4 “There Is Matter for Thought”

The Episode of the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension in the Sīra ḥalabiyya, at the Beginning of the Seventeenth Century

In: The Presence of the Prophet in Early Modern and Contemporary Islam
Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen
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By writing Insān al-ʿuyūn fī sīrat al-nabī al-maʾmūn at the request of Shaykh al-Bakrī, the Egyptian Shaykh ʿAlī al-Ḥalabī (1635) composed a work soon known as Sīra ḥalabiyya. With a learned art of composition, he gives a very personal reading of his immediate sources of the Mamluk period, ʿUyūn al-athar fī l-funūn wa-l-shamāʾil wa-l-siyar from Ibn Sayyid al-Nās and Subul al-hudā wa-l-rashād fī sīrat khayr al-ʿibād, of al-Shāmī al-Ṣāliḥī (otherwise called al-Sīra al-Shāmiyya), while mobilizing an imposing culture of the Mamluk and Ottoman epochs. We will study it by comparing it with the contemporary commentary by al-Qalyūbī (1659?) of the famous qiṣṣat al-isrāʾ wa-l-miʿrāj due to Shaykh al-Ghayṭī (m.). Citing in particular the Shifā’ of Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ and the Khaṣāʾiṣ of Suyūṭī, the names of Ibn Ḥajar and Shaʿrānī, Ḥalabī tries to come up with a harmonised narrative of different versions that he tries to reconcile, but several stories coexist, opening the way for an endless exegesis of the episodes of the Sīra. Ḥalabī is distinguished from Qalyūbī by a form of historicisation of the Sīra, more attentive to the chronological sequence of events, as well as by a reflection on the providential inscription of the Prophet in the very ancient history of prophecy.

All this, they argued, had to have been part of a single artistic vision that worked its way through the epic’s many themes and episodes…. Where some people see chaos and incoherence, others will find sense and symmetry and wholeness….

I talked about ring composition, that remarkable narrative technique that weaves the present and the past together, that allows the account of a specific episode in a character’s life to expand to encompass his entire life.

Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey: a Father, a Son, and an Epic, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017, p. 72.

1 Introduction: A Conciliatory Sīra and a Weapon

Egyptian shaykh ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm al-Ḥalabī1 was over 60 years old when he accepted shaykh al-Bakrī’s request to write the biography of the Prophet. He completed his Sīra in 1043/1633, undoubtedly aware it would be his last work. He died soon after on 29 shaʿbān 1044/February 17, 1635. Insān al-ʿuyūn fī sīrat al-amīn al-maʾmūn was a decisive work and yet was presented modestly as an imperfect compendium of two main sources from the Mamluk era.

The first source was the ʿUyūn al-athar fī l-funūn wa-l-shamāʾil wa-l-siyar by Ibn Sayyid al-Nās (d. 734/1334). Actually, Ḥalabī wrote a gloss of it instead of a compendium. He used Ibn Sayyid al-Nās’s Sīra as the main framework for his own, much longer narrative.2 Though Ḥalabī chose a chronological over a thematic structure and honours Ibn Sayyid al-Nās’s vast knowledge in terms of ḥadīths and chains of transmission, he does not adopt the latter’s tone and spirit. As demonstrated by Tilman Nagel, Ibn Sayyid al-Nās rehabilitated the oldest sources, Ibn Isḥāq/Ibn Hishām and al-Waqīdī, carefully expunging the ḥadīths he deemed too weak.3 None of this, nor Ibn Isḥāq/Ibn Hishām, nor al-Waqīdī preoccupied Ḥalabī. As he explains in his introduction, the scholarship of his predecessors allowed him to forgo the chains of ḥadīth transmissions and write a more accessible text, where even weak or forged ḥadīth had a role to play – without necessarily being validated. In writing his own sīra at the beginning of the fourteenth century, three centuries before Ḥalabī, Ibn Sayyid al-Nās had already expressed the desire to write a simpler Sīra, one that did away with repetitions. Ḥalabī’s version, infinitely more complex, was written for a variety of readerships and addressed a multitude of issues that were the battle lines of his day.

The second main source of the Sīra ḥalabiyya, the Subul al-hudā wa-l-rashād fī sīrat khayr al-ʿibād by al-Shāmī al-Ṣāliḥī (d. 1536) was written a century earlier and was known as al-Sīra al-shāmiyya. Ḥalabī used it for what it was, an immense encyclopedia of ḥadīths grouped by theme. Here too, he avoided a thematic construction in order to maintain the focus on the meaning he conferred onto his own Sīra. Despite his apparent deference to his two predecessors, Ḥalabī did not always take the trouble to verify the details in their texts,4 because his own vision of the Night Voyage led him to use other authors he considered more pertinent than Ibn Sayyid al-Nās and al-Shāmī. Ḥalabī rallied his vast Sufi culture in his final work. Having studied under a number of masters, he had, in his youth, been the disciple of shaykh Muḥammad al-Bakrī (d. 1586), the shaykh of the Bakriyya family and father to shaykh Abū l-Mawāhib (d. 1628), the same person who had commissioned Ḥalabī’s Sīra.5 Ḥalabī was thus tied to Cairo’s Turkish-Ottoman aristocracy: his courses at Al-Azhar brought together “the virtuous (al-fuḍalāʾ) and the noble of spirit (al-nubalāʾ) [… for …] he was respected by both the elite and the masses.” 6

Ḥalabī had also been the disciple of the Egyptian Shāfiʿī mufti, Shams al-Dīn al-Ramlī (d. 1596), which placed him within the great Shāfiʿī, Ashʿarī, and Shādhilī traditions of Egypt during the Mamluk era.7 The combination of fiqh, ḥadīth, and Sufism that characterised the works of Egyptian scholars at the end of the Mamluk era and the beginning of the Ottoman era – a combination whose coherence has been deftly demonstrated by Éric Geoffroy8 – is the foundation of Ḥalabī’s Sīra.9 Ḥalabī often quotes the Egyptian authors from the fifteenth century,10 especially Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 1449), whose Fatḥ al-bārī, commentary of Bukhārī’s Ṣaḥīḥ, is used but whose title is never cited. Another constantly mentioned source are Suyūṭī’s (d. 1505) two books: al-Khaṣāʾiṣ al-kubrā and al-Khaṣāʾiṣ al-ṣughrā. Though the Ṣaḥīḥs by Bukhārī and Muslim, the Musnad by Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal, and sometimes the work of al-Shāfiʿī (“our Imam”), appear in these discussions, it is through the compilations of Ibn Ḥajar and Suyūṭī that Ḥalabī offers a new reading of the ḥadīths. To a lesser extent, he cites the Imtāʿ by the historian Maqrīzī (d. 1442)11 and al-Mawāhib al-laduniyya by al-Qastallanī (d. 1517). Ḥalabī also mentions Sufi authors from the beginning of the Ottoman era, such as al-Shaʿrānī (d. 1565), notably concerning angelology. It is partially through al-Shaʿrānī that he also used Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240). Finally, despite the prevalence of Egyptian authors, Ḥalabī, along with Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, readily quotes two works by Moroccan authors of Andalusian origins in the twelfth century: the famous Shifāʾ by Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ (d. 1149) and the Rawḍ al-unuf fī sharḥ al-sīra al-nabawiyya li-Ibn Hishām, by al-Suhaylī (d. 1185).

In sum, aside from his main sources – one “chronological” (ʿUyūn al-athar) and the other “thematic” (al-Sīra al-shāmiyya), Ḥalabī did not use the Sīras to write and certainly not to shape his arguments. He very rarely quotes Ibn Isḥāq (sometimes mentioning his name, sometimes merely the title, al-Sīra al-hishāmiyya) and when he does, it is generally by referencing Ibn Sayyid al-Nās. Ḥalabī did not necessarily equate old and biographical Sīras with truth and thus, he was less interested in the oldest sources (Waqīdī, Ṭabarī, or Ibn Saʿd), preferring the more recent Ibn Sayyid al-Nās. When opinions diverge or interpretative crossroads appear, Ḥalabī reverts to debates between ḥadīth specialists of the Mamluk era or uses a Qurʾānic tafsīr, that of Tustārī (d. 896), the Kashshāf  by Zamakhsharī (d. 1144), Bayḍāwī (d. 1286), al-Jalāl al-Maḥallī (d. 1460), first author of Tafsīr al-Jalālayn – all are quoted by Ḥalabī;12 whereas Ibn Sayyid al-Nās cited the tafsīr by ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 827) and that of Yaḥyā Ibn Sallām.13 Ḥalabī also draws on the extensive history of the prophets by Ibn Kathīr, in al-Bidāya wa-l-nihāya. After presenting contradictory versions of an episode, he often concludes by quoting verses from the Tā’iyya by Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī (d. 1370) and from the Hamziyya by Buṣīrī (d. 1294) because the dense and elegant style of devotional poetry helps Ḥalabī discuss the meaning of the miraculous episodes of the Life of the Prophet.

Grounded mainly in the Mamluk era, Ḥalabī grappled with many Islamic debates at the beginning of the seventeenth century. There was something new: his Sīra was written for an educated readership and thus needed to be deliberately and carefully constructed. Shaykh al-Bakrī most certainly commissioned the work in response to the ideas of the Qadızādeli. The group of Qadızādeli were hostile to Sufism and their ideas were defended in Istanbul by the Sultan Murād IV.14 This work was also a chance to present to an elite a unification of the Islamic sciences: Qurʾānic sciences, Arabic philology, fiqh, Sufism, ḥadīth, and adab, in the name of a Sufi synthesis oriented towards the Prophet that transcended and subsumed them. In 1633, Ḥalabī was convinced that only such a synthesis could convince the Ottoman honnête homme, imbued with Sufism but also taken with rationality and logic, and who had perhaps started to criticise the legendary series of hagiographies and the overflow of ḥadīths, pointing out the contradictions and impossibilities. Perhaps the reader had gone so far as to doubt the miracles of the Prophet when re-reading Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) who categorically refused the possibility that the fully conscious Prophet could physically see God with his own eyes. The Sīra ḥalabiyya, on the contrary, depicts Muḥammad, as described by Tilman Nagel, as “an always intervening intermediary of knowledge necessary to our salvation”.15

Ḥalabī was fighting on several battlefronts to win over readers with diverse positions. To convince fastidious traditionalists who would potentially point out the dubious nature of different ḥadīths, he began undermining their arguments in his introduction: Ḥalabī acknowledges that the authenticity of ḥadīths is important in legal matters, however, the Sīra required greater flexibility. He thus justified the fact that he did away with the chains of transmission of the ḥadīths that his predecessors had scrupulously quoted. Ḥalabī strengthened his position by explaining he was merely accommodating a period that was unfortunately less scholarly that that of his predecessors. His goal was to simplify the reading of the Sīra for the Ottoman elite and for scholars (but not necessarily the ulama) who needed to be convinced of the exceptional nature of the Prophet and his House and of the reality – or at least the plausibility – of the Prophet’s miracles. Ḥalabī thus never hides the suspicious or forged nature of a particular ḥadīth or isnād; instead, he replaces it with a plausible and trustworthy version of the events. The Sīra must make sense. The Sīra ḥalabiyya skillfully handles the divergent and sometimes conflicting versions of the same event – without ever pretending to offer a definitive answer. It offers a synthesis that is acceptable to the rational mind of the faithful. Ḥalabī’s Sīra reconciles rather than summarises. It does not aim for a single unique truth, but rather, it focuses on opening the Muslim mind to a field of possibilities and plausibilities that take into account all at once a firm demand for rationality and logic (in terms of a chronological succession or the non-simultaneity of events), a thirst for history (situating events in a plausible narrative arc), and the recognition that supernatural and miraculous elements must be compatible with logic and reason in order to convince the more determined esprits forts.

