Images of Prophet Muhammad from Islamic Art and History before the clan of Ibn Saud took Muslims hostage

By Tarek Fatah for TarekFatah.com

 Isaiah’s vision of Jesus riding a donkey and Muhammad riding a camel, al-Biruni, al-Athar al-Baqiyya ‘an al-Qurun al-Khaliyya (Chronology of Ancient Nations), Tabriz, Iran, 1307-8. Edinburgh University Library. EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

Isaiah’s vision of Jesus riding a donkey and Muhammad riding a camel, al-Biruni, al-Athar al-Baqiyya ‘an al-Qurun al-Khaliyya (Chronology of Ancient Nations), Tabriz, Iran, 1307-8. Edinburgh University Library. EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

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To many Muslims, any image of the prophet Muhammad is sacrilegious, but the ban has not always been absolute and there is a small but rich tradition of devotional Islamic art going back more than seven centuries that does depict God’s messenger. It began with exquisite miniatures from the 13th century, scholars say. Commissioned from Muslim artists by the rich and powerful of their day, they show almost every episode of Muhammad’s life as recounted in the Qur’an and other texts, from birth to death and ascension into heaven.

Intended as private aids to devotion and prayer, these detailed scenes were made for both Sunni and Shia worshippers, and surviving examples can be found in dozens of major museum and library collections.

They also laid the foundations for a popular, if minority, tradition of devotional and inspirational images that still exists today, from icons cherished in homes to a five-storey government-commissioned mural in the heart of Tehran and even to revolutionary street art in Cairo – although the prophet’s face is obscured in both those public drawings.

 Ka‘ba, al-Darir, Siyer-i Nebi (The Biography of the Prophet), Istanbul, Ottoman lands, 1595-96. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY

Ka‘ba, al-Darir, Siyer-i Nebi (The Biography of the Prophet), Istanbul, Ottoman lands, 1595-96. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY

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The Prophet Muhammad receives revelations at Mount Hira, al-Darir, Siyer-i Nebi (The Biography of the Prophet), Istanbul, Ottoman lands, 1595-1596. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY

The Prophet Muhammad receives revelations at Mount Hira, al-Darir, Siyer-i Nebi (The Biography of the Prophet), Istanbul, Ottoman lands, 1595-1596. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY

The Prophet Muhammad sits with the Abrahamic prophets in Jerusalem, anonymous, Mi‘rajnama (Book of Ascension), Tabriz, ca. 1317-1330. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY

The Prophet Muhammad sits with the Abrahamic prophets in Jerusalem, anonymous, Mi‘rajnama (Book of Ascension), Tabriz, ca. 1317-1330. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY

The Prophet Muhammad enthroned, surmounted by angels, and surrounded by his companions, Firdawsi, Shahnama (Book of Kings), probably Shiraz, Iran, early 14th century. FREER/SACKLER MUSEUM OF ASIAN ART/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

The Prophet Muhammad enthroned, surmounted by angels, and surrounded by his companions, Firdawsi, Shahnama (Book of Kings), probably Shiraz, Iran, early 14th century. FREER/SACKLER MUSEUM OF ASIAN ART/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

Illustration showing Mohammed (on the right) preaching his final sermon to his earliest converts, on Mount Ararat near Mecca; taken from a medieval-era manuscript of the astronomical treatise The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries by the Persian scholar al-Biruni; currently housed in the collection of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (Manuscrits Arabe 1489 fol. 5v). This scene was popular among medieval Islamic artists, and several nearly identical versions of this drawing (such as this one  and this one) were made in the Middle Ages.

Illustration showing Mohammed (on the right) preaching his final sermon to his earliest converts, on Mount Ararat near Mecca; taken from a medieval-era manuscript of the astronomical treatise The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries by the Persian scholar al-Biruni; currently housed in the collection of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (Manuscrits Arabe 1489 fol. 5v). This scene was popular among medieval Islamic artists, and several nearly identical versions of this drawing (such as this one and this one) were made in the Middle Ages.

Mohammed (on the right, astride Buraq) and the Angel Gabriel (center) talk with Abraham (left) in Paradise. Persian, 15th century.

Mohammed (on the right, astride Buraq) and the Angel Gabriel (center) talk with Abraham (left) in Paradise. Persian, 15th century.

Mohammed arrives on the shores of the White Sea. Also from the Apocalypse of Muhammad, written in 1436 in Herat, Afghanistan (now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris).

