“The unsuccessful assassination attempt on Shaykh Safi al-Din” 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.
The painting “The unsuccessful assassination attempt on Shaykh Safi al-Din” is one of two illustrations in the fifth section of the seventh chapter. It takes place following Shaykh Zahid’s death and before the succession of Shaykh Safi. This period of almost three years was peaceful until some opponents of the shaykh became jealous over his increasing power and fame, and they began to devise a series of assassination plots (all of which are unsuccessful). First, they planned to kill him in a fire by burning his seclusion down, but they could not succeed as the flames were blown out by the shaykh’s spiritual power. Next, they decided to kill him by shooting arrows and sent their best archers, but none of them could release any arrows as their hands were paralyzed. Poison was a third attempt, though this failed, too, as someone warned the shaykh. Their decision to drown him at sea also failed when Shaykh Safi refused to take the ship. Finally, Shaykh Safi al-Din had a meeting with them and said that it was against God’s will to assassinate him, but if they really wanted him dead, he would poison himself. By his honest word, they were ashamed and asked for forgiveness. The painting depicts the assassination attempt by bows and arrows. Shaykh Safi can be seen in a courtyard by a circular-shaped pool with a stick in his hand. On the lower left corner, two men with bows and arrows can be identified as the assassins.
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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