Laylat al-Miraj

Laylat al-Miraj (The Ascent, The Night Journey)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Muslim)
Date of Observation: Twenty-seventh day of the seventh Islamic lunar month of Rajab
Where Celebrated: Africa, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, and throughout the Muslim world
Symbols and Customs: Dome of the Rock, Seven Heavens
Related Holidays: Laylat al-Qadr, Mawlid al-Nabi


Laylat al-Miraj is a holiday in the tradition of Islam, one of the world's largest religions. According to some estimates, there are more than one billion Muslims worldwide, with major populations found in the Middle East, North and sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. In Europe and the United States, Islam is the second largest religious group, with some seven million adherents in the United States. During the early years of Islam, the faith spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula into regions that are today occupied by Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Contrary to popular opinion, however, Muslims are not just Arabs. Muslims-followers of Islam-are found in many different ethnic groups all over the globe. In fact, Arabs make up less than twenty percent of Muslims.

The word Islam is an Arabic word that means "surrender to God." Its other meanings include peace, safety, and health. The central focus of Islam is a personal commitment and surrender to Allah, the Arabic word for God. In Islam, the concept of Allah is universal and eternal. Allah is the same in every religion and throughout the history of humankind. A person who follows Islam is called a Muslim, which means one who surrenders or submits to Allah's will. But Islam is not just a religion of belief; it is a religion of action. Five specific deeds are required of followers; these are called The Five Pillars of Islam. They are 1) Sha- hadah-confession of faith; 2) Salat-prayer/worship; 3) Zakat-charity; 4) Sawm- fasting; and 5) Hajj-pilgrimage.

The message of Islam was brought by Muhammad (570-632 C . E .), who is considered a prophet of Allah. The holy book of Islam is the Qur'an (also sometimes spelled Koran or Alcoran). According to Islamic belief, the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad by Allah over a period of twenty-three years. Authorship of the Qur'an is attributed to Allah, and not to Muhammad; Muhammad merely received it. Muslims believe that because it originated with Allah, the Qur'an is infallible.

There are two main sects within Islam: Sunni and Shi'ite. Sunni Muslims are the majority (estimated at about eighty percent). They recognize the authority of the first four Caliphs, including Ali, and they believe that the Sunna (the example of the Prophet Muhammad) is interpreted through the consensus of the community. Shi'ite Muslims also look to special teachers, called imams. The imams are the direct descendants of Muhammad through Fatimah and Ali. These individuals are believed to be inspired and to possess secret knowledge. Shi'ites, however, do not recognize the same line of Islamic leaders acknowledged by the Sunnis. Shi'ites hold to a doctrine that accepts only leaders who are descended from Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and her husband Ali. Many Shi'ite subsects believe that true imams are errorless and sinless. They receive instruction from these leaders rather than relying on the consensus of the community.

Laylat al-Miraj commemorates the ascent of the Prophet Muhammad into heaven, which is why it is often referred to as the Night Journey or the Ascent. The original account of this event is sketchy, and most of the details have been supplied by tradition. But according to the legend, the Prophet was sleeping in the sanctuary next to the Kaaba (see HAJJ) one night when the Angel Gabriel woke him and traveled with him to Jerusalem on the winged horse Buraq. There he prayed at the site of the Temple of Solomon (which lay in ruins after being destroyed by the Romans) with Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets. Muhammad was offered two vessels from which to drink, one of which contained wine and the other milk. He chose the milk, which Gabriel interpreted as his selecting "the primordial path" for himself and his followers. Then he was carried by Gabriel up to heaven from the rock of the Temple Mount, also known as Mt. Moriah, where it was believed that Abraham built the altar on which to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. The DOME OF THE ROCK sanctuary stands at this site today, and nearby is the al-Aqsa mosque, which takes its name from the word from the Qur'an for the Temple Mount.

