Credence and credulity: on Islamic art and the supernatural

This small book is ground-breaking, bringing to light Islamic beliefs and superstitions

by Jane Jakeman  |  12 January 2017
The horoscope of Iskandar ibn 'Umar Shaykh, Iran (1411), based on an astronomically accurate record of the heavens at the time of his birth, with astrological symbols added (Photo: courtesy of the Wellcome Library)
This intelligent work, partly a brief catalogue of an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (until 15 January), partly a trio of studies by leading scholars, tackles an area of Islamic culture that is rarely addressed: the relationship between formal religion and actual practices. Formality is, of course, a complex matter in itself for, although the Qur’an supplies the underlying bedrock of Islamic belief, it has been laid over at different times and in different places with strata of interpretation and custom.

To illustrate the material culture supporting the various Islamic beliefs in the supernatural, whether “orthodox” or “superstitious”, the Ashmolean Museum has brought together examples that range not only from scholarly interpretation to popular faith, but also from lavish courtly productions to objects cherished at humbler levels. This in itself represents a new movement in Islamic art studies, traditionally largely focused on connoisseurship. That approach isolated the gobstopper art object in a glass case, whether physical or metaphorical, whereas the banners, talismans and amulets of poorer folk discussed here were part of their daily lives.

It is not surprising that we owe this initiative to Francesca Leoni, who recently risked censure by examining the controversial topic of Islamic erotic art, and it is to their credit that several Muslim foundations and collectors have supported this present venture.

There are three clear divisions to the scrutinies in Power and Protection: first, theories and principles, then practical applications and lastly the artistic and scientific “vocabulary” that transmuted objects into items of metaphysical power. There has been something of an assumption of “progression” among historians that “superstitious” practices became marginalised as the “core” of Islamic beliefs overtook them, but the evidence here challenges that view. The Qur’an especially has continuously played an essential role in a whole range of practices. Complex astrology, divination by various means, such as reading lines traced in the sand, invocations of protection, and the appearance of quotations and Qur’anic scripts did not necessarily contradict, but rather could be claimed to complement, the sacred text, which simultaneously strengthened the power of the object or incantation. As Leoni says in her introduction, Islamic cultural history at every level shows no clear division between rational religious fields and other practices. Mathematicians could accept astrology without difficulty. As for the opposition, arguments against amulets did not deny their power but were grounded on their presumption to challenge the will of God, which had absolute control of human destiny.

Pierre Lory, the director of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, contributes an extensive overview, which points out that the will of God was seen as encompassing all creation, not distinguishing between natural and supernatural. Thus, “humans, animals and angels are all… God’s creatures” and the Qur’an prohibits invoking any supernatural beings other than the one God. Within what we may term “conventional” Islam, however, were practical prayers and rituals, invoking rainfall, marking festivities and the like, and pragmatic calendars and horoscopes, which charted the future of both individuals and societies. Astronomical tables foresaw movements of the heavens that might favour embarking on warfare or counsel delaying a battle. Some leading scholars both in Western and Eastern Islam protested against this, but everyone, from rulers to people in the market place, continued to consult the various predictors. As a powerful exemplar of the fusion of forms of knowledge this duality produced, we have a magnificent painted horoscope of 1411 from the Nativity Book for Tamerlane’s grandson Iskander, from an anthology that included works by Ptolemy and Euclid inherited by the Arabs from the Classical world. The astrologer’s predictions foresaw bad fortune from the 34th year of his subject, who died at the age of 31—close, but no cigar. Oneiromancy was another branch of knowledge closely associated with classical influence such as Artemidorus’s book of dreams.

Christiane Gruber of the University of Michigan contributes a study of actual objects associated with devotion and supernatural force, fending off danger and attracting protection. Gruber notes that there is little distinction between the amulet and the talisman (from the Arabic tilsam), which both negotiated between the human and the supernatural to act as conduits for beneficial influence or barriers against threats. In practice, an amulet is usually made of metal or hard stone, and worn closely on the body, whereas a talisman is of paper or parchment and bears more script. It would have been interesting perhaps to include some specific examples of how a talisman harnessed power of all kinds, as in Ibn Khaldun’s instructions on making the “lion” talisman, which involved stones, metal, colour, textiles and the animal kingdom—scraps of the physical world elevated to metaphysical significance.

A sub-category of these objects consists of those connected with the person of the Prophet, such as his cloak or sandals. These include a superb 15th-century copy of the Ode of the Prophet’s Mantle, its lavish design and gilding clearly related to that of contemporary Qur’ans, and a sandalprint from a pilgrimage, exhibits from both courtly and demotic life. A ruby-studded Hand of Fatima from the Khalili Collections may have been a finial from a banner and receives a detailed analysis of this very ancient symbol, its protective power faintly resonating today in the “hand knocker” still seen on our front doors.

The third study is by Leoni, who considers the Qur’an as a source of protective power and the Prophet’s legitimisation of this usage as considered in the literary form, Virtues of the Qur’an, which described uses of the holy text for purposes of healing, potency and protection “from the pocket to the battlefield”. A talismanic shirt covered with calligraphy is an elegant and powerful creation, an extension of bodily decoration onto another medium. Also close to the body was a warrior’s armour, which carried metaphysical protection in the form of the sacred Names of God, or counsels of jihad, and advancing banners proclaimed the faith of the armies that followed them. We need not look far to find modern counterparts.

I do have one reservation about this book: there is a tendency to present a particular custom or belief as general, whereas attitudes varied topographically and chronologically within the Islamic world. Perhaps some focus on the historical background is occasionally lacking: for example, the relationship between surges of belief in divine assistance and episodes of mortal danger can be demonstrated in the Mamluk period during episodes of disease.

Power and Protection is a slim volume, but a much-needed one, integrating courtly and demotic aspects of the manifestations of religious belief. It is an excellent source and starting point for anyone seeking to understand the Islamic world, especially its characteristically inseparable materiality and religiosity.

• Jane Jakeman has a doctorate in Islamic art and architectural history from St John’s College, the University of Oxford. She has lectured on Islamic art and has travelled widely in the Middle East. She has been on the staff of the Bodleian and Ashmolean libraries and was librarian to the Oxford English Dictionary. She is also an author and reviewer of crime fiction

Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural
Francesca Leoni, ed
Ashmolean Museum Publications,
120pp, £20 (pb)

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