Asian and African studies blog

62 posts categorized "Arabic"

27 September 2021

The art of small things (4): Juz’ markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

The Qur’an is traditionally divided into thirty parts of equal length called juz', which are of great practical significance as they facilitate the planned reading or recitation of the Holy Book in its entirety over one month, particularly the blessed fasting month of Ramadan. Each juz’ can further be subdivided into half (nisf), quarters (rubu‘) and eighths (thumn). The start of a new juz,’ and often the subdivisions too, may be indicated in a Qur’an manuscript through a number of graphic devices. These range from a marginal inscription or ornament to a marker within the text itself, or by highlighting the first few words of the new juz’ in red ink or in bold; sometimes all these devices might be found together in a single manuscript. Preferred ways of signifying the start of a new juz’ often vary regionally, and will be illustrated in this post by Qur’an manuscripts from different traditions in Southeast Asia held in the British Library, starting with a Qur’an from Patani.

Marginal ornament signifying the start of the 28th juz’, at the start of Surat al-Mujadilah, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 273v-274r
Marginal ornament signifying the start of the 28th juz’, at the start of Surat al-Mujadilah, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 273v-274r  noc

The East Coast of the Malay peninsula is home to two distinct styles of manuscript illumination, one centred in Terengganu and the other further to the north in Patani, but all Qur’an manuscripts from this region adhere faithfully to the same principles of text layout. This follows an Ottoman model known as ayat ber-kenar, whereby each juz’ occupies exactly ten folios of paper and hence twenty pages, and each page ends with a complete verse. As well as streamlining the copying process, this uniform layout also aids the memorization of the complete Qur’an, as each verse occupies the same position on the page in any manuscript consulted. Thus a new juz’ always commences at the top of a right-hand page, and is signalled by a beautiful marginal ornament, as shown above. In this manuscript all the juz’ markers are constructed according to the same basic design of two concentric circles inscribed in the middle al-juz’, but each is slightly different in coloration and in the detail of the delicate floral and foliate ornaments extending upwards and downwards.

Marginal ornaments signifying the start of (left) juz’ 10 in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century  Marginal ornaments signifying the start of juz’ 11, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century-Or 15227 f.103v-j.11
Marginal ornaments signifying the start of (left) juz’ 10 and (right) juz’ 11, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. The small inscription in red ink, maqra’, indicates a section for recitation. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 93v and 103v  noc

The Ottoman system of page layout is occasionally also encountered in Qur’an manuscripts from Java, but in general there are no set prescriptions for fitting a juz’ into a precise number of pages. In two Javanese Qur’ans in the British Library we see a quintessentially and uniquely Javanese method of signifying the start of a new juz’, by the placement of two marginal ornaments – very often semicircular in shape – at the midpoints of the outer vertical borders of the double-page spread, while the exact point in the text is marked with a composite roundel in red ink.

AStart of juz’2, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r
Start of juz’ 2, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r  noc

Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an.Add_ms_12343_f013r-det  Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an.Add_ms_12343_f012v-det
Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an’. The stylized letter 'ayn in the margin indicates ruku' divisions for recitation. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 12v and f. 13r (details)  noc

In two other Qur’ans from Java, the start of a new juz’ is just marked with a calligraphic inscription in red ink in the margin, and an starburst roundel in red ink at the appropriate point in the text, as seen below in a manuscript from Madura, off the northeast coast of Java.

The beginning of juz’ 14, at the start of Surah al-Hjir (Q.15), in a Qur’an from Madura, 19th century. British Library, Or 15877, f. 130v
The beginning of juz’ 14, at the start of Surah al-Hjir (Q.15), in a Qur’an from Madura, 19th century. British Library, Or 15877, f. 130v  noc

In Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, there was no pre-ordained system for copying the Qur’an. The number of pages required for each juz’ therefore depended on the style of writing of each scribe, while a conventional set of graphic symbols signified the exact starting point of a juz’ within a page of text. In the most elaborate manuscripts – such as the fine Qur’an Or 16915 shown below – the precise point of the start of the 14th juz’ is marked with a composite roundel made up of six intersecting circles; the first line of the juz’ is written in red ink and set within ruled frames; and a magnificent ornament in the adjcaent margin serves to draw the eye to the page.

Start of juz’ 14 at the beginning of Surat al-Hijr (Q. 15) in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 117v-118rr
Start of juz’ 14 at the beginning of Surat al-Hijr (Q. 15) in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 117v-118r  noc

Or 16915 is exceptionally rich artistically in not only signifying the start of each juz’ with illuminated marginal ornaments, but also indicating each eighth part through coloured roundels in the text accompanied by smaller marginal medallions. All are composed of a series of concentric circles often embellished with a variety of rays, petals, and vegetal ornaments added on four-fold or eight-fold principles, in the same palette of red, yellow, black and reserved white, but every single ornament is different, reflecting the artist’s delight in creating countless variations on a limited theme. Shown below (not to scale) is the complete set of marginal ornaments for the constituent parts of juz’ 10.

Or_16915-f.80r-j.10  ornament marking part of juz’ 10-Or_16915_f081r  ornament marking part of juz’ 10-Or_16915_f082v
From left, large ornament marking the start of juz’ 10; small roundel marking 1/8th of the juz’; roundel with monochrome petals (possibly added later) marking 1/4 juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 80r, 81r, 82v  noc

Or_16915_f083v  Or_16915_f085r
Left, star-shaped ornament marking 3/8th of the juz’; right, four-rayed medallion at 1/2 (nisf) of the juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 83v and 85r  noc

Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f087r  Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f088v  Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f089v
From left, roundels marking 5/8, 3/4 and 7/8 of the 10th juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 87v, 88v, 89v  noc

Despite such an abundant display of artistic virtuosity in this manuscript, it is hardly surprising that the artist’s creativty and stamina began to flag towards the end of the volume. Preparatory sketches are still in place for all the marginal ornaments, but many of the later ones have not been worked up and remain skeletal ink diagrams.

Unfinished marginal ornaments in a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s.-Or_16915_f114v  Unfinished marginal ornament, Or_16915_f240v  Unfinished marginal ornaments in a Qur’an from Aceh-Or_16915_f247r
Unfinished marginal ornaments indicating parts of a juz' in a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 114v, 240v, 247r  noc

There are two other Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh held in the British Library. Both of these highlight the first words of a new juz’ in red ink, and one also marks the precise point in the text with a composite illuminated roundel, but neither were created with marginal ornaments. However, Or 16034 bears testimony to additions by subsequent hands to highlight each new juz', with occasional inscriptions and pencilled ornaments added in the margins.

The start of juz’ 4 in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, indicated in the text by writing the first line in red ink, with later additions in the margin of the pencilled inscription al-juz’, a cross-shaped ornament, and the number ‘4’ in black ink. British Library, Or 16034, f. 20v
The start of juz’ 4 in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, indicated in the text by writing the first line in red ink, with later additions in the margin of the pencilled inscription al-juz’, a cross-shaped ornament, and the number ‘4’ in black ink. British Library, Or 16034, f. 20v  noc

As noted above, the standard division of the Qur’an is into thirty parts or juz’, but other principles of dividing the text are also known, for example into three, seven or ten parts. A division based on word-count identifies the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, in Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), as the precise mid-point in the Qur’an, and the significance of this word is often recognized in Qur’an manuscripts from the Malay world. Of the eight Southeast Asian Qur’ans in the British Library, three – two from Aceh and one from Java – highlight the word walyatalattaf either by rubricating in red ink or by elongating it and writing it in bold.

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalataf-12312-95v

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalataf-Or 15034 f.116v

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalaf-16915-f.131v
The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts, one from Java (top) Add 12312, f.95v, and two from Aceh (middle) Or 16034, f. 116v and (bottom) Or 16915, f. 131v.  noc

Over the course of this study of minor decorative elements found in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, very often it was the less polished manuscripts, with scribal errors or omissions or unfinished sections, which were the most helpful in reconstructing the process of copying and decorating Qur’an manuscripts, which seems to have progressed in the same order across the Malay archipelago. First the scribe would write out the entire Qur’anic text in black ink, using red ink for the the first words of a juz’ as necessary, and indicating the ends of verses with small marks. Then, verse markers – usually in the form of red or black ink circles – were added, and coloured in if necessary. The text was then checked for accuracy and to make good any omissions. Only after this stage were frames added to each page of text, composed in accordance with regional preferences. Titles of chapters or surahs were then added in red ink, and ruled frames placed around the surah headings. After this, marginal ornaments would be added to indicate the juz’ and other textual divisions.

