An Apocalyptic Reading of Qur’an 17:1-8

An Apocalyptic Reading of Qur’an 17:1-8

By Mehdy Shaddel*

Modern scholarship on the Qur’an has, since long, pointed out three problems with the 41fcda2ca8a78e46e2760ff1c98c6660traditional interpretation of Q Isrāʾ 17:1 as a scriptural testimonium for Muḥammad’s ‘ascension’ story. The first is that there is nothing in the verse, and not even in the whole pericope, to suggest that the ‘servant’ (ʿabd) mentioned therein must be identified with Muḥammad – although there is nothing against this identification either.[i] Secondly, the verse does not even allude to an ascension; it only speaks of a ‘nocturnal journey’ (isrāʾ).[ii] The third, and most worrying, problem of the ‘miʿrāj verse’ is in its seeming incongruity with the rest of the pericope. This apparent incongruity is so obvious that it has led some scholars to propose that the verse has been interpolated into the text in an attempt to produce a prooftext for Muḥammad’s ascension story.[iii] However, this has been shown to be untenable because of the textual cross-references between the verse and the rest of the pericope.[iv]

Apparently under the influence of the view that the verse stands out from the rest of the sūrah, almost no scholar has so far attempted to read Q 17:1 against the verses immediately following it (vv. 2-8) or vice versa. Some scholars, nevertheless, have granted that v. 1 may be a reference to a miraculous experience of its ʿabd (who they take the liberty of identifying with Muḥammad).[v] Such a miraculous journey, as Uri Rubin observes, is well-known in the Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic tradition.

On the other hand, vv. 4-7 retail a familiar story. It is the account of the destruction of the First Temple in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian invasion of the Kingdom of Judah and the final destruction of the rebuilt Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, two cataclysmic events that for centuries continued to hold sway over the imaginaire of the Jews.[vi] These two events were, accordingly, retold, in the guise of ‘prophecies’, in many Jewish, and occasionally also Christian, apocalypses from the late first century CE onwards.[vii] One wonders, then, whether Q 17:1-8 is not a retelling of one such apocalypse, with v. 1 (the so-called ‘miʿrāj verse’) being the description of its seer’s initiatory experience?

What is more, there could be little doubt that in v. 4 the Qur’an is alluding to an apocalypse. The verse asserts that God had beforehand determined those events to happen “in the book”.[viii] In other words, the Qur’an here is speaking of a book containing ‘prophecies’ of events – historical events – to come. This kind of already-fulfilled (or ex eventu) ‘prophecies’ are amply found in apocalyptic writings.

The possibility that the Qur’an might exhibit knowledge of apocryphal literature and, in particular, apocalypses is almost indisputable. Elsewhere in the Qur’an, we hear of ṣuḥuf (sing.ṣaḥīfah), a term used to describe “ancient compositions” (al-ṣuḥuf al-ūlā) attributed to Abraham and Moses, which, in all likelihood, is an Arabic calque on the Hebrew gilāyōn and the Syriac gelyānā, ‘scroll, apocalypse’.[ix] More to the point, emphasis on the role of divine providence in the unfolding of history is part and parcel of apocalyptic historiography. In apocalyptic historiography, the providential determination of history is to be seen in the phenomenon of translatio imperii according to a preconceived divinely-ordained scheme which, however, is usually said to be a chastisement for human sinfulness – presumably to shed any possible doubts as to the justness of the Almighty.[x] The same themes are evidently present in the qur’anic passage under discussion: a supra-historical view of the Israelite past and future that sees both God’s hand and human action behind all of their turns of fortune. The Qur’an, however, does not deploy this theology of history to convince its audience of the imminence of the eschaton or the inevitability of human suffering, but, rather, of the quickness of divine retribution. Thus the pericope seems to exhibit all formal features of the genre ‘apocalypse’.[xi]

Open questions

Scholars have identified two pseudepigraphic compositions as the apocalypse behind this pericope, the Apocalypse of Abraham, proposed by Geneviève Gobillot,[xii] and Testamentum Mosis (also known as Assumptio Mosis), put forward by Heribert Busse. Of these two, the Apocalypse of Abraham does contain a reference to the Roman sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, but it could hardly be “the book” cited by our pericope, for the allusion to “the book granted to Moses” in v. 2, which is presumably the referent of “the book” of v. 4, renders Abraham an impossible candidate for the ʿabd of v. 1.

