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The Hilye of the

Prophet Muhammad
By Mohamed Zakariya

“Calligraphy presents the thought

as the source of the image, not the
image as the source of the
thought.”— Nabil F. Safwat 1

h o w d o e s o n e describe the indescrib-

The author, Mohamed Zakariya, who able? How does one form an image of that
discovered Islam early in his life, is of which cannot be portrayed? That is what the
American origin and lives and works in hilye does – it gives parameters to the imagi-
Washington DC and whose job descrip- nation so that one can think about the
tion would include not only being a Prophet œ with a mental or spiritual image
master calligrapher, illuminator, and to hang onto yet not attempt to visualize
craftsman in wood and metal but also him or portray him in a painting. The hilye
that of historian and humorist. His is not an icon in words. As impressive and
work is now much sought after and is accurate as the many hilye texts are, they still
exhibited in many museums and private remain vague, contrary to the claims of liter-
collections. His Eid postage stamp has alists, who would reject these texts as being
brought his work, albeit in miniature, visual portraits. That, of course, would not
into probably millions of homes be acceptable to Muslims.
in the US. “Hilye” 2 is the Turkish form of the Arabic seasons
word “^ilya,” which has several meanings,
including physiognomy, natural disposition,
likeness, depiction, characterization, and
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description. But these dictionary definitions

only begin to convey the real meaning of
the hilye, which embodies the Prophet’s
moral, behavioral, and spiritual qualities as
Editor’s note: This article contains Arabic well as physical appearance. Like most
and Turkish words. In order to make it Arabic words, “^ilya” carries multiple over-
easier on the reader, rather than tones, making it difficult to translate. It has
transcribing all the foreign words, the connotations of ornament, beauty, finery, and
author graciously offered to calligraph the embellishment. I like to think of a hilye as
words which you will find on page18. a beautiful and significant description.
a h i ly e b y t h e au t h o r
The Hilye in History century ad, and the Lisan al-Arab, a lexicon
Arabic source literature includes hilye texts that includes many of the words used in the
describing many important figures. Most hilyes, yet some areas remain ambiguous or
prominent of these are the hilyes of the open to interpretation.
Prophet Muhammad œ and of his four The wording of hilyes is carefully com-
companions – the chahar yar (four friends), posed, with the care one would expect from a
the first four caliphs and successors of the keen observer of people, one gifted with a
Prophet œ: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and finely honed skill in language. In his narration
Ali. Interestingly, we also have hilyes for some of the hilye, for example, Hind is mentioned as
of the pre-Qur’anic Biblical prophets. In one a wassaf, (one who describes). One can
of the great works on hilyes, Qasas al-Anbiya, hypothesize that Hind had a special gift for
by Ath-Th’alabi (d. 1035 ad), we find hilyes this kind of literature, just as some may have a
for Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, John the special gift for poetry. Few writers could match
Baptist, and Jesus. These are related by the these gems of conciseness and beauty, com-
enigmatic figure Ka’b al-Ahbar. A learned posed as they were with wit, poignancy,
Muslim of Jewish, possibly rabbinic, origin intimacy, and rhetorical flourish. These artful
and a specialist in Biblical lore, Ka’b al-Ahbar descriptions make vivid impressions on the lis-
was a friend and confidant of Umar and the tener or reader. They are quite easy to
Prophet’s wife, A’isha. memorize and played an important part in
recalling beloved and respected figures.
Hilyes have some general features in com-
mon. They begin with a succinct description
of the subject’s physical characteristics,
including height, built, complexion, eyes,
hair, hands, and gait, and then they move to
LIKE ILLUMINATING A HILYE. IT IS A the subject’s individual and moral characteris-
CHALLENGING AND DAUNTING tics. Consider, for example, the hilye of
Prophet Soloman ∑ as told by Ka’b al-Ahbar:

