Yael Rice on Islamic Book and Manuscript Arts in America
In October 2016, during the final month of a fractious presidential election that saw the GOP contender (now President of the United States) campaign on a promise to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country, an exhibition of Qur’an manuscripts opened at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from the White House. “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures From the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts,” which closed on February 20, was the most ambitious exhibition of Qur’an manuscripts ever undertaken in the United States. It is worth letting that point sink in: the very first large–scale exhibition of Qur’an manuscripts in the United States was mounted in 2016–17 at a governmentally administered museum. Given the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric and Islamophobic attacks, some might say an exhibition like this one was timely. I’d say it was long overdue.
The curators of the show, Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig (both of the Freer|Sackler), had their work cut out for them. The exhibition showcased over sixty manuscripts, two-thirds of which were borrowed from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Istanbul. (The remaining manuscripts drew from the Freer|Sackler’s own collections.) To coordinate a loan show of this scale is no small feat, not least when you take into account the failed military coup that took place in Turkey in July 2016, and the purge of civil servants that followed. Negotiations between the Turkish and U.S. institutions, which were years in the making, could have easily derailed.
Another challenge the curators faced was the task of contextualizing a scripture whose unusual format resists facile explication. Although the Qur’an is often characterized as a book, it is better understood as an orally proclaimed text. It is in this state that, according to Islamic tradition, the Qur’an was transmitted from God to the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632), via the Archangel Jibra’il (Gabriel). Muhammad received the revelations over a period of twenty-two years, and in two different locales (Mecca and Medina). When the Qur’anic text was compiled as a single corpus, following the Prophet’s passing, its 114 suras (chapters) were arranged not in chronological, geographical, or thematic order, but according to length. Barring the first sura (al-Fatiha, “the opening”), the Qur’an proceeds from the longest to the shortest sura. The text is also often divided into thirty roughly equal parts (azja’). This organizational scheme likely served to facilitate recitation and memorization of the divine text and thus ensure its preservation. The practice of committing the Qur’an to memory, considered to be a pious act, continues to this day.
If the arrangement of the Qur’anic corpus aids recitation and memorization, it also amplifies the text’s nonlinear qualities. The Qur’an lacks a clear narrative arc, and each of its suras functions in effect as a standalone text unit. The oneness of God, the finality of the revelations, and a self-conscious awareness of its place vis-à-vis other scriptural traditions are themes that run throughout the Qur’anic corpus, but the individual suras take up many other issues that have little or no connecting thread between them. Even more, the text employs a diversity of literary forms and rhetorical devices to create an intensity of expression that reinforces its sanctified nature. The combined thematic and formal heterogeneity can make the Qur’an a difficult subject to broach with a general audience.
Tasked with this challenge, the curators used the upper story of the exhibition space to flesh out some of the Qur’an’s most salient themes. These include its monotheistic message, eschatological emphasis, and self-referentiality. A series of didactic texts on the prophets and other holy personages that appear in the Qur’an introduced Muhammad alongside ‘Isa (Jesus), Maryam (Mary), and Ibrahim (Abraham), thereby underscoring Islam’s status as an Abrahamic religion. The prophets also play a fundamental role as models of conduct, and the Qur’an itself is considered to be the ultimate moral and ethical guide, providing instruction on dietary restrictions, divorce, and more.
The array of manuscripts on display in the introductory galleries made a stunning backdrop to the presentation of the Qur’an’s core tenets—still, one could not help being pulled into the glimmer of the verse markers’ gilding and the rhythms of the calligraphy’s dark, inky curls. An enormous Safavid Qur’an manuscript that greeted the viewer upon entering the exhibition seemed to revel in its own massive physicality. For those literate in Arabic, the manuscripts signified in yet other ways. The exhibition proceeded from these anterior galleries into a transitional space containing cases filled with pens, burnishing tools, gold leaf, and pigments. One then descended a staircase overlooking Qur’an pages that measure nearly six feet in height. Produced in Samarqand, in present-day Uzbekistan, around the early fifteenth century, the monumental folios combine joined bands of thick paper with ink, watercolor paint, and gold, forming a magnificent field of masterfully executed calligraphy and illumination. In spite of its very large size, the original manuscript—perhaps produced for the great ruler Timur (d. 1405)—was carried beyond Samarqand (probably taken as plunder) and dispersed. If the Qur’an is at once timeless and immaterial, its instantiation in the form of a manuscript is most certainly not; the mammoth Timurid pages reminded us of that point.
The remainder of the exhibition concentrated on the history of the Qur’an’s production and use. Here the Qur’an manuscript emerged as a thoroughly physical entity: a container for divine revelation and, on occasion, non-Qur’anic prayers; a material vehicle for the transmission of baraka (divine blessing); a bearer of the calligrapher’s trace; a site for the negotiation of and experimentation with aesthetic and linguistic practices; and a statement of filial and political loyalty and religious devotion. Qur’an manuscripts seldom stayed in one location, but rather circulated widely as gifts, booty, and pious endowments.
