Fatimid decorative art reflected their doctrines

Works of art have made up the visual landscape of  Islamic societies for fourteen centuries. Decorations on religious buildings and artwork, particularly those associated with the Shi’i interpretation of Islam, often reflected doctrinal affiliations.

Mosque of al-Hakim (Image: Archnet)
Mosque of al-Hakim (Image: Archnet)

The Fatimid dynasty developed a distinctive visual language, prominently displaying their doctrines. The role and significance of the Fatimid Imams were reflected in their architecture and artistic products. The Mosque of Caliph-Imam al-Hakim (built between 990 and 1013) had an inscription on the minaret containing the verse 11:73 from the Qur’an, which included the words ‘Ahl al-Bayt,’ literally ‘the people of the house,’ meaning the family of the Prophet.

Facade of Aqmar Mosque (Image: Jonathan M. Bloom)
Facade of Aqmar Mosque (Image: Jonathan M. Bloom)

The Mosque of al-Aqmar (built in 1125) whose facade is considered “the most beautiful of Fatimid stonework to survive,”* richly articulates the doctrines of Ismailism. Its central doorway has an elaborate medallion containing intertwining names of Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali surrounded by the Qur’an 33:33, which refers to the Ahl al-Bayt as well as the Ahl al-Kisa (‘People of the Cloak’) namely, the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, Hazrat Ali and their sons al-Hasan and al-Husayn.** Many of the motifs and the techniques of carving the stone can be traced to the decoration of the nearby Mosque of al-Hakim.

Gold quarter dinar of Imam al-Mustansir minted in Sicily 1064-65. On the front the centre field consist of the kalima, and the marginal inscription is of Quran 9:33. On the back the centre beras the name of the Imam, and the marginal inscription includes that mint name and dat. (IMage:The Ismailis An Illustrated History)
Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History

The design of Fatimid coins also articulated the centrality of the Imam. The Fatimid capital al-Mansuriyya, in Tunisia, founded in 948, was circular with the palace of Imam al-Mansur (r. 946-953) in the centre. Coins with concentric circles, minted with the names of the Caliph-Imams, continued to be used throughout the Fatimid period. At right is a gold quarter dinar of Imam al-Mustansir minted in Sicily 1064-1065.  On the front, the centre field consist of the kalima, and the marginal inscription is of Qur’an 9:33. On the back, the centre field bears the name and title of the Imam, and the marginal inscription provides the mint name and date.**

A recurring theme articulated in Fatimid art is the doctrine of nass, “the explicit designation of an [Imam] by his predecessor through special religious knowledge and divine guidance, which is believed to have been first invested by the Prophet in Ali.”**

This knowledge is symbolized as light, and pervades the decorative motifs such as on the mosque of al-Aqmar. The niche on the top left of the façade is decorated with a mosque lamp hanging in an arch. In the the space between the shoulders of adjoining arches and the ceiling are inscribed the name ‘Muhammad’ and the words ‘and Ali.’ The combination of the images refers to the Quran 24:35:

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp, the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star.’

The Light of God was equated with the Prophet and coupled with Ali. Allan suggests that the light symbolism is “perhaps in reference to a hadith of the Prophet: The stars are a pledge to the world that it will not be drowned, and my family are a pledge to the community that it will not go astray.”**

References:
*Jonathan Bloom, Arts of the City Victorious, Yale University Press in association with The Institute of Ismailis Studies, 2007.
**James W. Allan, “Islamic Art and Doctrinal Pluralism,” Diversity and Pluralism in Islam Edited by Zulfikar Hirji, I.B. Taurus Publishers in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2010
Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2008

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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