Depicting Devotion to Muhammad: Images in An Ottoman Compendium

Names of God and Names of Muhammad Osmanische Sammelhandschrift , 17XX
Hilye-i Şerîf, from Ahlâk-i resûl Allâh, from Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Ms. or. oct. 1602, 48v.
Muhammad's Sandal
Depiction of the sandal of the Prophet, Ms. or. oct. 1602, 44v.

These two images come from the same manuscript compendium of devotional texts, a manuscript now held in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, but originally completed and used somewhere in the Turcophone part of the Ottoman Empire, during the seventeenth century. The particular text they are a part of, Ahlâk-i resûl Allâh, describes, as its name suggests, the ‘characteristics’ of Muhammad and aspects of his life, which entails, among other things, encountering, in both text and image, places and things entwined with his life. This includes marvelous schematics of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, for instance. It also includes a couple of instances of hilye-i şerîf, which I’ve mentioned briefly before here. These are ‘verbal-pictorial icons’ that depict, through words and non-figural (at least not of humans) images and design, the attributes of Muhammad, physical and otherwise. The hilye-i şerîf I’ve included above is a somewhat unusual example: instead of reproducing hadith-based descriptions of Muhammad’s physical characteristics, it features, side by side, names of God and names of Muhammad, filling the big flowers that dominate the top of the page. Below these ‘verbal icons’ are calligraphic renderings of Qur’anic phrases (some barely visible because of the poor contrast between flower color and script) along with the names of other important holy figures from the founding generation of Islam.

The second image is a heavily stylized and decorated rendering of Muhammad’s sandal, one of several physical traces- relics, in a sense- associated with Muhammad from the middle ages on and which seem to have grown in importance in the Ottoman period, as part of the general intensification of devotion to the Prophet across Islam in this period. In addition to objects claimed to be actual physical relics- hairs from Muhammad’s beard, the impress of his foot in a rock, cloaks he once wore- visual reproductions of those relics also proliferated, usually in the context of devotional texts such as this one. What was the devotional content of these images, or, to put it differently, what did these images ‘do’? For the artist, patron, and purchaser or owner or endower of a manuscript such as this, the act of creating the image and beautifying it- the gorgeous rich flowers of the hilye, the bright colors and delicate designs of the sandal, or instance- could serve as acts of devotion, of love, in themselves, as a type of offering. These depictions could also act as loci of remembrance, even for people who could not read or decipher the Arabic inscriptions: the image called to mind the person from whom the original relic was derived. An intrinsic connection was forged- hence my calling these images ‘icons,’ even though no human form is depicted- independent of a viewer, even as they summoned the viewer into an imaginative encounter with the referent. Following a similar logic, these images, by virtue of a perceived ‘link’ back to Muhammad himself, could carry a prophylactic charge. There are in fact hadith- devised very late (and in fact sometimes claimed to have been delivered via dreams)- that claim as much, to the effect that anyone who places a hilye-i şerîf in his or her home will be protected from all manner of misfortune.

In sum, far from being simply decorative objects or illustrations for a text, images such as these had a complex role in Ottoman devotional culture, containing meanings and applications that are not immediate obvious to modern-day viewers but which can give us valuable insights into the religious and emotional lives and practices of early modern Ottoman Muslims.

For further reading:

Christiane Gruber, The Prophet as a ‘Sacred Spring’: Late Ottoman Hilye Bottles

Christiane Gruber, “The Rose of the Prophet: Floral Metaphors in Late Ottoman Devotional Art,” in  Envisioning Islamic Art and Architecture, November 14, 2014, 223–49.