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Picturing the Prophet

This is an unusual example of the Prophet Muhammad pictured in an Islamic manuscript. It comes from a royal miniature made to illustrate a copy of the poems of the celebrated Persian Nizami, and depicts the Prophet's ascension to heaven on the horse Buraq.

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Picturing the Prophet

Nizami’s Khamsa (Five Poems), Tabriz, Iran, 1539–43. Muhammad’s ascent into heaven
BL Or. MS 2265, f. 195
Copyright © The British Library Board

Why are images rare in Islamic literature?

Islam disapproves of human or animal representation in a religious context. Qur'ans are never illustrated; the ultimate artistic expression is to be found in sacred calligraphy and illumination, such as in the magnificent 'carpet pages' of the royal Qur'ans.

However, the image of the Prophet's ascension to heaven is often depicted in religious Islamic painting, particularly in Persian manuscripts. It is also often found in secular literature, as in this manuscript of the poems of the celebrated Persian poet Nizami.

According to tradition, the face of the Prophet Muhammad has been whitened out.

Who was Nizami?

Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209), born in modern-day Azerbaijan, was the greatest romantic poet of Persian literature. His set of five epic poems called Khamsa in Arabic is his best known work and illustrates his colloquial and realistic style.

Each of his three wives died prematurely just as he finished an epic work, prompting him to lament that it seemed every time he completed a masterpiece he had to sacrifice a wife.

Who created this image?

Shah Mahmud Nishapuri (d. 1564-5) created the calligraphy in this piece for Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-76) - the ruler of Iran who at one point owned the Koh-i-noor diamond, then the world's largest, and now in the Tower of London. The identity of the artist who created the illustration is however not known.

This miniature depicts the ascent to heaven of the Prophet Muhammad on the flying horse Buraq, guided by the archangel Gabriel, with an escort of angels.

The origin of the ascension legend goes back to various passages throughout the Qur'an. It is also believed that the ascension was preceded by a night journey on a winged horse, which carried the Prophet Muhammad from the Ka'bah in Mecca to Jerusalem.

What were the details of Muhammad's journey?

Muhammad's extraordinary journey to heaven started in the Ka'bah in Mecca, where he was sleeping. The archangel Gabriel woke him up and led him outside to Buraq, a white horse (the name means 'white horse') equipped with huge wings. Buraq took Muhammad to visit heaven, visiting Jerusalem en route. Muhammad passed through the various stages of heaven, meeting Adam in the first, Jesus in the second and so on. In the sixth heaven he met Moses, and in the seventh, Abraham. Beyond it was Paradise. Before Buraq returned him home, Muhammad also visited hell.

The story of Muhammad's journey has had a profound influence on Islamic thought, and Sufism in particular sees it as a powerful metaphor for man's spiritual journey.

The Dome of the Rock at Temple Mount, Jerusalem, from where Buraq and the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven