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Sufism and the aesthetics of penmanship in Siraj al-Shirazi's Tuhfat al-muhibbin (1454).

Arabic calligraphy has exerted its enchantment over many generations of writers and readers alike. Despite the existence of numerous treatises in Arabic and Persian on the techniques of penmanship, hearkening back to the methods developed by the great calligraphers of the Abbasid era such as Ibn Muqla (d. 940) and Yaqut (d. ca. 1297), few authors have attempted to explain the aesthetic and spiritual bases of the art of the pen. (1) A master calligrapher from Shiraz, Siraj al-Shirazi, composed one such work under the title Tuhfat al-muhibbin ("The Bounty of the Lovers") in the Deccan kingdom of Bidar in 1454. (2) Although this work has not attracted much scholarly attention, it is a rich source for the early history and understanding of the cultural significance of the Arabic script. (3) In this work the author reveals the intimate relationship of his art to Sufism, as expounded by his teacher, a calligrapher descended from the famous Persian Sufi, Ruzbihan al-Baqli (d. 1209). Here I would like briefly to describe the contents of this guide to the art of penmanship and analyze the extent to which Sufi teachings play a role in the aesthetics of this calligrapher, that is, the form of artistic judgment and interpretation that he brings to the understanding of the art of the Arabic script.

The author of this treatise gives his complete name as Abu l-Dai Yaqub ibn Hasan ibn Shaykh, known as Siraj al-Hasani al-Shirazi; for convenience, I refer to him as Siraj. Unfortunately we do not have any detailed information about him from any other source than his own writing, The Bounty of the Lovers. There he states that this text was composed in 858/ 1454 in Muhammadabad (better known as Bidar), capital of the Indian kingdom of the Bahmani sultanate, where he had traveled from his homeland in Shiraz. The text itself was dedicated not to any reigning monarch, but to his Sufi teacher in India, Amir-zada Muhibb Allah, son of Khalil Allah and grandson of the well-known Persian Sufi master Shah Nimat Allah Wali. Moreover, he informs us that the title of his treatise was adopted from an identically named work by the famous Sufi of Shiraz, Shaykh Ruzbihan al-Baqli. (4) Siraj's master in the art of calligraphy, whom he mentions frequently (thirteen times in the text), was Sadr al-Din Ruzbihan Shirazi, a descendant of the Sufi master. Siraj refers to his teacher with utmost reverence, calling him "the seal of the calligraphers" (khatam al-khattatin). (5)

To judge from what we know about the family of Ruzbihan in Shiraz, Siraj's master in calligraphy was probably a fifth-generation descendant. Ruzbihan's great-grandson Sharaf al-Din Ibrahim ibn Sadr al-Din "Ruzbihan al-Thani" (i.e., Ruzbihan II, active in 700/1300) had a son named Sadr al-Din bin Sharaf al-Din Ibrahim "Ruzbihan al-Thalith" (Ruzbihan III), but the time interval is too long to make it possible for the latter to have been the teacher of Siraj, who must have been educated at the latest by the beginning of the fifteenth century. Therefore it seems likely that it was one generation later (at least) that the calligrapher Sadr al-Din Ruzbihan appeared, who would thus have been Ruzbihan IV, or conceivably, a generation later, Ruzbihan V (see Chart 1). (6)

Chart 1. The Descendants of Ruzbihan al-Baqli

1. Ruzbihan al-Baqli al-Shirazi (1128-1209)

2. Fakhr al-Din Ahmad ibn Ruzbihan (ca. 1174-1247)

3. Sadr al-Din Ibrahim ibn Fakhr al-Din Ahmad Ruzbihan II (1218-1286)

4. Sharaf al-Din Ibrahim ibn Sadr al-Din (ca. 1300)

5. Sadr al-Din ibn Sharaf al-Din Ibrahim Ruzbihan III

6. Sadr al-Din Ruzbihan al-Shirazi [IV? ca. 1400]

The vocabulary and style of Yaqub ibn Hasan's text frequently show strong resemblances to the writings of Ruzbihan, so there is no question about the affiliation of this calligraphic work with the mystical school of Shiraz.

Yet Siraj also makes clear that after his arrival in India he formed new attachments with a different Sufi lineage, the Nimatullahi order, established by Shah Nimat Allah Wali (1330-1430). When the Bahmani sultan Ahmad Shah Wali (r. 1422-1436) acceded to the throne, one of his early gestures was to send a delegation to Kerman to invite Shah Nimat Allah to come to the Deccan to establish his spiritual influence there. While the shaykh (who would have been over ninety years old at this time) declined this invitation, he did send a disciple to initiate the sultan into the order; Ahmad Shah, not satisfied, entrusted another delegation with a second invitation to the shaykh, who this time agreed to send his grandson Nur Allah (d. 1430) in his place. The latter was graciously received and married into the royal family. Then Shah Nimat Allah, just prior to his death, appointed his son Khalil Allah (1373-1455) as his successor. After a brief sojourn in Herat at the invitation of Shahrukh, Khalil Allah made his way to the Deccan, probably arriving in Bidar by 1436, along with his two sons; the elder of these, Shah Muhibb al-Din (1427-1502), succeeded him as head of the Nimatullahis in India. (7) Both of Khalil Allah's sons followed Nur Allah's example by marrying into the Bahmani royal family. Siraj pays tribute (pp. 51-52) to both Muhibb al-Din and his father Khalil Allah as his new spiritual guides in the Indian environment, and it is striking that he makes no reference to the ruling sultan, Ala al-Din Ahmad II (r. 1436-1458).