COMPOSITION’S COMPLEX Sulayman was of pale complexion; his

STRUCTURE AND LAYOUT. body was large, very clean, and beautiful.
He was humble and unpretentious and
liked to associate with the poor and would seasons
keep company with them. He would say,
“The poor must sit with the poor.” During
his father Dawud’s reign, his father would
consult him because of his advanced intel-
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Oral literature was possibly the highest

lect and knowledge, which was remarkable
calling of the ancient Arabs, and long before considering his young age.
the hilye was used in calligraphy, it was spo-
ken. What first impresses the reader – or Or take this hilye of Uthman, the third
listener – about these texts is their compact- caliph:
ness, their terseness. They say as much as
Uthman, may God be pleased with him,
possible in a few well-chosen words, some of
was of medium stature. He wasn’t short or
which are profoundly obscure. In my transla-
tall. He had a beautiful face. He was fleshy
tions of the texts, for example, I consulted and had fine skin. He had a thick beard.
both the commentary of Molla Ali al-Qari, a His head and beard hair were abundant.
Hanafi religious scholar of the early 17th Because of this, his opponents called him
Na’sal [after an Egyptian in Medina with a mild-tempered of them, and the noblest of
long beard]. His complexion was swarthy, them in lineage. Whoever saw him unex-
and he was big boned. He was the beloved pectedly was in awe of him. And whoever
friend of the beloved friend [Muhammad] associated with him familiarly loved him.
of the All-Merciful God. He collected the Anyone who would describe him would
Qur’an [and published it]. He was full of say, ‘I never saw, before him or after him,
modesty and faith. He died a martyr while the like of him.’ Peace be upon him.”
reading the Qur’an.
The most comprehensive hilye text is found
Another interesting occurrence of the word
in Ash-Shifa, the great work on the Prophet by
“hilye” is in the title of the famous biographical
Al-Qadi Iyad (d. 1149). Here it is, in its fullest
work in Arabic, Hilyat al-Awliya’, by Abu
Nu’aym (d. 1038 ad), which can be translated
as Description (or Depiction) of the Saintly People. Al-Hasan, son of Ali [May God be
pleased with both of them] said, “I asked
This is an excellent source of information
my uncle, Hind, son of Abu Hala about the
about the early religious figures of Islam and
hilye [description] of the Prophet of God,
contains much material from their own lips, may peace and blessings be upon him.
including, fascinatingly, Ka’b al-Ahbar himself Hind was known to be a prolific describer
in a long entry. of the Prophet, and I wished him to relate
some of it for me so I might hold fast to it.”
So Hind said, “The Prophet of God,
The Hilyes of the Prophet peace be upon him, was of mighty signifi-
The most famous hilye texts, of course, are cance to God and profoundly honored
those that characterize the Prophet among the people. His face radiated light
Muhammad œ. In Turkish, they are called like the moon on its fullest night. He was a
bit taller than the medium stature and a bit
Hilye-i Saadet (the Hilye of Felicity), Hilye-i
shorter than the tall and skinny. His head
Sherif (the Noble Hilye), and Hilye-i Nebevi (the was large. His hair was wavy. If his hair part-
Prophetic Hilye). The most popular of these ed, he would leave it parted; if not, he
texts for calligraphers is one related by Ali ibn would leave it, and it would not be long
Talib, which I translate as follows: enough to pass his earlobes. His complex-
ion was fair. He had a wide forehead and
arched, thick eyebrows with a space
Transmitted from Ali [son-in-law of the
between them. There was a vein between
Prophet], may God be pleased with him,
them that would swell and pulse when he
who, when asked to describe the Prophet,
was angry. His nose was aquiline; it had a
peace be upon him, would say, “He was not
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brightness about the upper part that led