Mohammed arrives on the shores of the White Sea. Also from the Apocalypse of Muhammad, written in 1436 in Herat, Afghanistan (now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris).

Mohammed greeting ambassadors from Medina. Likely of central Asian origin, though the site on which the image was found does not give an exact date or location.

Mohammed greeting ambassadors from Medina. Likely of central Asian origin, though the site on which the image was found does not give an exact date or location.

Mohammed (far right) and the Archangel Gabriel standing in front of a giant angel. From the Miraj-name, Tabriz (c. 1360-70). In the Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul.

Mohammed (far right) and the Archangel Gabriel standing in front of a giant angel. From the Miraj-name, Tabriz (c. 1360-70). In the Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul.

Mohammed borne on Gabriel's shoulders, arriving at the gate of paradise guarded by the angel Ridwan. From the Miraj-name, Tabriz (c. 1360-70). In the Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul.

Mohammed borne on Gabriel’s shoulders, arriving at the gate of paradise guarded by the angel Ridwan. From the Miraj-name, Tabriz (c. 1360-70). In the Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul.

An angel presenting Mohammed (upper left) and his companions with a miniature city. In the Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul.

An angel presenting Mohammed (upper left) and his companions with a miniature city. In the Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul.

The Archangel Gabriel carries Mohammed on his shoulders over mountains where angels are shown among golden flames. In the Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul.

The Archangel Gabriel carries Mohammed on his shoulders over mountains where angels are shown among golden flames. In the Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul.

Mohammed flying over Mecca, at the beginning of his "Night Journey." The square building in the center is the Ka'aba. From the manuscript entitled Khamseh, by Nezami, 1494-5. Currently in the British Museum.

Mohammed flying over Mecca, at the beginning of his “Night Journey.” The square building in the center is the Ka’aba. From the manuscript entitled Khamseh, by Nezami, 1494-5. Currently in the British Museum.

Mohammed (riding the horse) receiving the submission of the Banu Nadir, a Jewish tribe he defeated at Medina. From the Jami'al-Tawarikh, dated 1314-5. In the Nour Foundation's Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London.

Mohammed (riding the horse) receiving the submission of the Banu Nadir, a Jewish tribe he defeated at Medina. From the Jami’al-Tawarikh, dated 1314-5. In the Nour Foundation’s Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London.

Another version of the same image as above, also likely from Rashid al-Din's Jami'al-Tawarikh. This image is likely a redrawn lithograph of the original, and was printed in the book History of Egypt, by S. Rappoport, which contains the caption, "The original of the illustration is to be seen in a finely illuminated MS. of the ninth century, A. D., preserved in the India Office, London. The picture is of peculiar interest, being the only known portrait of Muhammed, who is evidently represented as receiving the divine command to propagate Muhammedanism." Obviously, the caption is in error; the style of drawing appears to come from later than the ninth century, and needless to say this is not "the only known portrait of Muhammed."

Another version of the same image as above, also likely from Rashid al-Din’s Jami’al-Tawarikh. This image is likely a redrawn lithograph of the original, and was printed in the book History of Egypt, by S. Rappoport, which contains the caption, “The original of the illustration is to be seen in a finely illuminated MS. of the ninth century, A. D., preserved in the India Office, London. The picture is of peculiar interest, being the only known portrait of Muhammed, who is evidently represented as receiving the divine command to propagate Muhammedanism.” Obviously, the caption is in error; the style of drawing appears to come from later than the ninth century, and needless to say this is not “the only known portrait of Muhammed.”

Mohammed exhorting his family before the battle of Badr. It is not immediately apparent which figure in this drawing is Mohammed. From the Jami'al-Tawarikh, dated 1314-5. In the Nour Foundation's Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London.

Mohammed exhorting his family before the battle of Badr. It is not immediately apparent which figure in this drawing is Mohammed. From the Jami’al-Tawarikh, dated 1314-5. In the Nour Foundation’s Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London.

Mohammed (on the left) leading Hamza and the Muslims against Banu Qaynuqa'. From the Jami'al-Tawarikh, dated 1314-5. In the Nour Foundation's Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London.

Mohammed (on the left) leading Hamza and the Muslims against Banu Qaynuqa’. From the Jami’al-Tawarikh, dated 1314-5. In the Nour Foundation’s Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London.

Mohammed's Flight from Mecca in 622 AD; Algerian color postcard from the 1920s or '30s. Mohammed is the figure entering the cave. The original postcard is in a private collection. (Hat tip: Martin H.)

