The finest Qur'an manuscripts in Southeast Asia were produced on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula. Especially sumptuous were the Qur'ans of Terengganu, notable for their technical finesse and lavish use of gold, which were prized all over the archipelago. Further north, the Malay kingdom of Patani - now part of Thailand - has long been recognized for its artistry, manifest in a range of art forms including weaponry, grave stones and primarily wood carving, as beautifully captured in the exhibition book Spirit of Wood (Farish and Khoo 2003). The best Qur'an manuscripts from Patani are notable for their perfect proportions and and betray a more individualistic aesthetic than the more rigorous and disciplined Terengganu Qur'ans.
An exquisite small Qur’an manuscript in the British Library, Or 15227, which has been fully digitised, is at first glance characteristically Patani in style. Illuminated frames enclose the opening chapters of the Qur’an, with the Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the first verses of the Surat al-Baqarah on the left. Although positioned separately on two facing pages, the two frames radiate an intimate and empathetic connection, like a bashful bridal couple on a dais.
Illuminated frames at the start of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 3v-4r
As can be seen from the diagram below outlining the key features of the 'Patani' style of manuscript illumination, this Qur'an manuscript contains numerous typically Patani elements. These include ‘interlocking wave’ arches on the vertical sides composed of two intersecting arc surmounted by an ogival dome, and a small border of little chilli peppers (cili padi) or seeds. These can be seen in the pair of decorated frames located at the end of the Qur’an, containing the final two chapters, with Surat al-Falaq on the right and Surat al-Nas on the left.
Illuminated frames at the end of the Qur’an, with 'interlocking wave' arches. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 303v-304r
Detail of the 'interlocking wave' arch, with chilli pepper border below of alternating blue and red seeds. British Library, Or 15227, f. 303v (detail)
Another interlocking wave arch. British Library, Or 15227, f. 222v (detail)
The Qur’an is written in fine small controlled hand, and like all East Coast Qur’an manuscripts, is copied in accordance with a model of page layout perfected by the Ottomans in the 17th century. In this ayat ber-kenar system, each juz’ or thirtieth part of the Qur’an occupies exactly 10 folios of paper or 20 pages, with each page ending with a complete verse. Thus each new juz’ always starts on the top line of a right-hand page in the manuscript, and is marked with a beautiful marginal ornament composed of a concentric circle inscribed al-juz’, extended upwards and downwards with floral motifs. Inscribed in tiny red letters alongside each juz’ marker is the word maqra’, indicating the start of a selection of text for recitation.
Marginal ornament marking the start of juz’ 14, which is also the beginning of Surat al-Hjir. British Library, Or 15227, f. 133v
Although the juz’ markers are all composed of the same basic components of a concentric circle with floral ornaments, each is coloured and finished individually with a different selection of pigments. The ending of the finial at top and bottom with a little droplet is a typically Patani feature - in Terengganu Qur'ans, such finials would end in a fine tapering line.
In Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts, chapter or sura headings are rarely ornamented with colour, save in the finest examples from the East Coast, such as this manuscript. On the final two pages towards the end of the Qur'an, a beautiful selection of coloured headings can be seen in the cluster of short suras in the final juz 'amma. The title of the sura, the location of its revelation in Mecca or Medinah, and the number of verses (aya) it contains, is inscribed in reserved white against a ground of five alternating red and either green or blue panels.
Colourful chapter headings, with the titles of the sura reserved in white against a selection of coloured panels. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 302v-303r
While the architectural structure of the illuminated frames and decorative motifs are undoubtedly Patani, there are a number of unusual features which make this a uniquely hybrid manuscript. The uniformly repeating floral motifs, and the deep strong palette, recall Terengganu production, compared to the generally more organic vegetal motifs and pastel hues found in Patani manuscripts.
