"Unwan", Folio from the Shah Jahan Album, Mir 'Ali Haravi (d. ca. 1550), Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

"Unwan", Folio from the Shah Jahan Album

Mir 'Ali Haravi (d. ca. 1550)
Object Name:
Album leaf
recto and verso: ca. 1630–40
Attributed to India
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
H. 15 1/4 in. (38.7 cm)
W. 10 1/4 in. (26 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Rogers Fund and The Kevorkian Foundation Gift, 1955
Accession Number:
Not on view recto (left side) and (right side) form an 'unwan, a composition discussed in the text for pl. 2 (MMA in this volume. The translation of this passage is given in the text for

Folios, 4Ir and 4Iv (pls. 7, 6, and 8 in this volume) are the first three pages of a treatise by Mir-'Ali on calligraphy. Quotations from the Koran and the Prophetic traditions are written in gold. This text uses the traditional imagery known from the works of Mir-'Ali's master, Sultan-'Ali, and of Majnun of Herat, as well as of the later Qadi Ahmad. God is presented as the great master painter and calligrapher; the Koran and Prophetic traditions are quoted to prove that beautiful handwriting is not only important for religious life as it opens the gates of paradise but is also useful in that it enables the calligrapher to earn his livelihood. At the beginning of the actual treatise Mir-'Ali alludes to "virtuous people" who, by their kindness, revived him just as Jesus quickened the dead. Unfortunately, the text ends here, and we do not know whether Mir-'Ali later referred to his first master or, more likely, to a patron who employed him and gave him superior status. The style of the treatise is complex, with numerous internal rhymes and puns, as was customary.

The text begins on folio (pl. 7):

Boundless praise and countless lauds to the Creator! The painted album of the sky is one fragment from the works of his bounty and excellence, and the well-cut illuminated sun is one paper-scrap[1] from the lights of His beauty and elegance. [Praise to Him who is] the artist, the pen of whose creative art is the writer of the script [or "down"][2] of the heart-ravishing beauties; the inventor, the line of whose invention is the painter

[The text continues on fol. (pl. 6):]

of every lovely-looking form. And happily arriving prayer for the leader of the prophets and messengers–confused are the rarity-drawing painters about his world-embellishing form, and dizzy the sweet-penned writers when writing about his soul-enhancing script [or "down"].
Further: For the lucid mind of any perfect human being

[The text concludes on MMA fol. (pl. 8):]

and for the favor-receiving mind of those with auspicious return it is not concealed that the goal of the Writer of Fate and the Artist without Equal and Mate from Tablet and Pen and the well-written destinies which are in the library of the sphere is [to prepare] the sessions of painting of the board of dust here–just as the colorful anthology of fragrant herbs and flowers and the elegant page of gardens and arbor-bowers are signs of this. Intended by these signs is to lead [people with] sound nature and straight intellectual power from each of them toward the original artist and the real goal.

Before the wise the green leaves of the trees
Are each a page from the book of the Creator's wisdom!

But real knowledge benefits from the inimitable speech of the Divine Order and the sound traditions of [the Prophet Muhammad] Mustafa, and that [i.e., the book of Nature] does not come into the string of writing or the chain of painting so that one can easily benefit from it.

Now, script is one of the necessary things, as the Koranic verse "Nun, and by the pen!" [Sura 68/ I] is a metaphor pointing to the abundant excellence of writing. "He taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know" [Sura 96/ 3] is a verse about the perfect honor of script. And there is the sound Prophetic tradition where he–may God bless him and give him peace!–says: "He who writes beautifully bismillah ['in
the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate'] will enter Paradise without reckoning!' Now, if someone exerts himself to [produce] beautiful calligraphy; then it is not because of official formalities or public display of art; rather it is out of hope for [the promise in] this Prophetic tradition. And the word of happy conclusion, "You are obliged to [practice] fine writing for it is a key for one's daily bread," likewise supports this idea.

When a script is devoid of the admixture of beauty,
The paper becomes black-faced [i.e., disgraced].
The script should run from the pen in such a way
That its reader becomes restful thanks to it.
In the nimble hand a nicely written script–
The pen is an elegant key to one's daily bread.

The cause for arranging these prefaces is that this poor one without merchandise, this lowly one without power and size, the [God] fearing sinner 'Ali al-Husayni al-Katib, came into the service of virtuous people and plucked an ear from their harvest. He saw this expression as a description of his own state:

When the bounty of the Holy Spirit kindly provides help,
Then others can do what Jesus has done.

Annemarie Schimmel in [Welch et al. 1987]


1. This is an example of the characteristically subtle wordplay: sun = light = bright = paper white.

2. The Arabic word khatt means both the "black line of script" and the "black line of the first sign of down on the upper lip and cheek."
Inscription: Inscription in Persian in fine nasta‘liq script, three couplets by Ibn Yaqmin:
مرد باید که هر کجا باشد عزت خویشتن نگهدارد
خود پسندی و ابلهی نکند هر چه کبر و منیست بگذارد
بطریقی رود که مردم را سر مویی ز خود نیازارد
A true man should, wherever he is / Preserve his honor well;
Show no conceit or foolishness / Or selfish pride in life
And act so that nobody’s hair / Is touched or hurt by him
Mir ‘Ali

Jack S. Rofe, Scotland (in 1929; sale, Sotheby's London,December 12, 1929, to Kevorkian); [ Hagop Kevorkian, New York, from 1929]; [ Kevorkian Foundation, New York, until 1955; gift and sale to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Emperor's Album: Images of Mughal India," October 21, 1987–February 14, 1988, nos. 6 and 8.

Welch, Stuart Cary, Annemarie Schimmel, Marie Lukens Swietochowski, and Wheeler M. Thackston. The Emperors' Album: Images of Mughal India. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. no. nos. 6, 8, pp. 90, 92, 94-95, ill., recto pl. 6 (b/w); verso pl. 8 (b/w).