Inscribed with the names of God, the Prophet Muhammad and the first four leaders of the Muslim community, and bordered by Qur'anic verses, this silk sanjak (shield-shaped banner) displays an image of a two-bladed sword with a dragon-headed hilt. Referred to as Dhu'l Fiqar and associated with military victory, this sword is said to have belonged to 'Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. While Ottoman banners similar to this one were used as military insignia from the 15th century onward, this example bears an early 19th century date, and may have been borne instead by the faithful during pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ottoman shield-shaped woven-silk banners such as this, known by the term sanjak (in Turkish, sancak), have long been used for military and religious purposes in the Ottoman Empire. A small example said to have been carried on the battlefield of Kosovo in 1389 is preserved in the Military Museum in Istanbul; a sixteenth-century French engraving depicts such banners carried by Muslim pilgrims; and a German account dating to about 1600 of an embassy to Istanbul presents a number of woodcuts showing sanjak banners being carried in various Ottoman processions. Banners with dates woven into the fabric are known from as early as the later seventeenth century. The Metropolitan’s banner, dated to the early nineteenth century, thus represents the continuation of a long tradition, whose earlier examples have largely perished, doubtless through hard use.
Woven into the fabric is the representation of a double-bladed sword. It refers to Dhu’l faqar, a double-edged (misunderstood as double-bladed) weapon that, according to Muslim legend, belonged to ‘Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and the fourth "Rightly Guided Caliph" of the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet. The inscriptions on the Metropolitan’s banner, found on many other such banners of this and earlier periods, show a self-conscious attempt both to stress the symbolism of the sword of ‘Ali and to avoid any hint of Shiism, the sect of Islam that denies the legitimacy of the first three caliphs.
The sudden appearance of significant numbers of such traditional sanjak banners in early nineteenth-century Turkey is hard to explain. In a period of tension between traditional and modernizing factions before the violent suppression of the Janissaries in 1826, these banners may reflect one side of the coming confrontation between tradition and modernity in the Ottoman army.
Walter B. Denny in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. On Ottoman banners, see Denny, Walter B. "A Group of Silk Islamic Banners." Textile Museum Journal 4, no. 1 (December 1974), pp. 67–81.
Inscription: Inscriptions in Arabic in thuluth script:
Around the edge, in green fabric, repeated several times: [Qur’an 112]
In the central roundel at top (upside down):
بسم الله الرحمن الرحیم یا حافظ
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, O Guardian
In circles to left and right of the flag, repeated (read from right): [Qur’an 11:88]
On the handle of flag (read from right):
یا حضرت خالد
O your highness Khalid (Probably Khalid Ibn al-Walid,
the leader of Muslims in battle)
On the field of the flag:
أبي أیوب انصاري
For Abu Ayyub Ansari ([in Turkish, Eyup] a companion of the Prophet
who died in an unsuccessful Arab siege of Constantinople in A.D. 674)
In the central crescent-moon arc, a hadith of the Prophet and a date:
رُوي عن أبي هریرة رض] الله عنه[ قال رسول الله/ صلی الله علیه وسلم/ 1225
It is reported by Abu Hurayra, [may God be] pleased [with him], that the
messenger of God, blessings and peace be upon him, A.H..1235 [A.D. 1819–20]
Inside the moon arc continuing the hadith:
عدل ساعة خیر من عبادة سبعین سنة
One hour of justice is better than seventy years of worship
In six circles to left and right of the sword, the name of God, the Prophet,
and the first four caliphs:
Left side from top:
الله محمد ابو بكر
God / Muhammad / Abu Bakr
Right side from top
عمر عثمان علي
‘Umar / ‘Uthman / ‘Ali
On the octofoil sword, appearing four times, two of which are in
mirror image (muthanna) to the other two:
یا دیان یا برهان
O judge, O proof
On the sword (read from left, written backward in mirror writing):
Marking: See link panel.
Private collection, France (before 1939–1976; sale, Hôtel Drouot Rive Gauche,Paris, June 14, 1976, no. 121); [ Ahuan Islamic Art, Panama, 1976; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Power and Piety: Islamic Talismans on the Battlefield," August 29, 2016–February 13, 2017, no catalogue.
Ettinghausen, Richard. Archives of Asian Art. vol. XXXI (1977–1978). p. 139.
Phipps, Elena. "Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Winter 2010). p. 44, ill. fig. 75 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 232, p. 326-327, ill. p. 326 (color).