Alongside the art of the book, which was promoted by rulers at their courts and by religious scholars in mosques and Qur’an schools, Arabic calligraphy was also cultivated in the context of everyday religious practice. The popular calligraphy of Sufis and dervishes is an example of artistic expression which reflects piety and spirituality to a particular extent. Characterized by the harmony of their lines and the magic of their beauty, many of these works exhibit a special aura: decorating the walls of aesthetically designed rooms in dervish lodges (khanqah, tekke), they create not only an important visual dimension in veneration and contemplation of God or charismatic Sufi saints, but also in concrete practices of ritual recollection of God. They are calligraphic devotional and protective images with blessing power and at the same time express religious affiliation to a mystical order. In dervish lodges and at saints’ shrines they are frequently presented as a picture gallery or part of holy assemblages. Their imagery, symbolism and contents evoke vital dynamic forces and create an atmosphere conducive to individual or collective forms of devotion.
Fig 1: CALLIGRAPHIC TABLEAU WITH MIRROR SCRIPT – Bursa?/Turkey; dated 1289 H/1872 -73 CE. On the right side below the dervish cap of the Mevlevi order stands a religious invocation which is mirrored on the left side. The Mevlevis cultivate poetry and other arts in addition to calligraphy. This very balanced tableau in mirror writing shows the invocation “Allah hoo” – a religious formula recited by the dervishes. The typical peaked dervish cap (sikke) worn by the Mevlevis is situated prominently in the upper middle above the letters.
In the Muslim world many calligraphers felt drawn to the esoteric teachings of mystics and were themselves often members of Sufi orders. In this way calligraphy developed into the epitome of Sufi art. It is, in fact, an important spiritual exercise on the mystical path in which the musical rhythm of the elegant sweeps of the letters while writing do reflect the process of transformation of the inner self. Saying his prayers the mystic stands straight like an alif in front of God, and equally straight is the path of the soul towards the Almighty.
In Turkey under the Ottomans, the spiritual aspects of the art of writing were emphasized not only by the Mevlevis and Bektashis but also by other orders. Most of the often symmetrically composed calligraphic images for dervish lodges (tekke levha) were delicate works of art, sometimes illuminated, which were applied on paper, wood or glass with a pen. Artistic expression also took the form of reverse glass pictures (camalti), fretsaw and straw work, paper cutting and embroidery. In many of these panels, we see the difficult mirror writing (musenna, aynali) known since the seventeenth century and particularly appreciated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Other works show figural compositions. Although sharply criticized by orthodox theologians, the artists created calligraphic tableaux presenting animals (lions, falcons, storks, fish) formed from letters, buildings (mosques), trees, boats, objects (dervish caps, water jugs, fruit) and human faces. The contents here are sacred formulas, invocations and names. Margareta Pavaloi commented as follows on this type of religious art: “Using script to form figures is, however, not an Ottoman invention. This art form has famous models in pre-Ottoman times since the creative and artistic possibilities of the script in the truest sense of the word have always appealed to many calligraphers in the Islamic world.” (Pavaloi 2003:161). Very similar calligraphy is thus also widespread in the Iranian world and among Muslims in South Asia.
Fig 2: CALLIGRAPHIC PICTURE OF A MEVLEVI DERVISH CAP Turkey; dated 1322 H/1904-05 CE. The tall cap of the Mevlevi mystics is formed here by the letters of the invocation to Mevlana (Mawlana) Jalal ud-Din Rumi (d. 1273) who founded this order of ‘dancing dervishes’. The Mevlevis’ centre is the city of Konya in Anatolia. The characteristic form of the Mevlevi sikke is formed on this
reverse glass painting by Arabic letters of the invocation ya Hazret-i
Mevlana. The first and the last letters, ya and na, form the brim of the hat. In the upper part of the hat we read “qaddas Allahu sirrahu
a’la” – “God blesses his exalted secret”.
Fig 3: CALLIGRAPHIC PICTURE OF A BEKTASHI DERVISH CAP. Turky, 19th century. This printed composition with an invocation to the saint Haci Bektas is designed in the typical Ottoman manner in which the letters are shaped in ‘layered’ calligraphy (istif). The vertical letters are drawn upward and form the segments of the cap. A calligraphic composition in thuluth is printed on marbled paper (ebru) showing in compact form the outlines of the sikke of the Bektashis order known as the Huseyim tac (“Husain’s crown”). The extended verticals forming the folds of the cap are striking.
