Thursday, October 9, 2014


One of the pivotal episodes in the sacred history of early Islam – and one that according to some sources took place more than once – is the famous ascension (miʿrāj) of the Prophet. The narratives in various sources that discuss it make clear the significance of the event(s) especially for both the theology of prophecy in Islam as well as the legitimation of narratives about the status of his successors. The ascension had an important reception in European literature, not least in various accounts about the ascent into heaven or the descent into hell including Dante among others. It also played a role in polemics – both intra-Muslim ones, and also Christian-Muslim ones. In recent years there has been a rise in interest in the study of the miʿrāj and its theological and artistic implications. For example, Christiane Gruber andFrederick Colby edited a volume on cross-cultural influence in different Muslim literatures published in 2010 by Indiana University Press. Earlier, Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, who has written extensively on ascension narratives in classical Shiʿi texts, edited a volume entitled Le voyage initiatique en terre d’Islam published in Paris in 1996 that included studies of the medieval European reception of the miʿrāj narratives. More recently, Brooke Olson Vucukic published a book with Routlege in 2005 on the significance of miʿrāj narratives in the formative literature of Islam. So there is an overlap between some of these studies and the concerns of Buckley who seems to be aware of these studies as well as a number of recent works in Arabic. One cannot, of course, expect Buckley’s study to be exhaustive given the many works on the narratives published in Persian, Turkish, Urdu and other languages used by Muslims.

Buckley’s work is a contribution to understanding the intellectual history in Islamic literatures and other forms of reception of Islamic narratives through a focus upon one narrative, thereby revealing the vitality of those modes of inquiry and the different ways in which broadly the same narrative can be received, understood, interpreted, and even rejected. Throughout he remains interested in how modern Muslims and other understand and try to make sense of the narrative, demonstrating quite significantly why the miʿrāj is not just an episode of early sacred history. The first chapter introduces the topic starting with the mention of the night journey (isrāʾ) in Qurʾan 17:1, moving onto the simple form in the earliest biography of the Prophet of Ibn Isḥāq (d. 768) – although he clearly means the recension by Ibn Hishām which is from the following century – onto sūrat al-Najm (Qurʾan 53) which is often associated with the miʿrāj, and then moving onto a long narrative given in the exegesis on the Qurʾanic verse by the Imāmī exegete al-Qummī (d. c. 919). The function of the chapter is merely to introduce the narrative and does not discuss what it means since that is precisely the function of the chapters that follow. The second chapter deals with the source texts in Qurʾan and hadith and how they have been debated especially in the modern period within the context of hadith criticism, rejection, and the rationalist justification of the classical texts. Starting from the theological agreement between Sunnis and Shiʿa on the necessity of belief in the ascension, he discusses the attacks on the accretion of many hadith narratives especially the common theme found in criticism of hadith among Muslims about texts that they feel are fabricated which is to identify them as corruption that came from Biblical and extra-Biblical material called isrāʾīlīyat. However, what the chapter shows is that the interpretative strategies adopted by different groups is similar including the solution to the discrepancy in narratives by arguing that the miʿrāj happened numerous times over the lifetime of the Prophet. In fact, the accumulation of narratives seems to have happened rather early in the period of the redaction of hadith narratives as al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) testifies; it also raises the theme that is taken up later in the book that the discrepancy between narratives reveals different attempts at vindicating a particular sectarian reading. While this chapter and subsequent ones show the breadth of Buckley’s reading in the traditional and modern literature, one wonders sometimes if there are criteria for selecting works and authors that he discusses. Clearly he could not have mastered the whole literature and one finds many examples of him not be aware of what he is citing: for example, on page 25 he cites a hadith on the authority of ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm al-Ḥasanī cited by the Imāmī tradent al-Ṣadūq (d. 991) but seems to be unaware of who he was. The link is significant as ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm is both a descendent of the Prophet through his grandson al-Ḥasan as well as a prominent Imāmī narrator from the later Imams and was considered to be an authority; in fact, al-Ṣadūq was later buried in the mausoleum complex of ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm whose shrine in the southern outskirts of Tehran remains a popular place of pilgrimage. Some contextualisation would also be useful to explain who the critics are – even if ostensibly they are making the same sort of rationalist critique, it may be deployed for different uses.

