Winging it — The myth of Muhammad in heaven

You have to give credit where credit is due, so it is important to recognize that Muhammad was a creative genius. He was psychopathic, epileptic, murderous, and thieving, but he also possessed a creative genius and was brilliant in his ability to draw people into his mental world and make it seem real. Read the story about his dream of being taken into heaven. This story is taken from It’s All About Muhammad, A Biography of the World’s Most Notorious Prophet. Muslims actually believe what follows:

MUHAMMAD’S TEMPORAL LOBE EXPLODED ONE NIGHT WHILE HE WAS
staying at the home of Abu Talib’s daughter Umm Hani, resulting in an epileptic hallucination or lucid dream that he was taken into Heaven by the Angel Gabriel. Muhammad called it “The Night Journey,” and during this experience he believed he was introduced to the heroes of the Jewish legends and brought before the throne of God.

Muhammad’s imagination transformed this neural event into a convoluted and richly entertaining tale worthy of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The basic story is straightforward: As in an alien abduction scenario, entities extracted him from Umm Hani’s house through a dissolving roof and brought him to a well next to the temple where he was handed over to the Angel Gabriel. The angel of the Lord sliced him open from throat to groin, cleansed his intestines and heart with water and stitched him back up—a repeat of his experience while in Halima’s care. This time it was a special cleansing, the ultimate ablution, for he was about to be brought before God Almighty via Jerusalem. He was flown on the back of a winged animal a thousand miles over mountains, valleys, and wind-whipped desert to the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. From there he ascended with Gabriel to the various levels of Heaven, each level being the abode of one of the prophets. Reaching the top of the heavens, he was brought before the throne of God. At the end of the experience, Muhammad was back in bed at the house of Umm Hani.1

The German Liebig Company used Muhammad's ascent into heaven story to sell its meat paste products, but used a horse instead of a donkey with a human face.

The German Liebig Company used Muhammad’s ascent into heaven story to sell its meat paste products, but used a horse instead of a donkey with a human face.

When he told her what happened to him, she begged him not to tell anyone about it, but convinced he had actually gone to Jerusalem and had been summoned before God, he was unable to keep his mouth shut. It is said that she grabbed at his garment in an attempt to keep him from going out the door, but he pulled away from her. Predictably, the Meccans scoffed and made fun of him. Some of his followers abandoned him. Most, however, remained loyal and agreed with Abu Bakr, who declared, “If he said it, he spoke the truth.”2

As word spread that Muhammad had been brought before the throne of God, the true believers were ecstatic and were dying to hear about it. Muhammad gathered them at the house of Arqam. His listeners were horse and camel aficionados, and they wanted to hear first about the fabulous winged mount that had taken him to Jerusalem. Muhammad was a master of magical realism and was perhaps its first practitioner: Buraq was its name, he told them, white was its color—a magnificent animal! In size it was between a mule and a donkey and had enormous wings and a human face; its ears were like those of an elephant; it could travel as far as one could see in a single bound. It was the official mount of the prophets. At one time or another, all his predecessors in the office of prophethood had made use of its transport services. Abraham flew across the endless tracts of desert to pay visits to Ishmael in Mecca, and Ishmael had benefited from its swiftness to attend his father’s funeral in the land of the northern sun.

Danish author Kare Bluitgen wrote a children’s book about Muhammad, The Koran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and used an illustration of Muhammad riding Buraq for the front cover.

Danish author Kare Bluitgen wrote a children’s book about Muhammad, The Koran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and used an illustration of Muhammad riding Buraq on the front cover.

