SOME PROBLEMS of
Murray Lee Eiland
The entire subject of Islamic heraldry is contentious. Perhaps the first issue to address is the one of pictorial representation. Many assume that any heraldry in the Islamic world must be a transplanted tradition. Common wisdom—at least from some Western perspectives—suggests that Muslims cannot be artists. As is clear from even a cursory appreciation of Islamic art, objects may be depicted, and there are clear artistic cannons that are followed over time. Many aspects of Islamic art may be traced to cultures hundreds of years before the conquest. Geometric designs are of primary importance, though floral forms as well as animals are also encountered. Yet there are restrictions on Islamic art, as are outlined in one of the traditions associated with the Prophet1:
Book of Sales, Chapter 54: 1045
A man came and said "O Ibn 'Abbâs! I am only a human being. My sustenance is from my manual profession and I make these pictures." Ibn 'Abbâs said "I will tell you only what I heard from Allâh's Messenger. I heard him saying, 'Whoever makes a picture will be punished by Allâh till he puts a soul (life) into it, and he will never be able to put a soul (life) into it.' Hearing this, that man heaved a sigh and his face turned pale. Ibn 'Abbâs said to him, "What a pity! If you insist on making pictures I advise you to make pictures of trees and any other unanimated objects having no souls.
The Translation of the Meanings of Summarized Sahîh Al-Bukhâri: Arabic-English. Translated by M.M. Khân. Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1994. p. 488
While some claim evidence that at least some Islamic blazons were hereditary, others contend that, with so little information, the evidence is too fragmentary to draw any solid conclusions. The latter observation has merit, as there are no records about how, to whom, and why arms were granted. One may surmise that a ruler was empowered to grant them to a subject, although a subject may also have the right to bear a symbol without approval. Putting these issues aside for a moment, there are several questions that are raised from art history alone. By simply looking at some Islamic arms the images they bear may reflect something about the society, and may indicate whether they were given or assumed. It is perhaps best to start with a simple blazon.
1. A hadith is a narrative account of the life of the Prophet, or what he
approved of. The term was also used in a broader sense to include the life of the companions and successors of the Prophet.