Qur’an 17: The Night Journey

The seventeenth chapter of the Qur’an, the “Night Journey,” emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit as a guide, even for Christ. One of the most “Arian” chapters of the Qur’an, “Night Journey” presents a remarkably different explanation for the Trinity than common in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or Protestantism. The different persons of the Trinity exist to show that none by God — the first person of the Trinity serves as guide.

As the Qur’an appears to be a set of homilies, this chapter begins with a series of readings it appears to be based on. I am not sure what of the specific rules for creating Syriac liturgies in the 6th or 7th centuries, so I am using a contemporary Catholic pattern: three readings (one from the Old Testament, Epistles, and Gospels), a Psalm, and then short one-sentence ‘antiphons.’ To me, “Night Journey” makes the sense sense if read while keeping these readings in mind.

Readings

Entrance Antiphon:

And it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from you, that the Spirit of the Lord will carry you to a place I do not know; so when I go and tell Ahab, and he cannot find you, he will kill me. But I your servant have feared the Lord from my youth.
1 Kings 18:12

A reading, from the Book of Deuteronomy:

When you besiege a city for a long time, while making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them; if you can eat of them, do not cut them down to use in the siege, for the tree of the field is man’s food. Only the trees which you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, to build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it is subdued.
Deuteronomy 20:19-20

A Song, from the Book of Psalms:

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
Let the sea roar, and all its fullness;

Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it.
Then all the trees of the woods will rejoice

before the Lord.
For He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth.
He shall judge the world with righteousness,
And the peoples with His truth.
Psalms 96:11-13

A reading, from the St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians:

Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech— unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
2 Corinthians 3:12-18

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.
John 14:6

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

A reading, from the Holy Gospel According to Matthew:

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray over there.” And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.”

He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”

Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “What! Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Matthew 26:36-41

Communion Antiphon:

Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.
Luke 4:1

A Qur’anic Homily

The Arians, who denied that Jesus was the same substance as God, nonetheless believed Jesus was God. According to the Ulfian Creed:

I believe in only one God the Father,
the unbegotten and invisible,

and in his only-begotten Son,
our Lord and God,
the designer and maker of all creation,
having none other like him

Therefore, there is one God of all,
who is also God of our God;
and in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power

Arians believed in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the oneness of God, and also that all three persons in the Trinity were God.

They question you concerning the Spirit. Say, ‘The Spirit is the Word of my Lord, and you have not been given of the knowledge except a few.’
Qur’an 17:85

It is in this context that the Qur’an’s blessings upon the Holy Spirit, for carrying Christ make the most sense:

Immaculate is He who carried His servant on a journey by night from the Sacred House of Prayer to the Farther House of Prayer whose environs We have blessed, so that We might show him some of Our signs. Indeed, He is the All-hearing, the all-Seeing. Qur’an 17:1

Outside the Qur’an, there is unanimous agreement that the “Farther House of Prayer” is the top of Mount Zion, God’s Holy Mountain. To me it makes the most sense the “Holy House of Prayer” is the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ shed blood in prayer and gave the most heart-rending of all prayers to his Father and God. But just as the Holy Spirit led the Son into the wilderness, so it led Him to Caiaphas, to Pilate, and the proclamation that He is the Truth.

This was necessary, according to the Qur’anic author, because no one can guide themselves. Even Christ was guided by the Spirit, and Christ himself was offered as a guide to the people of Israel. But Israel rejected him, and became due to the Word:

Whoever is guided is guided only for his own soul, and whoever goes astray, goes astray only to its detriment. No bearer shall bear another’s burden.

We do not punish until We have sent an apostle. And when We desire to destroy a town We command its affluent ones. But they commit transgression in it, and so the Word becomes due against it, and We destroy it utterly.
Qur’an 17:15-16

This difference between being guided by God and being guided by oneself can be thought of as Books — the Word of the Lord and the word of the self. Lord, protect me from being guided by my own book separate from yours:

We have strapped every person’s register to his neck, and We shall bring it out for him on the Day of Resurrection as a book that he will find wide open. ‘Read your book! Today your soul suffices as your own reckoner!’
Qur’an 17:13-14

Instead, guide me with your Word, the Gospel, which you sent down with the Truth:

With the Truth did We sent it down, and with the Truth did it descend, and We did not send you except as a bearer of Good News and a warner. We have sent the Lectionary in parts so that you may recite it for the people a little at a time, and We have sent it down piecemeal.
Qur’an 17:105-106

The disciples could not stay away with Christ. He invited them to prayer in that holy house of prayer — the garden — and it was too hard for them. But He still asks us to pray with him, and through the liturgy of the hours we are still able to.

Maintain the prayer from the sun’s decline till the darkness of the night, and the dawn recital. The dawn recital is indeed attended.

And keep vigil for a part of the night, as a supererogatory for you. It may be that your Lord will raise you to a praiseworthy station.
And say, ‘My Lord! Admit me with a worthy entrance, and bring me out with a worthy departure, and render me a favorable authority from Yourself!’
Qur’an 17:78-80

Christ exhibited perfect humility, asking the Lord to forgive those who persecuted him, and teaching his disciples to do likewise:

Lower the wing of humility to them mercifully, and say, ‘My Lord! Have Mercy on them, just as they reared me when I was small!’ Your Lord knows best what is in your hearts. Should you be righteous, He is indeed most forgiving toward penitents.
Qur’an 17:24

This is not to say — in the Qur’anic author’s view — that intercession is possible. But prayers for others show the humble and contrite heart desired by the Lord. It is for the reason that the Qur’an stresses the blessings Christ received during the Passion — “so that We might show Him some of Our Signs” — as opposed to the Catholic view of Christ’s merit’s directly saving others:

