Among the most popular works in the Ottoman calligraphic tradition is the genre known as Hilye-i Şerîfe (Noble Hilye) or Hilye-i Saadet (Felicitous Hilye).1 Thought to have been designed by Hâfız Osman Efendi (1052–1110/1642–1698), a watershed in the history of calligraphy, these panels describe the physical and personal attributes of the Prophet Muhammad in a relatively fixed composition.
The word hilyah is Arabic and signifies ornament, countenance, image, or character. Therefore the term “Noble Hilye” may be interpreted as a description of the Prophet. Indeed, these panels are, in a certain sense, portraits made up of words.
From top to bottom, the components of the panel are named başmakam (head station), göbek (belly), kuşak (belt), and etek (skirt).
At the top of the panel is the Basmala, the phrase “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” With slight variations, the central medallion contains the following text:
[It is related] from ‘Ali (may God be pleased with him) that when he described the attributes of the Prophet (may prayers to God and peace be upon him), he said: He was not too tall, nor was he too short, he was of medium height amongst the nation. His hair was not short and curly, nor was it lank, it would hang down in waves. His face was not overly plump, nor was it fleshy, yet it was somewhat circular. His complexion was rosy white. His eyes were large and black, and his eyelashes were long. He was large-boned and broad-shouldered. His torso was hairless except for a thin line that stretched down his chest to his belly. His hands and feet were rather large. When he walked, he would lean forward as if going down a slope. When he looked at someone, he would turn his entire body towards him. Between his two shoulders was the Seal of Prophethood, and he was the last of the prophets.
This is the Caliph ‘Ali’s description of the Prophet as recorded in Abu Isa Muhammad al-Tirmidhi’s al-Shamail al-Nabawiya wa al-Khasail al-Mustafawiya.
It is customary to place the names of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs at the four corners of the central medallion: Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali. Often a prayer is written next to these names (such as “may God be pleased with him”). Sometimes their cognomens also appear (such as ‘Umar al-Faruq and ‘Uthman Dhi-Nurayn).
Below the central medallion, in the area known as the belt, it is customary to write the following Qur’anic verse: “And we have only sent you as mercy to the worlds” (al-Anbiya 21:107). Sometimes another verse also concerning the Prophet is substituted, such as “Indeed you stand on an exalted standard of character” (al-Qalam 68:4). And sometimes a Hadith or Hadith Qudsi may appear in its place, such as “If it were not for you, if it were not for you, I would not have created the heavens.”
The last part of the Hilye contains the continuation of the Caliph Ali’s description of the Prophet:
He was the most generous of men, the truest of people in his words, the most mild-mannered, and the noblest in companionship. Those who first saw him would be awed, and those who knew him personally loved him. Anyone who described him would say ‘I never saw the like of him, either before or since.’ May God bless him and grant him peace.
After this would usually come the calligrapher’s signature. Occasionally Hilyes were written in order to receive a calligrapher’s license (ijaza), that is, as a “graduation thesis.” In such cases, the work would not be signed, but at the very bottom, in one or more cartouches, would be the teacher’s or teachers’ attestation.