May 5th just so happens to be a popular date for holidays this year. While millions of Americans are double and triple booked for Cinco de Mayo parties and street festivals, you’ll also find many Americans observing a very different kind of holiday. Today marks the 65th annual National Day of Prayer, an observance that invites people of all faiths to pray for the nation.
Muslims in particular should be hip to the National Day of Prayer, because it also just so happens to be the anniversary of Isra wal Miraj — or the Night Journey — known by Muslims as the night when the Prophet Muhammad (saw) was given the gift of prayer.
Amidst all the heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric and emotionally charged debates, the dates have aligned so that, this year, our day of prayer coincides with the nation’s.
We all know the story of Isra wal Miraj — it’s one of those magical stories that plays in your mind animated like a Pixar short, your imagination trying to paint the image of what an ascension to the heavens might look like. It’s a story that fills you with a sense of wonder, reminding you that our human dimensions and senses are limited and finite, while God’s are neither.
We all know the story of this miraculous journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to the heavens, all in one night. We know Prophet Muhammad (saw) met all the prophets, including Jesus and Moses. We know this is the night that prayer was prescribed.
We know our stories, but sometimes we miss their context – and therein usually lies the reflection. When you know the context around which Isra wal Miraj occurred, you see that the prayer was actually a gift to the prophet. The Night Journey followed the absolute most difficult time in the prophet’s life — a year so trying that it is known as the “Year of Sorrow.” In this year, he lost the love of his life, Khadijah, and his dear uncle and protector, Abu Talib. After losing his two greatest supporters, the prophet traveled to the city of Ta’if to take his message outside of Mecca. There, he faced the most devastating rejection. He was ridiculed and taunted even by young children. He referred to this day as the most difficult time in his life.
It was following this string of events that Isra wal Miraj took place. All the world it seemed had rejected him, but the heavens accepted him. Perhaps he experienced the bitterness of the world so that he could taste the sweetness of prayer. Perhaps it was not meant to be the tedious obligation that many Muslims neglect today, but rather a respite – a break from the world.
“The coolness of my eyes was placed in my prayer,” he said. When he would tell Bilal to make the call to prayer he would say, “Comfort us with it.” When the world was too much, he turned to prayer.
And as we join with our brothers and sisters of all faiths to pray for our nation, we remember and reflect on the climate in which our own prayers were established. Following a time of tremendous pressure, following a period of great sadness. As a community, we face challenges that can feel overwhelming, pressures that can seem insurmountable. But while we recall with wonder that miraculous night of Isra wal Miraj, we should remember that we all have the power to ascend.
As Hasan al-Basri put it, “Prayer is the ascension of the believer.” May we all ascend to new heights this year – spiritually, morally, as human beings, and as a national community.