Ḥalabī was wary of fantastical tales and allusions. His account of the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension did however take into account (without ever citing it) a text that he had commented on elsewhere, al-Ibtihāj fī l-kalām ʿalā l-isrāʾ wa-l-miʿrāj by the Egyptian shaykh Najm al-Dīn al-Ghayṭī (d. 1576), the most widespread Miʿrāj narrative of the beginning of the seventeenth century.16 Ghayṭī’s Miʿrāj was so short and allusive that multiple interpretations and glosses were more than justified. It had also been commented by Aḥmad al-Qalyūbī (d. 1659), an Egyptian shaykh who was Ḥalabī’s contemporary, in a text that was further studied a century later by the famous shaykh al-Dardīr (d. 1786).17 Far from being written to convince a hesitant readership, Qalyūbī’s commentary was addressed to devout, faithful Sufis.18 The same would later hold true for Dardīr’s commentary. When Qalyūbī commented on the Kaʿba’s roof splitting open, he began with the declaration that everything “would be extraordinary” during this miraculous night.19 Ḥalabī, on the contrary, proclaimed that the kharq al-ʿāda could not be excessively used, and not without some sort of analysis.

The Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension are so well known that Ḥalabī did not bother to narrate or comment on everything. Instead, he quickly mentions certain passages, such as the visions of the damned, that occupied a central place in al-Ghayṭī’s work. What did matter to Ḥalabī was the general meaning of the events, situating the Prophet among other prophets, placing his Community within other communities, and convincing his readers of the reality of the Night Journey, the Heavenly Ascension, and ultimately the Beatific Vision.

We will be studying the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension in the Sīra ḥalabiyya; comparing Ḥalabī’s method and narrative with his known models (Ibn Sayyid al-Nās and al-Shāmī), as well as with al-Qalyūbī’s commentary of al-Ghayṭī’s Miʿrāj. Such a comparative reading allows us to measure on the one hand the differences in the writing of the Sīra between the Mamluk era and the seventeenth century, and on the other, the differences in writing a key episode of the Sīra at a single moment in time – the first half of the seventeenth century. The analysis will offer us a glimpse of Ḥalabī’s intentions in the writing of his Sīra and the particular image he offers of the Prophet.

1.1 A Method

The Sīra ḥalabiyya follows the “chronological” Sīra by Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, whose citations are introduced by the mention qāla and completed, when needed, by ḥadīths collated by al-Shāmī and others. Though Ibn Sayyid al-Nās’s text was his main model (al-aṣl, in his words), Ḥalabī’s version is considerably longer. The published version of the ʿUyūn al-athar devoted fifteen short pages to the Night Journey whereas that of the Insān al-ʿuyūn runs to 72 pages.20 Ḥalabī often intervenes in the account (aqūlu) to offer a generally conciliatory conclusion between several contradictory hypotheses.

In the episode of the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension, Ḥalabī takes certain liberties when quoting Ibn Sayyid al-Nās’s text: he dismantles the narrative framework and reorganises the elements in a completely different manner. Ibn Sayyid al-Nās followed the sequence of events very loosely and juxtaposed, with numerous repetitions, the most authentic ḥadīths possible. Inspired by Ibn Isḥāq/Ibn Hishām, he reveals very little of himself in the text, despite occasionally stating his positions. His concision stands in contrast with Ḥalabī’s project. The latter pays scant attention to Ibn Isḥāq/Ibn Hishām and constructs his narrative in a literary, scholarly, sophisticated, and highly personal fashion. Ḥalabī, in contrast to his predecessors, is much more attached to a logical chronology in his narrative. Taking into account the various debates, he avoids abrupt conclusions and we can often find statements such as “This is what he has said, giving matter for thought and God is the wisest” (hādhā kalāmuhu fa-l-yutaʾammal, wa-Llāhu aʿlam). Ḥalabī’s writings are highly organised and he generally saves the author with whom he agrees for the end. For Ḥalabī, the last to speak (or more precisely, whom he has speak) is the wisest. However, he does not impose his opinions without having first discussed contrary opinions, going so far as rendering them such that both alternatives are possible together. When a conciliation between the various versions (jamʿ bayna l-riwāyāt) is impossible, he at least highlights the contradictions in the sources and the texts in order to better appeal to the reader’s intelligence and guide him towards the conclusion.

To explore his method, let us take a closer look at two examples. The first is the scene where God opens the Prophet’s chest. Ḥalabī begins with Umm Hānī bint Abī Ṭālib’s testimony of the Prophet’s mysterious absence in the night and of his mysterious return. Muḥammad had fallen asleep at her home in Mecca and yet, at dawn, he tells her that he had slept that night in the sanctuary (al-masjid al-ḥaram). As another text states, “in the Ḥijr”, Ḥalabī attempts to render possible these multiple locations. Three angels arrive while the Prophet is resting in the sanctuary in Mecca, lying between his uncle Hamza and his cousin Jaʿfar b. Abī Ṭālib. Transported to Zamzam, his chest (al-ṣadr) or stomach (al-baṭn) is opened and his heart (qalb) is purified. Gabriel asks Mikā’īl to bring a vessel (ṭist) of Zamzam water to purify Muḥammad’s heart, which he extracts, washes three times of whatever impurities (adhā) it still contained. Ḥalabī interrupts his narrative to point out difficulties. First, the Prophet has had his chest opened perhaps three times:21 the first when Muḥammad was a child with his wet-nurse, the second was when he was ten, the third was during the prophetic mission. It is possible that the opening had been repeated, but – Ḥalabī emphasises – the extraction of the blood clot only took place the first time and the later stain is different from the clot removed in his childhood.22

Once this logical and chronological (for Ḥalabī, the two go hand in hand) confusion resolved, he examines the meaning of the events. After having brought three vessels of water from the Zamzam, Mikāʾīl brings a vessel “full of wisdom and faith” and pours in into the Prophet’s chest. Ḥalabī compares this version to that of the purification of the Prophet’s heart when he was with his nurse. God stamped him with the Seal of the Prophet, but there are three divergent versions concerning the location of the seal: his heart, his chest, or between his shoulders.23 The Qādī ʿIyāḍ refutes the possibility that the Prophet’s chest was once again opened during the night of the isrāʾ; for him, it was a unique event. Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī suggests that “the versions can coincide” (al-riwāyāt tawāradat), all the more so in that he sees a different wisdom (ḥikma) each time. In the end, Ḥalabī concludes with, “I say” (aqūlu). He suggests that Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ’s refusal of the shaqq’s repetition only pertains to the clearly unique moment when the angel extracted the black clot from the Prophet’s heart.24

A second example of the method used in the Sīra ḥalabiyya is the location of each prophet in the various heavens during the Heavenly Ascension. Ḥalabī points out the various versions and offers an ingenious solution, certain prophets descended from their own heaven to welcome the Prophet during his ascent, whereas others rose from theirs to meet the Prophet during his descent. Ibn Ḥajar, however, refuses this conciliation (lā yarā al-jamʿ) by choosing the most authentic version (aṣaḥḥ al-riwāyāt). Ḥalabī counters by stating, “I believe that this is to be taken into consideration” (wa-ʿindī fīhi naẓar ẓāhir), “for conciliation is preferable to affirming a contradiction, especially between the most authentic (al-aṣaḥḥ) and the authentic (al-ṣaḥīḥ), even if the authentic is unique (shādhdh), for we do not give precedence to the aṣaḥḥ over the ṣaḥīḥ, unless conciliation excuses it. There is matter for thought”. What is to be gleaned from all these versions is that each of the prophets who met Muḥammad had his own heaven, “here is a wisdom (ḥikma) that would take too long to discuss in detail”.25

Thus, by considering both the ḥadīths and the readings of his illustrious predecessors, all of whom had become “primary sources” of sorts, Ḥalabī offers up a synthesis of the multiple versions that acknowledges then minimises the contradictions, adds details and rivers of scholarship, suggests without overburdening theological or mystical points, and imposes no simplified ideology – but rather, admits several narrative possibilities.

1.2 The Reality of the Night Journey: Affirming the Dogma and Dispensing Proof

The fluidity of the narrative allows Ḥalabī to focus on what matters most. His primary goal is to convince his readership that the Night Journey did indeed take place. Where Ibn Sayyid al-Nās attacks in medias res with the ḥadīth of Umm Hānī bint Abī Ṭālib woken by the Prophet and where al-Ghayṭī begins with the Prophet sleeping in Kaʿba between his uncle and his cousin, Ḥalabī prefigures his account of the Night Journey with a preamble on the reality of the miracle, supported by the Qurʾān (Sura 17 al-Isrāʾ and Sura 53 al-Najm). In Ḥalabī’s chapter on the Night Journey, the Qurʾān is cited more frequently than usual in the Sīra ḥalabiyya, proving the polemical nature of such a subject in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Ḥalabī affirms that there are no disagreements concerning the isrāʾ, since it is narrated in the Qurʾān and that thirty Companions, men and women, recounted the episode. The isrāʾ is established fact.26 Ḥalabī goes on to say that the ulamas also agree on the fact that the isrāʾ took place after the Prophet’s mission, when he was in a corporal and conscious state.27 This is the leitmotif that is found at the end of his account of the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension.

As is often the case in his writings, once a general affirmation is stated, waves of contradictions and possibilities immediately unfurl. How many isrāʾāt were there? How many took place corporeally versus spiritually? Perhaps there were several night journeys?28 Shaʿrānī (d. 1565) suggests that there were 34 isrāʾāt, of which only one was undertaken corporeally. By organising his citations, Ḥalabī suggests that many isrāʾ were possible as long as they did not impugn on the dogma he deems supported by the Qurʾān: the isrāʾ – at least one – did indeed take place in body and mind.

Ḥalabī then accumulates proof that corroborates or explains the Qurʾānic text. As with his contemporaries, for whom Ḥalabī wrote, the inhabitants of Mecca were sceptical about the Prophet’s return. Not only did the Qurayshi pagans question the Prophet’s story, but some of the first Muslims apostatised due to the story’s improbability. Only Abū Bakr believed and thus became the Truthful One (al-Ṣiddīq).29 Ibn Sayyid al-Nās mentions the Qurayshites’s incredulity at the beginning of his text,30 but Ḥalabī moves this element to after narrating the Night Journey and before discussing the Heavenly Ascension. This renders the Qurayshites’ questions about Jerusalem more comprehensible; however, by placing the administration of proof here, he also introduces a hiatus between the two events and the two stories (the isrāʾ and the miʿrāj). Ḥalabī, like the majority of Sufi commentators, attempted to unify the two episodes. He suggests that Muḥammad made the Night Journey to Jerusalem so that the Meccans could question him with full knowledge of the facts.31 Why though would the Meccans be satisfied with questioning Muḥammad only about his Night Journey and not also wish to know more about his Heavenly Ascension? Perhaps, says Ḥalabī, it was because they had elements of information about Jerusalem and the means to verify them; which was not the case for the seven heavens. Therefore, once the first story was authenticated, the second became plausible. This clever interpretation, suggested by Qastallanī in his al-Mawāhib al-laduniyya, implicitly suggests the hiatus.

