Arts & Culture

Prophet Muhammad in Calligraphy


The Arabic script was not greatly developed in the pre-Islamic era; it was not used much at this time because the Arabs usually committed things to memory. For this reason, the development of the Arabic script started with the advent Islam, when the Quran began to be revealed, and with Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) asking his scribes to register everything they heard from him. Thus, the Arabic script evolved and became improved over time, leading to the creation of one of the most original Islamic arts, Islamic calligraphy(1). For centuries Muslims have been decorating their mosques and other places with beautiful calligraphic works that describe Prophet Muhammad's personality or useful advice on different topics.

Prophet Muhammad first appeared in calligraphy through the hadith (sayings of the Prophet) books that were in manuscript form; in the early phases of the development of Islamic calligraphy these works discussed the acts of his sunnah (practices of the Prophet). They were then followed by manuscripts, known as the shamail, which described his physical characteristics and his personality. Moreover, calligraphers also produced many collections of forty hadiths; such collections were made based on the famous hadith that promised a reward on the Day of Judgment for those who memorized forty hadiths from the Prophet. In addition to these, there were calligraphic booklets that contained prayers and blessings for Prophet Muhammad. Another kind of classic calligraphic work consisted of manuscripts of his biography; the quality of the calligraphy, as well as the gilding and binding are excellent examples to this day of the art of calligraphy, and many can be found in different museums and libraries all over the world.

In addition to books, there are some albums that contain hadiths of Prophet Muhammad which have been written, individually or in groups, in different calligraphic styles, on special pages known as qit'as

Furthermore, sayings that contain the advice of Prophet Muhammad on different topics, written on plates or plaques, and those that contain a description of his physical and personal characteristics, known as hilya, have been part of Islamic calligraphy, particularly since the 18th century. Moreover, there are plaques on which his names and sayings can be found as well as the same being inscribed on the walls of mosques, temples, and dervish lodges in calligraphic forms.

The Hadith and Shamail Books

The subject matter of the hadith and shamail books is the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his sunnah. While most of them are not written as calligraphic or artistic works, there are many of them that have been written by expert calligraphers, and therefore have an artistic value. For example, these works include, among others, the eight-volume Sahih al-Bukhari (TSMK, Hirka-i saadet, no. 39) written by the calligrapher Hasan Riza Efendi on the directives of Sultan Mehmed Resad for the purpose of being read in the Sultan's Hirka-i Saadet Office, the Gayetu't- tavzih li'l- Cami'i's -sahih (TSMK, III. Ahmed, no. 384), written by the royal calligrapher Abdullah Vefai in a beautiful nesih style, and the famous calligrapher Muhsinzade Abdullah Efendi's Sifa-i Serif, written on the directives of Sultan Abdulhamid II, Sheikh Hamdullah's Mesabihu's-sunne (TSMK, III. Ahmed no. 278) and Mesariku'l-envari'l- nebeviyye (Suleymaniye library, Ayasofya, no. 898).

On the other hand, the famous hadith that promises a reward on the Day of Judgment for those who memorize forty hadiths from Prophet Muhammad has led, since the very beginning of Islam, to the edition of collections of forty hadiths in both prose and verse forms. Among these, we can cite the Kitabu Nefahati'l-‘abiri's -sari (TSMK, III. Ahmed, no. 567), and Mevahibu' l-aziziyye (TSMK, Medine, no. 321) both written by Hasan Uskudari, a royal calligrapher and one of the best-known artists of his time.

Another kind of calligraphic works that has received great attention from Muslims are the shamail books, whose subject matter is the life-style of Prophet Muhammad and his behavior; these have been accepted as the best example for Muslims. Some of these include, among others, Serh-i Semail-i Tırmidhi (commentary on the shamail of Tirmidhi) (TSMK III. Ahmed, no. 458) and selected couplets from the Hilye-i Hakanî written in the taliq style, which were collected as albums, by such leading figures of Turkish calligraphic tradition - that is, the main tradition in Islamic calligraphy - as Mehmed Esad Yesari, Yesdarizade Mustafa Izzet, Omer Vasfi and Aziz Efendi.(2) To these should also be added the calligraphic booklets that contain prayers and blessings for Prophet Muhammad; the calligraphic quality, as well as the gilding and bindings of these shine out as beautiful examples of calligraphy. These can be found in different museums and libraries all over the world. 

