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Exhibitions/ Power and Piety: Islamic Talismans on the Battlefield/ Exhibition Sections

Power and Piety: Islamic Talismans on the Battlefield

At The Met Fifth Avenue
August 29, 2016–February 13, 2017

Exhibition Sections

Throughout the Islamic world, the faithful commonly believe that objects bearing the word "God" (Allah), his 99 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 this exhibition 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.

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 99 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!"

Selected Artworks

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 16th 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 Dhu'l Fiqar.

Selected Artworks

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 shown below, for example, illustrates Dhu'l Fiqar with mirror-image writing at the base of its bifurcated blade.

Selected Artworks

The Muslim conquests of India, which occurred primarily from the 12th to the 16th 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 displayed 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).

Selected Artworks

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.

Selected Artworks

Helmet (detail), 18th century. Deccan, Indian. Steel, gold, copper alloy. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of George C. Stone, 1935 (36.25.63a)