Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting

Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq_s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum” Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550
Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq’s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum”
Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550 (David Collection, Inv. no. 28/1997)
“Prayers in a Mosque” Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi) Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550
Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi)
Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550, David Collection, Inv. no. Isl 161

As any long-time reader of this blog will know, one of my primary areas of scholarly interest is the history of saints and sainthood in the Islamic world, primarily within Islamic traditions but also in Christian and Jewish traditions practiced within or in contact with Islamicate cultures. The very fact that ‘Muslims have saints’ often comes as a surprise, with the usual follow up question being something along the lines of ‘Just what is a Muslim saint like?’ The answer, of course, varies from place to place and time to time, with the usual caveats that Muslims saints ‘look’ both like and unlike saints in other religious traditions, and that some forms of Islam, especially in the modern world, largely reject sainthood (similar to some forms of Christianity after the Protestant Reformation).

One difference between Muslim modes of understanding and depicting saints and sainthood and those found in many other traditions such as Christianity and Buddhism is the relatively low-key role of visual depictions in describing saints and in venerating them or inscribing their memory. While it is not true to say that Islam across the board lacks iconographic traditions, explicit uses of icon-like depictions for veneration has historically tended to be limited to either to depictions of non-human items and places, described in last week’s post, or in a rather supplemental manner (for private devotions or in the context of a shrine), such as has become common in contemporary Shi’i devotion (though certainly not only Shi’i- for instance, see this example from resolutely Sunni Morocco). The two miniatures above fall into another category altogether: in both we have something quite rare, namely, artistic renderings of practiced devotion to saints. These two images, both of which were produced in Safavid Iran while it was still in the long process of transitioning from a Sunni polity to a Shi’i one, give us a pretty good visual idea of what tomb veneration looked like in an early modern context- while they come from the Persian world, we know from literary evidence that the practices and architectural elements depicted in them would have been shared with other regions, including the neighboring Ottoman lands. The images are hence worth a closer look. Continue reading “Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting”

Explicating Devotion to Muhammad, Part i.

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Opening page to Kara Davutzâde Mehmed Efendî, Tevfik muvaffikü’l-hayrât li-neyli’l-berekât fi hizmet menbai’s-saâdât, University of Michigan, Special Collections Library, Isl. Ms. 672

Late medieval and early modern devotion to Muhammad in Islam was first and foremost a matter of personal and communal practice, embodied in devotional regimes, public rituals, habitual expressions, and material objects, among other practices and techniques. But it also unfolded at a discursive, textual, and homiletical level, with scholarly and semi-scholarly productions explicating, extolling, and critiquing various aspects of devotion to the Prophet appearing from the late medieval period forward in multiple languages of Islam. The genre of commentary (Ar. sharḥ/Ott. Trk. şerh) was an important vehicle for delivering explication of devotional practices and their intersection with theology and other Islamic disciplines. Numerous commentaries on ṣalawāt– the litanies of blessing upon Muhammad- and related sorts of texts appeared across the Ottoman world and beyond, in both Arabic and Ottoman Turkish (and in other languages further east). Like much early modern commentary production in Islamic societies, these texts have received little engage scholarly attention, though the neglect of commentaries is starting to change. In the following weeks I’d like to give some samples of commentary on devotional texts, starting with excerpts from commentary on what was perhaps the most important text of devotion to Muhammad, al-Jāzūlī’s Dalā’il al-khayrāt.

But before presenting translated texts and analysis of them, I’d like to start with the above image. It comes from the opening page of a beautifully executed manuscript copy of an Ottoman Turkish translation and expansion of an Arabic commentary on al-Jāzūlī’s prayerbook. Titled Tevfik muvaffikü’l-hayrât li-neyli’l-berekât fi hizmet menbai’s-saâdât, this work, which goes through, line by line, the text of Dalā’il al-khayrāt, was composed by an eighteenth century author, Kara Davutzâde Mehmed Efendî, about whom I know no more than can be gleaned from the text. The commentary was aimed at many audiences, especially, it seems, pious women, and may have been meant to furnish material for preachers.