Qit’a and Muraqqa (Calligraphic Sheets and Albums)

The calligraphic works written on a normal, book-size sheets in one or several different styles are known as qit'a, and the albums consisting of these sheets which are folded and attached to each other are called muraqqa. Qit'as usually have two styles: either sulus-nasih, muhaqqaq-rayhani or tawqi-riq'a. Those that are composed with a single style are mostly in the ta'liq qit'a style.

In this kind of calligraphic works, the texts that are written most frequently are hadiths of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Although they are usually smaller in dimension, they contain some of the best works of the most famous masters of calligraphy. Among the best known of these works are the muraqqas of the famous calligrapher Sheikh Hamdullah, written in six different styles, which also have come to be classic examples that were followed by subsequent calligraphers.

This category of calligraphic works also includes the kaside (eulogies) written as an expression of love, loyalty and praise for Prophet Muhammad. Such classics as Busiri's Kasidetu'l -Burde and Ka'b ibn Zuheyr's Banet Su'ad that praise Prophet Muhammad were then written in sulus and nasih styles by important Turkish calligraphers like Hafiz Osman and Sevki Efendi. In addition, selected couplets from Hakani Mehmed Bey's Hilye-i Hakani were written in the taliq style by leading figures in Ottoman calligraphy, including Mehmed Es'ad Yesari, and his son Yesarizade Mustafa Izzet, as well as Omer Vasfi and Aziz Efendi, who also collected them in albums. Also, the Asere-i Mucizat-i Nebi, narrated by Bukhari was later composed as plaques and albums by several master calligraphers, such as Mehmed Sevki Efendi. 


Plaques and plates are works of art that contain verses from the Quran, the hadiths of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and couplets by poets written in Arabic, Persian and Turkish that praise Prophet Muhammad. They can be intended for use in houses or offices - these tend to be small in size - or they can be intended specifically for use in mosques with larger characters and in different styles, including jali sulus, jali taliq, and jali divani.

These plaques sometimes contain only words of praise for Prophet Muhammad, but they mostly include short verses and hadiths that function as aphorisms. Many of the plaques written in the jali style are written with gold, instead of ink; the latter is known as the zarandud style. The best examples of these works were given by a master calligrapher called Sami Efendi, who was an expert in the jali style. These works contain verses that talk about Prophet Muhammad, his own aphorismic sayings, the "Kalima al- Tawheed", the "Kalima al- Shahada", the words "Allah" and "Muhammad", names of Prophet Muhammad, and the names of the members of his family (Ahl al-Bayt), as well as literary texts that contain expressions of love, loyalty and praise for him.

The Hilya Sharifs (Calligraphics works describing the Prophet’s physical characteristics and moral attributes)

In the Islamic faith, idols and all kinds of artifacts that resemble human beings, including anthropomorphic paintings and sculptures, are forbidden. For this reason, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), with a few exceptions, has never been depicted or portrayed. Rather he has lived in the imaginations of his followers, the Islamic ummah (community), within the framework of his verbal and written descriptions of those who saw him. Throughout history, Muslims have looked to the written depictions of Prophet Muhammad as an expression of love and respect for him, knowing also that to be acquainted with his physical characteristics and his moral attributes as described in the hadith and shamail books, and to carry these books with them is useful for them in terms of their spiritual and moral improvement. For this reason, books that contain descriptions of Prophet Muhammad were first written by calligraphers in the nasih style so that Muslims could carry them on their persons. Later, these descriptions were composed on plaques and plates for the first time by the leading calligrapher Hafiz Osman (d. 1110/1698) in the 17th century.(3)

