Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983 iv
Miḥrab page, Dalā’il al-khayrāt, completed 1705 (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 19r).

The famed late medieval book of prayer and blessings upon the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, known as Dalā’il al-khayrāt, written by Muhammad Sulaymān al-Jazūlī (d. 1465), would become one of the most popular texts of any sort across the early modern Islamicate world. From modern-day Morocco, where al-Jazūlī lived, worked, and died (he completed Dalā’il in Fes, while he would ultimately be buried in Marrakesh), his most famous work would rapidly spread to points east, with copies appearing by the mid eighteenth century as far afield as Eastern Turkestan and the Indonesian archipelago. As this text and its devotional regime spread, the text itself took on what was in some regards a relatively stable visual schemata- depictions of Mecca and Medina, schematics of Muhammad’s tomb and minbar, and an overall ornamentation and careful, often fully vocalized script could all be found in copies across the Islamicate world. At the same time, different regions drew the text into their own traditions of art and manuscript production, while in some cases adding additional material. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Ottoman copies of Dalā’il would often come to include hilye-i şerif panels, calligraphic ‘verbal icons’ of Muhammad (which themselves had originally existed in a medieval treatise).

In the Maghrib- the Islamic ‘Far West’- where the text originated, copies of Dalā’il would often include unique to the region elements, elaborated in a variety of styles. One such unique (so far as I can tell) element was the inclusion, in the opening pages of the manuscript, of an illuminated genealogy of Muhammad. Here is a relatively plain example, making use of name roundels (which were also common in Ottoman productions and may have their origin in such a milieu) and extensions of names into the neutral space of the illumination:

Library of Congress. Arabic manuscript, SM 85.
A genealogy page from a copy of the Dalā’il made in the Maghrib during the second half of the 18th century. (Library of Congress, Arabic manuscripts, SM 85)

However, the manuscript that I want to focus on here, now classified as BnF Arabe 6983, is another Maghribi version of the famous prayer book, and was completed in 1705 in what is now Morocco and held in the library of the Nāṣiriyya sufis in Tamegroute on the edge of the Sahara until it came into the collection of Hubert Lyautey, the French Resident-General of Morocco in the early twentieth century, and thence to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This manuscript, which in its provenance history already bespeaks to much historical change, has one of the most spectacular and beautiful visual schemes of any copy of Dalā’il I have come across. The mihrab page above- an unusual feature in itself- hints at some of the artistic vigor and cultural exchange visible in this manuscript, which is very much oriented towards the Ottoman world, even as its core features speak to its Maghribi origins. The following page, an example of the above-mentioned genealogy component, demonstrates the Ottoman stylistic aspects especially well:

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983
Dalā’il al-khayrāt. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 6r)

Here, the illumination’s neutral space, while like the first example containing the winding names of Muhammad’s ancestors attached to calligraphic roundels, has been filled with a delicate swirling floral pattern. Anyone with some familiarity with Ottoman history is likely to recognize that pattern- it originated in the illumination of the sultanic calligraphic emblem, the tuǧra, as visible in the following example, from the late sixteenth century:

A firman (imperial decree), paper, written in Divani Istanbul, Turkey; 981 H = 1573 L: 295; W: 56 cm
The tuǧra of Sultan Selim II, as affixed to a fermân issued in 1573. Note the intricate floral ornamentation filling the interior of the calligraphy- this is an especially colorful example. (David Collection Inv. no. 51/2002)

Now, while Ottoman control pushed briefly as far west as Fes during the sixteenth century, and it is not inconceivable that actual sultanic tuǧras would have circulated or been known in the parts of the Maghrib never under Ottoman control at all, there are other, probably more likely routes by which the ‘tughrakes’ style, as this sort of illumination has been called, might have been accessible to a Maghribi illuminator. For a period in the first half of the sixteenth century, for instance, Ottoman ceramics and metalwork both featured the delicate swirls of tuǧra illumination, as in this magnificent piece from around 1540:

