Islamic Iconography From Fes

The images below come from a card-stock poster I found at a miniature flea-market of sorts an elderly Fassi would hold pretty regularly on the north side of the Qarawiyyin Mosque. He had, among other things, a couple other similar posters, along with random booklets, magazines, spoons and forks, and various trinkets and odds and ends. The iconography is what caught my eye- while iconography of various kinds is common enough in Morocco, this particular example stood out for its colorfulness and the sheer volume of visual activity in one piece of card-stock. I don’t know the origin or the history of this document, other than that it was probably produced in Fes, as one of the scenes is of Ahmad al-Tijani, whose zaouia is only a few streets over from al-Qarawiyyin.

Ahmad al-Tijani, on of the most prominent saints in Fes these days. His zaouia is particularly popular with pilgrims making the Hajj coming from West Africa. The Arabic text next to the picture- not pictured here- reads: ‘The sheik Saint Ahmad al-Tijani was a man virtuous, pious and (qūran– not sure of this word), a Sufi and the sheik of the brotherhood (ţariqa) that traces its origin to him.  Originally from Algeria, he immigrated to the city of Fes and adopted it as his residence. Many followed after him in Morocco and in black Africa. Finally, he died in the city of Fes around the year 1165 of the Hajira and was buried in it; God have mercy on him.’

A scene depicting ‘The battle of Said ‘Ali with Ra’s al-Ghul (the demon’s head, al-ghul being the source of the English word ghoul, incidentally).’ The caption inside of Ali’s halo reads ‘our master (saiduna) ‘Ali.’  John Renard writes concerning this particular iconographic subject: ‘Pictures of ‘Ali engaged in combat against the demon of woeful countenance known as Ra’s al-Ghul are among the most prominent North African examples of this first type [images of religious heroes]. Here Muhammad’s son-in-law displays the essential trait of the religious hero, willingness to engage the forces of evil and injustice. ‘Ali usually dispatches the demon with a stroke of his forked sword, Dhu ‘l-Faqar (the cleaver), which he inherited from Muhammad. The sword provides a natural iconographic clue to the hero’s identity.’ (Seven Doors to Islam, pp. 97-8)

‘Ali, along with his two sons, is also featured in another panel on the poster, with ‘Ali seated and his sons standing next to him- not nearly as exciting as the one above. If you are at all familiar with Islam you will probably be aware that veneration of ‘Ali is most often associated with Shia Islam; however, Sufism in general from its initial stages had a high place for ‘Ali, and continues to do so in various forms. This is especially true in North Africa: ‘North African tradition, particularly in Tunisia, regards ‘Ali as a high exemplar for youth. He was “the first adolescent to have embraced the new religion without ever having previously bowed down to any idol or worshipped a deity other than God.” ‘Ali is morever the father of two sons who model ideal behavior for young people. Before they were martyrs, Hasan and Husayn were children of a heroic father. And as youthful martyrs, the two embody innocence and purity standing firm in the face of evil.’ (Ibid.)

Here we have a picture of the tomb of Muhammad, ‘the exalted prophet’ according to the text above the tomb. Obviously, this an image that would resonate all across the Islamic world, though I suspect it has a special resonance in North Africa where the tombs of saints are particularly important as sources of baraka, blessing/grace/power.

One more- the famous Buraq, the winged creature that features in the story of Muhammad’s Night Journey.

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