Muḥammad’s ascension to the Heavenly Spheres: ‘Utopian Travel’: Fact and Fiction in making Utopias

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Muḥammad’s ascension to the Heavenly Spheres: ‘Utopian Travel’: Fact and Fiction in making Utopias
  This article was downloaded by: [School of Oriental and African Studies]On: 30 November 2012, At: 03:47Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK Middle Eastern Literatures:incorporating Edebiyat Publication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information: The Familiar and the Fantastic inNarratives of Mu[hdot]ammad'sAscension to the Heavenly Spheres Peter WebbVersion of record first published: 30 Nov 2012. To cite this article:  Peter Webb (2012): The Familiar and the Fantastic in Narratives of Mu[hdot]ammad's Ascension to the Heavenly Spheres, Middle Eastern Literatures: incorporatingEdebiyat, DOI:10.1080/1475262X.2012.726575 To link to this article: PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLEFull terms and conditions of use: article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Anysubstantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing,systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representationthat the contents will be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of anyinstructions, formulae, and drug doses should be independently verified with primarysources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss, actions, claims, proceedings,demand, or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly orindirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.  The Familiar and the Fantastic in Narratives of Mu _ hammad’s Ascension to the Heavenly Spheres PETER WEBB Abstract The story of Mu _ hammad’s Night Journey and Ascension to the Heavenly Spheres isperhaps the most fantastic episode in the Prophet’s biography, and its fantastic aspectsbecame widely accepted as historical facts notwithstanding the misgivings of early Muslim scholars. This paper investigates the narrative function of the fantastic in IbnKath  ır’s extensive accounts of the story within a comparative framework. By examininghis version of Mu _ hammad’s Journey against narratives of utopia in western literature, itis possible to see the striking similarity in their narratives’ patterns, always beginning withthe ‘familiar’ departure, then moving into the ‘remarkable’ journey, and ending in the‘fantastic’ arrival, where the traveller comes into contact with the source of specialknowledge. This paper proposes that Muslim  al-Isr   a’ wa-l-Mi‘r   aj   and western narrativesof utopia follow a fairly universal structure, what I would call ‘utopian travel rubric’,which blends the ‘familiar’, ‘remarkable’ and ‘fantastic’ to engender a sense of plausibility for both the Heavenly and Utopian journeys.The reception of the story of Mu _ hammad’s Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem andAscension to Heaven—  al-Isr   a’ wa-l-Mi‘r   aj   —has been controversial among Muslims andnon-Muslims alike in the past and at present. What we would call the ‘fantastic’ in theaccounts of this journey, such as Mu _ hammad’s rapid travel on a hybrid donkey-likemount (al-Bur  aq), his ascent via ladder to the Heavens, meetings with past Prophets andaudience with God, have been especially divisive, being either accepted as miraculousproof of Mu _ hammad’s prophetic status, 1 or dismissed as fiction derived from sourcestraceable to earlier religious traditions. 2 Peter Webb, School of Oriental and African Studies, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, LondonWC1H 0XG, UK. Email:  1 This response is clearly espoused by most Muslim scholars since the 4th/10th century; see al- _ Ta _ h  aw  ı (d.321/933): ‘The  Mi‘r   aj   is a true event ( _ haqq ) ... God corporealy raised [Mu _ hammad] while he was awaketo the Sky ... and God bestowed honours upon him.’ Ibn Ab  ı al-‘Izz Al- _ Hanaf   ı,  Shar  _ h al-‘Aq  ıdat al- _ Ta _ h  awiyya  (Cairo: al-Maktab al-Isl  am  ı, 2005), 223. 2 A number of western scholars since the early 20th centiury have sought ‘the historical lines of connectionbetween Islam and the older religious ideas of the Near East.’ Geo Windengren,  Mu _ hammad, the Apostleof God and His Ascension  (Uppsala: Almquist & Wiksells, 1955), 207. Most focused on Judeo-Christianprototyles, which they proposed as the srcins of the Muslim story. See A. A. Bevan, ‘Mu _ hammad’sAscension to Heaven’, in  Bieheft zur Zeitschrift fur die attestamentliche Wissenschaft XXIV   (New York: DeGrayter, 1924, 55–61); Harris Birkeland, ‘The Legend of the Opening of Muhammed’s Breast’, in  Middle Eastern Studies, 2012, 1–17, iFirst article ISSN 1475-262X print/ISSN 1475-2638 online/12/000001-17    2012 Taylor & Francis    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   S  c   h  o  o   l  o   f   O  r   i  e  n   t  a   l  a  n   d   A   f  r   i  c  a  n   S   t  u   d   i  e  s   ]  a   t   0   3  :   4   7   3   0   N  o  v  e  m   b  e  r   2   0   1   2  The unease with the story’s fantastic may even be detected during the first three Islamiccenturies when many Muslim scholars maintained that Mu _ hammad merely dreamt thejourney. 3 Nevertheless, the supernatural aspects of the story that distinguish Mu _ hammad’sjourney from the terrestrial travel of the common man have persisted in all accounts of thisepisode of Mu _ hammad’s life to a degree unlike any other event in his biography. This‘fantastic’ in fact seems to have become deliberately emphasised since the 4th/10th century when Muslim scholars rejected the earlier dream theories and affirmed a literalinterpretation for all details of the journey. 4 Thereafter, most Muslims have read  al-Isr   a’ wa-l-Mi‘r   aj   as a historical fact—a part of the reality of the Prophet’s life.The enduring presence of the fantastic in accounts of   al-Isr   a’ wa-l-Mi‘r   aj   suggests thatArabic storytellers valued its narrative function. Current research has largely overlooked thefunction of the fantastic in the story and focused instead on the development of the story inMuslim traditions. 5 This paper shall adopt a literary approach, seeking to understand howArabic storytellers narrated the event and why the fantastic came to beso prominentin theirwritings. The various versions of   al-Isr   a’ wa-l-Mi‘r   aj   in the Muslim tradition are commonly cast in the form of a travel narrative that relates Mu _ hammad’s journey in terms that escalatefrom the familiar to the remarkable and finally the fantastic. This itinerary is comparablewiththat of western narratives of utopia. Bothadheretowhat I see asa fairly universal travelnarrative structure: a ‘utopian travel rubric’. Utopian Travel Rubric in Narratives of Utopia The western tradition of literary utopias is usually said to have begun in 1516 withThomas More’s well-known work   Utopia , which describes the fictitious character  Auhandlinger Utgitt Av Det Norkse Videnskaps Akademi   (Oslo: N.p., 1955); Windengren,  Mu _ hammad  ;and, more recently, Brent E. McNeely, ‘The Mi’raj of Mu _ hammad in an Ascension Typology’, http://  (accessed 1 July 2012). 3 Al- _ Tabar  ı reports the names of several scholars who maintained the ‘dream theory’, citing evidenceattributed to Mu _ hammad’s wife ‘A¯’isha and the first Umayyad Caliph, Mu‘  awiya ibn Ab  ı Sufy   an.Mu _ hammad ibn Jar  ır al- _ Tabar  ı,  Tafs  ır J   ami’ al-Bay   an , ed. _ Sidq  ı Jam  ıl al-‘Attar (Beirut: D  ar al-Fikr,1999),15: 22. Al- _ Ta _ h  aw  ı’s staunch rejection of the dream theory in  al-‘Aq  ıda  gives further evidence of itsformer prevelance (al- _ Hanaf   ı,  Shar  _ h al-‘Aq  ıdat al- _ Ta _ h  awiyya , 223). 4 The earliest extant rejections of the dream theory date from the 4th/10th century, and see Ibn Kath  ır (d.774/1373) for the fullest summary of this discourse. Ab  u al-Fid  a’ Ibn Kath  ır,  al-Bid   aya wa-l-Nih  aya , ed.Ahmad Ab  u Mulhim et al. (Beirut: D  ar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, n.d.), 3: 112–13. From the 4th/10th century onwards, accounts of   al-Isr   a’ wa-l-Mi‘r   aj   preserve much fantastic material gathered from earlier sourceswithout expressing doubt as to its historicity: see the similarities between al- _ Tabar  ı’s 4th/10th century version attributed to Ab  u Hurayra (al- _ Tabar  ı,  Tafs  ır J   ami‘ al-Bay   an , 15: 10–16), and the 8th/14th-century works history of Ibn Kath  ır (Ibn Kath  ır,  al-Bid   aya wa-l-Nih  aya , 3: 109–10; and Ab  u al-Fid  a’ Ibn Kath  ır, Tafs  ır Ibn Kath  ır   (Beirut: D  ar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1994), 3: 3–21. 5 Separate from the search for the story’s ‘true srcins’ (see note 2); Colby’s and Vuckovic’s recent studiesof   al-Isr   a’ wa-l-Mi‘r   aj   focus on the development of the story in the Muslim tradition. Frederick S. Colby,  Narrating Mu _ hammad’s Night Journey   (Albany: State University of New York, 2008); and Brooke OlsonVuckovic,  Heavenly Journeys Earthly Concerns—The Legacy of the Mi’raj in the Formation of Islam  (Oxfordand New York: Routledge, 2005). More akin to this article’s literary approach to the Ascension narrativesin Muslim writing, Christiane Gruber and Frederick Colby eds.  