Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural

Calligraphic standard in the shape of a falcon (Golconda, India, 17th-century), perforated gilt copper (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Although it has manifested in ways that are manifold, the human belief in the supernatural is something that’s shared across cultures. At a time when misconceptions of Islam have fueled anxiety, such as in the recent US presidential campaign, an exhibition at the University of Oxford is examining the religion through the lens of astrology, divination, and other occult practices to bring to light something that’s universal to our history.

Finial in the shape of the “Hand of Fatima” (possibly from Hyderabad, India, late-18th to early-19th century), gold on a lac core with rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and pearls (courtesy Nasser D. Khalili Collection, London, © Nour Foundation, the Khalili Family Trust)

Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural opened last month at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. It includes an online exhibition, through which you can also access curatorial audio tracks. Power and Protection features over 100 exquisitely crafted objects, many on their first public display, on loan from private and public collections. Imam Monawar Hussain, the founder of the interfaith Oxford Foundation, stated in a release:  “In sharing this aspect of the Islamic tradition — one that is common across many different religions — at a time of such misunderstandings about Islam, I am convinced that this exhibition will help to deepen and enrich people’s appreciation of our faith.”

From a 16th–18th century Turkish talismanic shirt that’s scrawled with selections from the Qur’an in an attempt at protection, to the lushly-illustrated 1411 horoscope of Prince Iskandar, Power and Protection stretches over the 12th to 20th century in examining this overlooked narrative. There is 18th-century armor from Iran embedded with holy verses, as well as the dream journal of Tipu Sultan, also from the 18th century, which he used as a serious consultation device for divine visions. A 17th-century porcelain dish from China is decorated with delicate Qur’anic passages and Shi’i invocations evoked for personal protection.

Talismanic shirt (Ottoman Empire, 18th century or later), cotton, inscribed in colored inks (courtesy Nasser D. Khalili Collection, London, © Nour Foundation, the Khalili Family Trust)

“The term supernatural is here used to denote everything that is above nature and beyond human control,” Francesca Leoni, the curator of the exhibition, and editor of the accompanying catalogue, told Hyperallergic. “However the focus of the exhibition is on the protective and healing applications of such invisible forces and knowledge, not on the harmful aspects, so we do not deal with witchcraft or demons, which represent a considerably less attested aspect of the subject.”

Often things like astrology or bibliomancy (the use of a book, often opened at random, for divination) were fringe or derided parts of the popular practice of Islam. And as the objects in Power and Protection cover three continents, originating from countries like India, Greece, and Morocco, there are diverse backgrounds, both pagan and religious, that established these traditions. “These represent the most broadly attested methods in the Muslim world to gain insight into the future and guide individuals to make the right choices,” Leoni said.

Geomantic tablet signed by Muhammad ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsili; owned by Muhammad al-Muhtasib al-Najjari (Probably from Damascus, Syria, 1241–42), brass alloy, inlaid with silver and gold (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Especially fascinating is the 13th-century geomantic tablet signed by Muhammad ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsili, likely made in Damascus, Syria. “This is an instrument created to replace the manual production of geomantic figures in the context of a divinatory technique known as ‘science of the sand,’ known in the West as geomancy,” Leoni explained.

The British Museum, which is loaning the object, explains on their site how the tablet was operated:

To use the device, the customer or the geomancer turns the first series of four dials, creating four dot patterns for interpretation. From these four, the geomancer then derives a further twelve patterns, using the following dials to record each stage. The semi-circular panel at the bottom provides “meanings” for the final derived pattern, and the customer receives an answer to his question (“should I marry X?,” “will my business venture succeed?,” etc.).

Like many of the objects in Power and Protection, whether talismanic chart or elaborate amulet, there’s nothing else like it. Although our world can feel fractured, each represents a small part of our shared desire for some meaning and protection in this hazardous existence.

Astrolabe signed by Khalil Muhammad ibn Hasan ‘Ali (Iran, 1700), brass, engraved (© Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford)

“The Horoscope of Iskandar,” two pages from the ‘Nativity Book of Iskandar Sultan ibn ‘Umar Shaykh From Shiraz’ (Iran, 1411), ink, colors, and gold on paper (© Wellcome Library, London)

“‘Ali at the Gates of Khaybar.” from the dispersed ‘Fa’lnama (‘Book of Omens’) of Shah Tahmasp I Safavi’ (Qazvin, Iran, mid-1550s to early-1560s), opaque watercolor and gold on paper (© The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin)

Calligram signed by Mustafa Edirnavi (Turkey, 1800–01), ink and gold on cream and light blue paper, mounted on board (© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Sword, scabbard, and baldric made for Sultan ‘Ali Dinar (Sudan, 1898), crucible forged steel, gold damascened; tooled black leather over wooden core; walrus ivory (courtesy Nasser D. Khalili Collection, London, © Nour Foundation, the Khalili Family Trust)

Calligraphic nial in the shape of a dragon (Golconda, India, late-17th to early-18th century), brass (© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Central section from a banner with dhu’l- qar (Turkey, 17th century), silk and metal thread (courtesy Nasser D. Khalili Collection, London, © Nour Foundation, the Khalili Family Trust)

Set of 12 coins of Emperor Jahangir with signs of the Zodiac (Agra, India, 1618–23), gold (© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Saucer, bowl, and spoon with astrological decoration, made for the Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar, signed Muhammad Baqir (Iran, early-19th century), gold, enamelled (© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Amulet (India, late-17th to early-18th century), Cornelian inscribed and jade inlaid with gold and inset with emeralds and rubies (© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Djimah in the form of a warship with the names of the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus” signed ‘Abdul Wahid ibn al-Haji Muhammad Tahir (Cangking, West Sumatra, Indonesia, July 6, 1866), colored inks on paper backed on cloth (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural continues at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology (Beaumont Street, Oxfordm England) at the University of Oxford through January 15, 2017.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...