismaili esoteric thought, Qur’anic exegesis, and the concept of tawhid and khayal (imagination) in the metaphysics of Ibn al-‘Arabi. Khayal ‘Aly is a co-founder and author of Ismaili Gnosis and a contemporary Ismaili thinker and poet. His recent works include Light upon Light, The Day of all Days, Paradise of Knowledge, Meditations on the Holy Du’a, and The Realities of the Salwaat. He can be contacted at: khayal.aly@gmail.com.


Article: Khayal ‘Aly (Adil Dhanidina)

  1. Esoteric Hajj: From the Physical Ka’bah to the Living Imam, Ismaili Gnosis
  2. Chodkiewicz, An Ocean Without Shore: Ibn ‘Arabi, the Book, and the Law, p. 112
  3. Ibid.


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