The Hilye of the Prophet Muhammad

The Hilye of the Prophet Muhammad

by Hattat Mohamed Zakariya


“Calligraphy presents the thought as the source of the image, not the image as the source of the thought.”—Nabil F. Safwat

How does one describe the indescribable? How does one form an image of that which cannot be portrayed? That is what the hilye does—it gives parameters to the imagination so that one can think about the Prophet with a mental or spiritual image to hang onto, yet not attempt to visualize him or portray him in a painting. But the hilye is not an icon in words. As impressive and accurate as the manyhilye texts are, they still remain vague, contrary to the claims of literalists, who would reject these texts as being visual portraits. That, of course, would not be acceptable to Muslims.

Hilye is the Turkish form of the Arabic word hilya, which has several meanings, including physiognomy, natural disposition, likeness, depiction, characterization, and description. But these dictionary definitions only begin to convey the real meaning of the hilye, which embodies the Prophet’s moral, behavioral, and spiritual qualities as well as physical appearance. Like most Arabic words, hilya carries multiple overtones, making it difficult to translate. It has connotations of ornament, beauty, finery, and embellishment. I like to think of a hilya as a beautiful and significant description.

The Hilye in History

Arabic source literature includes hilye texts describing many important figures. Most prominent of these are the hilyes of the Prophet Muhammad and of his four companions—the chahar yar, or four friends, the first four caliphs and successors of the Prophet, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Interestingly, we also have hilyes for some of the pre-Quranic Biblical prophets. In one of the great works on hilyes,Qasas al-Anbiya, by Tha’labi (d. 1035 AD), we find hilyes for Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, John the Baptist, and Jesus. These are related by the enigmatic figure Ka’b al-Ahbar. A learned Muslim of Jewish, possibly rabbinic, origin and a specialist in Biblical lore, K’ab al-Ahbar was a friend and confidant of Umar and the Prophet’s wife, Aisha.

Oral literature was possibly the highest calling of the ancient Arabs, and long before the hilye was used in calligraphy, it was spoken. What first impresses the reader—or listener—about these texts is their compactness, their terseness. They say as much as possible in a few well-chosen words, some of which are profoundly obscure. In my translations of the texts, for example, I consulted both the commentary of Molla Ali Al-Qari, a Hanafi religious scholar of the early 17th century AD, and the Lisan al-Arab, a lexicon that includes many of the words used in the hilyes. Yet some areas remain ambiguous or open to interpretation.

The wording of hilyes is carefully composed, with the care one would expect from a keen observer of people, one gifted with a finely honed skill in language. In his narration of the hilye, for example, Hind is mentioned as a wassaf, or one who describes. One can hypothesize that Hind had a special gift for this kind of literature, just as some may have a special gift for poetry. Few writers could match these gems of conciseness and beauty, composed as they were with wit, poignancy, intimacy, and rhetorical flourish. These artful descriptions make vivid impressions on the listener or reader. They are quite memorable and played an important part in recalling beloved and respected figures.

Hilyes have some general features in common. They begin with a succinct description of the subject’s physical characteristics, including height, build, complexion, eyes, hair, hands, and gait, then move to the subject’s individual and moral characteristics. Consider, for example, the hilye of Soloman (the prophet Sulayman, in Islamic terms), as told by K’ab al-Ahbar:

Sulayman was of pale complexion; his body was large, very clean and beautiful. He was humble and unpretentious and liked to associate with the poor and would keep company with them. He would say, “The poor must sit with the poor.” During his father Dawud’s reign, his father would consult him because of his advanced intellect and knowledge, which was remarkable considering his young age.

Or take this hilye of Uthman, the third caliph:

Uthman, may God be pleased with him, was of medium stature. He wasn’t short or tall. He had a beautiful face. He was fleshy and had fine skin. He had a thick beard. His head and beard hair were abundant. Because of this, his opponents called him Na’sal [after an Egyptian in Medina with a long beard]. His complexion was swarthy, and he was big boned. He was the beloved friend of the beloved friend [Muhammad] of the All-Merciful God. He collected the Quran [and published it]. He was full of modesty and faith. He died a martyr while reading the Quran.

