The Night Journey (a story).
Mohammed next entered the gates of heaven, where he beheld countless angels. He was then granted a vision of hell, where he witnessed the various punishments inflicted upon the wicked. Amidst a throng of angels he then ascended through the seven heavens, encountering along the way the Prophets Jesus, Moses and Abraham, as well as Yahya, Joseph, Idris and Harun.
He was then taken into the divine presence of Allah, who informed him that in future his Muslim followers should pray fifty times a day. Then returning through the seven heavens he again encountered Moses, who encouraged Mohammed to petition Allah to reduce the number of periods of prayer in a day: because Moses felt that the Muslims would not have the spiritual strength to be able to pray fifty times a day. Eventually five daily periods of prayer were agreed between Allah and Mohammed.
Finally Mohammed was taken back to Mecca on the divine steed Buraq. Although this 'night journey' seemed to last a very long time, Mohammed found that his bed sheets were still warm, and a pot of water that had overturned as he left was still spilling out over the floor.
Next morning Mohammed told his close companions about his miraculous 'Night Journey', and all of them were amazed. One of his companions, Abu Bakr, had actually been to Jerusalem, and when he heard Mohammed's description of this city he said: "O Prophet of Allah, you speak the truth."
But some of Mohammed's companions were unable to believe that such a miraculous journey was possible. However, Mohammed described two caravans that he had seen journeying towards Mecca on his return flight: when these caravans eventually arrived, they were just as the Prophet had described them.
The Sultan of Egypt's Miraculous Journey.
The Sultan of Egypt was once discussing the 'Night Journey of Mohammed' with a group of his most learned scholars. Some held that it was a literal journey that had taken place in the twinkling of an eye, while others thought it was a symbolic journey that had been transmitted to Mohammed as a divine revelation. Some believed it to be a fact, some a vision, some a dream, and a few sceptics believed it to be nothing more than a legend.
Amongst the assembly was a Sufi sheikh, who not only maintained that Mohammed's night journey had actually happened, but proposed to demonstrate to the Sultan how it took place. The Sultan was intrigued and bade the sheikh to proceed with his demonstration.
There was a window in each of the four walls of the Sultan's audience hall. The sheikh went to the east window, which looked out over the palace grounds, and closed the shutters. When he opened them again an invading army was seen to be thundering towards the palace. The Sultan was terrified and immediately began to raise the alarm, but the sheikh bade him to hold his tongue and watch. He closed the shutters and opened them again. The invading army had vanished into thin air. It was an illusion and the palace grounds were once again as peaceful as they previously were. The Sultan gave a great sigh of relief.
The sheikh then closed the northern window, which looked out over the city of Cairo. When he opened the shutters again the Sultan saw the whole city ablaze with a great fire. He again summoned the alarm, but the sheikh once more petitioned him to remain silent. Closing and opening the shutters again the sheikh revealed this second apparition to be yet another illusion, for the conflagration had vanished. The sheikh then went to the western window, which looked out over the great Egyptian desert. He closed and opened the shutters to reveal a vast tropical garden. Then closing and opening them again revealed this to be another illusion, since the desert had returned. At the southern window, which looked out over the River Nile, the sheikh closed and opened the shutters to reveal a great flood. The waters reached to the distant horizon, even the sphinx and the great pyramid were submerged. But when he closed and opened the shutters again the Nile had returned to its customary seasonal level.
These four apparitions that the Sufi sheikh had revealed, which only the Sultan's eyes had beheld, amazed the Sultan. His senses told him that what he had seen was real, that they weren't events that had been conjured up or projected into his mind. Neither was it a dream, or a vision. He was wide-awake and his state of consciousness had not ascended into any mystical or visionary realm. However, the sheikh's demonstration was not over yet.
In the centre of the audience hall was a large golden bowl of water, which was scented with blue lotus flowers for the Sultan to refresh his face and hands. The sheikh told the Sultan to hold his breath and to immerse his head into the scented water. But when the Sultan dipped his head into the bowl he suddenly found that instead of lowering his head into water he was actually raising his head from water and into air. The surface of the scented water was like a veil that led from this world into another, like a magical mirror where one could pass through the reflective glass. The Sultan suddenly found that he had surfaced from the sea near the shoreline of a deserted sandy beach, and that his bare feet were now firmly planted upon wet sand. He struggled to the shore in great confusion, not knowing where he was. He was wet and completely naked, yet he knew that this was no dream or vision. A moment ago he had been the Sultan of Egypt in his royal palace, and now he was a naked stranger on the threshold of a strange land. He began to curse the Sufi sheikh. He began to regret consenting to this demonstration. It had gone too far, and he already felt lonely, disorientated and lost.
