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The Qur’an

Manuscript of a Sulawesi Qur’an.

Manuscript of a Sulawesi Qur’an.

As the word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the verses of the Qur’an are canonical and cannot be changed. Because of the centrality of the Qur’an to the religion of Islam, copying all or some of its verses in any medium is considered a pious act.

Over time a wide variety of styles of writing Arabic script developed, but not all of these were considered appropriate for copying Qur’ans. Qur’an manuscripts from the first two centuries of Islam were written on parchment in an angular style called Kufic after the Iraqi city of Kufa, an early Muslim capital.

Recent research suggests that the horizontal-format Kufic Qur’ans (cat no. 1–3) were used for recitation in mosques, a practice that probably originated in Iraq, while large vertical-format Kufic Qur’ans would have been placed in cradles (kursis) on display in mosques, possibly in the Hijaz, the area around Mecca in Arabia.1 If this supposition is correct, the evidence for production of horizontal-format Qur’ans in ninth-century North Africa demonstrates the widespread need for such volumes for recitation purposes.

In the tenth century variants of the early squared letter forms began to appear in Qur’an manuscripts from the Maghreb, the western edge of the Islamic world, as well as examples from Iran. A distinctive script developed in North Africa (cat. no. 4) which features nearly circular letter terminals below the line. Rounded script was not new but the application of this style to Qur’ans seems to have begun in Iran and marks a major innovation. Thanks to a secretary in the administration of the Abbasid government called Ibn Muqla, a system of proportions based on the rhombic dot was devised. Ibn Muqla is also credited with the invention of six cursive scripts, thuluth, naskh, rihan, muhaqqaq, tauqi³ and riqa³, which range from monumental to small, and fulfilled different calligraphic purposes. Additionally, regional styles of writing developed. When pages of Qur’ans from different centuries and production centres are exhibited together, the remarkable stylistic variety of Arabic writing becomes evident.

Thanks to the replacement of paper for parchment from the tenth century on, Qur’an production expanded exponentially across the Muslim world. As a result many Qur’ans have survived from the last millennium and we are thus aware of the range of purposes for which these manuscripts were produced. Some very large Qur’ans, written on sheets of paper glued together, would have come from manuscripts intended for display in royal mosques. By contrast, more conventionally shaped Qur’ans may have been for personal use in a domestic setting (cat. nos. 10, 13, 14). Tiny Qur’ans that fit into metal cases would have been worn as amulets and Qur’an scrolls would have been equally portable.

One of the striking features of Qur’ans of all periods is the decorative illumination that appears at the beginning of the manuscript, around chapter (sura) headings, and to mark the fifth and tenth verses within the chapters, consisting of foliate, floral and geometric motifs. Illuminated ornament also varied by period and region. Although gold decoration appears often in early horizontal-format Qur’ans, lapis lazuli blue was combined with gold by the beginning of the eleventh century. In Mamluk Egypt and Syria, Ottoman Turkey, and Timurid and Safavid Iran, lavishly illuminated Qur’ans, sometimes in thirty volumes, were compiled for the rulers and their mosques and madrasas. Qur’ans were also copied on tinted paper, from the ninth or tenth century onward. One of the earliest, most famous examples of this type (cat. no. 2), with gold writing on a blue parchment ground, was produced in ninth-century North Africa.

Great artistic skill has also been lavished on the bindings that enclose and protect Qur’ans. Made of leather and, from the seventeenth century on in Iran and India, of lacquer, these bindings often have Qur’anic verses stamped on the leather exterior and gilded filigree decoration laid over coloured paper on the interior surface. Because of the Islamic prohibition against anthropomorphic or zoomorphic imagery in a religious context, the decoration of such bindings is limited to the floral, epigraphic and geometric.

In architecture Qur’anic inscriptions were carved into stone panels in the form of bands running around the interior or exterior of mosques and other religious edifices. Tile panels and walls of glazed and unglazed bricks also feature Qur’anic verses. The analysis of the choice of Qur’anic verses on specific buildings can lead to a better understanding of the patron’s religious or political preoccupations.2 The large number of tiles from the Il-Khanid period in Iran (13th–14th century), the result of refurbishment and new building after the destruction of the Mongol invasions, indicate a new taste for inscriptions in relief used for mihrabs (prayer niches), tomb markers and wall decoration.

Finally, the power of the Qur’an is so great that its verses are considered capable of protecting people from evil. Thus, amulets and undershirts were inscribed with Qur’anic verses to save the wearer from harm. Even on humble surfaces, a shell (cat. no. 17) or a leaf (cat. no. 19), the word of God was lovingly written, an enduring act of devotion and artistic virtuosity. As if to remind Muslims that God is ubiquitous and all-powerful, the Qur’an in all its forms is a constant presence throughout the Islamic world.

 

 Qur’an folio in gold Kufic script

 

Source: The Aga Khan Museum

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About the Author
Sheila R. Canby | Head Metropolitan Museum's Department of Islamic Art.[1] Prior to working at The British Museum, where she has been Curator of Islamic Art and Antiquities since 1991 – first in the Department of Asia, and since 2006 in the Department of the Middle East – she held curatorial and research positions at the Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fogg Art Museum, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She was a visiting lecturer in the Art and Archaeology Department of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in 2004-2005. She received her B.A. from Vassar College, summa cum laude, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Of the dozens of exhibitions and installations she has organized at The British Museum, the most recent was the major spring 2009 exhibition Shah `Abbas: The Remaking of Iran (February through June 2009), which was accompanied by two publications, both of which she authored: Shah `Abbas: The Remaking of Iran and Shah `Abbas and the Treasures of Imperial Iran (both British Museum Press, 2009). Other recent book publications include Islamic Art in Detail (2005), Persian Love Poetry, with Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis (2005), and Safavid Art and Architecture, 1501-1722 (2002). She has also lectured widely, and has published extensively, as the author of articles and reviews, and as a contributor to catalogues and books.
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