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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Early Qur’ans (8th–Early 13th Century)

The Qur’an is Islam’s holiest book. Revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel, it is considered by Muslims to be the written record of the word of God. In the year 610 A.D., the Prophet frequently visited a mountain cave called Hira’, located outside of Mecca, to meditate and pray. On one such visit, Gabriel asked him to recite the first five verses of the Qur’an. He commanded: “Read in the name of your Lord who created; Created man from an embryo; Read, for your Lord is most beneficent; Who taught by the pen; Taught man what he did not know” (Sura 96).

The divine revelations continued over the course of the next twenty years, first in Mecca, and then in Medina following the migration (hijra) of Muhammad and his followers in 622 A.D. (equivalent to the first year of the hijri calendar). Toward the end of his life, Muhammad began to create a physical copy of the revelations, but he was unable to complete this project before his death in 632 A.D. In the following years, his most trusted companions undertook the task of collecting them from written and oral sources. The final codified consonantal form of the Qur’an is thought to have been produced during the reign of ‘Uthman (r. 644–56 A.D.), the third of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs (al-khulafa-yi al-rashidun). The text has remained almost unaltered to the present day. Because of its divine nature, the Qur’an has been considered by Muslims to be the “mother of all books,” or the Umm al-Kitab, and its impact on the arts of the book in the Islamic world has thus been indelible.

The Qur’an is composed of 114 suras (chapters) arranged in order of descending length excluding the first. Many manuscripts, however, are divided into thirty sections, or juz’, of equal length (37.142). In this format, the entire Qur’an can be read over the course of a thirty-day month (usually during the month of Ramadan), with one volume being undertaken each day. Other less common units of division, the manzil and the hizb, divide the text into seven or sixty parts, respectively.

Arabic is written with twenty-eight letters of only eighteen distinct forms; dotting above and below these primary forms distinguish between otherwise identical letters. Early Qur’ans often left out these markings (i‘jam) as well as short vowels that appear as symbols above and below letters, assuming that the text would be used as a memory aide for recitation by readers who were already familiar with its content.

The earliest Qur’ans were written in the hijazi script, a script that predates kufic. This script is characterized by the rightward sloping of the tall shafts of the letters. The calligraphic style kufic, so named after its origins in the city of Kufa in present-day Iraq, is characterized by more static and angular upright letters that were well suited to writing on parchment as well as to use in architecture and decorative objects. During the Abbasid period, Qur’an manuscripts were produced on horizontally-oriented parchment to match the style of kufic script in which letters were usually extended to create justified margins (37.142). In some cases, individual words were even split across two lines for aesthetic reasons. Simple verse markers composed of stacked diagonal lines or in the form of rosettes were used to guide the reader, but words were typically left unvoweled and without consonant points (i‘jam).

While early single-volume Qur’ans were often large and even monumental for use in recitations (2004.87), others were miniature in scale (62.152.2) and may have been used as talismans. Regardless of size, great attention was paid to preparing the parchment to receive ink and to the calligraphy itself. In some cases, the parchment was dyed a rich color, further elaborating on the already complex process of preparing the ground (40.164.1a). This practice was first employed in Christian Byzantine manuscripts, which were sometimes dyed purple and written on with gold or silver ink, perhaps inspiring one particularly luxurious manuscript now known as the Blue Qur’an (2004.88).

As paper was imported along trade routes from China to the Middle East, Qur’ans were produced in this new material, which was more economical and easier to prepare than parchment. The introduction of paper into the region allowed for the production of far more Qur’ans than had previously been possible. In North Africa and Al-Andalus, however, parchment continued as the preferred medium for Qur’ans until the fourteenth century (42.63). Despite a continued conservative use of this material, these manuscripts were stylistically very different from earlier kufic Qur’ans, instead employing the maghribi (western) script, characterized by fine spidery lines whose full curves descend deeply below the line of text. Ornate verse markers in the shape of medallions, together with other decoration, further differentiate these later parchment Qur’ans from their predecessors. These illuminated elements not only beautify the Qur’an, but they also serve a primary purpose of aiding in recitation and prayer.

In other regions, Qur’ans were produced on paper in the “new style” script, sometimes referred to as “Eastern kufic” or “Broken kufic” (2007.191). This script, with taller letters and more variation in line thickness, marked a shift to vertically oriented Qur’an manuscripts. The difference between tall and short letters is highly exaggerated in “new style” script, where the letters alif and lam extend far above the main line of the text (29.160.23). Qur’ans from this period often include more ornate decoration and diacritical marks than earlier Qur’an manuscripts (40.164.5ab).