Safavid Devotional Art in Steel, Script, and Scroll

1987.14
A Safavid pierced steel plaque, probably late 17th century, featuring a calligraphic rendering of part of a poem in praise of Muḥammad, Fāṭima, and the Twelve Imams, formerly part of a larger set distributed in a shrine or similar structure. Metropolitan Museum of Art 1987.14

Pierced metal plaques such as the one above must surely count among the most spectacular instances of Safavid art to modern eyes, with their stark contrasts, incredible fineness of detail, bold clean lines surrounding delicate ornament, and obvious evidence of extremely skilled craft. Plaques such as this one- see below for another, quite similar example- once formed part of the interior of Safavid shrines, either to one of the Twelve Imāms or to the far more frequent imāmzādehs, the descendents  of the Imāms, who were also more likely to be found in Safavid controlled territory (there were also cases of saints’ shrines of various sorts being ‘converted’ to an imāmzādeh after the rise of the Safavids). Others were found on the tombs of Safavid shahs and in the massive shrine complex of Ṣafī al-Dīn, the Safavid eponym, in Ardabil. In 1550 large number of such plaques were ordered and installed by Shah Tahmāsp I in the shrine of Imām Riḍā in Mashhad, with further production through the rest of the Safavid dynasty.

Copyright_David-Collection_Copenhagen_28-1997_web.jpg
The interior of the shrine of an Imām or an imāmzādeh, from a circa 1550 Safavid Fālnāmeh (‘book of divination’). Besides showing the internal architectural layout of a Safavid shrine, it provides a nice view of the activity that might go on there. (David Collection Inv. no. 28/1997)

So far as I know none remain in situ, a consequence of their likely original location- probably upon the grill-like structure surrounding the location of the tomb itself (see the 16th century illustration above for an idea of what such a space would have looked like). Such structures, as well as the built fabric of shrines in general, tend to be subject to great use, wear-and-tear, and continual renovation; as a result these plaques were dispersed and now reside in various museums and collections. Originally, however, they would have been visible to those making pious visitation (ziyāra) to the holy people whose tombs they adorned.

Decorative Plaque Plaque
Another Safavid pierced plaque, here extolling the last of the Twelve Imāms, also from the late 17th century. (Freer & Sackler F1997.21)

In terms of content, these plaques extoll and in some cases supplicate the prayers of the Twelve Imāms, as well as Muḥammad and Fāṭima, acting both to channel the intercessory power of these figures while linking the entombed person to the ‘People of the House.’ While devotion to the Twelve Imāms was not limited to Shi’i Muslims historically- contemporaneous Ottomans who would have regarded themselves as good Sunnis venerated the Twelve Imāms as well- such devotion was especially central to Shi’i Islam and to Safavid religious identity. These plaques signaled, to those who could read them (or have them read to them), that centrality, while also acting as inscribed requests for intercession, connecting the People of the House and their baraka to whatever shrine their names were place within. The sheer skill, time, and resources that were involved in producing such works were in themselves acts of devotion (along with the patronage of such work).

CBL Is 1623
Above and below: sections from a Safavid Qur’an scroll written in ghubār (‘dust’) script with extensive illumination (Chester Beatty Library Is 1623)

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If the Safavid steel plaques were resolutely public, the above Qur’anic scroll probably was not, but would have instead been intended for individual consumption, if it was to be examined by human eyes at all. Completed in 1

CBL Is 1623
Detail, cropped and flipped vertical.

But it’s not just the Qur’an: the tiny script forms decorative patterns and calligraphic texts, a number of which are contained within ‘plaques’ which echo, no doubt deliberately, the pierced steel ones that were being produced and installed in shrines around the Safavid world at the time this scroll was made. The contents of the calligraphic plaques and other decorative calligraphic features are, unsurprisingly, almost the same: invocations of Muḥammad, Fāṭima, and the Twelve Imāms, their names and titles spanning the ‘architecture’ of the Qur’anic scroll much as they would have spanned literal built spaces at the time. The resonances must surely have been deliberate, not only linking the Qur’anic text to the People of the House via their names and honorifics but also through visual reference to the artistic forms then in use in their shrines, and hence to the shrines themselves and the holy people there entombed. And again, great skill was involved in executing these calligraphic ‘plaques,’ physically rigorous in a different way from cutting pressed steel but rigorous all the same and hence also an act of bodily devotion.

