Asian and African studies blog

14 February 2022

The art of small things (5): Recitation markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

This is the final part of a series of blog posts which has firmly resisted the temptation to dwell on the impressive illuminated frames in Qur’an manuscripts, in order to focus on the smallest artistic elements found on the inner pages. The first post looked at verse markers, the second text frames, the third surah headings and the fourth juz’ markers, all features which are common to many Qur’an manuscripts from all over the Islamic world. This fifth post, on the recitation markers ruku‘ or maqra’, is rather different, as these are not found in Qur’ans in all regions, or even in all parts of Southeast Asia, and are rarely mentioned in the scholarly literature on Qur’an manuscripts.

Maqra’ inscribed twice in tiny red letters in the margin, at the start of Juz’ 2 (Q.1:142), in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century
Maqra’ inscribed twice in tiny red letters in the margin, at the start of Juz’ 2 (Q.2:142), in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 13v. Noc

The more widely-used term is ruku‘, which has two related meanings. The first is the ritual act of bowing from the waist while standing during the formal prayer (salat). The second meaning of ruku‘ is a section of the Qur’an, in principle forming a thematic unit, selected for recitation. According to a recent study by 'Abd al-Qayum al-Sindi (2012/3), the tradition of dividing the Qur'an into ruku‘ appears to have developed in Central Asia and India around the 3/4th (10/11th) centuries. The aim was to facilitate reciting the Qur’an in Ramadan, aiming for completion by the 27th day of the holy month, the Laylat al-Qadr, believed to be the day that the Qur’an was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad. As a section of the Qur’an would be recited during each of the 20 rakat (cycles) of the evening tarawih prayers during Ramadan, each concluding with the ordained bow or ruku‘, the Qur’an was therefore divided into 540 (20 x 27) ruku‘, although other authorities give the number of ruku‘ as 558.

The division of the Qur’anic text into ruku‘, indicated with the letter ‘ayn inscribed in the margin, is indeed strongly associated with South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia, both in manuscripts and in printed Qur’ans, but is not found in western Islamic lands or in the Ottoman realm. In Southeast Asia, the use of marginal ‘ayn to signify ruku‘,  often placed in illuminated ornaments, is prominent in the early wave of Qur’an manuscripts in the Sulawesi diaspora style dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as in Mindanao.

EAP1020-3-2 (4)-3.11-15-det
Ruku‘ indicated by the letter ‘ayn in an illuminated 8-pointed star-shaped medallion, with the actual point in the text marked by a composite roundel. Folios from a Qur’an in the Sulawesi diaspora geometric style now held in Kampar, Riau, part of a larger manuscript copied in 1740 now in the Sang Nila Utama Museum, Pekanbaru, Riau, Indonesia. EAP1020/3/2, p.4 

MRSR Mushaf A (9)-DET  MRSR Mushaf A (12) 'ayn-det  MRSR Mushaf A (32) 'ayn-det
Marginal ‘ayn ornaments in a Sulawesi-style Qur’an, copied in Kedah in 1753, held in Masjid Sultan Riau, Pulau Penyengat, Riau Archipelago.

SB-Quran-01 (7)-a   UVL MSS 13296  (23)-a  Bristol D.M.32  (18)a
Marginal ‘ayn ornaments in Qur'an manuscripts from Mindanao, 18th-19th century; (left) Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Ms or. fol. 4134; (middle) University of Virginia Library, MSS 13296; (right) University of Bristol Library, D.M. 32.

From the 19th century onwards, marginal ‘ayn markers indicating ruku‘ are most strongly associated with Qur’an manuscripts from Java, and are often executed with stylish calligraphic flourishes.  In two Qur’ans from Java in the British Library, Add 12312 and Add 12343, the ruku‘ adhere to the locations given in modern printed Qur'ans, but in Add 12343 - and in a number of other Javanese Qur'ans - each marginal ‘ayn is accompanied by a number that is hard to interpret, seeming not to bear any correlation to either the number of the ruku‘, or the number of the verse, or the number of verses in that ruku‘.  These numbers are given here in bold in this listing of the 16 ruku‘ in the first juz’ of the Qur’an (S. al-Baqarah Q.2:1-141): 1 (2:1), 2 (2:8), 3 (2:21) 3 (this is the first ruku‘ marking in Add 12343), 4 (2:30) 13, 5 (2:40) 7, 6 (2:47) 7, 7 (2:60) 3, 8 (2:62) 9, 9 (2:72) 19, 10 (2:83) 4, 11 (2:87) 1, 12 (2:97) 7, 13 (2:104) 9, 14 (2:113) 9, 15 (2:122) 8, 16 (2:130) 12, with the 17th ruku‘ starting with Juz' 2 at Q.2:142.

