DIVINATION AND ART IN THE ISLAMIC WORLD

Body armour inscribed with Qur'anic verses
16th century body armour, known as chahar aine (literally 'four mirrors'), inscribed with Qur'anic verses to provide an additional layer of protection for the wearer.

Within Islamic societies, people of all backgrounds have engaged in fascinating yet controversial practices such as the casting of horoscopes and interpretation of omens. From humble hard stone amulets inscribed with pious invocations to elaborate talismanic shirts designed to be worn in battle, there is a wealth of material culture providing evidence for the use of practices calling for supernatural assistance and protection. This project seeks to examine the material evidence. It will take a new approach to the study of divinatory practices and their cultural significance, by placing objects at the centre of the discussion in order to provide fresh insights into the nature of these arts and their role in Islam's pre-modern cultural landscape.

Research aims

Combining the study of an extensive selection of material evidence with an examination of complementary textual sources, this project seeks to answer the following questions:

  • What type of visual and material evidence was produced by divinatory arts in the Islamic world in the pre-modern period between c.1200 and 1800 AD? How did objects form part of, and impact on, the use and effectiveness of these practices?
  • How does the surviving material evidence complement, support or challenge evidence from textural sources and what can we learn from this?
  • How did divinatory and talismanic practices fit into the Islamic worldview? Were they seen as entirely incompatible or were they sometimes incorporated and, if so, how and why did this happen?
  • How can the debates surrounding these practices and their performance help us to better understand Islam?

The project will investigate the extent to which divinatory arts have been embraced and condemned within Islam through the centuries. It will examine their relationship to the Islamic worldview and explore how these arts – including astrology, dream interpretation, bibliomancy and geomancy – could be reconciled, in some instances, with an Islamic perspective o the world. These practices have been marginalised over time and yet they are an important part of Islamic history. Through an examination of their role and influence, this project will seek to provide new insights that will inform current debates and contribute to a better understanding of Islam and its complexity.

Project funders

The Leverhulme Trust

Project team led by

Dr Francesca Leoni   Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Project team

Dr Farouk Yahya   Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Professor Pierre Lory    École pratique des hautes études, Paris
Professor Azfar Moin   University of Texas at Austin
Professor Dr Eva Orthmann    University of Bonn
Dr Venetia Porter   British Museum, London
Professor Emilie Savage-Smith   The Oriental Institute, University of Oxford
Dr Zeynep Yürekli-Görkay   Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford

Research Connections

This project has involved research into the following collections: 

Bodleian Libraries, Oxford
Khalili Collection, London
Keir Collection, Dallas
Sarikhani Collection, Oxford
Al Thani Collection, Qatar
Farjam Foundation, Dubai
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
Museum of the History of Science, Oxford
British Museum, London
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
National Museums of Scotland, Scotland
Cambridge University Library, Cambridge
British Library, London
Wellcome Library, London
Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

Project start

October 2015

Outputs

Yahya, F. Talk ‘Magic and Divination in Malay Illustrated Manuscripts’. 12th October 2017. Asia House, London.

Yahya, F. Session ‘The “Ketika Lima” (Five Times): A Form of Malay Divinatory Calendar’ at ‘Calendriers d’Europe et d’Asie’. 4th–6th October 2017. École nationale des chartes, Paris. 

Project Workshop ‘Islamic Relics’. 23rd September 2017. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. 

Leoni, F. Workshop ‘The Study of Relics and Relic Veneration in Islam: Challenges and Prospects’ at the ‘Islamic Relics’ Workshop. 23rd September 2017. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. 

Yahya, F. Workshop ‘The Seal of Prophethood in Southeast Asia’ at the ‘Islamic Relics’ Workshop. 23rd September 2017. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. 

Yahya, F. Talk ‘Malay Magic and Divination’. 29th July 2017. George Town Festival, Penang.

Yahya, F. Talk ‘Malay Magic and Divination Manuscripts: Royal Patronage and State Magicians’. 19th July 2017. Royal Museum, Kuala Lumpur.

Yahya, F. Talk ‘Kaligram “Singa Ali” di Asia Tenggara’. 18th July 2017. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi. 

Yahya, F. Talk ‘Malay Magic and Divination’. 16th July 2017. Ilham Gallery, Kuala Lumpur.