To test the Prophet, the Quraysh who knew Jerusalem well questioned him about the Temple, which Muḥammad had never visited. Overwhelmed by their questions, the Prophet had a revelation (tajallī) in which God showed him the Temple so he could describe it in detail. Still sceptical, the Quraysh asked him for a sign (āya, or an ʿallāma in Ḥalabī’s gloss).32 Muḥammad declared he had met up with a specific caravan in a wadi, where the Burāq had frightened a she-camel who then ran off. The Prophet had guided the Bedouins until they found her.33 The caravan arrived in Mecca soon after and confirmed Muḥammad’s tale, eliciting a range of emotions from the Quraysh (“He’s a magician!”). Ḥalabī quotes the Qurʾān, al-Isrāʾ, 60: “We did not make the sight which We showed you except as a trial for the people” (wa-mā jaʿalnā al-ruʾyā al-latī araynāka illā fitnatan li-l-nās), and comments: “this indicates that the vision (ruʾyā) of the isrāʾ is truly a vision seen with his own eyes, if the vision of the isrāʾ had been a dream, we would not have denied it”.34 Ḥalabī highlights the difference between the different versions and nevertheless, he continues to try to render them plausible and compatible.35 He concludes that the accounts are not contradictory.

Later, more proof appears with the testimony – which neither Ibn Sayyid al-Nās nor al-Ghayṭī/Qalyūbī mention – of Abū Sufyān questioning Qayṣar (Caesar, Byzantine emperor) about the Night Journey: “Muḥammad says he travelled”, states Abū Sufyān, “from our holy land – Mecca – to your temple – Jerusalem – and back in one night when even our fastest camels need two months for the round-trip journey”. Caesar answers that indeed, a door of the Temple had remained open that night and that, in the morning, the Rock with Burāq’s imprint and marks had been found. The ancient sciences, remembers Caesar, announced that a prophet would ascend into the heavens from the Temple: this was a sign (āya).36 The Heavenly Ascension thus belongs to a very ancient history in which the previous monotheist religions (here, Christianity) announced Islam.

At the end of this chapter, after the Heavenly Ascension, Ḥalabī again discusses Muḥammad’s return home.37 He takes advantage of the opportunity to offer more proof from the Qurʾān concerning the isrāʾ and the miʿrāj in body and mind: “who made his servant travel”, says al-Isrāʾ, 1; the servant is present in body and soul as we can see in “Have you seen the one who forbids a servant when he prays?” (al-ʿAlaq, 9–10), as well as in “… And when the slave of Allah stood up in prayer to Him …” (al-Jinn, 19). If the isrāʾ had been nothing but a dream, the Qurʾān would have specified: “by his servant’s soul (bi-rūḥ ʿabdihi)”. Furthermore, a steed such as the Burāq is not mounted by spirits but by bodies. More proof from the Qurʾān, “The sight (al-baṣar) did not swerve, nor did it transgress its limit” (Najm, 17). Ḥalabī does however admit that this may have been an allusion to the vision of the heart.

1.3 The Importance of Time and Chronology, of Space and Cosmogony

To anchor his narrative even more firmly within an irrefutable reality, Ḥalabī dedicates long explanations to dates and places, tangible proof of veracity and also one of the main sources of contradictions in the ḥadīths. Ḥalabī carries out a meticulous study of possible chronological sequencing and spatial arrangements (how can a single event have taken place at two different moments and/or in two different places). Paying close attention to his narration and the order of his text, he attempts to do away with contradictions and extraneous statements. His efforts for harmony in his search for the credible also results in a temporal sacrality and a sacred cosmogony, in this other time and this other world where prophets can bend time and space.

Constantly concerned with chronology and temporal sequences, Ḥalabī starts with dates. When did the bodily Night Journey take place? He uses Ibn Sayyid al-Nās’s38 propositions and adds others: was it the night of 17 or 27 Rabīʿ I? Of 27 Ramadan or the 27 Rabīʿ II? In Shawwāl or in Dhū l-ḥijja? The 17 Rajab, as believed by al-Ḥāfiẓ al-Ġanī al-Maqdisī (d. 1203), whose opinions were accepted by the majority to commemorate the event (wa-ʿalayhi ʿamala l-nās)? Shaʿrānī argues that all the isrāʾ took place the same night, one, two, or three years before the Hijra. Was it before the journey to al-Ṭā’if (as written by Ibn Isḥāq), or after? “There is clearly matter for thought” (wa-fīhi naẓar ẓāhir)39 and disagreement over this point, notes Ḥalabī. The same holds true for the day of the isrāʾ. Did the Night Journey take place Friday, Saturday, or Monday? Ibn Diḥya (d. 1235) favours Monday because that is the day the Prophet was born, the day of his mission, the day of the Hijra, and finally of his death “and”, concludes Ḥalabī, “there is matter for thought” (fa-l-yutaʾammal).40

As for the length of the Night Journey, it cannot be evaluated by earthly time. Ḥalabī quotes the Tāʾiyya by Subkī who has the Prophet say, “I returned and everything had taken place in the space of a single moment”. As is often the case with Ḥalabī, Sufi poetry offers the ultimate answer, one that opens onto another interpretation of the world – far from the legal arguments rooted in the science of the ḥadīth or the rational arguments to which he is so attentive. With his characteristic discretion, Ḥalabī reminds the reader that God lengthens short lapses of time and “bends” long stretches for the saints of his community and that many stories discuss this bending of time (ṭāyy al-zamān), which is all at once a mysterious period of time, the absence of a specific length of time, and a temporal layering.

Just like time, places must also be organised rationally; however celestial geography is infuriating and difficult to understand, given the contradiction of the various versions and the awkward repetition of episodes. One of Ḥalabī’s goals is to establish an organised topography, linked to Earth and the very real places that were familiar to his Ottoman readers: Mecca and its surroundings, Jerusalem, the Nile, Euphrates. Ḥalabī considers the complex cosmogony of the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension, between Heaven and Hell. For example, one version (cited by Ibn Sayyid al-Nās41) describes Adam seated between the door of Hell and that of Heaven, both guarded by lions, as he passes judgement over the souls of faithful (destined for Heaven) and those of pagans (destined for Hell). The same description exists in al-Ghayṭī’s text but Qalyūbī does not ask the same questions as Ḥalabī: why do both doors exist in the first heaven when the Fire is on the seventh level of Earth and Heaven above the seventh heaven? Ḥalabī offers ingenious solutions.42

Every stage elaborates a complex system to match up Heaven and Earth, the tangible world and the imaginal one. The Heavenly Ascension starts with the Ladder that the souls of the sons of Adam must climb after their death. In a passage from the Mawāhib cited by Ḥalabī, Qastallānī talks about the Door to Heaven, called “the Angels’ ladder” that is said to stand facing the temple of Jerusalem and which can be used to climb directly to Heaven. According to Ibn Kathīr, this Ladder suggests that the Heavenly Ascension did not include the Burāq, contrary to Buṣīrī’s suggestion.43 Qalyūbī deferred to Suyūṭī and stated that the Burāq remained attached to the door of the Temple of Jerusalem and the Prophet rode it again only to return to Mecca. This also seems to be Ḥalabī’s opinion.

According to Ibn Ḥajar, each heaven has a house (bayt maʿmūr), and in the “heaven of the dunyā”, an image (ḥayyāl) of the Kaʿba can be found. The different “homes” are linked between each other in a topography that combines Heaven and Earth: the Kaʿba to Mecca, the Temple of Jerusalem, the heavenly bayt maʿmūr.44

At the end of the Heavenly Ascension, Gabriel leads Muḥammad to the Lote tree in the seventh heaven, from which spring all the celestial rivers. Contrary to other Sīras authors, and despite barely evoking Zamzam, Ḥalabī discusses these rivers at length. This singular passage, one of the virtuoso pieces in Ḥalabī’s text, was deemed important enough to be specifically cited by Shaykh al-Dardīr in his commentary.45 Dedicated to rendering heavenly geography clear and stable, Ḥalabī starts by citing Ibn Sayyid al-Nās: at the foot of the Lote tree of the furthest limit four rivers spring forth, two “internal” rivers (bāṭin) – hidden when they arrive in Heaven states Ḥalabī in a gloss – and two “external” ones (ẓāhir) – visible when flowing through Paradise. The two “external” rivers are the Nile and the Euphrates, which cut across Paradise while the two “internal” rivers, the Sayḥān and the Jayḥān do not. Ḥalabī digs deeper (the name of the rivers, their source, on Earth or in Heaven, visible or hidden). The Sayḥān and Jayḥān, in one version, do not start at the foot of the Lote tree and the rivers designated as “the internal rivers” were likely al-Salsabīl and al-Kawthar, as stated by Muqātil (d. 767). The Sīra shāmiyya follows this logic and quotes Qurṭubī who suggests that the Sayḥān and Jayḥān were only branches of the Nile and the Euphrates. Ḥalabī has reservations46 because Muḥammad had seen the Nile and the Euphrates in the first heaven,47 as well as their source. This, however, contradicts what is said elsewhere, that the Prophet saw at the foot of the Lote tree of the furthest limit four rivers, including the Nile and the Euphrates. It is possible, offers Ḥalabī, that the source (manbaʿ) begins under the Lote tree of the furthest limit, when their point of departure (ʿunṣur) can be found lower in the heaven of dunyā, and therefore after their route through Heaven and before they flowed onto the world.

It is also said that the source (ʿayn), al-Salsabīl, can be found at the Lote tree of the furthest limit. From there flow two rivers, the Kawthar and the River of mercy (nahr al-raḥma). Both bāṭin rivers could thus flow from the roots of the Lote tree of the furthest limit but not from the same place as the Nile and the Euphrates. Is the Kawthar a branch (qism) of Salsabīl? This goes against Muqātil who suggested it was an accompanying but not secondary river, a consort (qasīm) of sorts. If the Sayḥān and the Jayḥān rivers flowed from the same spot, then there would be six rivers flowing from the Lote tree of the furthest limit. This possibility would allow al-Qurṭubī’s interpretation to be included (all rivers in Paradise flow from the foot of the Lote tree), if we accept that the Sayḥān and the Jayḥān are derived from the Nile and the Euphrates. It would also include Ṭabarānī’s text that describes four rivers by their contents: water (the Sayḥān), milk (the Jayḥān), wine (the Euphrates), and pure honey (the Nile), the last point was confirmed by Kaʿb b. al-Aḥbār. Ibn Abī Jamra48 suggests that if these heavenly rivers flow from the Lote tree of the furthest limit, this would then mean that the tree is planted in Heaven. As for their names, Qaḍī Iyāḍ explains that Sayḥūn refers to Sayḥān and Jayḥūn to Jayḥān, which Ibn Kathīr contradicts – as does Nawawī – with a list of four distinct rivers (Sayḥūn, Sayḥān, Jayḥūn and Jayḥān).49 Ḥalabī points out that Kawthar is issued from the Salsabīl source, at the foot of the Lote tree of the furthest limit, which is not contradictory with its previous existence as a Heavenly river.

This long, rather overwhelming passage about the rivers of Heaven could be taken as a useless digression, as can be found in a work of adab. Here, however, nothing is left to chance. It is important to Ḥalabī to establish a framework in which he can place the account of the Heavenly Ascension, a framework that corresponds to and explains the realities of the Middle East of his time. In this version of the Night Journey, the importance of Moses and Joseph – two prophets who travelled through Egypt – correlate and support the significance of the Nile. Ḥalabī was Egyptian after all.

