Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy

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Mirror image of 'Ali wali Allah

Calligrapher: Mahmud Ibrahim

c. 1720-30

Dimensions of Written Surface: 21.6 (w) x 16 (h) cm

Script: mirror-image thuluth

This 18th-century Ottoman levha, or calligraphic panel, depicts the Shi'i phrase 'Ali is the vicegerent of God in obverse and reverse, creating an exact mirror image. The calligrapher has used the central vertical fold in the thick cream-colored paper to help trace the exact calligraphic duplication (Selim 1979, 162) prior to mounting it onto a cardboard and pasting rectangular pink frames along its borders.

Today, scholars accept mirror writing as a standard form of Arabic-script calligraphy, and have given it various names suggestive of its function: some refer to the script as specular, bi-fold (muthanna), duplicate writing (cift yazi), or reflecting (mutanathir) itself (Mandel Khan 2001: 130-3 and Ozonder 2003, 147). Although mirror writing flourishes during the early modern period, it has been suggested that its origins may stretch back as far as pre-Islamic mirror-image rock inscriptions in the Hijaz, or the western strip of the Arabian peninsula (al-Moraekhi 2002, 123). That this procedure appears in calligraphy should not be surprising, since engraving in reverse for the manufacturing of coins and seals was mastered very early on (al-Moraekhi 2002, 129).

The process of mirror writing and mirror image-making flourished in the Ottoman empire during the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular in mystical quarters associated with the Bektashi order. The Bektashis created calligraphic panels and paintings representative of their tenets, among which the belief in the divinity of 'Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, comes to the fore (De Jong 1989: 7-9). As suggested by this panel, God and 'Ali are indissociable, as one reflects a divine presence in concrete, almost replicated, form. It is quite probable that this panel was hung on a wall in a Bektashi dervish's living quarters, mosque, or dervish lodge (tekkeh).

This calligraphic specimen includes the artist's holograph seal, a square impression overlapping the central vertical crease. It bears the name of Mahmud Ibrahim, whose work appears in another levha in the Library of Congress (1-85-154.93) bearing the date 1134/1721-2 in the left margin and 1141/1728 in the seal impression. Due to the similarity between the two panels and to the fact that they are by the same artist, we can hypothesize that the calligraphic panel here must date from c. 1720-30.

Arabic script calligraphy
Illuminated Islamic manuscripts
Islamic calligraphy
Islamic manuscripts
Mirror-image thuluth
Arabic calligraphy

28.8 (w) x 18.8 (h) cm


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

ascs 147