Thursday, July 8, 2010

Laylat al esra’ wa al mi’araj (Shab-e-Miraj [Farsi] or Miraç Kandili [Turkish]) : The Night Journey of The Prophet Mohamed

Lailat Al Isra wa al Miraj is a celebration in the Muslim world of the 2-part night journey of the Prophet Mohamed. The first part of the journey, Isra, was from Makkah to Jerusalem: from the Sacred Mosque, Al Haram Mosque in Makkah, to the Farthest Mosque, the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The second part, Al Miraj, was the journey of the Prophet Mohamed from Jerusalem into Heaven and the return to Makkah. Both journeys occurred over one night (in 621 CE), that of 27 Rajab in the Islamic calendar.

Isra and Mi'raj
 الإسراء والمعراج‎
 al-’Isrā’ wal-Mi‘rāğ


Photo © Saudi Aramco World/PADIA

Photo © transposition

When the first part of the Night Journey, Isra, begins, the Prophet Mohamed is resting in the Kaaba. The Angel Gabriel appears and summons him on a journey. He provides him with a winged equine, Buraq, the traditional lightning fast steed of the Prophets, whose every stride transports the rider to the horizon. They stop at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, where the Prophet tethers Buraq to the Western Wall, the remains of an ancient wall on the western side of the Temple Mount. The wall is a retaining wall, built by Herod the Great in 19 BCE to support his expansion of the Second Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE). The Prophet Mohamed leads the other Abrahamic Prophets in prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem


The prayers completed, the Prophet Mohamed remounts Buraq for the second part of the Night Journey, the ascension into Heaven, the Mi'raj, literally "the ladder".  The Prophet circles the heavens, and speaks individually with the earlier Abrahamic Prophets, Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), and Isa (Jesus), until, in the 7th Heaven, he meets with Allah. The Prophet Mohamed has journeyed to the lote, the farthest tree, beyond which is no return. On the other side is the footstool  and throne of Allah and the Ka'aba of the Angels, in which there are 70,000 angels, and which is in direct line with the Ka'aba on earth.

Allah instructs the Prophet Mohamed that the believers are to pray to Him 50 times a day. Although the Prophet Mohamed accepts this instruction, the Prophet Musa tells him that, from experience, he found 50 times a day was too onerous on the people, and urges the Prophet Mohamed to return multiple times to Allah with this concern. Finally the obligatory prayers are fixed at 5 per day.

The Prophet Mohamed then returns to Makkah, and recounts his Night Journey and the instruction. The Makkans are incredulous, yet Abu Bakr replies to those who have sought his counsel: "If he said that, then he is truthful. I believe him concerning the news of the heavens—that an angel descends to him from the heavens. How could I not believe he went to Jerusalem and came back in a short period of time—when these are on earth?" In other words, if we believe the Message from the Prophet, why not believe this. Abu Bakr was convincing, and earned the title As-Siddiq (the Truthful).


The sources for the story are both the Quran and the Hadith.

From the Quran:


Total Verses: 111
Revealed At: MAKKA


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).

Behold! We told thee that thy Lord doth encompass mankind round about: We granted the vision which We showed thee, but as a trial for men,- as also the Cursed Tree (mentioned) in the Qur'an: We put terror (and warning) into them, but it only increases their inordinate transgression!


Total Verses: 62
Revealed At: MAKKA


For indeed he saw him at a second descent,
Near the Lote-tree beyond which none may pass:
Near it is the Garden of Abode.
Behold, the Lote-tree was shrouded (in mystery unspeakable!)
(His) sight never swerved, nor did it go wrong!
For truly did he see, of the Signs of his Lord, the Greatest!

The rest of the story comes from authenticated Hadith:

Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: (regarding the Verse) "And We granted the vision (Ascension to the heavens "Miraj") which We showed you (O Muhammad as an actual eye witness) but as a trial for mankind.' (17.60): Allah's Apostle actually saw with his own eyes the vision (all the things which were shown to him) on the night of his Night Journey to Jerusalem (and then to the heavens). The cursed tree which is mentioned in the Qur'an is the tree of Az-Zaqqum. Bukhari 8:77:610

Narrated Abu Huraira: On the night Allah's Apostle was taken on a night journey (Miraj) two cups, one containing wine and the other milk, were presented to him at Jerusalem. He looked at it and took the cup of milk. Gabriel said, "Praise be to Allah Who guided you to Al-Fitra (the right path); if you had taken (the cup of) wine, your nation would have gone astray." Bukhari 7:69:482 and 6:60:232

Narrated Jabir bin 'Abdullah: That he heard Allah's Apostle saying, "When the people of Quraish did not believe me (i.e. the story of my Night Journey), I stood up in Al-Hijr and Allah displayed Jerusalem in front of me, and I began describing it to them while I was looking at it." "I was brought by the Buraq, which is an animal white and long, larger than a donkey but smaller than a mule, who would place its hoof at a distance equal to the range of vision." Bukhari 5:58:226-7

This latter is the source of the explanations for how the Prophet Mohamed came to be believed about his journey. His ability to convince others who had made the long journey that he could recount details of the typical voyage and places was the proof, given that he hadn't travelled to Jerusalem previously. Other details are furnished through other hadith.