Now it was Muhammad’s turn to ride Buraq. The heavenly steed appeared before him saddled and ready to ride, but it was highly spirited and in a rebellious mood. Its services had not been needed since the time of Jesus, and it bucked when Muhammad approached, earning a stern rebuke from Gabriel who was holding the reins. “Now Buraq, aren’t you ashamed to do that? I swear, no servant of God more noble than Muhammad has ever ridden you.”3 Muhammad mounted it, and off they streaked to the famed Temple Mount where he tethered Buraq to a hitching post reserved for the prophets.4 After he performed two sets of prayer prostrations, Gabriel brought him refreshments to choose from: wine, honey, and milk. Muhammad chose the milk, earning Gabriel’s praise. It was a test. If he had chosen wine, it meant he would lead his followers astray; if he had chosen honey, they would have been seduced by the pleasures of the world. The fact that he had chosen milk showed that under his tutelage as prophet his followers would be rightly guided, set on the narrow but sure path to Paradise.

Like any gifted storyteller, Muhammad could read his audience, and the faces of his listeners showed he had them. They were grown men with full beards and tightly wrapped turbans. Within a few years they would become assassins, mass murderers, plunderers, highwaymen, rapists, enslavers, and destroyers of civilizations as they spread his religion. Yet they sat before him like a group of wide-eyed children listening to fairy tales. He could get away with telling them anything so firmly did they believe in him. They were dazzled by the belief that the man standing in front of them had just come back to Mecca after an audience with God Almighty. They believed his stories because he believed them himself.

Muhammad continued the tale, now with the account of his ascension into Heaven. In one version, he climbed a ladder; in another, Gabriel took him by the hand, and they ascended to the first and lowest level of Heaven where the angel asked permission to enter.5

A voice was heard from behind the pearly gate. “Who are you?”

“Gabriel.”

“Who is with you?”

“Muhammad.”

“Has his mission started?”

“His mission has started.”6

Following in the footsteps of Gabriel, Muhammad entered Heaven and saw a man seated with a multitude of people on his right and another multitude on his left. When the man looked to his right, he laughed and when he looked to his left, he wept. He had warm words of greeting for Muhammad: “Welcome to the righteous apostle and the righteous son!” Muhammad asked Gabriel who he was, and he replied, “He is Adam and these parties on his right and on his left are the souls of his descendants. Those of them on his right are the inmates of Paradise and the parties which are on his left side are the inmates of Hell.”

Who says you can't depict Muhammad? Muslims do it. Do they have a monopoly on "depicting" Muhammad?

Who says you can’t depict Muhammad? Muslims do it. Do they have a monopoly on “depicting” Muhammad?

Armies of angels were bivouacked everywhere. Muhammad learned the identity of their commander: His name was Ismail, and under him were twelve thousand angels, each of whom commanded another twelve thousand angels. All the angels he encountered smiled at him with one exception. This was Malik, the keeper of Hell. When he learned of Malik’s role, Muhammad asked permission to see the place of eternal torment. Reluctantly, Gabriel commanded the grim keeper to show him, whereupon Malik pulled away the covers of Hell and flames blazed high into the air.

Looking sternly at the men seated in front of him, Muhammad held back a beat before telling them what he saw. God had allowed him to see Hell with his own eyes so that he could warn them of what was in store for them if they disobeyed God and his messenger. Were they ready to know the truth? When he saw the fearful nods, Muhammad described the horrors he had witnessed, the torments awaiting the sinful. The torment depends on the sin. With great relish, he described how the fingernails of backbiters and slanderers had been transformed into copper for them to gouge their faces and chests. Thus they were made to suffer as they had made others suffer. “I saw men with lips like camels. In their hands were pieces of fire like stones, which they thrust into their mouths and they would come out of their posteriors. I was told that these were those who sinfully devoured the wealth of orphans.”7 He had seen the fate of usurers and adulterers and sinners of all stripes and described the tortures specific to their offenses. He had witnessed so much! Would there ever be time enough to tell them the whole of it?

Another Muslim depiction of Muhammad riding Buraq

Another Muslim depiction of Muhammad riding Buraq

Muhammad was a masterful speaker, knowing when to raise his voice to a thunder or drop it to a whisper. His eyes would flash with indignation or melt with angelic kindness. Sensing their distress at these hellish descriptions, he deftly brought them back to the heavenly ascent, changing their despair over the possibility of damnation for their wretched sins into hope for their future life—provided, of course, they followed the right guidance of their prophet. If they did, Heaven was theirs for the taking. All they had to do was obey!

