Calligraphic Depiction of Ali as a Lion

Calligraphic Depiction of Ali as a Lion


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A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims

God gave victory to Islam in the battle of Badr in the year 2 of Hijri. Two months after the battle, Fatima Zahra, the daughter of Muhammad Mustafa, and Ali, the son of Abu Talib were married.

Fatima Zahra was only five years old when her mother – Khadija, may God bless her – died, and thenceforth, her father, Muhammad Mustafa, the Apostle of God, took charge of the duties of a mother also for her. The death of her mother had created a void in her life but her father filled it with his love and tenderness.

Muhammad, the Messenger of God, gave the utmost attention to the education and upbringing of his daughter. If he was the ideal for all men, his daughter had to be the ideal for all women, and she was. He made her the ideal of womanhood in Islam. She was the personification of devotion and obedience to the Creator, and she was the embodiment of all heavenly purity and saintliness. In character and personality, she bore a most striking resemblance to her father. Fatima, the daughter, was the image of Muhammad, the father.

By dint of obedience and service to God, Fatima Zahra rose to the highest rank in His sight, as attested by Al-Qur’an al-Majid. God bestowed the greatest honors upon her, and the Prophet of Islam, on his part, showed her the mark of greatest respect, one which he did not show to any other man or woman at any time in his life.

When Fatima grew up, two old companions – first one and then the other – asked her father for her hand in marriage. But he turned away from them in disgust, and said:

“This matter of the marriage of Fatima, my daughter, is in the hands of Allah Himself, and He alone will select a spouse for her”.

Allah duly made His selection. He selected His slave, Ali ibn Abi Talib, to be the spouse of the daughter of His most favorite slave, Muhammad Mustafa. He wished to see Fatima bint Muhammad and Ali ibn Abi Talib married.

Two months after the battle of Badr, i.e., in the month of Zilqa'ad (the 11th month) of 2 A.H., Ali called on Muhammad Mustafa, and said: “O Messenger of God, you have brought me up as your own child. You have overwhelmed me with your gifts, your generosity and your kindness. I owe you everything in my life. Now I seek one more kindness from you.”

The Apostle understood what Ali was trying to say. His face lighted up in a broad smile, and he bade Ali to wait for a few moments until he obtained his daughter's answer. He entered the house, told Fatima that Ali was asking for her hand in marriage, and asked her what was her response. She kept quiet. He interpreted her silence as her assent, returned to Ali, informed him that his proposal was accepted, and told him to make preparations for the wedding.

On the last day of Zilqa'ad (the 11th month), Muhammad Mustafa, the Apostle of God, invited the Muhajireen and the Ansar, to attend a banquet, on the occasion of the marriage of his daughter. He was going to be their host. When all the guests arrived, and were seated, he obtained, once again, the formal consent of his daughter for her marriage with Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Muhammad Mustafa praised Allah, and thanked Him for all His mercies. He then read the sermon of marriage declared Ali and Fatima husband and wife, and invoked the blessings of Allah upon both of them. All the guests congratulated the Apostle on this most auspicious occasion. After this ceremony, the guests feasted upon lamb meat, bread, date fruit and milk.

A few days later, i.e., in Zilhajj (the 12th month), Fatima Zahra had to bid farewell to her parental home so she could go to the house of her husband. Her father assisted her in riding his she-camel. Medina rang with the shouts of Allah-o-Akbar. Salman the Persian held the reins of the she-camel, and walked in front of it, as he recited Qur’an. The Apostle of God walked on one side of the she-camel, and Hamza, the Lion of God, on the other.

All the young cavaliers of Banu Hashim rode as escorts of the bride, with gleaming swords held high. Behind them were the Muhajir and Ansar women, and behind them came the Muhajireen and the Ansar themselves. They were reciting hymns from Al-Qur’an al-Majid to the glory of God. The recitation of hymns was punctuated from time to time by thunderous shouts of Allah-o-Akbar.

This heavenly cavalcade made a circuit of the Great Mosque of Medina, and then halted at its destination – the house of the bridegroom – Ali ibn Abi Talib. Muhammad Mustafa aided his daughter in alighting from the she-camel. He held her hand, and symbolically placed it in the hand of her husband, and then, standing at the threshold of the house, said the following prayer:

“O Allah! I commend Fatima and Ali, Thy humble slaves, to Thy protection. Be Thou their Protector. Bless them. Be pleased with them, and bestow Thy boundless grace, mercy, and Thy best rewards upon them. Make their marriage fruitful, and make both of them steadfast in Thy love, and Thy service.”

It was a truly happy day in the life of Muhammad Mustafa. But how he must have wished that his beloved wife and friend, Khadija, were with him so both of them together could witness the wedding of their daughter.

A few days later, the Apostle of God called on his daughter, and asked her how she had found her husband. She said that she found him the best companion in giving devotion and obedience to God. Later, he asked Ali how he had found his wife, and he said that he found her the best companion in giving service to the Creator. The greatest moments of life for both husband and wife were those when they went into the Presence of their Lord, and were absorbed in praying to Him.

Between Ali and Fatima Zahra, there was total identity of interests. Both were brought up and educated by Muhammad Mustafa, the Messenger of God, and Khadija-tul-Kubra. Both, therefore, shared the ideals of their parents. Both put service to God ahead of everything else. There was absolutely no room for any disagreement between them. Their thoughts, words and deeds, all were “conditioned” by Al-Qur’an al-Majid. Their marriage therefore, was just as perfect and just as happy as the marriage of Muhammad and Khadija had been.