Add 12343 f.x
Marginal letter ‘ayn in red accompanied by the number '7', marking ruku‘ 5 (Q.2:40), in a Qur'an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add 12343, f. 3v. Noc

Add 12312 ayn
Marginal letter ‘ayn in red topped with an elaborate triangle of alternating red and black lines, but without a number, while a tiny ‘ayn above the verse marker indicates the exact start of ruku‘ 5 (Q.2:40), in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add 12312, f. 3v. Noc

Ruku‘ marked with the letter ‘ayn in red ink in the margin, with a small ‘ayn at the exact verse, in a Qur’an from East Java, 19th century. EAP061/2/35, p.87.

According al-Sindi's research (2012/3), it was the Sindhi scholar Muhammad al-Tattwi (d. 1174/1761) who replaced the term ruku‘ with maqra’, dividing each juz' into 16 maqra’. He was the author of the Tuhfah al-Qari bi-Jama‘ al-Maqari (‘A Gift to the Reader of a Collection of Maqra’), said to be based on the ‘opinions of scholars from Bukhara’. Maqra’ inscriptions in Qur'an manuscripts are most evident in Southeast Asia, mainly in the Malay peninsula and Java. Important evidence of the usage of this term in the Malay world to refer to sections of the Qur’an for recitation is found in the historical chronicle by Raja Ali Haji, ‘Genealogy of the Malays and Bugis’ (Salasilah Melayu dan Bugis) composed in 1868. In one episode, Gusti Jamril, son of the ruler of Mempawah on the west coast of Kalimantan (Borneo), pays a visit to Pangiran Dipati, the elderly ruler of Pinang Sikayuk. The young prince is quizzed on his religious learning:

His Highness asked him, ‘Has my grandson learned to recite the Qur’an?’ Gusti answered, ‘Yes’, and so His Highness instructed him to do so. So Gusti recited two makra before pausing, and His Highness listened to him with pleasure. (Dan baginda pun bertanya pula, "Apa cundaku tahu mengaji Quran?" Maka jawab Gusti, "Tahu". Maka disuruh baginda membaca Quran. Dan membacalah Gusti ada dua makra berhenti. Maka baginda pun suka mendengarnya.  Raja Ali Haji 2016: 212, identified via the Malay Concordance Project.)

Pakualaman Is.4 (2)-ed
Maqra’ marking in a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 19th century. Pura Pakulaman Library, Yogyakarta, Is. 4.

IAMM 1998.1.3501  maqra c-ed
Illuminated floral maqra’ marking in a Qur’an manuscript in the Patani style, 19th century. Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 1998.1.3494

IAMM 1998.1.3494  maqra' c-det  BQMI  (1)-a  BQMI  (3)-a
Illuminated maqra’ markers, from left to right: from a Patani-style Qur’an, 19th century, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 1998.1.3501; and two from the royal La Lino Qur'an, early 19th century, probably made on the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula but long held in the Palace of Bima, Sumbawa, now in the Bayt al-Qur'an and Museum Istiqlal, Jakarta. Note the similar stylish calligraphic treatment of the letter alif.

