Medieval Islamicate Creature a Day

Starting late, work and class has run me ragged!

I'm going to be going through two important late 1200s works of "miraculous literature" - first the famous Arabic encyclopedia of mirabilia - the Aja'ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara'ib al-Mawjudat (or Wonders of Creation and Oddities of Existence) by the scholar Zakariya ibn Muhammad ibn Mahmud al-Qazvini. All sorts of strange and wondrous creatures appear in this book: fantastical plants and animals, angels, jinn, antediluvian races of men, intelligent monsters, etc. The second is the anonymously produced Mi'rajnama (or Book of Ascension) - an account of Prophet Muhammad's journey into the heavens and the Divine sights he saw. For each, I'll provide a description of al-Qazvini's or the Ascension Author's text on the entry and some ideas on implementing the creature in a TC&TC, Levantine Tribunal, or even standard European Ars saga. I have a terrible head for stats, so if I make any suggestions there I'll keep it mostly to ideas on reskinning existing stats for creatures to represent the entry.

I'll try to accompany all of them with period illustrations from the London, Munich, and Edinburgh Ilkhanate codices of the books, which are truly beautiful books despite the damage caused by the years and ignorant book merchants in the 1800s, and other 1200s Eastern Islamicate illustrated texts. The flourishing of wonder literature represents a remarkable phenomenon within the context of Islamic illustrated manuscript production of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, an age when Muslim artists incorporated both Western styles that entered their radar through the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople and Chinese-Mongol art brought westward by Mongol armies and the scholars in their train. Al-Qazvini, who dedicated his text to the Juwayni viziers of the Mongol Ilkhans and taught at the grand research institute of Nasir al-Din Tusi, is believed to have lectured using his own text. The Munich codex, which was finished in Wasit three years before his death, arguably represents a sanctioned copy by al-Qazvini himself if not one of his own textbooks. By extension, we can infer that the Wonders of Creation and the Book of Ascension were conceived, written and planned by their authors to be illustrated texts. I'll make sure wishes are honored digitally here.

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The Human Headed Rook (Wonders of Creation)


The Human Headed Rook and its master, Qadi Yahya

He said: ‘Ask it something.’ I said: ‘What are you?’ [The rook] rose and recited with eloquent words: ‘I am the Rook Abu 'Ajwa/ I am the son of a Lion and a Lioness /I am the crow's adopted son that exhumes the dead/I know the oldest of songs.

The first stop on our journey comes from al-Qazvini's book and is pretty representative of some of his more unusual entries. The story itself has some illustrious names mentioned - al-Qazvini reports it on the authority of the 10th century grammarian Abu Said al-Sirafi, who in turn based his accounts on the writings of the jurist and logician Yahya ibn al-Aktham, twice the chief qadi of the Abbasid Caliphate during the reigns of Caliphs al-Ma'mun and al-Muttawakkil. In Wonders, Qadi Yahya (who bounced in and out of caliphal favor with some regularity) is queried about his gift for the caliph, which is obscured in a satchel. He takes the cage out, revealing a rook with a human head and two wings, one on its back and one on its chest. The qadi tells the marveling interlocutor to ask the rook a question, which responds by delivering a brief poem before falling silent, uttering only the words "Rook! Rook!"

The middle two stanzas of the poem appear to be referencing the pre-Islamic Mu'allaqat poems, as a display of the Rook's literary talents. Rooks as stepchildren of crows is a concept that goes back to the Abbasid belles-lettres writer al-Jahiz in his Book of Animals, where he says of the rook that:

...it is known that this bird rejects its chicks, which are adopted by the ghurab.

The connection between grave-digging and the crow is found in the Qur'an in the remarkable section of Cain and Abel's story. Following Cain’s murder of his brother:

“God sent a crow scratching up the ground, to show him how to hide his brother’s naked corpse. He said: Woe unto me! Am I not able to be as this crow and so hide my brother’s naked corpse? And he became repentant.”(Qur'an 5:31)

The Human Headed Rook here - after tying itself to the crow imagery through zoological knowledge - portrays itself as the opposite of the divinely inspired crow which showed Cain how to perform a burial, exhuming the dead instead. The last stanza of the Rook's poem is the most obscure, but my own personal guess is that this line is tied to the Sufi writings of Ibn Arabi, newly popular in the Anatolian-Iranian sphere. In his book of mystical allegory The Universal Tree and the Four Birds, Ibn Arabi has The Jet Black Crow say:

I am the source of habitations and the foundation of songs.
I am the secret of an Imam, a noble one, high in place.

