The Prophet as a ‘Sacred Spring’: Late Ottoman Hilye Bottles

Christiane Gruber (University of Michigan)

* Paper presented at workshop « Between God and Man: Representations of the Prophet in Literature, Arts, and Media » Bochum, 9-10 November 2017.

The Topkapi Palace Library is one of the world’s largest and most important repository of Islamic paintings and manuscripts. It thus came as a surprise to me when, after a decade of research in the collection, the librarian Zeynep Çelik Atbaş pulled me aside last summer to tell me that I should take a look at some glass bottles, which remain unknown and unpublished, and yet surely would interest me. Zeynep could not have been more correct in her assessment: I was left astounded when the staff brought out four large glass bottles into the reading room. These were no manuscripts, and I had never seen objects like these in my fifteen years of working in Turkish collections. Before me were three bottles containing hilyes, or verbal descriptions of the Prophet Muḥammad, while a fourth bottle housed a miniature Qur’an displayed on a wooden stand decorated with colorful beads. Executed by the under-glass painter Mehmed Refat and dated 1308/1891, this bottle has at least four companion pieces held in two other museums in Istanbul.


However, to my knowledge, the three hilye bottles are not attested to in any other publicly accessible institution in Turkey or elsewhere in the world. While one bottle emerged on the art market under the title “lodge hilye” (tekke hilyesi), it is evident from their preservation in Topkapi Palace that these artworks should not be restricted to Sufi practitioners. Rather, as my paper aims to demonstrate, these rare objects appear to have been used for both talismanic and curative purposes. Their therapeutic role in particular is suggested by the hilyes’ use in the production of gold powder, which in all likelihood was combined with water drawn either from local Constantinopolitan sacred springs or else the holy water collected from the Zamzam well in Mecca. As a result, these hilye bottles, I argue, provided a new kind of prophetic pharmacon, whereby Muḥammad was reified—and most likely imbibed—as the ultimate elixir vitae.


A close examination of the three hilye bottles lead us to a number of preliminary conclusions. Depending on use and location, such items could be shut closed, opened on demand, or permanently kept ajar. One functioned as a Muḥammadan talismanic art object destined to protect an individual and his home. In the latter case, no further interactions were necessary. In other cases, however, a chain and rope suggest more ritualistic uses, including carrying or suspension in festive commemorations of the Prophet or other religious holidays, including the celebration of his celestial ascension. In such cases, a removable cap and silkcovered stopper enabled the collection and extraction of gold flecks, rubbed off the gilt papers lining the hilye panels’ back sides. Last but not least, in at least one instance, this gold dust or pigment is equated with the nūr Muḥammad, itself the primordial and generative material used by God to create the entire world.


These newly uncovered hilye bottles raise a number of issues concerned with late Ottoman artistic traditions as these intersect with devotional practices dedicated to the Prophet, especially in a larger Constantinopolitan setting. Perhaps the two most important questions that arise are: first, what were the uses and purposes of creating gold dust, and, second, what are the origins and hence symbolic meanings of these icon bottles? Examining related textual and artistic evidence can help us expand and refine our range of possible interpretations, chief among them the bottles’ likely use in late Ottoman magico-medicinal practices that involved the mixing of sacred dust or soil with holy water in order to produce liquid suspensions and curative potions believed saturated with prophetic baraka.


In addition, these bottles—just like other contemporary devotional icons devoted to the Prophet—provided a material mechanism to make and gather gold pigments. The fact that one of them mentions the nūr Muḥammad leads us, in part, to associate such pigments with the Prophet’s primordial light. That two bottles included hilyes meant to scrape at the inside walls further strengthens this hypothesis. In addition, at this time, the collecting of the water run-off from the ritual washing of the Prophet’s footprint and mantle was a well-known practice in Ottoman palace quarters. This prophetic liquid was then preserved in small flasks, imbibed to break the evening fast during Ramadan, and administered as a curative potion throughout the year. Libations that came into contact with Muḥammad’s relics were understood as the ultimate panacea, and such magico-medicinal liquids quite possibly included other tonics and potions into which were mixed gold prophetic precipitate extracted or poured from hilye bottles. Lastly, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these hilye bottles formed part of a larger production of vessels produced to contain the consecrated water of the Zamzam well in Mecca. Known as Zamzamiyyas, these flasks were made of both transparent glass and imported Chinese porcelain, their necks often fastened shut with a rope or thread in a manner reminiscent of the hilye bottles. The sacred water contained in these Zamzamiyyas was thought to heal the sick and bring them baraka through the process of imbibing and hence physical absorption.