Aside from these declarations of Sufi discipleship, Siraj offers little by way of historical information about his times. Siraj is said to have copied (presumably in Shiraz) a manuscript of the Zafar-nama of Sharaf al-Din Yazdi (d. 1454), a Persian biography of Timur, in a manuscript dated 1437. (8) The only other near-contemporary figure that he mentions is Ibrahim ibn Shahrukh (1394-1435), a Timurid prince known for his patronage of art and architecture; Siraj mentions him as both a connoisseur and practitioner of calligraphy, as well as being the sponsor of numerous building projects in Shiraz, including a mosque known as the Dar al-Safa-yi Sultani. From the Timurid author Qadi Ahmad we know that this building was one of several in Shiraz (including the tomb of the poet Sadi) that featured the prince's own calligraphy; unfortunately, a rebellious governor destroyed Ibrahim's mosques at the end of the sixteenth century. (9) Siraj also remarks that Ibrahim's court was adorned by a calligrapher such as his own teacher, Sadr al-Din Ruzbihan. (10) His familiarity with a Timurid prince deceased two decades before the composition of his treatise, together with the dating of his Zafar-nama manuscript, suggests that Siraj may have been in his youth when Ibrahim was active in Shiraz (1415-1435); thus the Tuhfat al-muhibbin would have been the product of his maturity, though the chronology must admittedly remain speculative at this point. (11)

Siraj was an example of the extraordinary movement of talent from Iran to India that formed a dominant cultural trend from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. Particularly in the Deccan at an early stage, but later on in the Mughal regions of northern India as well, the wealthy courts of India proved an irresistible draw to numerous writers and intellectuals from Persia. (12) Schimmel describes the "influx of calligraphers" to the Bahmani kingdom as characteristic of this period. (13) The tomb of the Bahmani sultan Ahmad Shah I in his new capital of Bidar is particularly impressive, and it is noteworthy for its extensive inscriptions, including lengthy quotations from the Persian poetry of Shah Nimat Allah, as well as two spiritual genealogies of the shaykh's Sufi lineage in the central dome. (14) Schimmel considers the madrasa built in Bidar in 1472 by the minister Mahmud Gawan (d. 1481, who arrived in the Deccan in 1453, only a year before Siraj's treatise was written) as one of the masterpieces of monumental calligraphy of that era; it included compositions by Ali al-Sufi, whose work also adorned edifices constructed by the Ottoman emperor Mehmet the Conqueror. (15) It is tempting to speculate that the work of a calligrapher like Siraj, who was so closely connected to elite circles among the Bahmanis, may have formed a part of the inscriptions found in the monuments of Bidar. It would have been natural, for example, for Siraj to have been involved in the calligraphic program attached to the tomb of the reigning Bahmani sultan Ahmad II, whose death took place only four years after the composition of the Tuhfat al-muhibbin. (16) Even more importantly, Siraj would have had a keen interest, if not an active hand, in the calligraphic decoration on the four-story (Hindi cau-khandi) shrine of the father of his Sufi mentor, Shaykh Khalil Allah, who died in 1455. (17) This tomb features a remarkable monumental inscription in thulth style, signed by another calligrapher from Shiraz, one Mughith al-Qari. Begley calls this "one of the great masterpieces of monumental Islamic calligraphy in India," and Michell and Zebrowski concur that it is "among the greatest epigraphic inscriptions of Indian and Islamic art." (18) And one also wonders if the teachings of Siraj would have had an impact on the Bahmani sultan Mahmud Shah (r. 1482-1518), a calligrapher whose work adorns the Sharza Gate of Bidar fort, in an inscription dated to 1503. (19)

The text of Tuhfat al-muhibbin exists in a unique manuscript, dated probably to the eighteenth century, which claims to be copied from the author's autograph although it is written in an ordinary hand; the manuscript exhibits archaic orthographic practices that have been modernized by the editors in the printed edition. This document was acquired by the French Orientalist Anquetil du Perron in India in the 1790s, and it is preserved today in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (suppl. persane 1086). It was first noticed among modern scholars by Muhammad Taqi Danish-Puzhuh, who enlisted the support of Karamat Rana Husayni and iraj Afshar for its publication in a critical edition (with an introduction by Afshar) published in 1997, as part of a long-standing project to publish all available Persian texts on calligraphy. It is considered to be the second-oldest independent treatise on the Arabic script to be written in Persian, after the work of Abd Allah Sirafi Tabrizi (14th century), which Siraj quotes repeatedly. (20) The Tuhfat al-muhibbin was a product of the sophisticated calligraphic milieu of Shiraz, which was an important international center for the production of fine manuscripts; as Qadi Ahmad remarked, in comparison to the calligraphers of Shiraz, "most of the renowned calligraphers in Fars, Khurasan, Kirman, and Iraq 'are eaters of crumbs from their table'." (21) Vlad Atanasiu has compared the Tuhfat al-muhibbin, as a wide-ranging manual of calligraphy, to the encyclopedic Subh al-asha of the Mamluk author al-Qalqashandi: "Both distinguish themselves in calligraphic literature, as much Persian as Mamluk, by the variety and clarity of the information that they give, sometimes unpublished, as well as by a more personal and less rigid style." (22)

Since this work is still not well known, I provide here a brief description of its contents. The lengthy text of the Tuhfat al-muhibbin (over 250 pages in the published edition) is divided into the following sections:
 Opening sermon (pp. 39-44)

 Reasons for the composition of the book (pp. 45-53)

 Adornment (tawshih) "explaining the excellence of calligraphy and
 clarifying that it is the noblest of arts" (pp. 55-60)

 Preface "explaining the placement of the script and the pens" (pp.

