Expressing the Inexpressible 1

Mi’raj by Sultan Muhammad c. 1539, Tabriz, Khamsa of Nizami. British Library Or. 2265

The painting above expresses a profoundly sacred event that took place during the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) – the ultimate revelation. In the year 621 CE. Muhammad was given to witness the entirety of the Cosmos in the space of one night, by the Grace of God

This painting is one of the great masterpieces of Persian art, part of a manuscript held at the British Library, London. The manuscript is a copy of the Khamsa of Nizami Ganjavi, a 12th century philosopher and mystic poet from Azerbaijan. This lavishly illustrated treasure was made in Tabriz in the early 16th century for Shah Tahmasp, the second ruler of the Safavid dynasty. The picture above, measuring 30 cm. by 18 cm. was painted by the head of the royal library workshops, Master Sultan Muhammad, noted for his exquisite visionary style. If you click on the image, you can enjoy an enlarged version in all its glory.

The Night Journey or Isra and Mi’raj happened in two stages: the first, in which Muhammad was conveyed from Mecca to The Furthest Mosque or Al-Aqsa, which is the Sacred Mount at Jerusalem; and the second, the Mi’raj or Ascension to the Heavens where he experienced all of creation, culminating in the abode of God.

The journey is related in the Qur’an:

Sura 17, Al-Isra, verse 1:
Glory to Him who took His votary
To a wide and open land from the Sacred Mosque [Mecca]
To the Distant Mosque [Al-Aqsa] whose precincts We have blessed,
That We may show him some of Our signs.
Sura 53, An-Najm, verses 6 - 18:
So he acquired poise and balance,
And reached the highest pinnacle.
Then he drew near and drew closer
Until a space of two bow-arcs or less remained,
When He revealed to his votary what He revealed.
His heart did not falsify what he perceived.
Will you dispute with him what he saw?
He saw Him indeed another time
By the Lote-tree beyond which none can pass,
Close to which is the Garden of Tranquility
When the Lote-tree was covered over
With what it was covered over;
Neither did sight falter nor exceed the bounds.
Indeed he saw some of the greatest signs of His Lord.
Mi’raj Nama by Farid ud-Din Attar, made in Herat c. 1436, , Bibliothéque Nationale de France.

Many poets and theologians of the medieval period pondered on this event, and wrote about it. The image on the left is from a 15th century copy of The Book of Ascension or Mi’raj Nama by Farid ud-Din Attar, a Sufi poet who lived in Eastern Iran, and died in 1220.

This copy was made in 1436 at Herat under Timurid patronage, written in the dynasty’s native language Chagatai (Uyghur script). The illustration shows the Lote -Tree mentioned in the quoted Qur’anic translation. In Arabic, this is al-Sidr, identified as a fruit tree that grows in Yemen. It marks the transition between the limits of the Cosmos as understood in the Ancient and Medieval world, and the unknowable domain of God. 

The Qur’anic passage is esoteric and mysterious, guarding a transcendent Knowledge that only the exalted being of Muhammad, God’s messenger, was allowed to witness. That the entire cosmic journey took place in the space of one night shows us that our Earthly perceptions of time and space are illusory.

What could not be expressed in the writings of any poet was the Knowledge bestowed upon the Prophet of the true nature of God. Instead, the masters made use of metaphor, which is reflected in the magnificent illustrations in the handful of princely manuscripts that have survived. The painters evolved a visual language of symbolism, taking their cue from another Qur’anic Verse:

Sura 24, An-Nur, verse 35:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth
The semblance of His light is that of a niche
In which is a lamp, the flame within a glass,
The glass a glittering star as it were, lit with the oil
Of a blessed tree, the olive, neither of the East
Nor of the West, whose oil appears to light up
Even though fire touches it not - light upon light.
God guides to His light whom He will.
So does God advance precepts of wisdom for men,
For God has knowledge of everything.
Mi’raj Nama by Farid ud-Din Attar, made in Herat c. 1436, , Bibliothéque Nationale de France.

In the body of Ascension pictures that have come down to us from the courts of Timurid and Safavid patrons, the Divine Presence is expressed as primordial light. The painters used the visual convention of dynamic swirls of fiery gold, seeking to convey the creative energy and power, the intangibility, and the all-pervading presence of God. Yet it is but a metaphor for what is beyond our comprehension.

We notice however that in the visionary narratives of the Night Journey, there is no inhibition in portraying the Prophet himself (peace be upon him)- a device that might be considered unacceptable today under more conservative schools of Islamic law. He is dressed in green to signify his sanctity, and in some of the manuscripts his face is respectfully veiled. In all depictions, he is illuminated with a flaming aureole, signifying the Divine Grace bestowed upon him.

To read the second part of this essay, go to Expressing the Inexpressible 2.

Attributions and Links:

The Qur’anic passages are from a translation of Al-Qur’an by Ahmed Ali, Princeton University Press, 1993.

The British Library, Khamsa of Nizami made for Shah Tahmasp, 1439 – 1440, Or. 2265 can viewed Here.

Bibliothéque Nationale de France, Mi’raj Nama of Farid ud-Din Attar, 1436, can be viewed Here.

An excellent synopsis of the BNF Mi’raj Nama can be found at the EastEast blog, in an article by Vladimir Lyashchenko Here.