1967, just after the war, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan and Jerusalem Forces Commander Uzi Narkis  in front of the road sign placed by the Jordanians during their period of tenure of Jerusalem (1948-67)

There are different schools of belief: that this night travel was a literal, if divinely arranged, physical journey; and, that the Quran is speaking figuratively about both the physical and spiritual journey. Both understandings preserve the essential lessons of the journey: the belief in Allah and the Prophet Mohamed as His Messenger; the historical connection with Jerusalem; the existence of Heaven, the Angels, and the Prophets of Islam; and, the importance of prayer to Allah. The message about the obligatory prayers is the same in all interpretations: 5, so as not to burden unduly with more, though more are permitted and well-received.


While only the 2 Eids, Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha, are truly celebrated in the Islamic calendar, some Muslims mark other significant days in their religion. Laylat al Misraj is one of these, as being one of the most important theologically. Where commemorated, it is as a community: whether through the khutbah focusing on the story of the Night Journey at the time of the Friday Jumu'ah prayer; or, whether families and communities make a special effort to congregate at the local mosque, particularly with their children and youth, to hear the story of the Prophet Mohamed's journey, to pray, and to share food and treats.


The 2nd Pillar of Islam is Salah, prayer, which includes saying prayers an obligatory 5 times per day. Although exact prayer times are given to the minute for different locations around the world, and calculated with astronomical precision to be an accurate guide for the faithful, in fact the prayers are obligatory within certain time periods over the course of the day. Where it is impossible to do the prayers in the proper period they may be combined.

The following day-night/orbital graphic representation of the 5 obligatory prayer times (periods) is the best explanation I have ever read or seen:

I Fajr, II Dhuhr, III Asr, IV Maghrib, V Isha'a

Salat Fajr (Dawn Prayer)-after dawn (when the first thin line of sunlight is seen) and before sunrise (the light of day)
Salat al Wusta (Middle Prayer):
Dhuhr- (replaced on Friday by Jumu'ah prayers) shortly after high/true noon to Asr (mid-afternoon)
Asr- mid-afternoon, after Dhuhr and before Maghrib
Maghrib-after sunset (when the line of darkness first appears on the horizon) until dusk (just before night fall)
Salat Isha'a (Night Prayer)-after night fall and before dawn

The 3 bolded prayer names above are those specifically mentioned by name in the Quran. The 5 specifically defined above are those that are the obligatory prayers for all Muslims and to which a Muslim might add at will. Each Prayer is comprised of an obligatory number of sequences or rak'ah: Fajr 2; Dhuhr 4; Asr 4; Maghrib 3; Insha'a 4. Before and after these obligatory rak'ah, there are a certain number of recommended voluntary  sequences. These differ somewhat for Sunni and Shia, though the obligatory sequences do not.

The prayer begins after ablutions (wudu), making the intention to pray (niyyat-obligatory and combined with the next step), and raising the hands to the height of the shoulders, fingers slightly apart, then saying in Arabic Allah u Akhbar [God is Greatest] (Takbeeratul-Ihram).

Each sequence or rak'ah follows the pattern:
Stand straight-facing the Qibla
Recite Al Fatiha-the opening chapter of the Quran
Ruk'u-bow with the back straight until the palms of the hands touch the knees, stop while saying "sub'han-Allah"
I'tidal-rising to a stand again and pausing while saying "Allah u Akbar"
Prostration [Sajdah]-bowing fully with forehead to the ground from a position sitting on the heels with toes to the floor 
Qu'ud-rising to sitting on the heels (kneeling)and reciting "Allah u Akbar"
Prostration [Sajdah]-bowing fully with forehead to the ground from a position sitting on the heels with toes to the floor

In the second and the final unit (rak'ah) of each prayer:
Recite-the declaration of belief or creed (Tashahhud) while sitting/kneeling:

At-taḥiyyātu lillāhi, waṣ-ṣalawātu waṭ-ṭayyibātu. As-salāmu 'alayka ayyuhā n-nabiyyu wa-raḥmatu llāhi wa-barakātuh. As-salāmu 'alaynā wa-'alā 'ibādi llāhi ṣ-ṣāliḥīn. Ashhadu allā ilāha illā llāhu wa-ashhadu anna Muḥammadan 'abduhū wa-rasūluh. ”
التحيات لله والصلوات والطيبات، السلام عليك أيها النبي ورحمة لله وبركاته، السلام علينا و على عباد الله الصالحين، أشهد أن لا إله إلا الله، وأشهد أن محمدا عبده و رسوله.
"All worships are for Allah. Allah's peace be upon you, O Prophet, and His mercy and blessings. Peace be on us and on all righteous servants of Allah. I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger."

