Parution : The Word Illuminated: Form and Function of Qurʾanic Manuscripts from the Seventh to Seventeenth Centuries, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Asian Art, El-Hibri Foundation, 2023

The volume results from the symposium which was held in conjunction with the exhibition “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts” at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M.Sackler Gallery.


Let’s Start with the Questions

Jane McAuliffe, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

After years of writing and lecturing about the Qur’an, I have discovered that American audiences—at least those not raised in Muslim homes—regularly ask the same set of questions.  People who are familiar with Jewish and Christian scriptures often wonder about any connections that the Qur’an might have with these earlier holy books.  Those who have followed the news in recent years of incidents, both national and international, in which Muslims have reacted strongly against any perceived denigration of their sacred text are often bewildered by the vehemence of the reaction  “Why,” they ask, “does it matter so much?”  Finally, with a growing awareness that American religious diversity has deep historical roots, some have begun to ask about the history of the Qur’an in America and are eager to know more about the various stages of that story.  As our nation’s capital welcomes a landmark exhibition of Qur’anic manuscript, I would like take this opportunity to reverse the usual order of a public lecture and begin with the question period.

Astâr al-awwâlîn: The Qur’anic Handwritten Tradition and its Beginnings

François Déroche, Collège de France, Paris

In the seventh century, an Arabic handwritten tradition was invented in order to maintain and pass on the revelations that came down to Muhammad. A look at some of the Qur’anic copies that were said to be written by the caliph ‘Uthmân show the difficulty for later Muslims to admit to the ungainly appearance of the earliest manuscripts. This first stage of the handwritten tradition, known as hijâzî by reference to the region where Mekka and Medina are located, exhibits a mixture of awkwardness and awareness of contemporary book techniques. It is far from the sophisticated calligraphy that soon developed in the middle Umayyad period (ca 700). A dramatic change in the conception of the Qur’anic manuscript occurred at that moment which can be described as the beginning of an Islamic art of the book.

The Imperial Ghaznavid Qur’ans: A Case of Collaborative Productions

Alya Karame, University of Edinburgh

A number of unstudied luxurious Qur’ans survive from the Ghaznavid period (c. 977-1186 CE) exemplifying imperial manuscript production in the eastern Islamic lands. Amongst the group, two Qur’ans were copied and illuminated by ʿUthmān b. al-Ḥusayn al-Warrāq al-Ghaznawī, his son Muhammad and one ʿAlī. The first Qur’an was commissioned by sultan Ibrāhīm b. Masʿūd (r. 1059-1099 CE) and the second by a high-ranking official in the Ghaznavid dynasty.

The paper will first highlight the collaborative methods of production adopted in the making of these manuscripts. Second, it will identify the ways in which the script and illumination were stylized in these Qur’ans, illustrating local innovations but also continuities with earlier Qur’anic traditions. And third, the paper will question the extent to which we can talk about a geographic expansion of this imperial Ghaznavid style.

By understanding how this local Ghaznavid imperial visual language was formed, we get a clearer picture not only of the manuscripts’ production but also of the Qur’an’s role in projecting a dynastic image of the Ghaznavid Empire.

Grandeur and Gold: Qur’an Codices for Sultan Uljaytu and the Ilkhanid court

Sheila Blair, Boston College

The codices made at the beginning of the fourteenth century for the Ilkhanid ruler of Iraq and Iran, Sultan Uljaytu, (r. 1304-16), and members of his court are some of the finest Qur’an manuscirpts known.  Each one comprises a set of thirty volumes.  Each volume has some sixty folios of very large (elephantine or folio-sized) sheets of fine paper with bold calligraphy and elaborate decoration in gold, ultramarine and other expensive materials.  These manuscripts took years to produce, often by teams of craftsmen.  This presentation examines how these imperial manuscripts were made, how they were used, and why and where they have been preserved.

Mamluk Qur’ans: Opulence and Splendor of the Islamic Book

Alison Ohta, Royal Asiatic Society, London

The year 659/1260 marked the beginning of the Mamluk sultanate bringing an end to the chaos and political instability that had reigned throughout following the death of Salah al-Din al- Ayyubi in 648/1250 and the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 656/1258. The defeat of the Mongols in 659/1260 and the re-establishment of the ‘Abbasid caliphate in Cairo brought the Mamluks recognition from the rest of the Islamic world as the ‘defenders of Islam’. They created a society, in which patronage flourished with the construction of religious and educational institutions necessitating the production of opulent furnishings, including fine Qur’ans.