Busse fails to connect v. 1 with the rest of the pericope himself and, thus, does not identify its ʿabd with the apocalyptic visionary. But, in the light of the foregoing, the identification of theTestamentum Mosis as the apocalyptic composition quoted here by the Qur’an entails that Moses is the to be identified with the ʿabd. This, however, cannot be maintained either, for although theTestamentum contains references to two desecrations of the Temple, its visionary does not embark on an otherworldly journey. Moreover, Moses’ association with al-masjid al-ḥarām, wherever it was, is not self-evident in the light of the qur’anic data. On the other hand, Abraham seems a suitable candidate in this respect, as, contrary to Moses, he is particularly associated with al-masjid al-ḥarām in the Qur’an and is even said to be its founder. As may be seen, there is evidence for and against both candidates in the text, and, thus, the issue remains open.

What about the location of the two mosques mentioned? Van Ess, Neuwirth, and Rubin have compellingly argued for the identification of al-masjid al-aqṣā with the Jerusalem Temple on the basis of the verse’s description of it as being contained in a blessed environment, a description used elsewhere in the Qur’an of the Holy Land.[xiii] The identity of al-masjid al-ḥarām still remains elusive, but it would not be hard to imagine that the Qur’an is indeed referring to its messenger’s hometown here, in keeping with its project of nativising biblical Heilsgeschichte.[xiv]

* Mehdy Shaddel is a scholar of Islamic history specialising in the political history of the early caliphate (AD 632-836), the Arabic historiographical tradition, the historical Muḥammad, the Qurʾān, and late-ancient religion. He has written several articles on such topics as the Second Muslim Civil War, ethno-religious identities in the Qur’an, and Islamic eschatology.

[i] Josef Horovitz, “Muhammeds Himmelfahrt”, Der Islam 9 (1919), 159-183, at 160; A.A. Bevan, “Mohammed’s Ascension to Heaven”, in Karl Marti (ed.), Studien zur semitischen Philologie und Religionsgeschichte: Julius Wellhausen zum Siebzigsten Geburtstag (Giessen: Alfred Töpelmann, 1914), 51-61, at 54; followed by John Wansbrough, Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (Amherst: Prometheus, 2004), 67-9, who sees a better candidate in Moses, apparently in the context of the exodus of the Israelites (adducing, inter alia, Q al-Dukhān 44:23 as a potential parallel).

[ii] For the significance of this term, see Rubin, “Muḥammad’s Night Journey (isrāʾ) to al-Masjid al-Aqṣā: Aspects of the Earliest Origins of the Islamic Sanctity of Jerusalem”, al-Qantara 29 (2008), 151.

[iii] Theodor Nöldeke and Friedrich Schwally, Geschichte des Qorāns, vol. i: Über den Ursprung des Qorāns (Leipzig: Weicher, 1909), 136 (translated into English as The History of the Qurʾān. ed. and trans. Wolfgang Behn [Leiden: Brill, 2013], 111-2); Horovitz, “Muhammeds Himmelfahrt”, 160; more explicitly so in Bevan, “Mohammed’s Ascension”, 53; more recently in Angelika Neuwirth,Studien zur Komposition der mekkanischen Suren (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007; originally published in 1981), 101, based on stylistic grounds. Neuwirth has since backtracked on her earlier position by contriving a redactional history of the verse in the context of the whole sūrah which integrates it back into the original corpus of the Qur’an; see her “From the Sacred Mosque to the Remote Temple: Sūrat al-Isrāʾ (Q. 17), between Text and Commentary”, in eadem, Scripture, Poetry and the Making of a Community: Reading the Qur’an as a Literary Text (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 216-52, at 225-7 (originally published in J.D. McAuliffe, B. Walfish, and J. Goering [eds], With Reverence for the Word: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003], 376-407).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Rubin, “Muḥammad’s Night Journey”, 152-3; Neuwirth, “From the Sacred Mosque”, passim.

[vi] This identification, which is also advocated by the tradition, has been challenged by Busse, “Destruction of the Temple”, 2-3, on the basis of his own identification of Testamentum Mosis as the ‘source’ of the verse.

