The Hilya in Islamic Calligraphy


Friday, March 5, 2010

The Hilya in Islamic Calligraphy

The Islamic faith discourages the making of depictions of a person who could be idolized. Thus, other than a few miniatures, no one made portraits of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Instead of having an image of the Prophet, as exists for Christ within the Christian world, Muslims learn about the characteristics of the Prophet of Islam from the hilyah; with the help of these accurate accounts each believer is able to conceive of the Prophet in way that is more conducive to devotion within the hearts. This is naturally a more reasonable approach for a faith that abolished idols.

The term hilyah which means “creation, form, or quality”, as well as having the meaning of “decoration or ornament”, can be qualified by words such as happiness, as in hilyah-i saadat or prophet, as in hilyah-i nabavi. The word hilyah is understood to mean a verbal description of Prophet Muhammad, and there are hilyah narrated by different Companions. Generally, these texts are written in small forms in calligraphy so that they can be carried in one’s breast pocket as a sign of respect. It has been put forward that the first example of such a text was made, in the form of a tablet, by Hafiz Osman (d.1110/1698), one of the leading figures of Islamic calligraphy.  Accounts from calligraphers of the period, the lack of calligraphic hilyah works before this date, the fact that Hafiz Osman had formed a style in hilyah, and the existence of different hilyah texts and writings all help us to understand that this thought is probably justified. The most common calligraphic design of the hilyah are as given below:

Before developing this form, which became common for hilyah, Hafiz Osman wrote hilyahs that had Turkish translations in nasihcalligraphy which could only be carried in a breast pocket if folded. Only three examples of these have survived. On one of these examples is written the date 1079/1668. With this date, then, we can say that the calligrapher started to write hilyahs when he was only 26 or 27 years old. In this hilyah, which was written in four columns, measuring 22 x 14 cm, and which was intended for Ottoman Muslims who were not familiar with Arabic, the main text was written in straight lines. The Turkish translation was written in much finer nasih calligraphy in diagonal lines which joined with the straight lines to form a triangle. This hilyah was written more than three hundred years ago but Hafiz Osman did not mention by whom the hilyah was reported. It reads as follows: “His holy forehead was wide. His holy beard was rounded. His holy beard was partially white. His holy eyes were black. Some said: He had hazel eyes. Some said: They seemed white.  Some said: They seemed yellow. His holy eyebrows were lighter. He had thin eyebrows and his words were sweet. His holy teeth were widely set. His holy nose was noble. They said he had light brown skin. His holy ears were small. His holy veins were fine. His holy face and his holy beard were round. His holy forehead was wide. His holy hands were long. His holy height was proportionate. His holy feet were medium. His holy fingers were thin. He had no hair on his body. There was a line stretching from his holy chest down to his holy navel. There was a seal of prophethood on both of his shoulders. The seal of prophethood was written on his navel.”


After this first hilyah composition, Hafiz Osman started to make the transition to what would become the most common form, with only the original text of an account by Ali; this form was continued for centuries. The translation of this account is as follows: “Ali said the following things when he described the Holy Prophet: ‘The Holy Prophet was neither excessively tall nor extremely short. He was of medium height. His hair was neither curly nor wavy.  It was not too curly nor was it straight. It was both curly and wavy. His face was not swollen or meaty. It was fairly round. His mouth was white. He had black eyes that were large with long lashes. His joints were rather large. He had little hairs that stood up, extending from his chest down to his navel, but the rest of his body was almost hairless. He had thick palms and thick fingers and toes. When walking, he lifted his feet off the ground as if he were walking in muddy water. When he turned, he turned completely. The Seal of Prophethood was between his shoulders. That was the sign of the fact that he was the last Prophet.’” Prophet Muhammad was known as the most generous, the most righteous, and the friendliest of all people, and one with a mild nature. Those who saw him were taken aback by his grandeur, however those who knew his high virtues would love Him more than anything else while conversing with him. A person who tried to depict Muhammad’s superiority and beauty would state their inability and incapability to represent him correctly, saying “I have never even seen a person like him. May the grace and peace of Allah be upon him!”