Dr. Angela Jaffrey explains these lines in her translation of the text:

Since the cosmos is created upon principles of arithmetic, geometry, and music, all these principles receive their first determination in the Universal Body. For that reason, the Crow [an allegory for the Universal Body] rightly calls himself the “foundation of songs”.

What's Gameable Here?

So, what gameable ideas can we draw out of this? The Human Headed Rook feels to me like a creature of the Magic realm, to start with. It probably could act as a teacher for a character if captured or bargained with, considering its knowledge of literature as well as (if my attempt at cross-reading is correct) mathematics and music. The weirdest and most compelling element is its reversal of the divine origins of burial rites, maybe it has necromantic powers? It could speak to the dead beyond the Barzakh or perhaps even cause corpses to rise and shamble about. The text of The Wonders describes a book that Qadi Yahya was said to have written on the extraordinary abilities of this bird; if a sahir gets his hands on it, they might be able to summon and control the bird itself.

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Nuryabil, Gatekeeper of the Seventh Heaven and Angel of the Scroll (Book of Ascension)


Nuryabil and his angelic host welcome Jibril (Gabriel) and the Prophet Muhammad as the pair ascend towards the Throne of God.

Then Jibril lifted me up and took me five hundred years’ distance to the seventh heaven. I saw that the substance of the seventh sky was of light. Its breadth was five hundred years’ [distance]. Its name was ‛Arniyā, and the name of its guardian [angel] was Nuryabil. His prayer was this: “Praise be to the Creator of Light, praise be to the most High, praise be to the Exalted and Blessed One, praise be to the Knower of the Unseen, for He does not make anyone acquainted with His secret.”

Angels in Islam are a complicated and shockingly understudied topic (in modern academia that is.) Despite their central importance - disbelief in angels renders one outside the fold of Islam entirely according to essentially every major premodern Muslim book of aqeedah and much of creation, prophecy, revelation etc. can't understood without them - there's a couple reasons why angels haven't gotten much scholarly attention. One difficulty is the "fluidity, instability and diversity of beliefs about angels" within Islam; the Qu'ran and the canonized hadith collections do not present anything even approaching a homogenous dogma of angels, despite what Wikipedia might say! As S. R. Burge puts it: "it is impossible to talk of ‘Islamic angelology’....as there is no systematic ‘theology’
of angels that transcends all individuals or groups within the religion."

There's certainly room (although perhaps not interest :sweat_smile:) for a much larger post on Islamic angelologies - plural! - during the classical and early postclassic periods of theological writing. Today, though, we're looking at one angel in particular.

Nūryābīl is a rather obscure angel, especially considering his (even though angels are often referred to in the masculine, they don't have any gender, it's just convention) lofty position. The Book of Ascension describes the Prophet's meeting with him during the Night Journey, when he traveled on back of the Buraq to Jerusalem and then up into the heavens with Jibril in one night. Nuryabil, distinguished by his great size and resplendent wings, and his crowned helpers greet the Prophet warmly. He teaches the Prophet a prayer to bring back to Earth for his community when his Night Journey is complete and then ushers Muhammad into a realm nearly beyond even the Prophet's ability to comprehend:

I saw angels of light. If they ordered me to describe them, I could never in my whole life describe them because of their size, their splendour, and the beauty of their voices...I saw angels with light coming out of their mouths. Because of the strangeness of their shape and the beauty of their prayers, I almost gave up the ghost. Jibril said to me “Do not be afraid, because tonight God Most High will bring you to a place that nobody has ever reached.” I gained strength from God. I stood up and greeted them.

[Insert Biblically Qur'anically Accurate Angel meme here.]

The painting of Nuryabil in the Book of Ascension, shown in this post, is a remarkable display of the diverse array of influences that combined to form the art of mid-late 1200s Ilkhanate. The wings of the gatekeeper angel are just as striking as the narrative suggests, using Indian birds imported from the Delhi Sultanate as a reference. The golden nimbus that surrounds the head is a borrowing from Byzantine iconography - "halos" are traditionally shown in Islamic art as an aura of fire cloaking the holy figure. Nuryabil and his angels are dressed like Mongol royalty; they wear the jeweled belts and the rich nomad tunics of khagans. The angels' long black hair is plaited in Seljuk fashion, twin braids trailing down on either side. Their crowns are drawn in the style of French art norms from the Crusader States and their faces are patterned on Persianate ideals of androgynous beauty.