 Discourse 1, "explaining the conditions of the pen and its qualities,
 the trimming of the pen, and mention of the composition of inks,
 tools, and materials for writing, and the manners of the scribe," in
 five chapters (pp. 67-112)

 Discourse 2, "explaining the manner of placing the script, the names
 of the scripts, and the clarification of their principles and rules
 in isolation and in combination," in eight chapters (pp. 113-273)

 Conclusion, "explaining certain forms of words and expressions that
 should be written in a [particular] style of writing," in two
 chapters (pp. 275-91).

Thus it can be seen that the text is extensive and covers a large variety of topics beyond the scope of this analysis.

The Tuhfat al-muhibbin is a learned and intensely inter-textual work, with many quotations and references to sources in both Arabic and Persian. It contains 69 quotations from the Quran, 52 hadith, 72 Arabic sayings and proverbs, and over 50 Arabic poems. The bilingual sensibility of Siraj is frequently evident, particularly in the more ornate sections, in long Persian sentences that employ as many as four separate Arabic phrases, plus perhaps a Persian verse or two, each of which operates as a noun in extended and elaborate metaphors that are exceedingly difficult to translate. There are many dozens of lines of Persian poetry, including 48 citations of the poetry of Hafiz, making this one of the earliest sources to quote extensively from the work of the great Persian poet, who had died barely sixty years previously, perhaps within the author's lifetime. As was common, Siraj only occasionally names the authors of the verses and sayings he quotes, though one can recognize certain well-known lines from figures such as Hallaj or Rumi. Siraj quotes liberally from the Arabic grammarian Ibn al-Hajib (d. 1249) and his work al-Shafiyya, to establish basic linguistic concepts of the relationship between words and writing (pp. 118, 276). Siraj also reproduces four extracts from separate biographies of calligraphers from Ibn Khallikan's (d. 1289) famous Arabic biographical dictionary Wafayat al-ayan. The names of famous early Sufis and poets appear in the text, including Abu Said, Ruwaym, Wasiti, Shibli, Sadi, and Rumi, with the most frequently quoted Persian poets being Qasim-i Anvar (d. 1433-34) and Muhammad Shirin Maghribi (d. 1408), both extremely popular in Sufi circles of the fifteenth century. But greater prominence is undoubtedly given to the masters of Arabic calligraphy, particularly Ibn Muqla, Ibn al-Bawwab, and Yaqut al-Mustasimi.

In his review of the origins and history of the Arabic script, Siraj covers well-known legendary territory, but his distinctive approach is well illustrated by his detailed account of the Abbasid vizier Ibn Muqla and his role in the standardization of the geometrical basis of Arabic writing. Siraj describes the early scripts known as Kufic and maqili, which were understood to be composed entirely of straight lines (particularly the latter, associated with a script composed of bricks). (23) Like many other authorities, Siraj credits the fourth caliph. Ali ibn Abi Talib, with a major role in the development of the early Arabic script; he is said to have employed a style in Kufic that was one-sixth curved but predominantly straight. Drawing upon an otherwise unknown account that he attributes to Sirafi, (24) Siraj describes the role of Ibn Muqla in introducing the circular element as a major feature of Arabic script, considering this an innovation of truly cosmic significance. (25) I quote this passage at length, since it illustrates not only the concept of the circle as integral to the new form of Arabic script, but also because of its distinctive employment of Sufi-style quotations of prophetic hadith with a strong cosmological flavor:
 And since by the principles of wisdom it is demonstrated that God
 (glory be to the Most High) created the world in a circular form,
 even so the explanation of this meaning has occurred in the words of
 the sages: "The world is a circle, the earth is a dot, the heavens
 are bows, accidents are arrows, and man is a target; so where is one
 to flee?" This is based on the judgment that, "The best of shapes is
 the shape of the circle." The master Abu Ali Muhammad ibn Ali ibn al-
 Husayn ibn Muqla the scribe (may God have mercy on him) realized that
 writing could be made circular. He transmitted that method of [round]
 Kufic in this fashion that is now current, so that it would be
 related to the creation of the Earth, which is the principle of all

 And Khwaja Abd Allah Sirafi (may God refresh his spirit) has an
 epistle on the science of writing, and he maintains that the cause of
 the transfer of script from the [square] Kufic to the round was that
 on a certain day one of the children of the Caliph, to whom the
 master Abu Ali [ibn Muqla] attended as a tutor, went out for a
 stroll. At the time of his return, the Caliph asked his child whether
 he had brought back any keepsake or gift as a companion from his

 The son of the Caliph, after presenting his respects, observed. "I
 overheard a couple of verses from a lover, which I recall as

My lover's teeth are in the form of the sin,
And his mouth's shape is like a rounded mim.
Together they spell poison (samm); amazing, by my life!
After I tasted it, there was no doubt."