The prayer concludes with:
Greetings for Prophet Muhammad and for Prophet Abraham
1st Greeting- to the congregants on the right "Peace be upon you"
2nd Greeting- to the congregants on the left "Peace be upon you"

There are options to adapt certain aspects of prayer for those who are unable to do otherwise, physically  unable to stand for example; and, for offering additional prayers within each step.

Compulsory prayer is obligatory after puberty for all Muslims who are of sound mind. 5 conditions must be met for the prayer to be valid (otherwise the prayer must be recommenced): confidence in the prayer time (both the confidence and the accurate time); facing the Quibla, chest toward the Kaaba (unless too ill to do so); awrah covered; clean body, clothes, and place of prostration (a prayer rug helps with this); purified through ablutions; praying behind a sutrah or screen, that is, any object that blocks out the passerby (even one's own hand raised as a protection).

A transcript of a sample prayer in transliterated Arabic and in English is here; and, a more detailled explanation of prayer is here. The example of a Mahgrib prayer in the video below is a very clear one in Arabic, subtitled in English, and shows the whole prayer including the repetitions within. Note that the video is a little over 6 minutes long, which is a normal length of time to complete the prayers.

*Sunni and Shia have slightly different positions

There is much more one could say, about Layalt al miraj and about prayer, but I thought that this would be an introduction for non-Muslims, and a hopefully pleasant re-introduction for Muslims.

Do you mark Laylat al miraj or have you? How?
If you are non-Muslim, were you familiar with this story? with the format of the obligatory prayers?
Is this different than what you were expecting? How?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


Susanne said...

Thanks for explaining the prayers and the night journey of Muhammad.

This --

"Allah instructs the Prophet Mohamed that the believers are to pray to Him 50 times a day. Although the Prophet Mohamed accepts this instruction, the Prophet Musa tells him that, from experience, he found 50 times a day was too onerous on the people, and urges the Prophet Mohamed to return multiple times to Allah with this concern. Finally the obligatory prayers are fixed at 5 per day."

...reminds me a bit of Abraham's bargaining with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. :)

Thanks again for an informative post!

ellen557 said...

This is such a good post! I'll admit that I never really looked into the Night Journey all that much but I'm happy to say that thanks to this post I can now understand it! The prayer part at the end was lovely too, as you know I pray a bit differently so it was good for me to see a guide for this certain way.

Gosh you've expanded my knowledge quite a bit today :P

coolred38 said...

I personally always found this story sceptical....merely by the fact that until the prophet went to heaven and 'argued" with God about how many prayers humans were physically capable of doing...apparently we were meant to spend most of our waking life in prayer.

What sort of diety requires that amount of devotion from its servants?

I use to be a firm believer in regimented prayer times...never missed one if I could possibly help it...and felt the requisite guilt if I did...but eventually I came to believe that if God truly does require prayers from us...he is self sufficient enough to not need them on a timely schedule and in a prescribed manner. People are not machines...

btw I find it hard to believe that of all the ways the prophet could be taken on a journey...or up to heaven etc...that a winged horse would be chosen for the act...that was Arabia for heavens sake...fantastical creatures was NOT part of the everyday discourse. How much harder (or easier to accept among the people) to have him ride a camel...just a very fast one???

Just a thought.

Usman said...

The number of Prayers argument is not from Quran. It is mentioned in Hadith only which has not authenticity whatsoever.

It is also under discussion if Prophet went on the Journey Physically or Spiritually.

Five prayers per day take me merely 40 minutes in total of 24 hours.

Now you know!

oby said...

the photos in this post are lovely...thanks for sharing. did Mohammed go to Heaven on a winged horse? He did if you believe he did. I wonder if it is actual or the end i think the message gets across either way.

Chiara said...

Thank you all for commenting and my apologies for the delay in replying. I am glad everyone enjoyed the post.

Susanne--true, the God of the Old Testament was open to some negociation, I believe in the same sense as here--making life easier for the faithful while making certain demands of piety.

Ellen--I am really glad you enjoyed the post and that it helped clarify the meaning of the Night Journey. I wanted to keep it simple but note at the same time that certain Shi'a practices are different. Thanks for your comment!

Coolred--thanks for your comment, but I must say I find it a little puzzling. 50 prayers a day would take about 4 hours, a lot but doable. The Old Testament God was very demanding in his expectations. Mythical creatures abound everywhere--the product of fertile imaginations and cultural explanations. Why a camel when a fine Arabian horse is more elegant and precious? Thanks for your thought provoking comment!

Usman--thanks for sharing the time spent in prayer. I think a lot of non-Muslims unconsciously associate Muslim prayers with the length of time for a church service or mass: 1/2 to 1 hour which makes the 5 prayers a day seem more onerous than they are. True, as I said in the post, the standard explanation of the Night is a combination from Quranic and Hadith references--which not all accept of course. Thanks for your comment!

Oby--thank you, I am glad you liked the photos. I agree the message is retained no matter the modality of the message. Thanks for your comment!


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