Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World

See works of art
  • Panel
  • Talismanic Scroll
  • Lidded Box of Muhammad al-Hamawi, Timekeeper at the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
  • Quran case
  • Talismanic Shirt
  • Seal ring with inscription
  • Saber
  • The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus Discovered by Alexander the Great, Folio from a Falnama (Book of Omens)
  • Prophet Muhammad Preaching: Folio from the Maqtal-i Al-i Rasul of Lamii Chelebi
  • Standard
  • Goa Stone and Gold Case
  • Hizb (Litany) of An-Nawawi
  • Calligraphic Galleon
  • Saber
  • Banner
  • The Queen of Sheba Enthroned

Works of Art (17)


A talisman is any object that is imbued with protective powers, and all cultures have manifestations of such objects. In the world of Islam, they bear Qur’anic inscriptions as well as images of prophets, astrological signs, and religious narratives. Many Muslims believe that an object that is inscribed with the word God (Allah) will protect the person who reads, touches, or sees it and that the word of God has the power to ward off evil. The surface of a talismanic object can be covered with prayers, signs, numbers, and decorative motifs, and the object is carried in a pocket, or rolled and placed in an amulet case; some talismans are worn as clothing (1978.546.32; 04.3.458; 1998.199).

The most efficacious talismans are those that are inscribed with prayers that evoke the name of God and the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. The ninety-nine names of God, verses from the Qur’an, and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith), for example, are appropriated and regenerated into texts that are meant to be good omens. Talismans that contain inscriptions with the names of prophets and religious figures (1984.504.2; 2003.241) have the power to protect an individual from hardship and danger by acting as conduits between these holy figures and anyone carrying the talisman. This is also true of devotional manuals by religious leaders (shaikhs) with passages stating that whoever reads them will be protected from demons and supernatural beings (jinn) (1975.192.1). The written story about a prophet can be protective as well, with pictorial representations of that prophet and of the omens associated with him (35.64.3).

The representations of certain prophets are more efficacious than others, with Solomon’s as the most powerful of all. Solomon had the ability to talk to animals and supernatural beings (jinn), and was renowned for his wisdom; Bilqis, Queen of Sheba, was converted to monotheism by witnessing that wisdom (1979.518.1). The Qur’an states Solomon’s authority in a number of verses (Qur’anic verse 27:17) (36.25.1297; 12.224.6), and his apotropaic seal, a six-pointed star or hexagram, occurs on many surfaces, such as a wood panel (33.41.1a–e), a blade (36.25.1293), and a scroll (1978.546.32).

Many other religious narratives also carry talismanic powers. The story of the miracle of the seven sleepers of Ephesus (ashab al-kahf, or “people of the cave”) (35.64.3; 2003.241), which is the subject of a chapter in the Qur’an (Surat al-Kahf), has particular powers for many Muslims. The act of reciting the story of the seven Christian men and their dog Qitmir who, fleeing persecution by the emperor Decius (r. 249–51 A.D.), found a cave and slept for several hundred years, protects the reader from harm, just as the seven sleepers and their dog were protected all those years.

Images of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (1976.312; 1984.504.2) and those of Imam ‘Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, with his two martyred sons Hasan and Husayn, also carry apotropaic properties (1984.504.2; 55.121.40). ‘Ali’s miraculous sword (Dhu’l fiqar) becomes a relic and talismanic object in Islam, and is represented across various media (1976.312).

Talismans not only shield but guide their wearers; they are objects that reflect occult practices. Amulet cases (15.95.137), mirrors (1978.348.2), boxes (91.1.538), weapons (36.25.1293; 36.25.1297), talismanic shirts (1998.199) or banners (1976.312) are capable of shielding a person or group of people from the forces of evil. When a person is confronted with an ethical dilemma, all he needs to do is consult the Qur’an or one of these objects for guidance.

These imbued objects are also used as tools for scientists or as cures prescribed by physicians for various ailments (2004.244a–d). The ‘Abbasids (r. 750–1258) played an active role in the transmission of knowledge and science from the Greco-Roman world, and Arabic translations of medical and astrological texts were integral to Islamic court and daily life. Historically, the stars and the Qur’an were consulted for almost every action and medical condition, and stars and talismanic objects became interconnected; and just as the stories of the prophets found in the Qur’an acted as talismans, the stars, too, would guide a person on his/her journey in this life and the afterlife. Eventually, elaborate horoscopes and a science of letters that broke down the ninety-nine names of God (ilm al-huruf) to their individual letters were created at court to predict whether a ruler was to have an auspicious reign (1998.199; 91.1.538). (Sometimes these letters can be found on the clasp of a casket; 91.1.538.) The objects discussed here demonstrate the ways in which science, magic, and religious belief work together to endow objects with talismanic powers and protect individuals from harm.

Yasmine Al-Saleh
Harvard University

November 2010


Al-Saleh, Yasmine. “Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (November 2010)

Further Reading

Ali, Abdullah Yusuf, trans. The Holy Qur'an: Text, Translation & Commentary. Elmhurst, N.Y.: Tahrike Tarsile Qu'ran, 1987.

Canaan, Tewfik. "The Decipherment of Arabic Talismans." In Magic and Divination in Early Islam, edited by Emilie Savage-Smith, pp. 125–77. Aldershot: Ashgate/Varorium, 2004.

Carboni, Stefano. Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. See on MetPublications

Farhad, Massumeh, and Serpil Bagci. Falnama: The Book of Omens. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2009.

Fleischer, Cornell. "Seer to the Sultan: Haydar-i Remmal and Sultan Süleyman." In Cultural Horizons: A Festschrift in Honor of Talat S. Halman, vol. 1, edited by Jayne L. Warner, pp. 290–99. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2001.

Lentz, Thomas W., and Glenn D. Lowry. Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century. Exhibition catalogue. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Maddison, Francis, Emilie Savage-Smith, Ralph Pinder-Wilson, and Tim Stanley. Science, Tools & Magic. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Paret, R. "Ashab al-Kahf." In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Leiden: Brill Online, 2010.

Porter, Venetia. "Amulets Inscribed with the Names of the 'Seven Sleepers' of Ephesus in the British Museum." In Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur'an and Its Creative Expressions, edited by Fahmida Suleman, pp. 123–34. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Savage-Smith, Emilie, ed. Magic and Divination in Early Islam. Aldershot: Ashgate/Varorium, 2004.

Soucek, Priscilla. "The Temple of Solomon in Legend and Art." In The Temple of Solomon: Archaeological Fact and Medieval Tradition in Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Art, edited by Joseph Gutmann, pp. 73–123. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1976.

Soucek, Priscilla. "Solomon." In Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Leiden: Brill Online, 2010.

Ullendorff, E. "Bilkis." In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Leiden: Brill Online, 2010.