[vii] Many such texts are discussed in Kenneth R. Jones, Jewish Reactions to the Destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70: Apocalypses and Related Pseudepigrapha (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[viii] Cf. Busse, “Destruction of the Temple”, 3, who suggests the Testamentum Mosis as a likely candidate.

[ix] Q al-Aʿlā 87:18-9; al-Najm 53:36-7; and Ṭāhā 20:133. Haggai Ben-Shammai, “Ṣuḥuf in the Qurʾān – A Loan Translation for ‘Apocalypses’”, in idem, S. Shaked, and S. Stroumsa (eds), Exchange and Transmission across Cultural Boundaries: Philosophy, Mysticism and Science in the Mediterranean World (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 2013), 1-15.

[x] On the function of ex eventu prophecies in apocalyptic literature, see Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (London 1982), 136-55; andnow Lorenzo DiTommaso, “Pseudonymity and the Revelation of John”, in J. Ashton (ed.), Revealed Wisdom: Studies in Apocalyptic in Honour of Christopher Rowland (Leiden 2014), 305-315.

[xi] The classic definition of the genre is to be found in John J. Collins, “Introduction: Towards the Morphology of a Genre”, in idem (ed.), Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre (special issue ofSemeia 14 [1979]), 1-20.

[xii] Geneviève Gobillot, “Apocryphes de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Testament”, in Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi (ed.), Dictionnaire du Coran (Paris: Bouquins, 2007), 57-63.

[xiii] Josef van Ess, “Vision and Ascension: Sūrat al-Najm and Its Relationship with Muḥammad’s miʿrāj”, Journal of Qur’anic Studies 1 (1999), 47-62, at 48; Rubin, “Muḥammad’s Night Journey”, 152; also alluded to in Neuwirth, “From the Sacred Mosque”, 225 and 234.

[xiv] For further examples of the Qur’an’s appropriation of Judaeo-Christian folk stories and their situation in an ‘Arabian’ milieu, see Joseph Witztum, “The Foundation of the House (Q 2:127)”,BSOAS 72 (2009), 25-40; and Mehdy Shaddel, “Studia onomastica coranica: al-raqīm, caput Nabataeae”, forthcoming in Journal of Semitic Studies 62 (2017).

Recent Publications on Qur’an-related Themes

Patricia Crone, The Qurʾānic Pagans and Related Matters, E. J. Brill


Patricia Crone’s Collected Studies in Three Volumes brings together a number of her published, unpublished, and revised writings on Near Eastern and Islamic history, arranged around three distinct but interconnected themes. Volume 1, The Qurʾānic Pagans and Related Matters, pursues the reconstruction of the religious environment in which Islam arose and develops an intertextual approach to studying the Qurʾānic religious milieu. Volume 2, The Iranian Reception of Islam: The Non-Traditionalist Strands, examines the reception of pre-Islamic legacies in Islam, above all that of the Iranians. Volume 3, Islam, the Ancient Near East and Varieties of Godlessness, places the rise of Islam in the context of the ancient Near East and investigates sceptical and subversive ideas in the Islamic world.

Table of contents:

Editor’s preface

Author’s preface

1. How did the Qurʾānic pagans make a living?
2. Quraysh and the Roman army: Making sense of the Meccan leather trade
3. The religion of the Qurʾānic pagans: God and the lesser deities
4. Angels versus humans as messengers of God: The view of the Qurʾānic pagans
5. The Qurʾānic mushrikūn and the resurrection (Part I)
6. The Qurʾānic mushrikūn and the resurrection (Part II)
7. The Book of Watchers in the Qurʾān
8. War
9. Jewish Christianity and the Qurʾān (Part I)
10. Jewish Christianity and the Qurʾān (Part II)
11. Pagan Arabs as God-fearers
12. Problems in sura 53
13. No compulsion in religion: Q. 2:256 in medieval and modern interpretation
14. Islam and religious freedom
15. Tribes without saints

List of Patricia Crone’s publications

Index to volume 1

About the author:

Patricia Crone (1945-2015), Ph.D. (1974), School of Oriental and African Studies, was Professor Emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Her numerous publications include Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987); Pre-Industrial Societies (1989); Medieval Islamic Political Thought (2004); and The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran (2012).

