Folio with a captioned painting showing a lush green forest. In the upper part, a man leads a grey horse along a stone path. Below, three robed men lean over in prayer. There are slender, leafy trees and small colourful flowers along the paths.
AKM264, A thief stealing the horse, fol.490v

© The Aga Khan Museum

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A thief stealing the horse
From the manuscript of Safvat al-Safa (The Quintessence of Purity), the hagiography of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ishaq Ardabili (1252/3–1334)
  • Accession Number:AKM264 (fol.490v)
  • Creator:written by Isma’il bin Bazzaz (d. 1391–92)
  • Place:Iran, Shiraz
  • Dimensions:35.2 x 22 cm
  • Date:Sha’ban 990 AH/September 1582 AD
  • Materials and Technique:opaque watercolour, ink, and gold on paper
  • “A thief stealing the horse” is one of fourteen paintings in the only known illustrated copy of Safvat al-Safa (The Quintessence of Purity), a tazkira and hagiography of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ishaq Ardabili (1252/3–1334). Safvat al-Safa gives detailed information about the life, sayings, virtues, and miracles of Shaykh Safi, the spiritual founder of the Safavid dynasty (1501–1736). Safvat al-Safa is a biography book with hagiographical accounts which falls under both genres. In Islamic literature, the term "tazkira" is used for biographical texts and "hagiography" is used for books on the lives of the mystics. Safvat al-Safa includes actual information on the life of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ishaq Ardabili as well as mystical and supernatural stories. It appears to have been the main source of the Safavid chroniclers for the early period of the dynasty, as there are numerous copies and translations. Safvat al-Safa has an introduction (muqaddima), twelve chapters (bab), and an epilogue (khatima). Each chapter has numerous sections (fasl) which include multiple short episodes (hikayat).


    To view all 14 paintings in AKM264, Manuscript of Safvat al-Safa (The Quintessence of Purity), see: fol.76v, fol.85r, fol.116v, fol.138r, fol.161v, fol.245v, fol.270v, fol.282r, fol.321r, fol.329v, fol.349r, fol.376r, fol.452r, fol.490v.

Further Reading

This version of Safvat al-Safa was completed in 1582 in Shiraz, one of the important manuscript centres of its time. Rather than relying exclusively on the original text written by Isma’il bin Bazzaz (d. 1391–92), it includes revised text produced in 1533 during the reign of Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576). The author of the new version, Shi’ite jurist Abu’l-Fath al-Husaini (d. 1568–69), added a preface and an appendix and wrote that the Safavids had descended from the seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim, thus producing an “official version” of the origin of the Safavids.

This version of Safvat al-Safa is a fine example of the 1580s Shiraz workshops with its gold-painted leather binding; double-page illumination; blue, gold, and red-lined rulers on its 509 folios; and neat Nasta’liq script with highlighted words and phrases in red, blue, gold or orange. Its illustration cycle seems to be very well-organized with regard to the choice of topics and the diversity of its compositions. Moreover, its paintings are skillfully executed and strongly reflective of their accompanying text. They also share features of other contemporary illustrated manuscripts from Shiraz, including vibrant colours, crowded compositions with figures shown in various angles, detailed and repetitive decoration on the surfaces, and plain flora enriched with trees. The visual program of this Safvat al-Safa represents the shaykh as the protagonist in most of its illustrations.


The last illustration of the manuscript, “A thief stealing the horse,” depicts a miraculous deed in the twelfth chapter, which concerns the prophecies of Shaykh Safi’s disciples. The episode tells the story of Shaykh Safi, Shaykh Zahid, and their young follower Afzal passing through the forest, where they stop for the daily prayer. First, Shaykh Zahid commends his horse to Shaykh Safi in order to complete his ritual. Shaykh Safi decides to join him and let Afzal keep an eye on the animal. Finally, the young boy ties the horse to a tree and joins the others. Then a thief comes and steals the horse. After their prayers, the shaykhs ask Afzal where the horse went. The boy replies that he did not want to quit praying. The shaykhs say, “congratulations, Khvaja,” which from then on became his pseudonym. The story does not end here, as the thief suddenly re-appears, pulling the horse. He grovels before Khvaja Afzal, claiming that the young boy did not let him take the animal away: he showed the thief visions of sea, fire, and swords, and he had no other choice than to bring the horse back. The illustration shows the thief stealing the horse in a green forest where three men bow in prayer. There is distinct overpainting of dark green on the heads of the men and the horse as well as on some parts of the forest. Those areas might have been erased and repainted afterwards since there are signs of relining on some of the contours and re-colouring of plants and flowers.


