Mihrabs—which mark prayer direction on the Mecca-facing (qibla) wall in a mosque—have a long history in Islamic art and architecture. They commonly appear as recessed niches with pointed arches supported by columns and enclosed by bands of inscription. Mihrabshaped panels, like this one, were typically commemorative, serving as tombstones or place markers, for example in shrines or mausoleums. As there is no deceased individual’s name here, this panel was likely not a tombstone.
The panel’s decorative program presents a lot of information on a compact surface. God’s majesty and power are described in three Arabic inscriptions (see translations below). The hanging lamp is seen in mosques, mausoleums, and schools (madrasas), where it symbolizes God’s presence. The beauty of the message is further enhanced through four different calligraphic scripts, geometric and vegetal patterning, and muqarnas (decorative vaulting), which are seen widely on secular and religious artworks.
1 Sympathy is Allah’s; Power is Allah’s; Strength is Allah’s; Guidance is Allah’s.
2 [Qur’an, chapter 24, “The Light” (Sura al-Nur), verses 35–36]
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
The likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp
(the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree, an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil would shine, even if no fire touched it;
Light upon Light, Allah guides to His Light whom He Will [. . .][Such niches are] in mosques which Allah has ordered to be raised
and that His name be mentioned therein;
exalting Him within them in the morning and the evenings.
3 [Throne Verse (Ayat al-Kursi) in the Qur’an, chapter 2, “The Cow,” verse 255]
Allah! There is no God but He,
the Living, the Self-subsisting, the Eternal.
No slumber can seize Him, nor sleep.
All things in heaven and earth are His.
Who could intercede in His presence without His permission?
He knows what appears in front of and behind His creatures.
Nor can they encompass any knowledge of Him except what he wills.His throne extends over the heavens and the earth,
and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them,
for He is the Highest and Most Exalted.
Allah, the Most High, speaks the truth.
4 The Prophet [Muhammad], peace be upon him, said . . .