When calligraphy becomes architecture: Q 2:137 and fashion

Calligraphy has been thoroughly used in Islamic art and architecture with decorative purposes. The Qur’an, the Word of God has been used for decorative purposes, but not only. Erika Dodd, in her “The Image of the Word” underlines how the Qur’anic text in mosque decoration was actually used with iconographic purposes, that are both related to the content of the text and the context in which it is inscribed.

Some research points out how the meaning of a Qur’anic passage can develop and acquire new meanings through times, such as, an utterance taken from Q 2:137.

And God will be sufficient for you

The utterance “and God will be sufficient for you”, in arabic فسيكفيكهم الله, is taken from Q 2:137 and comprises one of the longest words in the sacred text: fasayakfikahum. It has been widely used since ‘Abbasid period. The dynasty used the utterance as their motto: according to the court chronicler Hilal al-Sabi’, the word was inscribed on the standard that supported the dynasty’s black banner. Also, many objects dating back to the ‘Abbasid period and related to the court are inscribed with such a word. For example it is to be found on bowls excavated in Samarra, the former ‘Abbasid capital, and are considered to be related to the court. Also, the same word is found in  tiraz textile dedicated to Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809).



Tile Panel in the form of an Architectural Niche 709/1309-10. New York, The Metropolitan Museum (09.87) © Metropolitan Museum

The word is inscribed also on objects that, even if relating to the Early Islamic Period, are not exclusively related to that dynasty: the verse also occurs in stucco fragments from Susa and wooden objects from Fustat.

As Sheila Blair points out, being space another criterion to choose a certain text to be inscribed, the word could have been used as it could “be fitted on a small object and, with its meaningful text about God’s omnipotence, could be said to encapsulate the [whole] Koran”(Blair, Islamic Inscriptions, pp. 215-216).

The meaning of the word has eventually developed, acquiring a talismanic significance: in Iran, and particularly during the Mongol era, the word is used, and most interestingly it is arranged so that it forms an arch, in some cases reproducing a two-dimensional mihrab.

The word is found in tile panels, such as those in the Metropolitan Museum, dating 709/1309-10 (accession number 09.87), but also on coins, particularly on those struck under the Ilkhanid ruler Abu Sa’id between 722/1322-3 and 727/1326-7. It is interesting how also in coins the word forms an architecture around the text of the basmala.

coin abu said

Coin struck by Abu Sa’id (72X)

Small digression: The image of the mihrab – a proposed interpretation

According to the interpretation given by Nuha Khoury in “The Mihrab Image”, the two-dimensional mihrabs, displaying the iconography of the lamp surmounted by an arch,  can be read in two ways, both of them related to the commemoration of the dead. On the one hand, the image of the mihrab has a metaphorical meaning: it describes the death and is related to eschatological beliefs. On the other hand, it is a realistic representation of shrines or a tombs, where the two-dimensional mihrab are often found.

Khoury takes into consideration, among others, also the tile panel presented here.

Q 2:137 – a fashionable utterance

I deem it intriguing that the talismanic utterance fasayakfikahum is to be found in relation to the image of the mihrab, as its content and use do not pertain any eschatological dimension, as far as I know. Also, as it is found also on coins, it is not simple to relate it to the mihrab as interpreted by Khoury.

On an epigraphical point of view it is clear how the inscription in the mihrab and the one on the coin are practically the same: the word is arranged in the same fashion, forming an arch that has the same features in both cases.

What I think, is that the utterance, far from being used in the coin as a slogan, as it was during the ‘Abbasid period, was taken solely for its talismanic meaning. A dear professor and epigraphist once told me: “You know, Qur’anic verses also followed trends…like shoes follow fashion”.

The talismanic meaning could have been still in use during the time in which the mihrab of Metropolitan Museum was designed and produced. The composition of the text, and also the content, could have influenced the design of the message on the coin, which is some year later than the tile plaque.

Changing contexts

So, yes, in this case, and after a quick analysis, I would say that the longest word of the Qur’an have had a long life in inscription also thanks to trends and fashion. It is a beautiful example of how the Qur’anic text can and should be read in context. Starting as a motto for the ‘Abbasid, it somewhat fell into disuse. After some centuries it started to be used again, but with another meaning, relating not to a political power but to a talismanic way, probably also related to an eschatological dimension. In this period, it was arranged as to form a niche, or a two-dimensional mihrab, to be precise, and then, in this form (maybe) it became “fashionable” and was also used to ornate a coin. It is significant that the text that the word surrounds in the coin has still a strong religious connotation, being the basmala. This can make us think that the word was still holding a talismanic aura, and that it was used in contexts not too distant from this meaning.

PS. This wonderful tile panel and its inscriptions can actually be studied on a variety of point of view… I think this is just the beginning 🙂

Essential bibliography

S. S. Blair, Islamic inscriptions, Edinburgh 1998.
[pp. 0-17pp. 18-39pp. 40-67pp. 68-83 pp. 84-93pp. 94-123pp. 124-145pp. 146-171pp. 172-195 pp. 196-204pp. 205-243]

S. S. Blair, “Written, spoken, envisioned: the many facets of the Qur’an in art”, in F. Suleyman (ed.), Word of God, Art of Man. The Qur’an and its Creative Expressions, Oxfrod University Press, Oxford 2010, pp. 271-284.

S. S. Blair and J. Bloom, “Inscriptions in art and architecture”, in J. D. McAuliffe, The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2006, pp. 163-178.

R. Hoyland, “Epigraphy”, in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, Brill, Leiden 2002, vol. II, pp. 25-43.

N. N. N. Khoury, “The Mihrab Image: Commemorative Themes in Medieval Islamic Architecture”, in Muqarnas 9 (1992), pp. 11-28. [full article, via jstor]


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