As noted above, Fatima's greatest pleasure was to wait upon Allah. She spent most of her time in prayer. Her second greatest pleasure was to carry out her duties toward her family. God was pleased to bestow upon her four children – first two boys and then two girls. She ground grain in a mill which her father had given her as part of her dowry, and baked bread for them. Grinding grain day after day caused blisters to form on her hands but she never complained to her husband or to her father about them, and did all her housework cheerfully.

The household duties could become quite exacting for Fatima Zahra but she found happiness and strength in the remembrance of God. The Book of God was her constant companion. She forgot the drudgery of work as she read passages from that book. And when she put her children to sleep in the crib, she again read selections from the same book as “lullabies” to them.

They grew up hearing Al-Qur’an al-Majid from their infancy. She etched the Word of God upon their young hearts. Through such “osmosis,” Qur’an and the children of Fatima Zahra became inseparable for all time.


Battle of Honain

The Victory of Makka brought many non believers into the fold of Islam. Broadly speaking there were three types who embraced Islam. Fear, greed and the true understanding of Islam and its principles. Some of the Makkans became Muslims for fear of their lives, they were afraid that the Prophet would kill them, others were simply frightened that the Holy Prophet with the help of Angel Gabriel would bring the wrath of God on them.

Then there was greed that Islam was now victorious, so if they joined in the good life would be theirs for free. Very few of them truly understood Islam and accepted it as a true faith. The Test of their true faith came immediately after the fall of Makka while Muslims were still in the sweet pleasure of this bloodless victory, that various tribes outside Makka gathered an army of 20,000 in Taif to fight the Muslims.

The hostile tribes decided to attack at a vantage point at Hunain and selected two prominent places where they concealed their archers. The Muslims were proud of their success in Makka, but their behavior during the encounter was timorous and cowardly. The Qur’an tells us this in (9:9):

“God came to your help on so many occasions, on the day of Honain, your vanity in the number of your soldiers and your arrogance did not prove any avail to you, you were badly defeated and could not find any place of shelter, you started running away without shame.”

This encounter took place in the month of Shawwal 8th Hijri (Jan 630 AD). When the Muslim army marched towards the place where archers were concealed the enemy opened the campaign with such a severe onslaught that the Muslim army could not stand it.

Their assault was fierce and confusion in the Muslim ranks made the archers bolder and they came nearer and attacked from both flanks and from the front. The Muslims could not stand the attack and started running without putting any resistance and where not concerned to leave the Prophet alone, (see Saheeh Bukhari).

The first battalion to run was the one in the command of Khalid ibne Waleed(Rauzathus Safa vol II page 137) This was followed by such a disorderly and tumultuous flight that only 10 people were left out of an army of 15,000 with the Holy Prophet. Eight of them were of Bani Hashim,(.Abbas, two of his sons, ‘Ali and three other cousins of the Holy Prophet)

Abbas was shouting to the Muslims to come back, reminding them of the oath of allegiance taken and promises made, but it was to no avail. Those who accepted Islam for greed , wealth and power were not willing to risk their lives.

Many of them who had carefully hidden their enmity from the rising power were happy at the defeat. They gathered round Abu Sofian, started congratulating him and saying, "The magical circle of the lying Prophet is broken,” They were praying for the return of Polytheism. 1.

Once again it fell to the lot of ‘Ali (as) to save the Holy Prophet and the Islam. Armies of Bani Hawaazen and Banu Saqeef under cover of their archers were rushing the hillock and were getting ready for a fierce onslaught.

‘Ali (as) divided the small band of faithful true Muslims in three divisions to Abdullah Ibne Masood, Abbas ibne Abdul Muttalib and Abu bin Harris has assigned the duty of protecting the Holy Prophet, to three he ordered to guard the rear and he himself faced the onslaught with only three warriors with him.

He fought, wounded at many places, but continued fighting when he faced the commander of the hostile army, Abu Jerdal in hand to hand fight and killed him with one stroke of his sword. He alone killed over 30 of the enemy and with this bravery his aids also fought bravely and enemy was defeated.

The day was saved, the commander of the enemy’s army was killed, their ranks were broken they had no courage to face ‘Ali (as) and they started retreating. The sight of the powerful army in retreat, made the fleeing Muslims bold and they came back as victory was won for them 2.

The defensive battles were over and the peaceful spread of Islam began. ‘Ali (as) was again in the forefront. He brought the whole tribe of Bani Hamdan to Islam by preaching . Similarly when he was sent to Yemen he brought the whole country in to the fold of Islam by his sermons.

This news so pleased the Holy Prophet that he bowed down in Sajdah to thank God three times and said loudly, peace be to Bani Hamdan and to ‘Ali. Again in the year 10th of Hijra ‘Ali’s sermon and preaching proved so effective that the whole province embraced Islam as one man.

In the 9th year of Hijra the famous event of Mobahela took place. Najran was a city in the province of Yemen. It was the center of Christian Missionary activities in southern Arabia. The Holy Prophet had written to the Chief Priest of the City to realize the blessings of Islam.

In reply he wrote that he personally would like to discuss the teachings of this new religion. His name was Haris. He was invited and came with a group of 14 priests.

These priests as guest of the Holy Prophet. Long discussions took place during the course of 4 days of their stay in Madina. When Sunday came the Chief priest wanted to go out of the city to have their Sunday Service. Prophet Islam said that they all have permission to conduct their religious service inside the mosque of the Prophet which they happily did.

Long discussions continued about monotheism verses trinity and it was realized that these priests were not open minded, on the contrary they were prejudiced against monotheism. The Almighty Lord ordered the Holy Prophet to explain to that:

“Verily Jesus is as Adam in the sight of God. He created Adam from dust. He said unto him, Be, and he was. This is truth from thy Lord. be not therefore one of those who doubt, and whoever shall dispute thee, say unto them, “come let us call together our sons and your sons, our women and your women, our Selves and your Selves, then let us make imprecations and lay the curse of God upon those who lie.” (3:61)

According to Bibi Ayesha when the above verse was revealed to the Apostle of God, he called ‘Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn and said, “Lord, this is my family (Ahlul Bayt). The Holy Prophet took this small family with them to the open land outside the city where they all assembled to bring the curse of God on those who lie.

