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KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Qur'an, imam (prayer leader), madrasa (religious school), calligraphy (thuluth, kufic, and naskh scripts), vegetal and floral ornament, wood
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS UNIT/FUNCTION
Lavishly decorated stands (rahlas) were designed to hold large copies of the Qur'an. According to its inscriptions, this one was used in a religious school (madrasa) in a town near Isfahan, in present-day Iran.
This stand is made of two interlocking wood panels decorated with carved inscriptions and floral, vegetal, and geometric motifs. The upper square panels bear the word God ("Allah") repeated in four quadrants over a background of carved spiral arabesques. The lower rectangular sections are deeply carved in several layers; at the center of a representation of a prayer niche (mihrab) stands a cypress tree. The frame of the niche is decorated with calligraphy and spiraling arabesques, while naturalistic flowers cover the surface outside this border. The inscriptions include the name of the carver, Hasan ibn Sulaiman of Isfahan, and evoke the might of God and the holiness of Muhammad and the twelve Shi'i imams, his successors.
Inscriptions from religious texts frequently decorate Qur'an stands. Those using this stand would have been highly educated and thus able to read and understand the calligraphy. However, in Islam, the words of God are a blessing to believers, even when they cannot be read.
RELATED AUDIO FROM THE GALLERY GUIDE
Sheila Canby: This object that we're looking at is a Qur'an stand, or rahle, made of beautiful carved wood. It's dated to 761 Hijra, or 1360 A.D., and it's signed by someone named Hasan ibn Sulaiman al-Isfahani. And that's interesting, because here you have an artist whose name ends in al-Isfahani, so he or his family came from Isfahan, and you have beautifully carved wood, which is often a sign that something has been made in the north of Iran, which is very wooded.
On the lower outer surface we have a cypress tree in a niche, which is shaped, in a sense, like a prayer niche, so that's interesting. And cypress trees are very symbolic in poetry. They seem to be symbols of beauty, human beauty, people who stood tall like cypresses. But I think it's also a kind of eternal life type of symbol. And then there's marvelous relief carving of flowers above the niche. On the interior is a Naskhi, or cursive inscription. The calligraphy includes blessings on the Prophet Muhammad, and then for the twelve Shi'i, or Shiite, imams. Before the sixteenth century, you find references to the Shi'i imams that do not necessarily mean that people were strictly Shi'i; the divisions, most of the time, were less strict than they became later on. Perhaps it means that this was being used in a Shi'i context, but it doesn't necessarily mean that.