Athar: Traces of the Calligrapher and Prophet
by Jacqueline Ganem, Asia Society Museum Fellow

As a conceptual category, the trace has bearings on ideas of an animating presence left behind. It is related to the relic, from the Latin reliquiae, the remains of a martyr or deceased person, and the verb relinquere, to leave behind or relinquish. The trace takes its primary authority from its indexical relation to what it reproduces and continues to make present. In reference to Islamic calligraphy, Mary McWilliams and David J. Roxburgh, guest curators of “Traces of the Calligrapher,” discuss the valuation of writing in Islamic societies in terms of a trace (athar) or “impressed presence” that signified the moral fiber of its maker (McWilliams and Roxburgh 2007). Calligraphy was perceived as capturing the spirit of the calligrapher through the contiguous relation of his hand with the reed pen and paper. In this way, the calligrapher partakes in the sacredness of the Qur’an, for it is through his body that the text is copied and made evident.

The concept of the trace is equally vital in articulating the enduring spirit of the Prophet Muhammad. A specific type of trace, the footprint (qadam) was highly valued in eighteenth-century north Indian society, and numerous reliquary shrines housed footprints of the Prophet (qadam-i-rasuls). Textual sources consistently cite either Mecca or Medina, where Muhammad received the revelations of the Qur’an, as the footprints’ places of origin. They were valued in their causal and existential relation to Muhammad, and to the land and events of his historical life.

One of the largest reliquaries is the Dargah Athar-Sharif at the Jami‘ Masjid (Delhi). The relics include Muhammad’s hair, sandal, and footprint, as well as calligraphies of the Qur’an attributed to the fourth caliph and first Shi‘ite imam ‘Ali and the second Shi‘ite imam Hasan ibn ‘Ali. According to tradition, these relics were acquired by Timur (Tamerlane ruled 1370–1405) upon the defeat of the Ottoman sultan Bayezid Yildirim. They were passed on to the Mughal emperors who traced their lineage to Timur.

It was customary for embattled rulers across Islamic territories to appropriate relics through the custom of gift exchange, which also involved inheritance. Possession of relics served to support claims of ancestry to Muhammad, which was integral to the identities of Sayyids Sufis, and Shi‘as, as well as confer legitimacy on rulers. The reliquary at the Dargah Athar-Sharif came into the Mughal emperor Shah-Jahan’s (ruled 1627–58) possession upon accession to the throne and served to sanctify his newly built mosque at Shahjahanabad.

The valuation of relics by Mughal rulers—particularly at a site steeped in symbolism of imperial piety and political power—was not lost on the eighteenth-century Nawabs (Mughal state governors) that made popular this precedent. Freestanding, monumental footprint shrines became a convention that marked royal cities of Bengal and Awadh.

In recognition of the enduring sanctity of the relics, limited visitation rites (ziyara) are imposed today. Similar to the pious act of writing the Qur’an, tactile contact is a primary rite at shrines. Through the act of touch, the blessings (baraka) imbued in the footprints are passed on to visitors.

The problematic notion of presence in the relic was realized in traditions by its miracle-producing properties. These miracles included the manifestation of a footprint trace in hard stone and accounts of qadams miraculously perspiring. Muslim reformist literature of the nineteenth century posited distinctions between elite and popular forms of religion, as well as discrete religions, which served to promote communal ideology during a time marked by the ascendancy of British powers.