1.4 The Prophet, Blessed among All Prophets

Within this temporal and geographic framework, which organises and links the earth below with the heavens above, Ḥalabī establishes one of the major themes of the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension: the ties between the Prophet and the prophets who precede him and his superiority over them. The role of the Prophet, already and always present, in the past history of prophets and of humanity, within the alliance between God and men, explains how and why the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension make sense in the history of redemption, in the alliance between God and men, in the future of the Muslim community.

The Prophet knows the prophets and they recognise him. When the Prophet prays in Jerusalem before the other prophets, Gabriel informs Muḥammad of their identity. According to Ḥalabī, these presentations do not contradict the fact that Muḥammad already knew and recognised most of them. How is it then that later during the Heavenly Ascension, Gabriel had to, once again, present these same prophets to Muḥammad?50 Ḥalabī believes, as does Ibn Kathīr, that the two events are not contradictory. Perhaps the prophets in heaven do not have the same form or appearance (ṣuwar) as they did in Jerusalem because the barzakh is the imaginal world (ʿālam al-mithāl). The vision of the prophets in heaven would be a vision of their spirits, arwāḥ (except Jesus and Idrīs, who rose to heaven body and soul), whereas in Jerusalem, Muḥammad would have seen their terrestrial bodies, ajṣād, resuscitated for the occasion.51

Ḥalabī examines the specificities (khaṣāʾiṣ) of the Prophet. Did other prophets have their chests opened, as al-Shāmī’s believes, or was it only Muḥammad?52 “I respond” (ujību) answers Ḥalabī before going back to the origins, discussing the Arch of the Banī Isrāʾīl that God brought down to earth with Adam, which was handed down from prophet to prophet until Moses placed inside the Torah, his staff, Aaron’s turban, the fragments of the Tablets, and the golden vessel of Paradise that had been used to wash the heart of the prophets. This is the proof that the washing of his heart was not unique to the Prophet Muḥammad, but rather was shared (there was mushāraka) with certain prophets. Ḥalabī contradicts Suyūṭī’s khaṣāʾiṣ here (the latter onsiders the opening of the Prophet’s chest to be one of his specificities), aligning himself with al-Shāmī’s.53

As for the Burāq, Ḥalabī wonders if the pre-Muḥammadan prophets had already ridden it, as believed by Bayhaqī (d. 1066) and Shaʿrānī. For Nasāʾī (d. 915), only the prophets preceding Jesus had ridden it but none between Jesus and Muḥammad. Ḥalabī suggests that this ishtirāk (the sharing of characteristics between the Prophet and other prophets) is proven by the ḥadīth on the Burāq:54 “and [the Prophet] tied it at the gate of the mosque, using the ring by which the prophets tied it before him”. However, Suyūṭī says in the Khaṣāʾiṣ ṣughrā that only the Prophet had ever ridden the Burāq. Ḥalabī offers an ingenious hypothesis: perhaps Suyūṭī was simply saying that Muḥammad was the only one to have ridden the Burāq saddled and harnessed.55

Ḥalabī is less interested in establishing the singularities of Muḥammad compared to all other prophets than in studying his relationship to the other prophets in Jerusalem. Ḥalabī examines a ḥadīth quoted by Ibn Sayyid al-Nās: “God has resuscitated for me (nushira lī) a group of prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus”,56 and the Prophet prays at the head of them all. Ḥalabī adds that “the wisdom of this precision is clear”, Abraham personifies Hanifism, Moses Judaism, Jesus Christianity. It is important to establish the heritage of Islam and its supremacy over the preceding monotheisms – this is one of the key lessons of the Night Journey to Jerusalem.57 The life of the prophets beyond the grave is detailed: Jesus was not resurrected as he was not dead. Ḥalabī takes the opportunity to underline the strength of the link between body (ajsād) and spirit (arwāḥ), since the prophets are in the barzakh, a form of existence that resembles our earthly lives (the dunyā).58 This bit of information or this reminder, inserted in a flood of scholarly debates, is characteristic of Ḥalabī’s tendency to mention important theological elements, as if in passing.

Another clue from the Night Journey is the sun standing still for the Prophet, this is backed up by a verse of Subkī’s Tāʾiyya. Ḥalabī offers a wealth of details to answer whether or not the sun stood still only for the Prophet. Did it also refrain from setting for David, as suggested by a (weak) ḥadīth? For Solomon? And for Yūshaʾ b. Nūn b. Yūsuf al-Ṣiddīq (Joshua), the son of Moses’ sister? Ibn Sayyid al-Nās declares that this miracle only took place for Joshua and Muḥammad,59 but Ḥalabī recopies a story from ʿArāʾis al-Majālis by al-Thaʿlabī (d. 1035): the story of the Israelites attacking and massacring the Canaanite giants in Jericho.60 He goes back to the forty-year Exodus of the Israelites in the desert61 and proceeds to tie it into the al-Māʾida Sura (Cor. V, 23–28). According to Ḥalabī, the legend told by Thaʿlabī, just like the narrative of the Exodus in Damirī’s (d. 1405) Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān, is merely an explanation of Sura 5.62

Always careful to link the texts to his readership’s direct experience, he opens up other possibilities by quoting al-Uns al-jalīl by Mujīr al-Dīn al-ʿUlaymī (1456–1522) – Ḥalabī’s source for anything in relation to Palestine – that offers details on Jericho.63 Ḥalabī also seizes the opportunity to retell the episodes of the Mosaic saga, which is the backdrop for the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension. Moses was getting ready to walk to the Holy Land with the bones of the Prophet Joseph, because he did not want them to be left in Egypt, and planned on burying them in the Holy Land in accordance with Joseph’s final wishes. Moses had promised the Banū Isrāʾīl to leave when the moon rose but asked God to delay its appearance (and thus the setting of the sun) in order to find Joseph’s bones, buried in an unmarked grave.64 This Mosaic precedent furthers the underlying dialogue between the Qurʾān and the Sīra, between the stories of the prophets and the story of the Prophet, between Moses and Muḥammad.

Moses appears again in the sixth heaven during the Heavenly Ascension. Ḥalabī quotes Ibn Sayyid al-Nās: Moses cries when he learns that a young man sent after him (Muḥammad) will usher into Paradise more members of his community than will enter the members of Moses’ community.65 This explicit competition is one of the recurrent themes of Ḥalabī’s narrative, which retells that of Suyūṭī. The comparison of the eschatological roles of the Prophet and Moses refers to the al-Māʾida Sura.66

Muḥammad meets another “Egyptian” prophet, Joseph, in the third heaven. Once again, the comparison between the two is to the advantage of the Prophet. Had Joseph received half the beauty of “people”? Or rather, with his mother, the third of the beauty of the world? Or two thirds or even nine tenths as stated by Wahb b. Munabbih? For Halabī, it is clear that the mention of “people” necessarily excludes the Prophet, whose beauty cannot ever be fractioned as indicated by the author of the Burda (Būṣīrī): “for the essence of the beauty in him cannot be divided”. The poet Ibn al-Munīr (d. 1153) states however that Joseph had received the same amount of beauty as the Prophet, a point of view adopted by the commentator of Subkī’s Tāʾiyya. It is also stated that Joseph inherited the beauty of Isaac, who had received his from his mother Sarah, who in turn had inherited her beauty from Eve. Joseph, as beautiful as an angel, looked like Adam the day God created him and had inherited half or a third of his beauty. The final conclusion places Muḥammad in the lead: according to the al-Khaṣāʾiṣ al-ṣughrā by Suyūṭī, the Prophet had received all the beauty of the world, whereas Joseph had only received half. Ḥalabī concludes with a ḥadīth, God had never sent a prophet (nabī) who was not beautiful and gifted with a beautiful voice, but our Prophet had the most beautiful face and the most beautiful voice.67

The Heavenly Ascension recapitulates all the prophets and their recognition of Muḥammad. At each of the heavens they visit, Gabriel presents Muḥammad to the prophet who lives there and confirms that Muḥammad had been invested with a prophetic mission. The variations (which prophet lives in which heaven) do not detract from a rather stable cosmogony – that of Ibn Sayyid al-Nās and adopted by al-Ghayṭī/al-Qalyūbī. At the first heaven, Muḥammad meets Adam who judges the souls of his descendants, the faithful are sent to the heaven of ʿIlliyīn whereas the infidels are sent to Sijjīn (a valley in Hell). In the second heaven, Muḥammad meets Jesus and John the Baptist. Ḥalabī quotes the ḥadīths that are favorable to Yaḥyā. In the Kashshāf,68 while the Companions discuss the comparative merits of the prophets, Muḥammad speaks up to highlight those of Yaḥyā. He will be the one to slit death’s throat – death in the shape of a ram – on Resurrection Day.

Joseph is in the third heaven and in the fourth dwells Idrīs who recognises in Muḥammad a “pious son”. Idrīs, descendant of Seth, who was the first of Adam’s descendants to be sent, is the ancestor of Noah according to some. However, Idrīs was neither Noah’s grandfather nor one of the Prophet’s ancestors, Ḥalabī quickly amends. Idrīs was raised to the heavens, perhaps from Egypt as stated in the Qurʾān (Maryam, 57).69 Back on earth, Idrīs called all creatures to God in 72 different languages, taught them the sciences, and was the first astrologer. Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) underlines the fact that no passage of the Qurʾān supports the hypothesis of Idrīs’s mission as an emissary. Noah was the first prophet (nabī) to have received a message (risāla) from God; before him, each prophet lived according to the law of his Lord.70

In the fifth heaven, Aaron is surrounded by the Banū Isrāʾīl.71 The sixth heaven is home to Moses; Ḥalabī describes his thick hair, his anger, his animal gait. The seventh heaven is that of Abraham, sitting facing the doors of Paradise.

As with his prophetology, Ḥalabī’s angelology – often inspired by that of Shaʿrānī – carefully examines hierarchy and precedence: Did the Prophet ride the Burāq behind Gabriel, or did Gabriel simply guide the steed? And what of the role of Mikāʾīl? Here, Ḥalabī deploys the Shifāʾ by Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ, the Ṣaḥīḥ by Ibn Ḥibbān (d. 965), and the Sharaf,72 readings that result in several hypotheses. Perhaps Gabriel had at times ridden and at times guided the Burāq, standing to its right. Perhaps Mikāʾīl had also taken the reins of the Prophet’s steed but to its left. Ḥalabī finally quotes the opinion of Damīrī: Gabriel did not ride the Burāq, because this is one of the particularities of the Prophet (or of certain prophets).73

2 The Burāq, the Rock and the Houris: Discretion on the Enchantment

As usual, Ḥalabī is more interested in the relationship between the Burāq and the Prophet than in the Burāq itself. Faced with sceptics and opponents, Ḥalabī concentrates on proving the truth of the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension, searching for it in a sort of rational plausibility supported by the Qurʾān and the Sunna. He therefore talks little of the legendary and fantastic aspects that generally accompany accounts of the Night Journey. When discussing the legendary Burāq, Ḥalabī prefers to deal with the subject as a scholarly lexicographer (the Burāq is thus named because of its radiance or its speed, the name of its coat states that it is black and white, with a black that is close to red) and discusses the way the animal flies, lands, its gait. Quoting Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, he describes an incredibly rapid animal that is between a donkey and a mule in size. Between earth and sky, the Burāq places its hooves at the farthest boundary of its gaze.74 It bucked when the Prophet approached and was admonished by Gabriel.75 Ḥalabī continues half-heartedly, because of his sanad ḍaʿīf, by quoting the description of the Burāq by Thaʿlabī (d. 1038): its ears like those of an elephant, its snout like that of a camel, its elephant-like chest, its eagle wings, its horse hooves, and camel tail. Another description gives the creature a human face, a horse’s body, and bull hooves. “And we must reconcile these versions to appreciate the truth (wa-yuḥtāj ilā l-jamʿ bayna hādhihi l-riwāyāt ʿalā taqdīr al-ṣiḥḥa) concludes Ḥalabī prudently.76 Unlike Qalyūbī, he does not discuss the ten animals that entered Heaven77 and offers no details concerning the Burāq’s saddle and halter.78 Ḥalabī does not dwell on a fantastical Burāq, offering up instead a Burāq that remains miraculous while playing only a minor role.

