From Mecca to Jerusalem
by Stephen Schwartz
I wrote late last year, in a TCS column about the death of a leading Sufi, or spiritual Muslim teacher, who had lived for many years under repressive conditions in the Saudi kingdom. His name was Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki.
As I described him then, he was "a leading representative of the Hejazi tradition in Arabia -- that is, of the culture of Mecca and Medina before its takeover by Wahhabism," the state religion of Saudi Arabia, which is more an ideology than a manifestation of faith.
Since then, I have studied an important work of Shaykh al-Maliki, on the Night Journey of Muhammad -- an out-of-body experience in which the Prophet of Islam travelled to Jerusalem on a winged steed and then ascended to the heavens in the company of the Angel Gabriel.
The Night Journey and Ascension, known in Arabic as Laylat Al-Isra wa Al-Miraj, is a key element in the development of Muhammad's message and is also the basis for the Muslim claim to possession of a part of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock, one of the great architectural treasures of the world, was erected over the place where Muhammad is said to have experienced his supernatural visit to the prophets who preceded him.
The commentaries of Shaykh al-Maliki on the Night Journey are significant to the future of Islam as a faith and to the Saudi kingdom. This is because the irrational and absurd strictures imposed by the Wahhabis on Muslims and Saudi subjects include a rigorous ban on celebration of the Night Journey, normally observed on the 27th day of the Muslim month of Rajab.
Such is but one of many prohibitions enacted by Wahhabis against the traditions of classical Islam, which make moderate Muslims hate Wahhabism. Wahhabis also forbid celebration of the Prophet's birthday; commemoration of holy men and women (Muslim saints); the maintenance of graveyards; recitation of Fatiha, the first sura or chapter of Qur'an, for the dead; intercessory prayer through Muhammad, his companions, or the Muslim saints, and, of course, the entire practice of Sufism. Possession of the great Sufi books is a crime in the Saudi kingdom. Although Shaykh al-Maliki was the head of the Maliki school of Sunni Muslim law in the kingdom, he suffered from many acts of discrimination and marginalization. Unlike his father and grandfather, he was barred from preaching in the Grand Mosque at Mecca. Nevertheless, his funeral was the largest public event in recent years in the holy city.
Shaykh al-Maliki's writing on the Night Journey stands in direct and eloquent opposition to Wahhabi doctrine. A prominent Wahhabi bigot, Muhammad al-Munajjid, also known for declaring the South Asian tsunami a divine punishment against the celebration of Christmas and the Christian New Year, has declared that commemorating the Night Journey by holding special events is a bida, or forbidden innovation in Islam. By contrast, Shaykh al-Maliki not only encouraged marking this important Islamic spiritual landmark by festivals, but also offered some comments on the Prophet's rapture that would doubtless prove surprising to many non-Muslims.
Al-Maliki correlated diverse narratives of the Night Journey. He noted that according to tradition, Muhammad on his way upward encountered Moses, who Muhammad heard reprimanding God in a loud tone. When the Prophet of Islam asked the Angel Gabriel how Moses could do such a thing, the Angel replied, "Allah the Exalted knows Moses' bluntness." Further, when Muhammad was introduced to Abraham, according to the classical Islamic account, the Patriarch of One God warned him that the Muslims, who were preceded by the Jews and Christians, were the last and weakest of the monotheist communities.
In Shaykh al-Maliki's compilation, Moses advised Muhammad to ask God for "ease" for the followers of Islam. Later, Muhammad heard Moses pray and praise God for "the salvation of the Children of Israel at my hands," while also thanking the Creator for having created those among the Community of Jews "who guide others through truth and establish justice upon it!" Muhammad went on to receive inspiring words from David, Solomon, and Jesus, with the second expressing gratitude because God had taught him the language of the birds, symbolic of Solomon's gift as a poet.
Further, Shaykh al-Maliki's study of the Night Journey cites an important principle elucidated by al-Zabidi, a collector of hadith, the Prophet's oral sayings, in his commentary on the 12th century Muslim theologian, philosopher and Sufi Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. In the Night Journey, Muhammad complained of thirst, and was offered wine and milk. He chose the latter, which has been interpreted as identifying the propensity of all humans toward natural religion, and the recognition of right from wrong. The traditional account of the Night Journey as retold by Shaykh al-Maliki also includes special praise for Aaron, the brother of Moses. Toward the end, the text cites the Torah of the Jews in referring to prophets as "beloved of Allah."
In addition, Moses played an important role in fixing the number of daily prayers for Muslims. Muhammad was ordered by God that his community pray fifty times per day, but Moses cautioned him that Muhammad's followers would not be able to bear such a burden. He several times suggested that Muhammad return to God and ask that the number of daily prayers be reduced. In the classic account, Moses told Muhammad, "I experienced the weaknesses of people before you did. I tested the Children of Israel... the people of your community are even weaker in their bodies and constitutions, in their hearts, in their sight, and in their hearing." God lessened the requirements of prayer for Muslims to five, and even then Moses told Muhammad, "in truth your Community will not be able to carry that." But Muhammad said he had gone back so many times he had grown reluctant to continue, and had submitted to the requirement of five prayers.
The great Sufi and Maliki Shaykh demonstrated by the content of his annotations on the Night Journey his defiance of Wahhabi prejudice and his respect for the Jewish precedents to the revelations of Muhammad. His example stands in contrast with the extraordinary perversity of Wahhabism, in that Hamas, the Wahhabis at war with Israel, fight to control the Dome of the Rock but would forbid commemoration of the spiritual event for which it was intended as a tribute. No prayer takes place in the Dome of the Rock today. The end of Wahhabi influence over Sunni Muslims may transform the meaning of all such aspects of Islam, and its relation with other believers.