Muhammad described how at each level of the heavenly realm the Angel Gabriel asked permission to gain entry. In the second Heaven, he met Jesus and John the Baptist; in the third he was introduced to Joseph. The fourth level was the abode of Enoch. Occupying the fifth level was Aaron, and in the sixth was Moses. After being admitted to their abodes, Muhammad would greet them, and they would reply, “Welcome, O pious brother and pious prophet!” Muhammad described the prophets: Jesus was of medium stature, with a red complexion as if he had just rubbed himself dry after a bath. Joseph had a face that shone like the full moon. Aaron was a dignified man with a flowing white beard. Moses had a white beard too, but he had the athletic build of a young man and had curly hair and a hooked nose. Never above flattery, Muhammad compared the appearance of one his followers to Jesus, eliciting smiles and nods from his audience. Abraham was the easiest to describe because it was like looking into a mirror: “Among his children I have the greatest resemblance with him,” Muhammad declared.

He encountered his hero Abraham in the seventh Heaven. The patriarch was leaning against the temple of God. Again the greeting: “Welcome, O pious brother and pious prophet!” From there, Gabriel escorted him beyond the heavenly temple to the farthest reaches of Paradise, demarked by an enormous tree. At some point, he heard the squeaking of pens, and when he asked about it, he was told the noise was caused by angelic scribes recording the decrees of God. And then Muhammad found himself in the presence of the Creator. God had a command for him: Muhammad and his people were to worship him fifty times a day.

Muhammad’s listeners were stunned. Fifty times! But how would that be possible? They would have to spend the entire day and night in prayer. There was a punch line, and Muhammad withheld it to build up tension. He could not dispute the command of God, he told his audience. Who can argue with the Creator? If God said fifty times, he meant fifty times. Instead of arguing with God, he humbly went back the way he came, but he crossed paths with Moses. Moses asked him, “What orders were you given?”

“I was ordered to pray fifty times each day.”

Buraq on a day off. Either that or she left Muhammad behind.

Buraq on a day off. Either that or she left Muhammad behind.

Moses scoffed. “Your nation can’t manage fifty prayers a day. I swear, I put people to the test before your time. I made some very severe requirements of the people of Israel, but they couldn’t handle it. Return to your Lord and ask him for some relief for your nation.” Muhammad did as Moses recommended. It ended up in as a series of back-and-forth negotiations with God over the frequency of prayer. Muhammad and God finally came to an agreement: Prayers would only be obligatory five times a day, broken down as follows: The faithful were to perform two sets of prostrations at the crack of dawn, four sets during the midday, afternoon, and late night prayer sessions; three sets would suffice for the sunset prayers. But in each and every one of these obligatory prayer sessions, Koran verses—those eternally existing words transmitted to Muhammad via the Angel Gabriel—were to be recited out loud during the first two sets. One can sense the relief among Muhammad’s faithful listeners. God had upped the cost of salvation for them, but Muhammad had reduced it through his superb negotiating skills.

The audience then learned that as a sign of Muhammad’s importance in the divine scheme of things, God had granted him the highest of honors by permitting him to lead the other prophets in prayer. This distinction was accorded to him to signify that he was not only last of the prophets, but the best of them. Muhammad snapped his finger to show how he was instantly transported back to the Temple Mount. The prophets of fame appeared there too and lined up in prayer formation. Muhammad was in the lead position. Jesus, John the Baptist, Moses, Aaron, Enoch, Joseph, and Abraham formed rows behind him. The prophets did not need to be taught anything other than their place as they had already had plenty of time to perfect the same prayer routines that Muhammad had learned only a decade earlier from the Angel Gabriel. Jesus had been at it for six hundred years, whereas Abraham already had more than two thousand years of practice. Yet none of them could match Muhammad in perfection of performance. None could rival the way he cupped his hands to his ears and knelt in the camel position with his hands placed precisely on his thighs; none could match the precision of his elbows that arched outward after he placed the palms of his hands forward for support and touched his forehead to the ground. He was inimitable. He was the matchless Submitter, the archetype of worship. By allowing Muhammad the lead, God ensured that everyone knew of his superiority and set him as the model for everyone to emulate.

