Responses to Islamic Awareness

Arda Wiraz Namag (Iranian "Divina Commedia") And The "Prophet's" Night Journey


In this article, Dr. Saifullah attempts to defend his "Prophet" against the charge that Muhammad borrowed information from the Zoroastrian Arda Wiraz Namag to create the tale of his "Night Journey." As in other articles, Dr. Saifullah attempts to discredit the borrowing charge by demonstrating that the texts, from which Muhammad lifted many of his strange ideas, did not exist during his lifetime, but were written centuries later.

Dr. Saifullah uses two lines of defense: 1) the Arda Wiraz Namag was redacted in the 9th-10th centuries A.D. - or a century after the advent of Islam; and 2) the earliest manuscripts of Arda Wiraz Namag date from 14th century A.D. He concludes:

Hence there is no way of knowing how much more redaction did Arda Wiraz Namag undergo centuries before (if indeed this book existed before the advent of Islam!) and after the advent of Islam.

It is true that the earliest known manuscript is from sometime around the 9th century A.D., however, some of the themes and motifs present in the Arda Wiraz Namag are present in earlier stories dating from the 3rd century. But, how can this be proven?

Dr. Saifullah often points to the date when a story received its latest redaction. This does not eliminate the possibility that the story existed prior to its latest redaction. For example, in 1998, Dreamworks released the movie The Prince of Egypt, which was based on the Book of Exodus. Prior to that, in 1956, Cecil B. DeMilles released his movie The Ten Commandments which was also based on Exodus.

"The Prince of Egypt" tells a story which is close to the Biblical story in the book of Exodus. However the story has been redacted in the film - some details were left out while some other details, not documented in the original text, were inserted. Therefore, using Dr. Saifullah's reasoning, since the story on the giving of the Ten Commandments was (last) redacted in the 20th century, can we conclude that it was not known before 1998 or 1956? This would be a ridiculous conclusion.

Another way that we could look at the issue is that the truly great and important stories are told and re-told many times. Because stories are important in many cultures, combined with the fact that languages change over time, these stories are regularly "updated" in vocabulary to keep them understandable for modern audiences. As the Persian language developed, the Persian story teller of the 9th century would tell/write it in his own vocabulary, updating those parts that may otherwise no longer be comprehensible to his contemporaries. To conclude from the fact that a manuscript contains 9th or 10th century words, therefore the story it tells could only have come into existence in that time, is a rather obvious logical fallacy.

The very word "latest" in the term "latest redaction" indicates that the story itself existed prior to its latest redaction.

The motif of a human making a journey to heaven is not unique to Islam. This motif is found in the texts of many ancient Mediterranean and Near-Eastern religions. In some of the earliest texts, the heavens were the abode of the gods, and the ascent of a man was considered an invasion. For example the Akkadians believed that a man named Adapa, the son of Ea, attempted to ascend to heaven in order to obtain eternal life but was thrown back down to earth by the gods. An ancient Sumerian story is told of a man named Etana, a ruler of the dynasty of Kish, who faced a similar fate.

The earliest Biblical figures to ascend to heaven were Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-12), who ascended to heaven to receive immortal life, as did Jesus (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9). Paul was shown heaven as a fore-taste (2 Corinthian 12:2-4). John saw heaven in order to receive revelation (Revelation 4:1). Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel (Exodus 24:9-11), Micaiah (1 Kings 22:19-23), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-13), and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1, 10) also saw the Throne/Heavenly Court of Yahweh.

Saifullah is an expert in the art of asking the wrong questions (with the intention to get the desired but wrong answer). The important question is not the time of a story's last redaction, but of its first redaction, i.e. the time of origin of the story. When and where did it originate? When was it first told or invented? From that time onwards it had the opportunity to spread to neighboring cultures, including Arabia, through the traders and story tellers.

What About the Historic Documentation Concerning the Mir'aj?

