Isra and Mi’raj: Muslims recall Muhammad’s Night Journey

Room of Muslim women sitting and praying

Women pray during Lailat al Miraj. Photo courtesy of Flickr

EVENING of WEDNESDAY, JUNE 5: Muslims around the world will spend tonight awake in prayer, recalling the sacred Night Journey of Muhammad, one of the most spectacular stories from the Prophet’s life. English names for the holiday vary, but many Western sources spell it Isra and Mi’raj.

In predominantly Muslim countries, cities are illuminated all night in celebration. The following day, many will enjoy an official holiday to commemorate the event at a local mosque. (The UAE recently made the announcement, among others.)

Tradition, drawn from both the Quran and Hadith (collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), says that the Prophet was summoned by the archangel Gabriel and led to a white, winged animal: a Buraq, the steed of the prophets. Muhammad mounted the Buraq, and was taken to both “the farthest mosque” and then through seven levels of heaven, all in one miraculous night. It is on this night that Muhammad received the instruction from God that Muslims should pray five times per day.

Note: The exact date of this journey is unclear, although most believe it to be around 621 CE.

From the Hadith, we get a description of Muhammad’s initial revelation, while still in Mecca: “While I was at the House in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness … (an angel recognized me) … my abdomen was washed with Zam-zam water and (my heart was) filled with wisdom and belief.” (Wikipedia has details.)

INTERPRETATIONS OF THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY VARY

Interpretations of Isra and Mi’raj vary across the worldwide spectrum of Islam. Some Muslims hold that the entire journey was a spiritual experience; most believe that it literally took place. For example, the Australian-based Muslim Village blog recently posted an extensive column on Isra and Mi’raj describing as both mystical—beyond human reasoning—and quite real for the Prophet at the same time. Many Muslim columnists around the world will be posting reflections on the festival this week, most in languages other than English.

A painting on glass of the miraculous Buraq by Senagalese artist Gora Mbengue.

A painting on glass of the miraculous Buraq by Senagalese artist Gora Mbengue.

As the story is usually summarized: The Prophet Muhammad was greeted by Gabriel and given the Buraq, then the Prophet rode to “the Farthest Mosque”—now believed by many to be the modern-day Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem—and tethered the Buraq to so he could perform prayer.

Muhammad prayed, was tested and, after passing the test, was taken on the second part of his journey: Mi’raj, literally ladder, to the seven circles of heaven. On this part of the journey, Muhammad met Adam, Abraham and Jesus, finally making his ascent to the seventh layer. Muslim tradition says that Muhammad met God and was instructed to have Muslims pray 50 times per day; on his way back down, it was suggested by Abraham that Muhammad plead to God for a smaller number. Muhammad returned to God, pointed out that prayer 50 times per day was too much for the people, and had the number reduced. Muhammad returned to Mecca.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)

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