When the Chief priest saw these faces, he told his companions that he was looking at the faces that if they call the mountain, the mountain will go them. Do not have Mobahela with them or you will be destroyed. On hearing this they all agreed to pay homage to the Holy Prophet and an annual tax for living in the Islamic State and withdrew from the scene.


Calligraphic Depiction of Ali as a Lion - History

Click on the image to zoom

Talismanic Chart
  • Accession Number:AKM536
  • Place:Iran
  • Dimensions:68.5 x 53.5 cm
  • Date:19th century
  • Materials and Technique:ink on gazelle skin

Whether hung on a wall or carried on the body, talismans such as this large-scale chart covered with various designs and inscriptions were believed to help secure blessings (baraka) and provide protection for individuals and places. This chart includes numerous magic squares and inscriptions inked on gazelle skin, whose crease marks suggest that it was folded into a smaller bundle and possibly nestled within a now-lost container.

Further Reading

While some Islamic talismans are block printed (see AKM508), others such as this one are inked by hand using gold, black, blue, and red pigments. In this instance, the rather translucent parchment is inscribed with a number of Qur&rsquoanic verses, the beautiful names of God (al-asma&rsquo al-husna), the invocation of &lsquoAli (nad-i &lsquoAli), amuletic texts dedicated to Husayn and Hasan, and a variety of prayers (du&lsquoas). Most of these prayers have their merits or virtues computed, while a magic square that includes a &ldquoprayer of washing&rdquo (du&lsquoa-i ghasilat) may have been intended to purify the believer during ablutions or to protect the deceased upon burial.

The talisman&rsquos textual contents, here written in miniature script, make use of parts of the Qur&rsquoan that are believed to be particularly apotropaic (effective at warding off evil influences). Considered an acceptable form of magic, this practice of making Qur&rsquoanic amulets is common across Islamic civilizations. However, this object&rsquos inclusion of the invocation to &lsquoAli (nad-i &lsquoAli) suggests a Shi&lsquoi milieu and points its manufacture in eastern Islamic lands, likely Iran. It probably was made during the Qajar period (1785&ndash1925), at which time paintings, icons, and amulets included overt Shi&lsquoi content.

In Shi&lsquoi spheres, &lsquoAli functions as both guardian and refuge&mdashmuch like the Qur&rsquoan. Invocations to &lsquoAli praise the Prophet Muhammad&rsquos son-in-law and cousin as the dispenser of miracles and succor in trying times. For these reasons, the nad-i &lsquoAli is often found on Islamic amulets and talismans. Moreover, since &lsquoAli&rsquos honorific epithet is the &ldquoLion of God&rdquo (haydar Allah), the nad-i &lsquoAli can be shaped into a calligraphic lion, a type of Shi&lsquoi calligram that is a hallmark of Iranian and Indian artistic traditions (see AKM526).

In addition to Qur&rsquoanic and other devotional inscriptions, amulets often display magic squares known as wafq, murabba&lsquo, or buduh. Magic squares are divided into cells whose number is equal along both horizontal and vertical axes, thereby creating a checkerboard pattern. The most popular in the Islamic world is the 4 × 4 magic square, also known as Plato&rsquos Square. Although some cells may be left blank, a number of words, letters, and numbers typically appear. Most often their alphanumerical results remain consistent across the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines&mdasha computational equilibrium that seeks to represent the harmony of the cosmos.

This talisman in the Aga Khan Museum is related to other Qajar-period, large-scale talismanic charts held in the Khalili Collection of Islamic Art and the Tareq Rajab Museum. These items likewise are made on gazelle skin, display crease marks, and were most likely preserved in amuletic cases. One also includes an inscription that states that the talisman will protect its owner from disease, plague, the evil eye, the devil, and other misfortunes, while another includes a dedication to the Qajar ruler Muzaffar al-Din Shah (r. 1896­&ndash1907). As a result, it is possible that the Aga Khan&rsquos talisman was made in the same Iranian royal workshop that specialized in the production of these types of talismanic charts around 1900.

Note: This online resource is reviewed and updated on an ongoing basis. We are committed to improving this information and will revise and update knowledge about this object as it becomes available.


Calligraphers blended the arts of writing and drawing

Calligraphy, from the Greek kallos (beauty) and graphein (to write) is the art of beautiful writing. It is believed that the practice of calligraphy originated in China during the second millennium BC, eventually spreading to the Middle East. The art of transcribing the Qur’an in beautiful hand was considered a form of devotion and an act of piety. Through its medium, verses from the Qur’an and other revered writings became modes of refined decoration. In Muslim regions, calligraphy can be found everywhere – on the exteriors as well as interiors of the buildings. Decorative words transferred knowledge and religious teachings from one generation to another.

In the first centuries of Islam, copies of the Qur’an were written on parchment and a number of different styles of script became prominent. The term kufic, derived from the city of Kufa, in Iraq, where a particular variant of the angular style developed, came to be used generically to denote all angular scripts. While not an easy script to read, kufic provided great aesthetic delight.

Over time, six major styles developed, which were codified at the beginning of the tenth century by the vizier Ibn Muqla (d. 939), and which, since then, have served as a guide even today for all Islamic calligraphers.

Bismillah is six styles: (top to bottom) Riqa, Naskhi,Nastaliq, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Square Kufic (Image: Elke Niewohner))

Calligraphers also blended the arts of writing and drawing to form animal shapes such as the lion, an artefact dated seventeenth century India, in the collection of the Aga Khan Museum.

