Mi’raj is a very important and significant event in the Muslim tradition which celebrates an experience in the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) which occurred on the 27th of Rajab, in the year 621 A.H. The events of this night are often divided into two parts, referred to as Isra and shab-i Mi’raj. The word isra means night journey and is also the name of a chapter in the Holy Qur’an which describe the Prophet’s voyage, one which took him from the Haram al-Shariff in Mecca to the furthest Mosque, thought to be in Jerusalem, a place sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims. The Qur’an mentions very little about this event, but in the vast hadith literature, there is much detail. In essence, Mi’raj symbolizes the journey of the soul and the human potential to rise above the trappings of material life – through prayer, piety and discipline – drawing one closer to God.
There are two chapters in the Holy Qur’an that refer to the Mi’raj: Surah an-Najm and Surah al-Isra’. Verse 1 of Surah al-Isra reads:
“Glory be to (Allah) who took His servant on a night journey from the inviolable place of prayer to the furthest place of prayer, the precincts of which We did bless, so that We may show him some of Our signs. Surely (Allah) is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing.” (17:1)
Some in the Muslim Ummah interpret this verse literally and consider Mi’raj as a physical journey taken by the Prophet. However, others, both Shi’a and Sunnis, including the Ismaili Muslims, take an esoteric approach towards these verses. We consider this as a journey of the spirit that brought the Prophet close to God. The celebration of the event of Mi’raj is not only about commemorating an historical event that occurred centuries ago, but it is a call for reflection on our daily lives and the purpose of our living.
In verse 29 of Surah al-Hijr, Allah reminds us of the origin and high status of human beings. Referring to the creation of Adam (alayhi-s-salam), Allah says that He “breathed into him of [His] spirit”. This verse indicates that human beings have, within them the spark of the Divine and, as mentioned by Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah (alayhi-s-salam) the 48th Imam (Aga Khan lll), in his memoirs: Chap.Vlll, page 176:
“Everyone should strive his best to see that this spark be not extinguished but rather developed to that full ‘Companionship-on-High’ which was the vision expressed in the last words of the Prophet on his deathbed…”
What then should we do to further cultivate the spark of the Divine within us? If we have been too preoccupied with our material lives and have forsaken our spiritual responsibilities, Mi’raj provides an opportunity to reflect and create a balance in our lives such that our spiritual responsibilities are not abandoned.
Our heart is symbolically the abode of God. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to strive to have a clean heart. It is said in a Gujarati devotional poetry attributed to Pir Shams:
“Satgur kahere: Dil ma(n)he deval pujiye, aney dil ma(n)he dev duwar; Dil ma(n)he sa(n)hiya aape vasey, ane dil ma(n)he aapey deedar” Which means: “The true guide says: Worship your Lord in the heart which is the Lord’s abode; in the heart the Lord dwells, (and) in the heart He grants deedar.”
The darkness of night had spread across the horizon and silence reigned over the natural world. The Prophet had gone to sleep, after evening prayers, at the house of his cousin, Umm al-Hani, the sister of Hazrat 'Ali (a.s) when he heard the voice of the Angel Jibrai'l (Gabriel) who said: "This night you have to perform a very unique journey and I have been ordered [by Allah] to remain with you. You will have to cross different parts of the world mounted on a [winged] animal named Al-Buraq." Al-Buraq, which means lightening, transported Prophet Muhammad to Medina as well as to places central to many of the Prophets who came before him. Finally ending in Jerusalem, he entered the farthest Mosque and led in prayer the Angel Jibrai'l and all of Allah's previous Messengers, including Hazrat Isa, (Jesus) Hazrat Ibrahim (Abraham) and Hazrat Musa (Moses) (peace be upon them).
