This is an unusual depiction of the Prophet Muhammad from an Islamic manuscript. It comes from a miniature made to illustrate a royal copy of the poems of the celebrated Persian poet Nizami, and depicts the Prophet's journey to heaven on the angelic steed, Buraq.
Islam disapproves of all representation of humans or animals. Copies of the Qur'an are never illustrated; instead, typically Islamic forms of artistic expression are to be found in sacred calligraphy and illumination, such as in the magnificent 'carpet page' frontispieces of opulent manuscripts. However, depictions of the Prophet can be found in some Persian and Turkish manuscripts such as this copy of the Khamsah, or ‘Five Poems’ of Nizami. In partial deference to religious sensitivities, the Prophet was sometimes shown with his face veiled.
Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209), born in modern-day Azerbaijan, was one of the greatest masters of allegorical poetry in Persian literature. To this day his work is treasured for its vivid story-telling, rich imagery and profound wisdom.
Shah Mahmud Nishapuri (d. 1564–5) calligraphed this manuscript for Shah Tahmasb (r. 1524–76) – the ruler of Iran. The artist who painted this miniature, Sultan-Muhammad, is notable for his ability to evoke a spiritual or emotional atmosphere. This work depicts the journey to heaven of the Prophet Muhammad on his celestial steed, Buraq, guided by the archangel Gabriel, with an escort of angels. The Isrā’ or 'Night Journey' from the Ka‘ba in Mecca to Jerusalem, and the Mi‘rāj or Ascension are alluded to in the Qur’an and described in hadiths or sayings of the Prophet, for example in the famous Sahih collection of al-Bukhari.
Muhammad's miraculous journey started at the Ka‘ba in Mecca, where he was sleeping. The archangel Gabriel woke him up and led him outside to Buraq, an angelic winged creature, which could move ahead to the furthest horizon with each step it took. Buraq took Muhammad to visit heaven, visiting Jerusalem on the way. Muhammad and Gabriel passed through various regions of heaven, meeting Adam in the first, Jesus in the second, and so on. In the sixth heaven the Prophet met Moses, and in the seventh Abraham. He then passed beyond these until he approached the Divine Presence. Before Buraq returned him home, he was also shown the different stages of hell.
The story of the Prophet’s journey has had a profound influence on Islamic thought, and Sufis in particular see it as an archetype of the spiritual path.