Mi’rāj and Mi’rājnāmahs

In fact Mi’rāj is one of the most celebrated event of the prophet’s life in the Quran and is referred to in a number of verses. I quote one:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي أَسْرَىٰ بِعَبْدِهِ لَيْلًا مِنَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ إِلَى الْمَسْجِدِ الْأَقْصَى الَّذِي بَارَكْنَا حَوْلَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْبَصِيرُ

“Glorified be He who carried His servant from Masjid al‑Haram to Masjid al‑Aqsa, the precincts of which We have blessed, so that We may show him of Our Signs. Verily He is the All‑Hearing, the All‑Seeing. “

Quran, Sura Israel 17:1

Shab-i Mi’rāj [Night of Ascension] has just gone by. It’s a much celebrated incident in the life of the Prophet of Islam and much has been written on it by the Muslim scholars. It is also one of the few incidents which has been much illustrated in courts of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals who created illustrated Mi’rājnāmahs to commemorate the incident. Some of these miniatures also reveal the face of the Prophet.

During the Ascension, God facilitated the Prophet’s journey to His Presence in the Heavens. Gabriel [Jibril] the chief arch-Angel was assigned the duty to accompany the Prophet who was made to sit on a heavenly horse ‘Burāq’ for his flight to heaven.

However there is much controversy amongst the Muslims (as it is on almost all things major or trivial) as to what was the nature of this journey: Physical or Spiritual?

Most ask: how could it be possible for a mortal to visit heaven and be back in the flash of a moment? Surely it was a spiritual experience! Others contest that as per God’s command anything is possible and God did take his ‘slave’, abd, to the heavens!

The concept of ‘Yadullah‘, Hand of God, is also associated with this incident. When the Prophet was with God, and God beckoned him further, the hand which appeared was the same in its physical manifestation as the hand of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. Henceforth after Prophet’s return ‘Ali was also entitled as Yadullah!

From the turn of the 14th century onward, depictions of the Prophet Moḥammad’s night journey (esrāʾ) and heavenly ascent (meʿrāj) were integrated into illustrated world histories and biographies, and also began to appear in animal fables like Kalila wa Dimna, compendia of poetical extracts, Persian romances, heroic tales, and divination books. Fully independent and lavishly illustrated Meʿrāj-nāmas (Books of Ascension) were produced from the time of Il-khanid rule (ca. 1260-1335) until the Qajar period (1794-1925) as well. As growing evidence indicates, it seems that these latter kinds of works were utilized for Sunni or Shiʿite missionary activities (see Gruber, 2005, 2008, 2009).

The earliest surviving image of the Prophet’s ascension appears in a section on the meʿrāj as included in an illustrated manuscript of Rashid-al-Din’s Jāmeʿ al-Tawārikh (Compendium of Chronicles), begun in Tabriz in 706/1306-7 under the patronage of Solṭān Ḡhāzān (r. 1295-1304) and completed under his successor Öljeitü (Uljāytu, r. 1304-16). In this painting, the Prophet strides his human-headed flying steed al-Burāq, who holds a closed book in its hands while its tail appears to transform into an angel wielding a shield and a sword. On the right, two angels, one of whom holds a gold cup on a platter, approach the Prophet from a set of doors that seem affixed to sky. Judging from the elements in the painting and their relationship to Rashid-al-Din’s text, this image presents a moment in which the Prophet must chose between evil (the angel of death or a demon) and good (the Qurʾān), which sets him on an initiatory, correct path (al-feṭra) from the earth into the heavens. His proper course is echoed by his selection of the cup of milk and his rejection of other cups containing water, honey, and wine.