There is another point of commonality between these two sites of Safavid devotional art: both serve to entangle devotion to the Twelve Imāms (as well as Muḥammad and Fāṭima, we ought not forget) with other sources of holiness: the steel plaques would have been found within various shrines, some more directly connected to the Imāms than others, while the calligraphic ‘plaques’ are in fact literally made out of Qur’anic text (combined with neutral space) in addition to being a part of a Qur’an manuscript. Instead of one source of sacred power and meaning, both artistic forms were meant by their patrons and creators to channel and connect many such sources. Among other aspects, it is such attention to complex interconnectivity that marks these objects of devotion as distinctive to the Safavids, for whom devotion to the Imāms grew increasingly central over the course of the dynasty’s rule. Objects like these then can be seen as also being components in the transition of the Iranian lands from majority Sunni (whatever exactly that meant pre-Safavid) to the Shi’i majority we now often take for granted as always having been there, but which in fact required much social and cultural work, including these magnificent works of devotional art.

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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)

Continue reading “Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West”

Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World

Demons- the red king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Ahmar. Demon portrait. From a 15th-century Arabic collectaneous manuscript known as Kitab al-bulhan.
The Red King (al-Malik al-aḥmar), from Kitāb al-Bulhān, produced c. 1390-1450, probably Baghdad (MS. Bodl. Or. 133, fol. 31a)

The presence and potential power of the jinn- beings neither human nor angel, but instead somewhere in-between, capable of both helping and harming humans but mostly just interested in their own devices- has been a constant throughout Islamic history, with the concept of the jinn probably pre-dating Islam considerably in fact. Ways of dealing with the jinn have varied considerably, though certain practices- the use of talismans and amulets, or other sacred or semi-sacred prophylactics- has been common across many Islamic societies. The two examples I’ve presented here demonstrate at least two ways in which people in the sixteenth century Ottoman world imagined and sought to control the power of the jinn.

The image above is of one of the most fearsome of the jinn, the ‘Red King,’ also referenced in the story below. He is surrounded by various other ferocious, indeed rather terrifying, jinn, sitting astride a lion. His malevolent nature, had it been in doubt, is emphasized by the decapitated human head he holds in one hand. This image comes from a 15th (or possibly late 14th) century compilation, the Kitāb al-Bulhān, produced in pre-Ottoman Baghdad, a book which features a range of material from the astrological to the occult- subjects and genres that hover somewhere among our modern categories of science, magic, and religion. The image itself contains prophylactic letters and numbers- visible to the left and right of the Red King’s head- which are meant to control this particular jinn’s manifestations. More interesting for our purposes, this manuscript was modified by later Ottoman owners: Ottoman Turkish has been added, and some of the images have been modified. This painting of the Red King bears the most striking modifications. Through some technique the paint has been removed from the jinn chief’s body at strategic points: his neck and hands have been ‘cut,’ his head ‘pierced,’ and his mount’s eye put out. As you might guess these are not accidental injuries to the manuscript, but were done deliberately, almost certainly by a 16th century Ottoman owner (at some point in the 17th century it was acquired by a English collector, who added his own cryptographic writing to parts of the text- but that’s another story!). What is going on here?

In her recent discussion of Ottoman and Safavid devotional artistic practices [1], the Islamic art historian Christiane Gruber drew attention to the physical interactions that audiences of manuscript paintings in both empires had with particular images. Along with ‘positive’ devotional acts like the addition of face-covering veils to images of Muhammad and members of the Ahl al-Bayt, kissing and rubbing depictions of Muhammad and others, and other types of practices that modified the image on the page, we also see evidence of symbolic devotional ‘violence’ in images: the faces of Muhammad’s pagan enemies being rubbed out, their necks and hands ‘cut,’ and, in Shi’i contexts, explicitly Sunni figures being ritually defaced. Gruber argues that these actions were seen as relating to the subjects depicted in some way: cutting the necks of Muhammad’s opponents de-fanged their potential power, while allowing the viewer to not just view but participate, albeit at a remove, in the drama being depicted in the picture. Something very similar is going on in this image: whoever modified this image sought to control the power of the Red King through symbolic ritual action, with the understanding that violence done to the jinn’s depiction ‘translated’ to the jinn himself. Note that this is not iconoclasm, at least not in the traditional sense: most of the pictures in this collection have not been modified at all, indicating both the lack of iconoclasm in the book’s audience and the apparently especially dangerous nature of the Red King, dangerous enough that even his image in an occult handbook needed to be ‘brought to heel.’

