The art of shamayil (large religious figurative—among the Ja‘fari Shiites, especially—or calligraphic motives painted on glass, printed on paper, or embroidered on fabric, usually hanged up on the southern wall of private houses in the Middle Volga region, indicating the direction of the Ka‘ba) has been developed among Sunni Tatars from the late nineteenth century to the early Soviet period, and again since the early 1990s. If the word itself comes from the classical Arabic literary genre devoted to the praise of the Prophet Muhammad’s ‘virtues (shamayil),’ it came with the meaning of “holy image” from Qajar Iran to the Middle Volga region, where shamayil developed as an artistic genre under the direct influence of nineteenth-century Ottoman glass-painting (jamaltı). Strongly stimulated by the opening of a school of Arabic calligraphy in Kazan University in 1843, by the gradual intensification of exchanges with the world of Islam (notably through the hajj), and by the multiplication of private typographies in the late nineteenth century, the Tatar shamayil rapidly developed and gave way to a large typology of subjects—from suras of the Qur’an or hadithes to praises of the prophets and saints of Islam, to symbols of the Sufi mystical paths, to representations of the mosques of Mecca, Medina, and Istanbul, and even to texts from non-religious authors like those of the early-twentieth-century Volga Tatar poet ‘Abd-Allah Tuqay. Reconstructing the history of shamayil as an artistic genre, the author casts light on its traditional prophylactic role (a magical value being recognised to the names of Allah, or to those of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus—not only in the Volga region, as suggested by the author as far as the latter are concerned, but in the whole world of Islam, and beyond—and generally speaking to the letters of the Arabic alphabet).
Diffused from main cities to village areas, where it later became a symbol of rural culture, the Tatar shamayil first developed in the context of the strong Orthodox pressure of the 1870s-1900s, as an Islamic counterpart of Christian icons. As to the reproduction of Tuqay’s verses on the mother tongue, it responded to the limitations of public use of Tatar language in the Volga region during the same period of time. Forcibly replaced in the early Soviet period by agitki painted on glass that were supposed to plunge them into oblivion, the art of Tatar shamayil has been transmitted through the twentieth century by a limited number of calligraphers, among whom Baqi Urmanche (1897-1990), a former pupil of the reformed Muhammadiyya Madrasa and the Institute of Oriental Studies of Kazan, and an active participant in the debates on the reform of the Arabic alphabet in the early 1920s. Deported under Stalin to the Solovki Gulag camp of evil memory, Urmanche was for long obliged to hide the ethical teachings of the Naqshbandiyya mystical path—not recognised even by the author of the present article . . .— under the garb of popular Tatar proverbs, but he could transmit a significant part of his knowledge through his teaching at the Kazan University in the very last years of his lifetime. The current developments of the art of shamayil in the Middle Volga region are evoked through some leading modes, like that of the Ottoman-style tughra for the stylisation of private clients’ family names. If the author’s allusion to the influence of Islamic reformism and Jadidism on early-twentieth-century shamayil remains undocumented, and if a systematic study of the chronological development of Tatar shamayil remains to be done, R. Shamsutov’s pioneering study nonetheless sheds a welcome light on a hitherto totally neglected but highly significant aspect of modern and contemporary religious practice and artistic creation in the Volga region.