Mohammed’s Flight from Mecca in 622 AD; Algerian color postcard from the 1920s or ’30s. Mohammed is the figure entering the cave. The original postcard is in a private collection

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(Hat tip: Martin H.)

Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami' al-Tawarikh (literally "Compendium of Chronicles" but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami’ al-Tawarikh (literally “Compendium of Chronicles” but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

A young Mohammed being recognized by the monk Bahira. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami' al-Tawarikh (literally "Compendium of Chronicles" but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

A young Mohammed being recognized by the monk Bahira. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami’ al-Tawarikh (literally “Compendium of Chronicles” but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

Mohammed solves a dispute over lifting the black stone into position at the Kaaba. The legends tell how, when Mohammed was still a young man, the Kaaba was being rebuilt and a dispute arose between the various clans in Mecca over who had the right rededicate the black stone. (The Kaaba was at that time still a polytheistic shrine, this being many years before Islam was founded.) Mohammed resolved the argument by placing the stone on a cloth and having members of each clan lift the cloth together, raising the black stone into place cooperatively. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami' al-Tawarikh (literally "Compendium of Chronicles" but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland. (Hat tip: Brett K. and Martin H.)

Mohammed solves a dispute over lifting the black stone into position at the Kaaba. The legends tell how, when Mohammed was still a young man, the Kaaba was being rebuilt and a dispute arose between the various clans in Mecca over who had the right rededicate the black stone. (The Kaaba was at that time still a polytheistic shrine, this being many years before Islam was founded.) Mohammed resolved the argument by placing the stone on a cloth and having members of each clan lift the cloth together, raising the black stone into place cooperatively. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami’ al-Tawarikh (literally “Compendium of Chronicles” but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland

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(Hat tip: Brett K. and Martin H.)

Mohammed's birth. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami' al-Tawarikh (literally "Compendium of Chronicles" but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

Mohammed’s birth. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami’ al-Tawarikh (literally “Compendium of Chronicles” but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

The Mi'raj (also called the "Night Ride") of Mohammed on Buraq. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami' al-Tawarikh (literally "Compendium of Chronicles" but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

The Mi’raj (also called the “Night Ride”) of Mohammed on Buraq. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami’ al-Tawarikh (literally “Compendium of Chronicles” but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

Mohammed (on the far right) and Abu Bakr on their way to Medina while a woman milks a herd of goats. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami' al-Tawarikh (literally "Compendium of Chronicles" but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

Mohammed (on the far right) and Abu Bakr on their way to Medina while a woman milks a herd of goats. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami’ al-Tawarikh (literally “Compendium of Chronicles” but often referred to as The Universal History or History of the World), by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D. Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

Mohammed (upper right) visiting Paradise while riding Buraq, accompanied by the Angel Gabriel (upper left). Below them, riding camels, are some of the fabled houris of Paradise -- the \

Mohammed (upper right) visiting Paradise while riding Buraq, accompanied by the Angel Gabriel (upper left). Below them, riding camels, are some of the fabled houris of Paradise — the “virgins” promised to heroes and martyrs. This image and the following five images are Persian, 15th century, from a manuscipt entitled Miraj Nama, which is in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Taken from The Miraculous Journey of Mahomet, by Marie-Rose Seguy.

Mohammed, flying over Paradise, looks at the houris harvesting flowers and enjoying themselves. Persian, 15th century.

Mohammed, flying over Paradise, looks at the houris harvesting flowers and enjoying themselves. Persian, 15th century.

Mohammed, along with Buraq and Gabriel, visit Hell, and see a demon punishing \

Mohammed, along with Buraq and Gabriel, visit Hell, and see a demon punishing “shameless women” who had exposed their hair to strangers. For this crime of inciting lust in men, the women are strung up by their hair and burned for eternity. Persian, 15th century.

Next, Mohammed sees women strung up by hooks thrust through their tongues by a green demon. Their crimes were to \

Next, Mohammed sees women strung up by hooks thrust through their tongues by a green demon. Their crimes were to “mock” their husbands and to leave their homes without permission. Persian, 15th century.

Further on, Mohammed sees a red demon that is torturing women by hanging them up by hooks through their breasts, as they are engulfed in flames. The women are being punished for giving birth to illegitimate children whom they falsely claimed were fathered by their husbands. Persian, 15th century.

