Devotion to Muhammad in Medieval and Early Modern Islam: An Introduction

Hilye triptych
A three-panel Ottoman ḥilye-i şerîf-  a description of Muhammad’s physical attributes, or ‘verbal icon’- by Ḥafîẓ Osmân Efendî (d. 1698). Note the miniature depiction of Mecca in the top panel. Special Collections Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Isl. Ms. 238.

There are a number of aspects of medieval and early modern Islam (and contemporary living Islam too, for that matter) that tend to surprise, even shock, many modern-day observers, especially non-Muslims who nonetheless have some degree of knowledge about the ‘basics’ of Islam. Because of the wide-spread and often quite profound changes that have transformed Islam in many places throughout the world over the last century and a half or so, there is a great deal in pre-modern ‘mainstream’ Islam that many contemporary Muslims might find odd, unexpected, or even heretical. One such source of surprise and even shock is the history of the image and meaning of Muhammad in Islamic theologies and devotional practices. If, like me, in your initial exposure to Islam you learned that Muslims—throughout time, perhaps?—viewed Muhammad as ‘only’ a prophet, and no more, then Islamic theology that talks about the Muhammadan light, the cosmic role of Muhammad within God’s creative plan, and the intercessory power of the Prophet, and so on, must all sound quite strange and even ‘un-Islamic.’ Indeed, I remember thinking, as I delved into the vastness of ‘Muhammadology,’ that much of the theology I was discovering bore a marked resemblance to Christology, in particular to Logos theology, in Christianity.

Yet far from being aberrant or peripheral, the theological ‘elevation’ of Muhammad that took place in the course of the Islamic medieval period was a transformation that occurred and impacted Islam across the board. It was not just a ‘Sufi’ thing or a matter of ‘popular’ religion. Devotion to Muhammad, alongside theological renderings of the ‘cosmic Muhammad,’ coursed through the very veins of Islam from the middle ages into early modernity and beyond. The person and role of the Prophet became more and more pervasive in the everyday life of Islamic societies and in the inner lives of individual Muslims. From the celebration of the anniversary of Muhammad’s birthday (mawlid al-Nabī), to the proliferation of special invocations upon Muhammad (ṣalawāt), to developments in art and calligraphy devoted to the Prophet (such as the Ottoman hilye-i şerîf, pictured above, and about which I shall have more to say later), to reams of intercessory and praise poetry, and more, practices and deportments of devotion came in many forms and were accessible to ordinary Muslims as well as members of the scholarly elite, men and women. In fact, as I hope to explore in some more detail in coming weeks, women seem to have had a special place in this ‘devotional turn,’ though such devotion was not any one group’s special domain.

In the coming months I would like to take you on a guided journey through some of the pathways of this devotional world. Today’s entry begins with translated samples from two examples of ṣalawāt (or ṣalāt) ‘alā al-Nabī, a phrase that defies a good English translation, but which roughly means ‘invocations of blessings upon the Prophet,’ and which has very deep roots in the history of Islam, well before the ‘devotional turn’ of the late middle ages described above. Ṣalāt, as some readers will know, usually denotes the five daily ‘canonical prayers’ of Islam, but such a sense introduces some oddities in this usage: the ṣalāt upon the Prophet are meant to be given by God, which means a very literal translation would seem to indicate that God is being asked to pray to Himself for Muhammad. Muslim scholars came up with various explanations for the apparent incongruity of this invocation, explanations that are reflected in the English term ‘blessings’ (the second component of the phrase, al-salām, peace, upon the Prophet is less ambiguous). Out of the practice of uttering and writing the simple phrase ‘God bless him and give him peace’ there eventually emerged much longer prayers and litanies, the ṣalawāt, many written by (or attributed to) major medieval saints of Islam. These litanies not only bless and praise Muhammad, they expound theology concerning him and really the cosmos as a whole, while also seeking his intercession with God.

