al-Burāq

The Burāq (Arabic: الْبُرَاق al-Burāq or /ælˈbʊrɑːk/ “lightning” or more generally “bright”) is a creature in Islamic tradition that is believed to have transported certain prophets. Most notably hadith accounts about the Isra and Mi’raj recount that the Buraq carried the Islamic Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and up in the heavens and back by night.

Etymology

The Encyclopaedia of Islam, referring to the writings of Al-Damiri (d.1405), considers Buraq to be a derivative and adjective of Arabic: برق barq “lightning/ emitted lightning” or various general meanings stemming from the verb: “to beam, flash, gleam, glimmer, glisten, glitter, radiate, shimmer, shine, sparkle, twinkle”. According to Encyclopædia Iranica, “Boraq” is the Arabized form of “Middle Persian *barāg or *bārag, ‘a riding beast, mount’ (New Pers. bāra)”.

Journey to the Seventh Heaven

According to Islamic tradition, the Night Journey took place ten years after Muhammad announced his prophethood, during the 7th century. Muhammad had been in Mecca, at his cousin’s home (the house of Fakhitah bint Abi Talib), when he went to al-Masjid al-Haram (Al-Haram Mosque). While he was resting at the Kaaba, Gabriel appeared to him bringing the Buraq, which carried Muhammad in the archangel’s company, to al-Masjid al-Aqsaʼ,[Quran 17:1] traditionally held to be in Jerusalem.

At this location, he alighted from the Buraq, prayed on the site of the Holy Temple (Bayt Al-Maqdis), and then mounted it again as the creature ascended to the seven heavens where he met Adam, Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist, Joseph, Enoch, Aaron, Moses and Abraham one by one until he reached the throne of God. God communicated with him giving him words and instructions, most importantly the commandment to Muslims to offer prayers, initially fifty times a day. At the urging of Moses, Muhammad returned to God several times before eventually reducing the number to five.

Abraham

According to Ibn Ishaq, the Buraq transported Abraham when he visited Hagar and Ishmael. Tradition states that Abraham lived with Sarah in Canaan but the Buraq would transport him in the morning to Mecca to see his family there and take him back in the evening.

Hadith

Although the Hadith do not explicitly refer to the Buraq as having a human face, Near East and Persian art almost always portrays it so – a portrayal that found its way into Indian and Persian Islamic art. This may have originated from an interpretation of the creature being described with a “beautiful face” as the face being human instead of bestial.

An excerpt from a translation of Sahih al-Bukhari describes Buraq:

Then a white animal which was smaller than a mule and bigger than a donkey was brought to me … The animal’s step (was so wide that it) reached the farthest point within the reach of the animal’s sight.

— Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari

Another excerpt describes the Buraq in greater detail:

Then he [Gabriel] brought the Buraq, handsome-faced and bridled, a tall, white beast, bigger than the donkey but smaller than the mule. He could place his hooves at the farthest boundary of his gaze. He had long ears. Whenever he faced a mountain his hind legs would extend, and whenever he went downhill his front legs would extend. He had two wings on his thighs which lent strength to his legs. He bucked when Muhammad came to mount him. The angel Gabriel put his hand on his mane and said: “Are you not ashamed, O Buraq? By Allah, no-one has ridden you in all creation more dear to Allah than he is.” Hearing this he was so ashamed that he sweated until he became soaked, and he stood still so that the Prophet mounted him.

In the earlier descriptions there is no agreement as to the sex of the Buraq. It is typically male, yet Ibn Sa’d has Gabriel address the creature as a female, and it was often rendered by painters with a woman’s head. The idea that “al-Buraq” is simply a divine mare is also noted in the book The Dome of the Rock, in the chapter “The Open Court”, and in the title-page vignette of Georg Ebers’s Palestine in Picture and Word.

Western Wall

Various scholars and writers, such as ibn al-Faqih, ibn Abd Rabbih, and Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, have suggested places where Buraq was supposedly tethered in stories, mostly locations near the southwest corner of the Haram. However, for several centuries the preferred location has been the al-Buraq Mosque, just inside the wall at the south end of the Western Wall Plaza. The mosque sits above an ancient passageway that once came out through the long-sealed Barclay’s Gate whose huge lintel remains visible below the Maghrebi gate. Because of the proximity to the Western Wall, the area next to the wall has been associated with Buraq at least since the 19th century.

When a British Jew asked the Egyptian authorities in 1840 for permission to re-pave the ground in front of the Western Wall, the governor of Syria wrote:

It is evident from the copy of the record of the deliberations of the Consultative Council in Jerusalem that the place the Jews asked for permission to pave adjoins the wall of the Haram al-Sharif and also the spot where the Buraq was tethered, and is included in the endowment charter of Abu Madyan, may God bless his memory; that the Jews never carried out any repairs in that place in the past. … Therefore the Jews must not be enabled to pave the place.

Carl Sandreczki, charged with compiling a list of place names for Charles William Wilson’s Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem in 1865, reported that the street leading to the Western Wall, including the part alongside the wall, belonged to the Hosh (court/enclosure) of al Burâk, “not Obrâk, nor Obrat“. In 1866, the Prussian Consul and Orientalist Georg Rosen wrote: “The Arabs call Obrâk the entire length of the wall at the wailing place of the Jews, southwards down to the house of Abu Su’ud and northwards up to the substructure of the Mechkemeh [Shariah court]. Obrâk is not, as was formerly claimed, a corruption of the word Ibri (Hebrews), but simply the neo-Arabic pronunciation of Bōrâk, … which, whilst (Muhammad) was at prayer at the holy rock, is said to have been tethered by him inside the wall location mentioned above.”

The name Hosh al Buraq appeared on the maps of Wilson’s 1865 survey, its revised editions in 1876 and 1900, and other maps in the early 20th century. In 1922, the official Pro-Jerusalem Council specified it as a street name.

The association of the Western Wall area with Buraq has played an important role in disputes over the holy places since the British mandate.

For Muslims, the Wailing Wall (or Western Wall) is known as “Ḥā’iṭu ’l-Burāq” (Arabic: حَائِطُ ٱلْبُرَاق) – “the Buraq Wall”, for on the other side (the Muslim side of the Wailing Wall on the Temple Mount) is where Muhammad tied the Buraq, the riding animal upon which he rode during the Night of Ascension (Arabic: Mi‘rāj – مِعْرَاج). The wall links to the structure of the Al-Buraq Mosque.

Cultural impact

  • In Turkey, Burak is a common male name.
  • Two airlines have been named after Buraq: Buraq Air of Libya, and the former Bouraq Indonesia Airlines of Indonesia (closed in 2006).
  • “el-Borak” is a pirate in Rafael Sabatini’s novel The Sea Hawk; “El Borak” is a character in short stories by Robert E. Howard. Both are named for their speed and reflexes.
  • Pakistan’s NESCOM Burraq was named after Buraq.
  • Aceh, Indonesia, has adopted the image of Buraq rampant on the proposed official seal of the province’s government.
  • Iran’s Boragh APC is named after it.
  • A Malaysian petrol company is named Buraq Oil.
  • A Bangladeshi Transport company is named Boraq Paribahan (বোরাক পরিবহন).
  • Al-Boraq (Arabic: البُراق) is a 323-kilometre-long (201 mi) high-speed rail service between Casablanca and Tangier operated by ONCF in Morocco. The first of its kind on the African continent, and the fastest.

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