The word hilya, which literally means "ornament, decoration, and positive attributes", (4) is technically defined in the literature as those works that describe the physical attributes of Prophet Muhammad, as well as his personality, his attitudes towards others and his behavior. (5) The significance of the hilya sharif is that they express the love felt for Prophet Muhammad by his followers. While many calligraphers have tried different styles in transposing the descriptions of Prophet Muhammad onto plates or plaques, the style that was started by the above-mentioned Turkish calligrapher Hafiz Osman has been the most widely used one in the Muslim world. The Hafiz Osman type consists of several sections: The first part includes the "basmalah" (the opening sentence of the chapters of the Quran: "In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful") in the sulus or muhaqqaq styles. The middle of the plate consists of the text of the hilya written in a circular form in the nasih style, and surrounding this circle, there is a crescent-shaped ornamentation. Thus, the middle part of the hilya looks like the sun and the moon coming together, which symbolizes the fact that Prophet Muhammad is likened to both the sun and the moon, for he illuminates this world with the light ("noor") that emanates from him. In addition, the fourth, frame-shaped rectangular part that surrounds the circle in the middle usually contains the names of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (the first four caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali); sometimes it includes the names of Prophet Muhammad, including the names Ahmad, Mahmud, Haamid, and Hameed. The gaps in this frame are filled with gilded decorations. Underneath this rectangular frame there is usually a verse from the Quran about Prophet Muhammad -the most widely inscribed verse is the one that reads, in approximate translation, as: "We sent thee not but as a Mercy for all creatures" (Al -Anbiya, 21/107). Sometimes one of the following two verses is found: "And thou [standest] on an exalted standard of character" (Al-Qalam, 68/4) or "...and enough is Allah for a Witness [that] Muhammad [pbuh] is the apostle of Allah" (Al-Fath, 48/28-29). And sometimes this part is decorated by the Qalima al- Tawhid. Finally, the bottom part of the calligraphic work consists of three sections: the continuation of the hilya with the signature of the calligrapher in the middle, and decorative sections on two sides. In addition, due to the fact that the scent of Prophet Muhammad's skin is usually compared to a rose, the latter flower is often found as a motif in the hilya decorations.(6)

Calligraphic Decorations in Mosques

It is customary among Muslims to decorate and ornament the walls of mosques with calligraphic decorations, which include the names Allah, Muhammad, and those of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and the two grandchildren of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Hassan and Hussein. These are written in large letters on the walls of mosques or on plaques located on the top portion of the walls where the people attending the prayers can see them. Although in some historic mosques, especially in Central Asia, these names are written in different compositions with the kufi style, in most mosques they are written with either the jali sulus or jali taliq styles. In addition to these names, such phrases as the Kalima al- Tawhid and the Kalima al- Shahada, as well as some hadiths of Prophet Muhammad (depending on the nature of the particular place) can also be found among the calligraphic works on the walls of mosques in the Muslim world.

The name of Prophet Muhammad is usually written (or painted) in mosques either above the mihrab (the niche) or at the intersection of the square plan of the mosque and the dome. It is usually composed within a pentagonal star form, which also resembles an opened rose. For centuries his name has been a true work of art in itself, and was composed and decorated by the masters of Ottoman calligraphy who displayed with it all the talent and esthetic taste they had. The true esthetic criteria for the word "Muhammad" were fully established with a special style found in the work of Mustafa Rakim, and the best examples were provided by such masters of calligraphy as Kazasker Mustafa Izzet, Mehmed Sefik, and Sami Efendi. In addition to being found on walls or plaques, the name Muhammad has also been written, together with Allah, on the ornamented or stained glass of mosques, usually above the mihrab; here it functions as a colorful decoration. Such glass decorations can be found, most notably, in the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

1) For a detailed discussion, see Hat sanati: Islam kultur mirasinda (Calligraphy in Islamic Cultural Heritage), ed. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu ; ed. by M. Ugur Derman, Nihat M. Cetin, Istanbul 1992; Muhittin Serin, Hat Sanati ve Meshur Hattatlar (Art of Calligraphy and Famous Calligraphers), Istanbul 1999, pp. 41-63.

2) Muhittin Serin, “Muhammed”, DIA, XXX, Istanbul 2006, 462.

3) Ugur Derman, "Yazı sanatimizda Hilye-i Saadet" (Hilya-i Saadet in Our Calligraphy), Ilgi, no. 28, p. 33; Ugur Derman,  "Hilye", DIA, 48. Faruk Taskale-Huseyin Gunduz, Hilye-i Serif, Istanbul 2006.

4) Semseddin Sami, Kamus-i Turki, p.558

5) Muhittin Serin, Hat Sanatı ve Meshur Hattatlar (Art of Calligraphy and Famous Calligraphers), Istanbul 1999, 117; Ali Alparslan, Osmanli Hat Sanati Tarihi (The History of Ottoman Calligraphy), Istanbul 1999, 203.

6) Ugur Derman, "Yazi sanatimizda Hilye-i Saadet" (Hilya-i Saadet in Our Calligraphy), Ilgi, no. 28, p. 33; Idem, "Hilye", DIA, 48. Faruk Taskale-Huseyin Gunduz, Hilye-i Serif, Istanbul 2006; Muhittin Serin, Hat Sanati ve Meshur Hattatlar (Art of Calligraphy and Famous Calligraphers), Istanbul 1999, 117; Ali Alparslan, Osmanli Hat Sanati Tarihi (History of Ottoman Calligraphy), Istanbul 1999, p.  203.

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