Another interesting occurrence of the word hilye is in the title of the famous biographical work in ArabicHilyat al-Awliya, by Abu Nu’aym (d. 1038 AD), which can be translated as “Description (or Depiction) of the Saintly People.” This is an excellent source of information about the early religious figures of Islam and contains much material from their own lips, including, fascinatingly, Ka’b al-Ahbar himself in a long entry.

The Hilyes of the Prophet

The most famous hilye texts, of course, are those that characterize the Prophet Muhammad. In Turkish they are called Hilye-i Saadet (the Hilye of Felicity), Hilye-i Serif (the Noble Hilye), and Hilye-i Nebevi(the Prophetic Hilye). The most popular of these texts for calligraphers is one related by Ali ibn Abi Talib, which I translate as follows:

Transmitted from Ali [son-in-law of the Prophet], may God be pleased with him, who, when asked to describe the Prophet, peace be upon him, would say: He was not too tall nor too short. He was medium sized. His hair was not short and curly, nor was it lank, but in between. His face was not narrow, nor was it fully round, but there was a roundness to it. His skin was white. His eyes were black. He had long eyelashes. He was big-boned and had wide shoulders. He had no body hair except in the middle of his chest. He had thick hands and feet. When he walked, he walked inclined, as if descending a slope. When he looked at someone, he looked at them in full face.

Between his shoulders was the seal of prophecy, the sign that he was the last of the prophets. He was the most generous-hearted of men, the most truthful of them in speech, the most mild-tempered of them, and the noblest of them in lineage. Whoever saw him unexpectedly was in awe of him. And whoever associated with him familiarly, loved him. Anyone who would describe him would say, I never saw, before him or after him, the like of him. Peace be upon him.

The most comprehensive hilye text is found in the great work on the Prophet by Al-Qadi Iyad (d. 1149). Here it is, in its fullest version:

Al-Hasan, son of Ali [May God be pleased with both of them] said: “I asked my uncle Hind, son of Abu Hala about the hilye [description] of the Prophet of God, my peace and blessings be upon him. Hind was known to be a prolific describer of the Prophet, and I wished him to relate some of it for me so I might hold fast to it.”

So Hind said: “The Prophet of God, peace be upon him, was of mighty significance to God, and profoundly honored among the people. His face radiated light like the moon on its fullest night. He was a bit taller than the medium stature and a bit shorter than the tall and skinny. His head was large. His hair was wavy. If his hair parted, he would leave it parted, if not he would leave it, and it would not be long enough to pass his earlobes. His complexion was fair. He had a wide forehead, arched, thick eyebrows with a space between them. There was a vein between them that would swell and pulse when he was angry. His nose was aquiline; it had a brightness about the upper part that led those who were less observant to think him haughty. He had a thick beard. His eyes were very black and the whites very white. His cheeks were not prominent, he had a wide mouth. His teeth were white and there was a space between his front teeth.

“There was a fine line of hair on his chest, and it was as if it were an ivory statue with the purity of silver. His figure was well proportioned, full bodied and strong. There was no slackness in his musculature, his chest didn’t protrude over his belly, nor the reverse. His chest was broad and his shoulders wide and muscular. He had large limbs. The parts of his body that could be seen while he was clothed were luminous. His body from the neck to the navel was joined by hair which flowed down like a line. There was no hair on his nipples. His forearms, shoulders, and upper chest were hairy. The bones of his forearms were long. His palms were wide and generous. His hands and feet were thick. His limbs were long. He had long sinews. His insteps were high. His feet were smooth without protuberances and water would run off of them. When he would move off, he would move with determination. He would step surely and unhurriedly and not proudly. He walked gently and with dignity, and he would take wide steps when he wanted to walk quickly. When he walked, it was as if he were descending from a slope and when he would look at someone, he would turn to him fully. He would lower his gaze and look down more often than up. He didn’t stare. He would lead his companions by walking behind them out of modesty and would always be the first to greet them.”