 The Caliph considered these verses, and to one of his dear ones
 remarked. "The poet has compared the mouth of his beloved to a mim,
 and now your mouth is round, but the Kufic mim is not round at all,
 so the poet has foolishly said nothing."

 In the midst of this thought, he summoned Abu Ali ibn Muhammad [ibn
 Muqla] and he entered into discussion with him on this subject. The
 master replied that if the Caliph was so inclined, he would consider
 the subject further. Exerting his creativity in the manner that the
 poet had versified and by the method that was in accord with the
 verses, he made his proposal, and sought a space of forty days,
 according to the [prophetic] saying. "Anoint yourself with the
 qualities of God" (takhallaqu bi-akhlaq allah). He made use of the
 flashes of divine lights and sought the emanation from the contents
 filled with grace of [the divine saying,] "I kneaded the clay of Adam
 with my hands for forty days" (khammartu tinata adam bi-aydayya
 arbaina sabahan). He took a period of forty days in a retreat of
 editation to imagine the kneading of the clay of letters possessing
 elegant forms, transferring them from the lines of Kufic to the
 heavenly form of round and circular lines (pp. 120-21).

Thus Ibn Muqla's development of the new forms of the Arabic script is depicted as a result of a meditative retreat that imitates the divine creativity, which is invoked by the hadith qudsi, an extra-Quranic saying of God related by the Prophet Muhammad, in which God describes kneading the clay of Adam with his own hands for forty days, as a preparation for the creation of humanity.

Siraj's detailed discussions of later masters of calligraphy after Ibn Muqla (pp. 124-34), the different varieties of script (pp. 135-46), and the specific oral teachings of his masters (pp. 262-71) are certainly worthy of further study as part of the larger history of Arabic calligraphy. In any case, it is clear that he regards the Abbasid vizier as in many respects the founding figure in this tradition. The role of Ibn Muqla, as transmitted by Ibn al-Bawwab, is decisive in the third chapter of Discourse 2, which presents the principles of writing on the geometrical basis of the dot produced by the tip of the reed pen. Here (pp. 147-75) Siraj proceeds through the Arabic alphabet, following the alphabetical order based upon similarity of letter shapes that is still in common use today. In each case he opens his discussion with a series of poetic and mystical remarks, frequently in rhyming prose with metaphors based on writing, employing words that begin with or contain the letter under consideration; he then moves on to technical considerations of the size and shape of the letters as measured by the dot. In each case he includes an Arabic quotation describing the shape of the letter, using technical terms that are clearly derived from Ibn Muqla: munkabb or oblique, mustalqi or inclined, munsatih or horizontal, and muntasib or upright. With minor variations, nearly identical language is found in the description of letters according to the system of Ibn Muqla as preserved in the monumental encyclopedia of Mamluk chancery practice, the Subh al-asha of al-Qalqashandi. (26) Whether Siraj had direct access to the work of al-Qalqashandi or knew the writings of Ibn Muqla via other sources, cannot presently be established, but it is clear that both authors are referring to the very same principles. As an example of Siraj's presentation, his description of the letter fa will suffice:
 Fa is the index (fihrist) of the collection of benefits (fawaid)
 and the introduction to the collected poems of excellences and
 rarities (fadail wa-faraid), like the inner heart (fuad) among
 trustworthy people (ahl-i wafa) and the cardium in the body of the
 masters of purity (arbab-i safa). [Persian verse:]

 Since revealing her head from the collar of thought (fikr),
 She has thrown a world into consternation.

 And in the deserts (fayafi). there is desire for the cavalry captain
 of the knights (farisan) of the field of gnosis, and the victors
 (faizan) of the plains of secrets. The manifestations of its rules
 and principles have been clarified by the explanation, "the fa is a
 shape composed of three lines: oblique, inclined, and horizontal
 (munkabb, [], munsatih)" Its head should be rounded,
 and the space in the head should resemble the grain of a pear seed.
 Its neck is one dot, and the measure of its height is equivalent to
 the height of the ba, and the totality of this is no greater than
 fourteen dots. (27)

Thus the basic catalog of letters in Siraj's presentation is a combination of aesthetic associations, sharpened by a poetic and mystical vocabulary, along with technical descriptions of the formation of the letters in terms of dots, as well as sometimes picturesque descriptions of the shapes. While Siraj is clearly indebted to Ibn Muqla's formulation of "proportional script" (al-khatt al-mansub), he does not systematically integrate its geometrical principles, but rather concentrates on what Ahmed Moustafa and Stefan Sperl have called '"measurements reflecting the actual appearance of letter shapes in different script styles." (28)

At this point. I would like to turn to the longest sections of the book, the fourth chapter of Discourse 2, which contains a lengthy section (pp. 176-232, amounting to one-fourth of the entire text) that describes all possible two-letter combinations of the letters of the Arabic alphabet and their symbolic meanings. It is here that we see Siraj increasingly engaging his repertory of mystical interpretations as a demonstration of a Sufi approach to penmanship. After a brief discussion of the alif, which does not connect to succeeding letters, Siraj undertakes a consideration of the different shapes and letter combinations with the ba (and by implication its sisters ta and tha), and he follows a similar descriptive pattern with jim, dal, and sin. Thus he informs us that one form of the dal resembles the shape of a gourd or cup, leading to a recollection of some wine verses; then he points out that another form of the dal is shaped like a sheep's lung, which only suggests the meat of good living. But the last form of the dal is like the flint of a tinderbox, which is capable of igniting an internal heat from the fire that Moses saw on Mount Sinai, as recalled in the Quran (20:10). Similarly, with the letter sin Siraj describes various letter combinations in different scripts; but when he reaches the combination of sin plus ya, he remarks, "The wise man who is the master of ecstasy becomes thoughtful about the inverse of the form of sin ya', with the sparks of the lights of blessings from its recitation as ya' sin" (p. 182), which is, of course, the title of sura 36 of the Quran. In this way Siraj establishes the principle that a letter combination itself may lead to unsuspected meanings by its permutations or other hidden implications.

