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Context:   Section I   |   Section II   |   Section III

I. Arabic calligraphy, book making and the Qur’an as a textual object

The Minassian collection of Qur’anic folios provides the viewer with a rich set of examples of the development of early Islamic calligraphy and illumination, comprising of nearly a dozen styles and variations. Its particular strength lies in the documentation of the changing artistic tastes exemplified by the evolution of the kufic script of the early Abbasid period (c. 750–1000 C.E.). This angular form and its related variants, meticulously executed with strict adherence to the horizontal and vertical axes, are very difficult to compare directly to the later highly stylized naskh or muhaqqaq styles. Contrastingly, these later styles are characterized by their expansive, open, and yet still precise curving forms. As with all of these scripts, exacting execution was the unifying ideal the calligrapher strove for; however, based on the irregularity of certain hands seen in some folios within the collection, it seems that some of these pieces represent the work of apprentices still mastering their craft. Overall, the great range of styles within the time span represented by the Minassian collection serves as an excellent demonstration of the rapidity with which the distinct Arabic script styles and the aesthetics of illumination evolved.

Folios in this collection are almost evenly split between those executed on parchment or vellum and those on paper. In each instance the folios vary in quality, size, and physical condition. Though the primary focus of these works of art was the highly elevated level of aesthetic beauty, we also find in this collection subtle clues hinting at the process by which the book was created as a utilitarian object. Bound manuscripts are mechanical objects that have evolved in response to the need for an efficient and secure manner in which large quantities of information may endure passage through both time and space. As such, the widespread adoption and acceptance of the Qur’an as a written text (as opposed to one committed to memory and available only by recitation) became a powerful means for disseminating and preserving both its scriptural knowledge and the Arabic language in a period when the Muslim community was increasingly expanding beyond its origins in the Arabian Peninsula.

II. The material biography of a Qur’anic folio   [top]

The earliest extant Qur’anic manuscripts date to the first half of the 8th century C.E. The oldest examples in this collection are estimated to have been created perhaps a century later; however, their relationship to the earliest hijazi scripts is undeniable. Manuscripts representing this first generation were not intended to be read aloud verbatim, as evidenced by the sparse use of diacritical marks in the script to distinguish between consonants and to indicate the short vowels. Instead, these early scripts were intended to serve as tools to aid the recitation of verses and to record the essential content of the Qur’an for posterity. Though Qur’anic manuscripts were being produced in ever greater numbers by the 8th century A.D. under the Umayyad and later Abbasid dynasties, the primary mode for communicating the divine scriptural teachings of the prophet Muhammad still focused heavily on recitation, and memorization was considered the most authoritative vehicle for the dissemination of Qur'anic scripture. The somewhat austere quality of the earliest script styles found in Qur’anic manuscripts may well be a reflection of this focus.

A copy of the Qur’an was a luxury item that was costly both in terms of the materials and the expert labor required for its production. As a result, it was common for mosques, the usual repository for these objects, to extend the useful lifespan of manuscripts for as long as possible. The limiting factor was chiefly architectural in nature, both in a physical and a textual sense. So long as the book remained structurally intact, the text within could be updated to a degree by adding certain vowels and diacritics not included in earlier script styles. Similarly, decorative illumination, borders and gilding could be included to keep the manuscripts current with changes in aesthetic preference. But as the script evolved and recitation of the Qur’an became increasingly dictated by the written text, the more abstracted kufic scripts became increasingly impractical for everyday use, even with such alterations. Additionally, the deterioration of manuscripts physical bindings eventually rendered them too fragile to be functional as a part of daily religious practice associated with mosques.

It was at this point, when the books themselves had outlived their practical lifespan, that they entered into a period of dormancy. Even though they were largely illegible by contemporary standards and had fallen into disrepair, these books housed the word of God, and as sacred objects, could not be discarded. Instead, they were stored away in the crawlspaces and attics of mosques to insure that there would be no danger of desecration. Here they remained for some time, bindings deteriorating further, perhaps subject to the unfortunate attention of insects or other destructive pests, water damage, and extreme temperature changes. When these spaces were later revisited, the dormant books had transformed from cohesive objects into disparate parts only related transiently to one another through the order of their stacking. Having definitively ended their lives as collated manuscripts, they became appropriated for use in an entirely new context. Upon rediscovery, the individual folios were separated, trimmed square and framed for presentation as aesthetic objects. Treating the folios in this manner completed their transformation from tools to assist in active religious practice to works of art. With this transition from book to art object, or in the present case to objects of historical and scientific research, they became commodities once again. However, a notable difference here was that now it was private collectors and institutions buying these pieces, as opposed to the religious institutions and their patrons who first commissioned the manuscripts.

As these folios were bought, sold and traded, they became increasingly distant from the circumstances of their creation, both geographically and temporally; often, manuscripts were split up into individual signatures or folios or even single sheets and sold. Their context in the archaeological sense was stripped from them as the surroundings of their original use became solely a part of their history, solidly in the past. Manuscripts were separated and scattered across the globe, bought and sold so that a collection as seemingly eclectic as the Minassian collection is in many ways representative of the present material existence for a large portion of these works.

III. Going digital with the Qur’an   [top]

While the utilitarian nature of the book as vehicle for knowledge storage and preservation may have dominated the original intent of their production, it is important to acknowledge that these folios offer an invitation to hold a work of art in your hands and be an active participant in the creation of that work. As pages are turned, the viewer may decide where to begin and where to end, perhaps to leave it open to a particular page, or even to slide it back onto a shelf out of view. Moreover, the physical act of touching the page draws the viewer’s attention to aspects of the creation of the piece that would not necessarily be considered without the sensory experience of touch. The texture of rippling parchment causes the viewer to wonder, perhaps, at the process involved in preparing such a ground for writing, or the sheen of the gilding prompts one to consider what trade routes that gold may have taken to arrive at this particular illuminator’s table. When the viewer holds in his or her hands a 1200-year-old folio that continues to have relevance today, the connection felt to the original calligrapher, though hundreds of years distant, is undeniable; they, too, once held this sheet in their hands. Despite the general trends in script styles that allow Qur’anic scholars to broadly identify and categorize different script styles, even the most consistent and textbook example of any script was once written by an individual, and each hand is unique and distinct, and still manages to carry its own weight. Despite the seemingly restrictive nature of the text the scribes copied (every single word prescribed), there is still much room within the Arabic alphabet for an incredible amount of improvisation in writing script.

Such a tactile experience with these manuscripts is not yet possible through the digital medium available here. For such a hands-on interaction one must leave a far greater carbon footprint than simply turning on their computer or mobile device and directing their browser to this site. However, this new medium does open up some alternative possibilities for the visual and intellectual engagement with these objects. The high resolution of these scans allows the viewer to inspect the pen stroke and the way in which it manages to ink the page and leave its traces. Projects await students to cut up these images, overlay them, make them transparent and otherwise engage in creative juxtapositions and rearrangements. While the learning and studying of the Qur’an has been at the forefront of Muslim engagements with digital technology, what we hope to offer here is a way to reflect on a history of technology as it intersects with that foundational text as part of Islamic spiritual and cultural life.