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Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

23 January 2017

The Seal of Prophethood: Malay prayers for protection

Malay manuscripts are generally written in conventional ‘book’ form, but a few scrolls are also encountered. Malay manuscript scrolls are primarily associated with sermons, to be read in the congregational mosque at the Friday prayers, but occasionally small scrolls are found containing prayers and amulets which appear to have been compiled by individuals for their own personal use and protection. The British Library holds one such Malay scroll (Or. 16875), which contains a variety of prayers and talismanic symbols in Arabic, with explanations in Malay about their efficacy and directions for use. The scroll, which measures nearly three metres long when unrolled, is very finely written in black and purple ink. The manuscript has been fully digitised and can be read by clicking on the hyperlinks below the images.

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Decorative presentation of the shahadah, ‘There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God’, from a Malay prayer scroll. British Library, Or. 16875  noc

The main contents of the scroll is a series of depictions of the ‘Seal of Prophethood’ (in Persian muhr-i nubuvvat, in Arabic khātam al-nubuwwah, and in Malay mohor nubuat). The Seal refers to a special mark borne by Muhammad described by all who knew him as a type of mole or fleshy protruberance located between his shoulder blades (Savage-Smith 1997: 1.106). All over the Islamic world, manuscripts are known depicting the Seal of Prophethood, usually in the form of circular diagrams containing prayers or letters and numbers believed to have magical significance, which acted as talismans whose protective power could be activated by gazing upon them.

The Malay prayer scroll Or. 16875 contains seven diagrams of the ‘Seal of Prophethood’, each said to be found on a different part of Muhammad’s body, and each carrying different protective powers if viewed morning and evening, or written on a piece of paper and carried around. Gazing on the Seal on the Prophet's forehead (dahi) will ensure such success in business that it will feel like entering heaven (pelaris segala jualan seperti masuk syurga); that on his face (muka) will bring happiness (kesukaan); that on his left side (lambung kiri) will bring honour and long life; gazing at that on his right [side] (kanan) is a service (khidmat) to the Prophet and will be rewarded with God's safekeeping; and carrying an amulet (azimat) of the Seal on his mouth (mulut) will ensure that kings and great men will grant the bearer's request. Show below is the Seal of Prophethood said to found on Muhammad’s cheek: ‘This is the Seal of Prophethood on the cheek of the messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, according to ‘Abd al-Raḥman, may God be pleased with him, whoever looks upon this [mark of] Prophethood, his sins will be forgiven by God the Glorious and Exalted, or whoever writes it down and takes it to war will be safe wherever he goes, and whatever he wishes for will be granted by God, it will not be denied to him through the grace of God the Glorious and Exalted’ (Ini mohor al-nubuat pada pipi rasul Allāh ṣallā Allāh ‘alayhi wa-sallam, cetera daripada ‘Abd al-Raḥman raḍī Allāh ‘anhu, barang siapa melihat dia nubuat ini diampun Allāh subḥānahu wa-ta‘ālā sekalian dosanya atau disurat bawa berperang barang ke mana perginya selamat dengan barang hajatnya dikabulkan Allāh tiada tertolak orang itu dengan berkat kurnia Allāh subḥānahu wa-ta‘ālā akan dia).

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The circular diagram depicts the Seal of Prophethood said to be on the cheek of the prophet. In the centre is the name of God, and in the border are the names of the four first Caliphs of Islam. British Library, Or. 16875  noc

The scroll also contains a series of repeated esoteric letters and formulae said to be associated with early figures of Islam, including the Prophet, his grandsons Hasan and Husayn, his uncle Hamzah, Husayn’s son Zayn al-‘Abidin, and the prophets Sulayman, Yaqub and Adam. Each sequence is introduced by the phrase bab ini pakaian, ‘these are the letters used by’, followed by the appropriate name.

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The letters associated with the Prophet Sulaymān (Solomon). British Library, Or. 16875  noc

The scroll also contains a few magical symbols which are often encountered in Malay manuscripts. These include the five-pointed star, the pentagram, which can be ‘strengthened’ further by the addition of loops or 'lunettes' to its tips, and the angka sangga Siti Fatimah (seen below), which in another Malay manuscript in believed to have the power to make a thief return an item he had stolen to the rightful owner (Farouk 2016: 198).

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Magical signs include the pentagram, with looped tips or 'lunettes', and in the lower right corner the angka sangga Siti Fatimah. British Library, Or. 16875  noc

In the writing of Islamic talismans, it is believed that letters will exert a greater power if they are written in certain ways. Thus diacritical dots are often missing, in emulation of the antique angular script. A particularly notable feature is a preference for the stretched-out form of the letter kaf, as can be seen to very striking effect in the amulet below.

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Horizontally elongated kaf, believe to enhance efficacy of this prayer. British Library, Or. 16875  noc

The scroll ends with a Qur’anic verse (Q. 61:13) very often found in amulets, ‘Help from God and a speedy victory, so give the Glad Tidings to the Believers.’

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Qur’anic quotation from Sura 61, al-Saff, v.13, at the end of the scroll. British Library, Or. 16875  noc

The Malay language is used in all parts of maritime Southeast Asia, and as there is no information on the scribe, date or place of writing of this scroll, or any evident linguistic localisms, it is very difficult to ascertain where it comes from. A very cautious guess, based partly on the use of purple ink, suggests a possible origin from the Malay peninsula in the late 19th or early 20th century.

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The manuscript was photographed in the British Library by senior photographer Elizabeth Hunter, who in addition to detailed images of each section, also managed to capture the entire scroll – measuring 2850 x 80 mm, made up of five piece of paper glued together – in a single shot. British Library, Or. 16875  noc

Further reading:
Farouk Yahya, Magic and divination in Malay illustrated manuscripts. Leiden: Brill, 2016. (Arts and archaeology of the Islamic world; Vol. 6).
Francesca Leoni, Power and protection: Islamic art and the supernatural. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2016.
Emilie Savage-Smith, Science, tools & magic. Part One. Body and spirit, mapping the universe, Francis Maddison and Emilie Savage-Smith. Part Two. Mundane worlds, Emilie Savage-Smith, with contributions from Francis Maddison, Ralph Pinder-Wilson and Tim Stanley. London: Nour Foundation, 1997. (The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art; Vol.12).

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

20 January 2017

Şəhidlər: Azerbaijan's Black January

Collective memory and memorialization are, in many ways, the bread and butter of those who build and legitimize states. In the era of the nation-State, significant shared experiences and the invention of tradition – to paraphrase Eric Hobsbawm[1] – based on these events are among the state’s core tools for building patriotic feeling, solidarity and social cohesion. For the former members of the USSR, the experiences instrumentalized are often within living memory. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, social unrest, civil disobedience and open hostilities created the perfect storm for the collapse of the Soviet system and the dissolution of the Union, giving rise to 16 new states from the Baltic Sea to the Bering Strait. In many of the capitals, confrontations between unarmed protestors and heavily armed soldiers were the catalysts for the end of Moscow’s sovereignty. This is certainly true for Kazakhstan in December 1986 and Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1989. It is also very much the case for Azerbaijan, as a pamphlet commemorating the events of 19-20 January 1990 demonstrates.

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Cover of Gafkaz IRK’s Şəhidlər. Baku: Publisher unknown, 1991? (Asian and African Collections)

Black January (Qara Yanvar), as the events of 19-20 January 1990 are known in Azerbaijan, occurred when Soviet troops bloodily repressed anti-government demonstrations in Baku. Moscow claimed that it was acting to quell nationalist passions following a flare-up of violence against Armenians in the country, as well as attempts at overthrowing the government of Soviet Azerbaijan. Whatever the reasons for the protests and the ensuing violence, between 133 and 137 people lost their lives on the two days. They are remembered today in the Memorial for Black January, erected in 2010, as well as in countless publications.

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The entrance to Martyrs’ Alley, Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo © Michael Erdman

The British Library’s Turkic Collections contain one such pamphlet, entitled Шәһидләр (Şəhidlər, Martyrs), 10,000 copies of which were published in 1990 or 1991. The pamphlet is printed in black and white, with the cover type white against a black background. The symbolism of the colour scheme and the starkness of the type and arrangement are obvious, but even more interesting is the quotation that accompanies the title. It is an Azeri-language translation of Verse 154 of al-Baqarah, the Cow, the second sura of the Qur’ān. The English translation reads: “And do not say about those who are killed in the way of Allah, ‘They are dead.’ Rather, they are alive, but you perceive [them] not.” This overtly religious approach to the victims of state violence marks a distinct and aggressive departure from Soviet orthodoxy regarding the place of religion in public life.

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Portraits of the victims and final inscription, Gafkaz IRK, Şəhidlər

Such piety begs the question of just whom the pamphlet commemorates. The Qur’anic quotation makes specific mention of “those who die in the way of Allah” (مَن يُقتَلُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللهِ); does this include non-Muslim victims of repression in the category of “Martyrs”? The answer appears to be no, given a brief overview of the photographs on the interior of the pamphlet. Although it is impossible to determine the self-identification of the victims and their relationship to Islam, a brief glance through the names associated to the images reveals that only those with non-Russian or non-Armenian surnames find their way among the Martyrs. It is obvious that there are fewer pictures in the pamphlet than the 133 or 137 deaths reported. Some are evidently unknown victims whose graves in Martyrs’ Alley are marked as Nǝmalum, or “Unknown”. Nonetheless, there are also individuals, such as Vera Lvovna Bessantina, whose image adorns the wall of Martyrs’ Alley, but not the collection of photographs of Şəhidlər.

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Tomb of Vera Lvovna Bessantina in Martyrs’ Alley, Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo © Michael Erdman

The final page of the pamphlet informs us that “Use shall be made of the aid for a monument honouring the memory of the martyrs.” It is unclear whether the monument constructed in Martyrs’ Alley is the direct result of the campaign that this pamphlet was a part of, or if it was the product of a different effort by the public and the state. What is clear is that the Azerbaijani State’s commitment to multiculturalism and religious tolerance is manifest in the widening of the term Şəhidlər to all those who died in the events of 19-20 January 1990. This pamphlet, however, remains as a reminder of the raw and often uncontrolled approaches to religion, dissidence and the state that characterized the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the chaotic and messy transition from Soviet hegemony to national sovereignty.


Michael Erdman, Curator Turkish and Turkic Collections

 CC-BY-SA

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[1] Hobsbawm, E. J. The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

16 January 2017

The curious tale of Solomon and the Phoenix

One of the more enigmatic manuscripts now in the British Library (IO Islamic 1255) from the rich library of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore (d. 1213/1799), is the untitled qiṣṣah or tale featuring a figure popular across the range of Persian literature, the Prophet Sulaymān (the biblical Solomon, son of David). In this tale, the prophet-king is confronted by the head of the ranks of birds, the Sīmurgh (Phoenix), expressing its disbelief in the doctrine of predestination (qaz̤āʾ va qadr). Having angered Allāh, Jibrāʾīl (the archangel Gabriel) is sent to inform Sulaymān of a prophecy foretelling the birth of the Prince of the East (Malikzādah-′i Mashriq) and the Princess of the West, daughter of the Malik-i Maghrib, who together bear a child out of wedlock. The Sīmurgh believes it can prevent this outcome. Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh conclude an agreement (qawl) to reassess the situation after fifteen years, by which time the accuracy of the prophecy would be apparent.

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The Prophet Solomon and the Phoenix’s agreement is witnessed by members of his court; the two yogis in the foreground represent the assembled jinns. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library. British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 2v. Noc

The tale additionally interweaves several digressive subplots focussing on the adventures of the Prince of the East from his minority to adolescence. In the process, his development into a pious youth is mapped through a succession of episodes where he interacts with magical beasts, Satan, kings, courtiers, merchants, and sages. This didactic tale may be part of the ‘mirror for princes’ tradition, but as we shall later discover, there is more to it than appears at first glance.

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The Prince of the East (not shown) overhears a king’s angry exchanges with his courtiers while seated amid special trees. Note the lengthy jamahs and sweeping turbans that indicate eighteenth-century courtly fashions, while the patterned floorcoverings attempt to capture the rich texture of contemporary embroidered and brocaded soft furnishings. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library. British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 8r. Noc

Profusely illustrated, the manuscript IO Islamic 1255 has surprisingly eluded scholarly attention. Although it ends without a dated colophon, the distinctive style and details of its 63 illustrations on 26 folios offer sufficient evidence to locate its origins in mid-eighteenth-century Deccan, possibly even the Carnatic, ruled by the Nawabs of Arcot. On the other hand, the coarse nastaʿlīq script tending toward taʿlīq makes it clear that this is not the product of an élite or royal workshop. The absence of gold illumination and the use of a muted colour palette further strengthen this impression. The unusually tall and narrow format underscores the peculiarity of the volume as a whole. Though the paintings have oxidised in areas, the manuscript must have been a valued item in Tipu’s library, as the work was bound in a contemporary finely-tooled, gilded, and painted leather binding.

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The Prince of the East is discovered by his two Arabian horses while sheltering under the hide of a horse at the foot an isolated tree. This image shows the increased levels of pigment oxidation in paintings towards the end of the manuscript. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library, British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 22r. Noc

The tale’s literary significance is heightened when considering the version in another British Library manuscript catalogued recently, entitled Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr (IO Islamic 4806). We encounter the familiar characters of the Prophet Sulaymān, the Sīmurgh, the Prince of the East and Princess of the West, with the narrative sharing the same basic structure. Like the version in the Tipu manuscript, the tale’s author is not named. Differences lie in the laconic style of the substantially abridged account, with some passages and episodes rearranged, and others omitted. Occasionally, the simplicity of prose is abandoned in favour of a more formal style and additional poems, while adjectives and titles take on a distinctly courtly flavour. Notwithstanding, the overall feel is that of a relatively faithful retelling of the Tipu version.

The most original feature of the Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr is its introductory matter (ff. 1v-3r), which elevates it to the status of pseudo-history and prophetic tradition. Accordingly, when the Prophet Muḥammad was troubled by Meccan groups, Jibrāʾīl appears and gives him the seal of Sulaymān, a gift from Allāh. Jibrāʾīl is asked if it prevents death. He clarifies that there are two kinds of death, qaz̤ā-′i muḥkam or conspicuous (avoidable?) death and qaz̤ā-′i mubram or certain death. After a few days, Jibrāʾīl reappears and narrates the tale of Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh to demonstrate how nothing escapes the certainty of fate. The tale begins from this point forward in much the same way as the Tipu manuscript.

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Illuminated sarlawḥ and opening passage of the Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr. British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 1v. Noc

The tale’s connection with the Prophet Muḥammad is established on the authority of a tenuous chain of transmission, mentioning the names of Ibn Saʿd (d. ca. 66/686), who heard it from Ḥasan Baṣrī (d. 110/728), who heard it from one of the unidentified muʿtamadān or confidants of the Prophet. Whether or not the chain of transmission is authentic, such details are unnecessary for the purpose of a mere adventure tale, indicating the intention to emphasise its moral and pious message. While subsequent details correspond closely with the Tipu manuscript, these extraordinary passages do not appear in that version.

The Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr manuscript is not dated and owners’ marks have been erased. It consists of 26 folios commencing with a gilded and painted sarlawḥ or headpiece, and has gold rulings throughout, with scribal nastaʿlīq on thin burnished paper. The nine brightly coloured illustrations are painted with sparsely populated simplistic compositions. Only the King of the West and the Prince of the East are depicted wearing Persian (Safavid) costume, while the remaining characters are dressed in eighteenth-century Hindustani attire. Neither manuscript has chapter or section headings, making it difficult to follow the programme of illustration in both manuscripts without closely reading adjacent text. A comparative list of illustrations in both manuscripts can be found here: Download Solomon and the Phoenix illustrations.

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The King of the West’s men shoot at the Phoenix stealing the Princess’s cradle. Note the differentiation in status between figures reflected in their costume. Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr, British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 3v. Noc

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The Princess of the West falls in love with the Prince of the East, who finds his way to the foot of the isolated tree where she is held captive by the Phoenix. The Princess here is dressed in the Hindustani peshvaz and dupattah, while the Prince sports a turban in a distinctly Safavid style with the ends of the qamarband always tucked in. Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr, British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 19r. Noc

Given that both manuscripts discussed here are associated with South Asia, one might be forgiven for taking this as an indication of the tale’s origins, perhaps traceable to some obscure Sufi source of moralistic parables. Evidence to counter this regional association is found in a fragile Judaeo-Persian manuscript from the British Library’s Gaster Collection (Or 10195). Although the fragmentary volume has several compositions in poetry and prose, one of these comprises yet another prose rendition of the same tale of Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh. While the work needs to be studied in detail, it would be particularly revealing if it could be verified that this version commences with or without the prophetic tradition, and whether it consists of the lengthier or abridged version. The systematic comparison of all texts may form the basis of future research to identify a common Urtext, which might not even be in Persian at all. It is hoped this article may mark the start of the process.

Bibliographical note on IO Islamic 1255
Charles Stewart, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the Late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore, Cambridge, 1809, p. 84, where it is listed as the third of the Persian fables. Hermann Ethé, Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the India Office, Oxford, 1903, vol. 1, coll. 544, no. 854. Another undated manuscript (IO Islamic 1627), also from Tipu Sultan’s library, reproduces over ff. 106v-111v an independent work based on a fragment of the same tale comprising episodes 14-28 (Ethé, no. 853).

Dr Sâqib Bâburî
Curator, Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project Ccownwork

Acknowledgements
I am grateful to Ursula Sims-Williams for referring me to IO Islamic 1255. I would also like to thank Ilana Tahan and Zsofia Buda for their research and help with Judeo-Persian.