MUSEUM OF ISLAMIC ART'S QUR’AN MANUSCRIPTS
In Islam, the Qur’an is the book of divine guidance and holds the sacred words of Allah. Over the course of 23 years, the angel Gabriel came down to Earth and revealed passages of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) in stages. Originating in an oral form, The Qur’an was eventually compiled into a written manuscript which was duplicated across time for the spread of its message within the Islamic world. Some Qur’anic fragments date as far back as the seventh century, and a magnificent collection of Qur’anic manuscripts from various different calligraphers has flourished throughout history in the Islamic world.
The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) stores an impressive collection of rare and treasured manuscripts, ranging from the famous Abbasid Blue Qur’an, which is known as one of the finest and rarest manuscripts in the Islamic world, to pages from the largest Qur’an in the world, the Timurid Baysunghur Qur’an. This Ramadan, MIA released some of their Qur’an collection which spotlights different Qur’an manuscripts spanning across time and across different regions, some of which have never been displayed before. Based on two years of curatorial research led by Nicoletta Fazio along with digitization by Marc Pelletreau, Lois Lammerhuber, Nicolas Ferrando and Samar Kassab, this collection offers an exclusive look at some of the most beautiful and historic Qur’an manuscripts from the Islamic world.
Check out five of these treasured Qur’an manuscripts below:
1. Folio from a Timurid monumental Qur'an manuscript
Uzbekistan (Samarkand), 9th century AH/15th century CE
Gold, black ink, and opaque watercolour on paper
Sura Al-‘Ankabut (“The Spider”), vv. 25-27
Written in elegant muhaqqaq script, this page is from the largest medieval Qur'an ever made. For a long time, it was known as the “Baysunghur Qur'an”, named after the illustrious Timurid prince and art lover but more recently, it’s believed that it was produced for his famous grandfather, the ruler Timur (r. 1370-1405 CE) himself. Only dispersed folios of the manuscript survive. Once complete, it would have required 1600 pages and 2700 square meters of paper to contain the full text of the Qur’an.
Allegedly, the manuscript was prepared by the one-armed calligrapher Umar-e Aqta, who first spent years producing a miniature Qur'an that would fit into a ring. When he presented this proudly to Timur, the great ruler thought the small size unworthy of the Qur'an. Relentlessly, the calligrapher then set about producing the largest Qur'an manuscript ever seen and presented it to Timur, who this time granted the appreciation the artist sought. Monumental Qur’an manuscripts were considered both signs of piety and powerful political statements for their affluent patrons.
(The Timurid Empire was a Persianate empire which included all of Iran, modern Afghanistan and modern Central Asia. It was formed by the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur.)
2. Miniature copy of the Qur'an
Iran (Shiraz), 10th century AH/16th century CE
Gold, ink, opaque watercolour on paper and leather binding
Miniature Qur’ans had an important protective function for their carriers; small pieces of parchment with Qur’anic passages rolled in small pendants were used as early as the first centuries of the Islamic history. Written in a flawless minute script known as ghubari (meaning “dust”) with a sharp nib, this miniature Qur’an might have served its owner more as a protective device than an actual book to consult. The manuscript would have originally fit into a small octagonal box with loops and hooks to be carried around, tied on the upper arm with strings or sewn on clothes or robe lining.
3. A Qur’an manuscript from Southeast Asia
Java, 13th-14th century AH/19th century CE
Ink and opaque watercolour on paper
The division of the text of this manuscript into juz’ (parts), which are indicated by two semicircular arcs in the outer vertical margins of the two facing pages, suggest that this manuscript originates from Java. Qur’an manuscripts produced in Islamic Southeast Asia present very distinctive and bright illumination; in particular, manuscript production in Java displays such a mesmerising variety of styles and shapes of illuminated decorations that makes it challenging to fit them in one single category. This manuscript opens and closes with two pairs of decorated frames that combine a variety of elements, vegetal motifs, architectural details, and sets of floral spikes around the margins in different combinations, making up a lovely and colourful effect.
(Java is a volcano-dotted Island in Indonesia which lies between Sumatra and Bali).
4. Complete Qur’an manuscript
China, 11th-14th century AH/17th-19th century CE
Gold, ink, and opaque watercolour on paper
This manuscript is a fine example of Qur’an production in China, most likely produced during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE). It is written in a variant of muhaqqaq script known as sini (“Chinese”), distinctive to that region. The verses are marked with red circles or dots, and the chapter headings are in red ink indicating the surah and the number of verses. The two pages shown are the opening pages of the Qur’an; the page on the right is Surah al-Fatiha (“The Opener”) and on the left Surah al-Baqara (“The Cow”)
The pages are beautifully bordered with Chinese floral motifs using vibrant colours such as red, green and gold to stand out. The Chinese pagodas are what make this manuscript unique as well. The words within the pagodas on each corner say Qur’an Kareem (noble Qur’an).
5. Folio from the so-called “Pink Qur’an”
Southern Spain or Morocco, 7th century AH/13th century CE
Gold, ink, and opaque watercolour on pink-dyed paper
Surah Hud, vv. 40-41
This folio comes from an Andalusian Qur’an manuscript known as the ‘Pink Qur’an’, named after the colour of its paper. Each page contains five lines of text copied in dark brown ink with diacritical marks and verse markers in gold paint and diverse opaque watercolours. This manuscript is an exquisite example of how the maghrebi script had evolved. Maghrebi script has distinct features such as large round curved letters and is usually written in dark brown or black ink with gold illuminations. The script was first developed in Al-Andalus and the Maghreb region — hence the name.
This rare example of dyed pink paper was probably produced in the city of Jativa (in what is today south-eastern Spain), where the site of the earliest Spanish paper mill is located. The use of paper is an innovation for Andalusian manuscripts, as parchment was still the most common writing support used for Qur’ans during that time in the Iberian Peninsula.
If you want to take your time and view these beautiful manuscripts at a microscopic level of detail, you can head over to MIA’s Google Arts & Culture page. You may also take a virtual stroll through the Qur’an section of the MIA gallery and compare some of these manuscripts with each other through their displays.