Power and Piety: Islamic Talismans on the Battlefield (on view August 29, 2016–February 13, 2017) is an unprecedented exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art that examines the role of talismans in the construction, function, and decoration of arms and armor throughout the Islamic world. Through the collaboration of the Departments of Islamic Art and Arms and Armor, thirty objects—the majority of which have never been on view—have come together to demonstrate the merging of cultural, social, religious, and artistic practices.
The use of talismans—objects that are believed to be imbued with magical properties that empower, guide, and protect their owners from danger, evil, harm, and sickness—is a global and culture-wide practice. In the Islamic world, it is common belief that objects with religious verbal and/or visual motifs, such as those concerning Allah (God), the Prophet Muhammad, and verses from the Qur’an, will protect the individual who reads, sees, or touches it. Talismans can cover a wide variety of items including coins, rings, and amulets. Due to their protective nature, talismans especially take the form of objects that are used in uncertain and perilous circumstances, such as arms and armor.
When we think of arms and armor, we often think of bravery, valor, and strength, but the inclusion of talismanic motifs reveals a vulnerable side to war by acting as a method of empowerment to assuage fear and uncertainty. Their presence provides metaphysical protection to the physical.
This catalogue, a digital accompaniment to the exhibition, provides information on and access to the materials and objects that are on display. It is hoped that this publication makes a contribution to the ongoing study on the role and importance of talismans in Islamic society.
Maryam Ekhtiar, Associate Curator, Department of Islamic Art
Rachel Parikh, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow, Department of Arms and Armor
The exhibition and publication was made possible by the great assistance, time, and kindness of a plethora of Museum staff. We are indebted to Sheila Canby, Patti Cadby Birch Curator in Charge of the Department of Islamic Art, for all of her support with the exhibition and making it possible. From the Department of Islamic Art, we are especially grateful to Julia Cohen, former research assistant; Annick Des Roches, collections manager; and Douglas Geiger, supervising departmental technician. We also would like to thank Charles Dixon, departmental technician; and Alzahraa Ahmed, 2015–16 Hagop Kevorkian Fellow.
We are appreciative of the support of Pierre Terjanian, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator in Charge of the Department of Arms and Armor. We are greatly indebted to the time and talent of Edward Hunter, conservator; and Sean Belair, 2014-16 Annette de la Renta Fellow in Conservation. We are thankful to Stuart Pyhrr, distinguished research curator, for his help and consultation.
From the Department of Paper Conservation we are grateful to Yana van Dyke, conservator; and Rebecca Capua, assistant conservator. From the Department of Textile Conservation, we are grateful to Florica Zaharia, conservator in charge; and Janina Poskrobko, conservator. From the Department of Objects Conservation, we are grateful to J-F de Laperouse, conservator; as well as Jacob Goble and Shoji Miyazawa, associate conservation preparators.
From the Design Department, we are indebted to Dan Kershaw, exhibition design manager. We are grateful to Connie Norkin, graphic design manager; and Maanik Chauhan, senior production designer. We would also like to thank Josh Nusbaum, production designer; and David Stith, freelance production artist. From the Editorial Department, we are appreciative for the hard work of Beth Gordon, associate editor. We would also like to thank Jennifer Bantz, senior rditor. From Marketing and External Relations, we are thankful to Egle Zygas, senior press officer.
We want to also thank all those involved from the Buildings Department. Without their handwork, time, and support, this beautiful exhibition would not have been possible.
From we would like to thank Bruce Schwarz, senior photographer in the Imaging Department; and Stephen Bluto, collections manager in the Department of Arms and Armor, for the photography of these objects and for capturing their beauty.
From the Digital Department, we are appreciative of the help of Anne Dunleavy, website managing editor; and Lauren Nemroff, senior manager of Digital Content. We would like to especially thank Michael Cirigliano, website editor, whose help, time, and assistance has made this publication possible.
© 2016 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. All rights reserved.
[Citation: Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Rachel Parikh. Power and Piety: Islamic Talismans on the Battlefield. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016.]