The same holds true for the Rock. When the Prophet arrives in Jerusalem and attaches the Burāq to a ring, Gabriel uses his fingers to make a hole for him in the Rock (al-ṣakhra).79 Maqrīzī’s Imtāʿ, quoted by Ḥalabī, mentions that people continue to place their hands on the imprint.80 The Rock is said to come from Heaven, near the palm tree under which Āsiya and Maryam bint ʿUmrān organise banquets until Resurrection Day, according to a ḥadīth that Ḥalabī mentions was rejected by al-Dhahabī (d. 1348): “its isnād is obscure and it is a proven lie”. Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1148), the legal scholar, in his commentary of the Muwaṭṭāʾ, clearly affirms that the Rock of Jerusalem is one of God’s miracles because it stands in the middle of the Masjid al-aqṣā, with, on one side, the imprint of the Prophet’s foot when he climbed onto the Burāq, and on the other side, the marks of the angel’s fingers.81 However, Suyūṭī (d. 1505), when asked if Muḥammad’s footprint in the stone had been attested in the ḥadīth, answered negatively.82 In sum, without directly denying the miracles dear to the faithful devotees, Ḥalabī leaves ample room for criticism of the devotions that dominated Islam during his lifetime.

Ḥalabī also refrains from encouraging an abusively emotive vision of Heaven. There is even a legendary element, present in other Sīras, that Ḥalabī passes over: Gabriel’s invitation to visit the Houris. The description of the Lote tree of the furthest limit remains sober, as does that of Heaven. Though he does state that Muḥammad enters Heaven with its pearl domes and soil of musk,83 its pomegranates and birds. Despite being absent from Ibn Sayyid al-Nās’s version, Ḥalabī adds the pomegranates to explain the fruits in Heaven: according to a ḥadīth, they are the same fruits found on earth, but in Heaven they are perfectly sweet and ripe. Ibn ʿArabī explains that the fruit of Paradise, neither cut nor forbidden, are eaten without being picked. This does not mean that once cut, another fruit grows in its place, as some have believed, but rather that the essence (al-ʿayn) of what the servant eats is indeed the essence of what Ḥalabī sees “and this is matter for thought”.84

During his journey, the Prophet, guided by Gabriel, passed by a threatening djinn who calls out to him in vain. For Qalyūbī, this is an opportunity for Gabriel to teach the Prophet apotropaic formulas, which he then explains in detail. Such is not the case for Ḥalabī.85 The episode of the hairdresser of the Pharaoh’s daughter (Muḥammad smells the fragrance emanating from her tomb) occurs soon after. Ḥalabī sums it up in only five words whereas al-Qalyūbī recounts the event with a multitude of legends.86 Perhaps Ḥalabī is showing restraint for tales that neither the Qurʾān nor any ḥadīth support. Or perhaps, the legend of a Jewish or Christian mother martyred with her children because of her faith (an allusion to the Maccabees developed by Syriac hagiography) was not conducive to establishing the superiority of the Prophet and of the Muslim community – one of the main goals of the Night Journey.87

Ḥalabī thus limits the fantasy that grounds an entire genre of Egyptian literature in the seventeenth century.88 Ḥalabī remains focused on the goal of the Night Journey: glorifying the Prophet and his community.

2.1 The Prophet and his Community: The Damned, the fiṭra and Eschatological Roles

Ḥalabī narrates the Prophet’s encounters and visions after Muḥammad prays in Jerusalem and right before the Heavenly Ascension. His choice is theologically motivated. Strengthened for his mission through his prayers before the other prophets, the Prophet is thus ready to face the temptations of the dunyā, the devil, the Christian and Jewish missionaries trying to convert his community, and to face the punishment awaiting sinners. Having these episodes take place in Jerusalem also corresponds to a cosmological analysis: since Hell is under the seventh layer of the Earth, how could it appear in Heaven? In the qiṣṣā by al-Ghayṭī adopted by al-Qalyūbī, the text is very similar, but the order of episodes is markedly different. The Prophet meets the damned and the tempters (the Jew, the Christian, the dunyā, Iblīs, the old lady) on the road to Jerusalem before and not after his prayer before the other prophets.

After the Prophet has already embarked on his Heavenly Ascension, there is another vision of the damned enduring unbearable punishment.89 Ḥalabī is determined to reconcile the descriptions of the damned that the Prophet met in Jerusalem – thus on earth during the Night Journey – with these new descriptions seen in the first heaven of the Heavenly Ascension. An ulterior repetition occurs when Muḥammad once again sees the damned condemned for their aspersions and gossip on his way down after the Heavenly Ascension. Ḥalabī is keenly aware of the awkwardness of these repetitions and suggests the very frequency of this particular sin explains the recurrences.90 Unusually laconic, Ḥalabī does not comment on these successive visions, nor does he give in to his customary examinations of contradicting ḥadīths.91

Al-Ghayṭī/al-Qalyūbī enumerates the damned before the “Jewish missionary” (dāʿī al-yahūd) and the “Christian missionary” (dāʿī al-naṣārā) call out to the Prophet. The Prophet is then tempted by a beautiful woman (the dunyā), then by Iblīs, and after an old lady (the other face of the dunyā) calls out to him. Ḥalabī modifies the encounters, changing their order. He starts with the calls from the Jew and the Christian and follows them by the damned, then the dunyā as a beautiful woman, then as the old lady, saving Iblīs for later.92 Ḥalabī is clearly concerned with coherence as he organises his Divine Comedy differently.

In the Night Journey, Ḥalabī is looking for that which makes sense in the history of salvation within the Muslim community. After seeing the damned and undertaking the Heavenly Ascension, the Prophet must choose, depending on the versions reported by Ḥalabī, between milk and honey, between wine and milk,93 or between three jugs of wine, milk, and water.94 Each time, the Prophet chooses milk, the drink of the fiṭra – in other terms, explains Ḥalabī, of Islam. Wine, states Gabriel, will be forbidden to the community, after having first been allowed. There is debate around where these different choices took place: in Jerusalem or in Heaven? Ḥalabī deems that both possibilities are plausible because nothing is an obstacle (lā māniʿ) to this repetition before the Prophet leaves Jerusalem and after, right before the Heavenly Journey.95 Neither is there a contradiction (wa-lā taʿāruḍ) in the possibility that the receptacles contained different liquids.96

Having harmonised and arranged the fairly confusing accounts of what happened in the hereafter, choosing to make no commentary on the situation of the damned, Halabī can dwell longer than al-Ghayṭī or Ibn Sayyid al-Nās on the eschatology revealed during the Heavenly Ascension. One of the differences between the Sīra ḥalabiyya and other Sīras is that the Prophet is informed of the situation of people in Heaven and Hell. He smells the musk and hears the gentle music from Heaven before being attacked by the putrid stench and the cacophony from Hell. Only then does the text mention Muḥammad’s encounter with Iblīs, without any further details.97

Halabī then indulges in a short theological excursus. He refutes the Muʿtazilites who believe that God did not create Heaven or Hell and that He will not create them before Judgement Day because God cannot create these two places before their inhabitants are created. Ḥalabī argues that, on the one hand, “the virtuous man struggles for a created reward (thawāb makhlūq) and to avoid a created punishment (ʿiqāb makhlūq)” and that on the other hand, God did not include Heaven and Hell in al-Zumar, 68 (“and here are those who will be in Heaven and those who live on earth will be struck with lightning, except for those chosen by Allah”). The stroke of lightning, in other words death, concerns only those with a spirit (rūḥ).98

Laconic concerning the fate of the damned and their spectacular punishments, with barely a word about Iblīs, Ḥalabī is loquacious concerning Heaven and the place therein for the Muslim community. There are 120 clans (ṣaff) in Heaven, 80 of which belong to “this community” (hādhihi l-umma) and only 40 to the other “communities”. Each community will have certain members in Heaven and others in Hell, except for “this community” (the Muslim community), which will be in Heaven in its entirety. This statement contradicts Muḥammad’s vision during the Night Journey, when he sees sinners from his Community in Hell. Ḥalabī eludes the contradiction by suggesting in his text the hierarchy of resurrected believers.

In the seventh heaven, the Home (al-bayt al-maʿmūr) – the heavenly image of the Kaʿba – is peopled with a horde of angels, the number ranging from 70,000 to 70 times 70,000.99 After, there is a discussion of limbo for infants. Ḥalabī quotes Suhaylī, who in turn had quoted a ḥadīth used by Bukhārī in the Kitāb al-janāʾiz, the children of the faithful or the infidels who die in their infancy were seen by the Prophet in the seventh heaven and are under the protection of Abraham.

The Prophet also sees his community split into two equal parts (shaṭrayn), one in white, the other in grey. He enters into the bayt maʿmūr exclusively with those dressed in white. Ḥalabī comments that both parts cannot be equal because that would mean that the number of sinners in his community is equal to the number of faithful. The gatekeeper of the seventh heaven, Abraham, predicts the Community will grow as they are rooted in the good soil of Heaven, made of lā ḥawla wa-lā quwwata illā bi-Llāh or, in a variation, of subḥāna Llāhu wa-l-ḥamdu li-Llāh wa-lā ilāha illā Llāh wa-Allāhu akbar.100

At the end of the Heavenly Ascension, Gabriel stays behind and Muḥammad, in a cloud, rises to the Throne in a light where he hears the sound of pens (ṣarīf al-aqlām), and then climbs onto the Rafraf to rise towards the Vision (al-ruʾya) and hearing the Word that is addressed to him (al-khiṭāb). Ibn Sayyid al-Nās barely talks of the realities of Heaven and skims the difficult subject of the vision.101 In contrast, Ḥalabī places eschatological realities at the heart of his narrative (even if, due to fear of anthropomorphism, he does not depict God sitting on the Throne). These realities allow for the introduction of the Prophet’s ineffable approach to God. Muḥammad goes through 70,000 veils before hearing the voice of Abū Bakr, “Stop, your Lord is praying”. This passage is commented further in the text when the discussion focuses on al-Aḥzāb, (Q 33:43) and in the comparison with Moses. For Ḥalabī, an angel, using Abū Bakr’s voice, had called out to Muḥammad to warn him of the divine presence.102

