Depiction of the Prophet Muhammad Under Mongolian Occupation

A hardly deniable cultural and, in particular, intellectual decline in the Islamic World began when, in 1258 CE, Baghdad had been sacked by the Mongolian Emperor Hülegü Khan (d. 1265), grandson of Chengis Khan. Hülegü was the brother of Möngke Khan (r. 1251-1259) who resided in Karakorum, then capital of Mongolia. It is a historical irony that, after centuries of wars with the dwindling Byzantine Empire, it was a conquerer from the East, married to a Christian and friendly with Christians, who eventually brought to an end five centuries of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. And not only that.

Saint Hülegü and his Christian wife Doguz Khatun depicted as the new "Constantine and Helen" in a Syrian bible

Saint Hülegü and his Christian wife Doguz Khatun depicted as the new “Constantine and Helen” in a Syrian bible

The Fall of Baghdad in 1258 CE

Möngke had charged his brother to destroy all Muslim power bases in the West including the Lurs and Kurds of southern Iran, the Ismaili sect in its almost impregnable fortresses at Alamut (which fell in 1257), the Ayyubid states in Syria and the Mamluks in Egypt. Hülegü was well-known for his ruthlessness. The short siege between 29 January and 10 February 1258, and subsequent fall of Baghdad must be considered as one of the largest massacres and destruction in history. Up to one million inhabitants of the “City of Peace” including women and children may have been killed. The Mongols looted and burned to the ground mosques, palaces and hospitals. Baghdad’s Grand Library which contained hundreds of thousands historical documents and books, actually the knowledge of the whole world, had been destroyed and all books flung into the river Tigris. The century-old irrigation system was devastated. Mesopotomia never recovered from the onslaught and turned into the vast desert of present day Iraq [1]. The Caliph, al-Musta’sim, was probably wrapped in a rug and trampled to death in order to avoid shedding “royal blood”.

However, as George Lane writes in his monography [2], “[t]he feared and predicted reaction from the heavens and from the Muslim community never happened. No divine or earthly retribution appears to have been visited upon Hülegü.”

“The sacking of Baghdad though brought about by the command of an unbeliever, Hülegü Khan, was carried out by Christian and Muslim troops as well as Mongols and Turks, and some of Hülegü’s closest advisors and strategists were also Muslim icluding Sunnis. Hülegü was acoompanied on the siege of Baghdad among others by the prominent Atabegs of Shiraz and Mosul and their armies. The destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate cannot be viewed solely as an act by an alien and wanton invader divorced from the reality of the Dar al-Islam. There is little evidence of any great ground swell of grief or despair as news of the caliph’s death spread around the world just as there were no earthquakes, no drought, no failing plants, no outbreak of plague among the troops or horses, and no halt to the Sun’s daily cycle. The only king to die at that time was the caliph.” [3]

Rather, Hülegü was welcomed by the Iranian people after decades of unrest and anarchy in the wake of the decline of the Seljuq empire. Hülegü established the dynasty of Ilkhanid Khans in Tabriz/Maragah, and his great-grandson Ghazan (r. 1295-1304) eventually converted to Islam. It is said that, privately, even after his conversion to Islam in 1295 CE, Ghazan practiced Mongolian Shamanism and worshipped Tengri [4]. Likewise not very confident in matters of faith, his brother and successor Oljeitu (r. 1304-1316) had been baptized as a Christian before he converted to Buddhism. He then converted, together with his brother Ghazan, to Sunni and later Shi’a Islam.

Mongolian Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad

These latter remarks are of importance when it comes to several famous manuscripts which had been written in the early 13th century in Ilkhanid Iran and which contain images of the Prophet Mohammed in full [5].

After the Mongol invasion, Iranian artists and artisans were eager to adopt new styles in textiles including rugs, ceramics, metalwork and, in particular manuscript painting. Adoption and adaptation of Mongol influence in the early 13th century has beautifully been analyzed by Yuka Kadoi [6]. One of the key manuscripts in the formative period of Ilkhanid painting is the Kitab al-Athar al-Baqiya , or “The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries”, by Abu Rayhan al-Biruni who had died in 1048 (MS Arab 161, Edinburgh University Library) which is dated 707 AH/ 1307 CE. It contains 25 paintings. The Edinburgh al-Biruni manuscript has been written in either Maragha, the Ilkhanin scientific center, or in its capital Tabriz, the cultural and commercial hub at the crossroads between East and West in early 14th century. The miniatures include multiple non-Islamic elements, Jewish, Byzantine and Buddhist. According to Kadoi, another possible place of origin of the manuscript is Mosul in an atelier where Christian iconographic sources were accessible to the painters. As Kadoi stresses, the miniature in the Edinburgh al-Biruni manuscript may not only be mere visual supplements to a scientific treatise but do in fact reflect religious diversity and influences in Ilkhanid Iran.

