Hilye is the Turkish form of the Arabic word hilya, seems to have been a species of oral literature neither prose nor poetry. The style in Arabic is unique and recognizable. The hilye has several meanings, including physiognomy, natural disposition, likeness, depiction, characterization, and description. But these dictionary definitions only begin to convey the real meaning of the hilye, which embodies the Prophet’s moral, behavioral, and spiritual qualities as well as physical appearance. Like most Arabic words, hilya carries multiple overtones, making it difficult to translate. It has connotations of ornament, beauty, finery, and embellishment, along with the classic narrative description. There are many hilye texts, which give the reader a concise description of what the Prophet, as a person, was like. The literature also has hilyes of such Biblical figures as Adam, Noah, Abraham. Moses, and Jesus.
The most famous hilye texts are those that characterize the Prophet Muhammad. In Turkish, they are called Hilye-i Saadet (the Hilye of Felicity), Hilye-i Sherif (the Noble Hilye), and Hilye-i Nebevi (the Prophetic Hilye). The first hilyes to be produced as an art form were, as far as we can tell, by the great Ottoman calligrapher Hafiz Osman Efendi (“the Second Sheikh,” 1644-98 AD). In the art of calligraphy, this form has been very significant, most often written in Sulus and Nesih scripts, both small and large versions. The work is also done in Nestalik script; the first to do so was Mehmed Es’ad Yesari Efendi (d. 1789 AD).