The charming miniature that is framed at the top of the page, a depiction of Medina, centered on the Prophet’s Mosque, is a good example of the devotional iconography that grew up around devotion to Muhammad, in many contexts, featuring images of Mecca and Medina, the tomb of Muhammad and the tombs of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, the footprint of Muhammad (and other physical traces), and so on. Such images had many functions: they presented the physical presence of Muhammad and his close associates in an iconographic manner but without actually depicting Muhammad directly. Instead they summoned his presence by pointing the viewer at the material traces of his life and memory, a sort of icon at remove. They had an educational value, giving the reader or viewer a sense of what the holiest places of Islam and the artefacts of the Prophet looked like. And finally they had a prophylactic purpose- that is, early modern Muslims might display or otherwise have on hand these images as a way of warding off evil and misfortune, based on their icon-at-a-remove connection to Muhammad and his powerful intercession. The above image- which is also just simply beautiful and delicately rendered- participates in all of the above.

From Above the Frozen Potomac

We are standing on a flood-scoured tongue of rock that juts down from the banks of the Potomac River, a mile or so below the mouth of the river’s great gorge, a gorge headed by the mighty Great Falls. The cries of geese settling down into an open basin of water within the ice-choked river overwhelm the distant hum of the interstate. That hum is the only indication of how close we are to ‘civilization,’ and to the very seat of the American imperium. The sprawling organs of that state are but a few miles downstream, but here—here the broad river is silent under sheets of ice, melt-water pooling here and there as the temperature has risen a bit above freezing the last couple of days. Beneath the ice the river is strong, is pure power and energy, surging towards the sea. It bubbles up from under the ice in the oval basin where the geese have found refuge, and here and there in riffles and surges. I scan the sprawling sheets of ice, multicoloured, sinuous, maps to other worlds that intertwine with ours but will always lie out of our grasping reach. Near the river’s right bank—the Maryland side, though this is a designation that lies so lightly on the land, and will one day pass away—my eyes fall upon a scuttling, flapping black mass. A circle of black vultures, gathered around some victim of the river’s ice, stark and brilliant against the pale grays, blues, and whites. Overhead, a grey sky hangs heavy and cold, reaching down into the ghostly limbs of the sycamores that rise above the river’s banks, seeps into the ancient stone.

I shift upon the river-scoured stone, witness to the last great age of ice, when the decaying continental ice sheets unleashed world-shaking floods on this stretch of river, and cut across and down into the incredibly ancient metamorphic rock that jaggedly breaks upon the earth’s surface here. The cold rises up from the frozen river’s surface. I check to make sure my little son—tomorrow is his tenth month birthday—is warm, his face turned inwards to my chest, snuggled and asleep for now. Later, by the lively river rapids further down he will wake back up and take in the mighty beauty, but at the moment he sleeps against me, warm and peaceful. There are no other humans in sight from here. At points along the river, outside of the Park Service domains, mansions of the rich leer down, but from where we are standing they are invisible, cloaked by hill and stone and tree.

For a moment I think of the halls of power downstream. The river’s waters will flow past them soon, but they will pay the halls and the mighty men and women and the monuments and the sprawling buildings and high-rises no heed. I think: one day, perhaps soon, perhaps in the far distant future if the Eschaton tarries, the monuments will crumble, the detritus of empire will accumulate out in the Potomac’s outflow into the Chesapeake. The river will still be here. The ice will spread across the river, the vultures will gather and enact their age-old somber and joyous dance, turning death back into life. Perhaps the ravens and bears will have come down from the mountains by then, adding their gronks to the cold air, their tracks over the snow. The works of men will perish, thank God. There is a strange comfort in the thought, and comfort in our sharing in this moment and space of the wild, the sublime and the beautiful, so close to so much that is not beautiful, that is destructive and terrible and which lays waste to the earth, to the soul, to the good. I cannot dislodge the systems and powers downstream, and I do not love to think that my son will inherit a world marked by the same or similar ones. I do not know what the ecologies and landscapes that I love and that I hope he will love, too, will be like in ten or twenty years. But while nothing is certain, I am hopeful that places like this, moments like this, will remain, that one day he can stand above a frozen river in the depths of January, perhaps with a germ of memory of this very day, and breath in the wild, feel the charge of—yes—holiness, of the grandeur of God, and the impermanence of the works of man, good and bad, and listen to the silence of the ice, the faint rustle of the river oats, the power of the river in motion, and to be present in it.