The friends of the King of the Universe were not won in the Qur’anic author’s view by the Passion, though the Christ showed compassion on them in the passion:

And Say, ‘All praise belongs to God, who has neither any offspring, nor has He any partner in sovereignty, nor has He made any friend out of weakness,’ and magnify Him with a magnification.
Qur’an 17:111

Given God’s greatness, the appropriate response of man is humility. God is without limits:

Indeed, your Lord expands and tightens the provision for whomever He wishes. He is indeed a well-informed observer of His servants.
Qur’an 17:30

And Christ’s mission was not only to the humans, but even the trees. One was cursed, another became the Cross:

When We said to you, ‘Your Lord indeed encompasses those people,’ We did not appoint the vision that We showed you except as a tribulation for the people and the tree cursed in the Lectionary. We warn them, but it only increases them in their outrageous rebellion.’
Qur’an 17:60

Every thing responds to God according to its capacity and God’s will. From the smallest microbe to the greatest angel, God is the origin and purpose of creation:

The seven heavens glorify Him and the earth, and whoever is in them. There is not a thing but celebrates His praise, but you do not understand their glorification. He is indeed all-forbearing, all-forgiving.
Qur’an 17:44

Yet there’s a dialectic at work too: all glorify God, but God created all in different degrees of greatness. Not all prophets are as great as David, not all books as great as the Psalms:

Your Lord knows best whoever is in the heavens and the earth. Certainly We gave some prophets an advantage over the others, and We gave David the Psalms.
Qur’an 17:55

It is hard for men to keep this in mind: the overwhelming greatness of God, the total diversity of creation. But God can. God understands the way that Christ can minister to both the trees and the creatures, but not but an angel: for (according to the Qur’anic author) it would be one like an angel who would minister to angles, and one like a man (or a tree) who would minister to men and trees:

They say, ‘We will not believe you until you make a spring gush forth for us from the ground. Or until you have a garden of date palms and vines and you make streams gush through it. Or until you cause the sky to fall in fragments upon us, just as you have averred. Or until you bring God and the angels in front of us. Or until you have a house of gold, or you ascend into the sky. And we will not believe your ascension until you bring down for us a book that we may read.’

Say, ‘Immaculate is my Lord! Am I anything but a human apostle?! ‘Nothing has kept these people from believing when guidance came to them, but their saying, ‘Has God sent down a human as an apostle!’ Say, ‘Had there been angels in the earth, walking around and residing, We would have sent down to them an angel from the heaven as an apostle.’
Qur’an 17:90-95

The use of dialectics (only one God but a Trinity, only one Book for many scriptures, only one creation but multiple levels of creation) can be rejected or accepted by men. But in this it is no different than the world itself. There’s a Truth that created it and that came into it. Man’s irritation at the subtlety of God’s creation is not the fault of God, but may be the doom of man. For the Lord casts a veil over the heart of those who reject His wisdom:

When you recite the Lectionary, We draw a hidden curtain between you and those who do not believe in the Hereafter, and We cast veils on their hearts, lest they should understand it, and a deafness into their ears. When you mention your Lord alone in the Lectionary, they turn their backs in aversion.
Qur’an 17:45-46

God is the beginning and the end, the maker and destroyer of all. Literalist atheists mock basic promises like the next world by asking how physics would work, how souls would enter dead bodies, now a world without death can also have feasts (and digestion). The promise of God is more wonderful than the scoffers can imagine.

They say, ‘What, when we have become bones and dust, shall we really be raised in a new creation?’ Say, ‘You should become stones or iron — or a creature more fantastic to your minds!’ They will say, ‘Who will bring us back?Say, ‘He who originated you the first time.’ They will nod their heads at you and say, ‘When will that be?’ Say, ‘Maybe it is near! The day He calls you, you will respond to Him, praising Him, and you will think you remained only for a little while.’

Did your Lord prefer you for sons, and adopt females from among the angels? You indeed make a monstrous statement!
Qur’an 17:40

I think the natural Catholic reaction to the Qur’an’s rejection of intercessors is one of sadness — is there really no opportunity to help each other? But the Qur’an emphasizes the hopefulness of this. Like Calvinists who despair of the wickedness of man’s heart, the Qur’an emphasizes that it is through God that we can have a hope. Men, according to the Qur’anic author, would turn their back to each other:

Say, ‘Even if you possessed the treasuries of my Lord’s mercy, you would withhold them for the fear of being spent, and man is very niggardly.’
Qur’an 17:100

And fall for each other’s tricks:

They were about to beguile you from what God has revealed to you so that you may fabricate against Us something other than that, whereat they would have befriended you. Had We not fortified you, certainly you might have included toward them a bit.
Qur’an 17:73-74

But it is from God that we have more compassion than we can imagine, and more hope than we deserve

Conclusion

The seventh chapter of the Qur’an is thematically concerned with the Holy Spirit leading Jesus from the Garden to Mt Zion.  In the Qur’anic theology, Jesus is a member of the Trinity, along with the Holy Spirit and God (the Father).  The Qur’anic author was writing near the extinction of the Arian creed, and his separation from other believers seems to pain him.

Tell My servants to speak in a manner which is the best. Indeed, Satan incites ill feeling between them, and Satan is indeed man’s open enemy.
Qur’an 17:49-53

But the Qur’an denies that Christ’s role was intercessory.  The Qur’an casts the Passion as exemplary and doxological, rather than sacrificial.   The Word and the Holy Spirit, who along with God are called “the all-Hearing and all-Seeing,” are either creations or God or emanations of God, not persons of God.  Ultimately Unitarian and Modernist, the Qur’an preaches a faith which is not the Catholic faith.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *