Monday, 26 August 2013

The Apotropaic Qur'an

'I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind, the Sovereign of mankind, the God of mankind
from the evil of the retreating whisperer, who whispers [evil] into the breasts of mankind, from among 
the jinn and mankind.' Surat an-Nas

As an artist, I am interested in the decorative aspects of Islamic Art. The fluidity of written text that often time assumes various illustrative forms has an awe-inspiring quality, which continuously draws my attention. As an art historian, I am drawn to the meaning that text and image represent, which leads me to write about the use of the Qur’an as a conveyor of both decoration and meaning. In this post I shall primarily focus upon textual intention and briefly explore the use of the verses from the Qur’an as a manner of protection.
Figure 1

The belief in the evil eye was prevalent amongst pre-Islamic Arabs, and people wore a myriad of amulets to protect themselves, their homes and livestock from attacks of evil spirits.[1]This practise continued to evolve and often time involved the assimilation of other methods of creating amulets from other cultures. However, with the rise and establishment of Islam as the dominant religion, verses of the Qur’an replaced previous associations amulets may have had with other religions. Amulets worn by the primitive Arabs were un-inscribed, but later the pre-Islamic Arabs wore amulets associated with Hebrew, Egyptian, and Gnostic writings.[2]

Figure 2
The incorporation of pre-Islamic magical beliefs and practises with verses of the Qur’an possibly made the use of magic within the Islamic religious world more acceptable. It has been suggested that Muhammad sanctioned the use of inscribed amulets and, through the Qur’an, passed on to his followers the history of Solomon as a magician and the emphasis of the apotropaic qualities that the names of Allah held.[3] The Qur’an is believed to possess magical or supernatural powers, which coincides with the use of its verses within amulets as an element of protection.[4] 

Moreover, certain suras of the Qur’an are considered extremely efficacious in their apotropaic potency and are used more frequently within amulets.[5] The fact that the Qur’an is believed to hold the answers to all queries, coupled with the attested faith that Muslims hold for the Qur’an, creates the potential for it to be intermingled with other non-religious aspects in an acceptable manner.[6]

Figure 3
Figure 4

One example of the Qur’an, or its verses, being used as an apotropaic intermediary may be derived from some miniaturised examples of its text. These small codices did not necessarily always contain the Qur’an as whole, but did consist of particular Qur’anic chapters, verses, transcribed hadiths, or a selection of prayers.[7]
Figure 5

One cannot suppose that all miniature Qur’ans were used for an apotropaic means, but the use of Qur’anic verses has been identified on various amulets.[8] Furthermore, the incorporation of miniaturised verses have been implemented on talismanic shirts meant to be worn in battle as a metaphysical protective layer.[9] Thus, it may be suggested that miniature texts with an apotropaic functionality probably contained features such as specific suras from the Qur'an known for their protective attributes, for example, Surat al-Fatiha, the 'Throne Verse' from Surat al-Baqarah and Surat al-Nas as well as other components often used within amuletic or talismanic materials such as magic squares, the zodiacal signs and the seven seals.  

Figure 6 Detail
Figure 7 Detail

In addition to verses from the Qur'an, some amulets also incorporated the names of Allah (as can be seen within the black circles in Figure 6)  as an additional layer of protection because the names of God (and His attributes), or ‘the Beautiful Names’ are considered to possess the greatest magical powers.[10] The juxtaposition of the names of Allah along with Qur’anic verses on an amulet can be interpreted as a manner in which to ensure the amulet’s continuous apotropaic efficacy whilst serving as a supplication, which calls upon God’s divine protection and mercy. 

I find the multivalent aspects of the Qur'an to be fascinating. Even though most amulets or talismans may have not been visible to anyone but the bearer, the intersections between Islamic art, religion and science have the capacity to captivate its audience, whether it is via the aesthetic beauty of undulating text enveloped in rich colours and vegetal motifs, or a deeper meaning that may range from devotional piety to an apotropaic purpose.

~ Shandra

[1] E.A. Wallis Budge, Amulets and Superstitions the Original Texts with Transl.and Descriptions of a Long Series of Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian, Hebrew,Christian, Gnostic and Muslim Amulets and Talismans and Magical Figures,with Chapters on the Evil Eye, the Origin of the Amulet... Etc. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1930. 33; Figure 1, this is an example of amulet that would be worn for protection against the evil eye. These amulets are still being created and used in multiple Islamic regions.
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] B.A. Donaldson, "The Koran As Magic." The Muslim World 27, no. 3 (1937):254-66. doi:10.1111/j.14781913.1937.tb00355.x.254. An example of the Qur’an’s acknowledgement of magic can be seen in sura 114 (1-6).
[5] T. Canaan in E. Savage-Smith, "The Decipherment of Arabic Talismans." In Magic and Divination in Early Islam, edited by Emilie Savage-Smith, 125-78. Vol. 42. The Formation of the Classical Islamic World. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004.129; V. Porter,Shailendra Bhandare, Robert G. Hoyland, A. H. Morton, and J.Ambers. Arabic and Persian Seals and Amulets in the British Museum.London: British Museum, 2011,132. An example of an efficacious sura is the sura al-Fatiha
[6] N. Guessoum, "The Qur'An, Science, And The (Related) Contemporary Muslim Discourse." Zygon® 43, no. 2 (June 2008): 411-31. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2008.00925.x.412-414; Guessoum’s argument concerning the approach contemporary scientists should take with Muslims in regard to their beliefs in the Qur’an, explains a probability of receptivity amongst Muslims to scientific theory by ‘showing that at lease one intelligent reading and interpretation of various passages [of the Qur’an] is fully consistent with the scientific theory,’ 429.
[7] H. Coffey 'Between Amulet and Devotion: Islamic Minature Books in the Lilly Library,' In The Islamic Manuscript Tradition, edited by Christiane Gruber, 79-115. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010, 80.
[8] For more examples and descriptions of the attributes of Islamic amulets and talismans see E. Savage-Smith, Science, Tools & Magic, The Nour Foundation, 1997.
[9] H. Coffey, 89.
[10] E.A. Wallis Budge, 46; Venetia Porter, 132.



1: Glass amulet to avert evil eye. Hebron, Israel/Palestine, Asia; PRM 1885.3.4
2: Talisman. Chad 20th Century.Digital Image. Georgetown University Libary Special Collections, Georgetown University Library, Washington, D.C.

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