The investiture of 'Ali in al-Biruni's Kitab  (707/1307)

The Investiture of ‘Ali in al-Biruni’s Kitab al-Athar al-Baqiya (Ilkhanid 707/1307)

The investiture of Ali at Ghadeer Khumm is a Shi’ite motif. Ali had allegedly been designated the legitimate successor of the Prophet shortly after Muhammad had provided his farewell sermon. The painting in al-Biruni’s manuscript displays the faces of both Muhammad (left) and Ali (right). They are clearly Mongolian. Typical for Mongolian style is also the cloud in the background and cutting of the tree tops by the margin. Kadoi notes about the landscape [7]

“In spite of clichéd elements, the landscape in the illustration of the Investiture of ‘Ali […] is remarkable from a compositional point of view − for the upper and lower land masses are separated by expanses of blank space. The two landscapes are unrealistically separated by the empty space, but this unique strong vertical and horizontal format is effective in enhancing the emotional moment in this Shi’ite story. While the foreground is given over to the five characters, the background is used for visualising the high tension of this ceremony more metaphorically by contrasting an inanimate clump of trees with a large menacing mushroom cloud. This kind of landscape style is less common in contemporary Chinese landscape painting and seems more likely to have arisen at Ilkhanid ateliers. However, such a unique space compartmentalisation can be paralleled with those seen in landscape paintings by later Yuan painters.”

Al-Mubahala incident. From Al-Biruni's al-Athar al-Baqiya,  Ilkhanid 1307

Mubahala incident in
Al-Biruni’s al-Athar al-Baqiya, (Ilkhanid 707/1307)

Likewise based on a typical Shi’ite hadith, Mubahala refers to the day Muhammad exchanged curses with the Christians of Najran and proclaimed his family (Ahl al-Bayt), i.e. his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib and his wife Fatimah, Muhammad’s daughter; as well as Hasan and Husain, their two sons. The conversation between Muhammad and the Christians began over a debate of the nature of Jesus. Muhammad recited a revelation which invites those who disagree with Muhammad to submit to an ordeal by oath where they ask God to destroy those whose statements are untrue. The Christians accepted the challenge and the two groups met the next morning. However, the Christians decided not to forgo the oath and opted to pay a tax instead. The illustration in a-Biruni’s manuscript depicts the Prophet and his family meeting with the Christians, who are squeezed into the left-hand side of the page [8].

Religious Diversity in Ilkhanid Iran

The Ilkhanid illustrations in the Edinburgh Kitab al-Athar al Baqiya reflect, according to Kadoi, the tenacity of pre-Mongol conventions and the experimental stage of chinoiserie in Iranian painting, and are essentially ecclectic. Indeed, the scene of the Annunciation (below) displays an iconographic interest even in both Christian and Buddhist traditions.

“The illustration of the Annunciation in the Biruni manuscript is evidence enough to make the following deductions: that Buddhist beliefs took root in Iran and survived for a while because of the syncretic nature of Ghazan’s Islam; and that non-Iranian artists, notably Uighur artists, whose style was still under old Central Asian Buddhist and Manichaean traditions, were involved in the production of the miniatures of this [al-Biruni’s] manuscript.” [9]

Annunciation in Al-Biruni's al-Athar al-Baqiya  (Ilkhanid 707/1307)

Annunciation in Al-Biruni’s al-Athar al-Baqiya (Ilkhanid 707/1307)

In the second decade of the 14th century, a cultural complex was established in Tabriz by the eminent Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din Hamadani (d. 1318) who served under the Khans Ghazan and Oljeitu. He was a Persian physician and historian of Jewish origin. One of the most outstanding works which has been created under the commission of Ghazan and Oljeitu is the Jami al-Tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles) of 714/1314 which contains 103 miniatures. Two parts of the original manuscript have survived in London and Edinburgh. The Jami al-Tawarikh’s intent was to legitimize Mongol rule in Iran, mirror its universialism and proclaim the glory of the Mongol Empire [10].

Muhammad receives the first revelation. In Rashid al-Din's Jami al-Tawarikh (714/1314)

Muhammad receives the first revelation. In Rashid al-Din’s Jami al-Tawarikh (714/1314)

As the al-Biruni manuscript in Edinburgh, the Jami al-Tawarikh contains images of the Prophet Muhammad with a Mongolian face and and a Chinese origin of depicting the landscape, in the case to the left, the cave of Hira where Muhammad received the first revelation through the angel Gabriel. See also the identical physiognomy of Muhammad in the picture below.

