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“Shaykh Safi al-Din interpreting for his disciples various verses by distinguished poets” 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.
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.
In the text accompanying the illustration “Shaykh Safi al-Din interpreting for his disciples various verses by distinguished poets,” Shaykh Safi reads a couplet by the 12th-century Persian poet ‘Attar about Zoroastrian temples and the prophet Zarathustra. He interprets the temple and the fire inside as the world of love, where people worship fire and live in love. The illustration itself depicts Shaykh Safi al-Din as he is addressing an audience. However, unlike most of the illustrations in this version of Safvat al-Safa, there is no direct element in the scene referring to the couplet, nor is there any sign of Zoroastrians in the shaykh’s audience.
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
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