Winged creatures with human heads were a common motif in ancient art. As with everything about Muhammad, he did not originate his ideas but took them from other religions and cultures and refashioned them to suit his own purpose.

Winged creatures with human heads were a common motif in ancient art. As with everything about Muhammad, he did not originate his ideas but took them from other religions and cultures and refashioned them to suit his own purpose.

Prayers over, it was time for Muhammad to go home. His place was in Mecca among his people, among the believers who were now seated or kneeling before him in the house of Arqam. He told them how, wings flapping, Buraq flew him back to Mecca in time for dawn prayer. But on the way back, he had a further adventure after becoming thirsty. As they streaked through the air—he aboard Buraq and the Angel Gabriel flying alongside—Muhammad spotted a caravan that had stopped for the night less than a day’s journey from Mecca. The men of the caravan had bedded down for the night, but had left out a jar of water. Buraq made a quick landing; Muhammad jumped off, drank the water, then hopped back on the saddle for the last leg of the flight back to Mecca.

Muhammad’s audience was dazed and dazzled. He wrapped up the session by answering questions. The most interesting was posed by Abu Dharr, a leader of the Daws, a coastal tribe with a reputation for banditry. He said, “O Messenger of Allah, did you see Allah?” “I saw a light,” was Muhammad’s response. He added that he could not see God directly because the Almighty Lord was veiled by light that emanated from him.8

Later that day, Muhammad trooped his followers out to the temple where they engaged in group prayer, the Meccans be damned. As prayer leader, Muhammad was in front and the faithful were behind him in several straight rows. He cupped his hands to his head, bowed, knelt, and leaned forward for the prostration, demonstrating the perfection of his arching elbows and the placement of the palms of his hands. Following Muhammad’s lead, the believers performed four sets of prostrations, repeating the Koran verses that he recited.

When these prayers were over the faithful were startled to learn that Muhammad had not been in the lead. He informed them that the Angel Gabriel had appeared and had assumed the role of prayer leader. If they had but eyes to see, they would have seen the great angel in front of them.

But they did not have the eyes to see. God had granted that ability exclusively to his messenger.

FOOTNOTES

1. Though diverging in many of the details, traditions about the “Night Journey” abound in the literature. This chapter is a synthesis of material found in Ibn Ishaq, pp. 181-187; Sahih Al-Bukhari, traditions 3887 and 7517; Ibn Sad, vol. 1, pp. 245-9; Ibn Kathir, vol. 2, pp. 61-75; and in Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 5, pp. 550-574.
2. Ibn Kathir, vol. 2, p. 69.
3. Ibn Sad, vol. 1, p. 247.
4. The year of his fanciful journey to Jerusalem, a Christian church occupied the Temple Mount. It had been built over the ruins of a Roman temple that had been built over the ruins of the Second Jewish Temple. During his reign as caliph, Umar replaced the Christian church with a small mosque, later replaced by the domed al-Asqa mosque that still stands today.
5. Ibn Ishaq believes the journey to Jerusalem and the visit to Heaven occurred on different days though close together. Most sources, however, combine them as a single event.
6. Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 5, p. 553.
7. Ibn Ishaq, p. 185.
8. Ibn Kathir, vol. 2, p. 67.

This article may be used in whole or in part provided the following attribution is given: F. W. Burleigh is the author of It’s All About Muhammad, a Biography of the World’s Most Notorious Prophet. He blogs at www.itsallaboutmuhammad.com.