Devotion in pictures:
Muslim popular iconography

The prophet Muhammad

The Prophet Tree

According to Islam, God made his message known to the people through his messengers; the prophets. Muhammad was the last of a long row of prophets. Prophet trees like the one shown in this picture are a popular subject.

At the bottom of the trunk stands the name of the father of humanity and the first prophet: Adam. This is followed by the names of Islam's other prophets; Noah, Lot, Salih, Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Jesus, to name but a few. The tree is crowned by a large flower at top right. This is Muhammad. Beside his name: "The seal of the prophets and envoys (i.e. the last prophet): he was sent for all of humanity." (Purchased in Jerusalem.)

The last Messenger

In 610, Muhammad experienced a vocation. An angel revealed himself to him and commanded him to preach. He subsequently received several more revelations. The words that he transmitted from his experiences of revelations were later written down to form the Koran. Because he is the last of the prophets, Muhammad is called the "seal of the prophets".

The simplest and perhaps most common symbol used to represent Muhammad in these pictures is the calligraphic representation of "Muhammad" as we see to the left. (Purchased in Jerusalem.)

The next picture shows a variant, in which the whole of the Sura of the Koran entitled "Muhammad" , i.e. Sura 47, is written within the letters. In the upper part of the centre of the picture we see a representation of the Prophet's mosque in Medina, and on the left, the blessing: "God bless him and grant him savation!" The rose is another frequently used symbol for the Prophet Muhammad. (Indian poster purchased in Zanzibar.)

Descriptions of the Prophet

The importance of the Prophet Muhammad's role for Muslim believers is difficult for outsiders to comprehend. He is depicted as the greatest of God's creations, "The perfect Man". He is called the "Prophet of Mercy", and "He who intercedes." The Prophet is the dear friend of the faithful, but also of God: "God's Beloved Friend" is another of the Prophet's many cognomens.

The poster to the left is a Turkish "hilya". A hilya is really a brief portrayal in words of the qualities of the Prophet - a "word picture". During the 18th and 19th centuries, Turkish calligraphers developed a special style that was used in the production of hilya.

Such hilya are used in Turkish Muslim homes in much the same way as pictures of saints or the Virgin Mary in Catholic homes, to bring blessings to the inhabitants of the house. They allow one to observe the injunction against possessing images of the Prophet while still having a representation of him in one's house.

All Turkish hilya are of the same form: At the top appears "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate." A circular disc containing a description of the Prophet's inner and physical qualities dominates the image. Outside this circle we find the names of the first four caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. Below, in larger script, God's word to Muhammad describing his mission: "It was only as a mercy that We sent you [Prophet] to all people." This is a direct quotation from the Koran, Sura 21 verse 107, and below it is a new piece of text that continues the description of the Prophet. (Purchased in Turkey.)

Images of Muhammad

In certain reference works and books about Islam, we may come across the claim that even if the Prophet Muhammad was represented in pictorial form in earlier times, no pictorial representation of Him is permitted in our times. This reflects the state in Sunni areas, where images of the Prophet are rare. In Shia Islam, however, the situation is different, and pictures of the Prophet are quite common.

These two pictures come from Shia Muslims in Iran and Alevis in Turkey. (Although Alevis emphatically state that they are not Shia Muslims, there are historical and other connections between the two forms of Islam.)

In both pictures, the Prophet is holding the Koran in his hand. The upper picture displays the Creed below his image: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet." His raised index finger in the lower picture underlines the unity of God. (Purchased in Iran and Turkey.)

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