Isra Wa’al Mi’raj – Prophet’s Night Journey & Ascension
Difference Between Traveling by Ruh (Soul) vs. a Dream
The majority of prophet’s companions and the Islamic scholars throughout the history have accepted that this was a physical journey i.e. including body & soul. However there has been a minority from the time of Prophet ﷺ that understood this experience as purely spiritual. As for those who call it a dream actually misunderstood the opinion of some of the early Muslims who called it a spiritual journey. Muhammad Asad in his Message of the Quran clarifies this confusion: “The great majority of the Companions believed that both the Night Journey and the Ascension were physical occurrences - in other words, that the Prophet was borne bodily to Jerusalem and then to heaven - while a minority were convinced that the experience was purely spiritual. Among the latter we find, in particular, the name of Aishah, the Prophet's widow and most intimate companion of his later years, who declared emphatically that "he was transported only in his spirit (bi-ruhihi), while his body did not leave its place" (cf. Tabari, Zamakhshari and Ibn Kathir in their commentaries on 17:1); the great Al-Hasan al-Basri, who belonged to the next generation, held uncompromisingly to the same view (ibid.). As against this, the theologians who maintain that the night journey and the ascension were physical experiences refer to the corresponding belief of most of the Companions - without, however, being able to point to a single tradition to the effect that the Prophet himself described it as such. Some Muslim scholars lay stress on the words asra bi-'abdihi ("He transported His servant by night") occurring in 17:01, and contend that the term 'abd ("servant") denotes a living being in its entirety, i.e., a combination of body and soul.”
Those who base their argument on the fact that it was a dream do so in reference to the views held by Aisha (r.a), Hassan Al Basri (r.a) and even Abdullah ibn Masud (r.a), who claimed this was a spiritual journey in which the body did not travel. This minority’s view is not a reference to a dream but, in fact, is another experience as explained by renowned 14th century Imam Ibn Qayyim Al Jawzi (r.a) in his work Zaad al Maad (Provisions of the hereafter) who said: “one must differentiate between the statement: he embarked upon the night journey while asleep and the statement: he embarked upon the night journey in soul. As for the ascension one group said that the messenger of Allah (may Allah send salutations upon him) ascended in body and soul, and another group said he did so in soul without leaving his body. However, they (second group) did not mean that he ascended while asleep. Rather, they meant that his soul ascended without leaving the body where it ultimately reaches Allah (swt) the Magnificent, before returning to earth, but the experience of messenger of Allah (may Allah send his salutations upon him) was more inclusive. Since the messenger of Allah (may Allah send salutations upon him) was capable of the extraordinary, his blessed soul ascended to the heavens without him dying.” Ibn Qayyim makes a very valid point here. If in fact it is true that the Prophet’s journey and ascension an experience in which his blessed soul traveled to Jerusalem and the heavens without death then it is highly plausible, especially in the light of modern research on something called OBE (out of body) experience. This is an altered state of consciousness in which a person is awake but sees themselves outside of their own body while their body remains unconscious. They are observing their own body and the world from outside of their body. Many reported to have experienced this state during near death incidents such as after car accidents, falling from a height or a major surgical operation. Allah ﷻ mentions to us in the Quran that: (Al Quran 39:42) "It is Allah Who takes away the souls of people at the hour of their death, and takes away at the time of sleep the souls of those that have not died. Then He retains the souls of those against whom He had decreed death and returns the souls of others till an appointed time. Surely there are Signs in this for people who reflect." The Prophet ﷺ blessed soul may have been taken by Allah ﷻ for this supernatural journey while he was asleep but not in the sense of a dream as dreams are mental states while words of Allah ﷻ in Al Quran 17:01 "Subhaanallazi - Exalted is He" brings our attention to the extraordinary nature of this event. We can also comprehend why He chose the Prophet's soul to be taken while sleeping because during our unconscious state the soul is suspended from its physicality and the Prophet's soul was already very attached to the spiritual world due to his spiritual & prophetic nature, which made it easy for his detachment from his body and travel.
Did the Prophet ﷺ Experience more than One Mi'raj (Ascension)?
However at this point it would also be pertinent to mention that there is a difference of opinion among scholars about more than one journey of the Prophet ﷺ. This difference is mainly due to his visions during Madinah period in which he shared details of the hereafter events such as resurrection, Day of Judgment, people of hell fire, paradise and their states etc. Such as the one in which the Prophet ﷺ said: “the nations were shown unto me. I found one prophet with whom an entire nation was passing by. Another prophet was accompanied by a large group. Another prophet was accompanied by ten people; another by five, while some prophets were followed by only one person. Then I looked, and behold, there was a might host, and I asked: ‘O Gabriel! Are these my nation?’ and he replied, ‘No, but look to the horizon.’ I looked, and behold, there was a mighty host, and he said: ‘These are your nation.’” Famous medieval hadith expert and scholar, Imam ibn Hajar Al Asqalani who held the opinion of two separate journeys commented on this hadith: “It is clear that the night journey which took place in Madinah was different from that which happened in Makkah. It was during the earlier event that he sought entry into the gates of the heavens, one after the other, meeting a prophet in each heaven, and returned to Allah after conferring with Moses and about the obligatory prayers. But of many other things which the Prophet beheld, some were in Makkah, and others were in Madinah after the hijra. Most of these took place as dream-visions. And Allah knows best.” Imam ibn Hajar is of the view that the journey of Makkah was the first and major one as mentioned in Al Quran 17:01 and the ones in Madinah must be dream-visions. To reconcile these differing views is that the Makkah journey must have included body and soul while the ones in Madinah could have been limited to journeys of soul leaving body (i.e. just like in case of death before returning) as explained by Imam ibn Qayyim al Jawzi. If this is correct then this may explain Aisha's view who firmly held that he traveled only in soul, because Aisha (r.a), after her marriage to the Prophet ﷺ, did not come to live with him till they had moved to Madinah. And obviously Allah ﷻ knows what is best.
 Asad, Translated and Explained by Muhammad. 1980. The Message of the Qur'an - the Night Journey. Great Britain: Dar Al-Andalus - (Asad 1980)
 Al-Jawziyya, Ibn Qayyim. 2010. Provisions of The Hereafter (Zaad Al-Maad). Lebanon: Dar Al-Kotob Al-llmiyah - (Al-Jawziyya 2010)
 Al Quran 39:42
 Asqalani, Ibn Hajar Al. n.d. Selections from the Fath Al-Bari (commentary on Sahih Al Bukhari) Translated by Abdul Hakim Murad. The Muslim Academic Trust. - (Asqalani n.d.)