The Prophet’s ascension: cross-cultural encounters with the Islamic mi‘r   aj tales  (Bloomington: Indiana, 2010) contains stimulating accounts of theemployment of Muhammad’s Ascension story for esoteric and missionary purposes, particularly in thelater Persian and Turkish traditions from the twelfth century onwards; this present article, however,engages with the earlier Arabic tradition. 2  P. Webb    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   S  c   h  o  o   l  o   f   O  r   i  e  n   t  a   l  a  n   d   A   f  r   i  c  a  n   S   t  u   d   i  e  s   ]  a   t   0   3  :   4   7   3   0   N  o  v  e  m   b  e  r   2   0   1   2  Raphael Hythloday’s journey to the island of Utopia, a perfect social, legal and politicalcommonwealth. 6 More was the first to coin the term ‘utopia’, deriving it from the Greek o U ’  T o´ TT o &   (‘no place’). But he also punned it with the homonym  e U ’  T o´ TT o &   (‘the goodplace’), and therein articulated utopia’s duality: it is spatially located in the ‘not here’/ ‘not now’, indefinitely remote from present reality; and it is metaphorically idealised, themodel of perfect community.More also distinguished narratives of utopia from pure escapist fantasies. Moreexplained that a narrative of utopia is ‘[a] fiction whereby the truth, as if smeared withhoney, might a little more pleasantly slide into men’s minds’. 7 Narratives of utopia sharea common purpose of inspiring their audiences to work towards recreating utopia in the‘here and now’ of the present. 8 Hence a literary utopia can be described as a fictionalplace that, by virtue of the way it is narrated, acquires a potential to become real. Literary utopias are ‘plausible fiction’.The constitutions of western literary utopian communities have differed over timeaccording to different authors’ conceptions of the ideal community, but More’s‘plausible fiction’ and the structure of his narrative have remained the genre’s enduringparadigm. Some, like Bacon’s  New Atlantis  (1624), copied More directly, and even thoselike Swift’s  Gulliver’s Travels  (1726), which satirised More’s idealism and narrated adystopia, still emulated the structure of More’s srcinal. The western utopian narratives,including More, Bacon and Swift, are usually divided into two sections: a portrayal of utopia which is preceded by a travel narrative. Portrayals of utopia, which are invariably longer than the travel narrative, contain the utopian message derived from the author’sconception of the ideal community. But no narratives dispense with travel, and eachrelates the journey according to a tripartite structure consisting of a departure, journey and arrival at utopia, with each segment embodying a different set of environments,encounters and actions of the traveller. Travel begins with departure from the ‘familiar’(real and quotidian), and journeys into the ‘remarkable’ (the known but unfamiliar),then escalates into the ‘fantastic’ (the supernatural, unfathomable wonders) upon arrivalin the fictional ‘no place’, utopia. Departure In contrast to its fictitious destination, authors stress the journey’s  realistic  commence-ment, repeatedly mentioning precise, real and familiar landmarks that ostensibly situatetheir narratives firmly in the ‘here and now’. More’s  Utopia  begins in Antwerp,specifically when he ‘was returning home from mass at St. Mary’s, which is the chief church, and the most frequented of any in Antwerp’; 9 and Swift opens  Gulliver’s Travels 6 The tradition initiated by More is sometimes referred to as ‘scientific utopias’, as the genre began in theEuropean ‘Age of Reason’ and has a goal of inspiring societal betterment through rational political ortechnological improvement. See Khrisan Kumar, ‘Aspects of the Western Utopian Tradition’, in Thinking Utopia: Steps Into Other Worlds , ed. Jorn Fehr and Michael Rusen, Thomas Rieger (New York:Berghahn Books, 2005), 26–7; and Wolfgang Pircher, ‘On the Construction of Worlds’, in  Thinking Utopia: Steps Into Other Worlds , ed. Jo¨rn Ru¨sen, Michael Fehr and Thomas Rieger (New York: BerghahnBooks: 2005), 68. 