Encountering and Using the Written Word in Early Modern Cairo

The opening page from a 17th century Ottoman copy of the medieval Qur’an commentary of al-Baghawī (d. c. 1117), with owner marks visible in the right margin (University of Michigan, Special Collections Library, Isl. Ms. 4)

We in the early twenty-first century (particularly, I imagine, anyone who happens to be reading this post) inhabit a world of pervasive textuality. From waking to bed we are deluged with words, on screens (mostly, probably), on paper pages of books, on forms, on signs, on packaging, in short- everywhere. If images, still and moving, are also pervasive and in some ways just as or even more dominant than text, still, printed text (even if mostly in digital form) is everywhere and unavoidable. As such we tend to not reflect very much on either the presence of so much text in our lives or on the modes of our engagement with it, texts are simply there. But of course our world of textuality is not simply a natural fact but is the result of cultural, social, and economic processes leading to certain technologies, skills, habits, and contexts. As such, thinking about the role of texts and their many contexts in past worlds, particularly those quite different (but not radically different) from our own is helpful for understanding both the past and our own present, and has occupied various thinkers for quite a long time now (going back really to Plato if not before). Towards that venerable goal of analysis today I’ve selected a particularly insightful little passage from the biography of an early modern North African scholar named Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-Maqrī (d. 1041/1631) which charts, inadvertently of course, many of the possible contours of texts and their contexts in the early modern Ottoman world. Here is the passage, translated, followed by my commentary:

When he entered Cairo before becoming well-known, he was present one day in the book market (sūq al-kutub) and he found a curious (gharīb) Qur’an commentary (tafsīr) which he opened and landed in [the discussion of] Sūrah al-Nūr, in which the exegete discussed a question of fiqh which he proceeded to speak about at length, and the subject of this biographical entry memorized the entire passage—and in a marvelous congruity not long after that, the ‘ulama of the land came together for supplication (da’wah) and he was present with them. Once they were settled into their session (majlis) a petitioner came with a slip of paper (biṭāqah) in his hand asking about the very issue that the subject of this biographical entry had memorized from that Qur’an commentary. It was passed to the first person among the people of the session, but he looked at it as if he were unable to call upon anything in his mind regarding it, so he passed it on to the next person, and so it was passed on and on, until it reached the subject of this entry. When he looked at it he called for an inkwell and wrote the answer as he had memorized it—and all those presents looked at it with amazement. When they had finished perusing [his answer], they asked, ‘Who said this?’ He replied to them, ‘So-and-son in the exegesis on Sūrah al-Nūr,’ and when the Qur’an commentary was brought it was exactly as he had said.

This little story is a lovely snapshot of the many ways texts worked together in various media and matrices: Abū al-‘Abbās is seen browsing the book market, which suggests that then as now browsing books without necessarily looking to buy them was not uncommon; the book market here functions in a way akin to a library, since he spends at least some time actually reading the Qur’an commentary in question and using an unspecified amount of time to memorize particular contents he found striking. The primary point of the anecdote is Abū al-‘Abbās’ prodigious ability to memorize things, to be sure, but still we can imagine that some time is being expended (and the tone of the story does not convey that this feat is somehow miraculous or totally unheard of, simply a taking to an extreme a culturally valuable and cultivated skill).

There are several distinct movements and contexts related to the given text at work here: the production of the original Qur’an commentary, its being copied and turned into a commercial object, Abū ‘Abbās’ browsing and encountering the text, then his experience and conceptualization and reproduction of, not the entire text, but a discrete section, devoted to a particular question of fiqh, the details of which we are not told but which presumably was of ongoing contemporary interest (which would help to explain why Abū ‘Abbās memorized it as well as why a supplicant came with a question specific to that issue). So we have a movement from author to manuscript (via engagement with the written and memorized text of the Qur’an), to (probably) copy by a professional copyist, to book market, to selective reader, then to memory. In the scholars’ session—which if I am interpreting things correctly was meant for ‘regular’ people to bring questions of fiqh to a council of learned experts, a sort of early modern AMA forum—we see another form of textuality, the ‘slip’ of paper (biṭāqah), a word with a long bureaucratic pedigree, predating Islam in fact. The writer of the slip has inadvertently chanced upon the very topic of the first text, but then there is a problem: no one else in the session had encountered the clarifying text, or, if any of them had, they did not remember it. When it reaches Abū al-‘Abbās his reaction is striking: he calls for an inkwell and then writes out his memorized text, when we might expect simply an oral response. While it is not exactly specified the substrate for his writing must surely be that slip of paper, with the implication that the supplicant/questioner would take it back home for his personal archive or other uses (and since it is fiqh we can imagine a practical use here akin to a fatwa and not simply curious interest). So we have more textual movements: an unrelated (on the surface at least) impromptu text which is visually reviewed by the members of the assembly, which, once it is encountered by Abū al-‘Abbās, registers with the memorized commentary passage and precipitates now a written reproduction of the randomly encountered text. His oral explanation of the text, after it has been successively read (and we get a sense that the paper is passed around, not read out loud), leads to the physical manuscript of the commentary being produced and read publicly (or silently perused one by one? the text is unclear). Finally, this incident gives rise to a sort of ‘social text’ of Abū al-‘Abbās’ prestige in Cairo thanks to his memory and powers of recall and correlation. Continue reading “Encountering and Using the Written Word in Early Modern Cairo”

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”

Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries

Hayrapet Jul'ayec'i bible
Fig 1.: Manuscript Bible, illustrated by Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i, 1649 in New Julfa. (“Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots Instutute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, ms 189) .

