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)
Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r
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 an Acehnese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 312v-313r
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, Add 12343, f. 187r
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, with a ruled sin-mim ligature in the basmala. British Library, Or 16877, f. 320r
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, 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. British Library, Or 16915, f. 253r
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
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
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
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
Penultimate pages in a Patani Qur’an, with multiple illuminated surah headings. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 302v-303r
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.
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