This form of hilyah is sometimes written in sizes that can be folded three times in order to fit into one’s pocket, with the parts that are folded strengthened with leather or canvas strips. There were also larger tablet hilyahs pasted on wood. Unfortunately, woodworms have often caused damage to these hilyahs. Moreover, these hilyahs were soiled by the smoke of oil lamps. After starting to practice this kind of hilyah, Hafiz Osman sometimes shortened the main text and put it into the middle section.

Apart from the hilyah that recorded Ali’s account, which was known to have been written in the last years of Hafiz Osman’s life (1109/1697), he also wrote a hilyah from Umm al-Mabad (a woman who talked with the Prophet). This hilyah was designed to be folded three times to fit into a pocket. The translation of this hilyah is as follows:

“He was purely bright and had a broad countenance. His manners were fine. His stomach did not bulge nor was his head lacking in hair. He had black attractive eyes over which were arched long eyebrows. His hair was glossy and black, inclined to curl, and he wore it long. His voice was extremely commanding. His head was large, well-formed and set on a slender neck. His expression was pensive and contemplative, serene and sublime. A stranger would be fascinated from the distance, but no sooner did he become intimate with him than this fascination turned into attachment and respect. His expression was very sweet and distinct. His speech was clear and free from the use of superfluous words, as if it were a rosary of beads. His stature was neither too high nor too short to be repulsive. He stood out amongst the two, singularly bright and fresh. He was always surrounded by his Companions. Whenever he uttered something, the listeners would listen to him with rapt attention and whenever he issued any command, they vied with each other to carry it out. He was a master and a commander. His utterances were marked by truth and sincerity and were free from all kinds of falsehoods and lies.”


Hafiz Osman used the thuluth style of calligraphy for the basmala (blessing) and verses, while he use the nasih style for the text and nasih or riqa styles for the signature. He sometimes preferred to use the muhaqqaq calligraphy for the basmala. The style ofhilyah calligraphy passed down to following generations of calligraphers in these forms. Hilyah calligraphy differs according to the ability of the calligrapher. Yedikuleli Abdullah (d.1144/1731), Sekerzade Mehmed (d.1166/1752), Mustafa Rakim (d.1241/1826), Abdulkadir Sukri (d.1221/1806), Mahmud Celaleddin (d.1245/1829), Esma Ibret Hanim (19th century) all wrotehilyahs in their own style. Due to the fact that larger paper became available hilyahs started to be written in larger sizes. They began to grace places on the walls in main rooms of palaces and mansions. These hilyahs have survived up to today as they were pasted on special paper instead of wooden tablets. Kadıasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi (d.1293/1876) started the tradition of writinghilyahs in larger sizes; he wrote about 200 hilyahs of every size.  Hasan Riza Efendi (d.1330/1920) extended the length of hilyahby over 2 meters when he added the hadith “If it was not for you, I would not have created the universe” under the bottom section of the larger hilyahs. Fehmi Efendi (d.1333/1915), a calligrapher who made the larger-sized hilyahs, used the thuluth style for the text part, and masterfully used a very thin writing style known as gubari, and decorated the hilyah with flower motifs.

The upper part of the original hilyahs were pasted onto wood, which was then carved and gilded in the form of a crown; miniatures of Medina were included on these parts. In some hilyahs, these miniatures are located around the basmala. Some people were granted diplomas, a long-established tradition in calligraphy, for the hilyahs they wrote. For instance, Sultan Mahmud II (d.1255/1839), Filibeli (Bakkal) Arif Efendi (d. 1327/1909), Hacı Kamil Akdik (d.1360/1941) and Sheikh Aziz Rifai (d.1353/1934) were all granted diplomas for the hilyah al-nabawi they wrote in the thuluth-nasih calligraphy style. Apart from the above-mentioned famous calligraphers who were known for hilyah script, Mustafa Kutahi (d. after 1201/1787), Ismail Zuhdi Efendi (d.1221/1806), Comez Mustafa Vasif (d.1269/1853), Abdullah Zuhdi (d. 1296/1879), Mehmed Sefik Bey (d.1297/1880), Mehmed Sevki Efendi, Muhsinzade Abdullah Bey (d.1317/1899), Hacı Kamil Akdik, Hamid Aytac (d.1401/1982) are among the names that are remembered most.

