Four mihrabs within a mihrab

When I was preparing the article about the Friday Mosque of Shiraz and the Qur’anic inscriptions that are written on its walls, I came across the photo of a quite particular alabaster slab that used to be kept in the mosque.

The prayer all of the Masjid-i Vakil. Photo by Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji (WikiCommons).

The slab is made of alabaster and its design is that of a two-dimensional mihrab. What is peculiar in its design, is that the mihrab contains four other mihrabs. All this, heavily inscribed in a Kufic style that feature a light foliated ornament.

Considering the style of the Kufic letters inscribed on the slab, Wilber suggests that the slab should be dated around the 11th or 12th century, c.e. The only photo I could find of the slab was taken in the first decades of the 20th century by Pope and was presumably taken at the Friday Mosque.

At an unknown date, according to Wilber’s report, the slab was taken from its original location in the Friday mosque and set into a wall of the Masjid-i Vakil (built in the 18th century). This would mean that the slab stayed in its original location for some eight centuries, more or less, before having been moved to its new location.

We do not know the reason why the slab was dislocated: maybe the fact that the Friday Mosque had been severely damaged after earthquakes, as Robert Byron mentions in his travelogue The Road to Oxiana, can be a reason.

Anyhow, apart from the history of the slab, what interests me is the content of its inscriptions.

Alabaster slab in the shape of a mihrab. Photo by Arthur Upham Pope (archnet).

The photo of the alabaster mihrab taken by Pope shows the peculiarity of its design: the slab is carved in the shape of a mihrab, containing within itself four smaller mihrabs. Of all the inscriptions in the various parts of the slab, only the uppermost lozenge contains a sort of foundation inscription or better a dedication: there, we read the name Muhammad bin Mahdi. It is hard to determine who Muhammad bin Mahdi was: the person that commissioned the slab? The calligrapher? Or maybe someone that made a donation to the mosque?

Probably we’ll never know for sure. Anyhow, if we determine the use of the slab, we can infer the role of this Muhammad Din Mahdi.

The four mihrabs embedded in the slab, contain Qur’anic verses or, in some cases, pious phrases.

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Reading of the slab. By SquareKufic (Giulia Gallini).

In the Iranian tradition, it is not uncommon to see a slab in the form of a mihrab. Often the two-dimensional mihrabs are carved on tombstones, in other cases, the mihrab is used as a decorative symbol, always in funerary contexts, as in the case of the small tile featuring two two-dimensional mihrabs (Art Institute Chicago, accession number 1917.221). In any way, the mihrab image is commonly used in funerary contexts.

This slab, probably, is not an exception. Even if the fact that it contains four mihrabs is in itself something particular, the Qur’anic verses and pious utterances inscribed are not divergent from the tradition. Q 112 and Q2:255, particularly, are not uncommon in two-dimensional mihrabs on gravestones. Also, the frame of the third mihrab of the slab contains the utterance  “and God will be sufficient for you”, with the word fasayakfikahum (فسيكفيكهم) creating the upper frame of the mihrab, that encircle the word Allah, that stands alone in the first raw of the inscription. The use of this utterance is quite common and the position of the two words follow the usual arrangement. Later on, the word Allah will be arranged as forming a lamp or surrounding a lamp that hangs from the arch of the mihrab.

Detail of the slab, showing the central mihrab, with the utterance fasayakfikahum. Arthur Upham Pope (archnet).

This arrangement of the word fasayakfikahum would be used profusely during the Mongol period in Iran, but this slab shows how earlier examples exist.

This said, the general content of the inscriptions is nothing particularly enlightening: the verses chosen praise God and underline the importance of believing in God, who is omnipotent and omniscient.

Iranian tombstone © LACMA (M.73.7.1)

But if the inscriptions in themselves cannot clarify what was the primary reason behind this slab, maybe its design can shed more light. Seen the symbolic meaning of the two-dimensional mihrabs, we can dare to say that the alabaster slab was made to commemorate a deceased person, Muhammad bin Mahdi. It would not be the only case of a slab with a two-dimensional mihrab only superficially related to a funerary context and whose function is not clear. The same happens with the slab kept at the LACMA, that is recorded under the name “Mihrab or Tombstone” (M.73.7.1). In that case, as it happens in the slab from Shiraz, there is no clear reference to a deceased or day of the death.  In the case of the LACMA slab, there is no indication of the place where the slab originally was set, shedding even more doubts on its function.

The slab of Shiraz, instead, was originally set in a specific context: the Friday Mosque of the city.

Most probably, the function of the alabaster slab was commemorative. Khoury, in the article “The Mihrab Image: Commemorative Themes in Medieval Islamic Architecture” talks about the various function that the mihrab as an image can have. One of the mentioned function is the commemorative one. What I do think, is that this is the case of the slab of Shiraz.

After the death of Muhammad bin Mahdi, his family, most probably, decided to commemorate the beloved family member with a slab, and to put the slab in the Friday Mosque of the city, so that everyone could remember his good deed.

S. S. Blair, Islamic inscriptions, Edinburgh 1998.
[pp. 0-17 – pp. 18-39 – pp. 40-67 – pp. 68-83 – pp. 84-93 – pp. 94-123 – pp. 124-145 – pp. 146-171 – pp. 172-195 – pp. 196-204 – pp. 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]
Donald N. Wilber, The Masjid-i ‘Atiq of Shiraz, Asia Institute, Pahlavi University, Shiraz 1972, Appendix B, p. 25. [available on Archnet]


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