Three layers of superb carving combining vegetal motifs and calligraphic inscriptions cover the surface of this Qur'an stand. The inscriptions include decorative arrangements of the words Allah, 'Ali, and Muhammad, and blessings upon the Prophet and the Twelve Imams. In addition, they provide us with the information that the stand was made by Hasan [ibn] Zain ibn Sulaiman al‑Isfahani for endowment to a madrasa, or theological college, in the year 1360.
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Title:Stand for a Qur'an Manuscript
Maker:Zain(?) Hasan Sulaiman Isfahani (Iranian)
Date:dated A.H. 761/1360 CE
Geography:Made in Iran
Medium:Wood (teak); carved, painted, and inlaid
Dimensions:W. (when closed) 16 1/8 in. (41 cm) H. (when closed) 51 1/4 in. (130.2 cm)
Dimensions when open: H. 45 in. (114.3 cm) W. 50 in. (127 cm) D. 16 1/2 in. (41.9 cm)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1910
Stand for a Qur'an Manuscript (Rahla)
A masterpiece of design, this carved book stand, or rahla, is made from a single slab of teak and is framed by inlays composed of various woods in shades of brown and black. Its several inscriptions signal its sacred function and provide information about its origin. When closed, the stand is flat; when open, it forms an X-shape in which the upper portion is about half the height of the lower one. The upper arms once served to support a book, probably a Qur’an.
The majority of the inscriptions are prayers, with the texts on the outside of the panels carved in high relief and surrounded by decoration, while those on the inside are unornamented and incised. A network of vegetal scrolls, divided into four quadrants by diagonal lines, covers the outer faces of the upper arms of the X; in each of these quadrants the word Allah appears in high relief. The decoration on the lower panels, which also serve as the supports for the rahla, has three concentric zones. The outermost is filled with a sinuous plant springing from a baseline and bearing blossoms of various sizes that twist and turn as they rise toward the upper frame. Some of the plants resemble peonies, others lotuses: the plant was obviously imagined rather than observed.
The central zone of the lower panel is designed as a pair of niches filled with, and separated by, carved ornament that is largely symmetrical around the central axis. At the center, a heart-shaped vase with a pointed base rests on a low hexagonal support. Covered with overlapping scales, the vase holds a bouquet of flowers that has a well-defined, treelike contour. Two concentric frames separate the vase from the "peony-vines." The inner one is ogival, while the outer expands into seven lobes and is crowned by five palmlike fronds. Between these frames a prayer is carved in high relief that invokes blessings on the Prophet, ‘Ali, and the Twelve Imams, each of whom is identified by name and epithet. The first five are mentioned on one side and the sixth through twelfth on the other. The maker, Zain(?) Hasan Sulaiman Isfahani, has carved his name on the outer surface, just above the foot, an appropriately modest location.
An incised peripheral inscription appears on the inner surface of the upper arms and was probably intended to be visible even when a book had been placed on the rahla. It originally carried blessings on the Prophet and his immediate successors, but it has been crudely mutilated, probably to excise portions that praised the caliphs Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman. Only the name and titles of the fourth caliph, ‘Ali, are preserved. The same inscription also states that the rahla was made in A.H. 761/A.D. 1360 for the Sadrabad Madrasa in Anar. Although the precise location of this village is unknown, the same combination of prayers for the Twelve Imams with occluded inscriptions for Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman was found in the inscriptions of the Masjid-i Jami‘ at Ashtarjan, near Isfahan, which was dated to 1315. The existence of texts praising the Orthodox caliphs was revealed only by restorations carried out in the twentieth century. In Iran, inscriptions praising both the first four caliphs and the Twelve Imams are characteristic of the fourteenth century. From the sixteenth century onward, the increasing polarization of the Sunni and Shi‘a communities led to the concealment or mutilation of earlier texts, such as the ones carved on this rahla, that extolled the Orthodox caliphs.
Priscilla Soucek in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
2. On the condition of the Ashtarjan inscriptions before restoration, see Miles, George C. "The Inscriptions of the Masjid-i Jami‘ at Ashtarjan." Iran 12 (1974), pp. 89–98, esp. p. 92 and pl. Ia-c; for their restored state, see Hunarfar, Lutfullah. Ganjina-yi asar-i tarikhi-yi Isfahan. Isfahan, 1971, pp. 269–71.
Perhaps because of the relative scarcity of wood in large parts of the Islamic world, Muslim woodcarvers with highly developed skills achieved special renown, and it was not uncommon for them to sign their work, as is the case with this Koran stand, or rahla. The signature of its maker, Hasan ibn Sulaiman al-Isfahani, includes a type of geographic suffix known as a nisba that suggests he came from the Iranian city of Isfahan, although the stand itself may have been made elsewhere in Iran or even Centrl Asia. Other inscriptions on the stand provide additional information, namely its date and the name of the patron who had it made for a madrasa, or theological college. Although the inscriptions do not indicate where this was located, it may well have been a Shi'ite school, since the richly carved calligraphy within a niche above the cypress tree that decorates each side calls for blessings upon the prophet and the twelve Imans. The upper sections of the stand are decorated with the word "Allah" repeated four times so that the initial letters alif interlock to create an X-shaped design; this is set against a deeply carved arabesque ground.
Koran stands were a common furnishing in mosques and other places of worship; in fact, two are depicted in use in an Ilkhanid painting of the fourteenth century (cat. no. 31 in this volume).
