Sexual conduct and the inscription of a mosque: the case of the South Dome of the Friday Mosque of Isfahan.

Much of it is clumsy, some ugly.

When Byron sees for the first time the beautiful Friday Mosque of Isfahan, he is in the car of the Hovlands, on the 11th of February 1934. After they passed by the Maidan-i Imam, they drive to the Friday Mosque, and Byron does not seem at all impressed by the monument. He even writes “Much of [the mosque] is clumsy, some ugly”. Nonetheless, he takes the time to prise the most famous dome built under the Seljuks: the North Dome, also known as Gunbad-i Haki.

“But the great egg-dome of plain brick, erected by Malek Shah the Seljuk, has few equals for that blind expression of content which is the virtue of Mohemmedan domes.”

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North dome, exterior. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet)

He is not very accurate when naming the dome. He writes about the “brick [dome], erected by Malek Shah”, but in fact, two domes of the mosque correspond to this description: the South Dome as well as the North Dome.

 In any case, on the 18th of March 1934, Byron has a second chance to visit the mosque, and this time his description is more accurate and long. While when he first recorded the mosque is his travelogue he focused on the Safavid and Timurid period of construction, the second time he talks profusely of the two domes, particularly (again) the North one, and of the Seljuk period.

One characteristic that has always intrigued me, is the profusion of inscriptions that is displayed in both domes and the meanings that these inscriptions have in making us understand the story of the mosque. And the story of the mosque is surely connected with the story of the city, as Byron rightfully underlines: “Here, as in the same mosque at Herat, the whole history of the town is pictured in a single building and its restorations”.

As said, the Seljuks erected two domes in the Friday the Mosque: I have already dealt with the North Dome, its inscriptions, and the interpretation of its function in another article, thus, this time, I want to focus on the South Dome, usually overlooked and despised (as Byron himself does), but that in fact can reveal a lot about the city, its history, the Seljuk rulership, and the so-called Sunni revival.

The South Dome (Gunbad-i Sahib – Dome of Nizam al-Mulk)

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Exterior view of the south dome. Photo by Robert Byron (archnet).

The South Dome was erected under the patronage of Malikshah’s wazir Nizam al-Mulk between September 1086 and March 1087. At the moment of the erection of the dome, the Friday Mosque of Isfahan was already a huge and important building. Apparently, the South Dome is the very first work that the Seljuks carried out in the mosque. 

There are two inscriptions that decorate the dome: one runs around the inner base of the dome, the second, instead, is on the external surface.

The first inscription, running internally, is the foundation inscription. It does not provide an exact date for the construction of the mosque, though. Nonetheless, a periodization can be inferred from the titles and attributes given to the Seljuk ruler Malikshah. The inscription reads:

بسم ال امر ببناء هذه اقبة ف ايام السلطان العظم شاهانشاه العظم مالك الشرق والغرب ركن السلم والسلمي معز الدنيا والدين اب الفتح ملكشاه بن ممد بن داود يي خليفة ال امي الؤمني اعز ال نصره العبد الفقي ال رحة ال السن بن على بن اسحق على يد اب الفتح احد بن ممد الازن

Translated as follows:

In the name of God. The construction of this Dome was ordered in the days of the Great Sultan, August Shahanshah, King of the East and the West, Pillar of Islam and of the Muslims, Strengthener of the World and of the Faith, Abu al-Fath Malikshah bin Muhammad bin Daud, Right of the Caliph of God, Commander of the Faithful, may God glorify his Victory. The poor servant that needs God’s mercy al-Hasan bin Ali bin Ishaq, under the supervision of Abu al-Fath Ahmad bin Muhammad, the treasurer. 

This inscription is written in a quite plain Kufic style and carries a lot of information (and non-information) on the three people mentioned: Malikshah, the ruler, al-Hasan bin Ali bin Ishaq (Nizam al-Mulk), the wazir, and the treasurer, Abu al-Fath Ahmad bin Muhammad. Of the latter, we do not find any information at all, and most probably he was simply an administrative official, appointed to follow this project under the wazir Nizam al-Mulk. Nizam-al Mulk, instead, is well-known and he is famous as a promoter of Islamic orthodoxy. The fact that he does not have any honorific title is probably due to the willingness to underline his pietas, but also because he did not use personal funds to build the dome, taking the money from the state treasure instead. The third individual mentioned in the inscription is Sultan Malikshah: his honorific titles and attributes can help determining the period of construction, comparing them with other inscriptions on dated monuments. In this way, Sheila Blair determines that the dome must have been built between September 1086 and March 1087.