The second example of controlling the jinn- including the Red King- comes from the saint’s life of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī (d. 1565), Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb, by Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī. The short story I have translated below is only one of numerous anecdotes in which the saint confronts jinn, both singly and in groups. In these stories a recurring feature, and one that long predated al-Sha’rānī, is the jinn’s occupation of particular places and spaces, especially abandoned human dwellings. The ability of saints to confront and control the jinn was also well established by the 16th century; al-Sha’rānī is shown using his saintly power to mark out spaces in the urban fabric of Cairo, not so much to defeat the jinn as to demonstrate his sanctity by moving into their space and avoiding any harm from them. Continue reading “Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World”

An Ottoman Remix

Ottoman Qur'an Mounting

This curious piece, which consists of three early medieval (9th or 10th century) Qur’an folios written in un-voweled Kufic script pasted together then attached to a piece of paperboard and framed with lovely floral border devices, dates (probably) to the eighteenth century, and was produced somewhere in the Ottoman world. It is currently held in the Freer and Sackler Gallery (S1998.8).

Besides it intrinsic loveliness- the bold angular Kufic script contrasts nicely with the delicate flowing lines of the floral elements- this piece of artistic ‘remixing’ presents some questions which I at least cannot answer with any certainty but are worth asking anyway. What was the original setting and intention of this piece? Would it have been in a collected volume of similar pieces or of other ‘remixes’ (calligraphy, paintings, and drawings taken from their original contexts and remounted in new settings, primarily)? Or would it have been displayed, similar to a hilye-i şerif? How would an Ottoman viewer have understood this presentation: was it seen as a link with the far distant Islamic past, or perhaps as an especially potent means of connecting with the power of the Qu’ranic text? Or was the point of this display simply to show a nice instance of Kufic script, or perhaps to appreciate the folios as something along the lines of antiques? Was there something special about these folios- for instance, we know that very old Qur’an volumes and folios in the Ottoman world and elsewhere were sometimes treated as relics due to their assumed linkage with a key figure in the deep Islamic past. Was that the case with these folios? Or was something else entirely being done with this piece, something that is perhaps now unrecoverable for us?

Devotional Art in White and Blue: An Ottoman Tile Panel from Damascus

Panel of Tiles, 17th century
Panel of Tiles, 17th century. Ceramic; fritware, painted in cobalt blue and turquoise under a transparent glaze, 28 x 28 x 1 in. (71.1 x 71.1 x 2.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum,

It’s been a busy few several days for me, so the translations of Arabic and Ottoman Turkish devotional texts I had hoped to have completed or at least in the works will have to wait. For now, I’d like to share this lovely wall panel of tiles from Ottoman Damascus (the museum’s description does not reveal where exactly it was originally located, though my guess would be in a mosque or other religiously-oriented structure, perhaps as part of a mihrab installation). The blue and white, the thin, pointy trees (probably cypresses), and especially the stylized flower arrangement in the center all reveal this piece as clearly Ottoman, while the border ornamentation and style of execution suggest the ‘provincial’ (as opposed to closer to the imperial core of Constantinople/Istanbul).

The visual ‘message’ of this tiled panel, and the sort of devotional ‘work’ it might have done, is also pretty clear: the three arched niches suggest the mihrabs in a mosque, replete with depictions of mosque hanging lamps in each niche, with a crescent moon pendant above. Paradisical imagery of flowers and trees fills the niches below the lamps, suggestive of the Garden itself, while at the center is the phrase ‘To God belongs the power.’ On the top and bottom, in clockwise direction, are the names God, Muhammad, Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Uthman, and ‘Ali, the last four being the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, their memory increasingly venerated by Sunni Ottoman Muslims in light of conflicts with the Shi’i Safavid Empire. Like the imagery I discussed in a previous post, this one draws the viewer into a spiritual space, a paradisical space of worship, directed towards God, and mediated by Muhammad and his saintly immediate followers and bearers of his standard. Using stylized imagery, pattern, color, and calligraphy, it creates an ‘icon-like’ viewing experience, and probably also helped to render a particular space, within a mosque or elsewhere, as conducive towards attitudes and acts of devotion and worship.

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”