too tall nor too short. He was medium
those who were less observant to think him
sized. His hair was not short and curly, nor
haughty. He had a thick beard. His eyes
was it lank but in between. His face was not
were very black and the whites very white.
narrow, nor was it fully round, but there was
His cheeks were not prominent. He had a
a roundness to it. His skin was white. His
wide mouth. His teeth were white, and
eyes were black. He had long eyelashes. He
there was a space between his front teeth.
was big-boned and had wide shoulders. He
had no body hair except in the middle of “There was a fine line of hair on his
his chest. He had thick hands and feet. chest, and it was as if it were an ivory statue
When he walked, he walked inclined, as if with the purity of silver. His figure was well-
descending a slope. When he looked at proportioned, full-bodied, and strong.
someone, he looked at them in full face. There was no slackness in his musculature;
“Between his shoulders was the seal of his chest didn’t protrude over his belly, nor
prophecy, the sign that he was the last of did the reverse occur. His chest was broad
the prophets. He was the most and his shoulders wide and muscular. He
generous-hearted of men, the most truth- had large limbs. The parts of his body that
16 ful of them in speech, the most could be seen while he was clothed were
luminous. His body from the neck to the and avert his gaze, and when he was full of
navel was joined by hair which flowed joy, he would lower his eyes. Most of his
down like a line. There was no hair on his laughing was as smiling; when he did
nipples. His forearms, shoulders, and laugh, it was not loud, and he would show
upper chest were hairy. The bones of his his teeth a bit like they were hailstones.”
forearms were long. His palms were wide Al-Hasan said, “I kept this report to
and generous. His hands and feet were myself, away from [my brother] Al-Husayn
thick. His limbs were long. He had long for awhile; then I told it to him, but he had
sinews. His insteps were high. His feet already heard it and found out even more.
were smooth without protuberances, and He had asked our father [Ali] about the
water would run off of them. When he way the Prophet God, peace be upon him,
would move off, he would move with was when he was at home, was when he
determination. He would step surely and went out in his assemblies, and was con-
unhurriedly and not proudly. He walked cerning his living.” Al-Hasan left nothing
gently and with dignity, and he would take of this out.
wide steps when he wanted to walk quick- Al-Husayn said, “I asked my father [Ali],
ly. When he walked, it was as if he were
descending from a slope, and when he HE WOULD GESTURE WITH
would look at someone, he would turn to
him fully. He would lower his gaze and
look down more often than up. He didn’t WHEN ASTONISHED, HE WOULD
stare. He would lead his companions by
walking behind them out of modesty and
would always be the first to greet them.” UPWARDS. HE USED HIS HANDS
At this point, Al-Hasan said to Hind, FREQUENTLY AS HE SPOKE AND
“Describe to me the way he spoke.”
Hind said, “The Prophet of God, peace WOULD STRIKE HIS LEFT PALM

and blessings be upon him, was continual- WITH HIS RIGHT THUMB
ly full of concern. He was constantly deep
in thought. He had no rest and would not
speak without a reason. He would be silent may God be pleased with him, about how
for long periods of time. He would begin the Prophet of God, peace be upon him,
conversations and end them clearly and was at home.”
distinctly and would speak in a way that He [Ali] said, “He always asked permis-
combined many meanings in few words. sion to enter his home, from God and from
He spoke with excellence, and there was those within. When at home, he would
no excess in it or unnatural brevity. He was divide his time into three parts: one part
gentle by nature and not coarse, and he for God, one for his family, and one for seasons
was not contemptuous of anyone. He himself. Then, he would divide his own
would extol the favors he received even portion between himself and the people.
when they were few and small. He never His elite companions would mostly share
found fault with them. He never criticized this time with him, and they would convey
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the food or drink that was prepared for his words to the common people. He
him, nor did he overly praise it. No one would hold nothing back from them, nei-
would stand against his anger when mat- ther knowledge nor worldly things. It was
ters of the Lord’s truth were opposed until his way to prefer the people of excellence
he had triumphed, but he would never get according to their merit in religious mat-
angry for his own sake, nor would he ever ters. Among the people, there were those
seek to win such an argument. He would with a need, those with two needs, and
gesture with his whole palm, to point. those with many needs. He would work
When astonished, he would turn the face with them, and he would occupy them and
of his palm upwards. He used his hands the community in general with that which
frequently as he spoke and would strike would improve their situations. This he
his left palm with his right thumb. When would do by asking about them and their
he would get angry, he would turn away needs and by informing them what they 17
ought to do. He would say, ‘Let the one
usage in text ottoman arabic
who is present among you inform the one
who is absent, and bring to me the need of
usage in text ottoman arabic
he who is unable to tell me himself. Truly,
¤ilya/hilye on the Day of Judgment, God will make
firm the feet of one who informs someone
Hilye-i Saadet in authority of the need of someone who is
Hilye-i SherÏf
unable to convey his need himself.’ This
was the kind of topic mentioned in his
Hilye-i Nebevi presence, and he didn’t accept anything
else from anyone [that is, he didn’t like
¤ilyat al-Awliyy¥’
meaningless conversation and liked to talk
Ab‰ N‰¢aym about how to help people].”
Ali then said, according to the hadith of
Chahar Yar
Sufyan ibn Waki, “They will come as scouts
Ath-Tha¢labÏ [seeking decisions or knowledge], and
they will not go on their way until they find
Q¥dÏ ¢Iy¥d what they are seeking, and then they will
Sufy¥n Ibn WakÏ¢
leave as guides and learned people.”
I said [Husayn to his father Ali], “Tell
Ka¢b al-A^b¥r me about his going out and how he would
act outside.”
Molla ¢AlÏ al-Q¥ri
Ali said, “The Prophet of God, peace
Wa||¥f and blessings upon him, would hold his
tongue except in matters which concerned
Na¢thal his companions. He would encourage
Hil¥l affection and concord between them and
would say nothing to alienate one from
¢At¥’ bin Yas¥r another. He honored the nobles of every
people who would come to him and make
¢Abdull¥h ibn ¢Amr ibn al-¢As
them leaders. He would be wary around
Umm Ma¢bad some people and on his guard against
them [especially nomads], but he would
never withhold from anyone his
Bakkal Arif Efendi open-faced friendliness and fine personal-
ity. He would ask his companions about
Jevdet Mehmed Pasha their situations, and he would ask people
Mehmed Es’ad Yasari Efendi about what was going on amongst them.
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He would approve of that which was good

