James Bennett shares a major landmark addition to the Islamic art collection

A remarkable garment recently gifted to the collection by 
Max Carter, AO, is Talismanic shirt, currently on display in the exhibition No god but God: The art of Islam. This cotton textile, which is testimony to the fervour of religious devotion as a source of inspiration for Muslim artists, dates from the late Ottoman period in Turkey. Elaborately painted with scriptural texts in a variety of calligraphic styles, including thuluth, kufic and naskh, the garment also features talismanic diagrams on both its front and back.

An initial inspection of the black, red and gold inscriptions revealed that the texts include customary invocations, such as the Bismallah – ‘In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate’ – prayers and Quranic verses. The most prominent inscriptions on the front of the garment are the word ‘Allah’ framed in large medallions, as well as His Ninety-Nine Names, written in gold in red, blue and green circles
 with gilt highlights. The word ‘Allah’, which may be translated as ‘The God’, has profound significance in Islam due to the monotheistic and aniconic nature of the religion, which forbids figurative depiction of the Divine. The power of His name is such that the great mystic poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207–1273) wrote:

Someone who pronounces His name,
his bones don’t decay in the grave.

Talismanic garments inscribed with Qur’anic texts and geometric diagrams have a long history in Islam. Believers regard the Arabic script, even when too stylised or too small to be meaningfully read, as possessing unique apotropaic powers. Being the language of the Divine Revelation, it protects against evil or misfortune. Indeed, the Qur’an is said to be untranslatable into any other language, since God’s message was delivered in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad (571–632 CE) through the angel Jibril (Gabriel). Such is the potency of the script that Muslim tradition has long attributed magical power to each individual letter of the Arabic alphabet and its associated sound.

Geometric configurations also form an important visual element on Talismanic shirt. Islam’s fascination with geometry derives from early Greek mathematics and a belief in the supernatural potency of numbers. Several of the Shirt’s linear diagrams are in the form of the ‘endless knot’ motif, itself related to beliefs in talismanic protection. The ancient practice of making magical knots is documented in the Qur’an, with its reference to the black arts of ‘those who blow on knots’ (113:4).

This style of shirt was worn as part of Sufi mystical practices during the period of the Ottoman Empire (c.1299–1922 CE), as well as in a variety of other situations, for example, during war or illness. Talismanic shirt may be seen as the visual representation of certain Sufi devotional practices popular among Ottoman and other Muslims, such as the extended repetition (dhikr) of the Ninety-Nine Names. Further research on the complex textual composition of the shirt’s design may assist in identifying the particular Turkish Sufi order for which Talismanic shirt was made, perhaps Yasawiyya.

Talismanic shirt is a major landmark addition in the development of the Gallery’s collection of Islamic art and the only such garment in an Australian public collection. It is an eloquent example of the belief invested in the magical power of the Arabic text in the Qur’an and the prophylactic role of scripture in Islam.

James is Curator of Asian Art at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 37.