‘The Art of the Qur’an’: Shedding light on Islamic traditions

Their pages are dense with graceful calligraphy and miniature, gold-infused paintings. These illuminated manuscripts — more than 60 of the most important Qurans from the Arab world, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan — are the focus of an exhibition in Washington that traces the history of artistic development in the Islamic world.

Quran folio from Near East, Abbasid period, 10th century (Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts)
Quran folio from Near East, Abbasid period, 10th century (Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts)

The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, on view at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through February 20, 2017, reveals how the Quran evolved from an orally transmitted message to a written text, which in turn sparked creative innovation.

Once the Quran took on a written form, scribes “began to mark the 114 chapters, first with simple decorative devices,” said Massumeh Farhad, the exhibition’s curator. “Then illuminators introduced gold headings and markers to indicate the end of each verse. Many Qurans were also divided into as many as 30 sections, so a Muslim could read the entire text within a month.”

The exhibition’s manuscripts, spanning nearly 1,000 years and including works from 8th-century Damascus through 17th-century Istanbul, “provide insight into the tremendous range of calligraphic style and stylized decorative language” practiced in the Islamic world, said Farhad. “These developed in different cities and regions and traveled to other centers, thanks to the movement of the manuscripts as well as artists and calligraphers.”

Quran (detail) from Herat, Afghanistan; Timurid period, 1434 (Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts)
Quran from Herat, Afghanistan, of the Timurid period, 1434 (Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts)
Page of Quran with illuminated writing (Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts)
This Quran is attributed to calligrapher Abd Allah al-Sayrafi. It probably originated in Iraq and is of the Il-Khanid period, first half of the 14th century. (Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts)

Along the way, lavishly decorated Qurans emerged as emblems of piety and political power.

Created for Ottoman rulers, the manuscripts were prized and offered as gifts to cement political or military alliances. Qurans also were donated to institutions such as shrines or mosques to enhance a donor’s prestige and reputation for righteousness. Royal women donated Qurans to libraries and schools as symbols of their devotion to contemporary religious and social life.

The Sackler exhibition tells the individual stories of some of these manuscripts, most of which are on loan from Istanbul’s Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts and some of which are from the permanent collections of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries.

“Although each copy of the Quran contains an identical text,” said Farhad, “the mastery and skill of the artists have transformed it into a unique work of art.”