Page from a historic manuscript featuring text in Arabic above a colorful painting of a religious narrative scene showing episodes in the life of the prophet Muhammad.

Mustafā Darīr (fl. 8th century AH/14th century CE), translator and elaborator
Abū al-Ḥasan al-Bakrī al-Baṣrī (fl. 7th century AH/
13th century CE), author
Siyer-i Nebi (Life of the Prophet)
Illuminated manuscript, 1003 AH/1594–1595 CE
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Spencer Collection


Siyer-i Nebi (Life of the Prophet)

Transcript below

Anna Deavere Smith: Sometimes the history of a book itself can further enrich and enhance our understanding of the text within.

An inscription on the flyleaf of this volume reveals that it once belonged to Sultan ‘Abd al-Azīz, ruler of the Ottoman Empire from 1861 to 1876. According to the inscription, he bequeathed the book to his daughter Sultāna Saliha. But its history goes back much further than that.

About 300 years earlier, in the late 16th century, another Ottoman Sultan, Murād III, commissioned this as part of a six-volume, lavishly illustrated version of the Siyer-i Nebī—an epic telling of the life story of the Prophet Muhammad. Murād III was famous for his patronage of the arts of the book, and this project was one of his biggest and most elaborate. The vivid illustrations are the works of his talented court artists. Combining bold colors and simple lines with contemporary Ottoman architectural details, the over 800 illustrations in the full six volumes form the most complete visual portrait of the life of Muhammad in existence.

This volume alone features 128 miniatures—each a unique scene from the Prophet’s life. You can often spot the Prophet in the illustrations: his body is engulfed in a flaming halo, which emits from his head a radiant light. His face—considered too sacred to be represented, and too brilliant to behold—is covered with a white veil.

This volume—volume 3 of the Siyer-i Nebī—covers a significant portion of Muhammad’s adult life, beginning with the mirāj, or “night journey”—when the Prophet is said to have traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem in a single night, riding on the back of a mythical winged creature. This volume was acquired by The New York Public Library in 1957, and is today the only complete volume of the Siyer-i Nebī in the Americas.

End of Transcript

We gratefully acknowledge the editorial guidance of Dr. Deniz Beyazit of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

No copyright: United States