Asian and African studies blog

04 February 2021

Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library

The British Library’s collections of manuscripts from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia were largely formed during the early 19th century by officials in the service of the East India Company. These early colonial philologists eagerly sought out original literary, historical and legal texts composed in local languages such as Malay, Javanese and Bugis, but paid little attention to the rich corpus of writings in Arabic, constituting the bedrock of Islamic scholarship in the region. Manuscripts of the Qur’an, commentaries and prayerbooks were usually ignored, being regarded as poor copies of canonical texts already well known from multiple ‘better’ and older prototypes from the Middle East.

Heading for the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, revealed in Mecca, in a manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 3v (detail).
Heading for the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, revealed in Mecca, in a manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 3v (detail).  noc

As a result of this narrow range of bibliographic interests, there are very few Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in British public collections. Indeed, until the late 20th century, only three complete copies of the Qur’an from the Malay world were known to be held in the UK: two in the British Library from Java, from the John Crawfurd collection, and one in the Royal Asiatic Society, possibly also from Java (Arabic No. 4), which is of particular interest as it includes a full interlinear translation in Malay. Over the past few decades, however, a few more examples have been acquired by the British Library, which now holds eight complete Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, representing three regional styles: from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, Aceh and Java. All eight manuscripts have now been digitised, and can be accessed through the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts portal.

The East Coast of the Malay peninsula is home to two closely-linked schools of manuscript art, one based in Terengganu and the other to the north, centred on the Malay kingdom of Patani, now part of Thailand. While Terengganu produced the finest illuminated Qur’an manuscripts in the whole of Southeast Asia, in a class of their own in terms of sumptuousness and technical finesse, Patani Qur’ans are notable for their artistry and perfect judgement of proportion and presentation on the page. An exquisite small Qur’an in the British Library, Or 15227, combines certain characteristically Patani motifs with regular repeating floral and foliate motifs and deep dark pigments reminiscent of Terengganu production.

Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an, enclosing Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah on the left, probably from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 3v-4r.
Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an, enclosing Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah on the left, probably from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 3v-4r.  noc

The highly distinctive and easily recognizable Acehnese style of illumination is represented by three Qur’an manuscripts in the British Library. One manuscript, Or 16915, is indeed an exemplar of this artistic school, and is illuminated throughout with three double decorated frames and with each thirtieth part (juz’) and divisions thereof highlighted with marginal ornaments. The two other manuscripts are simpler creations, but both were also produced with decorated frames marking the beginning, middle and end of the Qur’anic text, although Or 16034 is now missing a few folios from the beginning. The third manuscript, Or 15604, has three pairs of double monochrome frames. These should not be regarded as ‘unfinished’ examples of manuscript art, for so many Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh with monochrome decoration can be found that this should be regarded as a standard variant of the Acehnese style. Neither of these two other Aceh Qur’ans have marginal ornaments for each juz’ or subdivisions of juz' similar to those found in Or 16915.

Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 2v-3r.
Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 2v-3r.  noc

Illuminated frames in the middle of a Qur’an from Aceh, marking the start of juz’ 16 (Q. 18:75), 19th century. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.
Illuminated frames in the middle of a Qur’an from Aceh, marking the start of juz’ 16 (Q. 18:75), 19th century. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.  noc

Monochrome decorated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, enclosing the final two chapters, Surat al-Falaq and Surat al-Nas, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 313v-314r.
Monochrome decorated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, enclosing the final two chapters, Surat al-Falaq and Surat al-Nas, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 313v-314r.  noc

The remaining four Qur’an manuscripts are from Java. As noted above, two are from the John Crawfurd collection and were hence aquired in Java before Crawfurd left the island in 1816. Both are copied on dluwang, Javanese paper made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree, and both are relatively plain bibliographic productions. The decorated frames are executed simply in black and red ink, and illustrate a quintessentially Javanese architectural preference for superimposing diamond shapes upon a series of rectangles.

Simple diamond-rectangle double frames in black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 2v-3r.
Simple diamond-rectangle double frames in black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Decorated double frames in red and black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12312, ff. 1v-2r.
Decorated double frames in red and black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12312, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Both the Crawfurd manuscripts probably date from the late 18th century or very early 19th century. A third Qur’an manuscript from Java probably dates from the second half of the 19th century. It is written on European paper, and has no ornamental features. The hand could not be described as good, but care has been taken with the normal Qur’anic conventions of page layout, text frames, red ink surah headings and verse markers, and the ruled extended sin-mim ligature in the word bismillah. Care has also been taken to check (tashih) the text, and errors and omissions noticed have been rectified, as shown in the image below.

Start of Surat Tatfif (Q. 83) in a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 19th century. British Library, Or 16877, f. 312v (detail)
Start of Surat Tatfif (Q. 83) in a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 19th century. British Library, Or 16877, f. 312v (detail).  noc

The final Qur’an manuscript is from the island of Madura, off the northeast coast of Java, and is copied on dluwang. It is calligraphically one of the most impressive manuscripts in this group, written in a strong, stylish, cursive hand with a pronounced forward slope, and sweeping bowls of letters. There are striking decorated frames at the beginning, middle and end of the text. However, as has been discussed in a published article (Gallop 2017), this is an example of the commonly-encountered phenonmenon of ‘enhancement’, whereby original but essentially plain 19th-century Qur’an manuscripts from Java have had polychrome decoration added in the late 20th or early 21st century in order to raise the commercial value of the book.

Opening pages of a 19th-century Qur’an manuscript from Madura, with illuminated frames added in the late 20th century. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 1v-2r.
Opening pages of a 19th-century Qur’an manuscript from Madura, with illuminated frames added in the late 20th century. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Opening lines of Surat al-Kahf (Q. 18), written in a stylish cursive hand, in a Qur’an manuscript from Madura, 19th century. Or. 15877, f. 146v (detail).
Opening lines of Surat al-Kahf (Q. 18), written in a stylish cursive hand, in a Qur’an manuscript from Madura, 19th century. Or. 15877, f. 146v (detail).  noc  noc

All eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library have now been digitised, and are listed below with hyperlinks to the digitised copies. The small Patani Qur’an, Or 15227, was in the first group of Southeast Asian manuscripts in the British Library to be digitised in 2012 with funding from the Ginsburg Legacy, while the Aceh Qur’an Or 16915 was digitised soon after its acquisition by the British Library in 2014. The other six Qur’an manuscripts were digitised through the support of William and Judith Bollinger in a project in collaboration with the National Library of Singapore, 2013-2019.

Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts in the British Library

Add 12312 Qur’an, from Java, 18th-early 19th century
Add 12343 Qur’an, from Java, 18th-early 19th century
Or 15227 Qur’an, from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century
Or 15406 Qur’an, from Aceh, 19th century
Or 15877 Qur’an, from Madura, 19th century, with late 20th century decoration
Or 16034 Qur’an, from Aceh, 19th century, lacking beginning
Or 16877 Qur’an, from Java, 19th century
Or 16915 Qur’an, from Aceh, ca. 1820s

Further reading
Colin F. Baker, Qur’an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design (London: The British Library, 2007).
A.T. Gallop, Fakes or fancies? Some ‘problematic’ Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia. Manuscript cultures, 2017, 10: 101-128.

Blog posts and web pages
Qur'ans in the British Library
An illuminated Qur'an manuscript from Aceh, 24 March 2014
Qur'an manuscripts from Java, 28 April 2015

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

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