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Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy: Qur’anic Fragments

Islamic calligraphy owes much to the earliest developments of the Arabic language. It is largely due to the increasing production of Qur’ans that a series of notable stylistic evolutions occurred in order to facilitate proper reading and recitation of scripture. With the official recension of the Qur’an completed during the reign of the third caliph cUthman (r. 644-56), the written circulation of the Holy Book complemented and facilitated its oral transmission.

From the 10th century onward, calligraphers abandoned the rather primitive and defective Kufi script,[i] whose rough, angular strokes are strongly evocative of pre- and early Islamic lapidary inscriptions.[ii] Kufi and its variants were replaced with the six cursive scripts (al-aqlam al-sittah) pioneered by Ibn Muqla (d. 939) and later refined by his successors Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1022)[iii] and Yaqut al-Mustacsimi (d. 1298).[iv] Alongside the principal naskh script[v] used in Qur’ans, official decrees, and private correspondence, there are five cursive scripts thuluth (or thulth), muhaqqaq, rayhani, tawqic, and riqac. From the 14th century onward, moreover, other cursive scripts such as nastacliq were used in Qur’ans as well as in a variety of documents produced in Turkish and Persian lands.

Because the most complete corpus of the earliest extant Qur’anic fragments from the Great Mosque of Sanaa in Yemen is currently inaccessible,[vi]scholars such as François Déroche have turned to other materials in international collections to determine how to classify scripts, verse markers, and decorative panels included in Qur’ans from the cAbbasid period (750-1250).[vii] As a result, descriptions of the Kufi fragments in the catalog of the Library of Congress follow the classification system as developed by François Déroche.

A number of 9th- and 10th-century Qur’ans are written in an oblong format on sheets of parchment. As part of the parchment-making process, the hair from the skin of animals was removed, and the skin in turn was polished on both sides. Usually, the hair side of a parchment better preserves the writing than the flesh side, as hair follicles provide grooves that hinder the ink from wearing off the surface of the folio (1-84-154.20d). Typically written in black or dark brown ink at five or more lines per page, these Qur’ans either are without vowels or with vocalization marks in the form of red and green dots.[viii] Some fragments include verse (ayah) markers, chapter (surah) titles executed in gold ink (1-89-154.177a V), or illuminated panels visually separating one part (juz’) of the Qur’an from the next (1-84-154.37a R).  Examples of variants of Kufi such as the so-called eastern Kufi (1-87-154.134 ) and maghribi (AL-18 & 19) scripts also are found in the collections of the Library of Congress. 

Later album compilers and modern collectors esteemed these early Qur’anic fragments. Evidence of their value is visible in the addition of gold cloud bands painted onto the original text panel (1-87-154.82b), the remounting of a fragment onto paper provided with pseudo-Kufi inscriptions and an illuminated panel (1-85-154.76a-b), and the executing of blatant forgeries with often illegible script written on paper rather than on parchment (1-84-154.17).

The establishment of cursive scripts and the (economically strategic) substitution of paper for parchment,[ix] led to a substantial change in the appearance of Qur’ans. A vertical format permitted more lines of the Qur’anic text to fit on the page, and the efficiency of cursive scripts such as naskh and muhaqqaq made "mass" production feasible. Diacritical marks, verse markers, and title headings became standardized and indispensable components of the Qur’anic text. Ex-libris marks; endowment (waqf) notes; frontispieces and colophons containing a patron’s, calligrapher’s, illuminator’s name, and date of completion, provided the necessary clues to assessing a manuscript’s provenance. It was now possible to construct a history of the masters of Islamic calligraphy and Qur’anic illumination.

The finest examples of cursive scripts appear in a number of oversize multivolume Qur’ans commissioned by the Ilkhanid ruler of Iran, Sultan Oljeitu (r. 1304-16).[x] At this time, Persian reemerged as a language on par with Arabic. A number of historical works such as Rashid al-Din’s Jamic al-Tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles) were produced in both languages for distribution to the Arabic and Persian speakers in the Ilkhanid empire (1256-1353).[xi]

Similarly, Qur’ans were generated in a bilingual format, in which an interlinear space between each line of Arabic text contained a Persian translation (1-84-154.27c). Such interlinear Qur’ans from Iran (1-89-154.172) and India (1-84-154.21) produced ca. 1300-1600 provide verbatim translations, in which smaller words or phrases written diagonally show how the Qur’anic text was read, translated, and comprehended. The revival of written Persian eventually led to a more consistent format for bilingual Arabic-Persian Qur’ans. This format typically included a continuous Persian translation written horizontally, in smaller script, with red ink differentiating it from the Arabic original. This codification of form is visible in a Qur’an dated 1792-93 (1-85-154.67).