The account of the angel Nuryabil, like much of the Ilkhanid Book of Ascension, is drawn from the Kitab al-Mi'raj of the 10th century Nishapuri Sufi scholar Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri. Al-Qushayri's version of the Seventh Heaven, itself assembled from various Prophetic narrations, calls the gatekeeper angel Nuryayil and is not much more detailed than the Ilkhanid text quoted at the beginning. It contains one particularly interesting element, though, which indirectly adds much to the story; al-Qushayri writes that the angel Nuryalil/Nuryabil is synonymous with the angel Al-Sijill. Although al-Qushayri does not cite any hadith narrations to support this, the resonances between the prayer taught by Nuryabil to the Prophet and al-Sijill's role as well as the placement of al-Sijill in the Seventh Heaven leads me to believe that there's credence to the idea. More importantly, this makes things cooler, so we'll roll with it for this.

Al-Sijill (or The Scroll) is another obscure angel, missing in most angelological texts, but he is mentioned in Imam al-Suyuti's 15th century book of collected narrations on angels called al-Haba'ik fi al-Akhbar al-Mala'ik (or The Arrangement of the Traditions about the Angels.) The first few hadiths recorded on al-Sijill reinterpret the Qu'ranic verse 21:104, shifting the understanding of the verse from a description of a literal divine scroll to a scribal angel named The Scroll.

[244] ‘Abd al-Hamid [on the authority of ‘Atiyya]; he said: al-Sijill is an angel’s name.

[245] Ibn Jarir and Ibn Abi Hatim on the authority of Ibn ‘Umar; he said: Al-Sijill is an angel, when he makes forgiveness ascend, he says: ‘Write it in light!’

[246] Ibn Jarir and Ibn Abi Hatim on the authority of al-Suddi; he said: Al-Sijill is an angel responsible for the books [of Earthly deeds.] When a person dies, he hands over his book to al-Sijill, who shuts it and stores it until the Day of Resurrection.

The last of the narrations on al-Sijill that al-Suyuti cites is the most interesting;

Ibn Abi Hatim and Ibn ‘Asakir on the authority of Abu Ja‘far al-Baqir; he said: al-Sijill is an angel, and Harut and Marut were amongst his helpers. Every day he had [the opportunity] to take three quick looks, during which he would glance at the Umm al-Kitab (or Mother of Books), and have a look. [The book] was not his. [One day] he caught sight of some information in it about the creation of Adam and what was in [the Umm al-Kitab] concerning [Adam]. He secretly told Harut and Marut about it, and when the Most High said: ‘“I am creating on earth a viceroy.” They said, “What, wilt Thou set therein one who will do corruption there.”' [Q. 2:30]; the two of them said: ‘That is disrespectful to the angels.’

Now this is exciting! Firstly, the angel is given the honor of reading from the Mother of Books, also called the Preserved Tablets, in which knowledge of all of the events from the beginning of time to the Day of Judgement are recorded.. He can only look at snippets but even those can provide much information, as his foreknowledge of Adam's creation illustrates. He also is described as the master of the paired angels Harut and Marut, famous as the angels temporarily exiled to Earth (for exactly their objections to humanity's sinful natures, presaged here) and charged with providing humanity the secrets of destructive sorcery as a test for their souls. Finally, although a wholly virtuous creature, there is a bit of subterfuge to his personality when he secretly confers with his subordinates about the introduction of Man. And with all that...

What's Gameable Here?

Quite a bit. The angel Nuryabil, also called al-Sijill, is an immensely powerful divine servitor charged with some of the most important functions in the universe. He watches the entrance into the uppermost Seventh Heaven and receives the book of deeds from each person upon their death for tallying on the Day of Judgement. He is granted a level of access to the Preserved Tablets, allowing him unique glimpses of the Divine Plan. In my opinion, he should built at around 75 Divine Might (placing him on par with figures like the mother goddess Dindyméné in Mythic Locations but decently below more famous major angels like Gabriel/Jibril or Michael/Mika'il.)

Despite this power and importance, I think there's reasons why he might be more prone to interact with magi in your sagas than other angels of comparable power.

  • His snippets of future knowledge could get him entangled in the doings of your players, if they are grand enough. Nuryabil might provide a cryptic warning of future disaster or supernaturally accurate advice to a devout character.

  • He may maintain a particular interest in the lives of magi and other magicians, having been the supervisor and friend of the two angels who first gave humanity the gift of magic. This is likely to be done at a distance, but angels in Islam are far from non-interventionist in the lives of average mortals, and he could always make special note of a given magus or maga in your saga. The attentions of such a potent divine being are bound to cause exciting times, whether or not the character welcomes it.

  • Nuryabil feels rather "human" in some ways, especially for an active angel (no Paradise Lost or Watchers here) of his rank. He earnestly gives the Prophet a prayer to "ease the lives" of people on earth, sneaks peeks at the boss' stuff while on the job, and gossips with his co-workers about odd upcoming events. You can play this up in a game to great effect, as long as his ultimate role as the fierce chief guardian of the Highest Heaven and bearer of grave responsibilities concerning the books of the dead is kept in mind.

