Arts & Culture

Prophet Muhammad in Miniature

In the Islamic religion, painting is a sensitive issue continuing to attract debate and the final verdict has not been reached. Based on this sensitivity, Muslims have been careful about not painting a picture of Prophet Muhammad and think that it should not be done. However, throughout history some of his miracles have been depicted in miniatures (illuminated manuscripts), including first and foremost the Mi’raj event where he ascended to heavens from Jerusalem and conversed with God, and his splitting of the moon into two parts. The authors of many books on general history and religious matters as well as those of the sirah books -the biographies of Prophet Muhammad - have had these miracles painted for the purpose of illustration to the reader and to help them better understand the stories that they told.

In virtually every miniature after the 14th century, Prophet Muhammad was depicted with a white veil on his blessed face, a white turban (head scarf) on his head, a long, green, flowing, baggy over- garment, and an Eastern style halo around his head.

We have seen the pictures of Prophet Muhammad in books starting from the 14th century (AD). However, despite the existence of a few illustrations that show his facial lines, which belong to earlier periods and constitute an exception, Muslims have usually been sensitive about not explicitly painting the facial features of Prophet Muhammad. In some of these pictures that belong to earlier periods, Prophet Muhammad was painted with an aureole around his head or with a set of clouds above his head, which symbolized his status of being a prophet. All these then are the symbols of his religious personality. In later paintings, however, his face was screened with a veil. In virtually every miniature after the 14th century, Prophet Muhammad was depicted with a white veil on his blessed face, a white turban (head scarf) on his head, a long, green, flowing, baggy over- garment, and an Eastern style halo around his head. In some more recent miniatures, however, his depiction has been confined to a purely shiny beam-casting form, without a particular focus on his body or his face. (1)

In the depictions of the wars, of which he was the commander, Prophet Muhammad usually looks on the event from a safe place on one side, similar to the way in which the Ottoman Sultans were depicted in miniatures. Among the crowded group of warriors, the Prophet is distinguished with his aureole and the white veil on his face. In paintings depicting his meetings, Prophet Muhammad is positioned in the most spectacular part of the picture. Also, in compositions with few figures or a single figure, his depiction creates a deep influence on the spectator, as these illustrations are aimed at transmitting exaltation, grace, sacredness and super –natural qualities of Prophet Muhammad. In addition, in some miniatures, he is depicted as surrounded by a single angel or a group of guardian angels, who pose as protecting him from unexpected dangers, respectfully praising him, or communicating to him certain orders from God. In such scenes, angels are usually depicted as descending from heavens towards Prophet Muhammad. (2)

It has been reported by Ibn Wahb that in the Islamic manuscript painting tradition, the first illustrations of Prophet Muhammad belong to early periods. According to some reports, in an illustrated book that belonged to a Chinese Emperor and was produced by the Chinese artists of the time, Prophet Muhammad was depicted as sitting on a camel, together with other figures including Prophets Noah, Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them all). (3)

In later periods, one of the illustrated books that included the picture of Prophet Muhammad is a book that tells a love story between a certain Warka and a Gulshah, which was written by Abd al-Mu’min ibn Muhammad al- Hôyî (TSMK (4) , H. no. 841). In this book, there are two illustrations of Prophet Muhammad. In the first one (69b), Prophet Muhammad listens to the Shah of Sham together with his caliphs, Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali. In the second miniature, he is depicted as bringing Warka and Gulshah back to life after they have died. Interestingly, in these illustrations Prophet Muhammad was not depicted differently from other figures; his identity is indicated only by the writings on the miniatures.

The first illustrations of Prophet Muhammad go back to 1307 AD in the Eastern religious miniature tradition, which was brought to Islam by Mongolian invasions. His first pictures can be found in history books written in this period.

The first illustrations of Prophet Muhammad go back to 1307 AD in the Eastern religious miniature tradition, which was brought to Islam by Mongolian invasions. His first pictures can be found in history books written in this period. However, in many of these books, there is no indication of the sacred status of Prophet Muhammad, except for the fact that he is depicted as larger than other figures in the illustrations. (5) In the book Jami’ al-Tawarih, which is a three volume book on general world history, written by Rashid al-Din Fadl-Allah in the years 1306-7 and 1314, the illustrations of Prophet Muhammad were also included. (6) One of the important features of these illustrations is that this miniature tradition was closely connected to and greatly influenced by the Christian iconography, as the former did not have any distinguishing characteristic of itself. The same is true for an illustrated copy of the Tabari History, which can be found in the Washington Freer Gallery. (7)

The most important examples of the early depictions of Prophet Muhammad are found in the Mi’raj-name that belongs to the Mongolian era. Some of the miniatures included in the book are found as foils in an album in the Topkapi Museum, though its text could not survive (TSMK. H. no. 2154). Also, there is a copy of the book with both text and illustrations in the Bibliothèque National (Turc. 190) in Paris. This work was prepared in Emperor Baysungur’s embroidery house in 1436; it is written in the Uyghur Turkish, and contains 57 miniature illustrations. The first miniature in the book illustrates Gabriel the angel in Prophet Muhammad’s house inviting him to the journey for the Mi’raj. In addition, the Hamse by Nizami that belongs to the same period also includes the Mi’raj illustrations. In the first chapter of the Hamse, titled Mahzen al-Asrar [The Treasury of Secrets], the author starts with a discussion on Prophet Muhammad and the Mi’raj event. For this reason, this first illustration in Nizami’s Hamse has been the symbol of the Mi’raj in the Muslim tradition.