This article on Juz’ markers is the fourth installment of a five-part series of blog posts on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first post is on Verse markers, the second on Text frames, the third on Surah headings, the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

23 August 2021

Catch-up: Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing

Two-page spread of a magazine featuring various black and white line drawings, two on left-hand side, with bottom left hand showing a cityscape, and one on the right hand side featuring an abstract image of a personCover of a magazine with Arabic-script text on it, with a light blue rectangle going down the right-hand side and a dark blue rectangle across the middle of the page and the title in Arabic calligraphy in white against the dark blue field
(Left) Art work by Sudanese artist Ibrahim El Salahi (b. 1930) in issue 13 of Ḥiwār (1964), edited by Palestinian poet Tawfiq Sayigh (1923-1971). (British Library, 14599.e.69)
(Right) Front cover of issue 7 (1963) of Ḥiwār magazine. (British Library, 14599.e.69)
CC Public Domain Image

Between April and June 2021, the British Library and Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, hosted Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing: an online series of talks exploring publishing practices in Arabic as a site for unfolding intellectual networks, artistic practices and political imaginaries from the 1960s until the present.

The series was co-curated and convened by Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections at the British Library.

Recordings from all four events in the series are now available to watch on the British Library’s YouTube channel and we have collated them below for your convenience.

We regarded the series as a space for collective learning. As such we invite anyone with an interest in the subjects and themes raised —both in Arabic and different linguistic and regional fields— to be in touch so we can explore potential activities and interventions that build upon this series. You can do this by emailing Hana and Daniel.

Kayfa ta: On Shapeshifting Texts and Other Publishing Tactics
Ala Younis and Maha Maamoun appeared in conversation with Hala Auji

 

Archives of Design and Designing the Archive
Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès and Moe Elhosseiny

 

Visualising the archive: Arabic publishing during the Cold War
Zeina Maasri and Fehras Publishing Practices

This session was organised in partnership with Delfina Foundation as part of their Collecting as Practice programme, and Middle East History Group, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. Fehras Publishing Practices current exhibition is Borrowed Faces: Future Recall is on at Mosaic Rooms, London, until 26 September 2021.

 

Fragmented Archives and Histories of Solidarity
Refqa Abu-Remaileh and Kristine Khouri

 

Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge
Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections, British Library
CCBY Image

 

09 August 2021

The art of small things (3): Surah headings in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

Some of the most impressive examples of Islamic calligraphy from the Malay world are the headings of the surahs or chapters set within the elaborate illuminated frames sited at the beginning or end of Qur’an manuscripts. Shown below is the heading for the final chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Nas, in a manuscript from Aceh, which is almost modernist in its design, with the inscription in reserved white against a ground of red and yellow, interwoven with further purely decorative elements. However the focus of this blog post will not be on exceptional artworks such as these, but on the standard surah headings encountered on the inner pages of Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia.

Heading for the final chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Nas, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, f. 255r (detail)-det.
Heading for the final chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Nas, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, f. 255r (detail)  noc

Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r
Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r  noc

In all Qur’an manuscripts, a certain amount of information is usually conveyed at the start of a new chapter, namely the name or title of the surah, whether it was revealed in Mecca or Medinah, and the number of verses it contains. Considerable care is taken to signal graphically the difference between this ‘metadata’ and the text of the Divine revelation itself.  Thus the information is usually written in a different coloured ink, and sometimes in a different style of script, and often the surah heading is placed in a separate panel.

The best places to study surah headings are the final pages of a Qur’an manuscript, as the chapters of the Qur’an are ordered not chronologically but inversely by length. Thus the shortest surahs are clustered together at the end of the volume, usually with several on a single page. In these penultimate pages in a Javanese Qur’an, we see how the scribe has paced his writing carefuly, with increasingly large, widely-formed letters with deep stretched bowls, in order to fill the space exactly, leaving the two final chapters to be presented overleaf in special frames. On the other hand, the scribe of the Acehnese Qur’an seen below has not judged his pace quite so well: the first surahs on the right-hand page have been written with standard spacing, but on the left he is forced to leave large gaps between the lines in order to fill the page, thus enabling the final two chapters to be placed within ornamental frames overleaf.

Penultimate pages in a Javanese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 188v-189r
Penultimate pages in a Javanese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 188v-189r  noc

Penultimate pages in an Acehnese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 312v-313r
Penultimate pages in an Acehnese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 312v-313r  noc

Presented below are the headings and first line of the same Meccan chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q. 101, 'The Calamity'), in eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia held in the British Library, arranged by region. Starting with four Qur’an manuscripts from Java, in each case the surah heading is written in red ink and placed within ruled black frames that largely mirror the composition of the text frames of the pages. The first three manuscripts are written on Javanese paper, dluwang, made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree. In each case the surah heading is written in a dashing calligraphic hand, with elegantly knotted final letters. Although the final letter ta' marbuta is often written with knots – and is also found in one of the Acehnese Qur’ans – the most stylised and extravagant examples are indeed associated with Java. The fourth manuscript is written on European paper, and is in a much poorer hand.

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15877, f. 295r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15877, f. 295r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12343, f. 187r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12343, f. 187r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12312, f. 198v
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12312, f. 198v  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an, with a ruled sin-mim ligature in the basmala. British Library, Or 16877, f. 320r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an, with a ruled sin-mim ligature in the basmala. British Library, Or 16877, f. 320r  noc

In three Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts in the British Library, here too the surah heading is written in red ink, and is set in ruled frames which largely mirror the red-black-red-black composition of the text frames. It can be noted that while the Javanese surah headings shown above all give the number of verses in Surat al-Qari‘ah as eight, in the Acehnese Qur’ans the first two shown below give a figure of ten verses, while the last states that there are eleven verses. Variation in counting the number of verses in the Qur’an is not uncommon, and different traditions are known to have prevailed around the world. A difference of one is usually accounted for by whether or not the opening basmala is counted as a separate verse, while a larger differential probably indicates variant regional traditions.

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 311r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 311r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an, located at the bottom of a page, with the chapter itself found overleaf. British Library, Or 16304, f. 257r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an, located at the bottom of a page, with the chapter itself found overleaf. British Library, Or 16304, f. 257r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 16915, f. 253r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 16915, f. 253r  noc

All the examples of surah headings shown above are carefully prepared, with the title information in red ink, set within ruled borders. It is a common experience, though, when looking through Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, to encounter unfinished surah headings, and in fact such incomplete examples are extremely helpful in casting light on the order in which the scribe worked.

One of the Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, Or 15406, illustrates well all the different stages of the process. Firstly, the scribe would write out the complete Qur’anic text in black ink. If the end of a surah did not fit completely onto one line, the scribe could decide either to just use part of the next line, or to position the final words in the centre (as shown below), or to arrange them at the two ends of the line.

Beginning of Surat Hud (Q.11) in an Acehnese Qur’an, without the title or ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 105v
Beginning of Surat Hud (Q.11) in an Acehnese Qur’an, without the title or ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 105v  noc

The next stage would be to fill in the information about the surah in red ink. It is interesting to note that while there are many examples of Qur’an manuscripts missing these red ink surah headings, there are are no known examples of the missing first words of a juz’ or thirtieth part of the Qur’anic text, which are also often traditionally written in red ink. This implies that the scribes took good care to ensure that the Qur’anic text itself was complete, changing colours of ink as necessary, but completing the surah headings was clearly a lower priority.

Beginning of Surat al-Anfal (Q.8) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title but without the ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 84v
Beginning of Surat al-Anfal (Q.8) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title but without the ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 84v  noc

The final stage would be to add ruled borders around the surah heading. The same work order probably also applied to Javanese Qur’ans, for in Add 12312 shown above, the ruled frames break around the spikes of the kotted letter ta' marbuta, showing that they were added after the surah heading had been written.

Beginning of Surat al-Ma'idah (Q.5) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title and ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 50v
Beginning of Surat al-Ma'idah (Q.5) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title and ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 50v  noc

Compared with the strongly distinctive regional characteristics noticeable in some minor decorative elements in Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts, such as text frames and verse markers, surah headings are remarkably similar all over the Malay archipelago: the surah heading is written in red ink, and often set in discrete frames. It can either fill a full line, or share it with the final words of the preceding surah, either by flanking them in the middle, or being flanked by them at either end, as seen above.

