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.

The first image, which comes from a single page of a copy of the Falnama, a book used in prognostication, probably depicts the tomb-shrine of either one of the Twelve Imams or an imam-zade (a descendant of one of the Twelve Imams). As the Safavids ‘converted’ the Iranian lands to Shi’ism, pre-existing saints’ shrines were often ‘converted’ to Shi’ism, too, sometimes with nothing more than renaming the saint interred there with the name of an imam-zade, modifying the architecture and practices only slowly over time. Much would have remained the same, and would have looked perfectly familiar to visitors from other parts of the Islamic world. At the center of the image is the cenotaph, which marks the location of the saint’s (or imam’s) tomb, and which is the focus of devotion. Some of the men (and unlike the second image, this space appears to be male-only, at least in the artist’s imagination) are holding onto the iron grill around the cenotaph, while others have their hands raised, as if to receive the baraka, or divine grace, that is mediated through the bodily presence of the saint. The angels overhead appear to be pouring out that divine baraka upon the supplicants, while a group of men in the foreground have perhaps gone into some kind of mystical ecstasy. Finally, propped against the cenotaph are various flags and standards, of the sort that would have been used by dervishes and members of sufi tariqas, as symbols of the saint and of other holy figures. While they would remain within the shrine most of the time they would occasionally be used in processions and festivities, such as the commemoration of the saint’s birthday. Hanging in close proximity to the standards are lamps, kept burning through pious donations and vows on the part of visitors to the shrine.

The second image, which is part of a truly spectacular manuscript rendering of a poetry collection, also depicts a saint’s tomb, attached to what appears to be a small mosque or perhaps a sufi lodge of some sort. To get a better sense of what is going on, I have included a close-up of the saint’s cenotaph:

“Prayers in a Mosque” Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi) Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550

Note first off the numerous lamps hanging above the tomb, as well as the iron (or possibly wooden) grille in front of the cenotaph. Unusually this one includes some sort of partition with a door on the right, perhaps to mark the tomb-shrine off from the adjoining mosque (this is a common feature in Ottoman sufi lodges and oratories, though I do not know enough about Safavid architecture to be definitive here). Within the mosque space there are two men with hands lifted in supplication of the saint’s baraka, with another man behind in a similar posture. Strikingly, there are also two women- clothed in white- just inside the door, facing the cenotaph in seeking baraka. For unlike mosques, whose main spaces were- and largely still are- male-only, saints’ shrines almost always saw gender-mixing, something that irritated critics of saints and their veneration to no end, but which remained quite common and commonly accepted down through the early modern period.

Besides the abundance of intimate detail of these holy spaces, these images provide us with a sense of how these shrines were experienced: in both miniatures the cenotaph has a definitive presence, drawing the eye straight to it, aided by its solidness and simplicity in the midst of a sea of detail and color. The bodies of devotees act as guidelines towards the presence of the saint- a presence that exists in the invisibility of the saint’s body, which lies interred below the cenotaph, present but not directly accessible. Unlike in a contemporary Christian saint’s shrine, there is no icon to aid devotees. Instead, the elements of the space- lamps, standards, carpets, architectural components, the divisions of space itself- summon up that presence and aid the devotee in making him or herself present and open to the baraka of the saint, accompanied, as the first image suggests, by the angels as well.

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