The heavenly journey of the Prophet forms a centerpiece of Muslim piety. Persian poets from the thirteenth century onward prefaced their epics with a colorful description of the mi'raj, the heavenly journey that brought the Prophet into the immediate presence of God. This miniature is particularly interesting as the Prophet is shown with his face unveiled, riding on the mysterious mount Buraq. Later pictures of Muhammad generally show him with a veil covering his face, and in more recent times even his entire body is usually symbolized by a white cloud or a rose.
One of the most widely admired works of Persian literature, the Bustan of Sa‘di (1257) combines moral advice with illustrative anecdotes. This copy, dated to 1514, was probably made in Herat, but its illustrations appear to have been added in the 1530s for an Uzbek patron, possibly in their capital, Bukhara. Its calligrapher, Sultan Muhammad Nur, was trained by the famous Timurid calligrapher Sultan ‘Ali al-Mashhadi, and his work was appreciated by both the Safavids and the Uzbeks. The manuscript opens with a richly illuminated frontispiece (1974.294.1)
It is well known that painters active in Herat under the Timurids used pictorial models or templates for many of their pictures. This folio continues that practice, but each of its halves draws on a distinct compositional source and each reflects a theme discussed by Sa‘di in this section of the Bustan. The top portion, showing the Prophet Muhammad seated on Buraq and surrounded by angels, is modeled on mi‘raj pictures such as the one in a Nizami manuscript from Herat dated to 1495. Both works depict the Prophet’s ascension to heaven against the background of the Haram al-Sharif in Mecca.
Here, Muhammad has one hand raised as if in speech, and the text panel in the upper-right corner recounts his conversation with Buraq. The steed explains that he will take Muhammad only part of the way toward his destination because he himself would be burned by the intensity of the divine presence. Sa‘di describes the Prophet’s luminosity as the source of all light, a concept conveyed by the swirling golden clouds that frame Muhammad and Buraq. The lower section of the painting celebrates the revelation of the Qur’an, shown as a book surmounted by flames and enshrined in a mihrab niche. The mosque courtyard, probably intended to represent the Haram al-Sharif in Mecca, is occupied by three sleeping men. This composition appears to be inspired by Sa‘di’s praise for the Qur’an as superior to the sacred texts of Christianity and Judaism.
A pictorial and thematic antecedent to the present composition is provided by a painting, executed in Herat about 1485, that is also concerned with the transmission of the Qur’an. It depicts the Prophet Muhammad, who sits adjacent to the mihrab in a mosque, as well as the four Rightly Guided Caliphs and their companions, who are placed before him in the courtyard. One of the caliphs, probably ‘Uthman, is shown transcribing a text, which recalls his role in the compilation of the Qur’an, and another, probably ‘Ali, appears to be commenting upon it to the assembled group. In the Bukhara version, the manuscript of the Qur’an is emphasized: its physical isolation and flaming halo reinforce the idea of its religious predominance and divine origin. Here, the group of spectators has been reduced to three, probably by eliminating ‘Ali, and all are shown asleep, thereby denying them any part in the Qur’an’s replication or interpretation. By reducing peripheral detail and placing the focus on the twin miracles of the Prophet’s nocturnal journey and the Qur’an’s miraculous origin, the Metropolitan Museum picture carries a more focused religious message than do most depictions of the mi‘raj.
Priscilla P. Soucek in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
Inscription: In Arabic in nasta‘liq script
Sa’di بوستان Bustan story في نعت سید المرسلین علیه الصلوة و السلام (description of Master of messengers, prayer and peace upon him).
(Bustān–i Sheikh Ajall Sa’dī Shīrāzī, ed. Muḥammad ‘Alī Nāṣḥi, Bunyād Nī kūkārī Nūryānī Publication, 1354/1974, p. 18).
[ Nasli M. Heeramaneck (Indian, 1902–1971), New York, until 1937; sold to Kahn family]; Kahn family, by descent (1937–74; sold to MMA by Dr. E.A. Kahn on behalf ofhis daughter, Mrs. Barbara Potter, Germany)
de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "Exhibition of Islamic Art," February 24, 1937–March 22, 1937, no. 3.
Aga-Oglu, Mehmet. "M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, February 24 to March 22, 1937." In Exhibition of Islamic Art. San Francisco, 1937. no. 3, p. 23.
Swietochowski, Marie, and Richard Ettinghausen. "Islamic Painting." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 36, no. 2 (Autumn 1978). p. 24, ill. p. 24 (b/w).
Wickens, G., and Sa'di. Morals Pointed and Tales Adorned : The Bustan of Sa'di. Persian heritage series; no. 17. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1978. p. 7.
Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. p. 95, ill. fig. 72 (color).
Gruber, Christiane. "Representations of the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Painting." Muqarnas vol. 26 (2009). p. 239, ill. fig. 6 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 136A, pp. 199-200, ill. p. 199 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 42-43, ill. pl. 2 (color).