It is really only in the most elaborate Qur’an manuscripts from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula and a few from Java that we encounter elaborate illuminated surah headings. Fine examples can be seen in a small Patani Qur’an in the British Library, which has been left till the end because it is a show-stealer. In this manuscript, the surah headings are all picked out in reserved white against a ground of coloured bands of alternating red and blue or green.  The skill of the scribe can also be seen in the superbly controlled elongated sin-mim ligature of the basmala.

Heading for Surat al-Qari’ah (Q.101) in a Patani Qur’an, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 301v
Heading for Surat al-Qari’ah (Q.101) in a Patani Qur’an, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 301v  noc

Penultimate pages in a Patani Qur’an, with multiple illuminated surah headings. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 302v-303r
Penultimate pages in a Patani Qur’an, with multiple illuminated surah headings. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 302v-303r  noc

This is the third of a five-part series on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first part is on Verse markers; the second on Text frames; the fourth on Juz’ markers; and the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Blog posts:
4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library
25 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

 

12 July 2021

The art of small things (2): Text frames in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

At first glance, one of the simplest ways to identify a Qur’an manuscript in Southeast Asia – thus distinguishing copies of the Holy Book from the hundreds of other Islamic manuscripts written in Arabic script, whether in Arabic or in a local language such as Malay or Javanese – is that on every page, the text is usually enclosed within a frame. There are certainly other, non-Qur’anic, manuscripts with text borders, but probably no other Islamic text in the Malay world is so consistently presented with a frame on every page. At key junctures of the Qur'an, such as the first and last pages, or at the start of certain significant chapters, these frames may be exquisite artistic constructions, embellished with floral and foliate motifs, such as shown below in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani. However, even on all the other ‘regular’ pages in between, the text will still be framed.

Illuminated double frame marking the start of Surat Yasin, in a Qur’an from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 222v-223r
Illuminated double frame marking the start of Surat Yasin, in a Qur’an from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 222v-223r  noc

The text frames in Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts always consist of a series of ruled lines. The schematic composition of these frames – in terms of the colour and order of the lines – is extraordinarily faithfully adhered to within each region, although sometimes there may be more than one preferred pattern within a single region. Text frames can thus be a key indicator of the geographical origin of a Qur’an manuscript, and may help to identify a manuscript when a study of the larger decorated elements is inconclusive. Some of the most characteristic patterns of text frames will be explored below with reference to the small collection of eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia held in the British Library, all of which have been fully digitised, as well as Qur'an manuscripts from Indonesia digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP).

Along the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, two standard patterns of text frames are encountered. Most of the smaller, simpler Patani-style Qur’an manuscripts will have text frames of three ruled lines, black-black-red (here and elsewhere I follow the convention of describing the lines from inside out). More lavish manuscripts, generally produced within the Terengganu school but also sometimes in the Patani/Kelantan style, will have a more complex set of frames of black-thick yellow-black-black-red lines, and in the most sumptuous manuscripts the yellow might be replaced with gold. The exceptionally fine small Patani Qur’an in the British Library pictured above (Or 15227) has these black-thick yellow-black-black-red frames on every page.

Text frames in a Qur’an from Patani of black-thick yellow-black-black-red lines, typical of the fine East Coast school. British Library, Or 15227
Text frames in a Qur’an from Patani of black-thick yellow-black-black-red lines, typical of the fine East Coast school. British Library, Or 15227  noc

Similarly elaborate text frames – but with the red line constituting the innermost rather than the outermost frame – are also found in Qur’ans illuminated in the Sulawesi diaspora geometric style, including one held in Riau digitised through EAP.

EAP1020_PDEMK_BKG_ALH_02_10-text-crop
Text frames in a Qur’an held in Kampar, of red-black-thick yellow-black-black lines, as typical of Sulawesi-style manuscripts. EAP1020/3/2

For Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, there are also two prototypes of frames. The most common pattern – and that found in all three Acehnese Qur’ans held in the British Library, shown below - is a series of four parallel ruled lines of red-black-red-black ink. The other, less commonly encountered pattern, is a series of three lines of red-red-black ink.

Tf-15406  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: (middle) Or 16034  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh:  Or 16915.
Text frames of red-black-red-black lines in three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh. British Library, (left) Or 15406, (middle) Or 16034, (right) Or 16915. noc

The prescriptions for frames for Qur’an manuscripts from Java are rather less rigid, but nonetheless still distinctive of their origin. Javanese Qur’ans generally have frames of a series of ruled black lines, most commonly three, but sometimes two or four. These lines may either be spaced evenly or clustered, but the most common pattern – as demonstrated by Or 16877 – is for a frame of three ruled black ink lines, with the inmost two lines close together, with a larger space before the outer line. Examples of the frames in the four Qur’an manuscripts from Java in the British Library are shown below.

Text frames of three ruled black lines-Add 12312  Text frames of three ruled black lines-15877-f.6v
Text frames of three evenly-spaced ruled black lines in two Qur’an manuscripts from Java. British Library (left) Add 12312, (right) Or 15877

Text frames-16877  Text frames in Qur’an manuscripts from Java. British Library, Add 12343, with four ruled lines, grouped in two closely-placed pairs.
Text frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Java. British Library (left) Or 16877, with three ruled lines with the two inner lines closer together; (right) Add 12343, with four ruled lines, grouped in two closely-placed pairs.  noc

In the Minangkabau realm of west and central Sumatra, text frames usually comprise red lines, sometimes combined with black lines.

EAP117-3-1-3.123  EAP117-23-1-3.11
Text frames in two Qur’ans from the Minangkabau region, both now held in Kerinci: (left) EAP117/30/1/3, and (right) EAP117/23/1/3.

In my previous blog post looking at verse markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, it was noted that ‘errors’ or lapses by scribes were extremely valuable in signalling the various work stages of copying a Qur’an manuscript. It could be seen that firstly, the scribe would copy the text, usually placing a small black mark to indicate clearly the placement of a verse marker. After the text was completed, the next stage was to draw in with red or black ink the circles of the verse markers. If the markers were to be coloured, the third stage was to fill them in with pigment.

Looking closely at text frames, it is also thanks to certain problems encountered by the scribes that we can be certain that in general, the text frames were added after the text was written on each page, not before. This becomes clear when we see that, in all three Qur’ans from Aceh, when the scribe realised that he had left out part of the text, he was able to supply the mising words before the frames were added. The frames, therefore, had to step around the additional words, which was done as neatly as possible. In one of the Qur'ans, we even find that three full pages were left out – perhaps forgotten – during the task of adding text frames to the book.

The text frame steps up and then down to accommodate some added words in a Qur’an from Aceh. British Library, Or 16915, f. 207r
The text frame steps up and then down to accommodate some added words in a Qur’an from Aceh. British Library, Or 16915, f. 207r  noc

Probable scribal miscalculation leads to a stepped text frame in a Qur'an from Aceh. British Library, Or 15406, f. 204r 

Probable scribal miscalculation leads to a stepped text frame in a Qur'an from Aceh. British Library, Or 15406, f. 204r   noc

The text frame detours around some words which the scribe has added vertically at the end of a line, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 15406 f.9r
The text frame detours around some words which the scribe has added vertically at the end of a line, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 16034, f. 9r  noc

There are three pages (ff. 221r, 221v, 222r) with missing text frames in this Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 220v-221r.
There are three pages (ff. 221r, 221v, 222r) with missing text frames in this Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 220v-221r.  noc

This is the second of a five-part series of blog posts on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first part is on Verse markers; the third on Surah headings, the fourth on Juz’ markers, and the fifth and final part on ruku' and maqra' Recitation markers.

Blog posts:
28 June 2021, The art of small things (1): Verse markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia
4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library
25 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

28 June 2021

The art of small things (1): Verse markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

Studies of the art of the Qur’an usually start with the beautiful illuminated frames across two facing pages that are naturally the most visually striking parts of the book, but all too often the studies also stop there. In fact, it is often in smaller features that geographical origin is most readily determined, through deep-seated attachments to certain preferred formats of page layout. The British Library holds eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia representing three regional traditions, with one from Patani on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula (Or 15227), three from Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra (Or 15406, Or 16034, Or 16915), and four from Java (Add 12312, Add 12343, Or 16877) including one from the island of Madura (Or 15877). Drawing on these and Qur'an manuscripts from Indonesia digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme, we will explore the art of minor decorative elements in Qur’an manuscripts, starting with the smallest of all: verse markers.

