'The Little Flash of Lightning' Buraq in Islamic Art
Polina Ignatova | Lancaster University
In surah 17:1 of the Qur’an, the prophet Muhammad, in the span of one night, journeys from Mecca. In the hadith* Muhammad continues his journey, travelling from Jerusalem to Heaven and then back to Mecca on the same night. How did Muhammad manage to move so swiftly? While the Qur’an does not specify the details of Muhammad’s journey, later accounts relate that the prophet was carried by a magic creature called Buraq.
In the oldest extant biography of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq (8th century), Buraq is described as ‘a white animal, half mule, half donkey, with wings on its sides’. Its appearance thus echoed the means of transport employed by previous prophets Abraham and Jesus, who famously rode donkeys, and also invoked the image of a winged horse which was so familiar to early Muslims that it was used as a fabric pattern: Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855 CE) related in his collection of hadith that the prophet reproached his wife Aisha for putting up a curtain decorated with the images of winged horses. These wings allowed Buraq to travel with a truly amazing speed, mentioned by Ibn Ishaq, who wrote that each stride of Buraq took it as far as its eye could reach, and reflected in its name as, although there is uncertainty about what the word ‘Buraq’ means, most scholars assume that it should translate as ‘the little flash of lightning’. Writing seventy years after Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa’d complemented the description of Buraq with long ears, as well as making it female for the first time.
In the 11th century Al-Tha’labi gave to the magic beast its human head, writing that Buraq had a cheek like that of a human being.
The earliest picture of Buraq identified is the one appearing in the 14th-century history of Rashid al-Din. This image stands out among representations of the magic steed, as here it is shown to have a human torso and arms in which it is holding the Qur’an. Its unusual tail is tipped with a warrior angel. See on page 202 of the Rashid al-Din. The head and the tail are wearing the crowns like those worn by the kings in the illustrations to Biruni’s Chronology of Ancient Nations.
Later representations show Buraq in the form of a steed with a female head and dappled body. It is often featured in the illustrations to Nizami Ganjavi’s Five Poems, like this example from the 14th-century Western Iran.
In the 16th century another scholar, Muhammad Khwandamir, provided a much more elaborate description of Buraq:
"Buraq was a riding beast smaller than a mule and larger than an ass, having a face like that of a human being and ears like those of an elephant; its mane was like the mane of a horse; its neck and tail like those of a camel; its breast like the breast of a mule; its feet like the feet of an ox or, according to one tradition, like those of a camel; its hooves were like the hooves of an ox. Its breast looked just like a ruby and its hair resembled white armour, shining brightly by reason of its exceeding purity. On its flanks it had two wings which hid its legs. The swiftness of this riding beast was such that in a single stride it could reach as far as eye could see."
This description, however, never made it into the manuscript illuminations. Instead, the depictions of Buraq usually reflected local taste. This splendid illumination was created in the 16th-century Iran by Sultan Muhammad. One cannot help noticing that this Buraq shares a number of common features with its 14th-century counterpart.
One can see how the depiction of Buraq from the 18th-century Ottoman manuscript is different from the Persian illustrations. Note that the artist opted for a symbolic representation of Muhammad as a cloud of flames. It could be because according to some sources, including Ibn Ishaq, it was only Muhammad’s spirit that travelled, while his body remained in Mecca, as it was testified by the prophet’s wife Aisha. Writer and translator Yasmine Seale, however, has argued that after Buraq was assigned female gender, some artists became uncomfortable depicting the prophet mounted on the magic animal.
Occasionally Buraq was shown in contexts unrelated to Muhammad’s night journey. This watercolour drawing, which was created in Kashmir in the 19th century depicts two princes worshipping Buraq. Indian representations of Buraq can be distinguished by the inclusion of a peacock tail.
Europeans were also aware of the existence of Buraq. Alberto Saviello (Freie Universität Berlin) has pointed out that Dante’s Geryon, the Monster of Fraud, is an antitype to Buraq, as Geryon also has a human head and a body, composed of different animal parts. While Buraq takes Muhammad to Heaven, Geryon carries Dante and Virgil further into Hell.
Today Buraq has given its name to a number of businesses in Muslim countries, especially those associated with transport, as an emblem of high speed and safety. Buraq’s name is affiliated with Libyan and Indonesian airlines, Pakistan’s space camp and the first combat drone, marine services company in UAE, and Africa’s first high-speed train, to name but a few.
Contemporary artists have also provided their own interpretations of Buraq. This painting by an Iraqi artist Kadhim Haider (1932–1985) supplemented Buraq with the features of another creature, which was also encountered by Muhammad on his night journey – the Rooster Angel. Indeed, the enchanting figure of Buraq has captured the imaginations of artists throughout ages and continues to be one of the most exciting and mysterious phenomena of Islamic Art.
*Hadith is the collection of accounts on the prophet’s life. From Muhammad’s family and companions this information was passed from generation to generation through the chain of reliable transmitters until it was eventually written down. Along with the Qur’an, hadith serves as an important source of guidance for Muslims.
Dr Polina Ignatova has recently completed her PhD in history at Lancaster University and is particularly interested in how knowledge was generated and received in the Middle Ages. She is currently working on developing her thesis into a monograph, provisionally titled 'Raising the Dead: The Meaning and Purpose of Restless Corpses in Medieval English Narratives'. She is also looking at the ways aquatic organisms were studied in the Middle Ages and hopes to develop this research into a postdoctoral project. Click here to find out more.