The Arabic text is a supplication to Imam Ali – Nade Ali. Imam Ali, known for his courage, was often referred to by Muslim as “The Lion of God.” 17 Century India. Aga Khan Museum

The Arabic text is a supplication to Imam Ali, who, because of his courage, was known by the Muslims as “The Lion of God.”

Calligraphic Nade-a Ali prayer arranged in the form of a bird on a standard, or alam, that would have been used in religious processions dated Dlehi, India, 17th century. Victoria & Albert Museum

The prayer, Nade Ali, is used by Shia Muslims to seek Ali’s support in times of difficulties.


The First Imam:

Amir al-Mu'minin, `Ali (upon whom be peace) was the son of Abu Talib, the Shaykh of the Banu Hashim. Abu Talib was the uncle and guardian of the Holy Prophet and the person who had brought the Prophet to his house and raised him like his own son. After the Prophet was chosen for his prophetic mission. Abu Talib continued to support him and repelled from him the evil that came from the infidels among the Arabs and especially the Quraysh.

According to well-known traditional accounts, `Ali was born ten years before the commencement of the prophetic mission of the Prophet. When six years old, as a result of famine in and around Mecca, he was requested by the Prophet to leave his father's house and come to the house of his cousin, the Prophet. There he was placed directly under the guardianship and custody of the Holy Prophet.

A few years later, when the Prophet was endowed with the Divine Gift of prophecy and for the first time received the Divine Revelation in the cave of Hira', as he left the cave to return to town and his own house he met 'Ali on the way. He told him what had happened and `Ali accepted the new faith. Again in a gathering when the Holy Prophet had brought his relatives together and invited them to accept his religion, he said the first person to accept his call would be his vicegerent and inheritor and deputy. The only person to rise from his place and accept the faith was Ali and the Prophet accepted his declaration of faith. Therefore, `Ali was the first man in Islam to accept the faith and is the first among the followers of the Prophet to have never worshipped other than the One God.

Ali was always in the company of the Prophet until the Prophet emigrated from Mecca to Medina. On the night of the emigration to Medina (hijrah) when the infidels had surrounded the house of the Prophet and were determined to invade the house at the end of the night and cut him to pieces while he was in bed. Ali slept in place of the Prophet while the Prophet left the house and set out for Medina. After the departure of the Prophet, according to his wish `Ali gave back to the people the trusts and charges that they had left with the Prophet. Then he went to Medina with his mother, the daughter of the Prophet, and two other women. In Medina also `Ali was constantly in the company of the Prophet in private and in public. The Prophet gave Fatimah, his sole, beloved daughter from Khadijah, to `Ali as his wife and when the Prophet was creating bonds of brotherhood among his companions, he selected `Ali as his brother.

`Ali was present in all the wars in which the Prophet participated, except the battle of Tabuk when he was ordered to stay in Medina in place of the Prophet. He did not retreat in any battle nor did he turn his face away from any enemy. He never disobeyed the Prophet, so that the Prophet said: "`Ali is never separated from the Truth, nor the Truth from Ali."

On the day of the death of the Prophet, Ali was thirty-three years old. Although he was foremost in religious virtues and the most outstanding among the companions of the Prophet, he was pushed aside from the caliphate on the claim that he was too young and that he had many enemies among the people because of the blood of the polytheists he had spilled in the wars fought alongside the Prophet. Therefore, `Ali was almost completely cut off from public affairs. He retreated to his house where he began to train competent individuals in the Divine sciences and in this way he passed the twenty-five years of the caliphate of the first three caliphs who (came to power after the Prophet the first by election of few Muslims the second appointed by the first and the third, chosen out of six unequal candidates nominated by the second caliph. . . ). When the third caliph was killed, people gave their allegiance to him and he was chosen as Caliph.

During his caliphate of nearly four years and nine months, `Ali followed, exactly, the way of the Prophet and gave his caliphate the form of a spiritual movement and renewal and began many different types of reforms. Naturally, these reforms were against the interests of certain parties that sought their own benefit. As a result, a group of the companions (foremost among whom were Talhah and az-Zubayr, who also gained the support of `A'ishah, and especially Mu'awiyah) made a pretext of the death of the third caliph to raise their heads in opposition
and began to revolt and rebel against `Ali.

In order to quell the civil strife and sedition, `Ali fought successfully a war near Basrah known as the "Battle of the Camel," against Talhah and az-Zubayr in which `A'ishah, "the Mother of the Faithful," was also involved. He fought another war against Mu'awiyah on the border of Iraq and Syria which lasted for a year and a half and is famous as the "Battle of Siffin". He also fought the Khawarij at Nahrawan, in a battle known as the "Battle of Nahrawan". Therefore, most of the days of `Ali's caliphate were spent in overcoming internal opposition. Finally, in the morning of the 19th Ramadan in the year 40 AH, while praying in the mosque of Kufah, he was wounded by one of the Khawarij and died as a martyr during the night of the 21st.

According to the testimony of friend and foe alike, `Ali had no shortcomings from the point of view of human perfection. And in the Islamic virtues he was a perfect example of the upbringing and training given by the Holy Prophet. The discussions that have taken place concerning his personality and the books written on this subject by Shiites, Sunnis and members of other religions, as well as the simply curious outside any distinct religious bodies, are hardly equalled in the case of any other personality in history. In science and knowledge `Ali was the most learned of the companions of the Prophet, and of Muslims in general. In his learned discourses he was the first in Islam to open the door for logical demonstration and proof and to discuss the "divine science" or metaphysics (ma'arif-e ilahiyyah). He spoke concerning the esoteric aspect of the Qur'an and devised Arabic grammar in order to preserve the Qur'an's form of expression. He was the most eloquent Arab in speech (as has been mentioned in the first part of this book).