Throughout the Islamic world, the faithful commonly believe that objects bearing the word “God” (Allah), his ninety-nine beautiful names (Al-Asma al-Husna), Qur’anic inscriptions, prayers, religious phrases from exegetical texts, or references to Muslim holy figures possess beneficial powers that ward off danger, misfortune, and sickness. Made from a variety of media, such talismans were often used in uncertain and perilous circumstances. Divine protection was especially desired by men at war in order to ensure safety and success on the battlefield. Inscriptions and visual symbols transformed weapons, armor, and other martial objects into conduits between the owner-worshipper and Muslim holy figures, enabling the former to ask the latter for protection, guidance, and success.
While these talismans were meant to empower, they also denoted a sense of vulnerability and a fear of danger and the unknown. The five sections of the exhibition, and of this accompanying catalogue, present the roles talismanic motifs played in the construction, function, and decoration of arms and armor from the Islamic world. The first establishes the context for understanding the inscriptions and symbols adorning these objects through various textual and iconographic sources. The second through fourth sections are divided according to geographic region: Iran, Turkey, and India and Southeast Asia; collectively, they demonstrate how Islamic talismans were adapted and appropriated across vast stretches of the Muslim world. The final section concludes with a group of personal items that may have been used on or off the battlefield.
There are several main textual and visual sources that were, and still are, believed to have talismanic properties; these inspired the magical motifs that decorate Islamic arms and armor. What becomes immediately clear is that, going through each geographical category, these materials have profoundly impacted each region and have been adapted into the construction, function, and ornament of arms and armor.
The Qur’an: Verses, passages, or entire suras (chapters) from the Muslim holy book appear as talismans. One of the most popular verses is the Ayat al-Kursi (Throne Verse, 2:255), a fundamental statement of divine power often recited as a defense against fear. Other suras used in a military context include: Surat al-Saff (Ranks, Battle Array, 61), Surat al-Fath (Victory, 48), and Sura Ya Sin (36).
Al-Asma al-Husna (Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God): The Prophet Muhammad is said to have invoked Allah (God) by a number of names. Over time, the list was condensed to a total of ninety-nine names that are most commonly used.
Ahl al-Bayt (People of the House): This refers to the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate family: ‘Ali, his cousin and son-in-law; Fatima, his daughter and ‘Ali’s wife; and Hasan and Husayn, his grandsons. While both Sunnis and Shi‘is venerate Islam’s holiest family, the latter are particularly devoted to the Ahl al-Bayt, as they consider its members to be the true heirs of the Prophet in protecting and preserving the Muslim faith.
Dhu’l Fiqar: This is the bifurcated sword that Muhammad presented to ‘Ali at the Battle of Uhud in A.D. 625 and whose magical powers were demonstrated in ‘Ali’s subsequent victories. Both Shi‘is and Sunnis regard this sword as a potent talisman and as a symbol for ‘Ali himself. According to Sunnis, ‘Ali is the fourth and final of the Rashidun (Rightly Guided) caliphs, the religious successors to Muhammad. Shi‘is, however, revere ‘Ali as the Prophet’s rightful successor and the first imam, or spiritual leader.
Nad-i ‘Ali (Call upon ‘Ali): The Nad-i ‘Ali is a Shi‘i prayer intended to invoke ‘Ali, especially during times of hardship and uncertainty. It states: “Call upon ‘Ali, whose miracles manifest. You will find Him your helper in calamities. Every anxiety and grief will come to an end through your friendship, O ‘Ali, O ‘Ali, O ‘Ali!”
The names of the Ahl al-Bayt, the five holy figures central to Shi‘i piety, appear on weapons, armor, and military accoutrements from Iran, India, and other regions with large Shi‘i populations. In the rectangular cartouche above, “Allah,” “Muhammad,” and “’Ali” are seen against a ground of micrographia of Qur’anic verses. The large ornate lettering of “Fatima,” “Hasan,” and “Husayn” contains Qur’anic verses in ghubar (dust-like) script with seven inscriptions in red identifying the corresponding auras.