At this point, Al-Hasan said to Hind, “Describe to me the way he spoke.”

Hind said, “The Prophet of God, peace and blessings be upon him, was continually full of concern. He was constantly deep in thought. He had no rest, and would not speak without a reason. He would be silent for long periods of time. He would begin conversations, and end them clearly and distinctly and would speak in a way that combined many meanings in few words. He spoke with excellence, and there was no excess in it, nor unnatural brevity. He was gentle by nature and not coarse, nor was he contemptuous of anyone. He would extol the favors he received, even when they were few and small. He never found fault with them. He never criticized the food or drink that was prepared for him, nor did he overly praise it. No one would stand against his anger when matters of the Lord’s truth were opposed, until he had triumphed, but he would never get angry for his own sake, nor would he ever seek to win such an argument. He would gesture with his whole palm, to point. When he was astonished, he would make his palm face upwards. He used his hands frequently as he spoke, and would strike his left palm with his right thumb. When he would get angry, he would turn away and avert his gaze, and when he was full of joy he would lower his eyes. Most of his laughing was as smiling; when he did laugh, it was not loud, and he would show his teeth a bit like they were hailstones.”

Al-Hasan said, “I kept this report to myself, away from [my brother] Al-Husayn for awhile, then I told it to him, but he had already heard it and found out even more. He had asked our father [Ali] about the way the Prophet of God, peace be upon him, was at home, when he went out in his assemblies, and about his way of living.” Al-Hasan left nothing of this out.

Al-Husayn said, “I asked my father [Ali], may God be pleased with him, about how the Prophet of God, peace be upon him, was at home.”

He [Ali] said, “He always asked permission to enter his home, from God, and those within. When at home, he would divide his time into three parts, one for God, one for his family, and one for himself. Then he would divide his own portion between himself and the people. His elite companions would mostly share this time with him, and they would convey his words to the common people. He would hold nothing back from them, neither knowledge or worldly things. It was his way to prefer the people of excellence, according to their merit in religious matters. Among the people there were those with a need, those with two needs, and those with many needs. He would work with them, and he would occupy them and the community in general with that which would improve their situations. This he would do by asking about them and their needs, and informing them what they ought to do. He would say, ‘Let the one who is present among you inform the one who is absent, and bring to me the need of he who is unable to tell me himself. Truly, the one who informs a person of authority of the need of one who is unable to convey it himself, God will make firm his feet on the day of judgment.’ This was the kind of topic mentioned in his presence, and he didn’t accept anything else from anyone [he didn’t like meaningless conversation and liked to talk about how to help people].”

Ali then said, in the hadith of Sufyan Ibn Waki: “They would come as scouts [seeking decisions or knowledge], and they would not go on their way until they had found what they sought, and then they would leave as guides and learned people.”

I said [Husayn to his father Ali], “Tell me about his going out and how he acted outside.”

Ali said, “The Prophet of God, peace and blessings upon him, would hold his tongue except in matters which concerned his companions. He would encourage affection and concord between them and would say nothing to alienate one from another. He honored the nobles of every people who would come to him and make them their leaders. He would be wary around some people and on his guard against them [especially nomads], but he would never withhold from anyone his open-faced friendliness and fine personality. He would ask his companions about their situations, and he would ask people about what was going on amongst them. He would approve of that which was good and advocate it, and he would denounce that which was base and discourage it.

“Everything he did was in moderation, without excess or contrariness. He was not thoughtless, out of fear that those who came to him would become unmindful or weary. He was prepared for every situation in this world and the next. He didn’t fail to fulfill what was right, and he didn’t overstep his authority in regards to those near him. The most meritorious and excellent people to him were those whose advice was most universal; the most significant of them to him were those most beneficial to others, and the most helpful in helping others bear their burdens.”