Leoni, F. Invited Lecture ‘Portents, Presages, and Predictions: Art and Divination in Early Modern Iran’. 14th June 2017. Iran Heritage Foundation, London. 

Leoni, F. Session 'Occultism and the Museum: The Case of Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural' at 'Curating Islamic Collections Worldwide'. 23rd–24th February 2017. Manchester Museum, University of Manchester. 

Leoni F. Session 'Dreams, Dice and Divination: Islamic Art and the Supernatural' at the Islamic Art Circle launch event. 31st January, 2017. University of York. 

Project Conference 'Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice'. 6th–8th January 2017. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Leoni, F. Session ‘Wasila/Wasita: A Turkish Talisman’ at the 'Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice' Conference. 6th–8th January 2017. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Yahya, F. Session ‘Calligrams of the Lion of ‘Ali in Southeast Asia’ at the 'Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice' Conference. 6th–8th January 2017. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Leoni, F. Seminar ‘Islamic Talismans and the Five Senses’. Ashmolean Research Seminar. 24th November 2016. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Exhibition ‘Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural'. 20th October 2016–15th January 2017. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Yahya, F. Session 'The Magic Square in Malay Manuscripts' at the Association for Southeast Asian Studies in the United Kingdom (ASEASUK) Conference. 16th–18th September 2016. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. 

Leoni, F. Headline lecture 'Islamic Art and the World of the Unseen' at Lapada Art & Antiques Fair. 16th September 2016. London. 

Yahya, F. Session 'Malay Paper Wheels with Strings Used for Divination' at the 'Manuscripts as Magical Agents' Workshop. 10th–11th July 2016. Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, University of Hamburg. 

Leoni, F. 'Science, Art, and Spirituality: A Roundtable'. 27th May 2016. Cornerstone Art Centre, Didcot. 

Leoni, F. Workshop 'The Enigma of an Ottoman Talisman'. 20th May 2016. University of Oxford. 

Project Workshop ‘Divination and Art in the Islamic World'. 15th January 2016. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. 

Yahya, F. Workshop ‘Diviners and Healers in Southeast Asia’ at the ‘Divination and Art in the Islamic World' Workshop. 15th January 2016. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. 

Publications

Leoni, F., Melvin-Khouski, M., Saif, L., and Yahya, F., eds (2019 forthcoming). ‘Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice: Proceedings of the Conference Held in Oxford, 6-8 January 2017’. Leiden, Brill.

Leoni, F. and Saif, L. (2019 forthcoming). “Introduction” in ‘Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice: Proceedings of the Conference Held in Oxford, 6-8 January 2017’. Leiden, Brill.

Leoni, F. (2019 forthcoming). “Wasila/Wasita: A Turkish Talisman” in ‘Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice: Proceedings of the Conference Held in Oxford, 6-8 January 2017’. Leiden, Brill.

Yahya, F. (2019 forthcoming). “Calligrams of the Lion of ‘Ali in Southeast Asia” in ‘Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice: Proceedings of the Conference Held in Oxford, 6-8 January 2017’. Leiden, Brill.

Leoni, F. (2018 forthcoming). ‘Supernatural or Not to Supernatural: Islamic Occultism and the Museum’. International Journal of Islamic Architecture; Special Issue: Installing Islamic Art: Interior Space and Temporal Imagination.

Yahya, F. (2018 forthcoming). ‘Malay Paper Wheels with Strings Used for Divination’. Manuscript Cultures.

Yahya, F. (2018 forthcoming). Divination and ‘Magic’ in Islamic Medicine' in exhibition catalogue on Islamic medical manuscripts. Kuala Lumpur, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

Yahya, F. (2017). 'The Wheel Diagram in the Malay Divinatory Technique of the Faal Qur’an'. Indonesia and the Malay World, 45 (132), pp. 200-25.

Leoni, F. with Lory, P. and Gruber, C. and Porter, V. and Yahya, F. (2016). 'Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural'. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum.

Leoni, F. (2016). “Sacred Words, Sacred Power: Qur’anic and Pious Phrases as Sources of Healing and Protection”, in Francesca Leoni (ed.), 'Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural'. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, pp. 53–67.

Yahya, F. (2016). “Jimat in Form of a Ship [cat.105]”, in Francesca Leoni (ed.), 'Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural'. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, pp. 36–7.

Leoni, F. (2016). 'The Power of Protection'. Hali 189: 94–7.