11 July 2023
New display of Islamic manuscripts in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery
A new selection of Islamic manuscripts is now on view in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. In this display we've focussed on some of the different formats and regional styles produced at various times across the Islamic world. In terms of size we begin with a large-size volume of the well-known Baybars Qurʼan, one of a seven volume set produced at the beginning of the 14th century for the Mamluk Sultan Rukn al-Din Baybars. At the other extreme we have included miniature Qurʼans which would have most likely been used as amulets. Alongside these are Qurʼans from West Africa, India and China, and a prayer book from the Ottoman Empire.
Sultan Baybars' Qur’an
Qurʼan, Surat Taha 20:115. Cairo, Egypt, 1305-6. Purchased from T & W Boone in 1858 (Add MS 22409, ff 117v-118)
The best of the book arts in any Islamic culture can be seen in copies of the Qur’an. An excellent example is this Qur’an commissioned by the Mamluk Sultan Rukn al-Din Baybars (reigned 1260-77), copied in gold in the thuluth calligraphic style by Muhammad ibn al-Wahid. Vowels and reading marks are complemented by floral verse markers and marginal medallions in red, yellow, blue, and gold. Together, they combine the power of text and decoration to honour God’s message, which here reminds believers to be patient in receiving knowledge (Surat Taha, 20:115).
Miniature Qur’ans, on the left from Iran, 16th or 17th century, acquired by the India Office Library in the 19th century; and on the right, from Turkey, 21st century, purchased in 2021 (Loth 36 and ORB.30/9192)
Too small to be read easily, miniature Qur’ans serve as a reminder of faith and have a decorative or protective function. Alongside manuscripts, printed miniature Qur’ans have been produced in the Islamic world and Europe since the late 19th century. Today they are mass-produced and carried or hung in cars, homes or shops. Shown here is a tiny octagonal manuscript Qur’an from Iran, written in a style of calligraphy known as ghubar, the Arabic word for dust. It is bound with delicately engraved covers of gold, and stored in a case of white jade. Also on display is a contemporary example printed in Turkey and housed in a golden plastic keychain case.
Ottoman prayer book
Ottoman prayer book, probably Istanbul, Turkey, 1769. Purchased at Sotheby’s in 1980 (Or 13977, ff 1v-2r)
All believers are equal in prayer, but the materials used can range from the simple to the sumptuous. This prayer book, Khawass al-ad’iyah, lavishly decorated with gold and ornate calligraphy, was probably copied for the Ottoman Sultan Mustafa III (reigned 1757-74). It contains prayers (dualar) in Arabic divided into sections, each preceded by an Ottoman Turkish explanation. At the start are medallions in gold and red that incorporate more prayers, and stating that the book was produced for Sultan Mustafa İbn-i Sultan Ahmet. The volume was copied by İsmail el-Bağdadi in May-June 1769.
West African Qur’an
Qur’an from West Africa, probably Nigeria, early 20th century. Presented in 1970 (Or 13284, f.1v-2)
In line with West African tradition, this Qur’an is loose leaf to allow multiple scholars or students to use the religious book at the same time. The ornate leather and pulp board cover of the Qur’an helps to bind the pages together with a leather ribbon. Unlike other West African Qur’ans, this one does not have a leather pouch to carry the book. The text is written in a Central Sudanic or a Hausa/Borno hand with red notes in Arabic in the margins. Each verse is marked with a trefoil in red and yellow and after every fifth verse is the letter hā, indicating the number five, in black filled with red.
Thirty-leaved Qur’an from India
The first section (juzʼ) of the Qurʼan. India, late 17th or early 18th century. Taken in 1799 from the Palace of Tipu Sultan of Mysore (reigned 1782-99) and transferred to the East India Company Library, London between 1806 and 1808 (IO Islamic 1267, ff. 1v-2)
Different styles of presenting the Qur’an developed throughout the Islamic world, inspired by the desire to decorate and embellish the sacred words of God. In India, thirty-leaved Qur’ans were particularly popular, with each of the thirty sections (juz’) of the Qur’an written in tiny script on two facing pages. An additional feature of this Qur’an is that every line begins with the first letter of the alphabet, alif, coloured here in red.
A Qurʼan from China
The text of the Qur’an is the word of God and unalterable, but manuscripts of the Qur’an are often influenced by local traditions of calligraphy and decoration. Qur’ans in China were often produced in sets of 30 volumes. In this colourful example containing the fifth part or juz’, the final line (Surat al-Nisa’ 4:147) exemplifies the Chinese style of Arabic calligraphy. The text is surrounded by bright hues of red, green and gold enclosed in banners, circles and crescents, all typical of Chinese Islamic illumination.
See also our collection page on Qurʼans and our blogposts:
- Over 2000 pages in gold: Sultan Baybars' Qurʼan now online
- The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection
- Thirty-leaved Qur’ans from India
- Illumination and decoration in Chinese Qurʼans