While Muḥammad ponders the message, a voice calls out, “Approach, Oh pinnacle of all creation, approach Oh Aḥmad, approach Oh Muḥammad”. As said in the Sura Najm, 8–9: “Then he approached and hung above suspended until he was two bows’ length away, or (even) nearer” (thumma danā wa-tadallā fa-kāna qāba qawsayn aw adnā). Ḥalabī immediately quotes the Khaṣāʾiṣ ṣughrā by Suyūṭī, the Prophet is also singular due to the isrāʾ, to the fact that he was the only one to have travelled the seven heavens all the way to a distance of two bows’ length (qāb al-qawsayn), and of all the prophets and angels, he is the one who has stood closest to God. This suggests that the Prophet is the acting subject of “approached” (danā) and “hung above suspended” (tadallā). A different author has God approaching Muḥammad. Ibn Ḥajar, quoting al-Bayhaqī, relates a ḥadīth that supports this interpretation. Ḥalabī explains that the meaning of the approach by God is similar to the meaning of the station of descent (maqām al-tanazzul) among the mystics (ahl al-ḥaqā’iq), when God descends to talk to his servants with their own words, out of kindness and concern for them. To avoid any accusation of anthropomorphism,103 Ḥalabī specifies that for the mystics, these expressions are realities (ḥaqīqa), whereas for Him, they are a metaphor (majāz). Ḥalabī also discusses an author who designates Gabriel as the subject of danā (“approached”) and Muḥammad the subject of tadallā (“hung above suspended”). Still another designates the Rafraf as the subject of tadallā and Muḥammad the subject of danā: the Rafraf – cushion of light – was suspended so that Muḥammad could sit.104

God placed his hand between the Prophet’s shoulders (Ḥalabī specifies that the phrase is not literal) and gave him the knowledge of the firsts and the lasts. Though Muḥammad must keep silent (kitmān) about certain sciences, God allows him to teach others (tablīgh) in order to instruct humans, djinns, and angels. God asks Muḥammad what Gabriel would like: to help Muḥammad’s community on the Ṣīrāṭ, the Bridge over Hell on Judgement Day. God grants Gabriel his wish, but only, he stipulates to Muḥammad, “for those who love you and accompany you”.105 An undifferentiated salvation is thus not extended to the entire community; we have here a gradation in the intercession, one that Ḥalabī carefully defines. “Those that accompany you” are “those that obey Muḥammad in his religion and practice the sunna”. The salvation of Muslims who do not practice their religion cannot be as dazzling as that of the devout who respect the law. Perhaps even, salvation is not guaranteed, as indicated by the display of the damned.

2.2 Establishing Prayer and the Beatific Vision

According to one version, upon seeing God, Muḥammad falls down in prostrate adoration, and God “reveals to him what he reveals” (a paraphrase of the Sura al-Najm, Q 53:10)106 – including the fifty daily prayers. After his celestial meeting, the Prophet goes back down to find Gabriel at the Lote tree of the furthest limit, then on to Abraham, and then to Moses. The last sends Muḥammad back up to request fewer prayers because he had experienced something similar with the Banū Isrāʾīl.107 Ḥalabī summarises the trips the Prophet makes between Moses and God, and opens a debate about whether there had been a rescission, how, why, and was it valid for the Prophet or for his community.108 He continues with a number of ḥadīths concerning other instructions given during the Heavenly Ascension (ablutions, zakāt, loans).

At the end of the passage of his Sīra on the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension, Ḥalabī returns to the institution of prayer.109 On the morning of the night of the Miʿrāj, Gabriel teaches Muḥammad the prayer: it was the ṣalāt al-ẓuhr, thus named because it was the first to “appear” or because it is performed when the sun is at its zenith.110 Ḥalabī embarks on a legal discussion (he quotes “our imam al-Shāfiʿī”), concerning the qibla: the Kaʿba, Jerusalem, or even the Kaʿba placed between the Prophet and Jerusalem, during his prayer. There is also a discussion about Muḥammad’s exact location when he prayed – at which of the Kaʿba’s doors;111 about the definition of a day and the moment of prayers as defined by al- Shāfiʿī.112 While Ibn Sayyid al-Nās dedicates a third of the ʿUyūn al-athar (five out of fifteen printed pages) to the five prayers and their times,113 Ḥalabī allots less than one tenth of his Sīra.114 Contrary to his predecessor, he is most interested in the correspondence between the five moments of prayer and the different prophets (Adam, David and Isḥāq, Solomon and ʿUzayr, Jacob or Jesus, Jonah).115

After having reached the summit of the Heavenly Ascension, it is time to summarise, thanks to the six lines of the Hamziyya, what the Sīra had just explained in detail over the previous fifty pages, from “the folding of the earth” for the Prophet during his journey on the Burāq’s back to how he achieved a degree of perfect contentment that knows neither penury nor excess.116 Ḥalabī returns to why Moses wept upon meeting the Prophet. “I state,” he concludes, that this meeting between Muḥammad and Moses demonstrates “the pre-eminence of our Prophet and the pre-eminence of his community, in that he is the best of the prophets and his community the best of the communities” (iẓhār faḍīlat nabiyyinā wa-faḍīlat ummatihi, bi-annahu afḍal al-anbiyā’ wa-ummatihi bi-annahā afḍal al-umam).117 Ultimately, for Ḥalabī, this is the meaning of the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension, along with the requirement to pray, establishing a religion above all others that had come before, and the Prophet above all other prophets.

Of all the realities of the Hereafter the Prophet experienced, the Beatific Vision remains the most enigmatic and debated. According to Ḥalabī, Ibn Sayyid al-Nās states that there is ikhtilāf, but the majority of ulama agree that the Prophet saw God with his own eyes.118 This explains the admittedly questionable ḥadīth (muḍtarab al-isnād wa-l-matn), “I saw my Lord in the most beautiful form” (raʾaytu rabbī fī aḥsani ṣūra). A mystic would have said that God, when examining the hearts of men, did not find one that pined for him as much as Muḥammad’s heart – this is why he rewarded him with the Miʿrāj, with sight and speech. ʿĀʾisha, followed by the Companions and the ulama, denied the vision, deeming it a frightful lie. However, according to al-Dārimī (d. 869), the majority of Companions, and many traditionalists and theologians, approve of the reality of the vision – as stated by Ibn Sayyid al-Nās in a single line, “he saw Him, and no one but Him, with his eyes and fully conscious, not metaphorically”. ʿĀʾisha refutes the possibility of the ru’ya, using the verse from the al-Anʿām, 103 Sura: “eyes cannot grasp him” (lā tudrikuhu al-abṣār). Masrūq apparently replied with this verse, “he had already seen Him during a different descent” (al-Najm, 13). However, does the pronoun-object (“he saw him”) designate God or Gabriel? Did the Prophet see God two different times?119 The repetition of the vision would correspond to the Distance of the two bows and to the Lote tree of the furthest limit, suggests Suyūṭī in al-Khaṣāʾiṣ al-ṣughrā, which concludes by stating that Muḥammad was the only prophet to see God (twice) but shares with Moses the honour of having been spoken to by God.120

ʿĀʾisha affirms having questioned the Prophet, “Have you seen the Lord?”. To which Muḥammad is said to have replied, “I saw Gabriel.” Ibn Sayyid al-Nās mentions that a Companion, Abū Ḏarr, also questioned the Prophet who is said to have replied, “I saw a light”.121 Ḥalabī explains that the light prevented Muḥammad from seeing God because God is not light, rather he uses it as a veil (ḥijāb), as written by Muslim. In al-Nūr, 35 (“God is the light of the heavens and earth”), we are to understand that God is the “possessor of light” (dhū nūr). Qādī ʿIyāḍ refutes the idea that light is the essence of God (ḏātuhu), for light is an accident (aʿrāḍ).122

How then should we approach ʿĀʾisha’s fierce rejection of what so many Sufi authors agree upon? Ibn Sayyid al-Nās suggests that Muḥammad saw God with his heart (fuʾād) and not with his own eyes. God then created a vision or a view (baṣar) in the Prophet’s heart. Ḥalabī opts for this elegant solution to save the idea of a conscious vision and to refute ʿĀʾisha’s Qurʾānic argument in Anʿām, 103: “grasped” (idrāk) is not “vision” (ruʾya). When asked about ʿĀʾisha’s rejection of Muḥammad’s vision of God, Imam Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal focuses on the ḥadīth, “I saw my Lord”. What the Prophet said trumps anything ʿĀʾisha may have recounted. However, for Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) (very rarely quoted by Ḥalabī), Imam Aḥmad designates here a dream vision (ruʾyat al-manām); an authentic vision, yet it was not seen with his bodily eyes and in a state of consciousness. According to Ibn Taymiyya, pretending that the vision was a corporal vision is a fantasy, and the People of Sunna all agree that none can see God with their eyes here on earth. None of the major ḥadīths (mashhūr) on the Night Journey indicates that Muḥammad saw God – or if so, they are ḥadīths from a forged isnād. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim says, “Know that none among you can ever see our Lord before you die and that it was refused to Moses when he asked for it”.123 These arguments, which couldn’t be easily dismissed, are clearly more important to Ḥalabī than the biased testimony of ʿĀʾisha.

How to conclude? Al-Qurṭubī left the question in suspense (waqf), because there is no clear proof (dalīl qāṭiʿ), and the contradictory arguments of both sides (al-farīqān) are often subjects to comment (qābila li-l-taʾwīl). A decisive argument would be needed if belief in a physical vision was part of the tenets (muʿtaqadāt),124 whereas the vision is one of the things that must simply be believed such as the resurrection and the coming together of humans on Judgement Day (ka-l-ḥashr wa-l-nashr).125 Suyūṭī’s Khaṣāʾiṣ ṣughrā places the vision of God among the greatest of the Prophet’s khaṣāʾiṣ, in accordance with Najm, 18 (la-qad raʾā min ayāti rabbihi al-kubrā, “He saw certain of God’s most important signs”). Ibn Diḥya (1150–1235) already considered the vision and proximity to God as part of the Prophet’s attributes and Nawawī (1233–1277) concluded that the most plausible explanation was that Muḥammad had seen God with his own eyes. As for his dream vision, Suyūṭī includes it among the Prophet’s khaṣāʾiṣ, an opinion corroborated by Nawawī who adhered to the Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ.126

The Beatific Vision the day of Resurrection will belong in principle to all creatures, humans and djinns, men and women, faithful and infidels, angels and others. There is however a disagreement (ikhtilāf), notes Ḥalabī, on the “vision by women” (ruʾyat al-nisāʾ) of Paradise. Perhaps they will not see God because they will remain in their tents; or perhaps they would only see him on feast days, as compared to the men who would see him every Friday, and the chosen (al-khawāṣṣ) who would see him every day, morning and evening.

The dissociation between isrāʾ and miʿrāj, and the fact that the al-Isrāʾ Sura does not mention the miʿrāj are problematic – a situation that Ḥalabī is not the first to try to resolve. According to Suhaylī, quoted by Ibn Sayyid al-Nās,127 then by Ḥalabī, the isrāʾ took place corporally and the Miʿrāj spiritually. This is why the Prophet told the Qurayshites only about the isrāʾ and not about the miʿrāj. Ḥalabī penned a lengthy discussion:128 according to him, rather than two distinct events, there are two distinct accounts because the Prophet’s account of the miʿrāj did not take place at the same time as that of the isrāʾ. If Muḥammad first talked about the Night Journey, it was a pedagogical strategy of progression since the Heavenly Ascension was a greater miracle and the Prophet wanted the Quraysh to evolve in their faith. Only when they believed in the Night Journey did the Prophet inform them of the Heavenly Ascension.

