Sufism and the Aesthetics of Penmanship in Siraj Al-Shirazi's Tuhfat Al-Muhibbin (1454)

By Ernst, Carl W. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, July-September 2009 | Go to article overview

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). …

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