All of these aspects are on display in these two short excerpts. The first comes from probably the most important and widely used compilation of ṣalawāt, al-Jazūlī’s Dalāʼil al-khayrāt, a manuscript copy of which is pictured below. Composed in North Africa in the mid-15th century, the text soon spread across the Islamic world, and remains in use. The second excerpt is from a text attributed to the great medieval saint ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī but is almost certainly not by him, but rather had the saint’s name attached to it at some point. Both texts would have been used (and continue to be used) for private and public recitations, as means of instilling love towards Muhammad and as a way of calling down blessings from God upon oneself and others through Muhammad’s mediation.

Opening pages of an 18th century copy of Dalāʼil al-khayrāt, from Getty 2013.M.26

From Dalāʼil al-khayrāt:

O God, I believe in Muhammad though I do not see him, so do not forbid me the sight of him in the Garden! And grant me provision with his companionship, place me in his religious community, give me to drink a fresh, quenching, health-giving drink form his Basin, no thirst ever afterwards. Verily You are powerful over everything! O God, cause the spirit of Muhammad to impart to me life and peace! O God, as I believe in him though I do not see him, so do not forbid me the sight of him in the Garden! O God, accept the great intercession of Muhamad, and elevate his exalted degree, and fulfill his request in the Other World—he is the foremost—as You fulfilled for Abraham and Moses. O God, blessings upon Muhammad and the Family of Muhammad, as You blessed Abraham and the family of Abraham, and blessing upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad, as You blessed Abraham and the family of Abraham. You are praiseworthy and effecious!

Muḥammad ibn Sulaymān al-Jazūlī, Dalāʼil al-khayrāt wa-shawāriq al-anwār fī dhikr al-ṣalāh ʻalá al-Nabī al-mukhtār (Miṣr: al-Maṭbaʻah al-Kāstalīyah, 1281/1863), 45-46.

Prayer 17 from Ṣalawāt ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī:

O God, we entreat You through the Word that unites to the inner meanings of Your nobility, and we ask You by You that You show us the face of our Prophet, and that You efface from us our sins through the witnessing of Your beauty, and that You hide us in the oceans of Your lights, protected from the distractions of this world, desiring You—O He, O God, O He, O God, O He, O God! No god but You! Give us to drink from the potion of Your love, and immerse us in the oceans of Your unicity, so that we revel in the midst of Your Presence. And cut off from us the false imaginings of Your creatures by Your grace and mercy, and enlighten us with the light of obedience towards You. Guide us and do not lead us astray, give us to see our own faults and not those of others, through the sanctity of our Prophet and lord Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him, and upon his house and his companions, the lamps of existence, and the people of witnessing, O most merciful Merciful! We ask You that You unite us with them and bestow upon us their love, O God, O Living, O Righteous, O Possessor of Noble Magnificence! O Lord receive from us—You are the Hearing, the Knowing! And give to us beneficial gnosis, verily You are powerful over everything O Lord of the worlds! O Merciful, O Compassionate, we ask You that provide us with the vision of the face of our Prophet, in our sleep and in our waking, and that You bless and grant peace upon him, continual blessing to the Day of Judgment, and that You give blessing to the best of us.

ʻAbd al-Ghanī ibn Ismāʻīl Nābulusī, Kawkab al-mabānī wa-mawkib al-maʻānī: sharḥ Ṣalawāt al-Quṭb al-Jīlānī, (al-Qāhirah: Dār al-Āfāq al-ʻArabīyah, 2010), 125.

7 thoughts on “Devotion to Muhammad in Medieval and Early Modern Islam: An Introduction

  1. Ahmad

    If you have it close by, can you please put also the Arabic version of the ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī salawât.
    Many thanks,

    1. Hi Ahmad,

      Unfortunately, the book copy I used for my translation was a library loan that is no longer available to me, and there does not seem to be a scan available online. I’ve only seen this particular salawat in ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi’s commentary, though I imagine it is out there somewhere on its own, maybe not under ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani’s name. I will keep an eye out however, and have been thinking about adding a page with just Arabic, Persian, and Turkish texts for those who are able to read the originals.


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  3. Ajnabiyah

    I find it fascinating that you are writing about islam in such a way. I’m not a sufi but I use to attend one of their zawiyas to learn quran there. I don’t agree with some of their understanding etc but I pray you find the truth as the prophet muhammed peace be upon him was an amazing man, father, husband.

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