Decorated frames marking the start of Surat al-Kahf in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 149v-150r
Decorated frames marking the start of Surat al-Kahf in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 149v-150r  noc

In the absence of punctuation in Arabic script, and to support correct recitation, from at least the 10th century onwards Qur’an manuscripts were generally copied with small graphic devices separating each verse or aya. In Qur’ans from Southeast Asia, these verse markers are invariably small circles, generally varying in size from between 3 to 7 mm in diameter, and with olour schemes that differ between regions.

Detail from the Patani Qur’an shown above, with two differently coloured round verse markers, each 3 mm in diameter. British Library, Or 15227, f. 149v (detail)
Detail from the Patani Qur’an shown above, with two differently coloured round verse markers, each 3 mm in diameter. British Library, Or 15227, f. 149v (detail)  noc

Presented below is one line from each of the eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library, showing the start of the same verse (Surat al-Kahf, Q.18:8, ‘And lo! We shall make all that is therein a barren mound’), to show the shape and placement of the verse markers, with comments on each regional tradition.

On the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, Qur’an manuscripts normally indicate verse breaks with small red-ink circles.  More de luxe volumes, especially from the Terengganu school, have black or red ink circles filled with yellow pigment, and in the most lavish cases, gold. As shown above, the fine small Patani Qur’an in the British Library, Or 15227, has black circles filled with yellow (or occasionally green) paint. While copying the Qur’anic text, the scribe has taken care to leave enough space for the round verse markers to sit on the line adjacent to the words.

Qur’an from Patani, Q.8:18.  British Library, Or. 15227, f. 148v
Qur’an from Patani, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels.  British Library, Or. 15227, f. 149v  noc

In the three Acehnese Qur’ans shown below, only in one manuscript (Or 15406) has space been left on the line to fit in the verse markers; in the two other manuscripts the verse markers have had to be placed above the line. In Aceh, verse markers in illuminated Qur’an manuscripts are nearly always black ink circles which are coloured in with yellow. This colour scheme is found in all three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh in the British Library shown below, although on the page in question in Or 16034, the scribe has forgotten to colour in the verse markers, which have been left as black ink circles. In this manuscript, we can see clearly the small black ink dots that the scribe left while copying out the text to indicate the breaks between the verses, as a guide for placing the markers.

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 15406, f. 142v
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 15406, f. 142v [NB this page is bound upside down in the volume]   noc

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 16915, f. 131r
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 16915, f. 131r  noc

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of black circles which have not been coloured in yellow. British Library, Or. 16034, f. 115v
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of black circles which have not been coloured in yellow. British Library, Or. 16034, f. 115v  noc

In Qur’an manuscripts copied in the Javanese tradition, verse markers are invariably red ink circles. In the four Javanese Qur’ans in the British Library, only in one manuscript are the markers placed on the line of writing, while in three others they are located above the lines. In all these manuscripts too we can see the scribal mark left to indicate where the verse markers should be placed, but in the Qur’an from Madura, the scribe has forgotten to draw a red circle around the second caret mark placed above the line at the end of the verse Q.18:8.

All these small scribal lapses are interesting because they serve to illustrate clearly the three-stage order of working: firstly, the scribe would copy the text, usually placing a small black mark to indicate clearly the placement of a verse marker. After the text was completed, the next stage was to draw in with red or black ink the circles of the verse markers. If the markers were to be coloured, the third stage was to fill them in with pigment.

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add 12312, f. 95r
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add 12312, f. 95r  noc

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 89r
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 89r  noc

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, , with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Or 16877, f. 146v
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, , with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Or 16877, f. 146v  noc

Qur’an from Madura, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles; one has been missed out at the end of the verse. British Library, Or 15877, f. 147r
Qur’an from Madura, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles; one has been missed out at the end of the verse. British Library, Or 15877, f. 147r  noc

The round verse markers in Qur’ans from Southeast Asia are indeed the smallest artistic elements in the manuscripts, but they are also the basic buildings blocks of more elaborate graphic devices that sometimes blossom into remarkable artworks. These are used to indicate larger textual divisions such as juz’ or thirtieth parts of the Qur’an and subdivisions thereof, or the ends of suras or chapters. These composite roundels can range from the very basic models found in Javanese manuscripts to more artistic illuminated compositions in Acehnese Qur’ans, and can reach even more elaborate heights in other genres of manuscripts such as Kitab Mawlid texts.

Roundel-12312-f.14v-juz2  Roundel-16877-f.273v
Triple roundels in two Javanese Qur’ans to mark the start of a new juz’: British Library, (left) Add 12312; (right) Or 16877, f. 273v   noc

Roundel-16034-f.258r
Illuminated composite roundels used as a line filler at the end of Surat al-Fil (Q.105) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 258r  noc

Roundel-16915-f.131v  Roundel-16915-f.128v  coloured foundel in a Quran manuscript -15406-f.18v
Coloured composite roundels marking subdivisions of a juz’ in Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts. British Library, (left and centre) Or 16915, (right) Or 15406.  noc

As can be seen in the images, all the verse markers are perfect circles that were drawn mechanically with a compass, as is evident from the small black dot or indent discernible in the centre of nearly all the circles. The ubiquity of these perfect circles, in Qur’an manuscripts of every varying level of competence (for example, the Javanese Qur’an Or 16877 is copied in a very poor hand), suggests that rather than using a dedicated tool, they may have been made through an easily-learned scribal technique of somehow pivoting the nib of the pen around a sharp point. The use of a sharp-pointed implement is proven by some back-lit images taken to show the watermarks in a manuscript of a sermon from Kerinci, digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP117/9/1/3), which highlight the tiny holes created in the making of the composite roundels; similar observations have been made in Islamic manuscripts from Mindanao. However, the precise method of drawing these small circles, whether by using a tool or a technique, remains at present undocumented, and a field for future study.

Pinprick pivot holes in the paper made during the creation of decorative composite roundels, in a sermon from Kerinci, Jambi, probably written in the 1830s. EAP117/9/1/3  EAEAP117-9-1-3-compass points in a composite roundel
Pinprick pivot holes made in the paper during the creation of decorative composite roundels, in a sermon from Kerinci, Jambi, shown below, probably written in the 1830s. EAP117/9/1/3, 6

Sermon, written on a scroll, ca. 1830s, Kerinci, Jambi, Sumatra.  EAP117/9/1/3.
Sermon, written ca. 1830s in the form of a scroll in English paper watermarked 'Allford 1829', Kerinci, Jambi, Sumatra.  EAP117/9/1/3.

Occasionally small hand-drawn circles are also found in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, and these are especially common in central Sumatra and areas in the Minangkabau sphere of influence, as in the Qur’an below.

EAP144-2-5.16
Hand-drawn small red circles as verse markers in a Qur’an from West Sumatra. EAP144/2/5.16

This is the first of a five-part series on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first part is on Verse markers; the second on Text frames; the third on Surah headings; the fourth on Juz’ markers; and the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Blog posts:
4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library
25 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

14 June 2021

Three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh in the British Library

Aceh is renowned as one of the most fervently Islamic regions of Southeast Asia. Situated on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, it was the site of the first Muslim kingdoms in the archipelago in the 13th century, and Aceh has also produced many famous Islamic scholars and writers. There are probably more illuminated Qur’an manuscripts known today from Aceh than from anywhere else in the Malay world, and nearly all conform closely to what can be termed the Acehnese style of manuscript illumination (cf. Gallop 2004). The British Library holds three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, and all have been fully digitised.

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

An especially fine example of this genre is Or 16915, which has three superb pairs of illuminated frames and further marginal ornaments throughout the manuscript indicating standard divisions of the Qur’anic text into thirty parts of equal length or juz’. As can be seen in the illustration above, the text boxes on two facing pages are surrounded by rectangular borders, with the vertical borders extended upwards and downwards. On the three outer sides of each page are arches, and those on the vertical sides are flanked by a pair of ‘wings’ or foliate tendrils. The palette is centred on red, yellow and black ink, but the most important colour is the reserved white of the background paper, which carries the main motif, usually a scrolling vine. Gold is never used in the illumination of Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts. In the final pair of illuminated frames from the same manuscript, shown below, the arches are ogival rather than triangular, but all elements still conform to the precepts of the Acehnese style.

Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r.r
Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r.  noc

The other two manuscripts are simpler bibliographic productions, but both were also created with decorated frames at the beginning, middle and end of the book. However, Or 16034 is now missing the first few folios, and thus also the initial illuminated frames which it would undoubtedly have had. It still has illuminated frames in the middle, which, as is the case with all Acehnese Qur’ans, are located at the start of the textual mid-point of the Qur’an, at the start of the 16th juz’, in Surat al-Kahf, verse 75, indicated here with the line in red ink. Although the decorated frames are cruder in design and execution than those shown above, they illustrate well both the degree of conformity to, yet variation possible within, the parameters of the Acehnese style.

Decorated frames in the middle of the Qur’an, at the start of the 16th juz’ (Q, 18:75). Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.
Decorated frames in the middle of the Qur’an, at the start of the 16th juz’ (Q, 18:75). British Library, Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.  noc

Probably the most interesting feature of this Qur’an manuscript is that the final pair of illuminated frames, which are located after the end of the Qur’anic text, were left blank. While at first glance it might be assumed that they were unfinished, in fact this is a distinctively Acehnese phenomenon, and scores of examples of such blank illuminated frames in Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh have been documented. In most cases they appear to have been designed to contain a prayer to be recited on completion of the Qur’an, or the final chapters of the Qur’an, or a repetition of the first chapter, Surat al-Fatihah. In Or 16034 the first words of a prayer have been written but the attempt then petered out, leaving only a few doodled pencil marks.

Blank decorated frames at the end of the Qur’an. Or 16034, ff. 260v-261r.
Blank decorated frames at the end of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 260v-261r.  noc

The third Qur’an manuscript, Or 15604, has three pairs of double monochrome frames. These should not be regarded as ‘unfinished’ examples of manuscript art, for so many examples of Acehnese manuscripts with monochrome decoration can be found that this should be regarded as a standard variant of the Acehnese style. In all other aspects, these decorated frames are typical of the Acehnese style save that, unusually, both the initial and final pairs of frames are lacking the arches and flanking tendrils on the outer vertical sides, although these are present in the (very damaged) middle frames.

Monochrome decorated frames, without side arches, at the beginning of a Qur’an from Aceh, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 1v-2r.
Monochrome decorated frames, without side arches, at the beginning of a Qur’an from Aceh, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Damaged monochrome decorated frames in the centre of a Qur’an from Aceh, at the beginning of juz’ 16, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 147v-148r.
Damaged black and brown ink decorated frames in the centre of a Qur’an from Aceh, at the beginning of juz’ 16, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 147v-148r.  noc

Both these two simpler Qur’an manuscripts display one of the most characteristic features of Acehnese illumination less evident in the finer Or 16915, namely the plaited rope border. This deceptively simple and seemingly universal motif is in fact fundamental to the Acehnese style, while almost never being encountered in Qur’an manuscripts from any other part of Southeast Asia.

Plaited rope borders from decorated frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh

Plaited rope borders from decorated frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh
Plaited rope borders from decorated frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh: British Library, (top) Or 15406, f. 314r; (bottom) Or 16034, f. 120r  noc

All three Qur’an manuscript from Aceh in the British Library were produced with three pairs of decorated frames, albeit with differing degrees of artistry and finesse. However, Or 16915 is a much more lavish example of book art as all the textual divisions within the Qur’an are marked with beautiful marginal ornaments. The Qur’an is traditionally divided into thirty juz’ or parts of equal length to facilitate its recitation within a complete month, especially the blessed month of Ramadan.  Each juz’ can also be subdivided into regular fractions of half (nisf), quarters (rubu‘) and eighths (thumn), and all these divisions are indicated in Or 16915 with ornamented medallions placed in the margin. The start of each new juz’ is also highlighted with a small composite roundel composed of intersecting circles within the text itself, and by setting the first line within red-ruled frames and writing the first verse in red ink. In the other two Acehnese Qur’ans, Or 15406 and Or 16034, the first line of each new juz’ is also written in red ink, and in Or 16034 is usually also marked by a composite roundel, but there are no decorative devices in the margins.

The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82)

The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82)

The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82)
The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82) marked with varying degrees of ornamentation in three Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts: British Library, (top) Or 16915, f. 54r, (middle) Or 15406, f. 57v, (bottom) Or 16034, f. 45r.  noc

It is probably in the minor decorative features that the umbilical cord linking all three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh is revealed most clearly. Thus all three manuscripts – despite evidently varying places and dates of production within Aceh – have text frames of exactly the same composition, namely a series of four parallel ruled lines (described from inside out) of red-black-red-black ink. This is the one of two frame schemes found in nearly all Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts, the other being the less common red-red-black (cf. Gallop 2007: 195).

Tf-15406  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: (middle) Or 16034  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh:  Or 16915.
Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: British Library, (left) Or 15406, (middle) Or 16034, (right) Or 16915.  noc

Lastly, all three Qur’an manuscripts are also linked by the smallest common ornamental element: the aya or verse markers, which in Acehnese Qur’ans are invariably small black circles, drawn mechanically with a compass-like tool, coloured in with yellow pigment.

Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment-15406 f.246v  Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment-16034  Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment-16915
Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: British Library, (left) Or 15406, (middle) Or 16034), (right) Or 16915.  noc

None of these three manuscripts is dated, but Or 16915 is written on English paper made by J Whatman watermarked with the date '1819', suggesting it was copied sometime in the 1820s.  The two other manuscripts are copied on Italian paper with the tre lune watermark of three crescent moons, indicating 19th century production. It is very rare to find colophons in Southeast Asian Qur'an manuscripts, but Or 15406 does have an endowment (waqf) statement at the end naming the owner:  Inilah Qur'an milik Teungku Ti orang baruh duduk pada nanggroe Lam Kubu tetapi Qur'an ini diwakaf pada tangan Teungku Abdul Kadir Lam Siwi intaha kalam tamma, ‘This is the Qur'an belonging to Teungku Ti, from the coastal lowlands, residing in Lam Kubu, but this Qur'an has been inalienably endowed into the hands of Teungku Abdul Kadir of Lam Siwi, finis.’

Endowment statement at the end of the Qur'an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 315r
Endowment statement at the end of the Qur'an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 315r  noc

Further reading:
A.T. Gallop, ‘An Acehnese style of manuscript illumination’, Archipel, 2004, (68): 193-240.
A.T. Gallop, The art of the Qur’an in Southeast Asia. Word of God, Art of Man: the Qur’an and its creative expressions. Selected proceedings from the International Colloquium, London, 18-21 October 2003. Edited by Fahmida Suleman. Oxford: OUP in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2007, pp.191-204.
Blog post, 24 March 2014, An Illuminated Qur’an manuscript from Aceh
Blog post, 4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

27 May 2021

Fragments of Abbasid Sciences: From Desert Monastery to Digital Reunion

As the Qatar Digital Library (QDL) uploads its two millionth image this week, we’d like to celebrate the nearly 80,000 images of British Library Arabic scientific manuscripts that contribute to this achievement.

One of the most fascinating of these manuscripts and one of the oldest is a thousand-year-old fragment of a Christian Arabic miscellany in Or. 8857. Enhanced cataloguing facilitated by the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership has provided a glimpse of the scientific interests and texts available to readers in the monasteries of the Near East around AD1000 and also of the diverse communities that produced these manuscripts in monastic scriptoria. Creating a digital surrogate of this fragment for the QDL has also allowed us to virtually reorder its folios and even remotely reunite it with another, larger fragment from the same manuscript held in another collection.

 

Acquisition and condition

On 30 May 1921, the British Museum acquired five folios of a Syriac manuscript along with thirty-three folios of a very ancient Arabic manuscript from F.W. Bickel, an antiquities dealer in Zürich specialising in Christian oriental manuscripts.

Off-white paper with two lines of cursive text in the Latin alphabet
Acquisition note: ‘Bought of F. W. Bickel. 30 May, 1921.’ (British Library, Or. 8857, endleaf verso [ii-v]) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00004e
CC Public Domain Image

When this purchase was recorded in the British Museum acquisition register, the fragmentary Arabic manuscript was given the shelfmark Or. 8857 along with a typically brief description: ‘Or. 8857. A fragment of a work on the calendar, followed by some prescriptions. 33ff. XIth. cent. 8o Arabic’. Clearly the manuscript was old – 5thAH/11th AD century according to the acquisition register. But details about its contents were scanty, and nothing was said about its provenance.