Then Al-Husayn said, “Then I asked him [Ali] about his gatherings and about what he did in them, and he said: “The Prophet of God, peace be upon him, did not sit down or stand up without mentioning God, nor did he reserve for himself fixed places among the people to be seated, and he forbade others also to reserve places for themselves [especially in mosques and public gatherings]. When he would go to visit a group, he would sit in the nearest available spot, and ordered that others follow this practice. He would give those seated near him his full share of attention in such a way that no one would think others had been given precedence over him. Whenever someone he would be sitting with would tell him of his needs, he would bear with that person until that person left him. When someone would ask him to solve a problem, he would not turn him away without solving it for him, if possible, or saying a comforting word or a prayer for its fulfillment. His cheerfulness and open personality were felt by all the people, and he became like a father to them. They came to have the right of mercy and compassion from him, as they were close, like the relation of parent and child, distinguished only by virtue and devotion to God. And in another narrative, they became equals regarding their rights in his eyes.

“Assemblies with him were gatherings of gentleness, dignified conduct, modesty, patience, and trust. No voice would be raised, nor would women be spoken of in a depraved way, nor would peoples’ errors be mentioned. [This last item comes via different narrations.] They inclined to each other in affection out of devotion to God, as humble people. In these gatherings, the old were honored, the young were treated with gentleness. They would come to the aid of the needy and would have compassion for the stranger.”

And then I asked him [Ali] about the Messenger’s conduct among his close associates and servants.

[Ali] said: “The Prophet of God, peace be upon him, was unfailingly cheerful, easy going by nature, and mild mannered. He was neither crude nor coarse . He was not a clamorous loudmouth, nor a repeater of obscenities. He was not one to find faults in others, nor did he overly praise them either. He was unconcerned about what he did not want, and this did not bother him. He allowed his soul no portion of three things - hypocrisy, acquisitiveness, and that which did not concern him. He did not allow himself to engage in three things regarding people - he would not criticize others, he would not revile anyone, and he would not seek out others’ faults. He would speak of nothing unless he hoped a reward from God for it. When he would talk, the ones sitting with him would be so still and quiet, you would imagine birds were sitting on their heads. When he was silent, they would talk, but not quarrel in his presence. When one of them would talk, they would all listen attentively until he had finished. They would speak about a subject that was brought up by the first to speak until they had finished with it. He would laugh at what they laughed at, and he would be amazed by what amazed them. He was patient with the stranger who had roughness in his speech. He would say, ‘Whenever you see someone seeking to solve a problem, help him out.’ He did not seek praise, except to be spoken of appropriately. He wouldn’t interrupt another’s speech unless it got excessive or too long, then he would end it or get up to leave.”

Here ends the hadith of Sufyan IbnWaki. Through other narrators, Al-Hasan continues in the words of his brother Al-Husayn. I said [to Ali], “What was the silence of the Prophet of God [peace upon him] like?”

He said, “His silences were for four situations: forbearance, caution, estimation, and contemplation. As for his estimation, it was to take an impartial study of events and listen to the people in order to be just. As for his contemplation, it was about what was eternal and what was transitory. His forbearance was part of his patience, he was not angered by that which was provocative. His caution was for four reasons - taking good speech or action into consideration so he might use it in an exemplary way; abjuring the ugly and bad so it would be left alone; exerting his judgment to improve the situation of his community; [and] establishing ways to maintain the good order of his community in regard to this world and the next.”

The description is finished, with thanks and praise to God for His aid.

From the same work is a shorter, very intriguing hilye text:

Hilal related to us, from Ata Bin Yasar. He said: “I met Abdullah ibn Amr ibn Al-As, and I said, ‘Tell me about the description of the Prophet of God, peace be upon him.’”

