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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World

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 (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, 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 Muhammad’s cousin ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (1976.312; 1984.504.2) and those of Imam ‘Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet, with his two martyred sons Hasan and Husain, 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 (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 (‘ilm al-huruf) that broke down the ninety-nine names of God 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.