Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
Islamic Garden in Lausanne, Switzerland

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Heavenly Journeys, Earthly Concerns

In keeping with the theme on al-Miraj, Brooke Olson Vuckovic's book "Heavenly Journeys, Earthly Concerns - The Legacy of the Mi'raj in the Formation of Islam" based on her doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago, unintentionally places the relevance of the Prophet's ascension story within the context of al-Fatiha because it refers to "the favor" of Allah that seems to be intimated in our seven sacred verses:


In the preceding chapters, I examined how an elite group of historians and theologians shaped Muslims'perceptions of the Prophet, their community, and their behavior by retelling and interpreting the story of the Prophet's ascension to heaven. Although the facts surrounding this event are lost to historians, the legacy of Muhammad's journey remains, and it has greatly contributed to the construction of communal history, memory, and meaning for Muslims over the centuries. Buried within these narratives are questions about prophetic authority, religious legitimization, and the construction of a confessional community. Medieval Islamic scholars addressed these issues through metaphor and through portraits of a world beyond human experience in order to address profound, often political, questions about the nature of God, faith and prophecy. Through this, they defined correct and righteous behavior for Muslims and the bonds that tie a community of believers.

The mi'raj accounts reveal the historiographical process through which a single event becomes a symbol or a touchstone for those struggling to define the past and to establish a communal, confessional, and political identity by reporting the apparent facts about a particular moment in time. By examining four distinct subnarratives in the mi'raj accounts (readying the Prophet for his mission, meeting previous prophets in heaven, facing the early community's reactions to the journey, and describing the souls in heaven and hell), I have shown how specific pieces of the mi'raj narratives focus the power of this story and highlight specific concerns. At times, these concerns are immediate, such as justifying Muhammad as a prophet and his believers as a distinct confessional community (Chapter One). However, the mi'raj accounts also embody more subtle concerns that include the status of different believers, evaluation of different behaviors within the community, and understanding of other religious traditions (Chapters Two through Four). Therefore, the accounts of the Prophet's journey not only include clues to how people perceived his status vis-a-vis God, the angels, and other prophets, but they also address the dynamics between males and females, humans and beasts, and Muslims and non-Muslims. Until scholars understand that these narratives were inexorably tied to the cares and concerns of medieval Muslims, they will miss a crucial component of their production and repetition.

The approach of legacy provides a way of examining religious literature that recognizes and honors modes of memory, imagination, and interpretation that take seriously into account ongoing issues of theology, politics and social interaction. An approach focused on legacy allows contemporary scholars to get beyond questions regarding the character and authenticity of the "facts" that are being described in order to explore more interesting and immediate concerns that are associated with communal order, conflict and identity. "Legacy" engages the history of interpretation and focuses on how particular historical actors in particular historical moments construct meaning and use the mi'raj as but one way to create, confirm, and redefine community and ideology. These retellings of a single story in the Prophet's biography show how religious history - like any history - is part of an interested, earthly, and embodied discourse, and that religious history can be used to grant authority to, challenge, or create a confessional community replete with political, ideological, and theological concerns.


Though there are many ways this work could be extended, the one of most immediate interest involves delving much more deeply into the Islamic context to unearth other occurrences and accounts of the mi'raj in the Islamic context. The primary limitation of this book is its relatively focused scope (covering only the genres, source materials, and themes considered), particularly in light of the mi'raj's impact throughout the centuries. In this study, I have focused on Arabic hadith, tafsir, and ta'rikh from the second/eighth to the eighth/fourteenth centuries; however, one can fruitfully study a much larger body of literature to examine a whole host of issues, such as: how the story of the mi'raj is used in adab or belles lettres throughout the centuries; how the mi'raj becomes an inspiration to and outlet for complex Sufi symbolic systems; and how the mi'raj continues as a familiar trope to legitimate leaders of splinter groups throughout Muslim history. These studies would involve exploring the narratives from various time periods and religious commentaries and interpretations from "the edge" of Islamic society to discern differences as the legacy evolves." (2005, pp. 123-124)

~ Excerpted from "Heavenly Journeys, Earthly Concerns - The Legacy of the Mi'raj in the Formation of Islam" by Brooke Olson Vuckovic, who was on a Fulbright scholarship in Morocco in 1995/6.

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