Power of writing

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | June 1, 2014

In Iranian culture and folklore it is believed that besides being elements of language and narration, letters and words possess hidden meanings and powers. In the 14th century A.D. a Sufi by the name of Fazlallah Abolfazl Astarabadi Ajami (1340–1394), who is known as Fazlallah Hurufi, and his followers who were called Hurufis, claimed that they had discovered “the secret of the words of divinity.”[i] They believed that “God is embodied in words and letters, and his words appear in the existence of human kind. Words of divinity are embodied within Man and he is therefore, the supreme manifestation of God himself.” Therefore, the human body as well as words and letters became symbols that carried scared meanings.

In Islamic tradition writing as a sacred practice also manifests itself in various forms such as Hilya which is a verbal portrait. According to Priscilla Soucek[ii] (2000), Muhammad b. Isa al-Tirmidi in Shama’il al-Mustafauiyah stated: “[A Hilya describes]the Prophet from head to foot and comments on the manner in which he moved, spoke, and behaved. The wealth of concrete detail in this text about his height, hair, eyes, complexion, torso, and limbs would permit a person to imagine the Prophet in his “mind’s eye” or by using what al-Ghazali calls “inner perception.”Hilyes became sacred objects, which were also considered to have protective powers and desirable items to carry in pockets or keep in homes.

Sacred writings were also used on pieces of protective garments worn by children or soldiers under their battlefield armors.These pieces of talismanic clothing covered with symbols and signs or verses of Quran were meant to protect the wearer from harm, evil eye and injuries. As Yasmine Al-Saleh states: “Talismans that contain inscriptions with the names of prophets and religious heroes have the power to protect an individual from hardship and danger by acting as a conduit between the two.”[iii]

Besides its supernatural powers, the visiual power of writing can be seen in exquisite late 10th and 11th century Iranian ceramic wares from Nishapur. Although the writings on the Nishapur plates and bowls related to their function as vessels for serving food yet the words also provided nourishment for the soul and spirit. Examples of such writings are “Eat with appetite” or “The thankful eater is comparable to the one who fasts patiently” and “Blessing, prosperity, goodwill, peace, and happiness.”[iv]

In contemporary time writing still holds its undeniable power and has become a dominant element in many of Iranian artists’ works. Mohammad Ehsaei, Mansoureh Hoseini, Siah Armajani, Hosein Zenderoudi, Parviz Tanavoli, Reza Abedini, Saed Meshki, Maryam Shirinlou, Mahmoud Bakhshi, Iman Raad and Shahrzad Changalvaee are among the artists that have marvelously explored semiotic, aesthetic and magical properties of letters, words and writing.

Images from the top:

  1. Talismanic shirt. Ink on stiffened cotton. Worn in battle contains prayers to Ali as well as Quran verses. Topkapi Palace Museum.
  1. Hilya. Calligraphic Portrait of the Prophet Muhammad. 18th century, Ottoman Empire, Harvard Art Museums.
  1. Nishapur Bowl with Arabic inscription “Blessing, prosperity, goodwill, peace, and happiness”. Iran, Tepe Madrasa. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014. This essay cannot be quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.


[i] Shahidi, Z. (2009) Dabireh Journal.

[ii] Soucek, P. (2000) The theory and practice of portraiture in the Persian tradition.

[iii] Al-Saleh, Y. (2010) Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[iv] Bowl with Arabic inscription [Found at Iran, Nishapur, Tepe Madrasa]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011.


Iran in New York City



Iran Modern
September 6, 2013 to January 5, 2014

Asia Society
725 Park Avenue, 
New York, NY 10021

From: http://asiasociety.org/new-york/exhibitions/iran-modern

“The first major international loan exhibition of Iranian modern art created from the 1950s to 1970s. Showcasing more than 100 works by 26 artists, the exhibition illuminates Iran’s little known pre-Islamic Revolution era when Tehran was a cosmopolitan art center, artists were engaged with the world through their participation in the Venice Biennale and other international art festivals, and their work was collected by institutions inside and outside of Iran. The paintings, sculpture, works on paper and photography included in the exhibition are organized thematically to map the genesis of Iranian modernism and argues that the development of modernist art is inherently more globally interconnected than has been previously acknowledged.

The exhibition comprises works by the following artists: Ahmad Aali, Abbas, Massoud Arabshahi, Siah Armajani, Mohammad Ehsai, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Mansour Ghandriz, Marcos Grigorian, Ghasem Hajizadeh, Nahid Hagigat, Bahman Jalali, Rana Javadi, Reza Mafi, Leyly Matine-Daftary, Ardeshir Mohassess, Bahman Mohassess, Nicky Nodjoumi, Houshang Pezeshknia, Faramarz Pilaram, Behjat Sadr, Abolghassem Saidi, Sohrab Sepehri, Parviz Tanavoli, Mohsen Vaziri-Moqaddam, Manoucher Yektai, and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi.

The exhibition is organized thematically into the following sections: Saqqakhaneh—looking at the neotraditional style inspired by Iranian folk art and culture—abstraction, and calligraphy, with a monographic focus on selected artists within each section. An archive room will provide background on the history, politics and culture of the period, including primary source documents, posters, ephemera and a timeline of key political and cultural events. Iran Modern is curated by independent scholars Fereshteh Daftari and Layla S. Diba.”

Modern Iranian Art
Selections from the Abby Weed Grey Collection
September 10, 2013 to December 7, 2013

Grey Art Gallery, New York University
100 Washington Square East, New York, New York  10003

From: http://www.nyu.edu/greyart/

“Highlighting the creativity of artists who drew on their cultural heritage to redefine Iran’s visual identity during the decades leading up to the 1979 Revolution, Modern Iranian Art: Selections from the Abby Weed Grey Collection at NYU presents key works of Iranian modernism from the 1960s and ’70s. Housed here, these paintings, sculptures, drawings, and jewelry are part of the Abby Weed Grey Collection of Modern Asian and Middle Eastern Art, and comprise the largest public holding of Iranian modern art outside Iran.…Abby Grey amassed nearly 700 pieces—representing countries as diverse as India, Turkey, Japan, Nepal, and Israel, as well as Iran—on numerous trips to Asia and the Middle East to promote cross-cultural exchange. In each country, she sought out artists who were in tune with international artistic developments.

In Iran, she gravitated toward those who were grappling with how to reconcile their modern sensibilities with their Persian roots. Inspired by classical Persian poetry, calligraphy, and miniature painting, they were also appropriating images from Shiism, the dominant form of Islam in Iran, to convey abstract concepts. Many of them were active in the Saqqakhaneh School of the 1960s, which was named for the traditional public shrine-fountains where water is stored. On view here are major early works by some of the best-known modern Iranian artists, including Siah Armajani, Kamran Diba, Faramarz Pilaram, Parviz Tanavoli, and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, among others.

A number of important works from the Abby Weed Grey collection are included in Iran Modern,…that is on view at Asia Society in New York.”


Above images:

Mohammad Ehsaei, Untitled, 1974
Oil on canvas,  47 1/4 x 31 1/16 inches (120x 79 cm).
Collection of the Artist.
(On view at Asia Society)

Parviz Tanavoli
We are Happy Locked within Holes, 1970
bronze on travertine stone base
30 x 7 1/4 x 10 3/4 inches (76.2 x 18.4 x 27.3 cm) (including integral base)
Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection
Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.56
(On view at Grey Art Gallery)