Still acting as the carriers of Meccan blessings to the present day, Zamzam water bottles are sold to pilgrims to the holy city. They also remain a staple product in stores located around the Eyüp shrine in Istanbul, which sell devotional goods, souvenirs depicting the Prophet’s relics, and, above all, a wide range of hilyes made in both monumental and miniature size.


In sum, it appears that these newly discovered hilye bottles essentially provided a new type of prophetic pharmacon in the Ottoman palace during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in particular. At this time, the Prophet’s verbal icon transformed from an amuletic object of visual meditation to an encased relic whose golden by-product was most likely mixed into medicinal paste or Zamzam water destined to be ingested and therefore alloyed with the body of the faithful. Such pious engagements involved multiple senses, especially sight, touch, and taste. Late Ottoman multisensorial practices that involved the imbibing of prophetic baraka heralded a new turn in Muḥammad-centered devotional products as these intersected with proto-medical practices in elite spheres. Like other healing tonics, these new products essentially provided a new kind of prophetic antidote promising cure for illness and a long life. They also reasserted Muḥammad’s supreme standing as the ultimate healing agent ready to be primed, gathered, absorbed, and, above all, embodied by his pious followers.

Numéro spécial ASSR : Le prophète de l’islam

Nouvelle publication : Le prophète de l’islam, numéro special des Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions (ASSR), sous la direction de Nelly Amri, Rachida Chih, Denis Gril (n° 178, Juillet-septembre 2017, ISBN 978-2-7132-2693-9, 23€)


Comment les musulmans, depuis les origines, perçoivent-ils leur prophète ? Quelle relation entretiennent- ils avec lui, dans l’intimité de leur foi et collectivement, comme communauté une ou selon leurs appartenances particulières ? Les études réunies ici répondent à une double inscription, dans le temps et dans l’espace, de la dévotion au Prophète. Elles intéressent aussi bien le Proche et le Moyen-Orient que le Maghreb, les mondes turc et persan et le sous-continent indien et couvrent trois périodes qui correspondent aux trois parties du volume : l’islam primitif ou encore la période « fondatrice » ; la période de formation ou de constitution des savoirs et des appartenances (IXe -XIe  siècles) ; et enfin, du ove  au axe  siècle, l’affirmation croissante de la vénération du Prophète et de son rôle dans la réalisation spirituelle et dans les attentes messianiques.

• Télécharger et lire l’introduction de Nelly Amri, Rachida Chih, Denis Gril.




Nelly Amri, Rachida Chih et Denis Gril – La dévotion au Prophète de l’islam : une histoire qui reste à faire , p. 11

 I – Entre humanité ordinaire et sacralité : la construction d’un modèle

Denis Gril – « Comme s’il y avait des oiseaux sur leurs têtes ». L’attitude des Compagnons envers le Prophète, 25

Samuela Pagani – « Roi ou serviteur » ? La tentation du Prophète, ou le choix d’un modèle, p. 43

 II – Le prophète dans les premières vocations mystiques

Jean-Jacques Thibon – Transmission du hadith et modèle prophétique chez les premiers soufis, 71

Pierre Lory – Le modèle prophétique chez Hallâj, 89

 III – Normalisation de la présence et de la vénération du Prophète

Nelly Amri – Figures du Prophète et modalités de sa présence dans les récits visionnaires du Maghreb : la Ru’y. de ‘Abd al-Salâm al-Asmar al-Faytûrî (m. 981/1573), p. 103

