- The Art and Material Culture of Iranian Shi‘ism: Iconography and Religious Devotion in Shi‘i Islam edited by Pedram Khosronejad
This volume of eleven papers is the long-awaited result of a July 2006 two-day conference, ‘The Art and Material Culture of Iranian Shi‘ism’, in Oxford organized by the editor and Professor James Allan. The papers there were divided into four sections: ‘Shi‘ism and Islamic Mortuary Architecture’, ‘Shi‘ism, Ritual and Material Culture’, ‘Shi‘ism, Nomadism and Material Culture’, and ‘Shi‘ism, Symbols and Iconography’. Scholars presenting papers came from Iran, India, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, France, Germany, Holland, Norway, the United States, and the United Kingdom. All but four papers – those by Amir-Moezzi, Gruber, Shani and Zarcone – of the eleven papers in the present volume are based on those conference papers. Ten other of the conference papers are not included in the present volume, but a list of their titles appears on page xiv. Nevertheless, the final product represents a remarkable and wide-ranging overview of the topic that, if a complex one, is long overdue for separate consideration.
Part One – ‘Shi‘i Devotional Iconography and Symbolism’ – contains five papers.
First, M. A. Amir-Moezzi examines Shi‘i icons between ‘popular art and Sufism’, focussing on the shamā’il jībī – a portable ‘pocket devotional object’, a rectangular panel made of wood or covered in papier mâché, that brings both ‘benediction and protection’ to its owner (25). It can also be an altarpiece. Imam ‘Ali almost always is one of the figures represented, along with the Prophet, one of ‘Ali’s sons or a veiled Fatimah, ‘Ali’s wife and the daughter of the Prophet. The author describes his first acquaintance with one of these in Shiraz in 1983, in an encounter with a Dhahabi dervish. He describes its use as an aid in the vejheh (Ar. [End Page 486] wijhah), a secret contemplative exercise. He also offers a translation-cum-commentary of a ca. 2010 Dhahabi essay on vejheh and offers comments on two examples of this art form, illustrations of which are included.
C. Gruber’s paper addresses early sixteenth century Safavid-period paintings of the Prophet’s mi‘raj, the ‘Night Journey’, arguing that these offer insights into the nature of the faith unavailable in the ‘textual traditions’ (47) of the period. She discusses five paintings from the reigns of Isma‘il I (d. 1524) and his son and successor Tahmasp (r. 1524-76). Gruber’s first two paintings date from the years prior to the Safavids’ 1514 defeat by the Ottomans at Chaldiran. The first was included in a copy of Nizami’s Makhzan al-Asrar completed in 1505. This was just years after Isma‘il’s 1501 conquest of Tabriz – the date usually cited as the ‘start’ of the Safavid period – and Gruber calls attention to the Prophet’s apparently Safavid-style headgear. The second, a 1509 illustrated copy of the Haft Paykar section of the Khamsah, features a veiled Prophet. The veil conceals the real identity of the figure, suggesting a hint of an effort to identify the figure with Isma‘il himself, mirroring the Shah’s own claims as such in his poetry.
The last three deal with paintings from Tahmasp’s reign. The first, a copy of Nizami’s Khamsah dating to 1539-43, in Tabriz, also features a veiled Prophet. This time, along with other facets of the composition, Gruber suggests the veil underlines the Sufi-style boundaries between the seen and the unseen. The fourth and fifth illustrations are found in a Falnameh (a book of divination) dating to between the late 1540s to the early 1550s and in another text of the same genre dating to c. 1550-60. Both feature celestial lions in the image of ‘Ali himself; ‘Ali, she suggests, is often alluded to in his ‘cosmic’, hence...