Art Through Time: A Global View
Dreams and Visions Art: The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq from the Bustan of Sacdi
The Prophet Muhammad rides on the back of a fantastical creature.
Surrounded by a golden nebula, the two rise through the air into the starry heavens, where hosts of other angels peek out from a ribbon-like stream of gold, that at turns resembles clouds and fire. Below this celestial gathering, three men sleep on the floor of a closed interior.
The illustration comes from the Bustan (literally “Garden”), a collection of entertaining anecdotes, in which the Persian poet Sacdi shares life lessons as well as spiritual wisdom. The image likely was placed toward the front of the manuscript, near the prologue where Sacdi offers praise to God and the Prophet and intones, “Think not…that one can walk in the road of purity except in the footsteps of Muhammad.”
The scene itself brings together two different Islamic traditions. The first is the Isra, or the night journey of the Prophet. According to accounts, the winged creature Buraq, brought by the angel Gabriel, carried Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem. The other is the Micraj, the Prophet’s ascent through the seven heavens, where he encountered earlier prophets and patriarchs and eventually entered into the presence of God. There is only one vague reference to a night journey in the Qur’an (Sura 17) and no passages that can be unequivocally linked to the ascent into heaven. However, both stories, often merged into one as they are here, are told in various versions in hadith (collections of Muhammad’s sayings) and sira (accounts of Muhammad’s life). The term micraj is sometimes used to refer to the combined events.
The nature of the Muhammad’s night journey and his ascent into heaven are a subject of debate among Muslims. Some hold a literal view—that Muhammad was physically transported to Jerusalem and from there to the throne of God. Others believe that the events occurred as dreams or revelatory visions, or that the experience was purely a spiritual one, involving only Muhammad’s soul. It is difficult to say which view the illustrator or patron of this particular image endorsed. The fact that Muhammad’s face is uncovered—a rare occurrence in Islamic art—certainly suggests an emphasis on the Prophet’s humanity. But it is unclear that this was intended to stress his bodily presence or to encourage the audience to “walk…in the footsteps of Muhammad,” who was human.
Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“In Islamic culture, dreams play an extremely important role. You have dreams that have religious import. The most important of these is the night journey of the Prophet to heaven because in Islam, a recognized pious person who claims to have seen in a dream an important saint, be it the prophet Muhammad himself or any of his important companions, if that person’s dream is accepted, then whatever is being conveyed in the dream is something that the authorities almost always felt compelled to actually do.
The night journey of the Prophet is, of course, one of the most important episodes of the life of the prophet. He crossed from Mecca to Jerusalem and went up to the seventh heaven, and ultimately he was in the presence of God.
No human, according to Islamic belief, can see God. So the Prophet did not see God, but God conveyed to him some of the doctrinal requirements of the religion, including how many times to pray, what to do, what the community is supposed to do. Now, there is a debate, including the early Muslim authorities, as to whether the Prophet physically went up to the seventh heaven, or it was a dream, or it was a vision. The orthodoxy today insists that it was an actual ascension to heaven, but during the lifetime of the Prophet, people around him, some of them said it was just a vision. If we are to see it as a vision, you could see what important role it played in the Islamic history all together.”
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”Sultan Muhammad Nur: The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq (1974.294.2).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/08/nc/ho_1974.294.2.htm (October 2006).