Contrary to what al-Dimyāṭī (d. 1305–1306) suggested129 (that the miʿrāj took place during Ramadan and the isrāʾ in Rabīʿ I), the two events took place the same night, affirms Ḥalabī, who backs up his statement with the title used by Bukhārī in his Ṣaḥīḥ: “How prayer was imposed on the night of the isrāʾ”. As the five daily prayers were imposed during the miʿrāj,130 there is only one event. Ḥalabī mentions other authors who argue that the isrāʾ took place twice, once in dream and once awake; or starting in Mecca and not Jerusalem, and in full daylight.131 Re-examining Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, who in turn quotes Bukhārī, Ḥalabī returns to the ḥadīth’s brief account of the Heavenly Ascension – with no mention of the Journey to Jerusalem, “the roof of my home opened, while I was in Mecca, Gabriel descended … and holding my hand, flew up into the heavens”.132 Ḥalabī ingeniously renders the different versions compatible.

He does however disqualify other hypotheses. It is strange to say that the conscious miʿrāj was repeated. Why would the gatekeepers of each heaven ask each time whether or not Muḥammad had already received his mission? Why would Muḥammad reiterate his questions to Gabriel? And finally, how could God repeat the obligation to pray? As for pretending that the dream miʿrāj prepared for the conscious ascension was simply the result of contradicting versions (manshāʾ ikhtilāf al-riwāyāt). Ḥalabī is thus conscious of the risks of forcefully reconciling texts that are simply juxtaposed with no explanations. This must be avoided, and a path must be chosen. Following the example of Ibn Kathīr, Ḥalabī concludes, the Prophet accomplishes a single isrāʾ in mind and body (but perhaps with the eyes of his heart, adds Ḥalabī) and fully conscious.133 Ḥalabī does not ever return to this debate nor to this final affirmation. This is his final answer to the main theme announced at the very start of his narrative.

3 Conclusion

The Sīra ḥalabiyya is as much a portrait of its author as it is of the Prophet. We can only agree with the words of al-Muḥibbī (1651–1699) on Ḥalabī several decades after his death, “He was a mountain of knowledge, a bottomless ocean of intelligence, a remarkable scholar, he embodied all sorts of excellence. He spent most of his life proposing and furthering useful knowledge and thus acquired an unrivalled prestige…. He dove deep in his studies thanks to a sharp understanding and strong ideas, he carefully examined the fatwas, and linked knowledge to action (ʿilm wa-ʿamal). He was a serious man who applied himself to the ijtihād.”134

As noted by Tarif Khalidi, al-Sīra al-ḥalabiyya was an immediate bestseller.135 A century later, the Syrian Sufi ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641–1731) had already identified Ḥalabī as the “author of the famous Sīra”.136 It was first published as an Ottoman Turkish translation by Būlāq in 1833, two years before the benchmark Arabic edition of A Thousand and One Nights, and more than a century before the first edition of Ibn Sayyid al-Nās’s Sīra. It would take another thirty years for the original Arabic text of the Sīra ḥalabiyya to be published in Cairo in 1863 and twelve more before a definitive edition was published by Būlāq in 1292/1875, thanks to a proofreader from Būlāq, the Azhar Sufi Shaykh Ibrāhīm ʿAbd al-Ghaffār al-Disūqī (d. 1883). The work’s three volumes displayed in their margins Al-Sīra al-nabawiyya wa-l-athār al-muḥammadiyya, written by a contemporary, the Shāfiʿī mufti from Mecca, Sayyid Aḥmad Zaynī Daḥlān (d. 1886). In a decidedly Sufi and anti-Wahhabi vein, Daḥlān declared he had relied on the commentaries of Shifāʾ, on the Mawāhib by al-Qastallānī and their commentary by Zurqānī (d. 1710), and also on the most trustworthy siyar (aṣaḥḥ al-kutub al-muʾallafa fī hadhā l-sha’n): those of Ibn Sayyid al-Nās and Ibn Hishām, the Sīra shāmiyya and the Sīra ḥalabiyya.137 This goes to show that the Sīra ḥalabiyya, which summarised the three previous Sīras quoted by Daḥlān, was the pinnacle of what could be written on the subject for a Sufi scholar at the end of the nineteenth century. The same holds true for Orientalists.138 In 2009, Palestinian historian Tarif Khalidi, born in 1938 in Jerusalem to an illustrious family, deemed the Sīra ḥalabiyya was still the most consulted. His opinion is not factually supported, but it is a reflection of the cultivated Muslim aristocracy in which he grew up. Recent editions attest to the fact that the Sīra ḥalabiyya is still – or is once again – being used to defend the Prophet. However, it has become too long, too complex, and also too Sufi. The twentieth century witnessed the decline of its reputation.

Far from being a Sīra infatuated with fantastical events as it has sometimes been described, the Sīra by Ḥalabī is a work of the highest calibre, which, as stated Tarif Khalidi, focuses on conciliation using techniques to critique the ḥadīths without ever being enslaved by them. This form of rationality and logic prevails when organising material, but it never excludes the possibility of a miracle – or perhaps by concentrating on the miracles that count, those of the Prophet. Theology, criticism of the ḥadīths, Sufism and fiqh, the holy story was placed in perspective in a highly personal quest for coherence. The desire to reconcile divergent versions of the same event led Ḥalabī to display extreme ingenuity, but never to the point of dissimulating the oppositions and impasses when they occurred. At such moments, he chose to delve ever further rather than dismiss or attenuate differences. There is nothing peremptory in Ḥalabī, as opposed to Ibn Kathīr before him and Nabhānī after him, who in 1894 hammered home what we are supposed to think, believe, and say about the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension.139 When Ḥalabī discusses divergent opinions of certain authors, his progressive layout unveils the leanings of his heart, a heart that does not forget rational order, strives for harmony, and still takes into account contradictory debates. He goes so far as to quote Ibn Taymiyya – who was the most obvious opponent of the prophetic miracle.

With Ḥalabī, we are far from the concise narration of Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, far from the accumulation of ḥadīths by al-Shāmī, the concise and lively storyline of the Miʿrāj by al-Ghayṭī, or its pious commentary by Qalyūbī. “It’s as if Muḥammad’s Sīra was integrated into the Qurʾān as matter for the most advanced exegesis” (Tarif Khalidi). It is not because it is more recent, with the advantage of a vaster sedimentation of material over time, that Ḥalabī’s Sīra is more developed than its predecessors. It is because its author made personal choices that he had long weighed amidst the ocean of texts and knowledge at his disposal in order to offer his fellow Muslims an orientation within the tradition. There is nothing left to chance in the Sīra ḥalabiyya, which was a commissioned work and perhaps even a work destined to be wielded on the battle lines of his day.

By discretely skipping over certain legends and avoiding the useless and the superfluous, Ḥalabī stands out from his predecessors (Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, al-Shāmī) and a portion of his contemporaries (Qalyūbī). His singularity is further underlined through a historicising format that is attentive to the logical coherence and the chronological succession of events, through his reflection on the providential inscription of the Prophet in the ancient history of prophecies, and finally through his insistence on the meaning of the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension. When his contemporary al-Qalyūbī stated simply that “all these things must be believed” (wa-kullu hādhihi al-umūr yajibu al-īmān bihā) because they flow from the divine power,140 Ḥalabī sought to offer rational proof, and appeal to his readership’s intelligence, all the while rendering tangible and proximate the realities of Heaven that are mysteriously linked to those here on earth. By putting aside the fantastical elements and discretely distilling a vision inspired by Sufi authors, he studies numerous – often contradictory – versions that suggest a multitude of possible figures of the Prophet. He ignored none. Yet, the figure of the Prophet as seen by Ḥalabī emerges. His Prophet is not a fabulous, triumphant hero who climbs onto the fantastical Burāq and goes from heaven to heaven, surrounded by angels, like in the Persian or Ottoman miniatures of his time. Instead, we meet “this extraordinary man”, unique in his beauty and humility, who is woken in the middle of the night to experience the ineffable, which must be told nevertheless. Proof needed to be found of this incredible experience, unique moments that made Moses cry and left Gabriel at the Lote tree of the furthest limit. For Ḥalabī, the Prophet did truly undertake, at least once, the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension in mind and body. Night Journey and Heavenly Ascension culminate in the Vision of God, also real, where Muḥammad approaches God because he wished for it more deeply than anyone else (it is the only moment in the narrative where Muḥammad is fully an actor of his own story). Recognised as the Prophet among prophets in Jerusalem, Muḥammad travels through the seven heavens and learns the sciences revealed by God; he becomes the initiator of daily prayers and the eschatological intercessor for his community.

For Ḥalabī, the goal of this chapter was to prove the reality of the Night Journey and the Heavenly Ascension by Muḥammad, in body and mind, as well as the reality of the Beatific Vision with his eyes – perhaps the eyes of his heart. There are no authoritative arguments, but he offers the possibility of a miracle. As an exegete of the Sīra, Ḥalabī, like the Prophet before him, leads his readers where he chose to guide them: closer to God.


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  • Van Ess, J.Le Miʿrāj et la vision de Dieu”, in M.A. Amir-Moezzi, ed. Le voyage initiatique en terre d’islam. Ascensions célestes et itinéraires spirituels, 2756.

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See Muḥibbī, Khulāṣat al-athar fī aʿyān al-qarn al-hādī ʿashar, III, 122–24.


The edition 1356/1937 ʿUyūn al-athar – published in Cairo and quoted by F. Rosenthal in his article in the Encyclopédie de l’islam, 2nd edition – was deemed faulty by the critical edition that appeared in both Beirut-Damascus and Medina around 1997, which we consulted. There is also a 1966 edition from Beirut of the ʿUyūn al-athar, which Tilman Nagel used in Allahs Liebling.


Ibn Sayyid al-Nās also used lost or obscure sources such as Mūsā b. ʿUqba, Ibn ʿĀʾidh, Abū ʿAruba, Abū Bishr al-Dawlabī. See Nagel, Allahs Liebling, 218–229.


For example, on the question of the opening of the Prophet’s chest, Ḥalabī writes, “I saw that he [al-Shāmī] had gathered this in a part titled ʿThe light of the moon in what has been written during the opening of the chest’ (Nūr al-badr fī-mā jāʾa fī shaqq al-ṣadr), but I went no further. And God is most knowledgeable”, I, 518.


On the Bakrī, see Mughazy and Sabra (eds.), Manāqib al-Sāda al-Bakrīya. Sabra, Adam, “Household Sufism in Sixteenth-Century Egypt: The Rise of al-Sāda al-Bakrīya” 101–118.


See Muḥibbī, Khulāṣat al-athar fī aʿyān al-qarn al-hādī ʿashar, III, 122–124. Translation by Pascale Pinel-Cahagne, Le merveilleux dans la biographie de Muḥammad (sīra) due à Nūr al-Dīn al-Ḥalabī. Choix d’épisodes, 71.


On Ramlī, see Khulāṣat al-athar fī aʿyān al-qarn al-hādī ʿashar, III, 342–43. Shams al-Ramlī was the son of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ramlī (d. 957/1550), disciple of Zakariyyā al-Anṣārī (d. 1520).


Geoffroy, Le soufisme en Égypte et en Syrie sous les derniers Mamelouks et les premiers Ottomans.