7 Thomas More, ‘Letter to Peter Giles’, in  The Complete Works of Sir Thomas More, vol. 4 , ed. E. Surtz and J. H. Hexter (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1964), 251. 8 The understanding of utopia’s purpose to inspire action is summarised by Marina Leslie,  RenaissanceUtopias and the Problem of History   (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1998), 12). 9 Thomas More,  Utopia  (1516) (London: Cassell & Company, 1901), 4.  Narratives of Mu _ hammad’s Ascension to the Heavenly Spheres  3    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   S  c   h  o  o   l  o   f   O  r   i  e  n   t  a   l  a  n   d   A   f  r   i  c  a  n   S   t  u   d   i  e  s   ]  a   t   0   3  :   4   7   3   0   N  o  v  e  m   b  e  r   2   0   1   2  with mention of Gulliver’s address at ‘a convenient house, near Newark, inNottinghamshire, his native country’, and even notes that family tombstones are ‘stillstanding’ in Banbury’s churchyard. 10 Such seemingly mundane details assert realismand set readers’ minds into thinking that the story about to be told really could havetaken place.  Journey  In line with the realistic mode set up at the outset, authors also locate the journeys in realports with real destinations—travellers are not described as intending to travel to utopia.More’s Raphael Hythloday embarks from New Castile (the contemporary name for thePhilippines), 11 and Bacon marks his traveller’s route from Peru intending to reach Chinaand Japan. 12 These destinations, however, also share another attribute. They are real places, but,from the perspective of contemporary readers, they are also remarkable; not fictitious butfanciful, they are familiar in so much as they are well known as icons of the ‘unknown’.The remarkable, while still real, is a foil to quotidian reality: it hints at the possibility of ameta-reality beyond everyday expectations. Each of More’s, Bacon’s and Swift’stravellers ventured from faraway ports into the South Sea which, for readers from the16th to early 18th centuries, represented an almost entirely unexplored ocean wherescholars believed an undiscovered, fabulous continent lay. A voyage to the South Seawas thus realistically possible, but, by the same measure, could be expected to yieldwondrous discoveries.The narrative’s reliance on such remarkable locations can be seen in the effect JamesCook’s exploration of the South Sea in the late 18th century had on western utopianliterature. Cook found it was merely an extension of the Pacific Ocean with no hiddenmarvels; the South Sea, now mapped and ‘discovered’, no longer constituted the very edge of the ‘known world’, lost its ‘remarkable’ lustre, and henceforth it largely ceasedbeing cited in narratives of utopia. 13 At the same time, authors give their travellers similarly remarkable means of transport.More places Raphael in a seagoing galleon, a vessel synonymous with adventure andexploration in the European ‘Age of Discovery’, and specifically notes that Raphael haspreviously accompanied ‘Americus Vesputius’, 14 Amerigo Verspucci being thedistinguished Italian explorer whose seafaring exploits were recognised as some of themost remarkable adventures of More’s day. Bacon and Swift mount their travellers ongalleons too. Turning briefly to vehicles in more modern utopian literature, we find Jack Vance’s utopian hero Claude Glystra riding an intergalactic star ship in the 1957 utopia 10  Jonathan Swift, ‘Travels into Several Remote Nations of the Worlds in Four Parts (Gulliver’s Travels)’,in  The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol I  , ed. M.H. Abrams et al. (New York: Norton, 1962),1925–26. 11 More,  Utopia , 4. 12 Francis Bacon, ‘New Atlantis’, in  Ideal Commonwealths , ed. Francis Bacon, Thomas More, ThomasCampanella, James Harrington (New York, London: P. F. Collier & Son, 1901), 103. 13 South Sea mystique was not entirely extinguished: Europeans from Diderot to Gaugin imaginedidealised native communities in the remote islands of the South Pacific. These conceptions do differ fromutopia, however, as the island ideals were ‘real’ places that anyone could visit, not the inaccessible ‘noplace’ of the utopian tradition. 14 More,  Utopia , 4. 4  P. Webb    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   S  c   h  o  o   l  o   f   O  r   i  e  n   t  a   l  a  n   d   A   f  r   i  c  a  n   S   t  u   d   i  e  s   ]  a   t   0   3  :   4   7   3   0   N  o  v  e  m   b  e  r   2   0   1   2
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