The story began with the Qur’an’s compilation as a written text during the seventh through tenth centuries. Parchment, rather than paper—which only came into use in the broader Islamic world around the tenth century—, was the most commonly used support during this period. In many of the examples of Qur’an manuscript pages on view, the calligraphers wrote in an angular script known as kufic, stretching select letters along the baseline to shape the divine text into a geometrically harmonized block. Economical use of the expensive animal skin was not necessarily an overriding concern. Only during the latter phase of this period was a more regular system for pointing, a system of diacritical marks used to differentiate Arabic letter forms that have the same basic configuration, and short vowel marking advanced. Considered alongside the emergence of more elaborate and distinctive text divisions for chapter titles and verse markers, these developments suggest the Qur’an manuscript’s changing function from a mnemonic device to a read text. Throughout this early phase, the Qur’an remained (and continues to remain) unillustrated.
The spread of papermaking technology around the end of the tenth century had an indelible effect on Qur’an manuscript production. Since paper was comparatively more affordable than parchment, the pool of patrons and manuscripts expanded. With the intensification and diffusion of production came new and more legible scripts and a greater range of styles of ornamentation. The names of calligraphers also began to appear in manuscript colophons. The Baghdad-based scribe and illuminator Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1022) gained such widespread fame that his name was spuriously added to a spectacular eleventh-century Qur’an included in the exhibition. The owner of the manuscript apparently deemed the hand of the original calligrapher, a certain Abu’l Qasim ‘Ali, to hold insufficient prestige. Pages from a diminutive tenth-century parchment Qur’an also on view were, in sixteenth-century Iran, inscribed with the “signature” of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 660), the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. ‘Ali is not only a supremely important spiritual figure for Shi’i Muslims, but he is also popularly identified as the progenitor of the kufic script. The addition of his name was likely intended to elevate the manuscript’s spiritual value.
Qur’an manuscripts, as conceived in the Sackler installation, are deeply layered objects; they are mediums for the divine words of God, but they can also give voice to a diverse range of sectarian, devotional, artisanal, and dynastic claims. The Ottomans here took center stage, since the exhibition loans had been held in long-established personal and institutional collections across the Ottoman Empire prior to their transfer to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in the early twentieth century. Many Ottoman elites acquired Qur’ans that were associated with esteemed (or politically subdued) royal lineages, individuals, and cultural centers. They also collected Qur’an manuscripts because of the special baraka these books were perceived to possess. Two such manuscripts—one made in 1577 in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, the other made around 1250–1300 in Konya, burial place of the great Sufi Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273)—were spiritually activated by virtue of their places of production.
The concentration of Qur’an manuscripts in royal libraries, mosques, and mausoleums could magnify the baraka in those spaces. The tomb of Sultan Selim II (r. 1566–74), in Istanbul, once held eighteen Qur’an manuscripts, including one that his daughter Ismihan presented to augment the site’s blessedness and broadcast her own religious and filial devotion. A large number of Ottoman elites participated in these public demonstrations of piety and dynastic loyalty; as a result, the purchase, trade, and gifting of Qur’an manuscripts flourished, and charitable donations of these materials to religious institutions multiplied.
Around 1911, the process to transfer many of these manuscript bequests to the Museum of Islamic Endowments (renamed the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in 1923) was initiated. Taking the exhibition’s premise to its logical conclusion, one might ask: Does this early twentieth-century episode represent a complete break from or a continuation of prior collection practices? Further, what does the temporary transfer of forty-eight of these Qur’an manuscripts and folios from Turkey to the United States mean today, in the age of Erdoğan and Trump? These questions loomed as specters in the galleries, and they continue to reverberate in the exhibition’s aftermath, as Erdoğan and Trump find common ground in their shared opposition to a free press and checks on presidential power; academic institutions are also increasingly under attack in both Turkey and the United States. “The Art of the Qur’an,” if only coincidentally, brought the contradictions and perils of the U.S.-Turkey partnership into sharper relief. For most visitors to the Sackler exhibition, however, the manuscripts offered up powerfully palpable historical resonances, while the stunning beauty of the books acted as another compelling lure. For many, the manuscripts also contained the literal words—and, thus, baraka—of God. For those who accept the Qur’an as revelation, the exhibition manifested a glorious repetition of a text that is enduring and unearthly, and which knows no bounds.
Yael Rice is Assistant Professor of the History of Art and Asian Languages and Civilizations at Amherst College. She specializes in the art and architecture of South Asia and Iran, with a particular focus on manuscripts and other portable arts of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. email@example.com.