Further on, Mohammed sees a red demon that is torturing women by hanging them up by hooks through their breasts, as they are engulfed in flames. The women are being punished for giving birth to illegitimate children whom they falsely claimed were fathered by their husbands. Persian, 15th century.

Mohammed (on the right, astride Buraq) and the Angel Gabriel (center) talk with Abraham (left) in Paradise. Persian, 15th century.

Mohammed (on the right, astride Buraq) and the Angel Gabriel (center) talk with Abraham (left) in Paradise. Persian, 15th century.

The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq; leaf from a copy of the Bustan of Sacdi, dated 1514. From Bukhara, Uzbekistan. In The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq; leaf from a copy of the Bustan of Sacdi, dated 1514. From Bukhara, Uzbekistan. In The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Muhammad's Call to Prophecy and the First Revelation; leaf from a copy of the Majmac al-tawarikh ("Compendium of Histories"), ca. 1425; Timurid. From Herat, Afghanistan. In The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Muhammad’s Call to Prophecy and the First Revelation; leaf from a copy of the Majmac al-tawarikh (“Compendium of Histories”), ca. 1425; Timurid. From Herat, Afghanistan. In The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Another miniature showing Mohammed astride Buraq. Provenance unknown.

Another miniature showing Mohammed astride Buraq. Provenance unknown.

Mohammed in a cavern, in a painting entitled \

Mohammed in a cavern, in a painting entitled “The Charge of the Lion.” The painting possibly depicts Mohammed (along with Abu Bakr, not depicted) hiding from pursuers in the Cave of the Bull during the Hijra in 622. Unknown provenance, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

Mohammed presented to the monk Abd al Muttalib and the inhabitants of Mecca. 18th century Ottoman copy of a supposedly 8th century original. Now located in the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul.

Mohammed presented to the monk Abd al Muttalib and the inhabitants of Mecca. 18th century Ottoman copy of a supposedly 8th century original. Now located in the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul.

Detail of Mohammed from the picture above, in Paradise with beautiful females.

Detail of Mohammed from the picture above, in Paradise with beautiful females.

Journey of the Prophet Muhammad; leaf from a copy of the Majmac al-tawarikh (\

Journey of the Prophet Muhammad; leaf from a copy of the Majmac al-tawarikh (“Compendium of Histories”), ca. 1425; Timurid. Herat, Afghanistan. In The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Images of the Prophet Muhammad from non-Muslim sources:

This Russian painting from 1840-1850 shows prophet Muhammad preaching. The artist is Grigory Gagarin.

This Russian painting from 1840-1850 shows prophet Muhammad preaching. The artist is Grigory Gagarin.

Portrait of Mohammed from Michel Baudier's book Histoire générale de la religion des turcs (Paris, 1625). It was sold at auction by Sotheby's in 2002. The same image was used on the cover of issue #2195 of the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

Portrait of Mohammed from Michel Baudier’s book Histoire générale de la religion des turcs (Paris, 1625). It was sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 2002. The same image was used on the cover of issue #2195 of the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

This gravure of Mohammed can be found in Alexander Ross's Pahsebeia, or A View of all Religions in the World, a book from 1683. It should be noted that these clothes were not known in the Arabic peninsula during that period and thus the image is not correct.

This gravure of Mohammed can be found in Alexander Ross’s Pahsebeia, or A View of all Religions in the World, a book from 1683. It should be noted that these clothes were not known in the Arabic peninsula during that period and thus the image is not correct.

This beautiful lithograph of Mohammed belongs to a Spanish edition of the Koran from 1932.

This beautiful lithograph of Mohammed belongs to a Spanish edition of the Koran from 1932.

This depiction of Muhammad appears on the frontispiece for the 1900 reprint of the book The Life of Mohammed, by an author coincidentally named George Bush.

This depiction of Muhammad appears on the frontispiece for the 1900 reprint of the book The Life of Mohammed, by an author coincidentally named George Bush.

The cover of the 1911 Danish biography called Profeten Muhammed written by Johannes Østrup shows this beautiful image of Mohammed riding on a stylized flying horse.

The cover of the 1911 Danish biography called Profeten Muhammed written by Johannes Østrup shows this beautiful image of Mohammed riding on a stylized flying horse.

This 1928 German advertisement for meat extract shows Gabriel guiding Mohammed on a flying horse up to Allah.

This 1928 German advertisement for meat extract shows Gabriel guiding Mohammed on a flying horse up to Allah.


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