Published in First City, New Delhi, Feb 2008

Muhammad was a simple trader who hailed from the city of Mecca in Arabia in the 7th century AD. He was renowned for his honesty, fairness and piety. When he was around forty, his life changed completely. During one of his many retreats to desert caves, where he prayed in solitude, he was visited by an angel, known to the Christians as the archangel Gabriel, who he identified as Jibril. The angel asked him to recite and transmit to all of humanity the sacred words of God. The visitations and revelations continued until Muhammad finally realized that God had chosen him to be His Prophet, following the footsteps of Moses and Jesus. The words of God became the book we know today as the Koran.

Twelve years later, Muhammad informed his followers of another miraculous event.

One evening, while he was resting on a carpet with his cousin and companions, the angel visited him once again. Jibril cut open his chest, washed his heart with holy water, and restored it to his chest, leaving no trace of a wound. Then he was asked to mount a magnificent steed described so: “…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.”

In a substantial amount of literature and art, the Buraq, is pictured as a beast with the face of a woman, or a creature described as being part eagle and part horse. Leon Uris’s novel The Haj, describes Buraq as follows: “[It] had the face of a woman, the tail of a peacock, and could gallop in a single stride as far as the eye could see.” Buraq means white horse; it also means thunder-lightening.

In Ilkhanid and Timurid Mongol-Persian mythological miniatures, the Buraq was portrayed in a style reminiscent of the Chinese qilin, reflecting the Chinese background of painters who introduced watercolor techniques to Iran and initiated several medieval schools of Persian miniature painting.

Mounted on Buraq, in company with Jibril, under a pavilion of fire, Muhammad traveled first to the summit of Mount Sinai, at the very place where God had given the stone tables to Moses. Then, they flew on and went to Bethlehem at the exact place where Jesus was born. Finally, they went to the ‘farthest mosque’ (al-aqsa) in Jerusalem faster than the speed of light. This journey from Mecca to Jerusalem is called the Isra.

Then, began Miraj, “Stairway to Heaven”, the journey from Jerusalem to Heaven. Muhammad passed through the various stages of heaven, meeting Adam in the first, Jesus in the second and so on. In the sixth heaven he met Moses, and in the seventh, Abraham. Beyond it was Paradise where Jibril left Muhammad to continue until he met God, Allah.

Muhammad was a short distance (“a shoulder to hand length”) from Allah, but did not see his face. Allah showed Muhammad the terrible scenes of hell and its pain. Then Muhammad came down to Mecca and told his cousin and his companions and his followers about this strange journey which had taken place at night.

During this journey, the Prophet was told by God to offer prayers fifty times in one day. As he descended to earth, Moses advised the Prophet to go back to God and request him to reduce the number of prayers as no man would be able to do so many prayers. Muhammad did as told and the number of daily prayers were reduced from fifty to five.

The Shab-e-Miraj in Iran, Pakistan and India, and Miraç Kandili in Turkish, is the Muslim festival celebrating the Isra and Miraj. Muslims celebrate this event by offering optional prayers during this night, and in many Muslim countries, by illuminating cities with electric lights and candles. The celebrations around this day tend to focus on children and the young. Children gather into a mosque and are told the story of the Isra and Miraj. The story usually focuses on how Muhammad’s heart was purified by two archangels and filled him with knowledge and faith in preparation to enter the seven levels of heaven. After prayer, food and treats are sometimes served.

In Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall, or the Western Wall,  held by most Jews to be the remnant of the Second Temple, and thus has become an object of veneration, is also sacred to Muslims who believe it was here that Muhammed tethered his winged steed on his journey to Jerusalem. The Wailing Wall forms the base of the Haram al-Sharif, where stands the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa or ‘the farthest’ mosque.  Dome of the Rock is where a piece of the peak of Mount Moriah is preserved. Mount Moriah is the mountain from which Muhammad ascended to visit heaven. The point indentations on the peak are said to be from the footsteps of the horse Buraq.

There is very little in the Koran about the event, though the Isra and Miraj have been discussed in detail in supplemental traditions to the Koran, known as hadith literature.

Buraq is mentioned in the narratives describing the return of the Prophet as the Imam Mahdi. It is said that Buraq, along with 4 or 5 Archangels, will be charged of finding the Prophet on Earth which will be like a Waste-Land in the future. The Prophet will appear like a shaft from his grave to the “Clouds of the Sky!”  The grave will spit open and Gabriel will give him a Robe of Honor and help him mount Buraq and declare  and give him “Buraq”, the Winged-Horse, and declare,”This is the Day of Rising, the Day of Resurrection, the Day of Encounter, the Day of Buraq, the Day of the Winged-Horse”!!! And Buraq, who has 2 wings and flies between Heaven and Earth at the speed of lightning will be very agitated and will say… “No one rides me except the Prophet and Possessor of the Koran” And the new Incarnation of Muhammed will reply, “Now my heart is pleased and I am happy.”And the story says that he will be given a crown and will ride Buraq and will go to Heaven, and that a cry will be heard… “Raise your head, Rider of the Winged-Horse, as it is the Day of Reckoning and of Recompense. Raise your head and ask, and it will be given!”

Many believe that the idea of Buraq was inspired by the winged steed Pegasus in Greek mythology. It is said that the hero Bellerophon’s greatest desire was to ride the magnificent winged horse, Pegasus. He thought he would never even get close to Pegasus, let alone tame him and ride him. But one night, the goddess Athena appeared to him in a dream and gave him a golden bridle with which he was able to tame Pegasus with great ease. Riding the magnificent flying horse, Bellerophon went on an adventure and was able to kill many a monster including the dreaded Chimera. But then ambition got the better of him. Bellerophon was determined to become a god. One day, he leaped onto Pegasus and urged him up toward Olympus, the home of the gods. As he rose high up in the air, Zeus, king of the gods, caused a gadfly to sting the horse. Pegasus bolted and Bellerophon fell tumbling down to earth. He wandered on foot for the rest of his life, avoiding contact with other people.

Stories such as this were popular in ancient times to remind all that man cannot aspire to enter heaven unless God wills it so. But Muhammad was clearly an exception. The Chosen One. The story of Muhammad’s journey has had a profound influence on Islamic thought, and Sufism in particular sees it as a powerful metaphor for man’s spiritual journey. Others believe it was no dream or vision; it really took place. A physical event that reinforced Muhammad’s role as the last of God’s Prophets.