Sufi language starts to become more evident in the discussion of the letter sad, where Siraj refers (p. 183) to "the clever and noble ones, who are in conformity with the exegesis (istinbat) of subtle points and the extraction (istikhraj) of hidden meanings from forms." He increasingly cites poetic references suggested by the letter at hand, using formulas such as "it comes to mind" (ba-khatir ayad) to introduce the free association. Sometimes a two-letter combination forms an actual word, such as ta plus ya, which yields the word tayy or "folding," recalling the miraculous ability of saints to translocate across space (tayy al-makan): "If

ta is written with ya, from the concept of the translocation of the saints, one can be transported by folding up the carpet of one's own existence" (p. 185). But at other times, nonsense combinations can be deconstructed into meaningful numerological equivalents by substituting the arithmetic values of the Arabic alphabet in the abjad or hisab al-jummal system. So when one sees the combination of ta plus lam, which produces the meaningless word tal (p. 187), one recognizes that its numerological total (9 + 30 = 39) is equivalent to the numerological total of the two divine names wahid wadud ("the One, the Loving"; 19 + 20 = 39). In a similar fashion, the meaningless combination ta plus jim has a numerological total of 12, which suggests the spiritual significance of the twelve imams of Shiism, to whom Siraj expresses devotion on more than one occasion. The following intricate passage, written in a style suggestive of the writings of Ruzbihan al-Baqli, illustrates the remarkable extent to which Siraj can go in seeing deep significance suggested by letters that are not actually present on the page, but which come to mind from seeing a particular combination. With reference to the combination fa plus ya, Siraj writes:
 For the wise man there are things he ought to know from this
 discussion. After [seeing] the picture of the fa and alif, from the
 extremity of victory (fawz) he is led to the imagination of the
 letter za so that from the fragrances of the breezes of "he is
 victorious (faza) who gains religion'' (faza man zafara bi-l-din).
 the glad aromas of victory (fawz) and success are conveyed to the
 senses of the soul (p. 191).

The significance of a letter combination is thus ultimately given by still invisible letters which one must imaginatively supply in order to yield the desired result. These are the basic patterns of free association that govern Siraj's approach to letter combinations in the first third of this section.

During the discussion of combinations involving the letter kaf, however, Siraj begins to apply a new strategy that continues until the end of this section, where he begins to introduce Arabic passages, both short and long, based on unidentified mystical definitions, which are clearly from the well-known lexicon of Sufi terminology, the Istilahat al-sufiyya of 'Abd al-Razzaq al-Kashani (d. 1330). a prominent representative of the school of Ibn al-Arabi. (29) Thus the combination of the letters kaf and qaf suggests two different words beginning with those letters, alchemy (kimiya') and contentment (qanaa); Siraj quotes the last part of Kashani's definition of alchemy, which is "contentment with the existent and abandoning longing for the perishable; and the Commander of the Faithful Ali (may God be pleased with him) said, 'contentment is an inexhaustible treasure'." (30) From this point onward, Siraj quotes over thirty esoteric definitions from Kashani's Sufi dictionary to define terms that are suggested (sometimes more than once) by letter combinations occurring in the latter parts of the alphabet (see Chart 2). As can be seen, these are often unusual terms that might be considered arbitrary identifications for the letter combinations with which they are associated.
Chart 2. Quotations of definitions from Kashani's Istilahat al-sufiyya
in the Tuhfat al-muhibbin of Siraj al-Shirazi