Fritware jug, painted in blue and turquoise under a transparent glaze
‘Tughrakes’ style on a blue-and-white fritware jug, c. 1540, made in Iznik (David Collection Inv. no. 11/1970)

It is not improbable that ceramics decorated with the tughrakes style made their way west to the Maghribi, whatever the transmission route, though probably not in great numbers given the relatively short period in which the style prevailed. The Maghrib, including such distant corners as Tamegroute, had long been closely connected with the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and during the early modern period those connections not only continued but in some ways intensified, simultaneous to increased connections north into Christian Europe and south into Sub-Saharan Africa. Pilgrims making the ḥajj, several of whom left detailed riḥla, or travel narrative, accounts (not unlike some of their Ottoman counterparts), would have been one such medium of cultural exchange and transmission, though hardly the only one. There was also a steady movement of Maghribi immigrants into the Ottoman lands, settling permanently or at least long-term in places like Cairo and Damascus. And of course, as the very spread east of the Dalā’il al-khayrāt and many other devotional texts, sufi lineages, and scholarly productions indicates, the cultural exchange was two-way. The next image nicely encapsulates this process, and will also show us further traces of Ottoman artistic styles on Maghribi productions. Below is the opening page of an Ottoman Turkish commentary (şerh) on the Dalā’il by an otherwise obscure scholar, Karadavutzâde Mehmed Efendi (d. 1756), described in the manuscript’s colophon as ‘one who preaches and gives moral advice, an expert on ḥadīth and Qur’an commentary (tafsīr).’  His commentary on the devotional text is both a translation of and extension upon a widely-circulating Arabic commentary on the text by Aḥmad al-Mahdī al-Fāsī (d. 1698), who, as his name indicates, was originally from Fes, settling in the Ottoman lands later in life. The opening page of Karadavutzâde’s version visually refers to copies of Dalā’il, which always included (at a minimum) depictions of Mecca and Medina, here reduced to an image of Medina:

Tevfik muvaffikü’l-hayrât li-neyli’l-berekât fi hizmet menbai’s-saâdât,
Karadavutzade Mehmed Efendi. Tevfik muvaffikü’l-hayrât li-neyli’l-berekât fi hizmet menbai’s-saâdât (University of Michigan, Special Collections Library, Isl. Ms. 672, fol. 2a)

In this image we see the same process at work in the commentary itself: a text and artistic tradition first developed in the Islamic Far West has been ‘Ottomanized,’ as visible in the color scheme, the floral decorations, the flourishes rising above the image of the Prophet’s Mosque, and so on. The ‘realistic’ as opposed to flat and stylized rendering of Medina points to wider artistic trends in the eighteenth century Ottoman lands, themselves continuous with developments and styles which originated in Western Europe but prevailed across Western Eurasia and beyond. Now, keeping this illumination- which is fairly typical of much Ottoman illumination of the period- in view, let us consider what at first glance seems a very Maghribi illumination, the concluding illumined page of BnF Arabe 6983:

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983 ii
Dalā’il al-khayrāt (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 135r)

Much about this page, and similar ones elsewhere in this manuscript, look back to the long tradition of illumination in the Maghrib, such as the following Qur’an illumination, from a twelfth century copy made in either al-Andalus or the Maghrib:

A section (juz') of a Koran, sura 3:92-170 Manuscript
Illuminated opening page for a Qur’an subdivision (juz’) (Freer and Sackler F1931.9)

The geometric interlace, redolent of the magnificent tilework found in mosques and madrasas across the Maghrib, is featured in both illuminations, as are the floral tracery and roundels projecting into the manuscript’s margins. But BnF Arabe 6983 also shows the traces of Ottoman manuscript style: the color scheme is much brighter and much closer to the above Ottoman şerh manuscript. The overall shape of the manuscript itself has changed- instead of the typically Maghribi square format (which had originally been common across the Islamicate world), a rectangular one has been used, a change that we see across manuscript production in the eighteenth century, such as the following Qur’an manuscript (which also references other Ottoman motifs, including the delightful little tulip at the center):