Off-white paper divided into three with small boxes on left and right and large one in the centre, all of which are filled with cursive text in the Latin alphabet in black ink
Entry for Or. 8857 in the British Museum acquisition register ( List of Oriental Manuscripts 1909–1921. Or. 6948–9034, p. 275 [British Library, ORC GEN MSS 7])
CC Public Domain Image

When the thirty-three paper folios that comprise Or. 8857 entered the British Museum, they were evidently in disarray. Not only is there no evidence to suggest that the folios arrived with a binding, but worse – the sewing that held the quires had disintegrated and the loose bifolia had broken apart along their spine-folds to become individual folios. At some point, probably shortly after their acquisition, all thirty-three folios were mounted on paper guards and sewn into a new binding with little regard to their original order but perhaps preserving the order in which they had arrived at the British Museum.

Off white manuscript folio with two columns of text in black ink in the Arabic script and red stamp with British Museum seal at bottom
The first folio, according to the manuscript’s present arrangement, is not what it seems. Its layout suggests either poetry or two columns of prose but, in fact, it is a list of the planets that rule each hour of the day, and it runs horizontally across the page despite the columns. What appears to be an eastern Arabic five (٥) in the upper left corner – perhaps explaining the western Arabic five in the lower right-hand corner – is actually a Coptic seventy (𐋰), which indicate that this is really not the first but the penultimate folio (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 1r) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00000b
CC Public Domain Image

After this conservation work, the manuscript seems to have rested unnoticed until a more complete list of its contents was prepared for the Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library (pp. 353, 357, 385 and 389). But it was not catalogued in detail until it was selected for digitisation for the QDL.

 

Date and context of production

The manuscript is written in a squat and angular script that has been described as ‘Kufic’. This script is now considered one of a loosely defined group of scripts generically called Abbasid Bookhand because they were developed in the early Abbasid chancery and employed for copying books on both sacred and secular topics from roughly the 3rd/9th to 5th/11th century. They were then replaced by the maghribī script in the extreme west of the Islamic world and by the naskh script almost everywhere else.

Apart from the manuscript’s archaic script and paper, other features help to define the time and place it was copied. Chief amongst these are its quire signatures, numbers that tell the bookbinder the correct order in which to bind the quires that make up a manuscript. In this manuscript two sets of quire signatures are found on the first and last folio of each quire. These quire signatures are written using two separate systems of alphabetic numerical notation: Greek and Georgian. The use of these two numeral systems alongside an Arabic text written in Abbasid Bookhand and featuring the distinctive punctuation marks displayed in this manuscript all attest to the collaboration of multi-ethnic and multilingual artisans in the Syrian, Palestinian and Egyptian monastic scriptoria of the early Abbasid period. The particular combination of quire signatures found here, however, is most typical of the scriptorium of the Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, especially during the late-4th/10th and early-5th/11th century.

Double page spread of manuscript on off-white paper with writing in Arabic script in black ink, with several features highlighted by red, green and blue circles placed over the text
Opening from the Book of Seasons (Kitāb al-azmina), which displays a variety of punctuation and space-filling marks as well as Greek quire signatures (circled in green, Η = 8 right and Θ = 9 left), Georgian quire signatures (circled in red, Ⴆ = 7 lower right and Ⴇ = 9 upper right) and Coptic folio number (circled in blue, 𐋯𐋩 = 69) (British Library, Or. 8857, ff. 10v and 17r)

Or. 8857, ff. 10v: https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00001e
Or. 8857, ff. 17r: https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00002b
CC Public Domain Image

 

Reordering the folios

The quire marks demonstrate that Or. 8857 is a fragment containing the remains of quires 5–9 of a larger original manuscript. But without putting the folios back in their original order, it would be impossible to know how much of each quire has survived. Luckily, each folio also has a number in its head margin. Although these folio numbers are likely to have been added somewhat after the quire signatures, they are early and they also attest to the multilingual context in which the manuscript was produced and consumed since they are written using the Coptic epact alphabetic numerals. The use of these numerals was not restricted to the Coptic community, and they are commonly referred to as ‘register letters’ (ḥurūf al-zimām) since they were favoured by merchants and administrators for use in their registers and account books.

Like the Arabic alphabetic numerals (ḥurūf al-jumal, commonly called abjad) – the numerical values of which happen to be explained on ff. 1v–2r of this manuscript – the Greek, Georgian and Coptic (zimām) alphabetic numeral systems all have a base of ten (unlike Roman numerals, which also have a sub-base of five) and they are additive (unlike Roman numerals, which also subtractive) rather than positional (like Arabic numerals). This means that to write the number 123 in alphabetic numerals, one does not write the letter representing 1 in the hundreds place, 2 in the tens place and 3 in the ones place as done with Arabic numerals. Rather, one writes the letters representing 100 (+) 20 (+) 3.

Table with first column and row in grey background with Greek letters in the central cells
Greek majuscule alphabetic numerals 1–900

Table with first column and row in grey background with Georgian letters in the central cells
Georgian majuscule (Asomtavruli) alphabetic numerals 1–900

Table with first column and row in grey background with Coptic letters in the central cells
Coptic epact or zimām numerals 1–900

Reading the Coptic (zimām) foliation along with the quire signatures, it becomes clear that Or. 8857 is a fragment of five quaternions (quires 5–9) comprising folios 37–71 of a larger manuscript of unknown extent. Quires 5, 6 and 8 are still complete with eight folios each, while quire 7 is missing the two folios of its inner bifolium, and only the first three folios from quire 9 are preserved.

Five schematic diagrams of thick or hatched blue lines forming concentric c-shaped items flipped so that they are open to the left
Visualisation of the original quire arrangement of the folios in Or. 8857. Historic Coptic (zimām) foliation at left and modern British Museum foliation in brackets at right. Note that the Georgian signatures for quires 7 and 8 are erroneously reversed. (Visualisation produced with Viscodex)
CC Public Domain Image

 

Diverse monastic reading material

Once we know the original order of the folios, we can see that Or. 8857 contains a variety of texts on subjects more or less obviously suited to the monks of Monastery of St Catherine.

1) Fragment of a Christian prayer (f. 37r–37v [British Museum f. 18r–18v]);

2) Prayer Taken from the Book of the Prophet David (Duʿā mustakhraj min Kitāb Dāwūd al-nabī, ff. 37v–41r [BM ff. 18v–22r]);

3) Prayer Composed by One of the Righteous Christian Believers (Duʿā allafahu baʿḍ al-muʾminīn al-muḥiqqīn min al-Naṣārá, ff. 41r–47v [BM ff. 22r–28v]);

4) Three recipes for incense (ff. 47v–49v [BM ff. 28v–30v]);

5) The Book of Seasons (Kitāb al-azminah, ff. 49v–70v, ff. 56–57 missing [BM ff. 30v–33v, 11r–16v, 3r–10v, 17r–17v, 1r and 1v]);

6) Fragment of an astrological text (ff. 70v-71v [BM ff. 1v-2v]).

The prayers that occupy the first eleven folios are clearly appropriate in a monastic context although certain features may seem jarring to the modern eye. One prayer ends with the invocation ‘O Lord of the Worlds!’ ( yā Rabb al-ʿĀlamīn, f. 18v), for example, and another is preceded by the basmala ( bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm, f. 22r), both phrases which occur in the Qurʿān and appear distinctly Islamic today. But during this early period, and for centuries after Or. 8857 was copied, these phrases were used in common by the Arabic-speaking adherents of all the Abrahamic faiths. On the other hand, although incense does not necessarily imply church ritual, the Trinitarian formula ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (bi-sm al-Ab wa-al-Ibn wa-rūḥ al-qudus, f. 28v) at the beginning of the incense recipes attests to their Christian context.

The last two texts in the fragment, however, seem less typical of a monastic library. The Book of Seasons is a sort of almanac containing information about the calendar, the heavens, weather phenomena, human illness and health and agricultural matters as they pertain to the twelve months of the year. This genre of literature, in which titles like the Book of Seasons or the Book of Asterisms ( Kitāb al-anwāʾ) are common, provided important guides for living in harmony with the natural rhythms of the year – especially useful for monastic communities surviving in often harsh and semi-isolated conditions. Indeed, one of the earliest authors of this genre was Abū Zakarīyā Yūḥannā ibn Māsawayh (d. 243/857), a Nestorian Christian hospital director at Baghdad, personal physician to the Abbasid caliphs and teacher of the Nestorian physician and translator Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 260/873).

