Calligraphy: Layout of the Hilya

The Hilya, or the Adornment of the Prophet: A Calligraphic Icon

Commentary and Translation by Carl W. Ernst

The hilya or “adornment” is a calligraphic portrayal of the Prophet according to a traditional Arabic account of his physical appearance.Ý This brief description, most commonly in the version of Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law `Ali, begins with a simple and straightforward physical description, stressing his normal yet highly attractive appearance. It then moves into impressions of his character and his charismatic personality; eulogies and praise of the Prophet are customarily added to this account. The Prophet’s illiteracy, a characteristic mentioned at the conclusion of these texts, is regarded as a sign of the miraculous character of the Qur’anic revelation. He is also referred to here as the Seal of the Prophets, an expression taken from the Qur’an (33:40), which is commonly understood to mean that he is the final messenger sent by God to humanity. At least since the 16th century, Muslims in the Ottoman Turkish regions have expressed their devotion to the Prophet by making exquisite calligraphic copies of this text, hanging them in their homes and workplaces in places of honor.

This remarkable example of Islamic art indicates one way in which believers approach the Muhammad of faith.Ý As an artistic creation, it is a calligraphic icon that represents the physical person of the Prophet without crossing over into a visual portrait. Many Muslims used this artifact as a devotional aid. According to a saying of Muhammad recorded in one of the standard collections, ìFor him who sees my hilya after my death it is as if he had seen me myself, and he who sees it, longing for me, for him God will make Hellfire prohibited, and he will not be resurrected naked at Doomsday.î Although there are miniature paintings depicting Muhammad in some medieval manuscripts, those tended to be produced privately for elite patrons, rather than as public religious art such as one sees in Christian churches. Muslims have largely rejected the representation of human and animal forms in deliberately religious art. But calligraphy, ideally suited to transmitting the word of God in a beautiful physical form, was the religious art par excellence in Muslim cultures. In this way, it was possible to have a symbolic reminder of the presence of the Prophet Muhammad without creating any kind of “graven image” that would be unacceptable to Muslim sensitivities. For those who revere the Muhammad of grace, the historical details of his life and his legal pronouncements are of less interest than his beauty and his compassion for those in need.Ý There is an immense literature on the subject of the physical appearance of the Prophet, stressing his remarkable beauty, and in the process creating legends of his miraculous deeds.Ý

Typically, the description of Muhammad is contained within a main circular disk that is the heart of the composition, which frequently has a slim lunar crescent surrounding the circle, recalling the description of the Prophet as the primordial light of the world. Four smaller disks containing the names of Muhammad’s principal successors remind the viewer of the role of tradition in transmitting his legacy. In a section at the top in large letters are the words “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate,” the phrase that begins nearly every section of the Qur’an. Highlighted below the text is a phrase from the Qur’an in which God announces the universal role of Muhammad: “We only sent you as a mercy for creation” (Qur’an 21:107), or “Truly, you are great in character” (Qur’an 68:4). The framing of this description by Godís words, proclaiming the cosmic role of the Prophet, signals the unique spiritual position that Muhammad holds. The section at the bottom of the composition contains the portion of the hilya text that spills over from the disk above, followed by prayers and blessings on the Prophet, together with the signature of the calligrapher.

Rasheed Butt, a master calligrapher from Pakistan, has adapted the characteristic Ottoman form of the hilya with his own innovations.ÝStylistically, he combines brilliantly colored floral decoration with extensive use of gold leaf in clouds outlining the calligraphy, and he favors a symmetrical circular outline to the main disk in place of the lunar crescent.Ý The calligraphy of the Arabic text follows the classical naskh and nasta`liq styles, with long and graceful lines. But it is in terms of content and overall design that Rasheed Butt has made dramatic new contributions. Noting that there are other contemporary descriptions of the Prophet’s physical appearance besides that given by `Ali, Rasheed Butt has introduced the use of two such additional texts, sometimes as independent compositions, but also in double or triple compositions on a large scale.

The two hilya compositions on display here include one single hilya and one double composition.Ý The single hilya contains the text of the description of the Prophet according to a Bedouin woman named Umm Ma`bad, the circumstances of which are explained in a charming story.Ý When Muhammad and his close companion Abu Bakr left Mecca in 622, they were on their way to Medina, where Muhammad had been invited to become the leader of the city.Ý When they stopped by the tent of Umm Ma`bad, she wanted to offer them hospitality, but she told them that her goats were giving no milk because of drought.Ý When the Prophet offered to milk one of her goats himself, she readily agreed, and to her amazement the goat produced abundant milk.Ý After the departure of Muhammad and Abu Bakr, her husband arrived, and she related the story of her remarkable visitor, including a description of the Prophet’s appearance, which is used both in the single hilya and alongside the description by `Ali in the double hilya.Ý The context makes it clear that the important part of this story is the compassion of the Prophet, both in providing sustenance to the Bedouin woman and in relieving her of the embarrassment of not providing hospitality to a stranger.