Of the inscription that runs on the external surface, very little remains. This is due to the fact that the domed chamber was originally built as a freestanding space and now it is not. Part of the inscription has been obliterated by architectonic modifications. The only words that remain of this inscription are:

فإنم غي ملومي

That is “for indeed, they will not be blamed”. Considering the length of the original inscription band that ends with these words, scholars agree that the inscription must have contained the Qur’anic verses Q 23:1-6.

And here things get interesting.

The Qur’anic passage, in its entirety, reads:

“Certainly will the believers have succeeded they who are during their prayer, and they who turn away from ill speech humbly submissive, and they who are observant of zakah, and they who guard their private parts, except from their wives or those their right hands possess, for indeed, they will not be blamed”

Why should an inscription, written on a mosque, mention explicitly private parts and wives? Scholars disagree on this.

Galdieri and Sheila Blair affirmed that the Qur’anic text must have been chosen because of the general reference to the duty of the good believer. Oleg Grabar, instead, proposed two interpretations: the first being that the passage was chosen primarily for the opening part, about the duties of the Muslim, and the following part (the one on private parts and wives), just came as a continuation of the passage. His second interpretation, instead, focuses more on the private-parts-and-wives passage: the explicit reference to the sexual conduct might have been determined by a fact happened in Isfahan at the time of the construction of the domed chamber. But it is the Italian scholar Scerrato that links the inscription and the reference to sex to a wider context (and the one I agree with).

Historical sources (al-Mafarruni, al-Qazvini, al-Muqaddasi, Yaqut, and al-Masudi) mention inappropriate sexual behavior in Isfahan. Al-Biruni, in particular, talks about prostitution in Isfahan: how it was a wide-spread problem during the Seljuk period and how earlier than that, under the Buyid ruler Adud al-Dawla, it was in fact tolerated, as it was a source of income for the state (thanks to taxations and fines).

Now, even if the concept of Sunni revival is quite outdated and raised many doubts in the academic world, it is a fact that Nizam al-Mulk was a sustainer of religious orthodoxy, particularly in contrast with the previous dynasty that ruled the area, the Buyids, that were shi’i. If we add to this the fact that this inscription is written in cursive calligraphy, that according to Tabbaa was a mean used to show graphically a contrast with the Kufic Qur’anic inscriptions used by the Shi’is, the picture can get clearer.

Nizam al-Mulk, with the inscription written on the very first monument erected by the new rulers, the Seljuks, in Isfahan, wanted to give the city a clear message: things have changed now, behave!

An interpretation that can tell us a lot about the contextual use of the Qur’anic text.

Too bad the South Dome is hardly considered when the Friday Mosque is described.

Sources

Archent.org provides a very detailed inscription on the Friday Mosque of Isfahan and its architecture. As always, it is also a valuable source of images.

S. S. Blair, The Monumental Inscriptions from Early Islamic Iran and Transoxiana, Brill, Leiden 1992, in particular, pp. 160-163. [partially accessible via GoogleBooks]
S. S. Blair, “Surveyor versus Epigrapher”, in Muqarnas, 8 (1991), pp. 66-73. [available online on Archnet]
H. Bowen, “Adud al-Dawla”, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam(2), Brill, Leiden 1986, I, pp. 211-212.
H. Bowen, “Nizam al-Mulk”, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam(2), Brill, Leiden 1995, VIII, pp. 69-73.
E. Galdieri, Isfahan: Masgid-i Gum’a 2. Il periodo al-iBuyide, IsMEO, Roma 1973.
E. Galdieri, “Quelques précision sur le Gunbad-e Nizam al-Mulk d’Isfahan”, in Revue des études islamiques, 43 (1975), pp. 97-122.
O. Grabar, The Great Mosque of Isfahan, Tauris, London 1990.
U. Scerrato, “Sura XXIII 1-6 in a Saljuq Inscription in the Great Mosque at Isfahan”, in East and West, 44/2-4 (Dec 1994), pp. 249-257. [available on Jstor]
Y. Tabbaa, “The transformation of Arabic writing: part 1, Qur’anic calligraphy”, in Ars Orientalis, 21 (1991), pp. 119-148
Y. Tabbaa, “The transformation of Arabic writing: part 2, the public text”, in Ars Orientalis, 24 (1994), pp. 119-147.

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