Marcus Milwright, The Dome of the Rock and Its Umayyad Mosaic Inscriptions, Edinburgh University Press


Located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock was constructed at the end of the seventh century by order of caliph ‘Abd al-Malik. This seminal structure has been much studied but no definitive interpretation yet exists of the meanings conveyed by the Dome at the time of its completion. The recovery of meaning is complicated by the paucity of primary written sources relating to the construction phases of the building and the motivations of its patron. This book concentrates on the most important surviving primary text, the long mosaic inscription running around the interior. Comprising a dedication and date (72/691-92) and material of a religious nature, the mosaic inscription provides vital evidence for the reconstruction of the meanings and functions of the Dome of the Rock. The detailed study of the mosaics helps to place them in the context of Late Antique monumental writing, particularly in Greek. The book makes use of contemporary Islamic coins, graffiti, and other inscribed objects in order to examine the Dome of the Rock in the relation to the ideological concerns of the Umayyad elite during and after the Second Civil War.

Table of contents:


Notes for the Reader

Figure Captions


Chapter 1. The Setting of the Dome of the Rock
Chapter 2. Initial Description of the Mosaic Inscriptions
Chapter 3. Mosaic Scripts in Late Antiquity
Chapter 4. Visual Sources for the Mosaic Script of the Dome of the Rock
Chapter 5. Focus on Details
Chapter 6. Proposing a Sequence
Chapter 7. Symbolic Dimensions of Inscriptions in Late Antiquity and Early Islam
Chapter 8. The Inscriptions of the Dome of the Rock in their Historical Context



About the author:

Marcus Milwright is Professor of Art and Archaeology in the Department of Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Victoria, B.C., Canada. He is the author of The Fortress of the Raven: Karak in the Middle Islamic Period (2008) and An Introduction to Islamic Archaeology (2010).

Angelika Neuwirth and Michael A. Sells (eds), Qur’anic Studies Today, Routledge


Qur’anic Studies Today brings together specialists in the field of Islamic studies to provide a range of essays that reflect the depth and breadth of scholarship on the Qur’an.

Combining theoretical and methodological clarity with close readings of qur’anic texts, these contributions provide close analysis of specific passages, themes, and issues within the Qur’an, even as they attend to the disciplinary challenges within the field of qur’anic studies today. Chapters are arranged into three parts, treating specific figures appearing in the Qur’an, analysing particular suras, and finally reflecting on the Qur’an and its ‘others’. They explore the internal dimensions and interior chronology of the Qur’an as text, its possible conversations with biblical and non-biblical traditions in Late Antiquity, and its role as scripture in modern exegesis and recitation. Together, they are indispensable for students and scholars who seek an understanding of the Qur’an founded on the most recent scholarly achievements.

Offering both a reflection of and a reflection on the discipline of qur’anic studies, the strong, scholarly examinations of the Qur’an in this volume provide a valuable contribution to Islamic and qur’anic studies.

Table of contents:


  1. Wansbrough, Bultmann, and the Theory of Variant Traditions in the Qurʾān – Devin J. Stewart
  2. Lot’s Wife: Late Antique Paradigms of Sense and the Qurʾān – Nora K. Schmid
  3. The Sign of Jonah: Transformations and Interpretations of the Jonah Story in the Qurʾān – Hannalies Koloska
  4. End of Hope: Sūras 10–15, Despair, and a Way out of Mecca – Walid A. Saleh
  5. The Casting: A Close Hearing of Sūrat TāHā 9-79 – Michael A. Sells
  6. Qurʾānic Studies and Historical-Critical Philology: The Qurʾān’s Staging, Penetrating, and Finally Eclipsing of Biblical Tradition – Angelika Neuwirth
  7. The Sunna of Our Messengers: The Qurʾān’s Paradigm for Messengers and Prophet: A Reading of Sūrat ash-Shuʿarāʾ– Sidney H. Griffith
  8. Textual and Paratextual Meaning in the Recited Qurʾān: An Analysis of a Performance of Sūrat al-Furqān by Sheikh Mishari Rashid Alafasy – Lauren E. Osborne
  9. The Qurʾān’s Theopoetic Manifesto – Ghassan el Masri
  10. The Qurʾān between Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism – Holger M. Zellentin
  11. Reinterpreting the Qurʾānic Criticism of Other Religions – Mun’im Sirry

About the editors:

Michael A. Sells is Barrows Professor of the History and Literature of Islam and Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago.