The courage of `Ali was proverbial. In all the wars in which he participated during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet, and also afterward, he never displayed fear or anxiety. Although in many battles such as those of Uhud, Hunayn, Khaybar and Khandaq, the aides to the Prophet and the Muslim army trembled in fear or dispersed and fled, he never turned back to the enemy. Never did a warrior or soldier engage Ali in battle and come out of it alive. Yet, with full chivalry he would never slay a weak enemy nor pursue those who fled. He would not engage in surprise attacks or in turning streams of water upon the enemy. It has been definitely established historically that in the Battle of Khaybar in the attack against the fort he reached the ring of the door and with sudden motion tore off the door and cast it away. Also, on the day when Mecca was conquered the Prophet ordered the idols to be broken. The idol "Hubal" was the largest idol in Mecca, a giant stone statue placed on the top of the Ka'bah. Following the command of the Holy Prophet, `Ali placed his feet on the Prophet's shoulders, climbed to the top of the Ka'bah, pulled "Hubal" from its place and cast it down.

`Ali was also without equal in religious asceticism and the worship of God. In answer to some who had complained of Ali's anger toward them, the Holy Prophet said: "Do not reproach 'Ali for he is in a state of Divine ecstasy and bewilderment." Abu 'd-Darda', one of the companions, one day saw the body of 'Ali in one of the palm plantations of Medina lying on the ground as stiff as wood. He went to `Ali's house to inform his noble wife, the daughter of the Prophet, and to express his condolences. The daughter of the Prophet said: "My
cousin (`Ali) has not died. Rather, in fear of God he has fainted. This condition overcomes him often."

There are many stories told of `Ali's kindness to the lowly, compassion for the needy and the poor, and generosity and munificence toward those in misery and poverty. `Ali spent all that he earned to help the poor and the needy, and himself lived in the strictest and simplest manner. 'Ali loved agriculture and spent much of his time digging wells, planting trees and cultivating fields. But all the fields that he cultivated or wells that he built he gave in endowment (waqf) to the poor. His endowments, known as the "alms of `Ali," had the noteworthy income of twenty-four thousand gold dinars towards the end of his life. (Shi'ite Islam)


Images of enlightenment: aniconic vs. iconic depictions of the Buddha in India

Representing divine figures has long been a thorny issue. After all, depicting the divine in human form would seem to define and limit the divine in a manner which seems to contradict the idea of God as infinite and all-powerful. There’s also the fourth commandment, as offered in the Hebrew Bible, which reads:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:1-17)

While this commandment has been interpreted in various ways, Judaism and Islam both prohibit the representation of God and other divine figures in human form. Christianity has long relied on images of God, Christ, and the saints as a way of educating the public, but even so, at several points in history, images of divine figures were destroyed—often violently (the destruction of images is called “iconoclasm”). The earliest images of the Buddha also appear to avoid depicting him in human form, though scholars are still debating why this is the case.

Buddha, enlightenment and the Bodhi tree

The man who became known as the Buddha was a Hindu prince, named Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in the 5th or 6th century B.C.E. to a royal family—the leaders of the Shakya clan—living in what is now Nepal. When he was about 29 years old, Prince Siddhartha (who was also known as Shakyamuni) traveled outside of his sheltered palace and encountered an old man, a sick man, and a corpse—figures that, for the prince, epitomized the pain and suffering of the world. He also encountered an ascetic, someone who has chosen to abstain from the pleasures of life in order to pursue spiritual knowledge. After this experience, Prince Siddhartha decided to renounce his luxurious, royal life and to travel around the countryside as an ascetic, meditating and studying. Ultimately, Prince Siddhartha was seeking an end to worldly pain and suffering, and a release from the cycle of rebirth and death (samsara) that characterizes Hindu concepts of time (more on Hinduism and Buddhism here).

One of the most important moments in the story of Prince Siddhartha is when he reached spiritual enlightenment—a state of infinite knowledge—and became known as the Buddha or “the enlightened one.” This occurred about six years after the prince renounced his royal life, while he was meditating underneath a fig tree outside a small village in the present-day state of Bihar, India. The fig tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment became known as the Bodhi (“awakened” or “enlightened”) tree, and the place where the Buddha sat became an important tirtha or sacred place known as Bodh Gaya (“awakened” or “enlightened” place).

Detail, Enlightenment face of Prasenajit pillar, from Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, India, Sunga period, c. 100-80 B.C.E. reddish brown sandstone (Indian Museum, Kolkata) (photo: Anandajoti Bhikkhu, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Early images of the Buddha at Bharhut

Some of the earliest depictions of the Buddha reaching enlightenment appear as sculptural friezes on the exterior of sacred Buddhist monuments known as stupas, which Buddhist monks and nuns built as part of their monastic complexes (more on stupas here).

One such depiction is originally from the stupa at Bharhut in the present-day state of Madhya Pradesh, India (left). Carved in reddish-brown sandstone sometime around 80-100 B.C.E. this depiction appears on a railing (vedika) pillar that once surrounded the main stupa. The scene shows several figures kneeling and standing on an architectural form that encircles a large tree.

The place of enlightenment or the moment of enlightenment?

An inscription that accompanies this scene, carved into the roof of the architectural form, identifies it as “the Bodhi tree of holy Shakyamuni” [1] which has led some scholars to interpret this depiction as the location, or the tirtha, where the Buddha’s enlightenment took place—the tree under which Prince Siddhartha reached enlightenment and the temple that devotees later constructed at this sacred site.