This paper will examine Qur’ans produced during the Mamluk period discussing the patrons, illumination, calligraphy and bindings. Discussion will include the seven part Qur’an of Baybars Jashnagir(British Library, Add.22406-12) ; the magnificently illuminated  monumental Qur’ans produced for Sultan Sha’ban (r.1363-76) and the  30-part Qur’ans made for  the sultans Hasan (r.1347—1351, 1354-1361) and Barquq (r.1382-9, 1390-9).  It will conclude with examples from the late 15th century noting changes in technique and ornament in the Qur’ans made for the sultans Qaytbay (r.1468-96) (TIEM 533 on exhibition) m and Qansuh al-Ghawri (r.1501-1516)  (Dar al Kutub, Cairo,  Rasid 73) as well as the spectacular binding and manuscript made for Amir Qansuh (TIEM 508, on exhibition), who was ‘Master of the Stables.’

A Luxury Market? Yāqūt al-Musta‘ṣimī’s Qur’āns

Nourane Ben Azzouna, University of Strasbourg

‘‘Luxury’’ is an elusive notion, notably because it may have different appreciations from one context to the other. In Islamic art history, luxurious, courtly or elite art is often contrasted with art produced for the market. This paper aims at questioning the validity of this dichotomy through the example of Yāqūt al-Musta‘ṣimī’s Qur’āns. Yāqūt al-Musta‘ṣimī (d. 698/1298-99) is certainly one of the most renowned calligraphers of the medieval period, and the one who had the greatest impact on the following periods. His impact is notably measurable through the number of forgeries bearing his name: over 120, a record for the premodern period, notably in comparison to later calligraphers such as the Ottoman Sheikh Hamdullah, which suggests that his manuscripts came to be considered as luxuries. But how was the situation during Yāqūt’s own lifetime, most of which took place in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Abbasid dynasty in 656/1258? The fall of the Abbasids represents a radical shift in the patronage of the arts and especially the arts of the book, the new rulers being not only non-sedentary, but also non-Muslim and non- Arabic- or Persian-speaking. It is very clear from several sources that Yāqūt never left Baghdad. None of the manuscripts that can be firmly attributed to him mentions a patron or a dedicatee. Consequently, they were most likely produced for the market. The paper will discuss the physical properties, the calligraphy, the illumination of Yāqūt’s manuscripts and especially Qur’ans and compare them with contemporaneous copies in order to draw up a portrait of that type of market.

Rendering the Word of God: The Art of Qur’ans with Interlinear Persian and Turkish Translations

Ünver Rüstem, John Hopkins University, Baltimore

Despite the frequent claim that Islam forbids translations of the Qur’an, many copies of the Arabic text include parallel renderings into other languages, with Persian and Turkish examples—the focus of this talk—being particularly numerous. These manuscripts, which date from the medieval period to the nineteenth century, today constitute a little-known tradition that has received scant art-historical interest. Yet such Qur’ans shed considerable light not only on how non-Arabophone Muslims acquainted themselves with scripture, but also on the sophisticated aesthetic strategies involved in the production of Qur’ans as artworks. Invariably written between the lines of Arabic, the translations are in fact lexical glosses to aid comprehension of the original text, thus confirming rather than undermining the privileged status of the source language. The same hierarchization is also achieved artistically, with variations in scale, angle, color, and ornament subordinating the non-Arabic text and maintaining the folios’ compositional integrity. These visual conventions demonstrate telling regional and chronological differences while remaining surprisingly stable—and consistently effective—over space and time. Beyond what they reveal about their own purpose, then, Qur’ans with translations exemplify the techniques by which Islamic artists visualized their holy text, even when faced with the challenge of interpolating it.

A Sixteenth-Century Shiraz Masterpiece:  Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an

Elaine Wright, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

In the late 1920s, Alfred Chester Beatty purchased a Qur’an signed by the calligrapher Ruzbihan Muhammad al-Tab‘i al-Shirazi, who Qadi Ahmad praises as one of four great calligraphers of Shiraz.  The manuscript is just one of a large corpus of Qur’ans produced in Shiraz in the sixteenth century. However, although renowned for being copied by Ruzbihan, it is equally the quality, extent, diversity and complexity of its decorative programme—the work of a team of highly skilled, yet anonymous artists and craftsmen—that sets the manuscript apart from most other contemporary Shiraz Qur’ans. Although no patron is named, the manuscript was clearly produced for a wealthy, probably high-placed individual.
The manuscript was disbound in 2012 (to allow conservation of its folios to take place), which enabled closer examination of its folios, often under high magnification, than would be possible with such a large and heavy, 445-folio manuscript when bound. This, along with the availability of high resolution photographs of each page, has revealed much about the actual procedures, techniques and materials involved in the production of the manuscript, as well as a number of unusual features, some shared with other earlier and contemporary Qur’ans, but some seemingly unique to the Chester Beatty manuscript.