Fig 4: MIRROR COMPOSITION IN THE SHAPE OF A MOSQUE;
Turkey; First third of 20th century. The composition dedicated to praising ‘Ali is a popular theme in the pictorial art o f the Bektashi dervishes whose traditional Sufi order established itself in Anatolia in the 14th- 15th centuries and spread from there to the Balkans, Egypt and Iran. Another example of the pictorial art of the Bektashis is a reverse glass image with a mirrored writing composition (‘Ali wa huwa), in whose centre a mosque with a green dome and two flanking minarets shaped like pencils is depicted. Next to a large round medallion with the name of God placed above the dome are four smaller medallions on the sides of the picture in which Muhammad (bottom right, on a red background) and ‘Ali (bottom left, on green background) are invoked and the Prophet’s grandson Hasan (bottom right, on green background) and Husain (bottom left, on
red background) are named. This emphasizes the Shi’ite relationship to the Bektashi order.
Fig 5: CALLIGRAPHIC PICTURE IN THE SHAPE OF A ‘TREE OF LIFE; Turkey; dated 131511/1897-98 CE. The text in this picture, harmoniously composed in mirror script, contains a pious invocation to the ‘Seven Sleepers’. The legend, of which there are numerous versions and which is also mentioned in the Qur’an tells of several young men and a dog who fall asleep in a cave. They awaken only after 309 years. A work of consummate harmony signed by the dervish Haqqi
describes the form of a ‘tree of life’ or a blossom. The text is an invocation to the “Seven Sleepers” (ashab al-kahf), mentioned in sura 18, verses 9 -2 6 of the Qur’an.
Fig 6: BISMALAH IN THE SHAPE OF A FALCON; Turkey; dated 1310 H/1892-93 CE. The popular invocation to God, the Merciful, is written here in the shape of a falcon which plays a special role as a soul bird in Islamic mysticism. Special blessing power is attributed to the Bismalah everywhere in the Muslim world. The hunting falcon is an important symbol in Sufi art: in mysticism it is regarded as a soul bird and model for the pupil’s strict education by the master.9 In the eastern Muslim world the well-known Shi’ite protective prayer nadi’AIiyyan (“Call on ‘Ali, who works miracles ..”) is written in the form of a falcon whose head is turned to the right.’ On the reverse glass image shown here, however, the text contains the well-known Bismalah (Turkish: besmele) “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” This formula is frequently found on devotional pictures which are hung not only in dervish lodges but also in mosques or homes.
Fig 7: TABLEAU WITH EMBLEMS OF THE BEKTASHI SUFI ORDER; Turkey, before 1826. This picture unites three important Bektashi symbols: the dervish cap made of bright felt, the name ‘Ali and the lion (with an enscripted double verse in Turkish), which also represents the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. This tableau from a Bektashi lodge shows the typical cap of the order, the name ‘Ali (with the last letter extended in the form of double-edged sabre)’ and the figure of a lion at rest. The lion (Persian: haidar) is a common symbol for the strength and greatness of ‘Ali, the fourth of the rightly guided caliphs and the first
imam of the Shia who plays an outstanding role in Sufi tradition and is praised as the “Lion of God.” In the animal’s body is written the Turkish double verse: “As a necklace you put on the chain of your locks. Pray tell, lion mine, are you of the ,People of Haidar?”’
Fig 8: CALLIGRAPHIC TABLEAU WITH LION AND DRAGON; Turkey, dated 121011/1795-96 CE. Since the 17th century, particularly in Sufi art, figural presentations made of letters with mystical content (in which the ban on figural representations in normative Islam is cleverly circumvented) play an important role particularly in Sufi art. In the tableau here, which comes from a Turkish Bektashi-dervish lodge, a Persian couplet by the poet Farid ud-Din ‘Attar (d. 1220) has been calligraphed into the figure of a lion who kills the lower self in the form of a dragon. The dramatic picture of a lion attacking a snake dragon also comes from a Bektashi lodge. Both animal figures are artistically formed by letters formulating a double verse in Persian by Farid ud-Din ‘Attar: “Destruction of evil desire is everyone’s ideal. I killed the snake, it is in Haidar’s claws.” This depiction thus reflects the core idea of Sufism, namely that the lower animal soul (nafs) embodied by the dragon, i.e. the ego of the mystic, is annihilated.
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