Of the many events in the Islamic calendar that hold particular importance, Laila-tul-Mairaj is one of the most prominent. The words can be roughly translated to Night Ascension, and basically, it is meant to mark the occasion of the prophet's visit to the Heavens. On this visit, he was instructed by God himself about the duty of the Muslims to pray daily.
Not only was this an important event in Islamic history, but it is now commemorated by Muslims all over the world. In Muslim majority countries it is often a public holiday, and depending on the culture, various traditions have been associated with it. These include attending special prayers at the mosque, and sharing the story of Miraj at home with children. There are also special nighttime prayers which can be recited to gather blessings. In some countries, the event is marked by lighting electric lights over buildings, or by lighting candles.
Lailat al Miraj is celebrated on the 27th day of Rajab, the seventh month in the Islamic calendar. The observance begins at sundown a day before the actual date. Lailat al Miraj is also known as Isra and Miraj, or Al-Isra'wal Miraj. Isra refers to the first part of the journey, and Miraj refers to the second part.
The ascension of the prophet occurred in two stages. In the first stage, the Prophet was visited by two archangels while he was residing in the Kaaba, in the city of Mecca. The two archangels presented the Buraq, a large and powerful winged horse. On this, the prophet flew to the "farthest mosque" where he offered prayers along with prophets from the past. Muslims believe this "farthest mosque to be a reference to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
After this, the prophet was conveyed on Buraq to the heavens. There, he was shown the seven stages of heaven by the archangel Jibra'il, and he offered prayers and was tested also. He also met past prophets, including Musa (Moses), Ibrahim (Abraham) and Isa (Jesus). Finally, he was taken to a holy tree in Jannah (heaven) that Jibra'il could not pass. Beyond it, he was instructed by God himself. God tells him that the duty of his Muslims is to perform daily 'salah' or prayers, five times a day. This leg of the journey is called the Miraj, which is an Arabic word meaning ladder.
The incident of Ascension is mentioned clearly in the Quran in Surat Al-Isra, the seventeenth chapter. Indeed, the chapter itself is named after the incident. However, most of the additional details, including regarding the method of prayer, come from other sources, such as the hadith. Hadith are additional biographies of the Prophet Muhammad's life, and form an important historical and social guide.
This historical event was meant to mark the Prophet's importance and to provide instruction for Muslims for a straight path. It is the small wonder, then, that Muslims all over the world hold the tradition of celebrating this night so dearly, and commemorate it the way they see fit.