Even more unusual though is the location of two further pairs of illuminated frames. The positioning of decorated frames in the centre of a Qur’an manuscript from Southeast Asia is one of the most dependable indicators of regional origin: in Acehnese Qur’ans decorated frames in the middle always mark the start of the 16th juz’, at Surat al-Kahf v. 75; in Java and the Sulawesi diaspora it is always the beginning of Surat al-Kahf which is ornamented; while on the East Coast of the peninsula, if illuminated frames are located in the middle they invariably adorn the beginning of the 17th chapter, Surat al-Isra’. Yet in this small manuscript, uniquely, double decorated frames mark the start of both Surat al-Kahf and Surat Yasin. Indeed, despite the special significance of Surat Yasin in the hearts and lives of all Muslims, this is the only Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscript known in which the beginning of Surat Yasin is marked with illuminated frames.
Illuminated frames marking the start of Surat al-Kahf. British Library, Or 145227, ff. 149v-150r
Illuminated frames marking the start of Surat Yasin. Or.15227, ff. 222v-223r
A further very unusual feature of this manuscript is the presence of two further pairs of monochrome decorated frames, drawn in black ink and with empty text boxes, found at the end of the manuscript. These are positioned immediately before and soon after the illuminated frame around the final two chapters of the Qur’an, and are significantly different from all the other polychrome frames in structure. In the first set, the inner frame around the text box is similar in composition to the final pair of illuminated fromes on the following folio, but it has an additional outer border hugging the edge of the paper. These outer borders are a standard feature of larger quarto-sized Terengganu Qur’ans, but are rarely found in smaller octavo-sized Patani Qur’ans such as this. The second pair sets the arched frames around the empty text boxes within red and black-lined arcs, highlighting the geometric proportions of the genre.
Black ink frames with an outer border in the Terengganu style, at the end of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 15227, ff.303v-304r
Black ink frames at the end of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 15227, 306v-307r
The manuscript is written on Italian paper with watermarks of moon face in shield and the countermark ‘AG’ [Andrea Galvani], indicating that the paper was made at the Galvani papermill in Pordenone near Venice in the second half of the 19th century. The binding is entirely typical of Patani Qur’ans, with a plain black cloth cover, with intricately stitched endbands. The black paper doublures can be seen as confirmation of the production of this Qur’an manuscript in a Thai cultural zone such as Patani, as black paper is commonly used for Thai manuscripts.
Black cloth spine of binding with intricately stitched endbands of red and green thread. British Library, Or 15227, spine.
Southeast Asian Qur'an manuscripts almost never contain colophons giving the name of the scribe, or of the patron for whom the Qur'an was copied. All we have in this manuscript is one tantalizing line written in Malay, set within another monochrome frame on a single page, which simply tells us the manuscript was written in the month of Shawal.
One line written in Malay - tatkala surat Qur'an ini pada bulan Syawal, 'this Qur'an was written in the month of Shawal' - in a monochrome outline of a frame. British Library, Or 15227, f. 1v
However, there are hints that the same artist might also have been responsible for illuminating a beautiful copy of the Mawlid sharaf al-anam, songs in praise of the prophet, held in the National Library of Malaysia as MSS 819. It is difficult to compare the calligraphy as the Kitab Mawlid is written in two registers, with the Arabic text in bold with a tiny interlinear Malay translation. But two features of the decorated frames - the four-petalled floral motifs in yellow with dark blue centres, and the striking borders of yellow plaited rope on a red ground with white and blue floral flourishes - are so similar as to suggest the hand of the same artist.
A.T. Gallop, ‘The spirit of Langkasuka? illuminated manuscripts from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula’, Indonesia and the Malay World, July 2005, 33 (96): 113-182, pp.146, 161.
A.T. Gallop, 'Palace and pondok: patronage and production of illuminated manuscripts on the east coast of the Malay peninsula', Warisan seni ukir kayu Melayu / Legacy of the art of Malay woodcarving, ed. Zawiyah Baba; pp.143-162. Bangi: ATMA, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 2010.
Farish A. Noor and Khoo, Eddin, Spirit of wood: the art of Malay woodcarving. Works by master carvers from Kelantan, Terengganu and Pattani. [Hong Kong]: Periplus, 2003.