Text of single hilya, account of Umm Ma`bad

Top section: “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”

Upper text circular area is surrounded by four small disks containing the names of the first four Caliphs or successors to the Prophet Muhammad, i.e., Abu Bakr (upper right), `Umar (upper left), `Uthman (lower right), and `Ali (lower left). Each disk contains in small letters the blessing, ìMay God be pleased with him.î

Upper text translation:

Umm Ma`bad, describing the messenger of God (may God bless him and grant him peace), said, “I saw a man, pure and clean, with a handsome face and a fine figure. He was not marred by a skinny body, nor was he overly small in the head and neck. He was graceful and elegant, with intensely black eyes and thick eyelashes.Ý There was a huskiness in his voice, and his neck was long. His beard was thick, and his eyebrows were finely arched and joined together.Ý When silent, he was grave and dignified, and when he spoke, glory rose up and overcame him.Ý He was from afar the most beautiful of men and the most glorious, and close up he was the sweetest and the loveliest.Ý He was sweet of speech and articulate, but not petty or trifling. His speech was a string of cascading pearls, measured so that none despaired of its length,

 

Middle section: “We only sent you as a mercy for creation” (Qur’an 21:107). This verse, in which God addresses the Prophet Muhammad, is a fundamental Qur’anic statement about the universal role of the Prophet.

 

Lower text translation (continues from above):

“and no eye challenged him because of brevity. In company he is like a branch between two other branches, but he is the most flourishing of the three in appearance, and the loveliest in power.Ý He has friends surrounding him, who listen to his words.Ý If he commands, they obey implicitly, with eagerness and haste, without frown or complaint.îÝ May God bless him and grant him peace.Ý God, pray for and grant peace to Muhammad, your servant, your Prophet and your messenger, the illiterate Prophet, and to his family and companions, and grant him peace. Written with the grace of God Most High by Rasheed Butt, may God forgive him.

 

 

Text of double hilya

Left side, account of Umm Ma`bad

 

Top section: “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”

 

Upper text circular area is surrounded by four small disks containing the names of the first four Caliphs or successors to the Prophet Muhammad, i.e., Abu Bakr (upper right), `Umar (upper left), `Uthman (lower right), and `Ali (lower left). Each disk contains in small letters the blessing, ìMay God be pleased with him.î

 

Upper text translation:

Umm Ma`bad, describing the messenger of God (may God bless him and grant him peace), said, “I saw a man, pure and clean, with a handsome face and a fine figure. He was not marred by a skinny body, nor was he overly small in the head and neck. He was graceful and elegant, with intensely black eyes and thick eyelashes.Ý There was a huskiness in his voice, and his neck was long. His beard was thick, and his eyebrows were finely arched and joined together.Ý When silent, he was grave and dignified, and when he spoke, glory rose up and overcame him.Ý He was from afar the most beautiful of men and the most glorious, and close up he was the sweetest and the loveliest.Ý He was sweet of speech and articulate, but not petty or trifling. His speech was a string of cascading pearls, measured so that none despaired of its length and no eye challenged him because of brevity.

 

Middle section: “Truly, you are great in character” (Qur’an 68:4) with the date 1420 (1999).

 

Lower text translation (continues from above):

“In company he is like a branch between two other branches, but he is the most flourishing of the three in appearance, and the loveliest in power.ÝHe has friends surrounding him, who listen to his words.Ý If he commands, they obey implicitly, with eagerness and haste, without frown or complaint.îÝ May God bless him and grant him peace. God, pray for and grant peace to Muhammad, your servant, your Prophet, and your messenger, the illiterate Prophet, and to his family and companions, and grant him peace. Written by Rasheed Butt, may God forgive him.

 

Right side, account of `Ali

 

Top section: “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”

 

Upper text circular area is surrounded by four small disks containing four different variations on the name of Muhammad, i.e., Muhammad (upper right), Ahmad (upper left), Hamid (lower right), and Mahmud (lower left). Each disk contains in small letters the blessing, ìMay God bless him and grant him peace.î

 

Upper text translation:

From `Ali (may God be pleased with him): when he used to describe the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace), he said, “He was not excessively tall nor overly short, but was of medium stature among the people.Ý His hair was neither short and curly nor long and thin. He was a strong man, but not stout or fat.Ý His face was entirely white and round, and he had intensely black eyes and long eyelashes. He was big in the shoulders and back. He was not hairy except on his chest, and he had hard hands and feet.Ý When he walked, he pulled himself forward as though he were walking downhill, and when he turned, he turned his whole body.Ý Between his shoulder blades was the seal of prophecy, for he is the Seal of the Prophets.”

 

Middle section: “Truly, you are great in character” (Qur’an 68:4) with the date 1420 (1999).

 

Lower text translation (continues from above):

He was the most generous of men in his heart, the most truthful of them in speech, the mildest of them in temper, and the noblest of them in descent.Ý Anyone who saw him immediately felt awe, and anyone who partook of his knowledge loved him.Ý The one who described him says he has never seen anyone like him, either before or after him. May God bless him and grant him peace.Ý God, bless and grant peace to Muhammad, your servant, your Prophet and your messenger, the illiterate Prophet, and to his family and companions, and grant them peace.

Ref: http://web.archive.org/web/20030903040306/http://www.unc.edu/courses/2002fall/reli/025/001/hilya.htm

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