Single page of Arabic-script text in black ink with several words in red ink on off-white paper
Information on the names of the months in Syriac, Greek and Persian from the beginning of the Book of Seasons, preceded by the basmala (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 30v) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x000046
CC Public Domain Image

The fragment ends with an anonymous introductory text on astrology, which includes an unusual method for determining a person’s ascendant not by observing their natal horoscope chart, but through numerological analysis of their name and that of their mother. While this text may seem the least appropriate in a monastery, there was considerable legal and theological disagreement about which of the various astrological practices were licit or illicit, and knowledge of the planets' influences on the environment and the human body was generally considered an important part of maintaining good health and wellbeing.

 

Fragments reunited

A much larger fragment of the same manuscript of which Or. 8857 is also a fragment is now held at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan under the shelfmark X 201 sup. According to a note by Mons. Enrico Rodolfo Galbiati (Doctor of the Ambrosiana 1953–84, Prefect of the Ambrosiana 1984–89) written in the margin of the Ambrosiana’s copy of Löfgren and Traini’s Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (vol. 1, p. 33), X 201 sup. was amongst a lot purchased in 1910 from an unknown dealer in Munich by Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, then Prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (1907-14), but soon to lead the Catholic Church as Pope Pius XI (1922–39).

X 201 sup. has also been digitised and is now available on the Ambrosiana’s Biblioteca Digitale, where I stumbled upon it, immediately recognising its similarity to Or. 8857. Like Or. 8857, the Milan manuscript is a miscellany combining Christian material with texts on herbal remedies, medicine, astrology and related topics. Likewise, the same Abbasid Bookhand and number of lines per page are found in both manuscripts. But it is the Greek and Georgian quire signatures alongside Coptic foliation found in both manuscripts that prove they are two pieces of the same puzzle.

According to the Coptic foliation and bilingual quire signatures, Or. 8857 contains ff. 37–71 (ff. 56 and 57 are missing) of the original manuscript, and its last quire signature is 9 on f. 17r (f. 69r of the Coptic foliation). The Milan manuscript contains 227 folios (beginning at ff. 97 and ending at f. 337 of the Coptic foliation, with some gaps), and its first quire signature is 13 on f. 101r (f. 5r of the modern Ambrosiana foliation).

We know that the quires in Or. 8857 were quaternions, which have eight folios each, so we would expect the Milan manuscript to be composed of quaternions too – although it should be pointed out that irregular quires are not unusual in manuscripts. Between the beginning of quire 9 (the last in Or. 8857) and the beginning of quire 13 (the first to begin in the Milan manuscript) there were four quires, which if they were all regular quaternions, should equal thirty-two folios (4 quires x 8 folios in each quire = 32 folios). When we count from the beginning of quire 9 on f. 69 of the Coptic foliation and to the end of quire 12 on f. 100 there are, indeed, exactly thirty-two folios, confirming that the two manuscripts are fragments from the same original manuscript.

Even though 77 folios have been lost from the original manuscript (ff. 1–36, 56–57 and 72–96 of the Coptic foliation, plus another 14 within the body of X 201 sup.), a very substantial 260 folios have now been identified, and this will no doubt form the basis for future studies into Abbasid scientific traditions amongst Christian monastic communities.

Thanks to international digitisation projects, the magic of IIIF, and the Mirador viewer there are fewer barriers than ever before to studies of this kind. In fact, anyone with a computer and access to the internet can virtually reunite the two fragments of this manuscript by following the steps below.

1) Navigate to X 201 sup. on the Ambrosiana’s Biblioteca Digitale, and click on the words ‘Visualizza la copia digitale’. The images will open in the Mirador viewer via your web browser. Open the dropdown menu at the top left corner of the viewer window and choose a location in the viewer window at which to display Or. 8857.

A screen shot showing the cover of a book with a red binding, with thumbnails of pages on the bottom, and the file menu in the top left hand corner dropped down and highlighted in a red box with rounded edges

2) You will now see that a blank canvas has opened at your chosen location.

Screen shot with a book with a red binding atop thumbnails of pages on the left-hand side and a dark grey area with a red-outlined oval on the right-hand side

3) In another browser window, navigate to any page on the QDL displaying images of Or. 8857 and expand the tab marked ‘Use and Share this Record’.

Screen shot showing a white page with thumbnails of book spines in the centre and text on the bottom third, some of which is on a grey background. The lowest grey background is inside an oval outlined in red

4) Under the heading ‘IIIF details’, locate the IIIF logo next to the IIIF manifest for Or. 8857, drag the logo to the Mirador window in your web browser and drop it anywhere on the blank canvas (see step 2).

Screen shot with a black banner at the top and text with a grey background in the middle, with some of the text highlighted by lines and hollow boxes in red and light blue

5) Alternatively, you can copy the IIIF manifest (https://www.qdl.qa/en/iiif/81055/vdc_100073295641.0x000001/manifest) located next to the IIIF logo on the screen in step 4 and click on the blank canvas in the Mirador viewer (see step 2). This will open the screen below, where you can paste the IIIF manifest into the field marked ‘Add new object from URL’ and click ‘Load’.

Screen shot showing a primarily white screen with a series of thumbnails of manuscript pages on the top third of the screen

6) You can now use the dropdown menus to choose how you would like to view each of the manuscripts and even repeat the steps above to add more canvases and view other IIIF compliant objects at the same time.

Screen shot of a black background with a matrix of thumbnails showing various pages of manuscripts

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
CCBY Image

Thanks to Dr Adrien de Fouchier, OP (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) and Dr Stefano Serventi (Biblioteca Ambrosiana) for their generous help and advice with my research for this blog.

Bibliography:

Chrisomalis, Stephen, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 135–37, table 5.1 (Greek and Georgian); 139, table 5.3 (Greek); 150, table 5.5 (Coptic/ zimām, the numerals for 600 [𐋸] and 700 [𐋹] are erroneously reversed) and 178, table 5.20 (Georgian)

Ifrah, Georges, The Universal History of Numbers from Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer , trans. by D. Bellos, E.F. Harding, S. Wood and I. Monk (New York–Chichester–Weinheim–Brisbane–Singapore–Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, 2000), pp. 220 (Greek), 225 (Georgian), and 545 (Coptic/zimām),

Kawatoko, Mutsuo, ‘On the Use of Coptic Numerals in Egypt in the 16th Century’, Orient 28 (1992) 71, fig. 3 (helpfully, gives variant forms for most numerals)

List of Oriental Manuscripts 1909–1921. Or. 6948–9034 (British Library, ORC GEN MSS 7)

Löfgren, Oscar and Renato Traini,Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, 3 vols, Fontes Ambrosiani LI, LXVI and Nuova Serie II (Vicenza: Neri Pozza Editore, 1975–95) vol. 1, item 33, pp. 33–35

Pataridze, Tamara, ‘Les Signatures des cahiers unilingues et bilingues dans les manuscrits Sinaïtiques (Georgiens, Arabes et Syriaques)’, Manuscripta Orientalia 18.1 (2012) 15–35

Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library, compiled by Peter Stocks, ed. by Colin Baker (London: British Library, 2001)

Varisco, Daniel, ‘The Origin of the Anwāʾ in Arab Tradition’, Studia Islamica 74 (1991) 5–28

05 April 2021

An ‘enhanced’ Qur’an manuscript from Madura

Many manuscripts show evidence of multiple layers of history. For example, a 12th-century manuscript text with marginal annotations from the 15th century might be set in new decorated borders in the 19th century, or a 16th-century Mughal manuscript could have added miniatures from the 18th century. Evaluating such manuscripts depends on an accurate identification of the nature and dating of the constituent parts, and an understanding of the motivation for any additions or enhancements, whether for reasons of scholarship, conservation, beautification or deliberate manipulation, the latter most commonly for commercial gain. One such complex manuscript in the British Library is a Qur’an manuscript from Madura, Or 15877, which was acquired at a Christie’s South Kensington auction sale in London in 2001, and which just been fully digitised.

Opening decorated pages in a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 1v-2r
Opening decorated pages in a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 1v-2r  noc

At first glance, this manuscript appears to be a typical illuminated Qur’an from Java. It is written on dluwang, Javanese paper made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree, and has three pairs of decorated double frames at the beginning, middle and end of the book, with marginal ornaments marking every juz’ or thirtieth part of the text. The most impressive feature of this Qur’an is the calligraphy: the whole text is written in a supremely confident, dashing, cursive hand, with a pronounced forward slope, as can be seen below in the repetition of the first chapter, Surat al-Fatihah, at the end of the volume. According to the colophon below written in Javanese, this manuscript was copied by ‘Abd al-Laṭif in the hamlet of Larangan, in the village of Puri (dusun Larangan kampung Puri), which can probably be located in the regency (kabupaten) of Pamekasan, near Sumenep, on the island of Madura.