Siraj letters phrase meaning Kashani

198 kaf-qaf kimiya alchemy 44

199 kaf-waw kawkab planet 43

201 lam-dal al-durra al-bayda white pearl 22

202 lam-sin lawaih flashes 46-47

207 lam-ra lubb, lubb al-lubb pith, pith of the 45

207 lam-ra rida garment 148

207 lam-sad saba morning breeze 132-33

208 lam-ta la iha flash 44

208 lam-ta tawali sunrises 39

208 lam-ayn al-latifa al-insaniyya human subtle 46

211 mim-ba mabadi beginnings 49

212 mim-dal shahid witness 150

213 mim-kaf kimiya alchemy 44

213 mim-lam mabna al-tasawwuf basis of Sufism 49-50

213 mim-lam al-latifa al-insaniyya human subtle 46

216 mim-sin majdhub enraptured 50

217 mim-sin sirr al-haqiqa secret of reality 84

217 mim-sad mashariq al-fath dawnings of 61

218 mim-ta muttala point of ascent 63

218 mim-ta tahir al-sirr purifier of the 40

219 mim-ayn mashariq shams dawnings of the sun 61
 al-haqiqa of reality

221 mim-fa al-fath al-mubin the clear victory 124

221 mim-qaf musharrif al-damair ennobler of 61-62

221 mim-qaf al-qutbiyya al-kubra supreme axis-hood 141

225 ha-ba hiba dust 23

227 ha-sad sawami al-dhikr monasteries of 137

227 ha-ta al-tabib al-ruhani spiritual 40

228 ha-fa al-fath al-qarib near victory 129

229 ha-qaf al-qiyam li-lldh standing with God 138

231 ha-nun hawajim assaults 25

231 ha-ya al-ha H 23

232 ha-ya yawm al-juma Friday 42

There are times--as, for instance, in the description of combinations of the letter lam--when Siraj spends as much as five pages (201-6) demonstrating the metaphysical and symbolic properties of letters before he returns to the formal aspect, announcing, "We have come back to the explanation of the principles of the letter forms." His is to a certain extent a bookish approach to Sufism, relying as it does upon a Sufi lexicon that was compiled from a particularly philosophical perspective, and which was even organized alphabetically to facilitate exactly the kind of systematic consultation that Siraj brought to it. (31) In a way, it is not surprising that Siraj was comfortable with this intellectualist approach to mysticism, given his willingness to quote at the same time (p. 58) from such philosophical works as the Nasirean Ethics of the philosopher Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 1272).

So how should we characterize the approach of Siraj al-Shirazi to the art of penmanship in terms of Sufism? Let us return to a couple of passages where he cites the dictionary of Kashani. After describing the space separating the combined letters kaf and lam as being the distance of two dots, or just slightly greater than the width of a hair, he comments as follows:
 Among the appropriate conceptual and intellectual graces of these
 letters, according to the path of the lords of insight and gnosis--
 nay, the masters of ecstasy and unveiling, rather, the authorities of
 the experience of witnessing--in the form of writing the lam and ra',
 with the proof of the illuminated intellect, one may comprehend the
 allusion to the lam of "the pith (lubb) is the intellect that the
 sacred pure light illuminates from the shells of fancies and
 imaginations," and the ra of the garment (rida) of "divine majesty
 is my garment." (32)

These repeated and emphatic invocations of mystical authority, as a series of increasingly exalted levels, serve as justifications for understanding the letters of the alphabet as ciphers for mysteries that are otherwise insoluble. This approach is presented as a possibility by which mystical interpretations (in a characteristically Ruzbihanian phrase) "can take the lead so that the brides of the realities of these meanings may reveal their faces beyond the veils of power" (p. 209). This is a series of possible interpretations that may be undertaken "in the technical vocabulary of the people of Sufism and gnosis" (p. 212). Siraj never claims that these mystical meanings are inherent in the letters themselves as a kind of intrinsic property.

By treating the Sufi understanding of penmanship as an option available to a spiritual elite, Siraj is quite consistent with the predominant Sufi approaches to the interpretation of other art forms, particularly poetry and music. As Ruzbihan al-Baqli put it: "Listening to music is of three kinds: there is one kind for the common people, one kind for the elite, and one kind for the elite of the elite." (33) In this way, music may be appreciated by people on different levels of perception and understanding. It is noteworthy that the Sufis simply refer to the faculty of listening (sama) rather than the production of sound. Likewise with poetry, it is the capacity of the reader that produces a mystical reading rather than the text itself, as one can see from the popularity of the profane Arabic lyrics of Abu Nuwas in Sufi circles. The ultimate paradigm of Sufi aesthetics may be best expressed by the anecdotes of mystics who serendipitously discovered profound meaning in the most mundane encounters. One such example is recounted by Siraj (p. 186) in an anecdote about the Baghdadian Sufi Abu Bakr al-Shibli. He was said to have been passing through the bazaar one day when he chanced upon an ice-vendor, who was reciting the following verse in order to attract the attention of customers:
 "Have mercy on one whose stock in trade is melting!" (arhamu ala man
 rasu malihi yadhub). On hearing these words, the fire of regret was
 so inflamed in his [Shiblis] blessed soul that he started sobbing.
 The situation was described by these verses from Mawlana Jalal al-Din

 The soul's love became Sinai, lover!

 Sinai was drunk and "Moses fell down fainting." (34)

 After some time, when he returned from this absorption, his disciples
 placed a foot on the carpet of explanation of the unveiling of that
 incident. The revered master stated, "from the words of that person,
 the capital of my life passed before my mind, so that I knew it was
 just like melted snow, and by means of him something was prepared of
 the provisions for the journey that lies ahead."

This very principle of sudden and unlooked-for inspiration has been frequently invoked by Sufi commentators, as, for instance, in the interpretation of the inner levels of the poetry of Hafiz written by Siraj's contemporary in Shiraz, Jala al-Din Davani. (35) In this respect, the approach of Siraj is similar to the principle of "taking warning or example" (itibar, ibrat), which Nasrollah Pourjavady has described as a kind of motion or reflection that transitions between one state and another. In Sufi circles, these terms described a mode of contemplating the divine beauty, whether in a visual or aural manner, no matter how unexpected the manifestation. (36)

For artists like Siraj, the art of penmanship was a consuming passion, and they were surrounded throughout their lives by a tradition of discipline with strong debts to Sufism. They saw the letters of the alphabet as vehicles for the manifestation of God in beautiful forms, as part of the process of cosmic unfolding. As Siraj remarks in the very opening lines of his invocation for the text (p. 39), "The shining of the ornaments of limitless praise radiate from the faces of the brides of the letters of those graceful arts of form and meaning in the insightful eyes of the possessors of power and vision. This is the largess of the royal court, which by the writing of the glorious canopy gives ornament and adornment to the beauty of the world of unity and the portrait of the name of the beloved who must be respected and honored." It was undoubtedly those whom the Quran calls "possessors of vision" that Siraj intended as the proper audience for his treatise on penmanship, and it is in that sense that we can speak of his work as embodying a Sufi aesthetic for the appreciation of the written word.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya Museum in Kuwait on May 12, 2008.