Some of the figures in the scene appear kneeling in prayer in front of an altar at the base of the tree. Celestial beings fly near the top of the tree, and appear to toss flower garlands on the branches. Their presence reinforces the sacrality of the site.

On the right side of the relief, we see a pillar topped with an elephant capital, which, scholars argue, supports the interpretation of this scene as the site of enlightenment. This pillar recalls those constructed by Emperor Ashoka—one of the first Buddhist rulers in India—who erected pillars with animal capitals at important sites of the Buddha’s life (below, left).

Ashokan pillar, c. 279 B.C.E. – 232 B.C.E, Vaishali, India (where Buddha preached his last sermon). Photo: Rajeev Kumar, CC: BY-SA 2.5)

In this interpretation, the Bharhut scene could be a depiction of pilgrimage—the kneeling devotees could be Buddhist practitioners traveling to Bodh Gaya as part of religious devotion, to visit the site where the Buddha reached enlightenment hundreds of years before.

However, some scholars argue that it is not simply the location (tirtha) of the Buddha’s enlightenment depicted in this scene, but rather the actual moment of enlightenment itself—complete with an aniconic, symbolic representation of the Buddha. (What does aniconic mean?)

In this interpretation of the scene on the pillar from Bharhut, the Buddha appears not in human form—but rather symbolically, represented by the altar. What we are seeing here is a representation of the Buddha’s formless state upon reaching spiritual enlightenment. In fact, some believe the inscription translates as “enlightenment of the Holy One Shakyamuni”[2] rather than the “Bodhi tree of holy Shakyamuni”—a reading that supports the interpretation of this scene as a depiction of the event of enlightenment not simply the place where enlightenment happened.

Other aniconic images of the Buddha

Story of Serpent King Erapata, with Erapata worshipping empty throne, on Prasenajit pillar, from Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, India, Sunga period, c. 100-80 B.C.E., reddish brown sandstone (Indian Museum, Kolkata) (photo: Anandajoti Bhikkhu, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Along the same lines, scholars argue that other sculptural friezes at important early Buddhist stupas like Bharhut depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, with the Buddha represented in aniconic form—as an empty throne (above), a wheel signifying the Buddha’s creation of the Wheel of Law or Dharma (below, right), or footsteps (below, left), and sometimes even as a stupa (see the image at the top of this page). A third way to interpret the enlightenment scene from the Bharhut stupa and other so-called aniconic depictions of the Buddha is to read them as depictions of Buddhist doctrine or belief.

Left: Descent on Ajatachatru pillar, from Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, India. Sunga period, c. 100-80 B.C.E., reddish brown sandstone and right: Wheel of Law on Prasenajit pillar, from Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, India, Sunga period, c. 100-80 B.C.E., reddish brown sandstone (both, Indian Museum, Kolkata) (photo: Anandajoti Bhikkhu, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Imagining the Buddha’s Corporeal Body

This trend of depicting the Buddha in aniconic form continues until after the turn of the 1st century C.E. with the development of Mahayana Buddhism when we begin to see a large number of images of the Buddha in human or anthropomorphic form (below). These new, iconic images of the Buddha were particularly popular in the region of Gandhara (in present-day Pakistan) during the Kushana period and include depictions of the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya (below). These anthropomorphic images usher in a new phase of Buddhist art in which artists convey meaning through the depiction of special bodily marks (lakshanas) and hand gestures (mudras) of the Buddha. In this anthropomorphic image of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the artist depicts Prince Siddhartha seated on a throne, surrounded by the demon Mara and his army, who attempted—unsuccessfully—to thwart Prince Siddhartha’s attainment of enlightenment. At the moment of enlightenment, the prince reaches his right hand towards the ground in a gesture (or mudra, and specifically the bhumisparshamudra) ) of calling the earth to witness his spiritual awakening. In doing so he becomes the Buddha.

Sculptural fragment depicting Buddha’s enlightenment, Gandhara, Kushana period, 2nd-3rd century C.E., schist, (Smithsonian, Freer Gallery of Art)

Additional resources:

Vidya Dehejia, “Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems,” Ars Orientalis vol. 21 (1991), pp. 45 – 66.

Susan L. Huntington, “Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism,” Art Journal vol. 49.4 (1990), pp. 401 – 408.


Persian calligraphy takes flight

In the late 14th century, Mir Ali Tabrizi, a calligrapher in the royal workshop in Tabriz — a city then ruled by a Mongol dynasty, now part of modern-day Iran — had a life-changing dream. The prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, a revered figure for Muslims who is also seen as the progenitor of Islamic calligraphy, appeared in his dream and told him to create letters “like the wings of flying geese.” And so, the legend goes, nasta’liq, a calligraphic script primarily used to write Persian poetry, was born.

This style of calligraphy, which seems almost to float on the page in its graceful fluidity, is the subject of an exhibit at the Sackler Gallery. It examines the conception and development of nasta’liq — still widely used in Iran today — during its formative period, from about 1400 to 1600, showing how it became one of the most refined forms of Persian artistic expression.

The exhibit features manuscripts, folios and other examples by Mir Ali, considered the inventor of the script, and three other prominent early practitioners, the last of whom, Mir Imad Hasani, marks the end of the period. These masters are to Iranian art history what Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo are to the Western world, artists as revered now as in their day. They were patronized by royal courts, their work sought after and avidly collected in albums by connoisseurs. Decades or even generations after they died, fragments of their calligraphy were incorporated by painters and other artisans into splendid original works that allowed for new interpretations and appreciation.

Calligraphy has traditionally been one of the most significant art forms in the Islamic world, due in part to the (not always followed) religious proscription on the depiction of human images. But before the development of nasta’liq, the Arabic script — which is written from right to left and can be rendered in a variety of forms and styles — was not well-suited for writing the Persian language.

