Sufism and the Aesthetics of Penmanship in Siraj Al-Shirazi's Tuhfat Al-Muhibbin (1454)
Ernst, Carl W., The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Arabic calligraphy has exerted its enchantment over many generations of writers and readers alike. Despite the existence of numerous treatises in Arabic and Persian on the techniques of penmanship, hearkening back to the methods developed by the great calligraphers of the Abbasid era such as Ibn Muqla (d. 940) and Yaqut (d. ca. 1297), few authors have attempted to explain the aesthetic and spiritual bases of the art of the pen. (1) A master calligrapher from Shiraz, Siraj al-Shirazi, composed one such work under the title Tuhfat al-muhibbin ("The Bounty of the Lovers") in the Deccan kingdom of Bidar in 1454. (2) Although this work has not attracted much scholarly attention, it is a rich source for the early history and understanding of the cultural significance of the Arabic script. (3) In this work the author reveals the intimate relationship of his art to Sufism, as expounded by his teacher, a calligrapher descended from the famous Persian Sufi, Ruzbihan al-Baqli (d. 1209). Here I would like briefly to describe the contents of this guide to the art of penmanship and analyze the extent to which Sufi teachings play a role in the aesthetics of this calligrapher, that is, the form of artistic judgment and interpretation that he brings to the understanding of the art of the Arabic script.
The author of this treatise gives his complete name as Abu l-Dai Yaqub ibn Hasan ibn Shaykh, known as Siraj al-Hasani al-Shirazi; for convenience, I refer to him as Siraj. Unfortunately we do not have any detailed information about him from any other source than his own writing, The Bounty of the Lovers. There he states that this text was composed in 858/ 1454 in Muhammadabad (better known as Bidar), capital of the Indian kingdom of the Bahmani sultanate, where he had traveled from his homeland in Shiraz. The text itself was dedicated not to any reigning monarch, but to his Sufi teacher in India, Amir-zada Muhibb Allah, son of Khalil Allah and grandson of the well-known Persian Sufi master Shah Nimat Allah Wali. Moreover, he informs us that the title of his treatise was adopted from an identically named work by the famous Sufi of Shiraz, Shaykh Ruzbihan al-Baqli. (4) Siraj's master in the art of calligraphy, whom he mentions frequently (thirteen times in the text), was Sadr al-Din Ruzbihan Shirazi, a descendant of the Sufi master. Siraj refers to his teacher with utmost reverence, calling him "the seal of the calligraphers" (khatam al-khattatin). (5)
To judge from what we know about the family of Ruzbihan in Shiraz, Siraj's master in calligraphy was probably a fifth-generation descendant. Ruzbihan's great-grandson Sharaf al-Din Ibrahim ibn Sadr al-Din "Ruzbihan al-Thani" (i.e., Ruzbihan II, active in 700/1300) had a son named Sadr al-Din bin Sharaf al-Din Ibrahim "Ruzbihan al-Thalith" (Ruzbihan III), but the time interval is too long to make it possible for the latter to have been the teacher of Siraj, who must have been educated at the latest by the beginning of the fifteenth century. Therefore it seems likely that it was one generation later (at least) that the calligrapher Sadr al-Din Ruzbihan appeared, who would thus have been Ruzbihan IV, or conceivably, a generation later, Ruzbihan V (see Chart 1). (6)
Chart 1. The Descendants of Ruzbihan al-Baqli
1. Ruzbihan al-Baqli al-Shirazi (1128-1209)
2. Fakhr al-Din Ahmad ibn Ruzbihan (ca. 1174-1247)
3. Sadr al-Din Ibrahim ibn Fakhr al-Din Ahmad Ruzbihan II (1218-1286)
4. Sharaf al-Din Ibrahim ibn Sadr al-Din (ca. 1300)
5. Sadr al-Din ibn Sharaf al-Din Ibrahim Ruzbihan III
6. Sadr al-Din Ruzbihan al-Shirazi [IV? ca. 1400]
The vocabulary and style of Yaqub ibn Hasan's text frequently show strong resemblances to the writings of Ruzbihan, so there is no question about the affiliation of this calligraphic work with the mystical school of Shiraz.
Yet Siraj also makes clear that after his arrival in India he formed new attachments with a different Sufi lineage, the Nimatullahi order, established by Shah Nimat Allah Wali (1330-1430). When the Bahmani sultan Ahmad Shah Wali (r. 1422-1436) acceded to the throne, one of his early gestures was to send a delegation to Kerman to invite Shah Nimat Allah to come to the Deccan to establish his spiritual influence there. While the shaykh (who would have been over ninety years old at this time) declined this invitation, he did send a disciple to initiate the sultan into the order; Ahmad Shah, not satisfied, entrusted another delegation with a second invitation to the shaykh, who this time agreed to send his grandson Nur Allah (d. 1430) in his place. The latter was graciously received and married into the royal family. Then Shah Nimat Allah, just prior to his death, appointed his son Khalil Allah (1373-1455) as his successor. After a brief sojourn in Herat at the invitation of Shahrukh, Khalil Allah made his way to the Deccan, probably arriving in Bidar by 1436, along with his two sons; the elder of these, Shah Muhibb al-Din (1427-1502), succeeded him as head of the Nimatullahis in India. (7) Both of Khalil Allah's sons followed Nur Allah's example by marrying into the Bahmani royal family. Siraj pays tribute (pp. 51-52) to both Muhibb al-Din and his father Khalil Allah as his new spiritual guides in the Indian environment, and it is striking that he makes no reference to the ruling sultan, Ala al-Din Ahmad II (r. 1436-1458).
Aside from these declarations of Sufi discipleship, Siraj offers little by way of historical information about his times. Siraj is said to have copied (presumably in Shiraz) a manuscript of the Zafar-nama of Sharaf al-Din Yazdi (d. 1454), a Persian biography of Timur, in a manuscript dated 1437. (8) The only other near-contemporary figure that he mentions is Ibrahim ibn Shahrukh (1394-1435), a Timurid prince known for his patronage of art and architecture; Siraj mentions him as both a connoisseur and practitioner of calligraphy, as well as being the sponsor of numerous building projects in Shiraz, including a mosque known as the Dar al-Safa-yi Sultani. From the Timurid author Qadi Ahmad we know that this building was one of several in Shiraz (including the tomb of the poet Sadi) that featured the prince's own calligraphy; unfortunately, a rebellious governor destroyed Ibrahim's mosques at the end of the sixteenth century. (9) Siraj also remarks that Ibrahim's court was adorned by a calligrapher such as his own teacher, Sadr al-Din Ruzbihan. (10) His familiarity with a Timurid prince deceased two decades before the composition of his treatise, together with the dating of his Zafar-nama manuscript, suggests that Siraj may have been in his youth when Ibrahim was active in Shiraz (1415-1435); thus the Tuhfat al-muhibbin would have been the product of his maturity, though the chronology must admittedly remain speculative at this point. (11)
Siraj was an example of the extraordinary movement of talent from Iran to India that formed a dominant cultural trend from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. Particularly in the Deccan at an early stage, but later …
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Publication information: Article title: Sufism and the Aesthetics of Penmanship in Siraj Al-Shirazi's Tuhfat Al-Muhibbin (1454). Contributors: Ernst, Carl W. - Author. Journal title: The Journal of the American Oriental Society. Volume: 129. Issue: 3 Publication date: July-September 2009. Page number: 431+. © 1999 American Oriental Society. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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