Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.
Sura 17:1 Qur’an
And [remember, O Muhammad], when We told you, ‘Indeed, your Lord has encompassed the people.’ And We did not make the sight which We showed you except as a trial for the people, as was the accursed tree [mentioned] in the Qur’an. And We threaten them, but it increases them not except in great transgression.
Sura 17:60 Qur’an
And he certainly saw him in another descent, at the Lote-tree of the Utmost Boundary—near it is the Garden of Refuge—when there covered the Lote-Tree that which covered [it]. The sight [of the Prophet] did not swerve, nor did it transgress [its limit]. He certainly saw of the greatest signs of his Lord.
Sura 53:13-18 Qur’an
The tradition of the nocturnal ascension of Muhammad—an ecstasy to which the Qur’an twice alludes—was in his calling a central event that ruled the entire legislative activity of Medina. It was to this that fervent Muslims turned over the centuries and gave their concentrated thought, seeking to rediscover and revive the dispositions of Muhammad’s heart in his search for God.
When the angel to whom the Prophet was entrusted had transported him from Mecca, first onto the esplanade of the Temple of the destroyed Jerusalem and thence to the inaccessible Holy City—the heavenly Jerusalem, where the glory of God resides—Muhammad reached beyond the Supreme Horizon [Utmost Boundary] up to the Lotus of Delay [Lote-Tree], close to which was found the Garden of Eternal Sojourn [Garden of Refuge], while a host of angels covered the Tree. Behind that mystical Tree at an interval of two bow-shots, God was hidden.
Muhammad desired and attempted to reach God through the mystery, but his angelic guide was unable to introduce him into the embracing Union, for the completely naked angelic nature which his guide had assumed did not represent the type of intimate Union with God that is possible only through the crucified humanity of Christ. Ignorant of the true meaning and purpose of the Incarnation, Muhammad remained excluded from the Divine Union [Théosis] reserved to the adoration of sons.
In all sincerity he asked the Deity to manifest Himself to him, at least under the appearance of an angel. But under the features of the angel who guided him he could discover and proclaim only the inaccessibility of the Divine Essence. Thus he remained on the threshold and did not try to advance into the eternity of the Divine Fire, thus too renouncing the knowledge, from within, of the personal life of God through the only Mediator, Christ, who would have sanctified him.
There was in that outpouring of Muhammad’s faith the expression of a desperate desire that he kept during his entire life, ‘to contemplate God, at least under the form of an angel.’
—Giulio Basetti-Sani, OFM
I have performed some minor editing on the passage quoted above by Giulio Basetti-Sani, of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), from his essay ‘Muhammad and Saint Francis’ in The Francis Book (©1980, OFM). The book was packed away for several years, and I had just found it again, and was reading some of my favorite chapters. The one quoted above has always intrigued me, speaking as it does of the so-called ‘night journey’ of Muhammad. This reflection, and another that I read years ago in a book by Idries Shah, describe the ‘event’ in nearly the same terms, differing in minor details.
The gist of it is, that Muhammad approached God in a vision, desired to see Him face to face, but was prevented from passing a boundary in order to do it. Passing that boundary, as I remember it in Idries Shah’s version, had to do with Muhammad giving up something, and being unwilling to. It was intimated that this ‘something’ was his numerical monotheism, for to pass the boundary and see God face to face would have brought him to a vision of the Holy Trinity, a single Divine Essence in three Persons. So he retreated, saying in effect, ‘If that is how it must be, then I must be satisfied with contemplating God under the form of an angel,’ that is, the Christ of the Christians just cannot be God, he must not be, or the Divine Oneness is ended.
The irony, of course, is that Jesus Christ, is the Angel of the Covenant, whose form (unlike the form of the angel that guided Muhammad) as a man exactly represents ‘the type of intimate Union with God that is possible’ precisely because it is, and must be, through this Angel’s crucified humanity.
There is no deeper divide between Islam and Christianity than this, that the Divine Nature, God, is One, yet within Himself has existed from eternity in a Threefold relationship that cooperates in the Creation, in the Redemption, and eventually in the Deification of the Universe under the priestly Kingship of the Human race.
God’s Oneness is beyond mathematical unity. He is so completely One, that it is right to speak of His ‘having no partners’ not only in the form of pagan goddess consorts, but even more so in admitting that there cannot be any other self-originating being. The Holy Trinity, even in His Divine Marriage with the Human race, does nothing to compromise that Oneness. Instead, the Oneness of God takes on an even greater Majesty.
This is the Message that must be grasped by the nation of Islam, that there is nothing they or anyone can do to break the Oneness of God, or to defend or promote it. And this has always been the truth, ever since Yahweh spoke, ‘Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is God, Yahweh is One.’
And there is none greater to contemplate than He, who under the form of an angel, is God and Man.