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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

The Mi'raj (Muhammad's night journey)

Photo: Elizabeth Mann

The Mi'raj (Muhammad's night journey)

ca. 1550-1580

One of the most notable examples of the integration of religious imagery and secular manuscripts is the inclusion of the image of Muhammad's celestial ascent (Mi'raj) in a variety of texts. In his Mi'raj, the Prophet Muhammad journeyed from Mecca to Jerusalem and back in one evening and ascended into the heavens to come before the presence of God. The Qur'an refers to the night journey of Muhammad in a very short passage. Later writers elaborated on the description of this event to the point that an entire book, the Mirajnama (Book of the Mi'raj), was written to recount the tale.

Illustrations of this story were relatively rare in the Islamic world. The one image that reached iconic status was of Muhammad undertaking his night journey. In this highly canonical image, the Prophet sits astride his horse, Buraq, which has wings and a human face. Angels accompany Muhammad as he ascends into the heavens, offering him precious gifts of gold. A golden, flamelike halo frames Muhammad's head, indicating his status as a prophet. His face is veiled as a display of respect.

The Mi'raj image became much beloved in Islamic painting and was often included as a frontispiece to literary anthologies, such as Nizami's Khamsa, although it had no connection to any of the narratives included in those collections. The image came to have an almost talismanic, protective significance, a role that it continues to play in the contemporary Islamic world.
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
9 3/16 x 5 3/8 in. (23.3 x 13.7 cm)
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
Provenance: Purchased from Heeramaneck Galleries
Photo: Elizabeth Mann
Not currently on view

Related Objects in SAM's Collection

Book Cover: Joseph and his Brethren, 18th century, Persian, 42.12.2
Photo: Paul Macapia

Art and Literature

Islamic writers in the Middle Ages and early modern period (ninth to nineteenth centuries) practiced a number of prose genres—history, biography, and travelogue among them—but poetry in the Persian language was considered the highest form of literary accomplishment. Persian was the language of high culture in the Islamic world, and many royal courts used Persian as their official language. Poetry was associated with venerable Arabian oral traditions as well as the poetic quality of the Qur'an, and mastery of this genre in Persian or Arabic required extensive knowledge of languages and texts. Poets were important members of royal courts, holding much higher positions than painters, for example. In the relationship between art and literature in the Islamic world, the word always took precedence over the image. Only in the modern period do visual artists achieve the same level of fame and fortune as their literary counterparts.

In Islamic manuscripts, images serve mainly to illustrate the texts provided, which does not mean that the images were not enjoyed as artistic creations themselves or that the work of painters was completely derivative. This situation simply indicates the working conditions painters faced in the Islamic world. As an adornment to the excellence of Persian poetry, Persian painting achieved great fame in the visual arts. And like poetry, Persian painting was exported across Islamic lands, with famous poets and painters collaborating to create luxurious, lavishly illustrated literary manuscripts.
Miniature: Line Drawing of Artist at Work, ca. 1600, Persian, 62.205


Islamic art in general involves a distinction between secular and religious imagery. In the religious realm, artworks are generally aniconic; that is, they often do not include representations of humans or animals. In the secular realm, however, the distinction between the religious and profane is blurred, with religious subject matter often found in popular literary works. In fact, religious symbolism and interpretation permeates much of the literary output of the Islamic world, and nearly every subject has some element of religious symbolism. For example, Persian literature abounds with love stories in which star-crossed lovers seek each other across space and time. These love stories can also be understood as allegories in which the lovers are on a mystical journey toward union with God rather than with one another. This mystical meaning was quite common to medieval and early modern literature in the Islamic world, as many of the most famous writers and poets were adherents of a mystical practice and understanding of Islam known as Sufism.
Mohammad's Ascent to Heaven, 16th Century, Persian, 47.96
Photo: Paul Macapia


Karen Mathews, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Miami, on Muhammad's ascent to heaven


Exhibition HistoryPasadena, California, Pasadena Art Institute, Persian Exhibition, 1949.

San Diego, California, San Diego Fine Arts Society, Persian Exhibition, 1949.

Rome, Italy, Palazzo Brancaccio, Exhibition of Iranian Art, 1956.

Paris, France, Petit Palais, 7,000 Years of Art in Iran, 1961 (Essen, Germany, Villa Huegel, 1962; Den Haag, Netherlands, Gemeente Museum, 1962; Zurich, Switzerland, Kunsthaus, 1962; Vienna, Austria, Osterreichische Mus. Fur Angewandte Kunst, 1963; Milan, Italy, Palazzo Reale, 1963).

Utah, Provo, Brigham Young University, Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islam, Feb. 24, 2012 - Sept. 29, 2013.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, Feb. 8, 2020 - ongoing [on view Feb. 8, 2020 - July 11, 2021].
Published ReferencesPope, A.U., Survery of Persian Art, Vol. V, 1938, pl. 897, III, p. 2481, no. 3

Newhill, E.E. & LaPaglie, U., Exploring World Cultures, 1947.

"Handbook, Seattle Art Museum: Selected Works from the Permanent Collections." Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1951, p. 21 (b&w)

S.A.M. Guild Engagement Calendar, 1953, no. 26.

Palazzo Brancaccio, Rome, Exhibition of Iranian Art, 1956, p. 277 (517)

Petit Palalis, Paris, 7,000 Years of Art in Iran, 1961, no. 1101.)

Villa Hugel, Essen, 7,000 Jahre Kunst in Iran, 1962. no. 589.

Palazzo Reale, Milan, 7,000 Anni d'Arte Iranica, 1963, p. 182, no. 623.

Encyclopedia of World Art, VIII, 1963, pl. 143, p. 354.

Osterreichisches Mus. Fur Angewandte Kunst, Vienna, Kunstschatze aus Iran, 1963, no. 658.

Comstock et al., Religion and Man: An Introduction, 1971, p. 596.

Rogers, Millard B. "Engagement Book: Iranian Art in the Seattle Art Museum," Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1972, fig. 42.

S.A.M. Engagement Book, Iranian Art, 1973, #42.

Al Khemir, Sabiha, "Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture", Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Museum of Art, 2012 pp 132-133, 216, illus.

Waugh, Daniel C. "The Arts of China in Seattle." The Silk Road, vol. 12 (2014): pp. 137-152, reproduced p.143, fig.19.

Foong, Ping, Xiaojin Wu, and Darielle Mason. "An Asian Art Museum Transformed." Orientations vol. 51, no. 3 (May/June 2020): p. 55, reproduced fig. 13.

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