Parts 33c

The Seal

The use of the seal is one of the government functions and a royal office.

The sealing of letters and diplomas was known to rulers before and after Islam. It has been established in the two Sahihs that when the Prophet wanted to write to the Byzantine Emperor, he was told that the non-Arabs accepted only sealed letters.

Thus, he took a silver seal (ring) and had the following legend engraved upon it: “Muhammad, the Messenger of God.” Al-Bukhari said that he had the three words

584 written in three lines and that he used that ring for sealing. (Muhammad) said: “No one else should use a similar legend.” He continued= “Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman used that ring for sealing. Then, it fell from ‘Uthman’s hand into the well of Arts.

There was much 585 water in it, and its bottom could never be reached later on.

‘Uthman was worried about the happening and considered it a (bad) omen. He had 586another ring made like it.”

The way of engraving the seal, as well as its use for sealing, have different aspects. This is because the word “seal” is used for the instrument that is placed on the finger. From it, (the verbal form) takhattama “He puts the seal on” is derived.

Or, the word is used to designate “end” or “completion.” In this meaning, one says khatamtu al-amra “I reached the end of the matter,” or khatamtu al-Qur’ana “I finished reading the Qur’an”; also khatam an-nabiyin “the last of the prophets,” 587 and khatimat al-amr “the end of the matter.” The word is also used for the stopper with which bottles or barrels are closed.

In this sense, one uses (the form) khitam.

Thus it is said in the Qur’an= wa-khitamuhu miskun “its stopper is musk.” 588 Those who interpret the word here to mean “end” or “completion” are wrong. (Their interpretation is based on the assumption) that the last impression they have of their drink is the smell of musk. However, this is not the intended meaning. It is derived here from khitam in the meaning of “stopper.”

A stopper of clay or pitch is put upon the wine in the barrel. This preserves (the wine) and gives it a good smell and taste.

In an exaggerated manner, the wine of paradise was thus described (in the Qur’an) as being closed with a stopper of musk, which is better smelling and tasting than clay or pitch, which are customarily used (for the purpose) in this world.

If (the word) “seal” is correctly used in all these meanings, it is (also) correctly used for designating the result that comes from (the application of sealing in all these meanings). This is as follows= When words or shapes are engraved upon (a seal) and it is then put into a paste of clay or an ink solution and placed upon a paper surface, those words (or shapes) will be reproduced on that surface.

The same is the case if (the seal) is impressed on some soft material such as wax. The engraved legend remains impressed on it. If the legend consists of words, they are to be read from the left, if the engraving started correctly from the right, and from the right if the engraving started from the left, because the process of sealing reverses the direction of the writing on the (paper) surface and appears on it as the opposite of what it had been on the engraving, with right and left transposed.

It is (also) possible to use the seal by putting it in ink and clay and placing it upon the (paper)surface. The words then appear engraved on it. This (process of sealing) expresses the idea of “end” or “completion,” in the sense that a writing thus (sealed) is correct and valid.

A particular letter somehow becomes effective through the use of such a signature (‘alamah) 589 Without it, it would be invalid and imperfect. The sealing may (also) be (effected) through something written by hand at the end or the beginning of a letter, some well-chosen words of praise and glory (the formulas “Praised be God” and “Glory to God”), or the name of the ruler or amir, or of the writer of the letter, whoever he may have been, or through terms descriptive of the writer.

Such (formulas) written by hand indicate the correctness and validity of the letter. They are commonly known under the name of “signature” (‘alamah), but are also called “seal” because they are compared to the impression of the seal ring.

The “seal” the judge sends to litigants is connected with this usage. That “seal” is his signature and hand, validating his decisions. The “seal” of the ruler or caliph, that is, his signature, is also connected with the usage referred to. When ar-Rashid wanted to make Jafar wazir in the place of his brother al-Fadl, he said to their father Yahya b. Khilid= “Father, I want to change my ‘seal’ from my right hand to my left hand.”

He thus used the word “seal” for the wazirate, since it was one of the duties of the wazir in (‘Abbasid) times to put his signature on letters and diplomas. The correctness of the use (of “seal”) in this meaning is confirmed by at-Tabari’s report on Mu’awiyah’s negotiations with al-Hasan. When Mu’awiyah wanted to persuade al-Hasan to enter into an armistice, he sent him a blank sheet of paper, which he “sealed” at the bottom, and he wrote to him= “(Write down) on thissheet of paper, which I have sealed at the bottom, whatever conditions you want to make. They are granted.” 590

“Sealing” here means a handwritten or other signature at the end of a sheet of paper.

It is also possible to impress a seal upon some soft substance, so that the letters of the legend appear on that substance, and to place the substance (with the seal impression) on the knots of the strings with) which letters are tied,590a and upon places for deposits (such as storehouses, strong boxes, etc.). This (use of the root khtm) is derived from the meaning of “stopper” mentioned before. In both cases, (we are dealing with) the result of (the application of) the seal, and, therefore, (the word) “seal” can be used in this sense.

The first to introduce the sealing of letters, that is, the use of the signature, was Mu’awiyah. He ordered ‘Amr b. az-Zubayr to be given 100,000 (dirhams) by Ziyad (b. Abthi) in al-Kufah. The letter (containing the order) was opened, and the figure was changed from 100,000 to 200,000. When Ziyad presented his account (and the excess payment was noticed), Mu’awiyah disavowed it.

He held ‘Amr responsible for the money and kept him in prison until (‘Amr’s) brother ‘Abdallah paid (the sum) for him. On that occasion, Mu’awiyah introduced the ministry (diwan) of the seal. This was mentioned by at-Tabari 591 who finished his statement by saying that “he tied the letters with strings. Formerly, they had not been tied:” It means, he closed them.

The ministry (diwan) of the seal is composed of the secretaries who see to it that the letters of the ruler are expedited and sealed, either by means of a signature, or by tying them. The word diwan is used for the place where these secretaries had their office, as we mentioned in connection with the ministry (diwan) of taxation. 592

Letters are tied either by piercing the paper and tacking (the letter) together with a string, as is the custom of the secretaries of the Maghrib, or by gluing the top of the sheet to the part of the letter over which the top is folded, as is the custom of the people in the East. Over the place where the letter is pierced and tacked, or where it is glued, a signature is placed.

It guarantees that the letter has not been opened and that its contents have not been read. The people of the Maghrib place a piece of wax where the letter is pierced and tacked, and seal it with a seal upon which some signature is engraved for use in sealing, and the engraving is impressed upon the wax. In the old dynasties of the East, the place where the letter was glued was also sealed with an engraved seal that was put into a red paste of clay prepared for that (purpose). The engraving of the seal was impressed upon the clay.

Under the Abbasid dynasty, this clay was called “sealing clay.” It was imported from Siraf. 593 This clay was restricted to the purpose of sealing.

The use of the seal, which is the (hand)written signature or engraving used for closing and tying letters, was peculiar to the ministry of correspondence (diwan ar-rasa’il). In the ‘Abbasid dynasty, it belonged to the wazir. Later on, custom differed. It went to those who were in charge of (official) correspondence and the office of the secretaries in the (various) dynasties. In the dynasties of the Maghrib, people came to consider the seal ring as one of the royal marks and emblems.

They made artistic seal rings of gold inlaid with gems of hyacinth (ruby), turquoise, and emerald. The ruler according to their custom wore the seal ring as an insignia, exactly as the Prophet’s cloak and stick 594 were used in the ‘Abbasid dynasty and an umbrella in the ‘Ubaydid (-Fatimid) dynasty.


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