Ta|dÏq/tasdik and advocate it, and he would denounce
that which was base and discourage it.
“Everything he did was in moderation,
Hasan Celebi without excess or contrariness. He was not
unmindful out of fear that they [his com-
Sheikh Mustafe Bekir
panions] will become unmindful or weary.
Mehemed Shekvi Efendi He was prepared for every situation in this
world and the next. He didn’t fail to fulfill
Hasan Riza Efendi what was right and didn’t pass it [the job]
Ash-Sham¥’il Mu^ammadiya on to those near him. The most meritori-
ous and excellent people to him were
Hafiz Osman Efendi those whose advice was most universal; the
most significant of them to him were those
Kadiaker Mustafe Izzet Efendi
most beneficial to others and the most
helpful in helping others bear their bur-
18 dens.”
Then Al-Husayn said, “Then I asked mouth nor a repeater of obscenities. He
him [Ali] about his gatherings and about was not one to find faults in others, nor did
what he did in them.” he overly praise people. He feigned indif-
Ali responded, “The Prophet of God, ference to rude behavior, and none of the
peace be upon him, did not sit down or rude ones were made to despair of his
stand up without mentioning God, nor kindness. He allowed his soul no portion
did he reserve for himself fixed places of three things: hypocrisy, acquisitiveness,
among the people to be seated, and he for- and that which did not concern him. He
bade others also to reserve places for did not allow himself to engage in three
themselves [especially in mosques and things regarding people: he would not crit-
public gatherings]. When he would go to icize others; he would not revile anyone;
visit a group, he would sit in the nearest and he would not seek out others’ faults.
available spot, and he ordered that others He would speak of nothing unless he
follow this practice. He would give those hoped a reward from God for it. When he
seated near him his full share of attention would talk, the ones sitting with him would
in such a way that no one would think oth- be so still and quiet, you would imagine
ers had been given precedence over him. birds were sitting on their heads. When he
Whenever someone with whom he was sit- was silent, they would talk but not quarrel
ting would tell him of his needs, he would in his presence. When one of them would
bear with that person until that person left talk, they would all listen attentively until
him. When someone would ask him to he had finished. They would speak about a
solve a problem, he would not turn him subject that was brought up by the first
away without solving it for him, if possible, until they had finished with it. He would
or saying a comforting word or a prayer for laugh at what they laughed at, and he
its fulfillment. His cheerfulness and open would be amazed by what amazed them.
personality were felt by all the people, and He was patient with the stranger who had
he became like a father to them. They roughness in his speech. He would say,
came to have the right of mercy and com- ‘Whenever you see someone seeking to
passion from him, as they were close, like solve a problem, help him out.’ He did not
the relation of parent and child, distin- seek praise but expected to be spoken of
guished only by virtue and devotion to appropriately. He wouldn’t interrupt
God. And [in another narrative] they another’s speech unless it got excessive or
became equals regarding their rights in too long; then he would end it or get up to
his eyes. leave.”
“Assemblies with him were gatherings Here ends the hadith of Sufyan ibn
of gentleness, dignified conduct, mod- Waki. Through other narrators, Al-Hasan
esty, patience, and trust. No voice would continues in the words of his brother,
be raised, nor would women be spoken of Al-Husayn, “I said [to Ali], ‘What was the seasons
in a depraved way, nor would peoples’ silence of the Prophet of God, peace be
errors be mentioned.3 They inclined to upon him, like?’”
each other in affection out of devotion to He [Ali] said, “His silences were for four
God as humble people. In these gather- situations: forbearance, caution, estima-
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ings, the old were honored, and the young tion, and contemplation. As for his
were treated with gentleness. They would estimation, it was to take an impartial study
come to the aid of the needy and would of events and listening to the people in
have compassion for the stranger.” order to be just. As for his contemplation,
“And then I asked him [Ali] about how it was about what was eternal and what was
he, peace be upon him, conducted him- transitory. His forbearance was part of his
self among his close associates and patience: he was not angered by that which
servants.” was provocative. His caution was for four
He [Ali] said, “The Prophet of God, reasons: taking good speech or action into
peace be upon him, was unfailingly cheer- consideration, so he might use it in an
ful, easygoing by nature, and mild exemplary way; abjuring the ugly and bad,
mannered. He was neither crude nor so such would be left alone; exerting his
obstinate. He was not a clamorous loud- judgment to improve the situation of his 19
community; [and] establishing ways to a blessed environment, but a handmade levha
maintain the good order of his community (panel of calligraphy) was expensive. A beau-
in regard to this world and the next.”
tifully printed version made the hilye
The description is finished; thanks and
praise to God for His aid.
accessible to people of lesser means.

