Tafsir Zone - Surah 17: Al-Isra (The Night Journey )

Tafsir Zone

Surah Al-Isra 17:0

Overview (Verse 1)

A Unique Journey 

The sūrah begins with glorifying God, the most fitting action to confirm the bond between God and His servants in the atmosphere of compassion and friendliness imparted by the mention of the night journey:
Limitless in His glory is He who transported His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque [in Makkah] to the Aqşā Mosque [in Jerusalem] — the environs of which We have blessed — so that We might show him some of Our signs. Indeed He alone is the One who hears all and sees all. (Verse 1)
The sūrah emphasizes the position of man as God’s servant: “He who transported His servant by night...” The emphasis here is needed in the context of the Prophet’s ascension to heaven where no human being had gone before. It is important in this context that the status of man’s servitude to God should always be remembered. There must be no confusion of status similar to that which happened in the case of Jesus on account of his birth, his being raised to heaven at the end of his life on earth, and the powers which were given to him during life. All these caused some people to confuse his status and to claim that he had a divine nature. In its simplicity and purity, Islam insists that no similarity could ever exist between God and any creature.
The Arabic text of this opening verse uses the verb, asrā, which denotes ‘travelling during the night’. It is sufficient then to use this verb to denote the time of the action. Yet the verse adds the phrase, laylan, or ‘by night’, to give an added sense of the still night and the ease of travel. The journey from the Sacred Mosque to the Aqşā Mosque was one chosen by God, the Compassionate who knows everything. It provided a link between all monotheistic faiths from the time of Abraham and Ishmael to the time of the last Prophet, Muĥammad (peace be upon them all). It also established a link between the holy places in all these religions. It seems that this unusual journey served as an announcement that the last Messenger was the heir to the heritage of all former messengers. His message staked a claim to all these holy places. Thus it becomes a journey that goes beyond the scope of time and place.
The opening verse describes the Aqşā Mosque as one with blessed environs. This description shows the blessings surrounding the mosque and flowing in abundance. This impression could not have been given with a direct description such as ‘the mosque which we have blessed.’ This is another example of the refined use of language characteristic of the Qur’ān.
The Prophet’s night journey was a telling sign, and it was accompanied by others, as the opening verse says in stating its purpose, “so that We might show him some of Our signs.” Covering the distance between the Sacred Mosque in Makkah and the Aqşā Mosque in Jerusalem, in a very short period that did not allow the Prophet’s bed to become cold, is a sign of God’s power, whatever the means used to accomplish it. It opens our minds to new horizons in the universe and reveals latent potentials within mankind. It shows that those human beings chosen by God to be the bearers of His message have the latent ability to receive whatever greater powers God wishes to give them. It is God who has honoured man, giving him a favoured position among His creation, and endowed him with such potentials. “He alone is the One who hears all and sees all.” (Verse 1) He indeed hears and sees all that is beyond the reach of our hearing and seeing faculties.
It is especially impressive that the opening verse of this sūrah starts with glorifying God, “Limitless in His glory is He who transported His servant by night”. After defining the purpose of this journey, it finishes with highlighting two of God’s attributes, perfect hearing and seeing that encompass all things. This quick movement across purposes reflects the finest points of the expression used. The glorification is addressed to God Himself, and the statement about the purpose of the night journey comes from Him, while the description of God’s powers is made in the form of an indisputable statement. All these forms are combined in one verse so as to give their different imports.