Sabancı Üniversitesi


History Seminar: Dr. Nur Sobers-Khan (University of Exeter)

Dr. Nur Sobers-Khan (Senior Research Fellow, University of Exeter)

"Visual and Haptic Devotional Practices in the Enam-i Serif Manuscript Corpus: A perspective from the 19th-century Ottoman Empire with comparisons to South Asia"


Fundamental questions of what constitutes 'The Islamic' (Shahab Ahmed, Thomas Bauer) and 'Islamic Art' (Wendy Shaw) have been addressed to great effect in recent scholarship. One aspect that recent analyses share is their insistence on the diverse, transregional and flexible nature of Muslim identity and subjectivity and the capacious nature of 'Islam' as a term that captures multifold intellectual and visual practices across a range of geographies, both real and imaginary. In this paper, I will focus on common threads of transregional visual and haptic practices of Islamic devotion between the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire and South Asia, as evidenced in illustrated manuscripts and lithographs, in particular the corpus of devotional prayer litanies, such as the Enam-i Serif and Dala'il al-Khayrat manuscripts. This talk will first explore the imagery and text of an Ottoman Enam-i Serif prayer manuscript dated 1294/1877, which was commissioned by the Ottoman princess Refia Sultan (d. 1880), daughter of Sultan Abdülmecid I (r. 1839–61) as a gift for the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. The manuscript ties the readers to a set of devotional practices related to the prophetic and eschatological imagery of this type of prayer books, through recitation, gazing, and possibly touching or tracing its images. The text appears to be linked to collective practices of recitation of Sufi litanies and prayers that marked the religious practice of women in the Ottoman court. This talk situates the manuscript in the context of the popularity of the Naqshbandi Sufi order at the late nineteenth-century Ottoman court and with the wider history of relic veneration in the premodern Islamic world. It is proposed that the imagery and text of the manuscript provide the historian insight into courtly religious practices at the court and beyond, as well as artistic practices of depicting holy relics. Ownership of such a text connected their readers – and viewers and reciters – to a shared praxis and affective community that shaped their devotional, eschatological, and apotropaic beliefs and practices that revolved around such elaborately illuminated and illustrated prayer manuscripts. After examining this manuscript and its recommended prayers and embodied practices, my talk will attempt a comparison with the illustrative programmes and visual and haptic devotional practices, associated with prayer litanies and images of relics in 19th-century South Asia. These materials will be brought into conversation by way of tracing transregional sensibilities of visuality, prayer, and embodied prayer to explore some similarities in a (pre?)-modern Muslim devotional habitus.


Nur Sobers-Khan is a researcher and curator of Islamic manuscripts, art and archival collections. She served as director of the Aga Khan Documentation Center (2021-22), a research centre and archive dedicated to the study of visual culture, architecture and urbanism in Muslim societies. From 2015-2021, she was the Lead Curator for South Asian Collections at the British Library, London, where she was head of the South Asia section and responsible for curating the South Asian printed books and manuscript collections and also led a team of specialist curators. During this time, she was Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded research and digitisation project Two Centuries of Indian Print (2016-2021), and her research emerging from this project pivots around two questions: the role of the dispersal and removal of cultural heritage artefacts from South Asia under British colonialism as a contributing factor in shaping Islamic intellectual life in the second half of the 19th century, and the transition from manuscript to print in the same period and the circulation of lithographed texts on cosmology, dream interpretation and other divinatory literatures. She previously served as the Iran Heritage Fellowship Persian Manuscript Curator at the British Library (2012-13) and was Curator for Turkey and the Ottoman Empire at the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (2014-15). Book-length publications include a monograph based on her PhD research, entitled Slaves Without Shackles: Forced Labour and Manumission in the Galata Court Registers, 1560–1572, published by Klaus Schwarz Verlag in 2014 (now by De Gruyter), a co-authored exhibition catalogue Qajar Women: Images of Women in 19th-century Iran (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2016), and co-edited double issue special edition of the International Journal of Islam in Asia, entitled Islam and Print in South Asia (Vol 3, Issue 1-2, Sept 2023). Her reviews and articles have appeared in Oriens, Journal of Early Modern History, Critical Muslim, and Global Intellectual History and various edited volumes. She completed her graduate and undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Cambridge, with a PhD in Islamic History in 2012 and an undergraduate degree in Oriental Studies in 2006 (BA Hons MA), with a focus on Arabic and Persian philology and the literature and history of the Middle East.