Behind the trees that fronted the beach the Sultan came upon a small fishing village. The villagers were astonished to see a naked man wander into their village, and asked him who he was and where he had come from. When the Sultan explained his story the villagers thought that he was mad or deranged. They concluded instead that this stranger must have been shipwrecked, and that a prolonged time in the salty ocean must have unhinged his mind. They took pity upon him. They clothed and fed him, and tried to alleviate his deep sadness and homesickness.
The Sultan remained in this fishing village for a whole year, most of which was spent readjusting to his confused new identity. He began to learn the skills of the fishermen; how to knot and cast nets, how to handle a boat; how to divine where a herring shoal was basking, or how to discern that a storm was approaching. None of the fisherman knew where Cairo or Egypt was, nor had they even heard of the great kingdoms of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece or Rome. Equally the name of their land and its surrounding kingdoms were unfamiliar to the Sultan, and he knew not where he was. Even the night sky of this land was different, with an upside-down moon and strange constellations circling the star-spangled heavens at night. He grew to love and respect the fishermen and to concede to their notion of his being a shipwrecked stranger from a distant land. But in his heart he knew that he was the Sultan of Egypt, and he continued to curse the sheikh for imposing this exile upon him.
At the end of a year he had amassed enough money to enable him to travel to the capital city of this land, where he hoped to seek his fortune. Arriving at this city he introduced himself as the Sultan of a far distant kingdom who had been shipwrecked a year before. His regal bearing and knowledge of statesmanship convinced the wealthy merchants and aristocrats of this city that this was the case. Thus he was soon befriended by the influential leaders of all the trade guilds of the city, who saw him as a great visionary. Under his inspiration new architectural styles were introduced, based upon Egyptian designs that the Sultan knew and remembered well. He then began to introduce new techniques to many of the arts and sciences, such as innovative new styles of painting, decorating, woodcarving and metal casting, and novel insights in the fields of agriculture, perfumery, astronomy and medicine, all of which were derived from his ancient Egyptian traditions. For the period of a year the Sultan was the most sought after man in the city, and he even began to enjoy his sojourn in this foreign land and to not think so badly of the sheikh who had delivered him into exile.
At the height of his popularity he decided to marry a beautiful young woman from that city. His new wife was the only daughter of one of the city's guildsmen, and she was accustomed to an affluent style of living. After a year she gave birth to their first son. But her father began to fall upon hard times, and his constant need for financial support began to drain the resources that the Sultan had accumulated during the period of his rise to popularity. As the years passed and several more children were born, the Sultan began to feel that his life lacked the spark that it once had. It was true that he loved his wife and children, but he began to find himself working long hours to make ends meet. Now all of his ingenious ideas were exhausted, and his wealthy and influential friends no longer sought his company. He was now experiencing how life must have been for most of his subjects when he had been the great Sultan of Egypt. Some of it was sweet, but much of it was bitter, and he again began to curse the devilry of the sheikh that had condemned him to this alien existence.
After five years of married life his wife had borne four children. Then suddenly tragedy struck. A pestilence spread through the city, taking first his wife, then her father, and one by one each of his children. Forced into penury by the insolvency of his father-in-law's estate, he was forced to vacate his property and sell all of his belongings. In the midst of all this grief he decided to leave this city of ill fortune and sad memories. He knew that his despair would now prevent him from making any possible sense of his life, so he decided to retrace his steps to the fishing village where he had first arrived. At least in that village life would be simple, and the very simplicity of the fishermen might enable him to come to terms with his sense of bereavement, loss and failure. It had been seven years since he arrived in this strange land. For seven long years he had been at the mercy of hope and despair, and he continued to curse the sheikh for his cold-hearted sorcery.
