Tonight at sundown marks this year’s observance in the Islamic world of the major holiday known as Lailat al Mi’raj, which continues through sundown tomorrow evening.
The holiday commemorates what is known as the Isra and Mi’raj – the two parts of a Night Journey that, according to Islamic tradition, the Islamic prophet Muhammad took during a single night around the year 621. The Al-Aqsa Mosque and surrounding area in Jerusalem, which includes the Dome of the Rock, the actual location from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven, is considered to be the third-holiest place on earth for Muslims (after the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.)
According to traditions, the journey associated with the Lailat al Miraj is one of the most significant events in the Islamic calendar. A brief sketch of the story is in sura (chapter) 17 Al-Isra of the Qur’an, and other details come from the Hadith, supplemental writings about the life of Muhammad. In the journey, Muhammad travels on the steed Buraq to “the farthest mosque” where he leads other prophets in prayer (the Isra portion of the journey.) He then ascends to heaven where he speaks to God, who gives Muhammad instructions to take back to the faithful regarding the details of prayer (the Mi’raj portion).
Some Muslims celebrate this event by offering optional prayers during this night, and in some Muslim countries, by illuminating cities with electric lights and candles. The celebrations around this day tend to focus on children and the young. Children are gathered into a mosque and are told the story of the Isra and Mi’raj, usually focusing on how Muhammad’s heart was purified by an archangel (Gabriel) who filled him with knowledge and faith in preparation to enter the seven levels of heaven. After a special observance of prayer called Salah, where the children can pray with the adults if they wish, food and treats are served. Many celebrations emphasize the spiritual significance of Mi’raj, seeing it as a symbol of the soul’s journey and the potential of humans to rise above the comforts of material life through prayer, piety and discipline.