The next two chapters deal with one of the central debates about the ascension: was it a physical and material movement, or was it a spiritual event? The first of these links a physical ascension with the miraculous power of the Prophet and shows how even modern ‘scientific’ interpretations are used to justify such a reading – it does seem to be the case that most major theologians held that the miʿrāj was both in body and spirit. Once again one wonders about the selection of sources: on page 84, the views of a certain Aroj Ali Matubbar is mentioned denying a physical ascension – it is not clear to me what this adds to the argument or what justifies the inclusion of his opinion. Chapter four that follows considers the spiritual ascension. Proponents of a spiritual journey could also cite early texts in support. But it seems that the real impetus for the position seems to be a broadly philosophical and Neoplatonic context that privileges the spiritual over the physical. In this vein, Buckley cites the famous Persian miʿrājnāma attributed to Avicenna (d. 1037) – without discussing the scholarly debate that tends to reject the attribution. He discusses a number of South Asian and Egyptian modernists who rejected a physical reading of the ascension, and ends the chapter with an interesting discussing from the Imāmī thinker Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī (d. 1826) on the nature of the ascension in the archetypal, non-material world of Hūrqalyā. Once again, what the discussion reveals is how thinkers set forth positions are part of a manner in which to distinguish their theological contribution: Shaykhīya in the case of al-Aḥsāʾī and his followers, and the Imāmī philosophical tradition in the case of Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1981) and his. And once again we see a synthesis emerging: the ascension is both spiritual and bodily but with a body unlike any other body. Chapter five that follows and is very short seems rather redundant: it reiterates the point about some interpreters rejecting a rationalist interpretation and affirming the miraculous. It also indicates one of the weaknesses of the book: the absence of a meticulous edit that would tighten the argument and extricate unnecessary and irrelevant discussions.

Chapter six moves onto the miʿrāj narrative in the Shiʿi tradition and how it is used to vindicate Shiʿi theology and sacred history. In practice this requires Buckley to discuss Sunni usages as well for the same effect. For the Shiʿa, the ascension, like other significant episodes in the life of the Prophet, is interpreted to demonstrate the fulfilment of prophecy in the imamate of his family starting with ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and to vindicate Shiʿi rituals and practices. This chapter ends with a brief consideration of the dating and redaction of Shiʿi hadith, a topic on which Buckley has written elsewhere; the important point concerns the idea of a common Islamic heritage of narratives that make their way into different redactions, and to critique much of the practice of Orientalist scholarship that tends to study Sunni material alone and dismisses much Shiʿi material as later fabrication. A careful study of the texts suggests that they originate in the same period. Once again we have a case of Buckley not knowing whom he is quoting: he cites a modern English translation of a Persian text on the miʿrāj by the Safavid thinker Muḥsin Fayḍ Kāshānī (d. 1680) on page 169 and suggests that he is a contemporary cleric and has him citing the contemporary jurist Nāṣir Makārim Shīrāzī – this is a classic case of mistaking the notes of a translator for the work of the original author and signals one of the problems in some contemporary Muslim publishing in which the original author of a translation is not clearly and adequately introduced.

The final chapter on Western perspectives collects a series of what he calls vignettes on the reception of ascension narratives from medieval Christian polemics to recent forays in literature. This happens to be the longest chapter. Along the way he discusses the thesis of Asin Palacios of the influence of miʿrāj narratives upon Dante. There is much new and interesting material here. But one wonders how it is related to the other chapters. The absence of a conclusion means that when one has finished reading what is an interesting set of studies, one wonders what the overall argument is and how this study actually works as a book. There is much to enjoy in this book and details and references to follow up; a number of important themes are raised concerning Muslim theological positions on proof texts, on prophecy, on the miraculous, on the nature of the human and whether a dualism of body and spirit is affirmed or denied. But overall, Buckley’s The Night Journey and Ascension in Islam is difficult to assess because ultimately there is no argument. 

Interview with Gary Gutting for The Stone blog at the New York Times

Here is a link to an interview developed over email with the eminent philosopher Gary Gutting:

It really was a great opportunity which did turn more on religion. I have much more to say about the philosophical traditions but grateful for the chance. The comments below show the range of responses which I have to say surprised me. There is much more to do to make the intellectual and spiritual traditions of Islam better known not only among the wider public but also those who describe themselves as thinking, educated Muslims.