Any worldling who has ever scoured (or even traipsed) the streets of social media must be familiar with the purports of this article’s title phrase. It is a popular gibe hurled at the religion of lslam; especially in this era of terror-stricken-Fridays, wherein Islamic doctrines find a significant mention in inclement news around the world.
For those not familiar with this insult, it basically is a taunt derived from two incidents quoted in Islamic tradition and believed by most, if not all, Muslims. Winged horse refers to Isra or Mi’raj: a nighttime journey Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) undertook, traveling from Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia to the Temple-Mount in present-day Jerusalem, and going to the heavens and back, all within one night, on a ‘winged-horse’ (Some say these were two different journeys). Talking ant refers to an incident of Prophet Solomon (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) overhearing an ant’s ‘complex’ conversation with other ants while traveling through a certain valley.
Although this phrase has become a fashionable punchline uttered almost reflexively to foreclose a Muslim point of view in discussions, it must be acknowledged that objections to it have certain ‘scientific’ merits. The implication therefore being that since Islamic doctrine narrates such nonsensical stories, the verity of entire religion is at best ‘dubious’. After all, how can the enlightened people of the 21st century be asked to overlook such unscientific gibberish in order to enter into an intellectual debate about the veracity or provenance of the religion of Islam in general.
Sidestepping the Talking Ant story for the obvious reason that even prima facie it is nowhere near as ‘outlandish’ to the enlightened mind as the Winged Horse story (pun intended), I intend to take on the Winged Horse story for now. And more so because this story is often the subject of contempt not only by average Joes, but has also frequently been brandished by atheist gurus such as Richard Dawkins, as some kind of anathema.
So, about the Winged Horse story…
The ‘Buraq’ (actually meaning something able to move at high speeds) often called as the ‘Winged Horse’ by present-day critics (although wings have not been mentioned in any authentic hadith) is not there in the Holy Quran; it’s there in some ahadith (plural of hadith). Ahadith are the sayings of or about the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) narrated by his companions to the following generation and so on. While the ‘Winged Horse’ (I’ll stick with Winged for obvious reasons too) comes from the ahadith, the subject journey it relates to is enshrined in the Quran, with a whole chapter (Ch. 17) named after it. But don’t get too worked up on the ‘whole chapter’ part, as there are only two verses (verses 1 & 60) in the entire chapter that touch upon that journey. One of those two verses (verse 60) however, clearly calls the entire journey a vision, as in a prophetic dream. Supplementing it are some ahadith too that call it a vision/dream.
Well there have always been two competing opinions about the mode of subject journey. Researching the topic one finds that even the companions of Muhammad (pbuh) were divergent on the matter. Some believed it was a physical journey, while others believed it to be a vision. Not being a substantial or central issue of Islam there has never been a consensus on the matter. However, after the companions’ era in subsequent generations a majority of scholars has always acceded to it being a physical journey.
In the spirit of brevity let me enumerate supporting evidence for both opinions:
- Some ahadith on the subject DO NOT explicitly mention that it was a spiritual journey.
- 1st verse of the 17th chapter starts with extreme praise for God for taking Muhammad (pbuh) on this journey, from which many scholars conclude that it must’ve been a physical journey.
- In the same verse Muhammad is called as (God’s) ‘Servant’ from which some scholars conclude that the word ‘Abd’ (servant) implies that the journey was physical.
- In verse 60 of same chapter God clearly mentions that the incident has been made a ‘trial’ for the disbelievers referring to their mocking Muhammad’s (pbuh) claim, which (i.e. the mocking) is narrated in some ahadith, and thus alluding to its physical nature.
- There isn’t a single hadith of Muhammad (pbuh) that explicitly mentions it being a physical journey either. Au contraire, there are some ahadith that call it a vision.
- The word ‘vision’ in Quran 17:60 is part of the problem and not part of the solution.
- It raises some scientific questions. Not just about the mode of transportation, but also about the fact that an animal with two riders was taking ‘mammoth strides’ between Arabia and Israel, and then ascended to heaven, without any person in either country noticing it.
- The word ‘vision’ in 17:60 is part of the solution. It is the proper word used explicitly for visions and dreams.
- Some ahadith (e.g. http://sunnah.com/bukhari/59/18) start with ‘While I was at the House in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness’ and others (e.g. http://sunnah.com/bukhari/97/142) end with ‘The Prophet then woke up while he was in the Sacred Mosque’, corroborating the Quran.
- Famous commentators like Ibn-e-Kathir, Zamakhshari and Tabari etc. have all mentioned that Ayesha (may Allah be pleased with her), the most beloved wife of Muhammad (pbuh) and one of the biggest scholars of Islam, believed in the journey being spiritual and not physical, and have quoted her exact words being ‘By God, the body of the Holy Prophet did not disappear, but he was raised spiritually.’
- There’s no scientific difficulty in accepting it.
- Many, if not most, famous Islamic scholars believe it was a physical journey.
People at both ends explain the others’ objections away. And since the issue is not at all central to the belief system of Islam, the plurality of views doesn’t irk either one. Unless of course someone’s a complete nut-job hell-bent on declaring the others non-Muslims on a dime, like ISIS.
I consider it to be a spiritual journey. My arguments are as follows:
- The unequivocal and immovable word ‘vision’ in the Quran. What gave me away :).
- Even if there were ahadith calling it a physical journey explicitly, Quran trumps hadith.
- Some ahadith have clarified that it was a vision. Other ahadith presented as proof by the other side do not contain any clarification to the contrary. Instead, they simply seem to have missed this detail out.
- Our mother Ayesha (may Allah be pleased with her) has categorically clarified it.
- It fits in perfectly with the overall ethos of Islam.
Now of course I haven’t the slightest of contempt for those believing it to be a physical journey. We are all prisoners of our own comprehensions. And plurality of views has always been the beauty of Islam. There are no popes in Islam. Every one of us has to make up his/her own mind.
However, I have always put myself this question that if I were asked to believe in the physical nature of the journey, would I? And I have always replied in the form of a question that Have I Been Asked? The only two persons who have the right to demand of me to believe in such a contra-science occurrence are my God and my Prophet. Did either one of them ask that of me? If yes then show me! Not some ambiguous allusions, but an unequivocal demand wherein they told me to believe ‘The journey was physical’ (Seems kinda moot though, you know, after God unequivocally called it a vision). The hallmark of Islam is that all essential beliefs – which are only about a handful in number – are mentioned unequivocally in the Quran and practiced in the Sunnah. The moment someone asks us to hold a belief, that too supernatural, that could not be traced back to these two sources explicitly, deserves nothing but our nonchalance. In fact, if the history of Abrahamic religions tell us anything it is that all disputes and factions arose among their believers when vague derivations were favored over explicit injunctions spelt out in the scriptures. Let’s not go there.
Therefore, Muslims are free to believe in either interpretation. But they should remember that the only way to ascertain the verity of a belief is to revert to the sources of Islam. Counting heads for and against can be authoritative for implementation purposes, but it doesn’t say anything about the correctness of any decision.