In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
All praise and thanks are due to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger.
Dear questioner, thanks for your interesting question, and we implore Allah earnestly to make our work dedicated for His sake and to guide us all to the best.
To begin with, defining the year, the month, or the date of the Night Journey is not of much benefit to our religious life. The Night Journey definitely happened and the five Prayers were obligated; thus, any controversy concerning this matter is of no avail. Some scholars say that the prayer that used to be performed before the Night Journey was only in the form of invocation. Some other scholars say it was only recitation of the Qur’an. A third group of scholars say that the Prayer was performed as two rak`ahs in the morning and another two in the evening.
Responding to the question, Sheikh `Atiyyah Saqr, former head of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, states the following:
According to the unanimous agreement of scholars, the five obligatory Prayers were enjoined in the Night Journey. But as for the exact date of the Night Journey and the Prayer before that night, they are controversial issues. There is much dispute among scholars concerning the date of the Night Journey. It is even thought to have happened before the Prophet’s mission, according to the narration of Shurayk on the authority of Anas ibn Malik. The majority of scholars rejected this opinion and interpreted that the night journey meant in this narration was with the soul only, as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to see truthful visions before the revelation began. There are some authentic hadiths that explain visions similar to the situations in the hadiths of the Night Journey.
According to other scholars, the Night Journey happened after the Prophet’s mission, yet there are so many opinions concerning the year in which the Night Journey occurred. However, the majority of scholars are of the opinion that the Night Journey happened about a year before the Hijrah, rather than in the beginning of the Prophet’s mission. In this incident of the Night Journey, the five Prayers were enjoined.
As for the period preceding the Night Journey, it is known that there was a kind of prayer, but it should be taken into consideration that in the Qur’an salah may linguistically indicate invocation. This can be shown in the verse that reads “… and pray for them. Lo! Thy prayer is an assuagement for them” (At-Tawbah: 103) and in the verse “Lo! Allah and His angels yusallun [shower blessings] on the Prophet. O ye who believe! Sallu [Ask blessings] on him and salute him with a worthy salutation.” (Al-Ahzab: 56)
The words yusallun (are praying) and sallu (pray) mentioned in the verses can never mean the Prayer we know that contains bowing and prostration; rather, they indicate supplication, asking for forgiveness and mercy.
In the pre-Islamic period, Arabs had a kind of prayer that was an invocation they used to say in Hajj. They also had another kind of prayer, which the Qur’an tells us about in the verse “And their worship at the (holy) House is naught but whistling and hand clapping …” (Al-Anfal: 35) Commenting on this verse, some exegetes say that this “whistling and clapping” was an act that they regarded as a kind of worship. Other exegetes say that they used to do so only to confuse the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) while he was performing Prayer.
The word salah mentioned in the following verse may imply invocation: “And thou (Muhammad), be not loud voiced in thy worship [salatika] nor yet silent therein” (Al-Isra’: 110)
In addition, recitation of the Qur’an may be the intended meaning of the word salah as stated in some authentic narrations. An example of this is the authentic hadith qudsi in which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said that Allah Almighty said, “I have divided prayer between Me and My servant, and My servant will receive what he asks for. When he (the servant) says, ‘Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,’ I will say…” In this hadith qudsi, the recitation of Al-Fatihah itself is called “prayer.”
Furthermore, when the optional Night Prayer or tahajjud was first enjoined, it was performed by reciting the Qur’an only, as mentioned in the beginning of Surat Al-Muzammil. In support of the idea that prayer was mere invocation and recitation at that time, scholars quote the hadith reported by Imam Ahmad with an authentic chain of transmitters that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) prayed at Mina in the afternoon, leading Khadijah and `Ali in this prayer. It is stated according to the hadith narrated on the authority of `A’ishah that Khadijah had died before the obligation of the five Prayers in the Night Journey, that is, in the tenth year after the Mission.
On the other hand, some scholars are of the opinion that there had been a prayer enjoined before the five Prayers were obligated in the Night Journey. They say that Prayer consisted of two rak`ahs in the evening and another two in the morning. They base their opinion on the noble verse that states: “And hymn the praise of thy Lord at fall of night and in the early hours” (Ghafir: 55). However, there is no strong evidence to prove that the “hymn the praise” mentioned in the verse indicates a prayer that includes bowing and prostration. In other words, it may be mere words of glorifying Allah, which are included in invocations that can be called prayer.
After returning from Ta’if, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is reported to have performed Fajr (Dawn) Prayer in a place called Nakhlah, and this incident took place before the Night Journey. So what was this Prayer?
Commenting on this narration, some scholars said that it was the prayer enjoined to be performed in the morning and the evening. They further explained that it was called Fajr Prayer as it happened at dawn, or that it was even a Night Prayer that was made near dawn. It may also be an invocation only. Thus, this incident is not enough to prove that the five Prayers were enjoined before the Night Journey.
Some of the scribes said that `Abdullah ibn Mas`ud memorized the Surat Al-Isra’, which contains the verse “And thou (Muhammad), be not loud voiced in thy worship nor yet silent therein”, though he (`Abdullah) emigrated in the first emigration from Makkah to Abyssinia in the fifth year after the mission began. According to this opinion, the Night Journey should have taken place before that time. They based their opinion on the assumption that Ibn Mas`ud had no contact with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) after immigrating to Abyssinia except when he moved again to Madinah, where he witnessed the Battle of Badr with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). However, it is not certain that he had no contact with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) after his immigration to Abyssinia. In his book on the Prophet’s seerah (biography), Ibn Hisham said that the first immigrants to Abyssinia returned to Makkah when [incorrect] news came to them that the circumstances in Makkah had become peaceful. When they discovered that this was untrue, they returned again to Abyssinia, but some of them stayed in Makkah and did not return until they immigrated with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to Madinah. Ibn Mas`ud was one of those who remained, so he might have memorized Surat Al-Isra’ after returning from Abyssinia. Ibn Hisham said that Ibn Mas`ud stayed and was not among those who returned, yet some other books of seerah and studies of narrators state that he immigrated twice to Abyssinia.
Depending on the fact that Ibn Mas`ud had memorized Surat Al-Israa’, which contains the verse mentioned above, may be useful if it is certain that the worship referred to in the verse is the Prayer we know today. But, as said before, it may just indicate invocation or recitation.
Some quote from Az-Zuhri that the Night Journey happened five years after the mission began, and thus the Prayer was obligated at that time. However, there are different narrations related from Az-Zuhri in this regard. In Fath Al-Bari, Ibn Hajar reported on the authority of Az-Zuhri that the Night Journey took place five years before the Hijrah, that is, eight years after the mission began. Some scholars commented on this saying that the three years during which the Prophet used to call secretly are not included in these eight years, which means that the Night Journey happened eleven years after the mission began.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that setting a certain date for the Night Journey is not of much benefit to our religious life. The Night Journey undoubtedly happened and the five Prayers were enjoined, and thus any controversy concerning this matter is useless. Moreover, there is no need to change the day appointed for the occasion of the Night Journey, which is the eve of Rajab 27, as the matter will remain controversial even if changed to another date. In any case, we Muslims are not asked to do a certain act of worship on this occasion, as the Night Journey was just a matter of honor bestowed on the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) by Allah to prove his noble call.
You can also read:
Al-Isra' and Al-Mi`raj: Everlasting Lessons
The Fruits of the Prophet’s Ascension (Al-Mi`raj)
Fatwas on Al-'Isra' & Al-Mi`raj (Live Fatwa)
If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to write back!
May Allah guide you to the straight path, and guide you to that which pleases Him, Amen.