The art of calligraphy is one that has constantly developed up until today; those who were involved in calligraphy strove to find the best and the most original forms of hilyah. The calligraphers who made hilyah are known for their efforts to bring a new aspect to the art. I still come across hilyah formats that I have never seen before, despite being involved in the research of hilyah tablets, which merely goes to prove the existence of a great variety of such works.


Two well-known calligraphers of the 19th and 20th centuries used texts for their hilyahs that had not been previously used; perhaps this was done at the instigation of the ulema (scholars). Yahya Hilmi Efendi (d.1325/1907) wrote the text narrated by Abu Hurairah a few times in the form of a tablet; this was like the one narrated by Ali, yet different in places and longer. However, as this text was considerably longer, the middle and bottom sections, which were written in nasih calligraphy, covered a much larger space than in ordinary hilyahs. The prominent calligrapher Kamil Akdik created two hilyahs that were taken from the record of Hind ibn Abi Hala in the form of a tablet. The meaning of the hilyah is as follows: “I asked my uncle Hind ibn Abi Hala, who knew the Prophet very well, about the features of the Messenger of Allah. I wanted him to describe them to me so that I could retain them in my mind. Upon my request, my uncle Hind ibn Abi Hala said: “Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was gallant and glorious by birth... His face shone like the full moon. He was somewhat taller than medium height and a little shorter than what could be described as tall. His head was large and he had hair that was neither curly nor straight. It was parted, and did not go beyond the lobes of his ears. He was very fair‑skinned with a wide brow, and had thick eyebrows with a narrow space between them. He had a vein there which throbbed when he was angry. He had a long nose with a line of light over it. His beard was thick. He had black pupils, firm cheeks, a wide mouth and white teeth with gaps between them. The hair of his chest formed a fine line. His neck was like that of a statue made of pure silver. His physique was finely balanced. His body was firm and full. His belly and chest were equal in size. His chest was broad and the space between his shoulders wide. He had round calves. He was luminous. Between his neck and his navel there was a line of hair, but the rest of his body was free from hair. He had hair on his forearms and shoulders and the upper part of his chest. He had thick wrists, wide palms, smooth hands and feet. His fingers were long (or thick). His insteps were arched and his feet were so smooth that water ran off them like oil. He would not step so heavily as to create dust. When he walked, he walked as though he were going down a hill. He walked in a dignified manner and walked easily. He walked swiftly. When he walked, it was as though he was heading down a slope. When he turned to address somebody, he turned his whole body completely. He lowered his glance, glancing downwards rather than upwards. He restrained his glance. He spoke first to his Companions and was the first to greet any person he met.”

This hilyah, written entirely in kufic calligraphy stands out as a rare example. Bakkal Arif Efendi (d.1327/1909) inscribed an exquisite hilyah entirely using the thuluth style of calligraphy rather than the nasih within the text section. One of the calligraphers of the latter period, Haci Nuri Korman (d.1371/1951) also created several hilyahs related to this calligraphy. Although the first example of a hilyah in the tal’iq style was seen immediately after the time of Hafiz Osman, tal’iq calligraphy hilyahs only became well-known with Yesari Mehmed Es'ad Efendi (d.1213/1798). The original text of this hilyah was dated 1192/1778 with the middle section being written in the hurde (thin) tal’iq. Yesarizade Mustafa Izzet Efendi (d.1265/1849) also created a number of tal’iq hilyah. Two hilyahs from Yesarizade were decorated by the famous tezhip (gilding) artists Ahmed Hezargradi and Husni Efendi.