Stefan Reichmuth – Aspects of Prophetic Piety in the Early Modern Period, p. 129

Hiba Abid – La vénération du Prophète en Occident musulman à travers l’étude codicologique de livres de piété (xie/xviie-xiiie/xixe siècles), p. 151

Rachida Chih – Anthropologie d’une fête musulmane non canonique. La célébration de la naissance du Prophète (al-Mawlid al-nabawî), p. 177



Conference on the emergence of the Ḥadīṯ, Cairo 2018



IDEO Conference

The emergence of the Ḥadīṯ as the authority of knowledge
ظهور الحديث النبويّ كمرجعيّة علميّة
يوم الخميس ١١ يناير / Thursday, January 11
(بمسرح المعهد الفرنسيّ بالمنيرة / French Institute in Munira)
٩:٣٠—١٠ صبحًا    كلمة الافتتاح
كلمة الأب جون درويل، مدير المعهد الدومينكيّ للدراسات الشرقيّة
١٠—١١ صبحًا    وليد صالح، أستاذ شرف، أستاذ في الأديان، جامعة تورونتو (كندا)
الحديث والتفسير، عودة التبصّراستراحة / pause

١١:٣٠—١٢ ظهرًا    سعيد الطارشيّ، باحث ثقافيّ في وزارة التراث والثقافة (سلطانة عمان)
الحديث النبويّ كمرجعيّة علميّة عند الإباضيّة في عمان: متى ولماذا؟
١٢—١٢:٣٠ ظهرًا    أحمد وجيه، مدرّس بدار العلوم، جامعة القاهرة (مصر)
موقع الحديث النبويّ من البنية الاستدلاليّة لعلم الكلام: كتاب أساس التقديس للرازيّ نموذجًا
١٢:٣٠—١ ظهرًا    جيوم دفو، باحث بالمعهد الدومينكيّ للدراسات الشرقيّة (مصر)
دراسة تأويليّة: حديث العلماء ورثة الأنبياء

غداء / lunch

٢—٢:٣٠ ظهرًا    إلياس أمحرار، مدرّس مساعد بجامعة مرسيليا (فرنسا)
العقلانية والحديث عند الخطيب البغدادي (٤٦٣/١٠٦٣): قراءة مقتطف لـ«الفقيه والمتفقّه»
٢:٣٠—٣ مساءً    عبد الكريم شتويّ، باحث مستقلّ في الدراسات العربيّة والإسلاميّة (فرنسا)
الحديث كمرجعيّة علميّة وشرعيّة، مثال: خلافة عمر بن عبد العزيز (١٠١/٧٢٠)
(مداخلة باللغة الفرنسيّة)
٣—٣:٣٠ مساءً    علاء بدويّ، باحث في تاريخ الطبّ الإسلاميّ (مصر)
الرؤى الحديثيّة في معالجة وباء الطاعون واستخداماتها في العصر المملوكيّ

Friday, January 12 / يوم الجمعة ١٢ يناير
(French Institute in Munira / بمسرح المعهد الفرنسيّ بالمنيرة)2‒2:30 pm    Presentation and summary of the previous day’s talks
2:30‒3:30 pm    Aisha Geissinger, Guest speaker, Carleton University, Ottawa (Canada)
Ḥadīths, exegetical authority, and gender: From al-Bukhārī’s (256/870) Ṣaḥīḥ to al-Baghawī’s (516/1122) Maʿālim al-Tanzīl

Pause / استراحة

4‒4:30 pm    Raashid S. Goyal, PhD Candidate, Cornell University, Ithaca NY (USA)
The Arghal tradition: A primitive ruling concerning male circumcision, evincing a shared Judaic and Islamic context
4:30‒5 pm    Adrien Candiard, OP, PhD Candidate, EPHE (France) / IDEO (Egypt)
Ḍaʿīf al-ḥadīṯ ḫayr min raʾy: Weakness and strength of the ḥadīṯ in Ibn Taymiyya’s (728/1328) theological thinking (728/ 1328)
5‒5:30 pm    Kamaluddin Ahmed, PhD candidate, Oxford University (United Kingdom)
Revisiting the Raʾy and Ḥadīth synthesis in Islamic law