Rise of the En‘am-ı şerif: Investigating the Production of Selections of Suras in the Sixteenth-Century Ottoman Empire

Simon Rettig, Freer|Sackler, Washington, DC

In addition to copies of the Qur’an (mushaf, pl. masahif), around 1500 the Ottoman Empire witnessed the thriving production of religious codices, which consisted of a selection of few Qur’anic suras. Most of the volumes open with the sixth chapter of the Qur’an (sura al-An‘am; the Cattle), hence the name En‘am-ı şerifin Turkish- a term that eventually used for all prayer books after the seventeenth century. Selections of surasas a peculiar type of literature, however, started much earlier than previously thought.

The aim of this paper is twofold. First, it presents early examples of En‘am-ı şerif and questions the origins of such compilations from the Qur’an. In parallel, it investigates how page layout and conception of the manuscript as a whole developed in order to differentiate them visually from masahif and other manuscripts. Secondly, the paper will analyze the production and use of En‘am-ı şerif in the Ottoman context. Long thought to be codices meant for private devotional usage, these selections may reflect if not a shift at least an important evolution in the public practice of the Qur’an. Master calligraphers, such as Shaykh Hamdullah (d. 1520) and Ahmed Karahisari (d. 1556) worked on as many of such volumes as on entire Qur’ans. The manuscripts were also patronized by the elite and members of the Ottoman family, which adds to their cultural and religious importance. Endowed to public institutions, and imperial mosques in particular, the En‘am-ı şerif  was used and displayed in ways that have been so far discussed only in terms of the complete Qur’an.

Sight and Sound in Early Qur’ans

Alain George, University of Edinburgh

Qur’an manuscripts are usually approached, in modern scholarship, like a canvas, a flat field awaiting palaeographic, textual and stylistic analysis. However their parchment leaves belonged to codices, physical objects that served as a repository for the Word of God. These books were typically experienced, in the daily life of cities and towns, as an open or concealed presence in the prayer halls of mosques; they resonated with inscriptions and architectural ornament, and most of all with the voice of reciters. The Qur’anic text, in turn, was first and foremost regarded as aural – as a revelation received anew with each passing generation through the sense of hearing. In this paper, we will investigate the interconnections, in early Islam, between two dimensions of Qur’anic manuscripts: recitation and calligraphy, the aural and the visual. Were they regarded as complementary or potentially contradictory? How did sight and hearing interact with other senses in the context of mosques? Through these and other questions, we will attempt to start replacing the reception of the Qur’an in its richly textured spatial setting.

The Qur’anic Soundscape of Mimar Sinan’s Mosques

Nina Ergin, Koç University, Istanbul

Based on the argument that for the majority of Muslims the everyday lived experience of the Qur’anic text occurred through its aural rather than visual rendition, this paper will examine the masahif from the vantage point of its acoustic implications in the context of sixteenth-century Ottoman mosques. A representative sample of Mimar Sinan’s mosques in Istanbul will serve as case-studies to investigate the interplay between Qur’anic recitation and the built environment. The soundscape of these monuments can be reconstructed with the help of archival documents in the form of endowment deeds, mostly preserved in the General Directorate of Endowments in Ankara. Following an introduction to the orality and aurality of the Qur’anic text, to Mimar Sinan’s and other Ottoman architects’ measures employed to construct an appropriate acoustic space, and to the way in which reciters were located within the prayer hall, I will consider both shape and content of the recitation programs, as it was determined by the ruling decorum as much as by patrons’ individual preferences. The overall aim is to retrieve the sixteenth-century Ottoman worshippers’ experience of the Holy Word, in both political and religious terms.

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Chargé de diffusion scientifique (2023, 14 mars). Parution : The Word Illuminated: Form and Function of Qurʾanic Manuscripts from the Seventh to Seventeenth Centuries, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Asian Art, El-Hibri Foundation, 2023. IISMM. Consulté le 14 avril 2024, à l’adresse

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