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Islamic Amulets:
An Interview with a Collector of Fine Muslim Art

 Expert Collecting at Biddington's

Editor's note: For more than 25 years, this collector of fine Islamic art has avidly sought out a range of fine Islamic art including amulets, seals, calligraphic manuscripts & books. For easier viewing, the amulets appear at 150 to 200% of their actual size on a 17" screen.

DESCRIPTION: Talisman Jade Green. Diamond-shaped with border of engraved leaves/petals. Inner panel Arabic inscriptions reads: "FI AMAN ALLAH 1070 AH" Translation: "May God Be With You 1650 AD". This amulet bears a hole at the top; it is to be worn around the neck. It is used by the Muslims for protection against all evils. Jade is also believed to have healthy effect on the heart.

JB: This is my first introduction to these wonderful objects. Could you explain an amulet's purpose and use?

AR: An amulet's purpose is to reassure the wearer that a force beyond himself exists to help protect him from the threats and problems of the world. Amulets are worn every day--usually under ones clothing. They may be worn around the neck or on the upper arm with a thong.

AR: As a collector, it is this day to day use that attracts me: Amulets are not only beautiful art objects--they are part of everyday life.

armband amulet
DESCRIPTION: Ikka--Armband Amulet. Beautifully-crafted, brilliant yellow, oval agate surrounded by 20 turquoise. Innermost smaller ovals are engraved with Kuranic verses, while the outer area bears the Names of Allah and the Shiite Muslim names of Holy Fourteen and 12 Imans: i.e. Ali, Hasan, Hussain, Ali, Mohammed, Jaafer, Moise, Ali, Mohammed, Ali, Al Hasan, Almehdi. Two framing heart-shaped agates are each surrounded by 14 turquoise. The side pieces bear similar Arabic engravings: "Mohammed Nabi Allah Ali Wali Allah". Translation: "Mohammed is Prophet of Allah, Ali is the Saint of Allah". These two end pieces are attached to the cord/string which helps in wearing the amulet.

JB: What sort of materials are used to make amulets?
AR: Agate and jade are used a lot in amulets. Both of these materials are good for carving.

JB: I hadn't really focused on the carving.
AR: Actually, the fine calligraphic carvings are a key element of amulets. Usually the carver will select a verse from scripture or other religious text and carve it in intricate, florid calligraphy.

white jade grid amulet

AR: This pale jade oval piece is organized into a grid of over 100 boxes.

AR: Each box lists one of the attributes of God: "wise", "just", "all seeing" . You can see around this is a floral border. The piece measures about 2.5" long. Imagine the remarkable skill required to carve it.

RB: How is the carving done. Is the stone etched then eaten with acid?
AR: No, not in the finer pieces. The carving is done simply by applying pressure. .

JB: On this piece the writing appears to be raised?
AR: Yes, that amulet has relief carving. So all the area around the lettering was carved away.

amulet with relief carving
JB: When were these made?
AR: I see you don't read Arabic. Many amulets are dated in the inscription. These vary in age from 150 to 300 years old--so they would be from the 17th to the mid-19th century by the Roman calendar.

RB: Inscriptions aside, is there a way to date an unmarked amulet?
AR: Usually, one can date a piece by its mounting. Metalwork and finish grew more sophisticated as time passed--the rougher pieces will typically be earlier. The more rounded, more refined silver mountings, are somewhat later.

DESCRIPTION: Ring. Rectangular agate with miniature calligraphic engravings. The surface is divided into 3 rectangular panels. The innermost rectangle bears a Quranic verse. The surrounding rectangle contains floral engravings. The outer margin is engraved with the names of Allah, Prophet Mohammed and 12 Shiite Muslim Imams.

AR: On these two rings you can see: the silver mounting on the left is a bit rough; the one on the right more refined.

AR: Also, on some extremely old pieces, the stone itself is so worn down that the carving is only faintly legible.

JB: I have seen stones with calligraphic carvings mounted in gold, but I notice your pieces are all in silver. Is it just your preference?
AR: I collect men's pieces. Typically in Islamic art objects, silver mountings are for men and gold mountings for women.

JB: Where do you acquire these beautiful pieces?
AR: For many years, I traveled all over the Mideast on business. Sometimes they just appear. For one of them, I stayed in a small village for several days until I could convince a fellow to sell me the one from around his neck.

JB: Why am I shocked at that?
AR: It's not as bad as it sounds. We became friends. But I really wanted his amulet.

JB: Are amulets always made of stone?
AR: Not always. For instance, this amulet is made of silver. It opens--like a locket. Inside, on this small engraved disc is a sort of chart of the wearer's life.

silver disk amulet

AR: This silver box is also an amulet--it would have held a piece of scripture.

DESCRIPTION: Talisman--Carrying Silver Box for Miniature Kuran. A splendid example of intricate craftsmanship and filigree work, this box bears (4) highly decorative hooks with holes for a string. (The box is to be worn around the neck.) Front panel bears engraving of the names of Allah, Mohammed, Ali, Fatima. Translation: "Allah, (Prophet) Mohammed, Ali (son-in-law and cousin of prophet Mohammed), and Fatima (daughter of prophet Mohammed)". Calligraphy is done in mirror-image style: sideways and in opposite direction. Back of the talisman has engravings of "NAD-E-ALI" ("Call for Ali")--a supplication. Sides of the lid are engraved with Arabic verse for the Holy Five (Pan Ja Tan), i.e. Prophet Mohammed, Ali, Fatima, Hassan and Hussain.

JB: Are the writings on the amulets meant as general assistance, or are they specific to the wearer?
AR: The stone amulets tend to be more general. But "custom made" amulets do exist: For instance this silver box--as well as holding a miniature Kuran--could have held a small rolled manuscript. The prayers, scriptures and comments on that manuscript may have been specifically designed for the wearer.

JB: Have you a favorite among your amulets?
AR: Each one of my pieces required a great deal of effort to obtain. I've never bought from a gallery or a dealer. So, I value each greatly for its individual charms.

AR: Still, if you asking about the value and objective quality of certain pieces, I would say that some of my finest amulets are made of agate or jade, then mounted with precious and semi-precious stones. This one is agate mounted in silver inset with pearls and rubies.

JB: Thank you for showing us your wonderful collection.

Islamic Calligraphy from a Private Collection
Islamic Illuminated Books and Kaskols from a Private Collection
American Quilts
Silverpoint & Meticulous Drawing
Tall Case Clocks
Vintage Haute Couture

Characteristics of Islamic Calligraphy and Process
Los Angeles County Museum Islamic Art Collection
Islamic Art and Patronage--University of London

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