At the same time that interlinear Qur’ans appear in Persia and India, Qur’ans produced in Mamluk Egypt and Syria (1250-1517) further explored the aesthetic potential of naskh and its variants muhaqqaq, thuluth, and masahif.[xii] Mamluk Qur’ans typically begin with an ornamental carpet page decorated with interlacing polygons (1-89-154.168 R), followed by the opening chapter (al-Fatihah) of the Qur’an on a background filled with interlacing scrolls and very faint vertical striations (1-89-154.168 V). These Qur’ans tend to be easily legible thanks to the use of a large and crisp cursive script, a fully vocalized text, six-petalled rosettes as ayah markers, and marginal disks or medallions inscribed with the juz’ number of the text (1-89-154.184). In some cases, a particular juz’ of the Qur’an is marked by a simple gold illuminated panel (1-84-154.16 R) or a colored panel containing a pious, self-reflexive expression (1-84-154.26 R). Only towards the end of the Qur’an, where increasingly shorter surahs comprise a few verses, do illuminated chapter title panels lend a more intricate and complex texture to the calligraphed page (1-84-154.19).

At least two kinds of religious texts were appended to Qur’ans produced especially during the Safavid period (1501-1722). One text consists of a terminal prayer (duca khatim al-qur’an) or series of prayers after the last surah of the Qur’an. These prayers, sometimes placed into illuminated registers, glorify God, the Prophet Muhammad and his family, as well as other prophets (1-85-154.74). Another kind of text, i.e., a final fal-i qur’an (Divination by the Qur’an), also appears in manuscripts of the Qur’an. A fal-i qur’an text lays out in rhyming Persian couplets the means of divination by letters randomly selected when opening to a page of the Qur’an (1-84-154.42 R). Although insufficiently studied, grids of fal-i qur’an are widespread and systematically included in Persian manuscripts of the 16th century, thus possibly revealing the application of popular Shici divinatory practices to the Qur’an.

Although naskh was supplanted by the “hanging” nastacliq script for transcribing official documents, poetical works, and other texts from the 14th century onward, it nevertheless was reused by the Persian naskh-revivalists of the Qajar period (1785-1925). Practitioners of the revitalized naskh script included such champions as the 18th-century calligrapher Ahmad Nayrizi[xiii] or later, Vassal-i Shirazi[xiv] (d.1846), as well as their pupils and followers. Calligraphers at this time preferred to compose single-page calligraphic items (qitac) that contained Qur’anic verses rather than to transcribe complete copies of the Qur’an. Some of these sheets were signed and dated, and included surahs such as al-Fatihah (1-86-154.136), or poems in Arabic (1-04-713.15.6). With the advent of lithography and the printing press in Iran (and elsewhere) during the 19th century,[xv] however, the long tradition of handwritten copies of the Qur’an ended.

An Egyptian Qur'an from the 15th century
descriptive record icon enlarge image iconAn Egyptian Qur'an from the 15th century.
A Qur'an copied in Bihar, India, showing the local form of the Arabic script
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon A Qur'an copied in Bihar, India, showing the local form of the Arabic script.
Page from a manual explaining divination using the Qur'an
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Page from a manual explaining divination using the Qur'an.
A 9th century Qur'an
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon A 9th century Qur'an
Decorative "carpet page" from the beginning of a 14th century Mamluk Qur'an
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Decorative "carpet page" from the beginning of a 14th century Mamluk Qur'an.
14th century Iranian Qur'an with an interlinear Persian translation
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon 14th century Iranian Qur'an with an interlinear Persian translation.

[i] The term Kufi is derived from the city of Kufa, where it is believed that scholars of Arabic language developed and put to use the new proportional and angular script (Safadi [1978], 10). Although “Kufi” script is largely a misnomer, it has come to describe the earliest extant form of Arabic calligraphy. More recently, scholars such as François Déroche have preferred to replace the term Kufi with cAbbasid, since a great number of scripts and styles not originating from Kufa were used ca. 750-1250. See François Déroche, The Abbasid Tradition: Qur’ans of the 8th to the 10th Centuries AD, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, vol. 1, ed. Julian Raby (Oxford: Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1992).

[ii] A number of Nabatean rock inscriptions dating between 250-600 appear to have given rise to the incised appearance of Kufi script (Safadi [1978], 6-8), which itself was used on coarse materials such as leaves, bones, rocks, stones, etc. before its application to softer materials such as papyrus, parchment, and paper. For a further discussion on the rise of the Arabic script, see Nadia Abbott, The Rise of the North Arabic Script and its Kur'anic Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939).

