Dala’il al-Khayrat: Depicting Mecca Across the Islamic World

The hajj pilgrimage is a life-shaping experience for millions of Muslims around the world. It culminates with the arrival at the Holy Mosque in Mecca. These manuscripts from the collections of the National Library of Israel depict the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina in colorful illustrations, an artistic expression of faith that continues to evolve…

Lauren Ehrmann
The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, Ottoman Empire, 1795. From the Collections of the National Library of Israel.

Can a selfie be sacred? Every year, millions of Muslims from across the world travel to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage known as the hajj. These days, however, there is no need to make the journey to Saudi Arabia to be a part of the experience. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms are flooded with pilgrim posts; #hajjselfie is always trending during the ten days of the pilgrimage, which began this year on July 7.

While some claim today that hajj selfies are narcissistic and defy the pilgrimage’s spiritual purpose, others argue that such images are an important way to remember a pivotal experience and share it with others. And, in fact, picturing the holy places–if in paintings and drawings rather than selfies–has served to connect Muslims with the pilgrimage for hundreds of years.

Dala’il al-Khayrat (Signs of Benevolent Deeds) is a fifteenth century Arabic work containing a series of prayers and blessings for the Prophet Muhammad. Written by the Moroccan Sufi mystic Muhammad al-Jazuli, it is the most-reproduced Islamic devotional text after the Qur’an. Alongside the devotional content, Dala’il al-Khayrat manuscripts from North Africa to India also include illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina and the Holy Mosque in Mecca. But as the dozens of manuscripts in the National Library of Israel collections show, depictions of Mecca and ideas about its veneration have shifted across space and time; each Muslim community has pictured the sacred sites in light of its own culture.

The undated North African manuscript you can see here contains a two-page spread depicting Mecca on the right and Medina on the left. The image of Mecca shows the Holy Mosque with the dark cube of the Ka‘ba in the center. This is the most sacred site in Islam, and circumambulating the Ka‘ba, known as the House of God, is the central ritual of the hajj. The meeting-places of the four canonical Islamic schools of law, represented by rectangles with red triangular roofs, surround the Ka‘ba. The image’s calligraphic script, colors, and braided borders mark this image as distinctly North African.

Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, North Africa, seventeenth century. The white tape obscuring the Ka‘ba was added by a later owner. From the collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

The use of abstraction and labeling in this image makes it look more like a map than a painting. The details show us that the artist is interested in mapping spiritual rather than physical space. For example, the buildings and minarets that surround the Ka‘ba are all oriented towards it. This emphasizes the role of the Ka‘ba as the spiritual center of the universe. In addition, the space around the Ka‘ba is divided into four quarters, each labeled with a geographic location, creating a global spiritual geography with the Ka‘ba at its heart. Through this illumination, we see that North African traditions venerated Mecca by emphasizing its centrality in Muslim spiritual geography.

Across the Middle East, in late eighteenth century India, Mecca was imagined in a markedly different way. This manuscript of the Dala’il perhaps originates in Kashmir, a region whose artistic style was heavily influenced by North Indian Mughal manuscripts as well as Persian manuscripts. The illumination of Mecca in this copy reflects both of these traditions.

The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, possibly Kashmir, nineteenth century. From the collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

In the image of the Sacred Mosque on the right, the Ka‘ba is again surrounded by the study-places of the four schools of Islamic law, here shown topped with domes. The decorations and color palette reflect both Persian and Mughal influence on local Kashmiri traditions. For example, the key-shaped multi-lobed arches that can be seen in some of  the small domed outbuildings are derived from North Indian Mughal architecture. The small, repeated floral patterns that form the background are also common in both Mughal and Persian manuscripts.

The elaborate decoration in this image highlights the importance of Mecca. Using decoration to indicate significance and holiness is a long-established tradition in Islamic manuscripts, beginning with the use of illumination in the Qur’an itself to highlight the importance of the text. Lavishing the image of Mecca with sumptuous decoration communicates the importance and holiness of this key site.

The last manuscript comes from Ottoman Turkey, the seat of the caliphate and the heart of the Islamic world when it was copied in 1795. The illustrations in this manuscript depict Mecca and Medina from a bird’s-eye view in a classic example of European-style perspective. The Ka‘ba and its outbuildings are shown as three-dimensional and the painting’s light shines from a single source. The colors are likewise naturalistic. The European influence on this illustration reflects the broader context of artistic exchange between the Ottoman Empire and its European neighbors. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire increased diplomatic relationships with Europe, creating new opportunities for artists to explore one another’s traditions. As part of this exchange, Ottoman artists became interested in the conventions of European illusionistic painting and began to incorporate techniques such as perspective, modeling, and shading into their work.

The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, Ottoman Empire, 1795. From the Collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

While the North African image of Mecca emphasizes spiritual geography and the Kashmiri illustration uses decoration as a form of emphasis and veneration, in the Ottoman illumination the veneration of Mecca is linked to Ottoman political power in the region. The Ottoman sultans gained control of Mecca and Medina and became khādim al-haramayn al-sharifayn, the “servants of the two holy sanctuaries,” in the fifteenth century, and depictions of Mecca became more and more popular in the Ottoman Empire immediately thereafter. Visually, this image reflects Ottoman cartography, which also used bird’s-eye view perspective derived from European maps, suggesting that depictions of Mecca were linked to depictions of other kinds of political territory in the expanding empire. Ottoman illustrations of Mecca venerate the holy city by portraying it as a key political territory and highlighting the sacred duty of the Ottoman Empire to protect the holy cities and all pilgrims who travel to them.



Further Reading:

Abid, Hiba. “The Birth of a Successful Prayer Book: The Manuscript Tradition of the Dala’il al-Khayrat in North Africa.” Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 12 (2021): 265-294.

Beyazit, Deniz. “Defining Ottoman Realism in the Uppsala Mecca Painting.” Muqarnas 37 (2020): 209–245.

Roxburgh, David J. “Pilgrimage City.” In The City in the Islamic World, edited by Renata Holod et al, 753-774. Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Witkam, Jan Just. “The battle of the images. Mecca vs. Medina in the iconography of the manuscripts of al-Jazūlī’s Dalā’il al-khayrāt.” In Theoretical approaches to the transmission and edition of Oriental manuscripts. Proceedings of a symposium held in Istanbul, March 28-30, 2001. Ed. Judith Peiffer, Manfred Kropp, 67-82. Beirut: Ergon Verlag Würzburg in Kommission, 2007.



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