Final page of a Qur’an from Madura, with a repetition of the Surat al-Fatihah, with the colophon below in the triangular panel. British Library, Or 15877, f. 297v
Final page of a Qur’an from Madura, with a repetition of the Surat al-Fatihah, with the colophon in the triangular panel. British Library, Or 15877, f. 297v  noc

What is not typical though is a full-page illuminated frontispiece at the start of the volume. In the form of carved wooden standing screen, it is inscribed in the middle in vocalised Arabic script: Pangeran Paku Ningrat Kraton Sumeneb 1793, ‘Pangeran Paku Ningrat, the Palace of Sumeneb, 1793’. Sumenep is one of three princely courts on the island of Madura, and the Javanese year 1793 is equivalent to AD 1865. This strikingly decorated page in fact acts as a warning ‘red flag’, for such full-page representational illuminations are not found in any Qur’an tradition in Southeast Asia.

Illuminated frontispiece to the Qur’an, inscribed Pangeran Paku Ningrat Kraton Sumeneb 1793, ‘Pangeran Paku Ningrat, the Palace of Sumeneb, 1793’ (AD 1865). British Library, Or 15877, f. 1r
Illuminated frontispiece to the Qur’an, inscribed Pangeran Paku Ningrat Kraton Sumeneb 1793, ‘Pangeran Paku Ningrat, the Palace of Sumeneb, 1793’ (AD 1865). British Library, Or 15877, f. 1r  noc

There are numerous other hints that Or 15877 is an ‘enhanced’ manuscript, namely a genuine but probably originally plain 19th-century Qur’an manuscript from Madura, which was most likely only illuminated shortly before being consigned for sale. Hundreds of Qur’an manuscripts from Java and Madura, copied on both dluwang and on European paper, were created devoid of decoration but with the text on the two opening pages set in smaller frames, as for example in Or 16877 in the British Library, shown below. In recent years there have been countless examples of such Javanese Qur'an manuscripts with recently added illumination, especially in the wide borders of the opening pages. Sometimes it is easy to recognize these ‘enhanced’ manuscripts through the garish and harsh synthetic pigments used, as in Or 15877, which have often bled through the paper to the other side. In Or 15877, the faint powdery sheen evident on the opening pages appears to be due to talcum powder rubbed over the illuminated elements, presumably to induce a degree of patina.

Opening pages of an undecorated Qur’an manuscript from Java, probably late 19th century. British Library, Or 16877, ff. 1v-2r
Opening pages of an undecorated Qur’an manuscript from Java, probably late 19th century. British Library, Or 16877, ff. 1v-2r  noc

In the original manifestation of Or 15877, the start of each juz’ was indicated with a star-shaped ornament in the text with a calligraphic inscription in red ink in the margin identifying the number of the juz’. As part of the late 20th-century ‘beautification’ process, the facing page of each new juz’ has had triple green medallions added in the margins. In the example shown below, these medallions overlie an earlier textual correction, proving that the ornamentation is a later addition to the manuscript.

The start of juz’ 28 at Surat al-Mujadilah (Q. 58), with the original calligraphic inscription in red ink in the margin at the top of the left-hand page, but with the recently-added green medallions on the right-hand page partially obscuring an old textual correction in the margin. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 264v-265
The start of juz’ 28 at Surat al-Mujadilah (Q. 58), with the original calligraphic inscription in red ink in the margin at the top of the left-hand page, but with the recently-added green medallions on the right-hand page partially obscuring an old textual correction in the margin. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 264v-265r  noc

In Qur’an manuscripts in which illuminated frames were added at the time of creation, the text boxes on those pages would normally have been made smaller – sometimes, much smaller – to allow for the ornamentation of the borders. Another incongruous feature of the British Library Qur’an Or 15877 is therefore the double decorated frames in the middle and at the end, which have been squeezed into the narrow margins around the full text pages. Moreover, in all Qur’an manuscripts produced in the Javanese tradition, illuminated frames in the middle would frame the start of Surat al-Kahf, but in this manuscript they have (inadvertently) been placed on the following two pages, starting with Q. 18:17.

Decorated frames in the middle of a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 147v-148r
Decorated frames in the middle of a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 147v-148r  noc

Decorated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 296v-297r
Decorated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 296v-297r  noc

It is considerations about the sizing of the illuminated frames in the middle of the Qur'an which help to interpret one of the most puzzling aspects of this many-layered manuscript: the presence on the doublures – which in the case of Or 15877 comprise two sheets of European paper pasted on the inside of the front and back covers – of two small illuminated panels. That at the front is inscribed Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, 'In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate', and that on the back Alhamdulillah, 'Praise be to God'. Both panels contain small cartouches above and below in which an inscription in red ink has been defaced. The online tool retroReveal has helped to decipher the erased inscriptions, which on the front panel can be read as Surat / al-Kahf. The second pair are more difficult to read but the top word may be Makiyyah, referring to the place of revelation of this chapter.  Thus the two panels, together, contain the first words of the Surat al-Kahf, and appear to have been originally created as part of the central illuminated pages of a Qur’an manuscript. When that enterprise was, for some reason, abandoned, the pages were repurposed as doublures in Or 15877, with the sura headings erased to leave simply two pious expressions set in decorated borders. The two doublure pages have been digitally reconstructed below to show how the central pages of the Qur’an were originally envisaged, alongside the middle illuminated pages from another Javanese Qur’an manuscript with almost as small text boxes for the start of Surat al-Kahf.

Illuminated panels inscribed (top) Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim-Or 15877 Doublure front  Illuminated panels inscribed (top) Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim-Or 15877 Doublure front-RetroReveal

Illuminated panels inscribed Alhamdulillah-Or 15877 Doublure back  Illuminated panels inscribed Alhamdulillah-Or 15877 Doublure back-retro
Illuminated panels inscribed (top) Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim and (below) Alhamdulillah, with the legibility of defaced red text enhanced by retroReveal. British Library, Or 15877, front doublure and back doublure.  noc

Digital reconstruction of the front and back doublures of Or 15877, to show how they were originally created as the central pages of a Qur’an manuscript marking the start of Surat al-Kahf. British Library, Or 15877, front and back doublure.
Digital reconstruction of the front and back doublures of Or 15877, to show how they were originally created as the central pages of a Qur’an manuscript marking the start of Surat al-Kahf. British Library, Or 15877, front and back doublure.  noc

Central pages of a Qur’an manuscript from Java, marking the start of a Surat al-Kahf, enclosing a single line of text on each page. National Library of Singapore, Farish Noor Collection.
Central pages of a Qur’an manuscript from Java, marking the start of Surat al-Kahf, also enclosing a single line of text on each page. National Library of Singapore, Farish Noor Collection, B29235337A.

The binding of Or 15877 is also curiously hybrid. The leather covers themselves are evidently 19th-century, and the stamped decorative medallion with four petals at the centre is similar to those found on other Madura manuscripts (cf. Plomp 1993: Figure 4). However the covers are slightly smaller than the text block and thus the binding may not be original to this particular manuscript. The edges of the page have been gilded, which can be assumed to be another recent enhancement, such gilding is never normally encountered in Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts.

Detail of the stamped central medallion-Or 15877 binding motif  Detail of the stamped corner piece-Or 15877 binding motif corner
Detail of the stamped central medallion and corner piece from the binding. British Library, Or 15877, front cover.  noc

Gilded edges of the text block, with too-small leather covers. British Library, Or 15877, bottom edge.
Gilded edges of the text block, with too-small leather covers. British Library, Or 15877, bottom edge.  noc

In the most generous assessment, the process of 'enhancing' these older Javanese Qur'ans could be seen as part of an ages-old inclination to 'beautify' the Holy Book.  However, in some other cases of augmentation of Qur'an manuscripts, whereby fake colophons attributing production to Southeast Asia have been added to Qur'ans from Daghistan, no such extenuating factors can be adduced.

Further reading:
A.T. Gallop, Fakes or fancies? Some ‘problematic’ Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia. Manuscript cultures, 2017, 10: 101-128.
M. Plomp, Traditional bookbindings from Indonesia. Materials and decorations. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149 (3):571-592.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

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