[Komaroff and Carboni 2002]
1. Lentz, Thomas W. and Glenn D. Lowry. Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century. Exhib. cat. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1989, p. 330, no. 9; Crowe, Yolande. "Some Timurid Designs and Their Far Eastern Connections." In Timurid Art and Culture: Iran and Central Asia in the Fifteenth Century, edited by Lisa Golombek and Maria Subtelny, pp. 168–78. Studies in Islamic Art and Architecture, Supplements to Muqarnas, 6. Leiden and New York. Brill, 1992, pp. 174–76, fig. 7. See also Mayer, Leo Ary. Islamic Woodcarvers and Their Works. Geneva: A. Kundig, 1958, pp. 11–19, 40.
2. Bernard O'Kane has proposed an attribution to Iran, based on the shallow carved relief of the vegetal designs at the top of the stand, which he relates to other fourteenth-century Iranian woodcarvings (memorandum, Metropolitan Museum, Islamic Department files, 1995). The Koran stand has in the past been ascribed on stylistic grounds to Central Asia, e.g. Lentz and Lowry (footnote 1), p. 330, no. 9.
3. On Shi'ism in fourteenth-century Iran, see Sheila Blair's essay, chapter 5 above.
Signature: On two corners of one side, signature in naskhi script:
عمل زین؟ حسن سلیمان اصفهانی
The work of Zain[?] Hasan Sulaiman Isfahani
Inscription: In Arabic in thuluth script on inner face of stand in six segments, three of which are missing:
اللهم صلّ علی محمد و علی آل محمد سلّم و ]. . .[ و أمیر المؤمنین علي بن . . ابي طالب رضوان الله علیهم اجمعین وقف مدرسهٔ صدر آباد انار صانها الله عن الآفات — في ذي الحجة حجة إحدی و ستین و سبعمائة
May God bless Muhammad and his family and [. . .] and the commander
of the faithful ‘Ali son of Abi Talib, may God’s good favor be upon all of
them! Endowed to the Madrasa Sadrabad in Anar, may God protect and
preserve it from disaster! In the month of Dhu l-Hijja of the year A.H. 761
[October– – November 1360 A.D.] Footnote: The beginning of the inscription, defaced, may have included the names of the first three caliphs. The designs on the exterior bearing the names of the twelve Shi‘a imams must have been carved later than the date of the stand.
On top square panel outside (in each side), four times in square thuluth script:
On bottom panels in thuluth script:
[Shi‘i prayers for the Prophet Muhammad and the Twelve Imams
(on one side up to Muhammad Baqir, on other up to al-Mahdi)]
On bottom panel under flower vase in angular kufic script:
Dominion [belongs to] God
On other side:
Gratitude is to God
Sadrabad Madrasa, Anar, Iran (from 1360); [ Tabbagh Frères, Paris and New York, until 1910; sold to MMA]
Washington. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. "Timur and the Princely Vision. Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century," April 14, 1989–July 6, 1989, no. 9.
Los Angeles. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Timur and the Princely Vision. Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century," August 13, 1989–November 5, 1989, no. 9.
The Hagop Kevorkian Special Exhibitions Gallery, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Nature of Islamic Ornament Part II: Vegetal Patterns," September 10, 1998–January 10, 1999, no catalogue.
Imbrey, Jai, ed. Mosques: Splendors of Islam. New York: Rizzoli, 2017. p. 30, ill.
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Mohammedan Decorative Arts. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1930. pp. 92–93, ill. fig. 41 (b/w).
Pope, Arthur Upham. An Introduction to Persian Art Since the Seventh Century A.D.. London: Peeter Davies, Ltd. by the Shenval Press, 1930. p. 190, ill. fig. 95 (b/w).
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. p. 119, ill. fig. 66 (b/w).
Kurz, Otto. "Folding Chairs and Koran Stands." Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1972). p. 307, ill. fig. 12 (b/w).
Ettinghausen, Richard. "Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 33, no. 1 (Spring 1975). ill. p. 21 (color).
Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. pp. 68–69, ill. fig. 50 (color).
Lentz, Thomas W., and Glenn D. Lowry. "Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century." In Timur and the Princely Vision. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989. no. 9, p. 330.
de Montebello, Philippe, and Kathleen Howard, ed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. 6th ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. p. 321, ill. fig. 25 (color).
Schimmel, Annemarie. "Islamic Calligraphy." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 50, no. 1 (Summer 1992). Inside front cover, ill. (color).
Babaie, Sussan, ed. "The Idea of Iran." In Iran After the Mongols. Vol. VIII. London: I. B. Tauris, 2019. pp. 218–19, ill. fig. 11.6 (b/w).
Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250–1800. Yale University Press Pelican History of art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994. p. 24, ill. pl. 28 (b/w).
Baer, Eva. Islamic Ornament. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. p. 22, ill. fig. 25 (b/w).
Rossabi, Morris, Charles Melville, James C. Y. Watt, Tomoko Masuya, Sheila Blair, Robert Hillenbrand, Linda Komaroff, Stefano Carboni, Sarah Bertelan, and John Hirx. The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353, edited by Stefano Carboni, and Linda Komaroff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. no. 176, pp. 132, 281, ill. fig. 159 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Haidar, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 66, pp. 107–8, ill. p. 107 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 48–49, ill. pl. 5 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam. How to Read Islamic Calligraphy. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018. no. 22, pp. 92–93, ill.
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