When love for the Prophet becomes art

A thriving hub of cultural enrichment, Ottoman İstanbul was renowned for its glorification of the beauty of Islam through art.

A glossy soft-cover volume produced by the Association of International Art and Culture (UKSD), “When Love for the Prophet Becomes Art” sheds light upon the spiritual significance of two manifestations of this great tradition: Hilye-i Şerif (The Noble Hilye), a form of classic calligraphic art portraying the physical and spiritual attributes of Prophet Muhammad and the use of the tesbih (prayer beads) for ruminative prayer.

The book, as visually fluid as it is informative, was published as a lasting memento of a pioneering exhibition, “Classic and Contemporary Examples of Turkish Art: Hilye-i Şerif and Tesbih,” which was hosted in Rome in October. The first time that a collection of Hilye-i Şerif had been exhibited outside of Europe, the project was initiated with the intention of raising the profile of Turkish art in one of Europe’s most prominent cultural centers.

A revered form of calligraphy hailed as “a portrait of words,” hilye, which derives from the Arabic word “hilyah,” signifying ornament, countenance or character, is often interpreted as a portrayal of the Prophet. The negative attitudes in Islam toward figurative art and interpretations of it as a form of idolatry led to calligraphy becoming a major form of artistic expression in Islamic cultures. Characterized by paneled structures featuring the main text of the prayer or exaltation in a circular central medallion surrounded by various smaller rectangular or circular panels, the Hilye-i Şerif is the best example of devotion to God in Islamic art after the holy Quran, noted project curator Mehmet Lütfi Şen.

Distinguished by dazzling color and elegant swirls of sweeping calligraphy, the hilye, which is well-cited as a vehicle for establishing intimacy with the spirit of the Prophet and as a symbol of protection capable of casting peace and blessing on a house, traveler or a person in need, is omnipresent in both the public and private realms in Turkey. A stunning spread on the wall of a mosque or encased in a gilded frame can be found in smaller, less glamorous proportions swaying in front of the windshield of a taxi in motion, mounted askew on a wall behind the sizzling counter of a kebab joint or propped on the clutter of a bedside table.

Despite the fact that many regard the art of hilye, which emerged in İstanbul in the 17th century under the artisan pen of the great Ottoman calligrapher Hafız Osman, as a relic of times gone by, UKSD President Tuğrul Tuna notes in the book’s opening chapter that the art form is currently undergoing a renaissance -- indeed, many of the artists with work showcased in the project are from the current generation, with the likes of Ahmad Al Umari and Nurullah Özdem below the age of 30. In a fascinating tracing of the history of the art form, historian Dr. Irvin Cemil Schick shines a light upon a steady progression which has seen classical elements of the art reorganized into modern compositions that, although displaying the same text as the original hilyes, differ in their forms.

From the dizzying contours of the Hilye-i Şerif, UKSD’s project then turns to the spiritual significance of the tesbih. Noted in the publication as “a counting tool born of man’s desire to be close to the Creator,” the tesbih developed from simple curios fashioned from date and olive pits, pebbles and knotted ropes during Islam’s first centuries to aesthetic masterpieces created from materials ranging from precious metals and pearl to bone, crystal, ebony, amber, ceramics and glass.

Despite their primary function as a means of keeping count of the repeated utterances of holy phrases, the act of moving the fingers along the beads turns, for many, into an act of meditation and contemplation.

An accessory often spotted knotted absentmindedly around the fists of men and boys of all ages, from the teenage football supporter to a grandfather on a park bench, tesbihs of all varieties -- from the glowing hues of pressed amber beads to the smooth sheen of a rosary made of coral -- are presented in a dazzling spread in UKSD’s latest project.

With the text of the book translated simultaneously into English, Turkish and Italian, the collection will inspire and engage even the most unlikely of art enthusiasts from all backgrounds. “When Love for the Prophet Becomes Art” is available from the Mas Matbaacılık publishing company, located in İstanbul’s Kağıthane quarter.

Latifa Akay / Todayszaman



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