In the 15th century, another set of illustrations is found again in a sirah book. This work was prepared probably in 1417 to be presented to Shahruh (ruler of the Timurid Empire, 1405–47) (TSMK, B.282). Also, towards the end of the 15th century, the depictions of Prophet Muhammad started to be included in different history books. These often include the kind of books that tell epic stories of heroism by such relatives of the Prophet as the companions Ali and Khamza.

The most important of illustrated books, and the richest one in terms of the number of miniatures it contains, is the Siyer-i Nebi by Dariri of Erzurum written in the 14th century; particularly the copy of the book that was prepared with rich illustrations by the Ottoman Sultan Murad III at the end of the 16th century. According to a document found in archives, this book was composed of 349 sections and contained over 810 miniature illustrations, and could not be completed until the reign of Sultan Mehmed III. (8) The book was completed as 6 volumes in 1003/1594-95, (9) and the miniature artists who composed the book were rewarded by the Sultan. (10)

Other Works Containing the Miniatures of Prophet Muhammad

Havernâme: Dated 1476, the book was written by Ibn al-Husam, and contains the epic stories of Ali the Companion of the Prophet. (11)

Ravza al-Safâ: A book on general history written by Mir Havend in the 16th century. (12)

Qisas al-Anbiyâ: Written by al-Nisaburi, the book contains the life stories of all Prophets from the beginning to Prophet Muhammad with illustrations. Several copies of it can be found in the Library of the Topkapı Palace Museum. (13)

Ahsan al-Kibar: The book belongs to the 16th century. Written in 1526 by Husayin al-Alawi al-Warami to be presented to Shah Tahmasb, the book contains biographical stories of Prophet Muhammad and the Twelve Imams. (14)

Asar al-Muzaffar: This is another illustrated book that belongs to the Shah Tahmasb period, and is a poetical biography of Prophet Muhammad, which was written in 1568. (15)

Majalis al-Ushshaq: This is another illustrated book that contains the miniature of Prophet Muhammad, which was probably prepared by the Timurid Sultan Huseyin Bayqara in the 16th century. (16)

Anbiyaname: An illustrated book written in 1558 during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent by Fethullah Arifi, which contains two miniatures of Prophet Muhammad.

Zubda al-Tawarih: This is a book on general history written in 1583-86 by Seyyid Lokman Urmevî under the auspices of Sultan Murad III, the leading patron of the Ottoman book arts, and contains two miniature illustrations of Prophet Muhammad. (17)

Ahwâl-i Qiyamat: Written at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, when there was a widespread expectation that the Day of Judgment would come in the year 1000 Hegira, the book contains some miniatures of Prophet Muhammad as well as many scenes from the Day of Judgment. (18)

Fal-i Qur’an: This is another illustrated book that contains different depictions of Islamic religious beliefs and concepts. (19)

1. It has been reported that such a work of art can be found in the manuscripts section of French National Museum (see Osman Şekerci, Islam’da Resim ve Heykel, Istanbul 1996, p. 132.).

2. Tanindi, pp. 38-39.

3. Sekerci, p. 129.

4. The Library of the Topkapi Palace Museum.

5. Edinburgh University Library, Arab 161.

6. Edinburgh University Library, Arab 20, TSMK, H. no. 1653 and London Royal Asiatic Society, Morley no 1. (This work is not there any more.)

7. Washington Freer Gallery of Art, 57.16, 47.19 (Tanindi, Istanbul 1984, p. 10.)

8. TSMA, D. no. 12292.

9. TSMK, H. no. 1221, 1222, 1223, New York Public Library no. 157, Dublin Chester Beatty Library, no. 419.

10. TSMA, D. no. 12292.

11. Tanindi (1984, p. 15) reports that most of the illustrations of this book are in the Tehran Museum of Fine Arts, and the rest in private collections in Europe and the US.

12. Ibid.

13. Karatay, Topkapi Sarayi Müzesi Kütüphanesi Yazmalar Katalogu, Istanbul 1961, no. 119-126, 127.

14. Leningrad / St. Petersburg Public Library, Dorn no. 312.

15. Karatay, no. 756. Tanindi reports that an illustrated page taken from this work is in the Pozzi collection in Geneva. TSMK, H.1233.

16. Tanindi reports that this work is in a private collection in Italy.

17. TIEM, T.1973, TSMK, H.1321, Dublin Chester Beatty Library, T.414.

18. Tanindi, p. 13.

19. Ibid no. 283 is an illustrated copy of this work.

The information contained in this article has been compiled essentially the following sources: Zeren Tanindi, Siyer-i Nebi, Istanbul 1984; Osman Sekerci, Islam’da Resim ve Heykel, Istanbul 1996


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