The four images in this post- two from Western Europe, two from the Safavid Empire- paint a picture of the inter-connectivity of places, religious communities, and cultural traditions of early modern western Eurasia, inter-connectivity that took place without any single power or region dominating, as would be true from the nineteenth century forward. These images also illustrate the problems with the language of ‘influence,’ as well as the fact that religious communities and traditions that were at odds in some respects could still participate in shared cultural paradigms and draw upon the work and concepts of others in creative ways. In particular these images demonstrate the complicated place of ‘print culture’ in a Eurasian context, printed texts co-existing and interacting with non-print modes well through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In this first pair of images, Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, illustrating the first chapters of Genesis, the Armenian illustrator Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i has drawn upon the images of Johann Theodor de Bry for his own illumination of the Bible. The relationship is obvious upon even casual examination, such that one might be tempted to call the Armenian paintings ‘copies.’ But slightly closer examination reveals something more subtle going on. Jul’ayec’i has followed the general form and many of the details of de Bry’s engravings, but has done so in a transformative way: the images have been placed in a new arrangement, one that proceeds in chronological order from left to right, the borders dividing the scenes employing motifs with deep roots in Armenian illumination. Most significantly, Jul’ayec’i has rendered these scenes in color, in brilliant color which calls to mind earlier illumined Armenian Bibles. The entire production has furthermore been placed within a manuscript Bible, instead of the printed Bible of de Bry. The reference to de Bry, and by extension, Western European art conventions, remains unmistakable- but in rendering them in the bright splashes of Armenian painting they have been translated and re-appropriated (there is literal translation as well- note the inclusion of Armenian text in Jul’ayec’i’s painting). ‘Remix’ is one way of thinking about such a piece, the form remaining but the interpretation rendered making the piece an effectively new creation, the mood and resonances it conveys departing dramatically from the original ‘cited’ imagery, even as the new art depends on the original to some degree.

Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3
Fig. 2.: Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3, engravings by Johann Theodor de Bry, Mainz, 1609 (General Research Division, The New York Public Library).

What is particularly notable about Jul’ayec’i’s art, and that of the many other Armenian artists and manuscript producers who employed similar techniques vis-a-vis print culture circulating in Armenian communities (which in itself reminds us that it was not unusual for a Bible printed in the Netherlands to end up in the Safavid lands), is that Armenians were not themselves strangers to print culture. The first Armenian book was printed in 1512, with an increasing pace of printing in a number of presses across the vast Armenian world of western Eurasia. Simultaneously, Armenians produced, sponsored, and purchased manuscripts such as that from which contain Jul’ayec’i’s illuminations. Print culture was useful for some things, while manuscript culture and its associated arts continued to play an important role, from liturgical texts to diaries to magical scrolls. And just as manuscript arts and traditions left their imprint in Armenian print culture (and many other iterations of print culture across early modern Eurasia), the new possibilities that printing opened up could find their way into manuscript production.

In the Safavid world, Armenians were not the only people creatively adapting and ‘remixing’ Western European print culture material. Persian-speaking Muslim artists, such as the seventeenth century painter Muhammad Zaman, were also making interesting use of imagery circulating out of Western Europe. Witness Zaman’s rendering of the iconic scene of Judith with the head of Holofernes:

MSS 1005
Fig. 3.: Judith with the Severed Head of Holofernes, Muhammad Zaman, c. 1680,
Isfahan, Safavid Iran (Khalili Collections MSS 1005).

Zaman’s depiction of this scene incorporates material from an etching of a painting by the fifteenth century Italian artist Andrea Mantegna (fig. 4). But just as his Armenian contemporary had done with de Bry’s etchings, Zaman has transformed the scene. It is now in bright and vivid color, reminiscent of more traditional forms of Persianate miniature (which itself had long been in dialogue with Armenian painting). Just as Jul’ayec’i reframed his source material, Zaman has not only filled out the scene around Judith and her maidservant with lush vegetation, vivid flora, and a scene of a camp and a city in the background, but in keeping with the conventions of Persianate art he has embedded his painting within a series of frames, frames that are as much a part of the painting as the main image itself. Particularly strikingly, he has filled the upper panel with realistic flowers, flora typical of alpine Eurasia such as primroses and irises. The result is a striking contrast between the delicate beauty of the flowers and the gory sight of Holofernes’ head being held aloft, a somewhat incongruous scene. What would Zaman’s viewers have taken away from this painting? Would they have known to what it was referring, whether in terms of story or in terms of the source in Andrea Mantegna’s depiction? The Western European elements, as in the Armenian imagery above, are unmistakable, diverging as they do from the canons of Persianate art: yet they have been rendered into a Persianate style and frame (literally and figuratively). Some of the meaning is retained, while other aspects are transformed- for instance, it is possible that most viewers would not have known the story itself, leading them to imagine their own story or to connect the image with stories they did know. Continue reading “Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries”

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.