Hidden Gems: The Magic Square Bowl

by Marianne Khor

Amidst a number of examples of the Islamic influence on metal and ceramic wares in a showcase in Gallery B, a small bowl can be found with the intriguing description ‘Magic Square Bowl’. It looks like a small Chinese rice bowl but is decorated with Islamic script. On the inside of the bowl is a square consisting of sixteen smaller squares, also containing Islamic writing. Was it used to perform magic, or was it magical in itself?

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Chinese ceramics with Islamic script were already produced in China and transported along the maritime trade routes by Arab and Persian traders. After the Tang Dynasty, ceramics with Islamic inscriptions were no longer produced. Only in the early 16th Century did they appear again. The Magic Square Bowl in Gallery B is from the 18th Century Qing Dynasty.

The Magic Square, or Buduh tradition, predates Islam. The early Magic Square is thought to be of Chinese origin and consisted of a 3×3 square with 9 smaller squares. The numbers 1-9, with the number 5 in the centre, add up to 15 in each row, column and the two diagonals. An early version of Sudoku? A Magic Square was used to find love, prevent fears, attacks and poisoning. It helped during childbirth and also in finding lost objects. In short, it could be quite helpful for many occasions. Later, there were Magic Squares of 4×4, 6×6, 7×7, and 10×10, and even 100×100 squares with an arrangement of letters and numerals.

Islamic mathematicians in the Arab world already knew about the Magic Square as early as the 7th Century. This knowledge may have come from India through the study of Indian astronomy and mathematics, or from China. The earliest Magic Squares were written in ‘abjad’ letter-numerals. The four corners of the square were marked with the letters ba’, dal, waw (or u) and ha. Therefore, this particular square was known as the ‘Buduh’ square.

The name ‘Buduh’ itself was so powerful that it was regarded as a most effective talisman, and so was the letter B with its numerical equivalents 2,4,6,8. This arrangement of letters and its corresponding numbers is believed to protect travellers, babies, postal letters and packages. Even today in some Islamic countries, one can find packages marked with the numbers 2,4,6 or 8 in the corners, or just the letter B added under the address to ensure that the items arrive safely. This might be something worth trying out!

Magic Squares were used by Muslims as religious mandalas, meditation devices, talisman, and amulets. They were drawn on a variety of objects, even on skin.

The Arabic letters and numerals in the Magic Square can also be read as one of the ninety-nine names or attributes of God. The numerical value with a certain specific meaning can be obtained by adding the corresponding letters of any of the columns of the Magic Square in a horizontal, vertical or diagonal way.

One wonders what the inscriptions in the Magic Square Bowl in Gallery B represent…

Do they have a religious meaning?

Or are they just meant to bring good luck in any situation?


Invulnerability, Federation Museum Journal, Volume XVI new series 1971

Arts and Crafts Company, Global Arts and Crafts, Antiques, Design and Art, Kho- antiques ( Singapore)

Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the US National Library of Medicine, Catalogue: Astrology/Divination/Magic, Author: Emilie Savage-Smith PH.D. Senior Associate, The Oriental Institute University of Oxford

Hypernumber Buduh: hypernumber.blogspot.my


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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