Me’raj, the ascension to the heavens of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny), is one of the most controversial events in Islam. Most of the schools believe that Me’raj was only the spiritual ascension, and some even say that Me’raj was a dream experienced by the Prophet. However, the School of Ahlul Bayt considers Me’raj as a physical ascension, and we have been criticized for exaggerating the status of the Prophet in this regard. Apart from the infallibility of the Prophet, which many other schools of thought also do not believe in, there are scientific explanations that lead us to attest the physical ascension of the Holy Prophet.
Let us study few key features of modern science that would assist in understanding the miracle of Me’raj. We know that space and time are very important parameters in physics and astronomy. Space signify the two dimensional movements in x and y directions, along with the z direction of going up or down. When all three (x, y, and z) directions are considered together, the stipulation is known as three-dimensional space or what we know as ‘the 3D effect’. This can be visualized clearly when one travels anywhere on the surface of the Earth: for example, driving from Melbourne to Sydney by car is a two dimensional experience, but when one takes a flight between the two cities, one experiences the three dimensional space of flying up (+z) and landing back (-z).
Time is another important feature that is defined as a period which is non-spatial (not bound by space) and irreversible. However, leading scientist, and ironically an atheist, Dr. Stephen Hawking explains time as the dimension that shows a rate of change against an event. In one of his lectures on beginning of time, he concludes that when one considers an imaginary time direction, space-time is finite to a degree but without any boundaries, just like the Earth is finite without any boundary. This ‘no boundary’ hypothesis further states that the universe would eventually collapse again, but that is not our point of discussion. General Relativity by Einstein proves that space and time are connected with each other, and together they can be called a four-dimensional entity. This four-dimensional entity has been known as space-time. Students in science must have noticed that while plotting various graphs of speed vs. time, distance vs. time, activity vs. time, etc, that time is always plotted on the x-axis against several parameters on the y-axis. This show that time has always been considered as the independent variable, because anything on x-axis is always independent, with the y-axis being dependent. But what if time is dependent on something? What if we plot a graph with time as y-axis? Or rather, the bigger question: ‘What if we have time as a fourth dimension?’
The answer to these questions is time travel. For example, when one travels in time, one can reach the future or see the future. This has been stated as a possibility in two cases. The first case is using the concept of wormhole as explained in the documentary Into the Universe by Dr. Hawking. A wormhole is a theoretical tunnel linking two places in space-time dimensions that if created would cause one to travel into the future but not into the past. However, this concept raises questions about its applicability and has many flaws. It has also been stated that time travels faster in space than on Earth because of the heavy mass of the Earth. This leads to another possibility as mentioned in the documentary. This possibility (if considered within the rules of physics) is a creation of a train shown in the documentary that travels as fast as the speed of light. This train would then be the time machine traveling around the Earth seven times in one second. The time inside the train would be appreciably slowed down to the passengers, so much that the train would have circled around the Earth continuously for 100 years, and the passengers would have lived for only one week. All this is due to the slowing down of time, and when they get out of the train, they would have lived or rather traveled 100 years into the future in just one week.
But all this remains impractical, and the only practical possibility by which time travel is possible is by traveling into the space. If one could create such spaceship with such efficiency and robustness that could accelerate nearly to the speed of light, then it becomes possible. In the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, Switzerland, something similar to the train has been going on in the world’s biggest particle accelerator where the protons have been accelerated near to the speed of light to find the origin of the universe and understand many laws of nature.
Well, as science proceeds, our answers to the miracle of Mer’aj begin to seem very clear. As Dr. Hawking mentions, “If we want to travel into the future, we just need to go fast. Really fast. And I think the only way we’re ever likely to do that is by going into space. The fastest manned vehicle in history was Apollo 10. It reached 25,000 mph. But to travel in time, we’ll have to go more than 2,000 times faster. And to do that, we’d need a much bigger ship, a truly enormous machine.” (Into the Universe)
Going into space and then beyond is the physical ascension that our Holy Prophet had experienced on that enormous machine, and that machine was perhaps the creature known as Burraq. The difference was, our Prophet traveled into the seven heavens and not into the future. But the basic idea is to understand the scientific possibility around this event and not relate traveling into the future and heavens as together. This idea is in response to the other schools from the perspective of science, since they do not accept Me’raj as a physical reality but a mere spiritual experience.