Pause / استراحة

6‒6:30 pm    Usman Ghani, Assistant professor, University of Sharja (Emirates)
Justifying the role of Prophetic narration in Ḥanafī jurisprudence: The case of al-Zaylaʿī’s (762/1360) Naṣb al-rāya as a Ḥadīth companion to al-Marghīnānī’s (593/1197) al-Hidāya
6:30‒7 pm    Ruggero Sanseverino, Junior-Professor, University of Tübingen (Germany)
Transmission and authenticity in the Maghreb of the 12th century: Conditions and significance of the conservation of the Prophet’s legacy according to al-Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ’s (544/1149) ‘Elucidation concerning the knowledge of hadith transmission’

Saturday, January 13 / يوم السبت ١٣ يناير

10‒12 am Workshops / العمل ورش / ateliers
Participation to the workshops is subject to prior registration at the end of the second day.

يشترط المشاركة في ورش العمل التسجيل مسبّقًا في نهاية اليوم الثاني من الندوة


2‒3 pm Plenary session (English)
3‒4 pm Conclusions (English)

A four years research program

Tomb cover, Turkey, 1800s, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Attachment to the Prophet in Islam

Attachment to the Prophet is shared by all the  different  individuals,  groups  and communities which define themselves as Muslims, whether Sunnī or Shīʿī, whether attached to the letter or rather the spirit of Islam, whether proponents of Islamic reform or secular Muslims. As a focus for personal emulation and normative precedence and as a source of hope for salvation, cultural pride and empowerment, the Prophet of Islam continues his presence among the Muslim believers. This includes eschatological beliefs about him which connect the beginnings of Islam (and for some also the origin oft he whole created world) with the present time and the end of days. A metahistorical immediacy is also evoked by the transmitted Prophetical sayings, which speak to the believer and suggest blessing and even victory for those who keep hold the Prophetic Sunna. Building on patterns of piety which emerged already in later medieval times, the Prophetic model has since the early modern period (its beginning taken here from c. 1450) increasingly moved among both Sunnī and Shīʿī Muslims into the core of personal and collective efforts to strengthen the individual and to renew Islamic culture and politics. But the increased attachment to  the  Prophet  has equally reinforced and deepened the existing fractures within Islam, and also the tensions and conflicts with non-­Muslims, which have gained in intensity whenever the Prophet and his image are at stake.

A Franco-­German research group

Bochum – April 2017

 The joint explorative enterprise intended by this Franco-­German research group, which has been engaged in academic exchange for a number  of  years,  seeks  to  explore  the  various forms of attachment to the Prophet which have contributed to the formation of the Muslim individual and to the development of Islamic culture and politics since  the  early  modern period,  in  a  time  of  continuing  expansion  but  also  decentering  of  the  Muslim  world.

A four-years program

The four-­years programme will in its first year focus on the development of  the  doctrinal, cultural and medial representations of the Prophet (1. ʺRepresentations of the Prophet: figurations and controversies”). It will shift in the second year to the Prophet as a ressource of personal and collective empowerment and of legal and political authority and power (2. “Heirs of the Prophet: authority and power”). The third year will be dedicated to the dynamics of individual and collective experience connected with  Prophetic  piety  (3. “Prophetic piety between individual and collective experience”). The last year will be devoted to the publications. The programme is designed to clear the ground for interdisciplinary and comparative approaches to the history of Prophetic piety and its different dimensions since the early modern period. Its larger goal is to contribute to a better understanding of the interplay between religion, society and politics in a central field of Islamic culture which has turned over the last decades into an arena of conflict on an increasingly global scale.