He said, “Yes, certainly. By God, he was described in the Torah in some ways as in the Quran, ‘O Prophet, we have sent you as a witness, a bringer of good tidings, and a warner’ and as a protector of the weak. You are my servant and prophet. I have named you The One Who Relies.

“He was not crude, nor was he coarse, nor was he one to shout and make a lot of noise in the marketplace. He did not answer an evil deed with another, but he would pardon and forgive. He would not be taken by God until he had straightened out the crooked people, until they would confess there was no divinity but God, and open blind eyes and deaf ears and closed hearts. O God, grant mercy and peace to our master Muhammad and his family.”

Other hilye texts exist, such as those related by Umm Ma’bad and Abu Hurayra. Both of these have been calligraphed by Ottoman artists in the 19th century. In 1897, the Ottoman calligrapher Bakkal Arif Efendi, a refugee from Bulgaria, was commissioned by the Ottoman Printing House to write a large hilyein Turkish. Its text was composed by the Ottoman statesman, poet, and author Jevdet Mehmet Pasha. Displaying a hilye in the home, workplace, or mosque was believed to provide a blessed environment, but a hand-made levha, or panel of calligraphy, was expensive. A beautifully printed version made thehilye accessible to people of lesser means.

The Hilye in Calligraphic Art

The first hilyes to be produced as an art form were, as far as we can tell, by the great Ottoman calligrapher Hafiz Osman Efendi (the Second Sheikh, 1644-98 AD). He took the hilye text from Iman Tirmidhi’s Ash-Shama’il al-Muhammadiya and composed it in the configuration we now associate with the hilye. At the top is the Besmele—that is, the text “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful,” often prefixed by the words “It is from Suleyman, and it is …” In the center, generally within a crescent shape, is the main text, surrounded by the names of the Prophet’s four main companions, the first four successors. Under this is a Quranic ayat, or verse, usually, “We did not send you [Muhammad] except as a mercy to the universe,” or occasionally, “Truly, you are of a tremendous nature.” The remainder of the text follows, ending in supplications to the Prophet, plus the calligrapher’s signature and date. Very rarely, the whole work is finished with a hadith qudsi (that is, a holy saying direct from God): “Were it not for you, were it not for you, I would not have created the starry heavens.”

In the art of calligraphy, this form has been very significant, most often written in Sulus and Nesih scripts, both small and large versions. The work is also done in Nestalik script; the first to do so was Mehmed Es’ad Yesari Efendi (d. 1789 AD).

Largely ignored outside of Ottoman Turkey, the hilye was a beloved and honored work there. It is still an important part of the calligrapher’s repertoire. It is common for calligraphy students to compose ahilye when they are ready to receive the icazet, or diploma. My case was typical. In 1988, my teacher, Hasan Celebi, informed me that I was ready to receive the icazet and told me to write the text but not to sign it. When I finished the text and sent it to him, he wrote the icazet text under it. He then took the piece to another calligrapher, Sheikh Mustafa Bekir, who, after examining it, wrote to the left of theicazet text the taskik—confirmation of the icazet. The piece was then illuminated by Hasan Celebi’s son, Mustafa, one of the most prominent illuminators in Turkey. Finally, it was presented to me at a ceremony at the headquarters of the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art, and Culture in Istanbul.

There is nothing in the art of Islamic calligraphy quite like illuminating a hilye. It is a challenging and daunting undertaking, due to the composition’s complex structure and layout. It requires careful planning to bring balance and harmony to the work as a whole and to avoid creating focal spots, which are not appropriate in classical Islamic calligraphy.

Attempts have been made to produce hilyes in other forms and layouts. Sometimes, for example, thehilye is executed in a small, folding, portable format, or album, as was done by Mehmed Shevki Efendi (1827-87 AD). In addition, Kadiasker Mustafa Izzet (d. 1876 AD) and Hasan Riza Efendi (d. 1920 AD) produced magnificent large-format hilyes, some over four feet in height. Other departures from the traditional format, however, were garish or kitschy in design and have become historical curiosities of little merit.

