Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy. “Hilye” Mounted on a Wooden Panel


This hilye (calligraphic panel) containing a physical description of the Prophet Muhammad was made in 1130 AH (1718 AD) in the Saray Galata (Galata Palace), Istanbul by the calligrapher Dihya Salim al-Fahim, a pupil of Yusuf Efendi. He dated and signed his work in a now barely legible inscription executed in white ink on a gold ground in the lowermost rectangular register of the center panel. The hilye was a favorite composition of Ottoman artists and patrons, as it provided a calligraphic praise of the Prophet Muhammad easily hung in private homes, theological schools, and elsewhere. Also known as hilye-i serif (noble description), hilye-i saadet (description of felicity), and hilye-i nebevi (the prophetic description), such non-figurative “portraits” of Muhammad were widespread and appreciated, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries. As in this example, the typical layout of the hilye includes a bas makam (top panel; literally, top space or heading) that typically contains the bismillah (in the name of God); a gobek (central circle; literally, belly) that provides the physical description of the Prophet Muhammad; as well as the names of the first four caliphs (the rightly guided ones) in the corners of the hilye panel. Below the central circle is a horizontal panel usually containing a verse from the Qur'an (here it is 21:107). At the very bottom appears an etek (rectangular panel; literally, skirt) that continues the hilye text, followed by the calligrapher's name and date of execution. The bold lettering in the top and central bands of the hilye and the names of the caliphs are written in thuluth script; the rest of the lettering is in naskh. This particular hilye stands out, as it is mounted on a wooden board and provided with side panels that fold in, much like a Christian triptych. Perhaps drawing inspiration from practices of icon making in Christian Constantinople (Istanbul), hilyes such as this one transformed a pictorial portrait of a saint into a calligraphic description of the Prophet Muhammad. There are other 18th-century hilyes pasted onto wooden panels as well. The two side panels include checkerboards that list al-asma' al-husna (the 99 beautiful names of God). Other hilyes, such as one composed by the famous calligrapher Hafiz Osman dated 1110 AH (1698 AD), also contain God's names, as well as alqab (the epithets) of the Prophet Muhammad. Much like the verbal description of Muhammad in the central panel, the names of God on the side panels are intended to represent wahdat-al-wujud (the unity of his being) in a verbal, non-pictorial manner.

Last updated: February 6, 2018