Section from a Qur’an
The Qur’an is the most widely cited source for talismans used on the battlefield. Passages from specific suras appear frequently on weapons, helmets, and other armor, infusing them with the magical properties necessary both to empower a warrior and to shield him from harm. The folios displayed here feature two lines of text per page in large muhaqqaq script set inside cloud bands against a background of scrolls. The large size of the script suggests that this section once belonged to a multivolume Qur’an.
Ottoman Prayer Book (Du’anama)
This prayer book is open to a folio depicting Dhu’l Fiqar. Its twenty-nine drawings include representations of the Ka‘ba (the holiest site in Islam), the footprints (kadem) of the Prophet, and the cave from the story of the Seven Sleepers. Illustrated prayer manuals were popular in the Ottoman Empire during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a time of political reform, religious revivalism, and the emergence of a middle class. They served as mediational devices to protect, comfort, and heal their owners.
Votive Tablet (Hilya)
Hilya, Arabic for “ornament,” refers to a genre of Ottoman Turkish literature associated with the physical description of Muhammad. According to Ottoman belief, reading or possessing an account of the Prophet’s attributes protected one from danger, harm, evil, and sickness. Thus, it became customary to carry a hilya in the form of a scroll, calligraphic study, or amulet. In the seventeenth century, hilyas developed into an art form with a standardized layout.
Salman-i Farsi’s Conversion
During the Qajar period, there was a marked surge in the production of religious manuscripts and large-scale paintings. This folio depicts the story of Salman-i, the first Zoroastrian Persian to convert to Islam. Salman-i stands to the left of the Prophet Muhammad, and ‘Ali—carrying his bifurcated sword, Dhu’l Fiqar—is shown kneeling among his companions to the Prophet’s right. From above, angels rain down heavenly fire on the gathering.
The Islamic conquest of Iran occurred between A.D. 637 and 651. Although known today as a stronghold of Shi‘ism, Iran did not assume this identity until the sixteenth century, when the Safavid dynasty (1501–1722) made it the official state religion. Over the following centuries, a synthesis formed between Shi‘i Islam, Sufism (Islamic mysticism), and Persian culture. Historically, talismans have played an efficacious role in the daily lives of Iranian believers. Since Shi‘is venerate the Prophet Muhammad’s immediate family and his direct descendants as his rightful successors, weapons, armor, and other martial objects from Iran typically feature verses from the Qur’an, references to Allah and the Ahl al-Bayt, and textual and visual motifs invoking ‘Ali, such as the Dhu’l Fiqar.
This shirt was made from coiled wire cut into rings, each of which was then stamped with an inscription featuring “Allah” and the names of the Ahl al-Bayt. The shirt acted as an intermediary between Shi‘i Islam’s holiest family and the owner-worshipper who used it to seek divine protection and guidance.
Shields of this type were used by infantry and cavalry across Iran and India. Eight cartouches contain verses from the preface to the Persian poet Sa‘di’s Gulistan (The Rose Garden), written in 1258. It states:
In short since in no mundane thing I see
The signs impressed of perpetuity
This picture shall my sole memorial be
Perhaps hereafter for this pious task
Some man of prayer for me too grace shall ask
The verses demonstrate that apotropaic inscriptions were derived from a variety of sources, including poetry and prose. The choice of this particular inscription suggests that the shield’s creator, rather than its owner, was asking for blessings, indicating that armorers and artisans were also active participants in the talismanic process.
Although this helmet was likely a serviceable military object, it also could have been used as an accessory in a ceremonial procession before battle. Forged from watered steel and damascened in gold with talismanic inscriptions, it contains an invocation to ‘Ali (Nad-i ‘Ali) and calls upon him to shield the wearer-owner against harm and danger. Distinctly Shi‘i, this prayer is commonly found on objects from the fifteenth century onward in Iran and Central Asia.
Although intended for ceremonial use, the daggers depicted above feature discreetly carved talismanic inscriptions of the kind found on arms and armor that were designed for battle. The dagger on the right bears a gold inlaid vase with flowers on both sides of the blade. Within the vase are Arabic inscriptions reading “Blessings from Allah” and “Victory from Allah.” The hilt of the dagger on the left includes gold inscriptions that call upon ‘Ali and Allah.