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Islands of the Chinese Sea (Wonders of Creation)


The Beautiful People of the Island of Bunan

In 1255, Hülâgû Khan came to Persia to rule, wives and children in his train. As Dr. George Lane put it in his book Early Mongol Rule in Thirteenth Century Iran:

Whereas the violent advent of Chinggis Khan heralded the end of an era in the lands of Persia, the coming of his grandson, Hülegü Khan, marked a new beginning.

With the formation of the Ilkhanate, a vitally important link in The Great Mongol Information Superhighway (a term borrowed from Buell and Anderson's newest publication on the spread of Islamicate medical expertise to Yuan China) was forged. Hülâgû, mostly remembered today as the sacker of Baghdad, was one of the age's greatest patrons of learning. Almost as soon as he got situated in his new capital of Maragha, he ordered the legendary polymath Nasir al-Din Tusi to construct a massive library-observatory that was soon to become famous as "the most advanced scientific institution in the Eurasian world." The Maragha Rasadkhaneh reflected its origins as an attempt to encompass all the knowledge of all the peoples within the Mongol world-empire and beyond. Byzantine astronomer Gregory Chionidas studied his craft under Shams al-Din al-Bukhari at the Rasadkhaneh, while Syriac churchman Bar Hebraeus debated theology with Kagyu school Tibetan Buddhists and the librarian Ibn al-Fuwati dutifully sorted books from as far afield as England and Kaifeng.

One of the many ways this new "information superhighway" - particularly along the southern axis connecting the Ilkhanate and the friendly regime in Yuan China as a counterweight to the Golden Horde-Mamluk partnership - could be seen in action is the diffusion of Southeastern Asian goods and knowledge far afield from their original homelands. Even though Yuan attempts at seaborne imperialism in Java failed, the region was steadily incorporated into the Mongol ecumene:

The Mongols failed in nearly all of their direct efforts to expand overseas, whether into maritime areas such as Champa (central Vietnam), and Java. These were all beyond their direct land borders in China, and thus their direct influence. Commercial expansion had by then in any case all but made military assaults too expensive, in contrast to a gradual commercial Unterwanderung achieving the same purposes.

As this commercial partnership expanded, men from the west of the empire become increasingly involved. As the expertise of Hülâgû's sailors was drawn on for Kubilai's ships and Muslim missionaries traveled with traders bound for Sumatra, the western half of Eurasia was slowly introduced to a world firmly in the realm of legend just a handful of decades ago. These "islands of the Chinese Sea" gripped the imagination of the Turko-Persian Islamicate. Fantastical tales of SE Asia, built on reports filtering back and the stream of goods and books pouring into Ilkhanate cities, became staples of the new encyclopedias of wonder that were being written.

Below I've collected a few entries from The Wonders of Creation which highlight the sense of the strange and the marvelous that accompanied this burgeoning understanding of the "utmost east." All of these have some element of fact buried within a layer of...well...wonder writing. Images are attached where they are available.


The Winged Cat, the Civet Cat and the Antelope of Zabaj (Sumatra)

‘In that island a species of cat is found which has wings like those of bats; and also antelopes similar to the wild cow whose skin is red with white dots and a tail that looks like the tail of the gazelle; there is also the civet which looks like a cat, from which  a perfume is obtained.’


The Tree Dwellers of the Isle of Ramni

‘There are many wonders in this island. Ibn al-Faqih says that there are red furred people, men and women, who speak a unintelligible language and live on the top of trees.


The Archipelago of Waqwaq

‘It is in the vicinity of the islands of Zabaj and one can reach it by following the stars. It is formed by one thousand seven hundred small islands and ruled by a woman. Musa ibn al-Mubarak, who went there, says that the queen is sitting on her throne naked, wearing a crown, and is surrounded by four thousand naked female slaves. It is reported that there is a tree in that  island whose fruit produce a sound similar to “Wåq Wåq”. Muhammad ibn Zakariya says that there is so much gold on the island that  people use it to make collars for their  dogs and monkeys. The ebony tree is also found there.’

The Atum (Dugong)

‘The Atum has a face like a pig, a vulva like a woman’s and hair instead of scales. It is large but gentle.'

The Beautiful People of the Isle of Bunan

‘On this island there are pale-skinned naked people of unbelievable beauty; they live on the mountains and are cannibals.’