From the same work is a shorter, very The Hilye in Calligraphic Art
intriguing hilye text: The first hilyes to be produced as an art form
were, as far as we can tell, by the great
Hilal related to us, from Ata ibn Yasar. Ottoman calligrapher Hafiz Osman Efendi
He said, “I met Abdullah ibn Amr ibn Al-As,
(“the Second Sheikh,” 1644-98 ad). He took
and I said, ‘Tell me about the description of
the hilye text from Iman Tirmidhi’s Ash-
the Prophet of God, peace be upon him.’”
He said, “Yes, certainly. By God, he was Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya and composed it in
described in the Torah in some ways as in the configuration we now associate with the
the Qur’an: ‘O Prophet, we have sent you as hilye. At the top is the Besmele, a Turkish word
a witness, a bringer of referring to the text, “In
good tidings, and a warn-
the name of God, the
er and as a protector of
the weak. You are My ser- Merciful to His entire
vant and prophet. I have HE HAD TO DEAL WITH THE creation, the Merciful to
named you The One Who SOCIAL AND THEOLOGICAL His believers,” often pre-
Relies.’ fixed by the words, “It is
“He was not crude, nor IMPLICATIONS OF AN IDOLATRY
from Suleyman, and it is
was he coarse, nor was he PRACTICE, WHICH WAS FAR
one to shout and make a ….” In the center, gener-
MORE TERRIBLE IN ITS LUMPEN ally within a crescent
lot of noise in the market-
place. He did not answer BANALITY AND ITS HOME-MADE shape, is the main text,
an evil deed with another, surrounded by the names
but he would pardon and
of the Prophet’s four
forgive. He would not be FIRE-BELCHING BAALS AND
taken by God until he had main companions, the
straightened out the first four successors.
crooked people, until Under this is
they would confess there a Qur’anic ayet (verse).
was no divinity but God
Usually, this ayet is, “We
and open blind eyes and
did not send you
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deaf ears and closed hearts. O God, grant

