The Tradition of Amulets and Talisman in the Muslim World

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INTRODUCTION

(introduction adapted from The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

An amulet [similar to a talisman] is any object that is imbued with protective powers, and all cultures and faiths have manifestations of such objects. In the world of Islam, they bear Qur’anic inscriptions, and religious narratives. Many Muslims believe that an object that is inscribed with the word of God 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, rings or pendants as well as displayed in the homes and cars as plaques or stickers. Sometimes the writing is reversed so they can be used as stamps. The material from which the amulet is made can be important, with benefits attached to certain stones.

The most effacious talisman 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. [1]

Dhu’lfiqar

Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum. Copyright.

Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum. Copyright.

Images of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Imam Ali, and his two martyred sons Hazrat Hasan and Hazrat Husayn, also carry apotropaic properties. Hazrat Ali’s miraculous sword (Dhu’lfiqar or Zulfiqar) becomes a relic and talismanic object in Islam, and is represented across various media such as the Alam, or standard, shown above which is inscribed with the words ‘Allah’, ‘Muhammad’, ‘Oh Ali’, ‘Fatima’, ‘Hasan’ and ‘Husayn’.

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The Mysterious Letters of the Qur’an – kaf ha ya ayn sadd

Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum. Copyright.

Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum. Copyright.

This calligraphic page is inscribed with chapter 19 (Surat Maryam) from the Qur’an. Boldly written in thuluth script are five Arabic letters (kaf ha ya ayn sadd) which appear at the beginning of the chapter. These single letters are some of the ‘mysterious letters of the Qur’an’ which precede 29 of the 114 chapters. They are said to have magical protective properties and are often found engraved on amulets. All around, in tiny naskh script, the rest of the chapter is inscribed. The calligrapher, Osman Waqialla originally of Sudan, has used ink and gold on parchment.

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TALISMANIC ROBE

Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum. Copyright.

Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum. Copyright.

A child’s robe from the Ottoman Empire, Turkey (eighteenth century CE), with religious inscriptions. In some regions, soldiers in battle wore talismanic shirts inscribed with verses from the Qur’an beneath their armour, or had swords inscribed with the ‘most beautiful names of God’.

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THE IMAM OF THE TIME – THE SUPREME TALISMAN

There is an ode of the 33rd Ismaili Imam, ‘Abd al-Salam, in which he says that the talisman that can open the treasure trove of spiritual meaning of the Holy Qur’an is the Imam of the Time.

The Imam observes that the true essence of the Imam cannot be recognized with earthly, fleshly eyes, for these can only see his physical form, perishing like all else with the passage of time. His true face is to be perceived with the eyes of the heart. He has thousands of physical habitations, but his true home is traceless; he has had a thousand names, but all of them refer to one reality.

Today he is known as ‘Abd al-Salam, but tomorrow the physical body will be gone and the name will change, yet the essence will remain in the next Imam of the lineage. Those who look at the Imam as they squint will consider him like any other human being, but as soon as the eyes of the heart perceive correctly, his true status is discovered. In form the Imams change, but in meaning and substance they are changeless. Human language cannot attain to the majesty of the Imams.

The Imam is the most precious ingredient in the supreme elixir (miraculous substance) of eternal life — red sulfur. He is not simply a pearl, but the ocean that gives birth to pearls. The existence of the Imam, who leads humankind to a recognition of God, is the very pinnacle of creation. [2]

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AN AMULET WITH the word ‘Muhammad’ and Qur’anic Veses

Photo credit: The Trustees of the British Museum. Copyright.

Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum. Copyright.

The material from which the amulet is made can be important, with benefits attached to certain stones. Carnelian, for example, is a popular choice of material because it was preferred by the Prophet Muhammad himself. This amulet is made of chalcedony, a form of quartz. It is part of the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, the founding collection of the British Museum. It is engraved with cursive inscriptions in two different styles: in the centre is the word ‘Muhammad’, referring to the Prophet. Within the word is another inscription from the Qur’an, ‘And the unbelievers would almost trip you up with their eyes when they hear the message and they say surely he is possessed! But it is nothing less than a message to all the worlds’ (Qur’an 68:51-2). This style of script within a script, which can take elaborate forms, is sometimes known as gulzar. Around the margin is the ‘throne verse’ (Qur’an 2:255).

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An amulet for preventing headaches

L0057456 Silver pear shaped pendant with silver square rupee, Middle

The practice of carrying amulets or charms to bring good luck or good health through protection against disease has an extremely long history. Both the pear-shaped pendant and rupee are engraved with writings from the Holy Qur’an. The pendant was carried to prevent headaches. The amulet was made between 1880-1930 in the Middle East. The maker is unknown.

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divination bowl WITH JEWISH AND ISLAMIC INSCRIPTIONS

L0057605 Brass divination bowl, Middle East, 1801-1900

Divination was used in medicine to try to determine the cause of an illness and to give some indication as to suitable treatments. This divination bowl may have been used by interpreting the reflection of light on its sides. Other divination methods include casting stones or studying the entrails of a sacrificed animal and interpreting the patterns made. Yet, other bowls were used to cure sick people, who would drink from a bowl engraved with Qur’anic verses

This brass bowl is engraved with inscriptions using Arabic script. Some of these are from the Qur’an. On the underneath of the bowl there is the Star of David, a six-pointed star connected with the Jewish faith. This mix of Jewish and Muslim religious symbols is not so surprising when we find out that the bowl was purchased in 1935 in Jerusalem, a holy place for Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It is not known where this bowl was made although Iran or Palestine in the Middle East seem likely.

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‘The Hand of Fatimah’

L0057649 Part of a silver necklace decorated with the 'hand of Fatima

The image is part of a silver necklace decorated with the ‘Hand of Fatimah’.

The ‘Hand of Fatimah’ (Fatima) is an ancient symbol traditionally carried by many Muslims as protection against the ‘evil eye’, a widespread belief that some people can cause harm to others simply by looking at them in a certain way. This ‘look’ may be given deliberately, in an attempt to cause harm, or accidentally, perhaps because of feelings of envy .

Fatimah was the daughter of Prophet Muhammad. The hand is a common symbol in Islamic jewellery, art and decoration. It is also said to give the wearer strength, protect their family and ensure fertility.

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a nigerian (hausa) amulet WITH QUR’ANIC VERSES

L0058783 Wooden Koranic board with two leather amuletic cases, Nigeri

This wooden board originates from the Hausa people of Nigeria. It was made between 1880-1920. Words from the Holy Qur’an are written in ink on board. The words are then washed off with water that is then drunk by the patient. Some African healers included elements of the Islamic religion into their treatments.

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A Sudanese Amulet with Qur’anic Verses

L0031384 Sudanese Amulet written in Arabic on wood

Sudanese Amulet written in Arabic on wood with a wooden pen with verses from the Qur’an.

Date posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2013

CREDITS: Images are from the websites of Wellcome Images and the British Museum.

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NOTES

[1] Introduction has been adapted from Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World by Yasmine Al-Saleh. For more images and complete article please click Metropolitan Museum – Talisman.

[2] Excerpt of Ode by Imam ‘Abd al-Salam adapted from » Ismailis in the Middle Ages by Shafique Virani

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