Fragment of a Standard
This fragment from a pear-shaped standard would have been framed by a cord terminating in a pair of dragon heads. Its form echoes one of the types depicted in battle paintings from a sixteenth-century manuscript, the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, such as the one shown below. Here, the inscriptions include Nad-i‘Ali and Qur’anic verses. In Shi‘i communities, such standards were carried in Muharram processions commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the third Shi‘i imam, at the battle of Kerbala in A.D. 680.
Finial in the Shape of the Hand of ‘Abbas
’Abbas was the standard-bearer and half-brother of Husayn (‘Ali’s son and the third Shi‘i imam), a martyr at the Battle of Kerbala in A.D. 680. The talismanic inscriptions include a Shi‘i prayer that venerates the Ahl al-Bayt, supported by the protective “Throne Verse” (2:255), and the names of the twelve Shi‘i imams. The fingers display Qur’anic verses and popular Shi‘i invocations and the slogan “With the help of Allah, a speedy victory,” which suggests the finial’s possible association with battle.
Cuirass, Four-Mirror (Char-aina) Type
Steel armor was frequently inscribed with Qur’anic verses. The inscriptions here come from Surat al-Bayyinah (Clear Proof, 98) and describe God as the “God of Light.” They allude to the rewards he will bestow upon believers and the punishment he will mete out to unbelievers and evildoers. The term char-aina (four-mirror) refers to the four originally undecorated steel plates that were used to produce this cuirass. The interplay of the plates and Qur’anic verses accentuates the imagery of light.
“Kai Khusrau Defeats the Army of Markhan,” Folio from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp
This battle painting provides a glimpse of the types of weaponry, armor, standards (‘alams), and other military accoutrements, such as the objects on view here, used in Iran during the first half of the sixteenth century. The scene is of an impasse between the forces of Kai Khusrau and the shah of Makran in which the hero Giv rides forth and spears the shah with his lance, hastening the end of the war. Majestic standards punctuate this scene, their colorful banners waving within the frenzied battle.
Rulers of the Ottoman Empire (1299–1923) and their subjects followed Sunni Islam. In contrast to Shi‘is, Sunnis regard the Rashidun (Rightly Guided) caliphs as the Prophet Muhammad’s rightful successors, rather than his immediate family. The Rashidun refers to the first four caliphs: Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali.
Talismans from the Ottoman Empire invoke Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Rashidun. ‘Ali, the final “Rightly Guided” caliph, is frequently represented through his miraculous sword, Dhu’l Fiqar. However, Qur’anic inscriptions are perhaps the most popular type of talisman. As calligraphy held a prestigious status under the Ottomans, passages and verses from the Muslim holy book appear on armor, weapons, and other martial objects in a variety of decorative scripts, as well as through textual manipulation such as muthanna (mirror-image writing). The banner below, for example, illustrates Dhu’l Fiqar with mirror-image writing at the base of its bifurcated blade.
The shape and layout of this silk sançak (banner) is based on a number of similar seventeenth-century examples that were captured as war booty from the Ottomans. Its inscriptions include Qur’anic verses and the names of God, the Prophet Muhammad, the four “Rightly Guided” caliphs, and companions of the Prophet such as Abu Ayyub Ansari, who died in an unsuccessful siege of Constantinople in A.D. 674. While most sançaks were carried into battle at the front of a regiment, some were held by the faithful during pilgrimage to Mecca. The inscriptions here point to this example’s likely use in a military context. The detail below from a sixteenth-century painting of an Ottoman battle shows a similar banner, also with Dhu’l Fiqar at its center.
Favored in Anatolia, the Balkans, and the Caucasus during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the yatagan has a double-curved blade and a bifurcated pommel. The sultan’s elite infantry unit, or Janissaries, carried such weapons in their waistbands. This elaborately decorated example most likely served as a status symbol worn during courtly festivities and processions. Despite its ceremonial purpose, the blade is adorned with Ottoman Turkish verses conjuring good will and fortune that are typically found on arms and armor intended for battle.
