· In Islam ·
footstep has left an impression in the stone,
not on sand or in the Valley of Mecca
Taqi al-Din al-Subki
In the Holy City of Jerusalem two places bear the indelible traces of the sudden bursting in of the sacred impressed in the rock. In the first place is venerated the sacred footprint Jesus left at the moment of his Ascension into heaven, whose fulfilment is awaited by both Christians and Muslims when Jesus returns at the end of time.
A Christian basilica was built in the fourth century to protect this footprint. It was destroyed and rebuilt on various occasions, together with Jerusalem itself, until the famous Ayyubid Sultan Saladin had the current shrine, surmounted by a cupola, built in the 12th century. Every year, on Ascension Day, different Christian communities gather here to commemorate the event and to venerate the sacred footprint.
The second place is located not far from the first, in the area where the ancient Temple of Jerusalem once stood and where the Dome of the Rock now stands. Here is venerated the sacred footprint left by Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, at the time of his Ascension into heaven six centuries after that of Jesus. According to the Islamic tradition Muhammad was travelling from Mecca to Jerusalem riding his steed Buraq, which flew so rapidly that it could set its hoof “at the furthest point visible to the eye”. Although in sacred Islamic geography Mecca represents the centre of the world, for Muhammad it was necessary to reach Jerusalem to undertake his Ascension towards the Gate of Heaven. In Islamic belief, when Buraq reached the rock he set down a hoof, leaving an impression in the stone. Muhammad dismounted, and at the moment in which his Ascension began the Rock wanted to ascend with him and only the intervention of the Angel Gabriel managed to prevent it, leaving on it an impression of his hand. On that same occasion Muhammad’s footprint was impressed in the stone, where it is still visible today within a gilded metal reliquary equipped with a little door and surmounted by a small cupola, which the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed had built in the south-eastern corner of the Rock in 1609. The stone is embedded in a white marble structure which bears in the centre a calligraphic inscription in relief with the formula “Muhammad is God’s messenger”.
In the symbolic imaginary common to the three Abrahamic religions these two Ascensions took place along Jacob’s very tall ladder: the prophet son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham saw it in a dream, having lain his head on a stone which he subsequently consecrated as an altar with the name of Bethel, namely “House of God”. Jacob listened in a dream to God’s word while he watched angels going up and down the ladder. On this ladder Jesus’ Ascension took place and the Prophet Muhammad also saw it before beginning his Ascension, glimpsing above him ranks of angels shining like precious stones, in constant movement between the earth and heaven. The highest point of this ladder was the Gate of Heaven, and its lowest point the House of God on earth. This is one of the places in which the King of the universe makes his holy presence descend, an earthly throne in the image of his heavenly throne, al-Arsh, an earthly footrest in the image of his heavenly footrest, al-Kursi, and earthly footprints in the image of the holy footprints of the heavenly feet, al-Qadaman. In the 13th century Ibn al-’Arabi, the greatest teacher of Islamic mysticism, described the structure of the heavenly throne in the autograph manuscript of the Meccan Revelations, the summa of his spiritual doctrine, while Islamic art has often portrayed its earthly impression, that is, the sacred footprints of Jerusalem.
As well as footprints of ascension the Islamic tradition also venerates footprints of foundation. An ancient footprint, the Maqam Ibrahim, the “Station of Abraham”, is venerated in the holy Mosque of Mecca, also called the “House of God” by Muslims, and claimed to be an image of the divine throne on earth. According to the Islamic tradition, Abraham’s footprints were miraculously impressed in the stone at the moment when he was preparing to build the Kaaba together with his son Ishmael, father of the Arabs and forefather of Muhammad. The Qur’an prescribes ritual prayers beside the Station of Abraham and this action has become an integral part of the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
Muhammad is considered by Muslims as a new Abraham and not by chance – as the traditions have it – his foot perfectly fitted the footprint left by his forebear. A prophetic imprint, such as every relic generally is, was called athar by Muslims, that is, “trace”, the same word used in the ancient terminology of the Desert Arabs to denote the incision on a dromedary’s hoof which enabled every owner to recognize his own animal by its unique imprint in the sand.
Islamic literature celebrated the miracle of the Prophet’s footprint above all through poetry, as in these verses of Taqi al-Din al-Subki which date back to the 14th century: “your footstep has left its impression in the stone, not in sand nor in the Valley of Mecca”.
In the Islamic imaginary a supernatural intervention cannot leave a mark on a malleable earthly support such as sand or earth, which in Islamic symbology often indicate the ephemeral nature of this world, but can leave one on a solid support such as stone, which instead symbolizes the eternal reality of the hereafter, on which only the supernatural intervention of God can print itself indelibly.
The footprints of the prophets, and in particular of Muhammad, considered by their nature to be the negative casts of a full figure that indicated an invisible presence, were perfectly suited to the aniconic trend of Islam. In addition they represented a symbol of religious and spiritual life, as the Sufi teacher Junayd of Baghdad was to declare: “All paths are closed to human creatures except the path of whoever treads in the footprints of God’s messenger, who follows his tradition and persists on the path that he has pointed out. A way full of blessings will then unfold before him”.
Moreover in Meccan Revelations, Ibn al-’Arabi described a mystical vision he had during which he realized that the path of every Muslim saint must follow the footprints of a particular prophet and in which he saw his own Andalusian teacher, ’Uryabi, walking in Jesus’ footprints.
The veneration of Muhammad’s footprints, as more generally speaking of his relics, is closely linked to the spread of the Islamic civilization in accordance with the lines of expansion of the various empires, because the rulers moved such footprints to the capitals of their own kingdoms in order to legitimize temporal power from the religious viewpoint. During the 16th century in the Moghul period some of these footprints appeared in the Indian subcontinent, where the practice of venerating Muhammad’s footprints underwent widespread dissemination, fitting quite naturally into an ancient local tradition in which, among others, very ancient footprints attributed to Vishnu or to the Shakyamuni Buddha were venerated. The Ottoman Empire also inherited some footprints of Muhammad, still preserved in Istanbul to our day, in particular in the Topkapi Palace where it is possible to see two examples of them: the first is an impression of the right foot, which was previously kept in the Ottoman Province of Libya, while the second, of the left foot, is deemed to be a copy of the footprint found on the Rock in Jerusalem, masterfully sculpted in black stone with yellow striations.
Muhammad’s footprint is also venerated in the form of his holy sandals, al-Na’layn, whose most famous example is also kept in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. From this specimen derives the iconographic motif of Muhammad’s sandal which has preserved a symbolic value similar to that of the footprint itself.
Muhammad’s sandal has become a symbol of the Prophet of Islam, and it is frequently found in poetry in praise of him, where the most supernatural and spiritual dimension of his figure is treated. Among the numerous poetic passages which mention the holy sandals of the Prophet, several lines attributed to Sa’duna Umm Sa’d bint Isam al Himyarriya, several verses attributed to the 13th-century Andalusian woman poet stand out: “I shall kiss the image if I do not find a way to kiss the Prophet’s sandal. Perhaps the good fortune of kissing it will be granted to me in Paradise in the most radiant place and I rub my heart on it so that perhaps the burning thirst which rages in it may be quenched”.
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