mercy and peace to our master [Muhammad] except as a mercy to the uni-
Muhammad and his family.” verse,” or occasionally, it is, “Truly, you
[Muhammad] are of a tremendous nature.”
Other hilye texts exist, such as those related The remainder of the text follows, ending in
by Umm Ma’bad and Abu Hurayra. Both of supplications to the Prophet plus the calligra-
these have been calligraphed by Ottoman pher’s signature and date. Very rarely, the
artists in the 19th century. In 1897, the whole work is finished with a hadith qudsi (a
Ottoman calligrapher Bakkal Arif Efendi, a holy saying inspired by God but expressed in
refugee from Bulgaria, was commissioned by the words of the Prophet): “Were it not for
the Ottoman Printing House to write a large you, were it not for you, I would not have cre-
hilye in Turkish. Its text was composed by the ated the starry heavens.” 5
Ottoman statesman, poet, and author, Jevdet In the art of calligraphy, this form has been
Mehmet Pasha. Displaying a hilye in the home, very significant, most often written in Sulus
20 workplace, or mosque was believed to provide and Nesih scripts, both small and large ver-
sions. The work is also done in Nestalik script; The Significance of the Hilye
the first to do so was Mehmed Es’ad Yesari In the Hind hilye, Al-Hasan, grandson of the
Efendi (d. 1789 ad). Prophet, œ said, “I asked my uncle Hind, son
Largely ignored outside of Ottoman of Abu Hala, about the hilye of the Prophet of
Turkey, the hilye was a beloved and honored God so that I might hold fast to it.” I believe
work there. It is still an important part of the this is a clue to the hilye concept. Most
calligrapher’s repertoire. It is common for Muslims and historians of Islam know about
calligraphy students to compose a hilye when the Prophet œ and his life, which is an open
they are ready to receive the icazet (diploma). book. He is a daily presence and memory,
My case was typical. In 1988, my teacher, showing us, through his life and teachings,
Hasan Celebi, informed me that I was ready the way to the well-lived life and thus the way
to receive the icazet and told me to write the to God. Muslims love Muhammad œ and
text but not to sign it. When I finished the text commend him for always doing the right
and sent it to him, he wrote the icazet text thing, even at his own expense. They appreci-
under it. He then took the piece to another ate his directness and clarity, his courtliness
calligrapher, Sheikh Mustafa Bekir, who, and manliness, his warmth and bravery. They
after examining it, wrote to the left of the sympathize with his terrors during the first
icazet text the tasdik (confirmation of the revelations of the Qur’an and empathize with
icazet). The piece was then illuminated by the huge burden he had to bear. But they do
Hasan Celebi’s son, Mustafa, one of the most not and cannot adore6 him. Adoration is
prominent illuminators in Turkey. Finally, it reserved for the Creator alone.
was presented to me at a ceremony at the An interesting but questionable hadith,
headquarters of The Research Centre for Islamic which was thought to be genuine until recent-
History, Art, and Culture in Istanbul. ly, may shed some light on the significance of
There is nothing in the art of Islamic callig- the hilye. The Prophet œ said, “He who sees
raphy quite like illuminating a hilye. It is a my hilye after me, it is as if he had actually
challenging and daunting undertaking due seen me, and he who sees it out of love and
to the composition’s complex structure and desire for me, God will forbid the fire of Hell
layout. It requires careful planning to bring to touch him. He will be safe from the trials of
balance and harmony to the work as a whole the grave, and he will not be sent forth naked
and to avoid creating focal spots, which on the day of resurrection.” This hadith, what-
are not appropriate in classical Islamic callig- ever its status, refers, of course, not to the seasons
raphy. calligraphic composition of the hilye but to
Attempts have been made to produce hilyes the physical, moral, and spiritual description
in other forms and layouts. Sometimes, for of the Prophet œ.
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example, the hilye is executed in a small, fold- Reading, or even simply viewing, a
ing, portable format (an album) as was done well-produced hilye can refresh the heart and
by Mehmed Shevki Efendi (1827-87 ad). In mind. It gives us, so many generations later, a
addition, Kadiasker Mustafa Izzet (d. 1876 kind of intimacy with the Prophet œ as