Two Swords and a Dagger
The inscriptions on both of the swords invoke Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, and ‘Ali. On the top sword’s blade is the Ayat al-Kursi (Throne Verse, 2:255), a popular talisman throughout the Islamic world. The stones adorning the hilt and scabbard of the sword in the middle, as well as the hilt and sheath of the dagger on the right, also have talismanic significance. According to scholar Al-Biruni’s eleventh-century manuscript Kitab al- Jamahir (Book of Precious Stones), coral was believed to prevent misfortune, emerald to guard against poison, and turquoise to avert the evil eye.
Patch boxes were worn on a belt and used to carry accessories required by a gunman such as spare flints and cleaning cloths. The hexagram in the center most likely represents the Seal of Solomon. According to legend, Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, received the seal directly from God in the form of a signet ring—not only to protect him, but to also give him the power to command animals, demons, and supernatural beings (jinn). The divinely designed symbol became a popular apotropaic motif throughout the Islamic world and can be seen on the surfaces of many objects.
The Muslim conquests of India, which occurred primarily from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, resulted in the establishment of several Indo-Islamic kingdoms reigning over different regions of the subcontinent. Each kingdom had its own Islamic identity, leading to the emergence of many denominations. The most powerful, the Mughal Empire (1526–1858), identified with Sunnism, while the Deccan sultanates (1490–1687), a group of five kingdoms that ruled central south India, largely followed Shi‘ism. The arms and armor presented here are from both sects and provide a glimpse into the use of talismans during battle in Muslim India.
Just as in India, Islam in Southeast Asia is multilayered, resulting in different interpretations and sects. Muslim traders and Sufi missionaries introduced Islam to the region as early as A.D. 647. The ruling classes embraced the religion, allowing it to permeate from state to society. Talismans from Southeast Asia feature a variety of Islamic associations, both verbal and visual, and are often combined with other divinatory practices such as ‘ilm al-huruf (Science of Letters).
"Assad Ibn Kariba Launches a Night Attack on the Camp of Malik Iraj," Folio from the Hamzanama (The Adventures of Hamza)
The Hamzanama relates the story of Hamza, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad and an ardent defender of the Muslim faith. In this scene, Assad ibn Kariba, a supporter of Hamza shown dressed in an orange jama (robe), takes an army of unbelievers (non-Muslims) by surprise in a night attack. In the midst of the chaos, the unbelievers attack and kill one another. The sashes worn around the men’s waists hold daggers and other precious objects similar to those on display in the exhibition. Although a depiction of a legend, the folio shows figures wearing and carrying armor and arms of the period.
The pierced face guard, topped with the popular Indian motif of the cobra, offered protection without impairing the wearer’s vision. The phrase “O ‘Ali” in the center is bordered by the following inscription: “There is no hero or man like ‘Ali; there’s no sword like Dhu’l Fiqar. Help from Allah and a speedy victory.” Islamic arms and armor commonly feature pious inscriptions in strategic places to protect vulnerable parts of the body such as the face and vital organs.
Arm Guard (Dastana)
This type of arm guard, known as a dastana, was used throughout Turkey, Iran, and India. Its curved plate protected the outside of the forearm and is connected to a pair of shorter plates that guarded the inside of the wrist. The inscriptions on this example are incorporated into the gold decoration and the nail-head design on the mitten and include Qur’anic verses and the popular Shi‘i prayer Nad-i ‘Ali (Call upon ‘Ali).
Like their martial counterparts, ceremonial daggers and swords were also often decorated with talismanic motifs and inscriptions. The blade of this dagger bears Arabic inscriptions praising Allah, ‘Ali, and the Prophet Muhammad. One side features verses from the popular prayer Nad-i ‘Ali. The inclusion of rubies and emeralds on the hilt may point to the Hindu belief in the efficacy of precious gems to ward off evil.
This sword represents an Indian interpretation of Dhu‘l Fiqar. The disk-shaped pommel and recurved knuckle guard are distinct features of Indian talwars, a type of saber. The scalloped, notched pattern running along the edges of the blade could refer to the historic belief of Dhu‘l Fiqar’s original appearance, as well as the derivation of the name: faqar means “vertebrae” or “notch.”