The second part of the journey, known as Mi’raj is a word that means climbing or rising; symbolically, it is understood by many to allude to the idea of spiritual ascension. Soon after the Prophet had finished leading his fellow Prophets in prayer, he was raised to the heavens. In the seventh heaven, the Prophet went beyond the Sidra Tree; a threshold which even Angel Jibrai’l was not permitted to cross. Here, the Prophet was granted a vision of his Lord and then he returned on al-Buraq to Mecca, all in the same night, as if time stood still.
Muslims through the ages have debated the nature of the Prophet’s Isra and Mi’raj. Was the Prophet’s description of that night to be taken literally? As an esoteric community the Ismaili Muslims, in various periods of our history, have tended to think of Mi’raj as a metaphor for the ultimate spiritual experience without denying the physical nature of the journey. When we reflect on our spiritual experiences, in our own intimate conversations with the Divine, what are the most striking images, feelings or experiences that we associate with it? Like the Prophet, does spiritual contemplation allow us to see and experience the world in new ways?
For Ismaili Muslims and other communities within the ummah, Mi’raj marks one of several important occasions in the Prophet’s own spiritual journey. His first Revelation in Mount Hira at the age of 40, is just one of examples. When connected together, these moments paint a vivid map of the Prophet’s own personal experiences and remind us of the paths that we must take in our own lives. Each of us has his own individual unique relationship with God. Like the Prophet, we too have a spiritual story – one that weaves together the various moments in our lives when we may have experienced something indescribable, something beyond ourselves or something that made us feel a happiness that went beyond anything material.
The esoteric interpretation of Mi’raj emphasizes that this spiritual moment or state, when the soul comes in touch with the Divine, is beyond time and space. Thus, Mi’raj becomes the symbol of any soul’s journey towards God. it is the highest imaginable level a human being can attain on the path towards spirituality, similar to the one that was reached by the Prophet. Such a spiritual experience is possible for other human beings as well. This is supported by the reports that when the Prophet was returning from Mi’raj, he was assured by God that he and his followers would experience the bliss of ascension through the performance of regular religious duties.
It is, however, important to note that the verse from the Holy Qur’an that records the Prophet’s Mi’raj refers to him as an “abd,” a servant of God, not the Prophet of God. This opens the door for the interpretation that every servant of God, who exerts himself/herself on the spiritual path, has the potential of achieving this exalted status. Thus, the Prophet’s life inspires us to undertake a personal search through formal and informal, obligatory and voluntary forms of prayer, and acts of worship. For it is through prayer, both formal as well as informal, constant remembrance of Allah, along with good and ethical behavior that we can experience this exalted and intimate relationship with God.
Let us reflect on what this means in our daily lives. In surah 6, Al-An’am, Ayah 162, Allah commands the believers to pronounce: “…Truly my prayers, my devotion, my life and my death are for God, the Lord of the worlds”. One interpretation of this verse could be that we need to be:
* regular in practice of the faith and to pray regularly
* act in accordance with the ethics of Islam, and
* perform additional prayers, which are called ‘free or voluntary prayers’; such as remembering the many beautiful names of Allah
On the holy night of Mi’raj, let us reflect on our own journeys and spiritual potential to rise above the mundane. Mi’raj is about the pursuit of the highest and in commemorating it, we must renew our commitment to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet. Let us try to be more spiritually aware and ask ourselves what we can do to focus more on this often neglected part of our growth. It is through our thoughts, actions, deeds and prayers that our hearts too can be cleansed and made receptive of the Divine presence that can be found there. Mi’raj also provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with God. We must understand and nurture this relationship with a deep sense of love, humility and gratitude. We Ismailis are blessed to have the continuous guidance of our beloved Mawlana Hazar Imam who lights our path to spiritual enlightenment and vision.
Mawlana Hazar Imam has also reminded us, time and again, about the significance of dhikr, that is, remembering Allah, Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali at every opportunity we get. Hazrat ‘Ali (a.s) refers to dhikr as “polish of the heart“.
As we celebrate this special occasion of Mi’raj, let us resolve to adhere to the practice that will help us climb the ladder towards spiritual ascension and self-realization.