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Collecting Islamic Prayer Rugs
by Bob Brooke

 

In June 1325, a 21-year-old man known as Ibn Battuta set out on a journey of a lifetime that would last more than 30 years and span the globe. He had little money and just a few cherished possessions, among them a prayer rug. He carried this wherever he went for it was his companion.

To Muslims around the world, a prayer rug, also known as sajjadat salat, a term that comes from the prostration worshipers do during Islamic prayers or sujood—can be found in every Muslim home and is often a constant travel companion.

During prayer the supplicant kneels at the base of the rug and places his or her hands at either side of the niche at the top of the rug, his or her forehead touching the niche. Typical prayer rug sizes are approximately 2 1/2 × 4 feet or 4 × 6 feet , enough to kneel above the fringe on one end and bend down and place the head on the other.

From different designs, textures and colors, and from the earliest ones made of palm fronds and reeds to the finest threads and a single prayer rug can tell many stories.

It all began with the Prophet Mohammed, who prayed on a “khumrah,” a mat made of palm fronds.

A prayer rug is a piece of fabric, often a small carpet, which Muslims place between them and the ground or floor of the mosque for cleanliness during prostration and sitting during Islamic prayer. A Muslim must perform wudu, or ablution, before prayer, and must pray in a clean place. Designs of prayer rugs reflect the village they came from and the weaver. Prayer rugs have been traditionally woven with a rectangular design, typically made asymmetrical by a niche at the head end.

The History of Prayer Rugs
Although carpet weaving originated in Central Asia more than 2,000 years ago, it was the Islamic culture that turned it into an art form. Carpets were something to walk on, sit on, sleep on, and yes, pray on.

A simple yet significant piece of cloth, the prayer rug started to intrigue influential Muslim leaders early on; they would commission their court’s greatest artists to create rugs fit for rulers and to be given out as gifts to other leaders.

Under the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal dynasties, the industry flourished and carpets came to be considered as national treasures. They were traded to Europe and the Far East, often considered too precious to be prayed on and would end up being hung like a painting in a home or palace.

Weavers competed to make the most beautiful prayer rugs, and the different tribes or groups would work hard at making the most memorable creation.

Prayer Rug Designs
Appearing early in Islamic history, the most common and basic design almost looks like a door to heaven. The rug is in the shape of a vertical rectangle, with a woven arched doorway, a mihrab, an ornamental niche in the wall of a mosque, which marks the direction of the qibla, which is the Kaaba in Mecca. Muslims pray in the direction of the qibla. From a pointed arch supported by columns on either side to a variation of a stylized “tree of life” design, there have been many creative improvisations added over the decades by different weavers. Many rugs also show one or more mosque lamps, a reference to the Verse of Light in the Qur'an.

Prayer rugs sometimes show specific mosques, including those in Mecca, Medina, and especially Jerusalem. Decorations not only play a role in imagery but serve the worshiper as aids to memory. Some of the examples include a comb and pitcher, which is a reminder for Muslims to wash their hands and for men to comb their hair before performing prayer. Another important use for decorations is to aid newly converted Muslims by stitching decorative hands on the prayer rug where the hands should be placed when performing prayer.

Antique prayer rugs are usually made in the towns or villages of the communities who use them and are often named after the origins of those who deal and collect them. The exact pattern varied greatly by original weavers and the different materials used. Some may have patterns, dyes and materials that are traditional to the region in which they were made.

There are many prayer rugs in existence today that have been taken care of for more than a century. In most cases, they have been immediately and carefully rolled after each prayer.

What to Look for in a Prayer Rug
The patterns, designs, and dyes of older prayer rugs can tell their origin, which tribe or village made them, what message they tried to communicate, and whether someone regularly used them or not based on wear or tear.

One example of a classic prayer rug design is a 100-year-old Ottoman prayer rug, which has a traditional Ramadan fanous, a glass lantern or lamp, at the niche, which hung surrounded by Quranic calligraphy along the rug’s borders.

Another antique prayer rug , made by the Turkmen tribes of Jewish descent, was known for its vibrant colors—a mix of orange, red, green and blue---and for its rare message. It featured a small church and a cross as well as a Jewish menorah. The maker of this rug wanted to show the tolerance of all religions as well as their unity in prayer. Every time someone prayed on the rug, they would pray to the one God.

While these rare rugs cost tens of thousands of dollars, there are ethnic prayer rugs that are more affordable and yet have their own stories to share.

While many prayer rugs are collector’s items, beginning collectors can find other designs available in silk, cotton or wool, which can include animal motifs, featuring creatures such as peacocks and deer, as well as religious symbols and Islamic calligraphy.

Whatever the design, age, color and size, a prayer rug remains one of the most cherished items in a Muslim home, where people will usually have a personal one, and others for guests who happen to visit.
 

 

 

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