The barong is a knife distinct to the Muslim people of the southern Philippines, and is distinguished by a flat, heavy, single-edged blade that is elliptical in shape and an intricately carved pommel. On both sides of this barong’s blade is an image of Dhu‘l Fiqar with the word “Allah” inscribed in Arabic within its contours. The legendary sword is surrounded by Arabic letters and numbers, which are the result of esoteric talismanic calculations tailored to the weapon’s owner. Each letter and number most likely signifies Qur’anic passages or other pious phrases that were intended to protect from harm and danger.
The form of the hilt and blade of this sword are distinctive to a region of northern Sumatra, although the inscription, which identifies the artist as “Muhammad Salih of the state of Terumon,” implies that it was decorated in Malaysia or that the artist had traveled to Sumatra. The blade features the muqatta'at, five “disconnected” or “mysterious letters” that introduce twenty-nine of the 114 suras of the Qur’an. While the original significance of the letters is unknown, Muslim exegesis explains them as abbreviations for the names or qualities of Allah. Here, the letters are accompanied with the following statement that augments the interpretation: “There is no power or strength but from Allah, the Highest, the Supreme One . . . he is the All Cognizant One, the Most Pleasant One.”
Talismans come in the form of small objects, including amulets, scrolls, and diminutive Qur’ans, that were intended to be worn on the body or carried. Due to their personal nature, these objects were often decorated with motifs and inscriptions specific to the owner, such as Qur’anic verses that were selected through esoteric processes involving an individual’s identity—for example, a date of birth.
Small Qur’ans and prayer books were carried for protection and could be consulted for guidance and prayer. Paintings and textual sources reveal that in Ottoman Turkey and Iran, small Qur’ans were tied to military standards and carried into battle. Stamps and seals featuring magical properties were also transported so that their powers could be transferred onto different surfaces, from official decrees to personal letters. Soldiers touched and prayed with these and other talismans before going into battle to assure a speedy victory. These objects reflect an intimate side of war, manifesting human emotions and states such as fear, vulnerability, aspiration, and hope.
Centuries before block printing was introduced to Europe, the technique was used in the Islamic world to produce miniature texts consisting of prayers, incantations, and Qur’anic verses. These were kept in amulet boxes and worn close to the body or possibly attached to weapons. The text on this Fatimid scroll is in kufic script, and references to warding off the evil eye and rewarding the punisher of demons who seeks refuge in the Qur’an point to its apotropaic powers.
The punctured stem of this stamp seal suggests that it may have been worn as a pendant. The star includes the names of the Rashidun (Rightly Guided) caliphs and the Prophet Muhammad. The names of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and their dog, known from a miraculous story in the Sura al-Kahf (Of the Cave, 18), imbue the stamp and its impression with a protective aura, as this story was (and still is) revered for its talismanic qualities.
The small size of this finely illuminated Qur’an manuscript rendered it a portable, intimate object with protective powers. Its use as a talisman is further confirmed by an annotation in a cartouche that refers to it as tilism (the Arabic word for “talisman”) and the inclusion of a Qur’anic divination chart (fal-i Qur’an) at the back of the manuscript.
In Iran, agate has been regarded as a stone with magical and healing properties. This pendant features a selection from the Al-Asma’ al-Husna (Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of Allah) at the center, surrounded by the entire Sura Ya Sin (36). Considered the heart of the Qur’an and representative of its miraculous nature, this sura has a long history of talismanic associations, which include shielding its owner-wearer from calamity and providing him with the strength and courage to achieve victory at war.
Historical texts and paintings reveal that in Ottoman Turkey, tiny manuscripts like this sançak (banner) Qur’an functioned as talismanic pendants that were placed in metal boxes or pouches and attached to the shafts of military standards (‘alams), as depicted in the drawing below. The manuscripts were also sometimes worn as armbands or around a soldier’s neck, or they could have been affixed to weapons or ceremonial objects. These Qur’ans were thought to empower and protect the sultan and his troops in battle.
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