The people of the fishing village were happy to see him again. They listened with patience and sympathy to his tales of gain and loss, of joy and pain, of love, marriage, births, and untimely deaths. They offered him his old fishing hut, and many of the fishermen said they would be glad to have him help them again on their boats. The Sultan felt some glimmer of hope arise in his heart. Their acceptance and generosity touched him deeply. It helped to heal the painfully open wound that his heart and soul now seemed to have become.
The day after he arrived back in the fishing village he decided to wander down to the beach where he had first broken through into this world. He needed to be alone, to meditate, to reflect on his grief, and perhaps to scream out loud where no one could hear him. The beach had not changed, with its golden sands curving away into the distance like the vast wings of some great seabird. The gentle breaking of the waves created a murmuring rhythm like the drawing in and out of breath, an endless rhythm that spoke of a continuous cycle of loss and gain as the waves kissed the shore. He recognised the group of trees that he had first seen when he arrived here, and wading into the water he reached the spot where he believed that he had first surfaced from this ocean. The sand on the seabed felt gentle and comforting as his feet softly sank into it. He felt a great cry well up in his soul, and closing his eyes to hold back the tears he plunged his face into the water.
But when he drew his head back from the water he suddenly realised that he was no longer standing upon a bed of ocean sand. He opened his eyes and saw in an instant the strangely familiar surroundings of the audience hall of his palace in Cairo. His hands still rested upon the rim of the golden bowl of lotus-scented water. The Sufi sheikh stood in front of him holding a small towel, and his learned mullahs and scholars still sat in the same positions as before. Nothing had changed. Everything still was as he had left it seven years ago. He felt like a devilish trick had been played upon him, an act of the most heinous sorcery.
"You treacherous sheikh!" He shouted: "What have you done to me! I will have you beheaded for this! You have wasted seven years of my life through your fiendish magic. I will have you flayed alive! You caused me to go into exile for seven years in an unknown land. You caused me to lose my identity, to become a different man, to toil, to fall in love, take a wife, and to father four children. Then you caused me to lose them all and return here after seven years of estrangement. What kind of man are you to commit such a vile deed? Have you no fear of God's retribution?"
"But only a moment of time has passed since you put your head into the bowl," said the Sufi sheikh. "Look! Your hands are still gripping the side of the bowl, your face is still dripping and wet, and I have only just picked up this towel so that you could dry your face. Although seven long years of exile appear to have taken place for you, only a few seconds have elapsed for all of us assembled here in this room."
The mullahs and scholars confirmed this statement. They all agreed that they had just watched him dip his face into the water-bowl and withdraw it again. They had no idea what the Sultan was talking about, or what were the source of the accusations that he was levelling at the sheikh.
The Sultan never succeeded in integrating the experience of the lapse in time that the Sufi sheikh had revealed to him. Nor did he ever forgive the sheikh for putting him through this ordeal. For after his temper had cooled he banished the sheikh from his kingdom, believing perhaps that exile was the most appropriate form of punishment for the illogical and improvable crime that the sheikh had apparently committed.
From Damascus the exiled sheikh sent a letter to the Sultan of Egypt, in which he wrote: "Although seven years passed for you in the single moment that you dipped your head into that bowl, only a few seconds passed for the rest of your Egyptian subjects. Yet this experience was real for you, and was only granted to you alone in that audience hall full of scholars. It will live on in your memory and knowledge as a part of your life. Although it was like a dream or a vision, it was neither of these.
I only granted you this experience so that you could understand how Allah bestowed Mohammed's 'Night Journey' upon him. But there is a difference. Mohammed came back in that moment a far wiser man. The Prophet flew to Jerusalem and entered the gates of heaven. He was given a glimpse into hell, and he ascended through all of the seven heavens. He conversed with the great Prophets and was given many instructions from Allah.
But you did not return from your journey as a wiser man. You followed your own ingrained tendencies and habitual patterns. You sought fame and fortune; you took another wife and raised another family. Mohammed journeyed into the realms of Allah with all of His beauty. But you surfaced again into the world of men, with all of its greed, jealousies and ambitions. Mohammed sought illumination, but you sought only pleasure and its ephemeral shadow of pain. Mohammed's night journey was meaningful for the whole of mankind. Yours, unfortunately, was not."