So, if the earliest version of the Arda Wiraz Namag dates from around the 9th century A.D., what is the earliest written version of Muhammad's Mir'aj? One of the earliest sources is the Sirah Rasul Allah (Life of the Apostle of God), composed by Abu Muhammad 'Abd al-Malik bin Hisham – who died in the 9th century (834 A.D.)! Other sources for this little tale are the Sahih Bukhari, which was composed by Muhammad Ibn Ismail Ibn Ibrahim Ibn al-Mughirah Ibn Bardiziyeh al-Bukhari, who lived entirely in the 9th century (810-870 A.D.). The Sahih Muslim also contains information concerning the Mir'aj and was composed by Abul Husain Muslim bin al-Hajjaj al-Nisapuri, who also lived entirely in the 9th century (821-875 A.D.). So, the "Islamic-Awareness" team's objections concerning the late (9th century) redaction of the Arda Wiraz Namag are rendered useless because the earliest version of the Mir'aj also dates from the 9th century.

Like most tales and legends, the story of the Mir'aj evolved over time, becoming more and more elaborate and fantastic. The tale of the Mir'aj was built around an obscure verse in the Qur'an (Surah 17:1):

Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless,- in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who heareth and seeth (all things).

Miguel AsŪn Palacio's essay La EscatologŪa musulmana en la Divina Comedia (Islam and the Divine Comedy) provides a detailed description of the sources of, what he called the "two legend cycles" for the Mir'aj and the Isra'. The source for the first cycle were six hadiths which date from around the ninth century. According to Palacio, these sources produced two versions of this legend : 1a and 1b. The source for the second cycle is other sacred traditions which also date from around the 9th century producing three versions: 2a, 2b and 2c.

Cycle 1

First, Muhammad is awoken at night by men [in 1a] or angels, Gabriel and Michael [in 1b]. He is then taken far away, to an unspecified mountain [in 1a], or to Jerusalem [in 1b], where he observes the torments of Hell [in 1a], but merely sees the guardian angel of Hell [in 1b]. On the summit of the mountain [in 1a], or in a house [in 1b], Muhammad has a vision of the "Abode of the Blessed". Muhammad is able to "contemplate" Abraham, Moses and Jesus [in 1a], while he meets Abraham at the base of a tree, whose top reaches all the way to Paradise [in 1b].

Cycle 2

The second cycle, of the Mir'aj legend is much more complex than the first. Palacio's version 2a comes from the ninth-century Hadiths of Bukhari and Muslim. In this version, Muhammad is awakened in his bed in Mecca by Gabriel who, with the assistance of other angels, opens Muhammad's chest, takes out his heart, and purifies it in preparation for his ascent to heaven. This portion of the legend may be an allusion to the Surah 94:1 "Have We not expanded thee thy breast?" After this "surgery" Muhammad began his ascent – which occurs in three variant accounts:

1. Muhammad "flies", on his journey, without any "vehicle";
2. or he ascends up with Gabriel on a tree which grows very rapidly – until it touches the heavens;
3. or he goes up on the famous winged creature named Buraq.

Compared with "Cycle 1", "Cycle 2" introduces a novelty which played a crucial role in the literary variations of this legend. That is, the ascent takes place through ten well-defined "levels", and Muhammad is carried well beyond the traditional "spheres". What was a fairly simple story concerning visions in "Cycle 1" becomes a very long journey in "Cycle 2", which is broken by a series of stops in the heavens. The seven levels of the heavens are possibly an allusion to the "seven superimposed heavens" mentioned in Surah 67:3. In each of these "heavens", Muhammad and Gabriel meet at least one prophet: Adam, Jesus and John, Joseph, Enoch, Aaron, Moses, and Adam. The eighth level contains the "Lote Tree", which is mentioned in Surah 53 "beyond which none may pass". At this level, Muhammad was given the choice of wine, milk and honey, to quench his thirst, before travelling to the ninth level, or the "House" of the Blessed – the celestial Jerusalem. Muhammad met God in the tenth level with whom he negotiated for a long time, at the advice of Moses, to bid down the number of daily prayers to be said by his followers.