ad) and Hasan Riza Efendi (d. 1920 ad) pro- though we had known him. To see him in this
duced magnificent large-format hilyes, some way is to allow him to show the way.
over four feet in height. Other departures In an authentic hadith, the Prophet œ
from the traditional format, however, were said, “He who has seen me in a dream has seen
garish or kitschy in design and have become the truth.” His presence must have been so
historical curiosities of little merit. striking that people saw right through him to
the prophetical truth he taught. After his 21
death, people wanted to remember him, and Baals and Molochs of Cecil B. DeMille – all in
these hilye texts must have been very helpful in 23 years.
retaining a “memory vignette” his compan- Muhammad œ was such a guide to spiritual
ions could pass to future generations. truth that his wife A’isha said of him, “His
Since the death of the Prophet œ, a sub- personality was the Qur’an.”
stantial literature developed devoted to the It is not part of the truth to be Arab, Afghan,
things he said and did (hadith) and, later, to Persian, Turk, or American. Religion is to seek
his life and times and the circumstances of his the truth and try to live by it. Muslims believe
prophecy (sirah). The hilyes fit into this frame- that Muhammad œ ushered in the adulthood
work as they answer the questions, “What was of humanity: Islam would be enough. It is the
he like? What kind of human being was he?” privilege of the calligrapher to honor this man
Hollywood has done prophets a consider- through art. Returning over and over to these
able injustice. They are depicted on screen as hilyes, these eyewitness accounts, one can savor
ranting, ill-clad madmen, flaky revolutionar- the wonder of the Prophet œ and the awesome
ies, or effete wise men. The hilyes offer a far mystery of the Creator.✺
different picture of a prophet – especially of
the one who declared he was the last prophet. notes
Images fixed in the imagination by countless 1
Safwat, Nabil F. The Art of the Pen: Calligraphy
Biblical epics, while often entertaining, do not of the 14th to 20th Centuries, volume 5 of the
prepare the mind for the depiction of an actu- Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art.
al prophet that we find in the hilye texts nor (London: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 47.
does the image (or non-image) portrayed in 2
Because the word has become known to
the movie The Message which characterizes the connoisseurs and historians of Islamic art prima-
Prophet Muhammad œ as a 1960’s-style social rily through calligraphic works composed by
revolutionary. Ottoman calligraphers, I prefer to use the more
In the hilyes, we find a man who was not easily pronounced Turkish version of the word,
physically remarkable yet was attractive to all “hilye,” rather than the Arabic “^ilya,” with its
who saw him – a man who stood out among hard ^. (Although the hilye occasionally appears
his peers. He was a man of humility but not in Persian art, it is nearly completely ignored in
humble; a man who was complex yet straight- other Islamic art traditions.)
forward. He made time for his family, his 3
This last item comes via different narrations.
friends, and his social responsibilities but left 4
See Isaiah 42:14 for a remarkable conflu-
| au t u m n – w i n t e r 2 0 0 3 - 4 | s e a s o n s

private time for himself and God. He loved the ence of meanings.
company of women, and he liked a good joke, In his book on popular hadiths, the 18th
but he didn’t laugh too much, nor was he century scholar Al-Ajluni says this one was found
quick to anger. He was neither a braggart nor to have been forged, yet in his opinion, it is
a ranter. He said what he meant and said it elo- sound in meaning even if not an authentic
quently, and there wasn’t an ounce of hadith.
hypocrisy in him. He was the Prophet of God, Editor’s note: Webster’s dictionary has three
the model for humankind, yet he did not definitions of “adore.” The author uses “adore”
boast of it. He made it abundantly clear that here to mean specifically “to worship or honor as
high ideals never justify bad behavior. He had a deity or as divine” as opposed to the other two
to deal with the social and theological implica- meanings, “to regard with loving admiration”
tions of an idolatry practice, which was far and “to be extremely fond of.” While we
more terrible in its lumpen banality and its do not worship the Prophet, we love him
22 home-made weirdness than the fire-belching immensely œ.