It has been narrated that the angels Israf’il, Mika’il, and Jibra’il brought the steed Burraq to the Prophet, and then Jibra’il accompanied the Prophet, showing him the signs of Allah in the heavens and the earth. In the course of his ascension, the Holy Prophet met several others prophets, such as Isa, Musa, Ibrahim, and others (peace be upon them all). It has also been mentioned in the Qur’an (17:1) that the Prophet from Masjid al-Haram (Mecca) to Masjid al-Aqsa (Jerusalem), and from there he ascended to the seven heavens, up in the third dimension passing through the elemental world and piercing through the celestial bodies. Not only did the Prophet tell people about the events in the heavens but also the events that took place between Masjid al-Haram and Masjid al-Aqsa, which were later reported exactly by travelers. Our Prophet continued his journey and reached Sidratul Muntaha, a place that epitomized grandeur and magnificence.
Our Holy Prophet states, “During the Me’raj, I met with the various prophets; I saw the angels; heaven and hell were shown to me; I was brought to the Throne and reached Sidratul Muntaha. I also met people in heaven, who were being showered with the blessings of Allah, and I also saw people in hell, who were being punished by the harshest types of punishment; I was also informed as to why they were in such a state.” (Bihar al-Anwar)
The Holy Qur’an states “(I swear) by the declining star, your companion is not in error nor has he gone astray. He does not speak out of his own desire. It is a revelation which has been revealed to him and taught to him by the Great Mighty One, the Strong One who appeared on the uppermost horizon. He then came nearer and nearer, until he was as close to Him as the distance of two bows, or nearer. He revealed to Allah’s servant whatever He wanted. His (Muhammad’s) heart did not lie to him about what his eyes had seen. Will you then argue with him about what he saw? He certainly saw him (Jibra’il) during his other ascent to the Lote‑tree near which is Paradise. When the tree was covered with a covering, (Muhammad’s) eyes did not deceive him, nor did they lead him to falsehood. He certainly saw the greatest (signs) of the existence of his Lord.” (53:1-18)
The distance of “two bows, or nearer” when our Holy Prophet reached the uppermost horizons is beyond the comparisons and perceptions of any science, poetry, or language to imagine, explain and experience. Imam Jafar as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) has said, “One who denies (any of these) four things is not among our followers: the Me’raj, the questioning in the grave, the creation of heaven and hell, and intercession on the Day of Judgment.” (Bihar al-Anwar)
It has also been narrated that during the ascension, Allah spoke to the Prophet with the voice of Imam Ali (peace be upon him). The Prophet said, “My Lord spoke to me with the voice of Ali ibn Abi Talib and said, ‘O’ Ahmad! I am an Entity that is not like anything else. I cannot be compared to anything else, and I know all the secrets of your heart. With the exception of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, you have no other close friend. Thus, I speak to you with the voice of Ali ibn Abi Talib so that your heart will be at ease.'” (Kashf al‑Ghummah)
Since the events of Me’raj did not seem logical to the people of Quraysh and early Muslims, they deemed this idea as impossible and spiritual or as a dream. But modern science explains the possibilities of such events, and now we have a bigger question to ask back to the people who have always questioned our Prophet’s infallibility. Another logical argument in favor of the physical ascension is that the Holy Prophet did not need a reason for a spiritual ascension and could have attained it wherever and whenever, adding a possibility that spiritual ascension is an experience that could be attained by anyone with a pure heart, not only our Prophet. On the other hand, the physical ascension is the specialty of the event that describes the extraordinary status of our Holy Prophet.
For more detailed traditions on Me’raj, consult Bihar al-Anwar, Nawadir al‑Akhbar, and Me’raj – The Night Ascension by Mulla Faidh al‑Kashani, available online.