Al Isra Wal Miraj

Sunday was the 27th day of Rajab, which is the seventh month in the Islamic calendar, and marked the Muslim holiday of Al Isra wal Miraj or Night Journey. As the Islamic calendar is a lunar one and, therefore, depends on moon sightings, the dates of religious celebrations fall on different dates every year. A new day starts and ends with sunset, in contrast with the common use of 12 midnight to demarcate the days. This day commemorates the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) spiritual journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, and his subsequent ascent into heaven and return to earth. In the 10th year of Muhammad’s (PBUH) prophecy he was woken up by the angel Gabriel who travelled with him on a heavenly steed to Jerusalem where they alighted at the “Remote House” of the Qur’an, believed to be the site of the modern day Al Aqsa Mosque. There he was greeted by all the great prophets of the past, including Moses, Abraham and Jesus. Muhammad (PBUH) was asked to preach to them and after they all prayed together a ladder was brought so that Muhammad and Gabriel could start their ascent to heaven.

As they climbed through the seven heavens towards the divine throne, Muhammad (PBUH) paused in each of the seven heavens to converse with some of the greatest prophets. Words failed to describe his final vision of God and many writers simply leave this in reverent obscurity. Muhammad (PBUH) had to leave behind not only Gabriel and ordinary human concepts to complete the final stage of his journey, but as later mystics insist, he even had to leave himself behind for him to lose himself in God. Karen Armstrong in her poignant book Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time has the following to say about the Night Journey:

“The story of the night journey and the heavenly ascent is an event that – in some sense – happened once, but which also happens all the time. It represented a perfect act of islam, a self-surrender that was also a return to the source of being. The story became the paradigm of Muslim spirituality, outlining the path that all human beings must take, away from their preconceptions, their prejudices, and the limitations of egotism.”

During his journey, so the story goes, Muhammad (PBUH), who was originally instructed by Allah for Muslims to pray fifty times a day, asked Moses for advice. Moses kept sending Muhammad (PBUH) back to God until the number of prescribed prayers was reduced to five, which Moses, apparently, still found to be excessive.

Some historians believe that it was a result of the Night Journey that Muhammad (PBUH) introduced the practice of facing towards Jerusalem during prayers, and it was only later with the Muslims living in exile in Medina that the qiblah (direction) was changed to Mecca.

While the Sufis developed a mysticism that was modelled on the Night Journey, it is a time for all Muslims to reflect on the importance of prayer and a valuable opportunity for teaching children more about the history of Islam and its application to daily life.