Monday, February 20, 2006

"The Prophet Muhammad's Night Journey" (Painted 1556-1562)

"All depictions of Muhammad -- or so we hear daily -- are now and always have been forbidden in Islam. Art's history disputes this. True, that strict taboo today is honored by almost all Muslims, but old paintings of the prophet -- finely brushed, expensive ones, made carefully and piously by Muslims and for them -- are well known to most curators of Islamic art.

There are numerous examples in public institutions in Istanbul, Vienna, Edinburgh, London, Dublin, Los Angeles and New York.

Four are here in Washington in the Smithsonian Institution on the Mall. Three are in the Freer Gallery of Art. The fourth is next door in the Freer's sister museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

These portrayals of Muhammad are not big or new or common. Most were made for the elite, and most were bound in books...

What their paintings show is this: Once upon a time -- in the era of the caliphs and the sultans and the shahs, when the faithful felt triumphant, and courtly learning blossomed -- the prophet did appear in great, Islamic art.

Old portrayals of Muhammad come from Sunni lands and Shia ones, from the Turkey of the Ottomans, the India of the Mughals, from Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. The oldest that survive were painted circa 1300. The newest were produced about 200 years ago.

Three such pictures, from Turkey, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York....

The paintings of the prophet were not made for walls. They stayed in costly bindings. Sunlight hasn't dimmed them....

The robe the prophet wears usually is green, his turban clean and white. Often, out of piety, his youthful face is veiled. When it isn't, we are shown that his brow is clear, his manner calm, his dark beard neatly trimmed... In many of these pictures, his halo is aflame.

"The Prophet Muhammad's Night Journey" (1556-1562), a Persian painting touched with gold, has been for 60 years among the prized possessions of the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art....

Three other paintings of Muhammad are owned by the museum. "Ascension of the Prophet" is an Indian image circa 1800. "The Prophet Enthroned and the Four Orthodox Caliphs" is 14th-century Iranian. "Ascent of the Prophet to Heaven," also Iranian, is from the 1550s.

For reasons that include "cultural sensitivity," and today's bloody news, none of these old paintings is currently on view.

"In the Holy Quran of Islam," political scientist As'ad AbuKhalil, a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says, "the one sin unforgivable is that of polytheism. The prohibition is intended to protect the faithful from that sin. The fear was that intense reverence for the prophet, might if unrestrained, cross over into worship." ...

Paul Richard "Medieval images of prophet Muhammad exist" Washington Post February 18, 2006.

Prophet Muhammad returns from his Night Journey and Ascension, painted 1556-1562

Muhammad was born in Mecca and sent first to the Arabs to revive the religion of Abraham. Early in his mission he is taken on a special Night Journey to the ends of the Earth, and to visit locations of former prophetic activity such as Mount Sinai, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, the Prophet Muhammad ascends into the seven heavens where he meets the prophets who came before him, and eventually comes into the presence of God.

Photo credit:
/prophets_index.html With thanks.


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