The majority of Ḥalabī’s work deals with devotion to the Prophet with a commentary on the forty ḥadīths of Nawawī (d. 1277), another on the Burda by Būṣīrī (d. 1294), and a third on al-Shamā‘ il al-nabawiyya, by Tirmidhī (d. 279/892). See Ḥājjī Khalīfa (1609–1657), Kashf al-ẓunūn ʿan asmā’ al-kutub wa-l-funūn, I, 180. Brockelmann, Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur II, 307 and Supplement, II, 418.


Ḥalabī generally references with either the name of the author or the title of the work, very rarely both. Often, quotes are indicated with simply “it has been said” or “in a version”, which does not situate them at all.


Maqrīzī, Imtāʿ al-asmāʿ bi-mā li-l-nabī min al-aḥwāl wa-l-amwāl wa-l-ḥafada wa-l-matāʿ.


The chronological order of the works cited by Ḥalabī, which I have listed here for more clarity, was of no importance to Ḥalabī. Though he took great care to order the sequences and events of Muḥammad’s experiences, he was not interested in dating his sources. Works were given equal standing regardless of their dates of publication, with the most recent often considered the most interesting as they offered the most information. Age was never linked to authenticity.


ʿUyūn al-athar, I, 250–51.


The sultan knew of Ḥalabī thanks to a short treatise from 1630 on the reconstructions of the Kaʿba, translated into Ottoman Turkish and sent by the Governor Mehmed Pasha. See Mayeur-Jaouen, “La Sīra ḥalabiyya (1633)”.


Nagel, Allahs Liebling, 230.


According to Muḥibbī, in an unfinished commentary of the Shamāʾil, Ḥalabī “clearly explained what can be found in the Miʿrāj by shaykh Najm al-Dīn”, see Muḥibbī, Khulāṣat al-athar fī aʿyān al-qarn al-hādī ʿashar, III, 122–124. Ḥalabī was responding to ʿAbd al-Raʾūf al-Munāwī (d. 1622) who, in 1591, had written two commentaries on the Shamāʾil. See Chouiref, Soufisme et ḥadīth dans l’Égypte ottomane. ʿAbd al-Raʾūf al-Munāwī (m. 1031/ 1622), 100.


Qalyūbī quoted the Qāḍī ʿIyād and Ibn Kathīr – as did Ḥalabī, Ibn Ḥajar, and Suyūṭī, but he wrote for a different public and with different goals. Shaykh al-Dardīr (d. 1786) added nothing conclusive. The work was published (with no mention of al-Qalyūbī) with the title Ḥāshiyat Abī l-barakāt Sīdī Aḥmad al-Dardīr ʿalā qiṣṣat al-Miʿrāj li-l-Ghaytī. In this article, the 1289 H. edition was used and cited as Ḥāshiya.


Ḥāshiya, 2.


Ḥāshiya, 3.


The ʿUyūn al-athar had two volumes and the Insān al-ʿuyūn three. See al-Nās, ʿUyūn al-athar I, 241–56 and Ḥalabī, Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 514–86.


The Ḥāshiya goes so far as suggesting four openings of the Prophet’s chest: the fourth in order to receive the revelation and that of the Night Journey would then be the fifth, Ḥāshiya, 4.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 517.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 517.


Should a distinction be made between the Prophet’s heart being washed and his chest being opened? They took place at the same time, offers Ḥalabī, even if certain versions abbreviate the narrative by only mentioning one of the two events. The baṭn designates the chest (ṣadr), Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 517.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 561.


Not everyone agreed on this. Certain scholars argued that several verses of the Qurʾān state that Muḥammad is merely an annunciator who warns and announces. See Gilliot, who summarised Nöldeke in “Coran 17, Isrāʾ, 1 dans la recherche occidentale”, 2–3.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 514.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 514.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 532.


ʿUyūn al-athar, 241–43.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 534.


ʿUyūn al-athar, I, 243.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 535.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 537.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 536.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 523.


He quotes the passages from the Qurʾān that were revealed during the descent from the heavens to earth: al-Ṣāfāt, 164; al-Zakhruf, 45, and perhaps the last two verses of the al-Baqara Sura. Ḥalabī reminds us that the Sura was revealed at the Distance of two bows (Qāb al-qawsayn), I, 577.


ʿUyūn al-athar, ed. 1997, 249–51.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 515.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 515.


ʿUyūn al-athar, I, 248.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 550.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 549.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 534.




Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 562.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 562. The Nile in Egypt and the Euphrates along the banks of Kūfa, specifies Ḥalabī, who mentions a ḥadīth quoted by Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201) in al-ʿIlal al-mutanāhiya fī l-aḥādīth al-wāhiya, according to which not a day goes by that water does not flow from Heaven into the Euphrates.


A Sufi of Andalusian origin who died in Cairo in 1300.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 564.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 526. The same conciliation as in Qalyūbī’s Ḥāshiya.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 527.


Qalyūbī wonders the same thing in his commentary of the Miʿrāj by al-Ghayṭī: Ḥāshiya, 1289 H., 4.


Concerning this particular point, he states he ignored al-Shāmī’s opinions and the conclusions are his. Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 518.


ʿUyūn al-athar, 241.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 520.


ʿUyūn al-athar, I, 241.


“The entirety of the narrative must be considered as an initiation into prophetic functions,” writes Schrieke, “Die Himmelsreise Muhammeds”, 21. Ḥalabī does not mention Idrīs and Elijah, whose ascensions are discussed by Qushayrī; he simplifies the prophetic landscape. See Böwering, “From the word of God to the Vision of God”, 208.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 524.


ʿUyūn al-athar, 244.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 538–539.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 539–540.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 539–540.


This is al-Uns al-jalīl li-tārīkh al-Quds wa-l-Khalīl, see Little, “Mujīr al-Dīn al-ʿUlaymī’s Vision of Jerusalem in the Ninth/Fifteenth Century” 237–247.


According to al-Uns al-jalīl, a 900-year old woman shows Moses where to find Joseph’s grave in the middle of the Nile. As the Nile flows over the grave, it spreads its baraka, irrigating all of Egypt. Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 542.


ʿUyūn al-athar, I, 248.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 558.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 555.


Ḥalabī often quotes the tafsīr by al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144).


Ḥalabī is quoting Ibn Sayyid al-Nās: ʿUyūn al-athar, 246.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 556.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 557.


This is certainly a reference to Saʿd ʿAbd al-Malik al-Khargūshī’s work, Sharaf al-Muṣṭafā (or ʿUyūn al-ḥikāyāt fi sīrat Sayyid al-bariyya).


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 521.


ʿUyūn al-athar, 245.


ʿUyūn al-athar, 244. Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 519–521.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 521.


Ḥāshiya, 8.


Ḥāshiya, 7.


ʿUyūn al-athar, I, 248. Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 522.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 522.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 523–24.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 524.


Ibn Sayyid al-Nās stops here, ʿUyūn al-athar, I, 247.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 561.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 543. Ḥāshiya, 9. Qalyūbī underlines that the formulae protect from all ills coming from the sky (trials and ordeal – al-balā’ – descend to punish rebels that have provoked the anger of God) and from all earthly evils: snakes, scorpions, temptations during the day and night, (fitan al-layl wa-l-nahār), in other words all attachment to earthly things – wealth, children, spouse, pleasures – anything that distances us from God.


On the hairdresser of the Pharaoh’s daughter, al-Qalyūbī develops the legends of the ten newborns who spoke from their cradle. Some of these legends (Jirjīs in his hermitage, the martyr of young converts) come from Syriac Christian legends.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 544.


Such fantasy went at least as far back as the Mamluk era, see Thomas Herzog, “Mamluk (Popular) Culture. The State of Research (2012)”.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 551–552.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 571.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 543–544.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 544–546.


This is the only version quoted by Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, ʿUyūn al-athar, I, 241 and 245.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 547.


Qalyūbī, in the same vein as Ibn Kathīr and Ibn Ḥajar, believes that the choice between two recipients was repeated on other occasions.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 547.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 546.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 573.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 558–559. ʿUyūn al-athar, 246.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 559–560.


ʿUyūn al-athar, I, 247.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 566.


Van Ess, “Le Miʿrāj et la vision de Dieu”, 33.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 566.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 567.


This is also a quote by Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 567. ʿUyūn al-athar, I, 246. Ḥalabī gives a list of Qurʾānic revelations that had occurred: the al-Baqara Sura, the verses of the al-Ḍuḥā Sura, and the verse al-Aḥzāb, Q 33:43.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 568. Ḥalabī quotes Bayḍāwī’s tafsīr, then Suyūṭī’s gloss.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 569.


Uyūn al-athar, 251–56.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 579.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 580–81.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 582.


ʿUyūn al-athar, 251–56.


Six pages out of 72, Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 580–86.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 580–86.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 570.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 570.


Ḥalabī reworks his source: Ibn Sayyid al-Nās gives more importance to the ikhtilāf. ʿUyūn al-athar, 250–251.


On this interpretation of the al-Najm Sura between anthropomorphists and transcendantalists, see Van Ess, “Le Miʿrāj et la vision de Dieu” 39.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 574. On this parallel between Muḥammad who saw God twice and Moses who was called by God twice, see Van Ess, “Le Miʿrāj et la vision de Dieu” 38.


ʿUyūn al-athar, 250, quoted by Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 574.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 574.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 575.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 575.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 576.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 576.


ʿUyūn al-athar, 242–244.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 578.


Al-Ḥāfiẓ ʿAbd al Muʾmin al-Dumyāṭī (d. 705/1305–1306), who was one of the shaykhs of Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, wrote al-Mukhtaṣar fī sīrati Sayyid khayr al-bashar.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 578.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 578.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 579. ʿUyūn al-athar, 247.


Insān al-ʿuyūn, I, 579. On Ibn Kathīr and the Miʿrāj, see Van Ess, “Le Miʿrāj et la vision de Dieu” 40.


See Muḥibbī, Khulāṣat al-athar fī aʿyān al-qarn al-ḥādī ʿashar, 122–124. Our quote is based on Pinel-Cahagne’s translation, 71.


Khalidi, Images of Muhammad, 238–240.


ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, al-Tuḥfa al-nābulusiyya fī l-riḥla al-ṭarābulusiyya, in Die Reise des ʿAbd al-Ghanī an-Nābulusī durch den Libanon, and [illegal?] reprint Maktabat al-thaqāfa al-dīniyya, 79–81. There is also another edition: ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, al-Ṣulḥ bayna l-ikhwān fī ḥukm ibāḥat al-dukhān, 99–100. I would like to thank Samuela Pagani for this reference.


Aḥmad Zaynī Daḥlān, in the margins of Insān al-ʿuyūn, Būlāq, ed. 1875.


Certain scholars seem to have not read any further than the fascinating episodes of the beginning of the life of the Prophet, his birth, and his childhood. Their analysis of the Sīra ḥalabiyya, a book of adab (Schöller, Mohammed, 86–87) or the compilation of legends (Pinel-Cahagne, Le merveilleux dans la biographie de Muḥammad (sīra) due à Nūr al-Dīn al-Ḥalabī. Choix d’épisodes) is thus affected, whereas Ḥalabī’s study of the Night Journey, for example, is very different. Tilman Nagel has a more balanced analysis of the Sīra ḥalabiyya.


Yūsuf al-Nabhānī, Al-Anwār al-muḥammadiyya min al-Mawāhib al-laduniyya, 332 sq.


Ḥāshiya, 6.

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