(1.) For one example, see Carl W. Ernst, "The Spirit of Islamic Calligraphy: Baba Shah Isfahani's Adab al-Mashq," JAOS 112 (1992): 279-86. For a comprehensive survey of Arabic penmanship, see Sheila S. Blair, Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2006).

(2.) Ya'qub ibn Hasan Siraj Shirazi, Tuhfat al-muhibbin (dar a'in-i khushnivisi va lata'if-i ma'nawi-i an), ed. Muhammad Taqi Danish-Puzhuh, Karamat Ra'na Husayni, and Iraj Afshar, Daftar-i Nashr-i Mirath-i Maktub, 'Ulum o Funun, 8 (Tehran: Nuqta, 1374/1997). In my translations from this Persian text, Arabic passages are printed in bold. The translation of Arabic tuhfa as "bounty" in the title reflects Lane's definition: "a gratuitous gift, or favour; or a bounty, or benefit ... a gift not given to any one before" (E. W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon [Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1984]), 208.

(3.) Francis Richard, "Nasr al-Soltani, Nasir al-Din Mozahheb et la bibliotheque d'Ebrahim Soltan a Siraz," Studia Iranica 30 (2001): 87-104; Yves Porter, "La reglure (mastar): de la [much less than] formule d'atelier [much greater than] aux jeux de l'esprit," Studia Islamica 96 (2003): 55-74, esp. 57-58; Ruqayya Abu l-Qasimi, "Thulth," Danishnama-i jahan-i islam, found at; more extensive references are found in Vlad Atanasiu, "Hypercalligraphie: Le phenomene calligraphique a l'epoque du sultanat mamluk, Moyen-Orient, XIIIe-XVIe siecle" (Ph.D. diss., Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes / Section des Sciences historiques et philologiques, Paris, 2003), accessible at

(4.) For a short Arabic excerpt from this lost work, see Muhammad Taqi Danish-Puzhuh, Ruzbihan-nama (Tehran: Anjuman-i Athar-i Milli, 1969), 276, consisting of stories and sayings about great lovers.

(5.) Siraj also cites as one of his teachers Mawlana Sharaf al-Din Amira, a calligrapher separated by one intermediary from the great Yaqut, addressing him by the title "the master of the calligraphers" (shaykh al-khattatin, p. 245); the closing lines of the treatise appear to refer (by the use of the same title) to the same individual's incipient departure on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina (p. 291).

(6.) For further details, see Carl W. Ernst, Ruzbihan Baqli: Mystical Experience and the Rhetoric of Sainthood in Persian Sufism (London: Curzon Press, 1996), chart 1, xxi.

(7.) Muhammad Suleman Siddiqi, The Bahmani Sufis (Delhi: Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli, 1989), 78-83.

(8.) According to Mahdi Bayani, this manuscript copied by Siraj was in the Majlis library in Tehran, though Iraj Afshar was unable to locate it, leading him to speculate that it may have been in another library but mistakenly cited by Bayani (Tuhfat, 36). Siraj refers to Yazdi (p. 171) with language indicating that the latter was still living at the time of the book's composition. For an illustration from this manuscript, see Blair, 264, fig. 7.10.

(9.) Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise by Qadi Ahmad, son of Mir Munshi (circa A.H. 1015/A.D. 1606), tr. V. Minorsky (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1959), 28. 69-71.

(10.) Tuhfat, 141. For a manuscript of Rumi's Mathnawi commissioned by this prince in Shiraz in 1419, see Annemarie Schimmel, The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1993), 11.

(11.) Priscilla P. Soucek, "Ibrahim Sultan's Military Career," in Iran and Iranian Studies: Essays in Honor of Iraj Afshar, ed. Kambiz Eslami (Princeton: Zagros, 1998), 24-41.

(12.) Carl W. Ernst, "Deccan I. Political and Literary History," Encyclopaedia Iranica (Costa Mesa, Cal.: Mazda Publishers, 1995), 7: 181-85.

(13.) Annemarie Schimmel, Calligraphy and Islamic Culture (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1984), 69.

(14.) Khwaja Muhammad Ahmad. "Calligraphy," in History of Medieval Deccan 1295-1724, vol. 2, Mainly Cultural Aspects, ed. H. K. Sherwani and P. M. Joshi (Hyderabad: Government of Andhra Pradesh, 1974), 411-22, esp. 415-17; G. Yazdani, Bidar: Its History and Monuments (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947), 114-29.

(15.) Schimmel. 69.

(16.) Yazdani, 129-31, with plates LXXVI-LXXVII. Unfortunately the tiles of this tomb have been largely destroyed by time.

(17.) Ibid., 141-43, with plates LXXXIII-LXXXV.

(18.) W. E. Begley, Monumental Islamic Calligraphy from India (Villa Park, Ill.: Islamic Foundation, 1985), 58; George Michell and Mark Zebrowski, Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999), 121.