The Significance of the Hilye

In the Hind hilye, Al-Hasan, grandson of the Prophet, said, “I asked my uncle Hind, son of Abu Hala, about the Hilye of the Prophet of God so I might hold fast to it.” I believe this is a clue to the hilyeconcept. Most Muslims and historians of Islam know about the Prophet and his life, which is an open book. He is a daily presence and memory, showing us through his life and teachings the way to the well-lived life and thus the way to God. Muslims love Muhammad and commend him for always doing the right thing, even at his own expense. They appreciate his directness and clarity, his courtliness and manliness, his warmth and bravery. They sympathize with his terrors during the first revelations of the Quran and empathize with the huge burden he had to bear. But they do not and cannot adore him. Adoration is reserved for the Creator alone.

An interesting but questionable hadith, which was thought to be genuine until recently, may shed some light on the significance of the hilye. The Prophet said, “He who sees my hilye after me, it is as if he had actually seen me, and he who sees it out of love and desire for me, God will forbid the fire of Hell to touch him. He will be safe from the trials of the grave, and he will not be sent forth naked on the day of resurrection.” This hadith, whatever its status, refers, of course, not to the calligraphic composition of the hilye but to the physical, moral, and spiritual description of the Prophet.

Reading, or even simply viewing, a well-produced hilye can refresh the heart and mind. It gives us, so many generations later, a kind of intimacy with the Prophet, as though we had known him. To see him in this way is to allow him to show the way.
In an authentic hadith, the Prophet said, “He who has seen me in a dream, has seen the truth.” His presence must have been so striking that people saw right through him to the prophetical truth he taught. After his death, people wanted to remember him, and these hilye texts must have been very helpful in retaining a “memory vignette” his companions could pass to future generations.

Since the death of the Prophet, a substantial literature has developed devoted to the things he said and did (hadith) and, later, to his life and times and the circumstances of his prophecy (sira). The hilyes fit into this framework as they answer the questions, “What was he like? What kind of human being was he?”

Hollywood has done prophets a considerable injustice. They are depicted on screen as ranting, ill-clad madmen, flaky revolutionaries, or effete wise men. The hilyes offer a better picture of a prophet—of the one who claimed to be the last prophet. Images fixed in the imagination by countless Biblical epics, while often entertaining, do not prepare the mind for the depiction of an actual prophet that we find in thehilye texts—nor does the image (or non-image) portrayed in the movie “The Message,” which characterizes Muhammad as a 1960s-style social revolutionary.

In the hilyes we find a man who was not physically remarkable, yet attractive to all who saw him—a man who stood out among his peers. He was a man of humility but not humble; a man who was complex yet straightforward. He made time for his family, his friends, and his social responsibilities but left private time for himself and God. He loved the company of women, and he liked a good joke, but he didn’t laugh too much, nor was he quick to anger. He was neither a braggart nor a ranter. He said what he meant and said it eloquently, and there wasn’t an inch of hypocrisy in him. He was the Prophet of God, the model for mankind, yet he did not boast of it. He made it abundantly clear that high ideals never justified bad behavior. He had to deal with the social and theological implications of an idolatry far more terrible in its lumpen banality, its home-made weirdness, than the fire-belching Baals and Molochs of DeMille, and all in 21 years.

Muhammad was such a guide to spiritual truth that his wife Aisha said of him, “His personality was the Quran.”

It is not part of the truth to be Arab or Afghan, Persian, Turk, or American. Religion is to seek the truth and try to live by it. Muslims believe that Muhammad ushered in the adulthood of humanity: Islam would be enough. It is the privilege of the calligrapher to honor this man through art. Returning over and over to these hilyes, these eyewitness accounts, one can savor the wonder of the Prophet and the awesome mystery of the Creator.


Copyright 2002, Mohamed Zakariya. This text may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form without permission from the author.


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