Up to this point, Palacio's versions do not contain Muhammad's visit to Hell, until version 2b. In this version, it appears that the two cycles appear to merge. In this version, Muhammad thus meets a large and terrifying angel in the third heaven, who is the "divine avenger" of human insults and guardian of Hell. This angel shows Muhammad the seven levels of Hell, an allusion to Surah 15:44. Muhammad steps back in horror at the sight of the first level of Hell. This version describes each of the circles of Hell, and their sub-divisions, listing the categories of the damned distributed through each level, and the punishments inflicted at each level. Version 2c is believed by most Muslims to be apocryphal.

Al-Tabari's account, which was written during the 9th century, merges the Isra' and the Mir'aj. This is essentially a juxtaposition of Palacio's versions 1b and 2a.

For the dating of the story itself, we need to ask what is the earliest quotation of it in other writings, what is the earliest document or archaeological witness for it. Not what is the age of a certain manuscript that has the full version of the story.

In this case, we can prove that this story is much older than the redaction cited by Dr. Saifullah and, in fact, existed long before the time of Muhammad.

According to David S. Flattery and Martin Schwartz [Haoma and Harmaline, The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallucinogen "Soma" and its Legacy in Religion, Language, and Middle Eastern Folklore, Near Eastern Studies, vol. 21, 1989, page 23], there is a striking parallel account of the imagery in the Arda Wiraz Namag in an earlier inscription:

... Essentially consistent with these accounts is a passage found in two stone inscriptions written in Fars about 300 A.D. by Kirdir, the founder of the Sasanian Zoroastrian ecclesiastical establishment ... Kirdir's inscription asserts in this passage, as a basis of his claim to religious authority, that his spirit double visited the other world and was shown heaven and hell. The account thus parallels the Arda Wiraz Namag in reaffirming the reliance placed on a vision of menog existence as the means to religious truth. (Source)

The "Islamic Awareness" team attempts to portray this quote as misleading. However, quote-mining is not something on which they have the moral high-ground!

The missionary Andrew Vargo ends his article, with a master-stroke in deception, as we will soon see, using the quote from the book of Flattery and Schwartz[26] to "prove" that the story Arda Wiraz Namag is much older than the 9th-10th redaction and that it "existed long before the time of Muhammad".

However, that is not what I, nor the quote that I provided, said! The Arda Wiraz Namag contains similar motifs and details as Kirdir's inscriptions which are, in fact, dated earlier than the advent of Islam. So, the "Islamic Awareness" team must now attempt to dismiss Kirdir's inscriptions as a possible source of the tale of the Mir'aj.

The Arda Wiraz Namag vs. Kirdir's inscriptions

The "Islamic Awareness" team attempts to dismiss the notion that the tale of the Mir'aj could have been borrowed from these sources since the Arda Wiraz Namag and Kirdir's inscriptions differ in a number of details. This rationalization goes nowhere, since there are numerous Islamic accounts of the Mir'aj also which differ, even to a greater degree in terms of the details – as demonstrated earlier in this article. Also, the "Islamic Awareness" team attempts to use the strawman argument that the borrowing theory implies that Muhammad, or later Muslims, copied everything verbatim from the original source(s).

When we examine Islamic Traditions such as the Mir'aj, as well as the Qur'an itself, from the viewpoint of comparative literature, we see that it is nothing more than an amalgam of themes and literary motifs. The heroes of the Qur'anic/Islamic stories are taken from the Old and New Testaments with a bit of Rabbinic literature and the Apocryphal Gospels thrown into the mix, along with some Arab mythology.

The "Islamic Awareness" team simply cannot dismiss the fact that most of the motifs and details found in the tale of the Mir'aj are found in earlier texts.

For example, the Mir'aj mentions the "seven heavens" through which Muhammad allegedly traveled. The ancient Babylonians divided the cosmos into the seven heavens, and this is seen in the design of the "seven-level" temple of Babylon (or ziqqurat), described by Herodotus. This cosmology was later adopted by the Persians who formerly believed in a three-fold division of the cosmos. The Mithraic religion [in the time of Imperial Rome] believed that a stairway with seven gates represented the voyage of the soul through the celestial spheres.