Mir Ali’s innovation was to combine elements of two established writing styles, naskh and ta’liq, to create a cursive script (naskh-i ta’liq, later shortened to nasta’liq) that, with its long horizontal lines, short vertical strokes and pronounced curves, was seen as more fitting for Persian, particularly for reflecting the cadences of poetry. In the period that followed, nasta’liq spread across a wide expanse of the Muslim world where Persian was used: west to the Ottoman Empire, east to the Mughal Dynasty in the Indian subcontinent, and north to the Uzbek Khanate of Bukhara in Central Asia.

Folio of calligraphy (1611-1612) signed by Mir Imad Hasani, whose oeuvre was considered the pinnacle of nasta’liq. (Freer Gallery of Art)

Among the most important items in the exhibit is the only known signed work by Mir Ali: a manuscript, circa 1400, of the famous Persian love story of Khosrow and Shirin by Nizami, that reveals the emergence of nasta’liq.

But by far the most impressive pieces are the large-scale calligraphic renderings of individual quatrains of poetry, known as qit’as, which starting about the beginning of the 16th century were mounted on the diagonal and turned into stand-alone works of art, often with elaborate decorative embellishments. In this format, nasta’liq becomes visually uplifting, conveying a great sense of movement — you can almost feel the gliding motion of the calligrapher’s hand, the letters seemingly rippling behind the pen. Like the flying geese in Mir Ali’s dream, the sinuous lines appear to soar up and off the page.

Safavid Persian and Mughal rulers, in particular, commissioned leading artisans to enhance especially treasured examples of these quatrains, adding intricate gold-leaf illuminations, Persian miniature-style watercolor paintings of flowers, birds and human figures and scenes, and patterned margins.

The indisputable highlights are two colorful panels showing the same quatrain, with slight variations in the rendering of the letters, executed and signed by Mir Imad in the early 17th century. More than 100 years later, the lines of script were cut out of their original leaves into “clouds” that were pasted onto richly painted floral backgrounds and then framed with concentric borders in deep reds and blues with brocade-like patterns in gold leaf.

The brilliant Mir Imad was renowned from Istanbul to Delhi and regarded by some as a “second Mir Ali,” but such great fame did not come without a price: The master calligrapher was murdered in 1615. One story says the Safavid Persian Shah Abbas I had him killed for impudence another that Mir Imad’s rival, Ali Riza, orchestrated his murder a third theory was that sectarian differences were to blame and that he was killed for allegedly being a Sunni in the Shiite Safavid Empire.

“He was so famous that when the Mughal ruler Jahangir heard of Mir Imad’s assassination, he said, ‘Shah Abbas should have given him to me, and I would have paid his weight in pearls.’ Jahangir would have paid a fortune to have Mir Imad alive and working for him,” said Simon Rettig, the exhibition curator.

Regardless of the reason for Mir Imad’s death, his oeuvre was considered the pinnacle of nasta’liq — perhaps one reason why later collectors commissioned such elaborate reworkings of pieces from the period.

And what of the poetry itself? The quatrains inscribed so elegantly in these panels include excerpts from well-known Persian bards, such as the 14th-century mystic Hafez, as well as those penned by the calligraphers’ contemporaries, including some of the rulers who were their patrons. But the few translations that have been provided sound rather stilted: Lines such as “May the desire of your soul always laugh like the lip of the goblet” surely sounded better in the original.

But a command of the language is in no way necessary to appreciate the beauty of these pieces, for their impact comes far more from their visual power than from their literal meaning. Even for the Persian-speaking connoisseurs who appreciated the calligraphy during the era in which it was produced, the true appeal of nasta’liq lay in the virtuosity of the pen strokes and the subtlety of the lines, while the substance of the poetry became almost inconsequential.

With nasta’liq, Rettig says, “You meditate on the line and the physicality of the writing,” not necessarily on the meaning. “That is the genius of Persian calligraphy. . . . The text doesn’t matter, finally.”

In our modern age of computer-generated fonts and electronic communications, when handwriting seems almost in danger of becoming obsolete, a six-century-old Persian script that has a captivating beauty today certainly seems like something worth reflecting on.


Lion and Sun on the 3-colored flag, Meaning of the colors:

The actual meaning of the colors is heavily debated. In general, Green is said to represent Islam, white peace and industriousness and red for courage. The latter color (red) was reported among Sassanian troops by Ammianus Marcellinus (24.8, 1).
Simply put, the tri-color Iranian flag with the Lion-Sun motif has been established as the national Iranian flag during the Constitutional Revolution which was greatly indebted to Sattar Khan. What is significant is that the Iranian flag during the Constitutional revolt was not solely representative of the ruling cast at the time – the Qajars.
In fact, it is by all appearances very similar to its predecessors in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1964,
The roots of the sword-wielding lion and sun can be traced back across the millennia to ancient Iranian mythology, astrology, statecraft, and cultural identity.


Khusraw Discovers Shirin Bathing

By Corey Rice

Khusraw Discovers Shirin Bathing, From Pictorial Cycle of Eight Poetic Subjects, mid 18th century, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 88.9 cm, Shiraz, Iran (Brooklyn Museum)

On the bank of a cool spring in a lush meadow, a beautiful princess swoons at the sight of a young prince who has stumbled upon her bathing. To an eighteenth century audience, the pair would have been immediately recognizable as Shirin and Khusraw, two of the most famous lovers in the history of Persian literature. Although rendered in oils with a palette indebted to the European Renaissance, the canvas immediately betrays its Islamic origin in its carefully rounded top—it was designed to fit into the window-shaped niches common in Persian architecture of the period. Putatively titled Khusraw Discovers Shirin Bathing, the work emerges from a cycle of eight paintings that share a similar style and scale, depicting scenes of hunt as well as events drawn from biblical, Qur’anic, and poetic narratives.

