Variations: Al-Mi’raj (usually erroneously), Miraj (lacking the ‘ayn), Mirag (see previous, also Egyptian pronunciation)
When Alexander the Great visited Jazirat al-Tinnin – the Dragon’s Island – he was immediately presented with an opportunity to play the hero. The inhabitants of this unspecified island in the Indian Ocean were terrorized by a fire-breathing dragon, which would exact a tribute of two oxen a day to be left at the opening of its lair. Ever the tactician, Alexander stuffed two ox-skins with pitch, sulfur, and other unpalatable substances, and had them dropped off for the dragon; the reptile perished soon after eating them.
Among the gifts Alexander was given for this sauroctonous feat was a Mi’raj, a creature resembling a yellow rabbit with a single black horn on its forehead. It was apparently so aggressive that wild animals would flee at the sight of it – a feature it shared with the karkadann, and which may have arisen from confusion between the two unicorns. It certainly wasn’t fierce enough to avoid being captured (alive or dead).
The exact pronunciation of the name is unclear, as with the absence of diacritics, “mi’raj” may as well be “mu’raj”. It is sometimes rendered as Al-mi’raj, literally “The mi’raj”; this is unnecessary in English, and any usage of this term preceded with “the” or “an” is redundant. Bochart (and by extension Flaubert) refers to it as “mirag”, which is correct in Egyptian Arabic but drops the difficult ‘ayn.
Al-Qazwini was the first to report the story of Alexander and the mi’raj. Al-Damiri describes the mi’raj as “great [and] marvelous”.
If there is any factual basis for the existence of the mi’raj, it may well have been a rabbit with facial tumors caused by papillomaviruses. The same has been used to explain the origin of the jackalope, a North American hybrid used to fool tourists and usually created by grafting horns on a jackrabbit skin.
Bochart, S. (1675) Hierozoicon. Johannis Davidis Zunneri, Frankfurt.
Al-Damiri, K. (1891) Hayat al-hayawan al-kubra. Al-Matba’ah al-Khayriyah, Cairo.
Ettinghausen, R. (1950) The Unicorn. Studies in Muslim Iconography, Freer Gallery of Art Occasional Papers Vol. 1, No. 3, Washington.
Al-Qazwini, Z. (1849) Zakariya ben Muhammed ben Mahmud el-Cazwini’s Kosmographie. Erster Theil: Die Wunder der Schöpfung. Ed. F. Wüstenfeld. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, Göttingen.
Seznec, J. (1943) Saint Antoine et les Monstres: Essai sur les Sources et la Signification du Fantastique de Flaubert. PMLA, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 195-222.
Zimmer, C. (2011) A Planet of Viruses. University of Chicago Press.