Jewish mystics believed that Heaven was divided into seven realms, from lowest to highest, and the seven Heavens correspond with the angels who govern them. This is most evident in the apocryphal Book of Enoch (or 2 Enoch) – the Slavonic version dates from the 1st Century A.D. In this story, Enoch is taken to heaven where he sees various types of angels in each of heaven's seven layers, and this is similar to Palacio's version 2c of the Mi'raj. According to the Mir'aj tale, the Lote tree, which stands in the seventh heaven on the right hand of the throne of God, is the boundary beyond which the angels may not pass and beyond which no creature's knowledge can extend. The parallel in Slavonic Enoch [21.3] is where, at the end of the seventh heaven, Gabriel is sent to Enoch, and says: "Have courage, Enoch - Come with me." Enoch, in the end, sees God seated on His Throne. For other parallels between Islamic teachings and the Book of Enoch, please read this article.

The Apocalypse of Baruch (or 3 Baruch), written in the late 1st century A.D. or early 2nd century A.D., also discusses the seven heavens, as does the Testament of Levi (the third of the Testaments of the XII Patriarchs), which was composed between 109 B.C. and 106 B.C.

These apocryphal sources and the various version of the Mir'aj tale have a number of elements in common. There is a voyage to a destination of seeing God, there is a helper or teacher, a pilgrim protagonist, and a central argument – a description of the end of the world and/or a view of Paradise. There are also descriptions of the celestial city, or the Garden of Eden complete with angels, the Throne of God, the Tree of Paradise and an assortment of apocalyptic creatures. Simply put, the Islamic tale of Muhammad's Mir'aj is not at all unique, nor is it original.

Conclusion

The "Islamic Awareness" team set out with the hope of discrediting the theory that Muhammad, or his followers, borrowed elements from older stories in order to weave the tale of Muhammad's Mir'aj. There are a number of ancient texts, pre-dating Muhammad, which contain themes and motifs that are similar to those contained in the tale of the Mir'aj. The "Islamic Awareness" team chose to attack one of these – the Zoroastrian Arda Wiraz Namag.

According to the "Islamic Awareness" team, the Arda Wiraz Namag could not have been a source for the tale of the Mir'aj because the Arda Wiraz Namag was redacted in the 9th-10th centuries A.D. – after the advent of Islam. What the "Islamic Awareness" team fails to mention is the fact the earliest versions of the Mir'aj date from the same time – the 9th century! The Arda Wiraz Namag contains similar motifs and details as Kirdir's inscriptions which are, in fact, dated earlier than the advent of Islam. So, the "Islamic Awareness" team must now attempt to dismiss Kirdir's inscriptions as a possible source of the tale of the Mir'aj by discussing and underlining the different details and sequence of events between this story and the Arda Wiraz Namag. This line of reasoning is largely irrelevant because there are a number of varying accounts of the Mir'aj which also differ in the details. In spite of the evidence presented by Dr. Saifullah, concerning the relatively late date of the redactions and the earliest available manuscripts of the Arda Wiraz Namag, it appears that the story is much older, many of the same themes and motifs appear in the Kirdir inscriptions, as well as in other ancient texts including the Book of Enoch (or 2 Enoch), the Apocalypse of Baruch (or 3 Baruch), and the Testament of Levi and all of these texts pre-date Muhammad.

So, does this "prove" that Muhammad and/or his follows copied the themes and motifs which form the tale of the Mir'aj from earlier sources? We do not have physical or eyewitness evidence, but we do have tremendous circumstantial evidence to support the theory that Muhammad, or his followers, concocted this little tale based on several different stories from the apocryphal and other early texts. However, circumstantial evidence must be supported by a significant quantity of corroborating evidence – and we have this evidence in the Qur'an. There are numerous verses in the Qur'an where Muhammad is accused of reciting "tales of the ancients", including Surahs 6:25, 8:31, 16:24, 23:83, 25:5, 27:68, 46:17, 68:15, and 83:13. Muhammad never provides any evidence to defend his alleged "revelations" from the charge!

In conclusion, Dr. Saifullah has not cleared Muhammad, or those who came after him, from the accusation of borrowing themes and motifs from earlier sources, out of which Muslims created the tale of Muhammadís Mir'aj.

Andrew Vargo


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