Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy

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Hilye mounted on a wooden panel

Calligrapher: Dihya Salim al-Fahim


Dimensions of Written Surface in center (hilye): 10.9 (w) x 21.9 (h) cm

Dimensions of Written Surface in side panels: 3.2 (w) x 17.2 (h) cm

Script: thuluth and naskh

This hilye, or calligraphic panel containing a physical description of the Prophet Muhammad, was made in 1130/1718 in the Galata Palace (Saray Galata), Istanbul, by the calligrapher Dihya Salim al-Fahim, a pupil of Yusuf Efendi. He dated and signed his work in a now barely legible inscription executed in white ink on a gold ground in the lowermost rectangular register of the center panel.

The hilye was a favorite composition of Ottoman artists and patrons, as it provided a calligraphic praise of the Prophet easily hung in private homes, theological schools, etc. Also known as hilye-i serif (noble description), hilye-i saadet (description of felicity), and hilye-i nebevi (the prophetic description), this non-figurative ‘portrait' of Muhammad was widespread and appreciated especially during the 17th and 18th centuries (Derman 2002, 33).

As in this example, the typical layout of the hilye includes a top panel (bas makam, lit. top space/heading) that contains typically the bismillah, a central circle (gobek, lit. belly) that provides the physical description of the Prophet, as well as the names of the first four caliphs in the corners of the hilye panel. Below the central circle is a horizontal panel usually containing a verse from the Qur'an (21:107). At the very bottom appears a rectangular panel (etek, lit. skirt) that continues the hilye text, followed by the calligrapher's name and date of execution (see Gunuc 1999: 76-77).

This particular hilye stands out, as it is mounted on a wooden board and provided with side panels that fold in much like a Christian triptych. Perhaps drawing inspiration from practices of icon making in Christian Constantinople/Istanbul, hilyes such as this one transformed a pictorial portrait of a saint into a calligraphic description of the Prophet Muhammad. There are a number of other 18th-century hilyes pasted onto wooden panels as well (see Safwat 1996: 54-55; Alparslan 2004: 133-4; and TvIEM 1993, pl. 38).

The two side panels include checkerboards that list the Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God (al-asma' al-husna). Other hilyes, such as one composed by the famous calligrapher Hafiz Osman (dated 1110/1698), also contain God's names, as well as the epithets (alqab) of the Prophet Muhammad (Derman 2002: 96-7). Much like the verbal description of the Prophet in the central panel, the names of God on the side panels are intended to represent the unity of his being (wahdat al-wujud) in a verbal, non-pictorial manner.

Arabic script calligraphy
Illuminated Islamic manuscripts
Islamic calligraphy
Arabic calligraphy
Islamic manuscripts

39 (w) x 17.9 (h) cm


Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division, Washington, D.C. 20540

ascs 199