(19.) Yazdani, 12, with plate III; Khwaja Muhammad Ahmad. "Two Inscriptions from Bidar," Epigraphia Indo-Moslemica (1925-26): 17-19.

(20.) Tuhfat, 23. A few Persian works on calligraphy, none composed before the sixteenth century, are noticed by C. A. Storey, Persian Literature: A Bio-Bibliographical Survey (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1977), II.3: 382-87. The text of Sirafi's Adab-i khatt has been edited by Najib Mayil Harawi, Kitab-arayi dar tamaddun-i islami (Mashhad: Bunyad-i Pazhuhesh-ha-yi Islami, 1372/1993), xli-xliii, 13-32.

(21.) Minorsky, tr., 67 (also mentioning as a leading calligrapher of Shiraz Mawlana Ruzbihan, most probably identical with Siraj's teacher, Sadr al-Din Ruzbihan); Atanasiu, 64-65.

(22.) Atanasiu, 54, with additional comments on calligraphic exchanges between Mamluk Egypt and the Indian sultanates.

(23.) Wheeler M. Thackston. Album Prefaces and Other Documents on the History of Calligraphers and Painters (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 7, n. 4, reports that ma'qili is "named after Nahr al-Ma'qil at Basra in southern Iraq."

(24.) This narrative does not occur in the brief Adab-i khatt of Sirafi, so perhaps another (lost) treatise is intended here.

(25.) See also Blair, 157-60.

(26.) Ahmad ibn 'Ali al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-a'sha fi sana'at al-insha', ed. Muhammad Husayn Shams al-Din (15 vols., Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyya, 1987-1989), 2: 30-37. I am greatly indebted to Ahmed Moustafa for drawing my attention to this important source and making it available to me. His forthcoming monograph on Ibn Muqla (co-authored with Stefan Sperl). entitled The Prophet of Handwriting, is a major contribution to the understanding of the origins and significance of Arabic script, and I am grateful to both authors for sharing their work with me and for commenting on an earlier draft of this article. The editors of Tuhfat al-muhibbin have conveniently assembled Siraj's Arabic quotations of Ibn Muqla's definitions in a separate index (pp. 350-51).

(27.) Tuhfat al-muhibbin, 162. quoting Subh, 2: 34. with a minor variation: al-Qalqashandi says the composition of fa' has four lines, adding one that is upright (muntasib). Stefan Sperl comments, "Munkabb literally means "falling on one's face' and hence refers to an oblique stroke extending between the upper left and the lower right. Mustalqi means 'falling on one's back' and hence refers to an inclined stroke pointing in the opposite direction, i.e.. extending between the lower left and the upper right. Munsatih means horizontal (lit. lying stretched out on the ground)" (letter of May 8. 2008). For these Arabic technical terms, see also the brief lexicon supplied by Siraj (p. 272), where the musdar verbal forms of the same terms are given short Persian definitions. Moustafa and Sperl promise an extensive discussion of these terms in their forthcoming study. For a preliminary related study defining these pen strokes, see Ahmed Moustafa, The Geometrical Cosmos of Arabic Numerals: Discovering the Archetypal Shapes of Arabic Numerals (London: Fe-Noon Ahmed Moustafa. 1996). esp. 33-34. The unique manuscript of Tuhfat al-muhibbin. as the editors acknowledge, has many passages that are difficult to read, but some of these may be emended by comparison with parallel texts, including al-Qalqashandi. For instance, the anomalous reading istifla' in the quotation from Ibn Muqla on p. 149. line 4, should be corrected to the regular term istilqa' or "inclination."

(28.) Ahmed Moustafa and Stefan Sperl. letter of April 27. 2008.

(29.) 'Abdu-r-Razzaq's Dictionary of the Technical Terms of the Sufies. ed. Aloys Sprenger (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1845).

(30.) Tuhfat al-muhibbin, 198, quoting Kashani, 44-45.

(31.) See Carl W. Ernst, "Mystical Language and the Teaching Context in the Early Sufi Lexicons," in Mysticism and Language, ed. Steven T. Katz (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 1992). 181-201.

(32.) Tuhfat al-muhibbin, 207, quoting Kashani, 45, 148.

(33.) Ruzbihan al-Baqli, Risalat al-quds, in Teachings of Sufism, tr. Carl W. Ernst (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1999), 102.

(34.) These lines are from the opening of Rumi's Mathnawi (1: 26), and the words in quotation are an adaptation of Qur'an 7:143, thus likening Shibli's experience to the astonishment of the Prophet Moses.

(35.) Carl W. Ernst. "Davani's Interpretation of Hafiz." in Hafiz and the School of Love in Persian Poetry, ed. Leonard Lewisohn (London: I. B. Tauris. forthcoming). It is noteworthy that Davani follows the lead of Muhammad al-Ghazali and Abu Nasr al-Sarraj, who cited the very same stories to explain the inspiration produced by listening to music. Thus Sufis have employed the very same principle to the aesthetic reception of various art forms.

(36.) Nasrollah Pourjavady. Bada-i 'ishq: puzhuhishi dar ma'na-yi bada dar shi'r-i 'irfani-yi farsi (Tehran: Nashr-i Karnama, 1387/2008), 149-60. For additional examples of ecstatic perception of the divine among early Sufis, see Carl W. Ernst, Words of Ecstasy in Sufism (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press. 1985), 37.


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Author:Ernst, Carl W.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
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Geographic Code:7SAUD
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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