The records of ownership and several seals in this version of Safvat al-Safa display its value and popularity even centuries after the shaykh's death. On f.509a a seal, bearing the date 1281 (1864–65) and the name “Tahmasb al-Husayni” written in the form of a tughra, is stamped on each side of the triangular colophon. Another record (this time on f. 509b) reads: “This book is very precious and it is a unique copy. Therefore, I am making the following vow that I will not sell this book. If I do, I will make the pilgrimage, and if I die before completing it, I will leave money for the Sayyids so that you (God) witness that I have kept my word.” Unfortunately there are no records on the actual identity of the owner(s).

Safvat al-Safa is one of the rare examples of the illustrated biographies produced in Shiraz in the sixteenth century. Among such works are Tuhfa-yi Sami (1550-52), a poet biography by Sam Mirza (d. 1566), son of Shah Isma'il (r. 1502-1524); Majalis al-'Ushshaq (1503), a biography of the royal prices, eminent people of the age, and famous mystics by Kamal al-Din Husain Gazurgahi (d. ca. 1503-4), Sultan Husain's (r. 1469-1506) intimate companion. Illustrated biographical works started to be produced in Shiraz by as early as 1550, though rapidly increased by the 1570s with many Majalis al-'Ushshaq copies. Although there are some sytlistic differences or changes in the painting cycles depending on each work, it is clear that Majalis al-'Ushshaq is admired as a new subject and therefore many illustrated copies are prepared in Shiraz in the second half of the sixteenth century.

— Aslihan Erkmen

Babinger, F. “Safi al-Din Ardabili.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed. VIII (1995): 801. ISBN: 9789004098343
Canby, Sheila R. Shah ‘Abbas. The Remaking of Iran. London: The British Museum Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780714124520
Erkmen, Aslihan. “Metinlerden Tasvirlere Yansiyan Yuzler: Musavver Bir ‘Mesa’iru’s-Su’ara’ Nushasinin Portreleri” [Figural Representations from Text to Image: The Portraits of an Illustrated ‘Masha'ir al-Shu'ara’]. PhD diss., Istanbul Technical University, 2011.
---. "The Visualisation of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ishaq Ardabili: A Unique Illustrated Copy of the Safvat al-Safa at the Aga Khan Museum Collection and Its Illustrations," Iranian Studies 50.1 (2017): 45–77. DOI: 10.1080/00210862.2015.1061341
---. "Islam Dunyasinda Biyografi Yazimi ve Resimlenmesi" [Biographical Writings and their Illustrations in the Islamic World]. TUBA-KED 19 (2019): forthcoming. DOI: 10.22520/tubaked.2019.19.010
Farhad, Massumeh, and Serpil Bagci. Falnama The Book of Omens. Washington, DC: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2009. ISBN: 9780934686150
Majd, Ghulam-Riza Tabataba’i, ed. Safvetu’s-Safa: der Terceme-i Ahval ve akval ve Keramat-i Seyh Safiyeddin Ishak Erdebili [Safvat al-Safa: The Life Story, the Sayings and the Miraculous Deeds of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ishak Ardabili]. Tabriz: Danishgah-i Azad Islami, 1994.
Mazzaoui, Michel. The Origin of the Safawids. Shi’ism, Sufism and the Gulat. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1972. ISBN: 9783515005814
---. “A ‘New’ Edition of the Safvat al-safa.” In History and Historiography of Post-Mongol Central Asia and the Middle East: Studies in Honor of John E. Woods, eds. Judith Pfeiffer, Sholeh Quinn, and Ernest Tucker. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2006, 303–310. ISBN: 9783447052788
Sah, Serap.“Safvetu’s-Safa’da Safiyuddin-i Erdebili’nin Hayati, Tasavvufi Gorusleri ve Menkibeleri” [The Life, Sufic Thoughts and Miracles of Safi al-Din Ardabili in ‘Safvat al-Safa’]. 2 vols. PhD diss., Marmara Universitesi, Istanbul: 2007.
Togan, Zeki Velidi “Sur l'origine des Safavides.” In Mélanges Louis Massignon, vol. 3. Damascus: Institut Français de Damas, 1957, 345–357.
Uluc, Lale. Turkmen Governors, Shiraz Artisans and Ottoman Collectors. Istanbul: Turkiye Is Bankasi, 2006. ISBN: 9789754589634
Welch, Anthony and Stuart Cary Welch. Arts of the Islamic Book: The Collection of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1982. ISBN: 9780801415487

Note: This online resource is reviewed and updated on an ongoing basis. We are committed to improving this information and will revise and update knowledge about this object as it becomes available.


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