The Qur’an is the holy book of Islam. It is believed by Muslims to be the eternal and unchanging word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a period of 22 years between 610 and 632. The Qur’an is comprised of 114 chapters (suras) which are comprised of verses (ayas). Reading or writing verses from the Qur’an is a believer’s most effective way to achieve closeness to God. Although its content remains unchanged, Qur’anic manuscripts come in many different shapes and sizes depending on the taste, budget, and needs of the patron. The Indiana University collections own Qur’an manuscripts spanning a wide geographic and chronological spectrum, with Qur’anic fragments dating as early as the 9th century to printed Qur’ans of the 20th century.
Qur’anic manuscripts usually begin with an elaborate illuminated headpiece (sarloh or ʿunwan), followed by the bismillah, which reads: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Benevolent.” In fact, each individual chapter of the Qur’an begins with this short prayer usually located below an illuminated chapter heading. Gold is used profusely in Qur’anic illuminations as a decorative and functional agent, as well as a means by which to invoke a spiritual and sacred/sacramental aura for the reader.
Although Qur’anic manuscripts are most commonly transcribed in their entirety and collected into one single binding, it is also possible to see copies separated into 30 volumes (sing=juz’, pl.=ajza’). Moreover, combinations of specific chapters and verses can be bound into an individual volume according to the owner’s desire.
There is no doubt that the importance of the Qur’an—also know as al-Kitab, literally meaning “the Book”— gave rise to the overall reverence of the book and the book arts in general. Efforts to glorify and protect the Qur’an translated into efforts to beautify it; such efforts were applied to the production of other texts as well. The production of a manuscript involved a wide array of craftsmen, artists, and apprentices, from papermakers to illuminators.
The Book Atelier
The kitabkhane (literally in Persian “book house”) or book atelier took many different forms through the centuries and developed as society and various courts’ demands changed. Once considered an actual place where books were made as well as collected, during the Safavid period a single manuscript could be written and illustrated by several different calligraphers in several different places simultaneously, the pages only coming together for its assembly. The imperial bookshop also could accompany a ruler on campaign, revealing the extent to which calligraphers and artists could be “on the move” as well.