A Manuscript of Five Sections of a Qur'an,18th century ii
Frontspiece to a juz’ of the Qur’an, Magrib, mid-18th century (Met. 1982.120.2)

How ought we interpret the interactions visible in these illuminations? As noted above, only parts of the Maghrib were ever under Ottoman rule, and those parts that did enter into the Well Protected Domains were always rather loosely connected to the sultanic center in terms of political control. However, as the above examples show, regardless of the presence or absence or degree of political integration, the early modern Maghrib was very much culturally in contact with the Ottoman lands, allowing Maghribi artists to selectively and creatively draw upon Ottoman designs, styles, and motifs, to different degrees, even in the same manuscript. Ottoman artistic productions were clearly attractive to Maghribi artists, artists who had access to Ottoman productions and who perhaps wanted to signal to patrons and purchasers their knowledge of and participation in Ottoman artistry. ‘Influence’ is the wrong word here: the artists responsible for these illuminations made selective use of Ottoman styles and motifs, fitting them to particular, Maghrib-specific contexts, and elaborating upon them in new ways through contact with older Maghribi artistic traditions. Rather, Ottoman exemplars can be seen as constituting resources for Maghribi artists, as reference points and interlocutors.

In thinking about the eighteenth century Islamicate world, it is common to examine the increasing links and routes of ‘influence’ from the Western European lands into Islamic ones, especially the Ottoman Empire. However, as this little essay has hopefully demonstrated, the actual routes of interconnectivity and exchange were much more expansive. The Ottoman lands and the Maghrib were involved in mutual exchange, particularly in Islamic devotion, traditions and practices of manuscript illumination, devotion to Muhammad, sufism, and so on drawing closer together and interpenetrating. I’ll conclude with one final selection from BnF Arabe 6983, half of a two-page depiction of the sandal of Muhammad, one of the most important loci of devotion to Muhammad in the early modern Islamicate world, particularly in the Ottoman lands and in the Maghrib:

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, v
Dalā’il al-khayrāt (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 16v)

Certain aspects of this image mark it as distinct from otherwise similar Ottoman depictions: it runs horizontally across two pages, which seems to have been common in Maghribi versions of the sacred sandal, unlike Ottoman ones, which are usually vertical. Yet many Ottoman aspects appear here, too: the color scheme, the modified tughrakes elements, and the little floral flourishes. And visible in the condition of the image is evidence of a shared repertoire of devotional practice: as with many Ottoman images of the Prophet’s sandal, there is a great deal of smudging, wear, and discoloration, much more than appears on the pages we saw above. Such wear and tear was the result of acts of veneration- kissing and rubbing as well as probable more frequent recourse to this pair of pages. Just as for Ottoman devotees, this image, as well as a handful of others of Muhammad’s ‘relics’ and associated holy places, acted as a sort of icon, a channel into Muhammad’s spiritual presence and a reservoir of baraka, blessing. It seems likely to me- though it would require further research to determine, if it can be determined at all- that such physical acts of devotion towards these ‘image-relics’ originated in the Ottoman lands, spreading to the Maghrib and elsewhere over the course of early modernity. Certainly we know that the first reproductions of Muhammad’s sandal began in twelfth century Damascus, and are often features of pilgrimage scrolls from the fifteenth (if not earlier) century on. But wherever the practice of devotional tactility originated, its presence in the Ottoman world and in the Maghrib points to a vast, shared world of Islamic devotion centered on Muhammad, in which practices may have had their origins in particular points on the map but soon became oecumenical, in many cases continuing down to the present, even if the historical genealogies and complex contexts have been largely forgotten, overwritten by the continuing process of adaptation, modification, and creative appropriation within and across cultural spheres and political boundaries.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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