Whether hung on a wall or carried on the body, talismans such as this large-scale chart covered with various designs and inscriptions were believed to help secure blessings (baraka) and provide protection for individuals and places. This chart includes numerous magic squares and inscriptions inked on gazelle skin, whose crease marks suggest that it was folded into a smaller bundle and possibly nestled within a now-lost container.
While some Islamic talismans are block printed (see AKM508), others such as this one are inked by hand using gold, black, blue, and red pigments. In this instance, the rather translucent parchment is inscribed with a number of Qur’anic verses, the beautiful names of God (al-asma’ al-husna), the invocation of ‘Ali (nad-i ‘Ali), amuletic texts dedicated to Husayn and Hasan, and a variety of prayers (du‘as). Most of these prayers have their merits or virtues computed, while a magic square that includes a “prayer of washing” (du‘a-i ghasilat) may have been intended to purify the believer during ablutions or to protect the deceased upon burial.
The talisman’s textual contents, here written in miniature script, make use of parts of the Qur’an that are believed to be particularly apotropaic (effective at warding off evil influences). Considered an acceptable form of magic, this practice of making Qur’anic amulets is common across Islamic civilizations. However, this object’s inclusion of the invocation to ‘Ali (nad-i ‘Ali) suggests a Shi‘i milieu and points its manufacture in eastern Islamic lands, likely Iran. It probably was made during the Qajar period (1785–1925), at which time paintings, icons, and amulets included overt Shi‘i content.
In Shi‘i spheres, ‘Ali functions as both guardian and refuge—much like the Qur’an. Invocations to ‘Ali praise the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin as the dispenser of miracles and succor in trying times. For these reasons, the nad-i ‘Ali is often found on Islamic amulets and talismans. Moreover, since ‘Ali’s honorific epithet is the “Lion of God” (haydar Allah), the nad-i ‘Ali can be shaped into a calligraphic lion, a type of Shi‘i calligram that is a hallmark of Iranian and Indian artistic traditions (see AKM526).
In addition to Qur’anic and other devotional inscriptions, amulets often display magic squares known as wafq, murabba‘, or buduh. Magic squares are divided into cells whose number is equal along both horizontal and vertical axes, thereby creating a checkerboard pattern. The most popular in the Islamic world is the 4 × 4 magic square, also known as Plato’s Square. Although some cells may be left blank, a number of words, letters, and numbers typically appear. Most often their alphanumerical results remain consistent across the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines—a computational equilibrium that seeks to represent the harmony of the cosmos.
This talisman in the Aga Khan Museum is related to other Qajar-period, large-scale talismanic charts held in the Khalili Collection of Islamic Art and the Tareq Rajab Museum. These items likewise are made on gazelle skin, display crease marks, and were most likely preserved in amuletic cases. One also includes an inscription that states that the talisman will protect its owner from disease, plague, the evil eye, the devil, and other misfortunes, while another includes a dedication to the Qajar ruler Muzaffar al-Din Shah (r. 1896–1907). As a result, it is possible that the Aga Khan’s talisman was made in the same Iranian royal workshop that specialized in the production of these types of talismanic charts around 1900.
— Christiane Gruber
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