US exhibition: The Art of the Qur’an

“The Art of the Qur’an,” The Smithsonian’s Sackler/Freer Galleries’ new exhibition, serves as a timely reminder of the beauty and history of the Qur’an. This is the first major exhibition of Qur’an manuscripts ever held in the US. On display are more than 60 examples of some of the Muslim world’s most notable Qur’an manuscripts, and some of the earliest Qur’ans. There are Qur’ans smaller than a cellphone, while others are larger than carpets.


Spanning almost 1,000 years of history, the documents originate from locations ranging from Damascus to 17th century Istanbul. Manuscripts displayed here date from the Abbasid period in the late 7th century through to the late 17th century under Ottoman and Safavid rulers.

This meticulously organized exhibition is on loan from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul, and many items are on display for the first time outside Turkey. The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts has an exceptional collection of Qur’anic manuscripts that is not well known. This is surprising as it houses 17,000 copies of the holy book.

Each room in the exhibition has a different Qur’anic theme, making the exhibition a continually interesting learning experience. Visitors learn how the Qur’an was transformed from oral transmission to written, illuminated and bound text produced by various skillful calligraphers from around the Islamic world.

Also, here are some of the earliest fragments of the Qur’an, which were first copied on animal skin, or parchment in a script characterized by leftward slanting letters and upward tapering lines. Looking at these features, one can’t help but think the script resembles personal handwriting rather than a standardized style.

Called the “Hijazi” style, experts believe this script was probably developed in the Hijaz, the region where Makkah and Madinah, the two holy cities, are located.

By the 9th century, one learns here, a more regular, angular script, known as Kufic, replaced the Hijazi style of writing and set a new standard for Qur’an manuscripts. The term Kufic refers to a range of angular writing styles and is derived from the city of Kufa in Iraq, one of several centers where the script may have originated.

I witnessed Muslim visitors moved to tears by the rich beauty of so many of the Qur’ans.

Qur’ans vary in size and technique, illustrating the jaw-dropping talent of these calligraphers and illuminators who were permitted to transcribe the sacred text. And it offers an education into the particular historical, religious and artistic circumstances of its patronage and production.

“Although each copy of the Qur’an contains an identical text; the mastery and skill of the artists have transformed each into unique works of art,” said Massumeh Farhad, the Freer and Sackler’s curator of Islamic Art.

It is phenomenal, experts say, that many of the Qur’ans displayed here at the Sackler survived wartime destruction and leadership upheavals down through the centuries.

Long after their completion in 11th century Isfahan, 13th century or 14th century Mosul, or 16th century Herat, many of the finest Qur’ans were acquired by Ottoman sultans, queens, viziers, and pashas through purchase, gift, or as booty.

It was at the start of World War I that the Ottomans decided to gather these works of art in religious institutions throughout their empire and transfer them all to Istanbul’s Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

“The Art of the Qur’an” is also a historical learning opportunity — there is even a room describing how these volumes came to be considered some of the Ottomans’ most prized possessions and were offered to other rulers in order to secure political and military alliances or given as rewards to loyal officials and nobles.

“Qur’ans for Display” is another of the exhibition. A favorite at the exhibition is the dramatic display of the world’s largest Qur’an. The story of how it was created is a tribute to both talent and determination.

The left-handed calligrapher Omar Aqta was eager to impress Timur (Tamerlane, 1336-1405) with his outstanding skills. To do so, he decided to copy a miniature Qur’an onto a signet ring. When Timur saw it, he was allegedly unimpressed.

Undeterred, Omar Aqta changed tactics and transcribed a second Qur’an — this time the size of carpets — which had to be transported to the palace in wheelbarrows. This time, Timur was delighted, and he rewarded the calligrapher accordingly. A few pages from this Qur’an are on display at the Sackler, and are believed to be among the few remaining examples of the enormous manuscript once displayed in Timur’s mosque in Samarkand, the first Timurid capital.

Another favorite here deals with “the son of a doorkeeper.” According to the colophon displayed on a modest-sized manuscript, Ibn Al-Bawwab completed it in 1010 in Baghdad.

Ibn Al-Bawwab began his career as a house painter but became a celebrated master of Islamic calligraphy. He became well known for refining the forms of the rounded cursive scripts.

Close examination of the colophon, interestingly, reveals that the signature of the original calligrapher, Abul Qasim Ali, was erased. It was replaced with Ibn Al-Bawwab’s name to increase the volume’s value and importance.

This Qur’an is significant as an 11th century manuscript that blends two popular cursive scripts — “rayhan” and “naskh.” The script stands out for its evenly spaced words and letters, fine strokes, and sweeping curves below the baseline. It is also one of the earliest known copies of a Qur’an in a single volume; and serves as one more example of the uniqueness and quality of the Qur’ans on display — a “must see” exhibition from beginning to end.


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