[iii] See D. S. Rice, The Unique Ibn al-Bawwab Qur’an in the Chester Beatty Library (Dublin: E. Walker, 1955).

[iv] The use of cursive scripts in Qur’ans is discussed in Martin Lings, Splendors of Qur'an Calligraphy and Illumination (Liechtenstein: Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation and Thames & Hudson, 2005); and Lings (1976).

[v] The term naskh is derived from the verb nasakha (to transcribe or copy). As a transcriptional script, it was first developed in administrative circles before its application to Qur’ans.

[vi] A number of these fragments contain slight variations in orthography and therefore have caused heated debate. A number of Muslim scholars have opposed a historical approach to studying the evolution of the Qur’an copies as it would “in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community” and would be tantamount to copyediting God’s words (see Toby Lester, “What is the Koran?” The Atlantic Monthly [January 1999], 3). Studies of the Yemeni fragments include: Hans-Caspar Graf von Bothmer, “Masterworks of Islamic Book Art: Koranic Calligraphy and Illumination in the Manuscripts found in the Great Mosque in Sanaa," in Yemen: 3000 Years of Art and Civilisation in Arabia Felix, ed. Werner Daum (Innsbruck: Pinguin Verlag; and Frankfurt: Umschau Verlag, 1987), 178-81; pls. 1-10; and Masahif Sanaca (Kuwait City: Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya, 1985).

[vii] See footnote iii.

[viii] Dots of varying colors mark vocalization, pronunciation, and the various ways of reciting (qira’at) the Qur’an. See Yasin Dutton, "Red Dots, Green Dots, Yellow Dots & Blue: Some Reflections on the Vocalisation of Early Qur’anic Manuscripts— Part I," Journal of Qur’anic Studies 1/1 (1999): 115-40; and idem, "Red Dots, Green Dots, Yellow Dots & Blue: Some Reflections on the Vocalisation of Early Qur’anic Manuscripts— Part II,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 2/1 (2000): 1-24.

[ix] Paper making technologies are believed to have been introduced to the Islamic world through Turkish and Chinese papermakers captured at the Battle of Talas in 751. Instead of using bark from the mulberry tree, however, papermakers in the Islamic world resorted to pressing linen rags (Johannes Pedersen, The Arabic Book, trans. Geoffrey French, [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984], 60-64). Unlike parchment (cured sheep or goat skin), paper could be made cheaply and in industrial quantities particularly after 794, when the first paper mill was established in Baghdad (Jonathan Bloom, Paper Before Print: the History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001], 29 and 48). Also see Helen Loveday, Islamic Paper: A Study of the Ancient Craft (London: Archetype Publications, 2001).

[x] Sheila Blair, “Patterns of Patronage and Production in Ilkhanid Iran: The Case of Rashid al-Din,” in The Court of the Ilkhans 1290-1340, eds. Julian Raby and Teresa Fitzherbert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 49.

[xi] Sheila Blair, A Compendium of Chronicles: Rashid al-Din’s Illustrated History of the World, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, vol. 27, ed. Julian Raby (Oxford: Nour Foundation in association with Oxford University Press, 1995).

[xii] See David James, Qur’ans of the Mamluks (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988); and idem, After Timur: Qur’ans of the 15th and 16th Centuries, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, vol. 3, ed. Julian Raby (Oxford: Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1992), 46-68.

[xiii] See Manijeh Bayani, Anna Contadini, and Tim Stanley, The Decorated Word: Qur’ans of the 17th to 19th Centuries, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, vol. 4, ed. Julian Raby (Oxford: Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1999), 125-31.

[xiv] See Maryam Ekhtiar, “Innovation and Revivalism in Later Persian Calligraphy: the Visal Family of Shiraz,” in Islamic Art in the 19th Century: Tradition, Innovation, and Eccleticism, eds. Doris Behrens-Abouseif and Stephen Vernoit (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006), 257-79.

[xv] For a history of printing in Iran, see Farid Qasimi, Sarguzasht-i Matbucat-i Iran: Ruzgar-i Muhammad Shah va Nasir al-Din Shah, 2 vols. (Tehran: Vizarat-i Farhang va Irshad-i Islami, 1380/2001); and Husayn M. Gulpayigani, Ta’rikh-i Chap va Chapkhana dar Iran (Tehran: Nashr-i Gulshan, 1378/1999).

Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy >> Qur’anic Fragments