Hulusi Yazgan (d.1358/1940) was the last prominent figure to use tal’iq calligraphy for the hilyah. He used circular or elliptical middle sections and did not use the lower sections. In the teaching of calligraphy, in the text of the hilyah, the final stage of which uses the account of Ali, the thuluth-nasih style is also used. The thuluth-nasih style of calligraphy resulted in a hilyah that was very popular. The hilyah below, written in 1315/1897 by Muezzin Arab of the Fatih Mosque, was presented to Abdul Hamid II


The illumination design of this hilyah was influenced by Western patterns, which had a great effect on Turkish art from the 19th century on. With few exceptions, there are a great number of hilyah in which immaculate calligraphy becomes lost and unrecognizable among obscure motifs. However, starting from the 1940s, the hilyahs were renewed by turning for inspiration to the classical illumination art. The first tezhip artists who carried out such works were Muhsin Demironat (d.1983), Rikkat Kunt (d.1986) and Mihriban Sozer (Keredin). The creation of Hilyah al-Nabawi tablets was exclusive to the Ottoman Turks and their descendents, and continued during the Republican period; such an implementation is not seen in other Islamic countries.

The Hilyah-i Hakani style, which could be considered a branch of the hilyah class, is also well-known. This exquisite style, developed by Hakani Mehmed Bey (d.1015/1606) is done in tal’iq calligraphy and in the form of a booklet or tablet. The booklet of 24 quatrains written by Yesarizade Mustafa Izzet Efendi was also imitated by Nazif Bey (d.1331/1913), Omer Vasfi Efendi (d.1347/1928) and Seyh Aziz Rifai. Another fabulous Hilyah-i Hakani in the form of a tablet can be found in the Arnavutkoyu Tevfikiye Mosque; this was executed in tal’iq calligraphy by Arabzade Sadullah Efendi (d.1259/1843). There are examples of hilyah found in various museums, particularly in Topkapi Palace Museum, the Turkish-Islamic Art Works Museum, the Istanbul Vakif Calligraphy Art Museum, in some libraries (Suleymaniye, Istanbul University Library), in mosques and masjids and in private collections. However, the loss of a collection that consisted of a large number of unique hilyahs (over 100 or 160 according to another account) is a sad event for artistic and religious culture.

It is generally believed that there will be peace, productivity and bliss anywhere where a hilyah is hung, and that it will prevent the occurrence of disasters and fires. The fact that these tablets are revered as though they are personal souvenirs of Prophet Muhammad and the fact that they are hung in houses and covered with lace to protect them shows the important place they hold in the religious understanding of the people of Turkey.

عن أبي هُرَيْرَةَ ـ رضى الله عنه قَالَ:
قَبَّلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم الْحَسَنَ بْنَ عَلِيٍّ وَعِنْدَهُ الأَقْرَعُ بْنُ حَابِسٍ التَّمِيمِيُّ جَالِسًا‏.‏ فَقَالَ الأَقْرَعُ إِنَّ لِي عَشَرَةً مِنَ الْوَلَدِ مَا قَبَّلْتُ مِنْهُمْ أَحَدًا‏.‏ فَنَظَرَ إِلَيْهِ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ثُمَّ قَالَ ‏"‏ مَنْ لاَ يَرْحَمُ لاَ يُرْحَمُ ‏"‏‏
God's Messenger kissed Al-Hasan bin Ali (his grandchild) while Al-Aqra' bin Habis At-Tamim was sitting beside him. Al-Aqra said, "I have ten children and I have never kissed anyone of them", God's Messenger cast a look at him and said, "Whoever is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully." (Bukhari, Good Manners and Form (Al-Adab), 18)

Title: Tracks from Neyzen Sadreddin Özçimi's album, Sufi Rhythms - Sultan-i Ask Artist: Sadreddin Özçimi