Devotion in pictures:
Muslim popular iconography

Sacred places and narratives

The sacred places of Islam

Pictures of the sacred places of Islam are among the most popular images in circulation. Many homes, coffee- and tea-shops, workshops and hairdressing salons have a picture of the Kaba in Mecca. Pictures of the Dome of the Rock on the old Temple Mount in Jerusalem are also widespread.

In this picture we can see representations of these sacred places, together with the last three Suras of the Koran; the often-quoted Sura 112, "Purity [of faith]", and the well-known protection verses in Sura 113, "The Daybreak" and Sura 114, "People". When a baby is born, the Profession of faith and one or more of the protection verses are usually whispered immediately into the baby's ear. All three Suras are also normally recited in the daily prayers. (Purchased in Egypt.)

Other sacred places

Many other places than Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem have achieved local or regional status as sacred places, either because a saint lies buried there or because an important event has taken place there. Many people flock to such places in order to obtain the intercession of a saint or to obtain religious merit in some other way. Pilgrimages of this sort do not replace the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. For many people, however, visiting saints in this way is very important, not least because by no means everyone is able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

In this picture, we can see 25 Muslim monuments or sacred places. In the centre we see the Kaba, beneath which is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock, and just above it, the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. On the far right is the mountain of Thaur, and on the far left the mountain of Nur (Light); both of these are mountains near Mecca. It was in a cave in Nur, or Hira as it is also known, that Muhammad experienced his vocation. We can also see the graves of some of Shia Islam's Imams, the great Sufi saint Abd al-Kadir al-Jilani, and several other religious heroes. (Indian poster purchased in Zanzibar.)

Sacred narratives

Islam has a large number of sacred narratives. The most central of these, of course, are those that deal with the Prophet Muhammad. Other important stories are about Abraham, who is regarded as a great prophet.

The picture above shows the well-known scene in which Abraham is tested by God, when through his faith in God he is prepared to sacrifice his son. At the last moment, the angel Gabriel stops him and brings a male lamb which he is to sacrifice in place of his son.

In this way, Abraham demonstrated an exemplary degree of obedience to God. The great sacrificial feast that takes place during the pilgrimage to Mecca is held in memory of Abraham's obedience to and faith in God. (Purchased in Iran)

Muhammad's journey to Heaven

Another popular story which has often been illustrated, as it still is, concerns the prophet Muhammad's journey to Heaven. The Koran contains allusions to a vision that Muhammad had, in which he was carried from Mecca to Jerusalem and from there up to Heaven.

Other narratives say that Muhammad was in the Kaba that night, and that the angel Gabriel brought the steed Burak to him. There exist long descriptions of Burak, which is depicted as a mare with the head of a women and a peacock's tail. Burak is also said to have been ridden by Abraham when he visited his son Ishmael, who had been exiled to Mecca.

It is probably the reluctance to depict the Prophet himself that means that we can only see Burak in this picture. There exist many earlier pictures in which we can see the Prophet sitting on Burak. (Indian poster purchased in Zanzibar.)

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