Angelika Neuwirth is Professor Emeritus of Arabic Studies at the Freie Universität in Berlin.

Peter Webb, Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam, Edinburgh University Press


Who are the Arabs? When did people begin calling themselves Arabs? And what was the Arabs’ role in the rise of Islam? Investigating these core questions about Arab identity and history through close interpretation of pre-Islamic evidence and the extensive Arabic literary corpus in tandem with theories of identity and ethnicity prompts new answers to the riddle of Arab origins and fundamental reinterpretations of early Islamic history.

It is revealed that the time-honoured stereotypes depicting Arabs as ancient Arabian Bedouin are entirely misleading: the essence of Arab identity was in fact devised by Muslims during the first centuries of Islam. Arab identity emerged and evolved as groups imagined new notions of community to suit the radically changing circumstances of life in the early Caliphate. The idea of ‘the Arab’ was a device used by Muslims to articulate their communal identity, to negotiate post-Conquest power relations, and to explain the rise of Islam. Over Islam’s first four centuries, political elites, genealogists, poetry collectors, historians and grammarians all participated in a vibrant process of imagining and re-imagining Arab identity and history, and the sum of their works established a powerful tradition that influences Middle Eastern communities to the present day.

Table of contents:


Note on the Text


Part 1: The Rise of Arab Communities
1. The Rise of Arab Communities
I. Arabs and pre-Islamic Textual Traditions
II. Arabs in Arabia: ethnogenesis, interpretations and problems
III. An Arabness pretence: pre-Islamic ‘Arab’-cognates reconsidered
2. Pre-Islamic ‘Arabless-ness’: Arabian Identities
I. The Arabic Language: a signpost to Arabness?
II. The search for Arabs in pre-Islamic poetry
III. Contextualising the ‘Arabless’ Poetry: ethnic boundaries in pre-Islamic Arabia
IV. The rise of ‘Arab’ poetry
V. Transition from ‘Maʿadd’ to ‘Arab’: case study of Dhū Qār
VI. Pre-Islamic Arabian identity: conclusions
3. Arabness from the Qur’an to an ethnos
I. ‘Arab’: an ethnonym resurrected?
II. The Qur’an and Arabness
III. Early Islam and the genesis of Arab identity Part Two: The Changing Faces of Arabness in Early Islam
4. Interpreting Arabs: defining their name and constructing their family
I. ‘Arab’ defined
II. Arabness and contested lineage
III. Arab genealogy reconsidered: kinship, gender and identity
IV. The creation of ‘traditional’ Arab genealogy
V. Defining Arabs: conclusions
5. Arabs as a people and Arabness as an idea: 750-900 CE
I. Arabs in the early Abbasid Caliphate (132-193/750-809)
II. Forging an Iraqi ‘Arab Past’
III. al-Jāhiliyya and imagining pre-Islamic Arabs
IV. Arabs and Arabia: changing relationships in the third/ninth century
6. Philologists, ‘Bedouinisation’ and the ‘Archetypal Arab’ after the mid-third/ninth century
I. Philologists and Arabness: changing conceptions of Arabic between the late second/eighth and fourth/tenth centuries
II. The transformation of Arabness into Bedouin-ness
III. Bedouin Arabness and the emergence of a Jāhiliyya archetype
IV. Conclusions Imagining and Reimagining the Arabs: Conclusions


About the author:

Peter Webb is an Arabist specialising in the literatures and cultures of classical Islam and has published a number of scholarly articles and book chapters on Arabic literature and Muslim narratives of pre-Islamic history. He is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow (2015-18) at SOAS, University of London, and prior to his academic career, he was a solicitor at Clifford Chance LLP.

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New coordinator at the IQSA blog

From this week on, the IQSA blog will have a new coordinator, Mehdy Shaddel, an independent scholar based in Iran, with interests in the Qur’an, late-ancient 1024px-Folio_Blue_Quran_Met_2004.88religion, and early Islamic history. The previous coordinator, Professor Vanessa De Gifis of the Wayne State University, is now the co-editor of our Journal, JIQSA. We would like to thank Professor De Gifis on behalf of the IQSA community for her efforts during her tenure as blog coordinator.

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