Narrating Muḥammad's Night Journey

Tracing the Development of the Ibn ʿAbbās Ascension Discourse

By Frederick S. Colby

Subjects: Islam, Religion, Middle East Studies
Paperback : 9780791475188, 328 pages, July 2009
Hardcover : 9780791475171, 328 pages, August 2008

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Table of contents

1. Muhammad’s Night Journey in the Qurān
The Night Journey Verse
Verses from the Chapter of the Overturning
The Opening Verses of the Chapter of the Star
The Appropriation of Terms and Phrases from the Qurān
The Heavenly Host Debate
The Final Verses (Seals) of the Chapter of the Cow
Passing References to the Ascension in the Qurān
2. Orality and the Primitive Version of the Ibn 'Abbās Ascension Narrative
Approaching Ibn 'Abbās and the Primitive Version
Comparatively Analyzing the Primitive Version
Authenticating and Dating the Circulation of the Primitive Version
Echoes of Muqātil b. Sulaymān’s Commentary in the Primitive Version
Tracing the Beginnings of the Primitive Version
3. Early Historical Descriptions of Muhammad’s Journey
From Qurān and Oral Reports to Early Narrative History: Ibn Ishāq
Ibn Ishāq’s Account of the Prophet’s Night Journey
as Narrated by Ibn Hishām
Ibn Ishāq’s Account of the Heavenly Journey
as Narrated by Ibn Hishām
The Early Ascension Narrative as Presented in Ibn Sa'd’s History
The Night Journey as Narrated by Ibn Sa'd
4. Proto-Sh' Narratives of Heavenly Ascent
The Ascension Experiences of Proto-Sh' “Extremists”
Ascension-related Sayings in Ṣaffār Qumm’s Collection
The Qurān Commentary of Furāt Kūf
5. Canonical Sunn adth Reports
on Muhammad’s Journey
Night Journey and Ascension adth Reports
in Bukhār and Muslim
adth Reports from the Collection of Nasā
adth Reports from the Collection of Tirmidh
6. The Use and Appropriation of the Ibn 'Abbās Discourse in Commentaries
Night Journey and Ascension Accounts in abar’s Tafsr
The Abū Hurayra Ascension Narrative from abar’s Tafsr
The Abū Sa'd Khudr Ascension Narrative from abar’s Tafsr
The Appropriation of the Primitive Version in Other Early Commentaries
The Use of the Primitive Version in 'Al Qumm’s Tafsr
The Use of the Primitive Version in Tha'lab’s Tafsr
7. Contesting the Primitive Version in Nishapur
Ibn ibbān’s Rejection of the Primitive Version
Sulam and His Compilation of Sufi Sayings on Muhammad’s Ascension
Qushayr and His Kitāb al-mi'rāj
The Extended Cosmological Ascension adth
Bayhaq’s Rejection of the Extended Ascension Narratives
8. Bakr’s Complete and Perfect Ibn 'Abbās Discourse
The Events Prior to the Night Journey in Texts That Invoke Bakr
Muhammad’s Night Journey to Jerusalem in Texts That Invoke Bakr
Bakr Versions of Muhammad’s Journey through the Heavens
Muhammad’s Journey beyond the Seven Heavens in Bakr Texts
Dating the Ascension Narratives Ascribed to Abū al-asan Bakr
9. The Circulation and Diffusion of Bakr’s Versions
The Base Narrative behind Ibn Snā’s Allegorical Treatise
Evidence from Sixth/Twelfth-Century North Africa
Liber Scale and the Diffusion of the Bakr Versions in the Seventh/Thirteenth Century
An Anonymous Eastern Persian Mi'rājnāma
Appendix A: Translation of the Primitive Version
Appendix B: Bakr’s “Complete and Perfect” Ascension
Glossary: Key Themes and Tropes in the
Ibn 'Abbās Ascension Narratives
Works Cited

Discusses the historical development of the well-loved story of the Prophet Muhammad’s night journey to the divine realm and back again.


This book provides an exhaustive examination of the historical development of a key story in the life of Muḥammad, the tale told of his journey to the divine realm and back. It shows how in the early centuries of the Islamic community, both Sunnī and Shī'ī Muslims appropriated this fascinating story and interpreted it to suit their own ends. In particular, the book traces the development of a critical and influential strand of this rich ascension literature ascribed to one of Muḥammad's famous companions, the scholar known as Ibn ʿAbbās. Frederick S. Colby demonstrates that this version of the tale originated in the early period and spread throughout the Islamic world, affecting how people from Spain to Afghanistan came to think about Muḥammad and his legacy. Colby also includes translations of richly textured ascension narratives that have never before appeared in English.

Frederick S. Colby is Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Miami University in Ohio. He edited and translated The Subtleties of the Ascension: Early Mystical Sayings on Muhammad's Heavenly Journey, by the famous mystic Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulamī.


"…this is a valuable book … It is also a mine of data culled from an impressive range of well-documented sources." — American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences

"The author's tracing and analysis of the historical permutations and reinvestments of this version of the narrative are based on an impressive array of sources, and demonstrate his mastery of the Islamic textual tradition in a happy marriage with theoretical considerations in religious studies, especially those concerning orality, orthodoxy, and textual permutation … The excellent translations of an early version of the Ibn 'Abbas narrative and a later influential version attributed to Abu-l Hassan Bakri are real gems." — CHOICE

"Muhammad's heavenly ascension is without doubt one of the most central topoi in Islamic thought, practice, and piety, and as a superb historical analysis of its development through the prism of Ibn 'Abbas's recension, this book fills a major void in scholarship. Equally significant is the work's methodological sophistication, which makes it a clear model in the study of major themes in Islamic religious history." — Ahmet T. Karamustafa, author of Sufism: The Formative Period

"This is a very important subject that will be of interest to all serious students of premodern Islam." — Marion Holmes Katz, author of Body of Text: The Emergence of the Sunnī Law of Ritual Purity