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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, 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.

Talismans that contain inscriptions with the names of prophets and religious heroes have the power to protect an individual from hardship and danger by acting as a conduit between the two.

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 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)  The written story about a prophet can be protective as well, with pictorial representations of that prophet and of the omens associated with him.

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. The Qur’an states Solomon’s authority in a number of verses (Qur’anic verse 27:17), and his apotropaic seal, a six-pointed star or hexagram, occurs on many surfaces, such as a wood panel , a blade, and a scroll.



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”) , 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. 249–51A.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.

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,weapons, talismanic shirts or banners 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 . TheAbbasids(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 rulerwas to have an auspicious reign. (Sometimes these letters can be found on the clasp of a casket.) 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.

Source:Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Suggested Further Readings

  • 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.” InMagic 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.
  • 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.” InCultural 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.” InEncyclopaedia 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.” InWord 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.” InThe 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.” InEncyclopaedia of the Qur’an, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Leiden: Brill Online, 2010.
  • Ullendorff, E. “Bilkis.” InEncyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Leiden: Brill Online, 2010.


About the Author
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded on April 13, 1870, in the City of New York. The Museum's collection of Islamic art ranges in date from the seventh to the nineteenth century. Its nearly twelve thousand objects reflect the great diversity and range of the cultural traditions of Islam, with works from as far westward as Spain and Morocco and as far eastward as Central Asia and India. Comprising sacred and secular objects, the collection reveals the mutual influence of artistic practices such as calligraphy, and the exchange of motifs such as vegetal ornament (the arabesque) and geometric patterning in both realms.
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