Double Folio from a Qur'an
Chapter 5, "The Table" (al-Ma'ida), Verses 72-74

Artist/maker unknown, Central Asian or Turkish

Possibly made in Anatolia, Turkey, Asia
Decorated in India, Asia

c. 1330-1350

Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper

Sheet (A (Left page on mount)): 11 1/4 × 7 3/8 inches (28.6 × 18.7 cm) Sheet (B (Right page on mount)): 11 3/8 × 7 3/8 inches (28.9 × 18.7 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004

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As in the western tradition, Islamic books have a vertical format with paper pages sewn together into a binding. Early Muslim settlers from central and western Asia carried Islamic book traditions into India, especially in the form of Qur'ans, such as the one from which these pages come. Since the Qur'an, the holy scripture of Islam, was communicated in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad by God in the seventh century, its words are venerated, as is the writing that communicates them. Three distinct calligraphic scripts appear on this page. Large, bold lines give the Qur'an verses in the original Arabic; zigzag bands of smaller letters translate the verses into Persian; and red, blockish characters with verses from the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) serve as a decorative frame.

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Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    Writing has special importance in Islamic culture. Revered as the means by which the Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam, was recorded, writing in Arabic script became more than a functional means of communicating verbal information. It gradually acquired symbolic meaning in its own right and appeared as an auspicious decorative element on all kinds of objects. In this role and particularly in the copying of the text of the Qur’an, writing gradually gave rise to the fine art of calligraphy, the conscious aestheticization of the rhythms of the vertical, horizontal, and curved letters of the Arabic script. By the tenth century, the rules of fine writing had been codified and six different cursive scripts had been systematized. An angular script commonly known as Kufic had been used in most manuscripts of the Qur’an copied before this time; from the eleventh century on, the text proper of the Qur’an was normally written in one of several cursive scripts, and the more formal Kufic script was retained only for the titles of suras (chapters).

    This continuous pair of folios from a well-known fourteenth-century copy of the Qur’an offers a compelling combination of formal elements of great power and delicacy. The Qur’anic text itself is written in the boldest of the cursive scripts, Muhaqqaq, whose very name means “strongly expressed.” Its most characteristic features are the markedly extended vertical elements, which typically begin with an upward hooked stroke, and the flattened but sweeping shapes of letters that in most other scripts form a round bowl or descend in a slight curve at a 45- degree angle. (Both these features can be seen clearly in the uppermost line of the folio on the right, which reads from right to left, as do all forms of Arabic script.) The calligrapher penned only three lines per page, an extraordinarily spacious layout designed to accentuate the vigorousness of the Muhaqqaq script. Juxtaposed with the thunderous horizontal rhythm of the Muhaqqaq Qur’an is an interlinear Persian translation written in Naskh, a much less flamboyant cursive script. It defers appropriately to the larger Muhaqqaq script, rising and falling diagonally in a lively rhythm so as to complement rather than compete with the primary text. The elegance of the Muhaqqaq script is carried through in the textual illumination, which consists of a simple golden rosette marking the end of each verse.

    Framing this complementary pair of texts and cursive scripts is yet another text, verses from the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), written in a compact Kufic script. With this addition, in which red or blue ink is employed on alternate openings, elegant austerity yields to decorative exuberance. The Kufic text is overlaid on an ornate band of golden arabesques; where it failed to have a sufficient number of verticals to sustain the desired rhythm, this illuminator—one of two who contributed to the manuscript—interjected a floral or knotted motif in the contrasting color. This delicate and dense illumination takes a different turn at the corners, as geometric designs composed of a quatrefoil and four interlaced lozenges rendered in red, blue, and gold seem to bind up the thread of angular Kufic script that runs through the framing bands. Because these geometric designs match the large scale of the Muhaqqaq text and are significantly broader than the band of scrollwork, their imposing forms also anchor the illumination and give added structure to the framed manuscript opening.

    There is little doubt that the Kufic commentary and accompanying decoration were executed some time after this Qur’an was copied, for another, incomplete section of this manuscript lacks the framing illumination altogether.1 One scholar, David James, has noted strong similarities between the format and calligraphic style of this Qur’an and those of another Qur’an assigned an Anatolian provenance and a date of c. 1335.2 Many other scholars have proposed an Indian provenance, primarily on the basis of the illumination, which is purportedly related to motifs found in fourteenth century architectural monuments of Sultanate Delhi.3 If this ultimately proves to be the case, this manuscript would document the existence of an Indian style of illumination far finer and more architectonic than what is currently known from this period.4 John Seyller, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 40-41.

    1. Massumeh Farhad, in Thomas Lawton and Thomas W. Lentz, eds., Beyond the Legacy: Anniversary Acquisitions for the Freer Gallery and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1998), pp. 144, 146.
    2. David James, Qur’åns of the Mamlüks (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988), pp. 170–71, 244. The interlinear Persian translation points to a provenance in eastern Islamic lands, which range from Anatolia to India and Central Asia.
    3. See Barbara Schmitz et al. Islamic and Indian Manuscripts and Paintings in the Pierpont Morgan Library. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997., pp. 101–2, for a comprehensive review of the literature on this manuscript.
    4. See, for example, a Sultanate Qur’an dated 1301 (with later additions), sold at Sotheby’s, London, December 10, 1974, lot 473; and a Kulliyyat of Sa‘di dated 1388, offered for sale at Sotheby’s, London, April 18, 1983, lot 72.