Muhammad lifts the black stone into the right position at the Ka'aba. In Rashid al-Din's Jami al-Tawarikh (714/1314)

Muhammad lifts the black stone into the right position at the Ka’aba. In Rashid al-Din’s Jami al-Tawarikh (714/1314)

Some Conclusions

Depicting the Prophet Muhammad in full and, in particular, displaying details of his face has been commonplace in Ilkhanid Iran. The artisans either welcomed the new rulers (who had shown a remarkable cruelty when conquering the lands of Islam) or just surrendered. Irrespective of later serious or not-so-serious conversions to Islam of Ilkhanid khans, such as Ghazan and Oljeitu, the spirit of the age (Zeitgeist) was religious and cultural diversity. The Mongols had brought along a rich civilization and Iranians, as ever, were curious to adopt and adapt (a nice pun throughout Yuka Kaido’s dissertation). Thus, one must not take the anomaly of depicting Muhammad’s face in the medieval (actually Ilkhanid) Muslim world as proof that its otherwise strong denial is just a new and fundamentalist development. After all, the main reason for its denial was Christian idolatry which had led to the abhorrend (for Muslims) turning of Jesus (just a prophet in Muslim’s eyes) into God [11].


[1] Ian Frazier noted that Osama bin Laden had compared George W. Bush’s, Dick Cheney’s, and Tony Blair’s 2003-2011 Iraq war with Hülegü’s massacre. The article in The New Yorker is full of hilarious stereotypes. Bin Laden’s comparison may be an outrageous exaggeration, too.

[2] Lane G. Early Mongol rule in thirteenth-century Iran. A Persian renaissance. In: Hillenbrand C (ed.) Studies in the history of Iran and Turkey. RoutlegeCurzon, London and New York: 2003, p. 29.

[3] ibid, p. 29f. If that had been so, one might ask why then was a whole civilization destroyed and, according to contemporary opinions, Islam at large sustained a crashing blow from which it hardly ever recovered.

[4] Melville C. Padshah-i Islam: the conversion of Sultan Mahmud Ghazan Khan. In Melville C. Persian and Islamic studies in honour of P.W. Avery. Cambridge 1990). He has argued that Ghazan converted to Islam mainly for political reasons to secure his position and to win Muslim support in his struggle against his Ilkhanid predecessor Baidu.

[5] As is well-known, Islam forbids idolatry and bans portraits of the Prophets of Islam and in particular Muhammad and his relatives as well as Rashidun Caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali (aniconism, Bilderverbot). Ilkhanid portraits of the Prophet have frequently been used as examples that this ban might be a later development.

[6] Kadoi Y. Islamic Chinoiserie. The Art of Mongol Iran. In: Hillenbrand R. Edinburgh studies in Islamic art Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2009.

[7] ibid, p. 150.

[8] The Edinburgh University Library description of the painting erroneously says that “Muhammad exchanged curses with the Christians of Najran and proclaimed Hasan and Husain as his sons [sic], Fatima as his wife [sic], and Ali b. Abu Talib as his most intimate friend.”

[9] Kadoi Y, p. 151f.

“[… T]he Iranian reaction to Buddhist pictorial traditions became obvious in depictions of draperies and ribbons in pre-Mongol Iranian painting. Yet the next spreading of the faith, brought by the Mongols during the Ilkhanid period, had a more fundamental influence in Iran [… .] The Annunciation […] is, in this respect, the most intriguing miniature in this [al-Biruni’s] manuscript. The iconographical sources here are initially derived from Byzantine conventions, which became accessible through close contacts with the Byzantine world in the early years of the fourteeth century; yet, more profoundly, Buddhist elements penetrate into this Christian theme. The Angel Gabriel, who holds streamers connected to a flaming halo in his left hand instead of the sceptre tipped with the fleur-de-lis as conventionally used in its Byzantine models, is portrayed with Chinese, or more broadly East Asian, features. The Buddhist flavor in this image of the Angel is increased by the deliberate depictions of the floating ribbons, whose visual impact on Iranian painting has been discussed with reference to the Oxford al-Sufi’s manuscript, as well as the flaming halo, which often appears as an attribute of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, even though his robe has Mesopotamian-type wrinkly draperies and armbands of Islamic origin, known as tiraz bands. On the other hand, in spite of her Islamic surroundings − a cushioned throne and the architectural frame with a pointed arch and Arabic inscriptions − the Virgin Mary herself also bears a certain East Asian cast. It is difficult exactly to determine the reliable sources of the image from long-established Buddhist art in East Asia, but her slant-eyed face and headgear show a great degree of resemblance to those seen in a ninth-century painting depicting the goddess Hariti found near Turfan […].”

[10] ibid, p. 163.

[11] Fact of the matter is that a collection of depictions of the Prophet Muhammad which serves, for instance, Wikipedia to justify its decision to display pictures of Muhammad, show the Prophet with a Mongolian face throughout. Many of the example miniatures derive or are copies of the above manuscripts of al-Biruni’s and Rashid al-Din’s works which were created under occupation.

12 January 2014 @ 11:36 am.

Last modified January 12, 2014.

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