The Rhinoceros

‘The body of this animal is elephant-like, [but] its nature is more like that of a bull. It is larger in size [than the bull]. It is provided with hoofs and a horn. It gets angry easily, runs fast and attacks accurately. All animals from India and Zabaj fear [it]. There is a sharp horn on its head, which thickens towards the head and bends towards its face convexly and concavely towards its back. It is the smallest among the animals which live [at least] seven hundred years. It gets excited [for the female] when it is fifty years old and its pregnancy lasts three years. It is said that all animals run away from the area where a Rhinoceros arrives until at least one hundred parasangs separate them from the Rhinoceros, from the [great] fear they have. It is said that no weapon works against the Rhinoceros and no wild animals or beasts can challenge it. [The Rhinoceros] loves the Collared Turtle Dove and stops under the trees where its nests are found, enjoying the dove’s chant. The Turtle Dove [likes to] stand atop its horn and [the Rhinoceros dares]  not move its head lest it flies away.’


The Fish Which Makes Invisible Ink

‘A large fish is well-known because its fluid is used as an invisible ink which is legible on paper only at night. People use it when they do not intend to let others know what they have written.'

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The Rooster Angel (Book of Ascension)


Jibril and the Prophet meet the Rooster Angel leading a collection of angels in prayer

Then Gabriel took me, and I saw a rooster standing on its feet. Its wings were whiter than snow. Its feet reached the earth, and its head breached through the skies. When it spread a wing, it stretched from the east to the west and beyond. It crowed and flapped its wings. It was uttering this prayer: “Praise be to God, the Great, the Exalted, there is no god but God, the Living, the Eternal.” When it crowed, the roosters from the east to the west crowed, and the crowing of those roosters was: “Remember God, o negligent ones!”

This angel is a giant rooster. No, really, there is a massive rooster which is one of the four major angels the Prophet sees in heaven.

There's more to it than just that, of course. The Book of Ascension, was both a work of art and a spiritual tale teaching Sunni Muslim devotional norms. The painting of Muhammad’s encounter with the rooster angel and choirs of angels in the first heaven provides a pattern of physical gestures that accompany Islamic tasbīh. prayers and other forms of prayer invocations. In this composition, the Prophet stands next to Gabriel in the lower right corner with both hands crossed at chest level, while angels raise both hands in prayer toward the large white angelic rooster standing on a dais. These gestures are not coincidental; indeed, when examined in relationship to the contents of the Ilkhanid Mi‛rajnama text, they clearly function as patterns of emulation for du‛ā practices. The Prophet’s hands are in the position of qabd (clutching or grasping), a prayer position he was said to have preferred over a number of others. Similarly, the angels are in the position of the ‘raising of the two hands’ (raf‛ al-yadayn), a movement that is used at fixed points in Islamic prayer. This latter position is heralded by many writers— including the famous hadith compiler al-Bukhari, who wrote a treatise on this precise topic—as an essential part of religious observances (‛ibādāt). Thus, the viewer’s observation of this painting and his learning and imitation of both the qabd. and the raf‛ al-yadayn in prayer can provide a firm affirmation of the Prophet’s Sunna. It is possible to imagine that the text accompanying this narrative episode resembled closely the Mi‛rajnama text presented in this edition, since here Muhammad’s encounter with the rooster angel serves to teach the following tasbīh. formula in Arabic: ‘Praise be to God, the Great, the Exalted, there is no god but God, the Living, the Eternal.’ The roosters of the world respond in kind, exhorting the faithful on earth to continuously remember God. In this case, rather than communicating directly with the angelic rooster, the Prophet listens to a heavenly prayer invocation directed to God and a gentle reminder that such remembrances must resound on earth.

One again, Imam al-Suyuti's 15th century book on angels called al-Haba'ik fi al-Akhbar al-Mala'ik collects a number of interesting traditions on our subject:

God has a Cockerel, whose feet are on the Seventh Earth and it passes through the Seven Heavens, and no earthly cockerel can prevent itself from answering it.

God has a Cockerel; its two wings are ornamented with chrysolite, pearls and sapphires. It has a wing in the East and a wing in the West, its feet are on the lowest earth and its folded head is under the throne. It causes the cockerels to crow at dawn. On the Day of Resurrection it will be told to stop beating its wings.

The Throne is on an angel made of pearls in the image of a cockerel; its feet are on the boundaries of the lowest [earth] and its folded neck is under the Throne; its wings are in the East and the West; when that angel worships God, nothing remains except the praise of God, may He be praised and exalted.

What's Gameable Here?

The fact that there is a kaiju-sized bejeweled Divine rooster out there should be reason enough to include it in your games. Perhaps a seemingly average rooster provides some surprising aid against Infernal enemies or preaches a sermon. Go wild, really.

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