For the Love of Images

The content of the painting derives from Nizami’s Khamsa, an immensely popular quintet of poems compiled in the thirteenth century. Of the stories recounted, the tale of the love shared between Shirin, a Lebanese princess, and Khusraw, a Sasanian prince, was most celebrated for its romantic appeal and poetic rendering. Nizami’s telling of the story emphasizes the power of words and images to inflame the passions of the two lovers. The story is set in motion when Khusraw, aroused by the vivid description of Shirin’s beauty by his court painter, Shapur, sends the artist off to lure the princess into his kingdom.

Shirin Examines the Portrait of Khusraw (miniature from the manuscript Khamsa by Nizami), 1431, gouache, 23.7 x 13.7 cm, Timurid Dynasty, Iran (Hermitage Museum)

Upon arriving in Lebanon, Shapur baits the princess by planting paintings of Khusraw in her path over the course of three days. At first Shirin’s handmaidens destroy Khusraw’s image and burn rue (an herb) to break the painting’s spell. However, on the third day, Shirin falls in love with the man in the painting and learns of his identity from Shapur. A tremendously popular subject for illustration, Shirin’s enchantment by the image of Khusraw underscores the esteemed position held by figural imagery in Persian culture.

Setting the Seen

Heart aflutter and with the aid of Shabdiz, her aunt’s famously fast horse, Shirin abandons her companions at the next day’s hunt and departs for Persia. Meanwhile, because of conspiring adversaries, Khusraw is forced to flee his palace in disguise and sets a course for Armenia to find Shirin.

What follows is Nizami’s account of the fated meeting of the lovers depicted in the present painting:

For fourteen days and fourteen nights she [Shirin] traveled. Then she came upon an emerald field in which there gleamed a gentle pool… When she had satisfied herself that she was quite alone, she tethered Shabdiz and prepared to bathe. Beautiful was the whiteness of her skin against the blueness of the water. She loosed her braids and washed her long black hair, and the moon-like reflection of her face was caught in the shallows of the pool (Chelkowski, 25).

Meanwhile, Khusraw’s rapid departure from his palace brings him into the vicinity of the princess.

[H]e ordered his attendants to feed their horses while he rode on alone. Suddenly, he came upon the pool in the emerald field and saw Shirin sitting in the water like a lily. At the sight of her his heart caught fire and burned he trembled with desire in every limb. Softly he rode toward her and whispered to himself how he would like to have such a beautiful maiden and such a black horse as hers…Suddenly, Shirin looked up. Startled, she gathered her black hair about her like a cloak, emerged from the pool, dressed, and mounted her horse. At the touch of her heel, Shabdiz carried her off into the shadows of the late afternoon (Chelkowski, 26).

Narrative Infidelities

Beyond the inclusion of Khusraw in the vicinity of the bathing Shirin, very little of the painting corresponds to Nizami’s telling of the event. Khusraw appears in royal attire, undisguised, while the queen’s famous black horse is rendered in silver and brown. While these minor contradictions to the text perpetuate errors common in earlier miniatures, the addition of three extraneous figures complicates a story that hinges upon the intimacy established by the isolation of the characters from their retinue.

Shirin (left) and Khursaw (right) (details), Khusraw Discovers Shirin Bathing, From Pictorial Cycle of Eight Poetic Subjects, mid 18th century, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 88.9 cm, Shiraz, Iran (Brooklyn Museum)

Shirin and her attendant appear to notice Khusraw’s approach before he sets his sight on the princess. Both women look up toward the prince, guiding the viewer’s attention toward his presence in the center of the canvas. Khusraw and his companion appear unaware of the princess and her attendant. Khusraw, gesturing to his face and looking to the sky, appears in a state of distracted reverie. A contrary reading of the painting might interpret the rosy cheeks of Khusraw and his partner as indicating their awareness of the bathing Shirin. Khusraw’s gesture transforms into the coy reaction of a voyeur who has been caught looking.

Blending Traditions

Persian painting prior to the introduction of European oil on canvas techniques survive primarily as wall murals or as manuscript miniatures. Consequently, the aesthetic appreciation of a painted narrative was either extremely intimate or communally shared. Easel painting, the dominant mode operating in Europe in the 18th century, offered a productive middle ground. Painting on canvas permitted greater flexibility in size and portability while loosening the physical connection of images to textual description.

Shaikh Zada, Khusrau Catches Sight of Shirin Bathing, Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami, c. 1524-25, ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, page: 32.1 x 22.2 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The muted palette and chiaroscuro used by the painter of Khusraw Discovers Shirin Bathing shows the influence of European conventions. Nevertheless, the absence of perspectival space and subsequent flattening of figures in the painting are indebted to the Persian manuscript tradition. The artist’s contact with European art was likely one of technical innovation rather than pictorial convention. Such superficial integration of foreign aesthetics by Persian artists is characteristic of a broader, global blending of regional styles due to increased trade contacts and political conflict during this period. It would not be until the early nineteenth century that Persian painters were sent to Europe to be trained in this mode.

The installation of arch-topped canvases within architectural niches extended the tradition of mural painting on walls of palaces into a broader social sphere. Historical records confirm that earlier mural paintings depicting scenes from Nizami’s poetry were supplemented by panels of explanatory text. Such an addition would certainly temper the artistic liberties taken by the painting’s creator. The subjects depicted in the cycle from which the present painting comes suggest that the paintings were hung in a room used for entertaining guests either in a home or pavilion. Here, the paintings would serve to stimulate conversation among educated visitors.


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