Or 15227-maqra
Maqra’ inscription in red ink, in a Qur’an manuscript in the Patani style, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 24v Noc

Illuminated maqra’ ornaments are actually quite rare, as maqra’ markings in Qur’an manuscripts are usually just inscribed in the margin in red ink, as shown in Or 15227 above. In this manuscript each juz’ is divided into not 16 but eight maqra’, and those in the first juz’ are located at Q.2:26, 2:44, 2:61, 2:75, 2:91, 2:106 and 2:124. Thus maqra’ do not relate to ruku‘, but rather constitute an eighth of a juz’, thereby matching the divisions of a juz' notated in other manuscripts as thumn (eighth), rub‘ (quarter) or nisf or hizb (half). And indeed, in a recent official Malaysian government publication, the maqra’ is defined as a quarter of a hizb: ‘the Qur’an contains 323,671 letters, 77,437 words, 6236 verses, 114 surah, 30 juz’, 60 hizb and 240 maqra’ (Panduan Rasm Uthmani, 2012: 3, cited in Muhammad Azam 2021: 9).

In the manuscript cultures of Sumatra, notably in Aceh and Minangkabau, neither ruku‘ nor maqra’ markings are generally found in Qur'an manuscripts, which are more likely to indicate fractions of a juz' (although, as can now be recognized, these are in fact the same divisions as indicated by maqra’ markings). The illustration belows show a Qur'an manuscript from India, which was probably brought to Aceh and used and rebound there. The original manuscript has marginal 'ayn in red ink, but a local (Acehnese) hand has added in black ink the inscription rub', indicating a quarter of a juz'.

BL Or.16603 10 (23)-b
Qur'an from India, brought to Aceh, ca. 19th century. British Library, Or 16603, f. 73r.

The evidence so far from Southeast Asian manuscripts suggests that maqra’ are a simple quantitative division of the Qur’anic text, while ruku‘ are a qualitative division, aiming for thematic completeness within each section. However, in some manuscripts from Java, both inscriptions are found together (see illustrations below), and certain current Indonesian sources suggest that the terms ruku‘ and maqra’ are used interchangeably.  A recent study of the tradition in Lampung of reciting Surat al-Taubah over a woman in the seventh month of pregnancy describes how the Imam will read until he reaches the 'ayn: "the sign of 'ayn, also called ruku‘ and makra’, placed in the margin, is a sign of the completion of a story or discussion within the Qur'an. Thus it is advised that when you wish to stop reciting, this should be done when you encounter the 'ayn sign" (tanda ‘ain disebut juga ruku’ dan makra’ yang terletak di pinggir garis yaitu isyarat sempurnanya kisah atau suatu pembahasan di dalam Al-Qur'an. Sehingga dianjurkan ketika ingin mengakhiri bacaan al-Qur’an hendaknya ketika menemui simbol ‘ain, Musrochin 2021: 330).

IAMM 2004.2.4  text-ayn    IAMM 2004.2.3  text-maqra'  nisf-a
Two Qur'an manuscripts from Java, with marginal inscriptions in the same place of 'ayn for ruku‘ and maqra’.  Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, (left) 2004.2.4, (right) 2004.2.3.

The terms ruku‘ and maqra’ for Qur'anic divisions for recitation may thus defy firm categorisation, but have meanings which continue to evolve over place and time.

‘Abd al-Qayum b. ‘Abd a-Ghafur al-Sindi, Mustalah ar-ruku fi l-masahif, madlulahu, nashatuhu wa aqwal al-ulama’ fiha (‘The term ruku‘ in mushafs: its meaning, origin and opinions of scholars on it'), Majallah Tibyan li-d-Dirasat al-Qur'aniyah / Tbeian: for Qur’anic Studies, 1434 (2012/3), 24: 20-73.
Raja Ali Haji Raja Ahmad, Salasilah Melayu dan Bugis, diusahakan Mohd. Yusof Md. Nor. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2016.
Masruchin, Pembacaan Surat At-Taubah dalam tradisi “Tobatan” pada usia kehamilan tujuh bulan di Dusun 2 Umbulkadu Desa Sendang Asri Lampung TengahAl-Dzikra: Jurnal Studi Ilmu al-Qur’an dan al-Hadits, 2021, 15(2): 317-336.
Muhammad Azam bin Adnan, The Malay Quran manuscripts in Muzium Negara. Malaysia Museums Journal, 2021, 38: 7-25.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

I would like to acknowledge the valuable help of Mykhaylo Yakubovych in sharing and interpreting the article by al-Sindi, and I am also grateful for comments from Johanna Pink and Ali Akbar.