In the last few months, two important museums have organized two distinct exhibitions dedicated to amulets and talismans in the Islamic world. The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition, Power and Piety: Islamic talismans on the battlefield, showcases a selection of arms and armor decorated with inscriptions and images believed to protect the warriors during battles. A second exhibition, titled Power and Protection: Islamic art and the supernatural opened at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, last month. In this case, the exhibition showcases a variety of objects, giving the visitors an overall view of the talismanic production in the whole Islamic world, from the origins to modern era.
Most commonly, amulets and talismans are inscribed with Qur’anic verses, but which ones? And why? I will try to explain.
Let’s start with some definition. Even if the terms amulet and talisman are often used as synonyms, in fact, there is a subtle difference between them. An amulet is an object, most usually an ornament, a small jewel, that is thought to give protection against evil, danger, or disease to who wears it. A talisman, on the other hand, is usually an object thought to have magic power and to bring good luck.
As Doris Behrens-Abouseif explains in her article “Beyond the secular and the sacred”, ‘talismans and amulets of various forms as well as magical healing bowls are commonly inscribed with the Qur’anic verses’. Interestingly enough, two Qur’anic suras themselves are considered to have an amuletic power: Q 113 and Q 114 are in fact called the mu’awwidhatan (apotropaic). They are said to effectively influencing the well-being of those who recite them and are recited and read as incantations to ward off evil. There is anyway a difference between the two ‘refuge-taking’ suras: the first one, ‘The Daybreak’, is used against material evil, the second, ‘The Mankind’, against the spiritual ones. It is anyway interesting that these two suras are not frequently found inscribed on talismans and amulets.
The amulets can be inscribed either with complete Qur’anic verses or just short extracts. By far the most popular is the Throne Verse (Q 2:255), that anyway is one of the most widespread passages found in epigraphy in general. Another widely used part is the Q 112, Surat al-Ikhlas (the Sincerity). But blending together different verses or parts of them is also a common practice. Other texts commonly found on amulets (including magic bowls, magic mirrors and so on) are the names of the seven sleepers of Ephesus and the ‘most beautiful names of God’.
Qur’anic material, anyway, does not comprise only the written word: strong qur’anic associations are also present in a group of esoteric symbols that have a protective function and are known as ‘the seven magic signs’. Together with the Qur’an, amulets are inscribed and decorated with prayers, names of the prophets, images of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, and those of Imam ‘Ali (son-in-law of Muhammad), with his two martyred sons Hasan and Husayn.
This variety of images and texts is also reflected by the variety of objects that could be amulets: mirrors, boxes, bowls, jewels, and ornaments. But not only: weapons, shirts and banners. The talismans were thus not only objects that protected those who worn them, but, as in the case of banners, they are capable of shielding also a group of people from the forces of evil.
The usages and contents of these apotropaic objects are thus not so easy to determine at first sight: who used the object? why? who produced it? and why these passages and images were chosen? are just a few of the questions we need to deal with when studying talismans…
Looking forward to reading some talismans, amulets, and magic object.
Bibliography and further reading
Doris Behrens-Abouseif, “Beyond the secular and the sacred: Qur’anic inscriptions in medieval Islamic art and material culture”, in F. Suleman (ed.), Word of God, Art of Man. The Qur’an and its Creative Expression, Oxford University Press, Oxford – New York 2010, pp. 41-49.
S. S. Blair, Islamic inscriptions, Edinburgh 1998, in particular pp. 203-204. [194-204]
R. Hoyland, “Epigraphy”, in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, Brill, Leiden 2002, vol. II, pp. 25-43.
K. Malone O’Connor, “Popular and Talismanic Uses of the Qur’an”, in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, Brill, Leiden 2004, vol. IV, pp. 163-182.
Y. Al-Saleh, “Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World”, in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010. [available online]