It is generally agreed among Muslims that contemporaries of the prophet Muḥammad sought blessings through physical contact with his person or that which had touched his body. In a narration by al-Miswar bin Makhrama, and reported as an authentic ḥadīth by al-Bukhārī, it is said that while the prophet Muḥammad was performing the ablution before prayer, his Companions gathered around him. “Whenever God’s Messenger spat, the spittle would fall in the hand of one of them, who would then rub it on his face and skin; if he ordered them they would carry his orders immediately; if he performed ablution, they would struggle to take the remaining water; and when they spoke to him, they would lower their voices and would not look at his face constantly out of respect.”
In another narration by Anas ibn Mālik and reported as an authentic ḥadīth by Muslim, the prophet visits the barber after having performed the ritual pilgrimage. When at the barber, “he turned the right side of his head towards him, and had it shaved. He then called Abū Ṭalḥa al-Anṣārī and gave it to him. He then turned his left side and asked the barber to shave. And he shaved it and gave it to Abū Ṭalḥa and told him to distribute it among the people.” When reading this piece on the prophet’s sandal, one has to take into consideration this absolute and far-reaching love and veneration Muḥammad’s companions had for their prophet.
Although there’s a certain disagreement on the continuation of this practice after the prophet’s death, especially after the advent of increasingly puritan movements withing the Muslim world, Muḥammad’s supposed relics are still commonly revered to this day. Most of these relics currently reside in Turkey as a legacy of the Ottoman conquests, especially in the Topkapi Palace. After the conquest of Egypt and the defeat of its Mamluk overlords in 1516-1517, many holy objects were taken back to the Turkish heartlands, among others a holy mantle, a tooth and a standard all attributed to the prophet Muḥammad. Also held at the Topkapi Palace is a pair of sandals (naʿlayn al-nabī) said to be worn by the prophet.
These were described by several scholars, notably Moroccan historian Aḥmad al-Maqqarī (1577-1644). He wrote Fatḥ al-Mutaʿāl fi Madḥ al-Naʿāl, a collection on everything written and reported about the sandals, in which he mentions the existence of several pairs, some lost even in his time. The relic was first mentioned in 13th century Damascus, and al-Maqqarī included drawings in his book as they were used by people as a protective talisman for “it protected one’s house from fire, caravans from hostile attacks, ships from disaster at sea and property from loss.” The sandals, which the prophet’s feet were placed upon, obviously became a revered symbol of Muḥammad himself. They are frequently found in poetry in praise of him, giving raise to a specific genre evolving around the sandals, especially in the Islamic Maghreb. A poem by Andalusian poetess Umm Sa’d bint ʿIṣām al-Ḥimyariyya (d.1242) is mentioned in Und Muhammad ist sein Prophet (1981) by Annemarie Schimmel:
I shall kiss the image if I do not find
A way to kiss the Prophet’s sandal
Perhaps the good fortune of kissing it
Will be granted to me in Paradise in the most radiant place
And I rub my heart on it so that perhaps
The burning thirst which rages in it may be quenched
Based on the form of the Topkapi sandals, and those who were historically held in cities like Damascus, Fez and Cairo as visualized by al-Maqqarī, an iconographic representation was drawn and popularized across the Muslim world and in Islamicate art, with a distinctive form as seen at the top of this piece. Although veneration of relics existed from the Middle Ages on, it grew in importance in the Ottoman period, as part of the intensification of devotion to the prophet in this period. Visual reproductions of those relics proliferated, usually in the context of devotional texts and prayer books.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.