Buraq depicted as Amanita muscaria in a 15th century Timurid-illuminated manuscript?
Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 2019.
A series of illustrations in a 15th century Timurid manuscript record the mi’raj, the ascent through the seven heavens by Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam. Several of the illustrations depict Bur¯aq, the fabulous creature by means of which Mohammed achieves his ascent, with distinctive features of the Amanita muscaria mushroom. A. muscaria or “fly agaric” is a psychoactive mushroom used by Siberian shamans to enter the spirit world for the purposes of conversing with spirits or diagnosing and curing disease. Using an interdisciplinary approach, the author explores the routes by which Bur¯aq could have come to be depicted in this manuscript with the characteristics of a psychoactive fungus, when any suggestion that the Prophet might have had recourse to a drug to accomplish his spirit journey would be anathema to orthodox Islam. There is no suggestion that Mohammad’s night journey (isra) or ascent (mi’raj) was accomplished under the influence of a psychoactive mushroom or plant.
Keywords : Mi’raj, Timurid, Central Asia, shamanism, Siberia, Amanita muscaria
The mi’raj manuscript
An illustrated manuscript depicting, in a series of miniatures, the successive stages of the mi’raj, the miraculous ascent of the ProphetMohammed through the seven heavens to receive God’s instructions for the faithful was produced in 15th century in the city of Herat (Séguy, 1977). This text of the mi’raj story is in Turkish, in the Uighur script. The manuscript was purchased, on behalf of the French Ambassador,
in 18th century Constantinople, and it currently resides in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, France as Manuscrit Supplément Turc 190.
Herat, today in Western Afghanistan, has been a crossroads of trade and culture for hundreds of years and formed an important stop on the Silk Route. When the Arabs captured Herat in 660 CE, it became a center of the Muslim world. The Mongols swept through and took control of Islamic Central Asia in the 13th century, and Herat went into decline after being sacked by Genghis Khan in 1222–1223. However, control of most of Asia by the Mongols soon created an environment of tremendous cultural exchange and Eastern and Central Asian influences became evident in Islamic art. Timur-i Lenk, the
Turkic conqueror, better known in theWest as Tamerlane, took Herat in about 1393, initiating its greatest era under Timurid rule, when it became a center of science and culture. The mi’raj manuscript illustrations are a product of the Herat school, a style of miniature painting that flourished in the 15th century under the patronage of the Timurids.
Bur¯aq depicted as Amanita muscaria in the mi’raj manscript
In the Muslim tradition, the mi’raj was preceded by the isra or “Night Journey” during which Mohammed traveled overnight from Mecca to Jerusalem by means of a fabulous beast called Bur¯aq. In some versions, the Prophet’s ascent is also accomplished by the agency of Bur¯aq. According to
tradition, at the site of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known to Muslims as Haram esh-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”), Mohammed ascended through the seven heavens in the company of the angel Gabriel, to receive God’s instructions for the faithful. Bur¯aq is described as being a creature larger than a donkey but smaller than a mule and is usually depicted as an equine creature with a woman’s head and sometimes, but not always, with wings (Hajj¯aj, 1989; Vuckovic, 2005).
Seale in her visual history of Bur¯aq (2016) notes that Bur¯aq is “a creature not of scripture but of lore,” first appearing in an 8th century biography of Mohammed. The iconography of Bur¯aq from Persian miniatures to the decoration of Pakistani trucks is such that “there is no original, no definitive Buraq, but rather an unruly palimpsest of jumbled creeds, kitsch, and sheer artistic caprice.” Depictions of Bur¯aq vary from frankly equine to various chimeras mixing human and various animal parts (Seale, 2016). The plethora of literature concerning Muhammad’s ascension to heaven “slipped its scriptural moorings and slid out into poetry and folklore” and Bur¯aq’s body became “a receptacle for the many myths, metaphors, and moral concerns that Islam inherited.”
Several of the illustrations in the Herat manuscript depict Bur¯aq with the distinctive red and white spotted skin of the A. muscaria mushroom, exact in the smallest detail. That is to say, they both share a distinctive shade of red as a background color, which is covered by small circular or oval white patches that have ragged edges and, when aged, a darkened center (Figure 1). The pattern and color for the
Prophet’s piebald mount could be the result of an imaginative flight of fancy of the artist, unrelated to the appearance of any mushroom. While the suggestion that the Prophet might have had used a psychoactive drug to accomplish his spirit journey would be anathema to orthodox Islam, there is a variety of evidence that supports the possibility that this illustration could represent the translation into art of Central
Asian shamanic traditions, in which the Prophet’s miraculous heavenly ascent was interpreted by the artist in terms of a spirit journey accomplished by the agency of the fly agaric mushroom. The author will draw on botanical, linguistic, and ethnographic evidence, as well as the history of religious ideas and folklore, to support the conclusion that the depiction of Bur¯aq with the distinctive features of
A. muscaria is not the product of chance.
I must make it clear that I am not in any way suggesting that Mohammad’s night journey (isra) or ascent (mi’raj) was accomplished under the influence of a psychoactive mushroom or plant. I am only asserting that, as Islam extended its influence, the isra and mi’raj narratives were adapted to different cultural milieus. In the case of the Timurid miniatures, an artist may have embellished Bur¯aq with a hide resembling the skin of a psychoactive mushroom based on local awareness of shamanic journeys accomplished in this way. Although accounts of the isra and mi’raj are based on a very brief scriptural reference in the Quran, as agents of missionary conversion and as important assertions of Mohammad’s divine authority, these narratives “have been developed and transformed in fascinating ways
in the diverse contexts in which the story was told and retold over may centuries” (Gruber & Colby, 2010).
Nor am I suggesting that Mohammed would necessarily be seen as a shaman rather than a spiritual leader, except in the sense that his spirit journey could be seen as comparable to those accomplished by a shaman, by those for whom the narrative fitted this context. In Central Asia, shamanism was combined with elements of Sufism to adapt to wider Islamic society. To this day, “islamised shamanism” for the purposes of healing and divination, accomplished through personal relations with spirits, continues to exist in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizstan, Northern Afghanistan, the Turkoman province of Iran, and the Uygur district of Xinjian province of China (Zarcone & Hobart, 2016).