The Prophet ascended through the SEVEN HEAVENS and as he did so, the Angel Gabriel and the prophets with whom he had prayed assumed their spiritual forms. At the summit of the ascent was the Lote Tree of the Uttermost Limit (see SEVEN HEAVENS ), where Muhammad received the command from God that men should pray fifty times a day. When he descended, Moses advised him to go back and request that the number be reduced to something more realistic. He did, and the prayer requirement was finally reduced to five.

As he was returning from Jerusalem to Mecca, Muhammad saw caravans crossing the desert. When he told people that he had visited Jerusalem during the night Laylat al-Miraj

and they didn't believe him, he described the caravans he'd seen on his return journey as proof that he was telling the truth. When the caravans arrived in Mecca, it confirmed his version of the night's events.

The journey from Mecca to Jerusalem is called the Isra, and the ascent from Jerusalem to heaven is called the Mi'raj. Together these two events are known as the Night Journey, which has often been portrayed in books of Persian miniatures. Although the exact date of the Mi'raj is not known, the event is usually celebrated on the twenty-seventh of Rajab.


Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock, a shrine in Jerusalem, was built between 685 and 691 C . E . and is the oldest existing Islamic monument. The Dome stands over the rock on the Temple Mount from which the Prophet is believed to have ascended to heaven. The rock is sacred not only to Muslims but also to Jews, because it was here that Abraham, the first patriarch of the Jewish people, is said to have prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. It may also have been the site of the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple of Solomon, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. After Mecca and Medina, the Temple Mount was the third holiest place in Islam. The early Muslims prayed in the direction of the Temple Mount, although later on they prayed facing Mecca. It was also the goal of the HAJJ, later supplanted by Mecca as well.

The rock itself is oblong, approximately fifty-six by forty-two feet. Below it is a small chamber, reached by a stairway, in which worshippers can pray, although a larger area has been set aside for this purpose on the ground level above. A crack in the rock, which is visible from the grotto below, is supposed to have appeared when the Prophet ascended to heaven. The rock, according to legend, wanted to follow and split in its effort to do so.

The sanctuary above the rock, with its golden dome dominating the skyline of old Jerusalem, was built by the Caliph 'Abd al-Malik ibn Arwan. The wooden dome, approximately sixty feet in diameter, is decorated with calligraphic designs typical of Islamic art, and there are 240 yards of inscriptions from the Qur'an. The Dome of the Rock's octagonal structure became the model for domed sanctuaries and saints' tombs from Morocco to China. The dome itself is a symbol: one step in the mathematical sequence leading from the square, representing the earth, to the circle, representing the perfection of heaven. The architecuture of the Dome of the Rock therefore symbolizes the Prophet's ascent to heaven.

Seven Heavens

The degrees of Being that separate creation from the Absolute in Islam are described symbolically in the Qur'an as the seven spheres, skies, or heavens. The seventh heaven is the furthest from the material world and the nearest to the state known as Beyond-Being. The final gulf between the two is marked by the Lote Tree of the Uttermost Limit, which is considered the limit of Being itself.

The concept of the seven heavens appears in early Jewish mysticism. It is probably of Babylonian or Persian origin, also with the seven heavens being the spheres of the seven planets visible to the human eye.


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BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Laylat al-Miraj
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Laylat al-Miraj

27th day of the Islamic month of Rajab
Laylat al-Miraj commemorates the ascent of the Prophet Muhammad into heaven. One night during the 10th year of his prophecy, the angel Gabriel woke Muhammad and traveled with him to Jerusalem on the winged horse, Burak. There he prayed at the site of the Temple of Solomon with the Prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others. Then, carried by Gabriel, he rose to heaven from the rock of the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock sanctuary now stands. Allah instructed him regarding the five daily prayers that all Muslims must observe. Muslims today celebrate the evening of the 27th day of Rajab with special prayers. This day is also known as the Night Journey, or the Ascent .
AnnivHol-2000, p. 234
BkHolWrld-1986, Apr 29
ConEncyIslam-1991, p. 301
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 648
HolSymbols-2009, p. 488
RelHolCal-2004, p. 488
UndIslam-2004, p. 283
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.