August 11, 2011

A Charming Sumo Match

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. Sumo wrestling became a professional sport in the early Edo period, and was a popular entertainment in the urban areas, along with Kabuki. The development of sumo-e (pictures of sumo wrestlers) coincided with the rising popularity of the sport, which reached its peak around 1780–1800. While sumo-e often depicted famous wrestlers entering the ring, standing on the street, or in the middle of a match, this print instead shows two children in “charming” and playful combat.

Bihari Qurʼan

This folio contains, on the right side, verses 2–8 of Surat al-Kahf (The cave) of the Qurʼan and, on the left side, verses 67–70 of the Surat Bani Isra'il (The children of Israel), also known as Surat al-Isra' (The night journey). The text is in Arabic with interlinear Persian translation in red ink. The borders include a commentary in Persian, written in black ink and laid out diagonally in the margin. On the rightmost margin of the verso appears a note cross-referenced to the sixth ayah (verse) of Surat al-Kahf. The commentary elaborates on the meaning of the verse. In this fragment, only a commentary is given in the margin. Other bihari Qurʼans bear double margins containing both a commentary and alternative readings of certain words in the text. The right side of the folio contains a small catchword written diagonally in black in the lower left corner, used to bind the folios in the correct sequence. The ayah markers consist of eight-petal rosettes outlined in black, with a square gold-leaf center and eight blue dots on their outer edges. The fragment is written in a script known as bihari, a variant of naskh (cursive) typical of northern India after the conquest by Timur (Tamerlane) and prior to the establishment of the Mughal Dynasty. Bihari script is recognizable by its emphasis on the sub-linear elements of the Arabic letter forms, thickened at their centers and chiseled like swords at their ends. The term bihari derives from the province Bihar in eastern India, but its alternative spelling (bahari) also may refer to the size (bahar) of the paper used for writing Qurʼans. Most Qurʼans written in bihari script use strong orange or red and blue colors for illuminated motifs, as well as for the main body of the text. This fragment repeats lines in the following manner: one line of gold, two lines of black, one line of blue, two lines of black, one line of gold. Bihari Qurʼans often include a note next to each chapter heading explaining its value and how many times it should be read. This fragment also specifies the total number of words and letters in each chapter.

Tughra of Sultan Ahmed III

This tughra (imperial emblem) belonged to the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III and appears on the verso of a 16th-century Safavid Persian single-sheet fragment of a Fal-i Qurʼan, used for divination by means of letters selected at random. Ahmed III ruled from A.H. 1115–43 (A.D. 1703–30), so it is probable that the Qurʼan came from southwestern Iran to the Topkapi Palace Library in Istanbul sometime in the 17th century. The largely effaced date of 1111 (1700) on the verso supports the hypothesis that the Qurʼan arrived in Istanbul by the turn of the 18th century. The tughra served as a sort of ex libris for the sultan, who may have ordered removed and pasted over certain areas of the recto to conceal the real purpose of the sheet, as prognostication by means of the Holy Book was a problematic practice in Islam. The tughra has a long tradition as a royal calligraphic emblem in Turkic cultures. From the time of the Oguz, Seljuks, and especially the Ottomans, it was the blazon of a ruler that included his name and titles, sometimes in highly stylized form. Although in this case it appears as a kind of royal signature, the tughra typically initiated an imperial decree or legal documents, such as property deeds. It also appeared on Ottoman buildings, coins, calligraphic panels, and postage stamps. It symbolized a "noble mark" of possession and thus often took on the role of a seal impression, which granted permission or endowed ownership. The tughra is composed of a variety of structural elements that make up the names and titles of a ruler. The ornate interlacing of the titles make it difficult to identify the ruler in question, but comparison with other extant tughras has established the link to Ahmed III.

Divination by the Qurʼan

This single sheet of a Fal-i Qurʼan lays out in rhyming Persian distichs (couplets) the means of fal (divination) by letters selected at random when opening to a page of the Qurʼan. This folio originally was included at the end of a Safavid Persian Qurʼan, immediately after the last surah (chapter), Surat al-Nas, and a closing prayer on behalf of the Prophet and his family. The layout of the divination text, the script, and the remaining original illumination in the text frame are typical of fals placed at the end of Qurʼans made in Shiraz or Qazvin during the second half of the 16th century. The pasting of the rectangular bands in two vertical columns, as well as the illumination running around the text frame, may be a form of censorship by the Sunni Ottomans, perhaps at the request of Sultan Ahmed III (r. 1703–30), whose tugra (royal emblem) appears on the folio’s verso. The pasted bands in the right vertical column hide individual letters of the alphabet, beginning with the letter lam (l), from which a poetical divination was extracted. The poetical prognostication remains, while the letters themselves have been concealed. This fragment must have been the third folio of the original divination text. The title and the first two pages (containing the letters alif through kaf) of the fal do not survive. Although divination by the Qurʼan appears largely in a Safavid Shiite context, examples of fals by means of the Qurʼan also appear in Sunni Ottoman artistic traditions during the latter part of the 16th century. The reason prognostication by the Qurʼan has largely been seen as a Shiite phenomenon is that the practice is often attributed to 'Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

Qurʼanic Verses (9:33-36)

The recto of this fragment contains verses 33–34 of surah (chapter) nine of the Qurʼan, al-Tawbah (The repentance), also known as Surat al-Bara'ah (The immunity) from the surah’s opening word, as it is the only surah to which the introductory bismillah (In the name of God) is not affixed. These verses speak about how men must fight against pagan enemies and uphold their faith. In the upper left corner of the folio is a hizb (section) marker, consisting of gold and blue concentric circles, blue finials on its perimeter, and the word hizb written in its center. The ayah (verse) marker that appears in the center of the uppermost line consists of a flower with petals, outlined in dark brown ink, with a red center, and filled with gold leaf. Diacritical marks are in red ink and seem to have been added at a later date to facilitate pronunciation and recitation. The verso of the fragment contains verses 34–36 of the same surah, which speak about recompense and punishment, as well as the need to fight pagans. The text is written in dark brown ink on a light beige rag paper. The script is masahif, which was used for copying the Qurʼan (and occasionally for copies of the Bible as well). It is a smaller and less stiff version of muhaqqaq, for which it is often mistaken. Along with the cursive naskh and muhaqqaq scripts, masahif is the most popular of all Qurʼanic scripts. The layout of five lines per page is typical of 15th-century Qurʼans made in Mamluk Egypt (1250–1517).

Qurʼanic Verses (44:56-59, 45:1-4)

This Qurʼanic fragment contains the last verses (44: 56–59) of the surah (chapter) al-Dukhan (The smoke). Its verso continues with the beginning of chapter 45, al-Jāthīyah (The kneeling down). The theme of Surat al-Dukhan is how worldly pride and power fade to smoke in the face of spiritual truths and how men will meet God’s judgment in the Hereafter. The initial verses of al-Jathiyah discuss the material signs of God on earth, such as the presence of humans and animals. Below the chapter heading in gold, executed in pseudo-eastern Kufi script, is a cursive transcription of the same heading in blue thuluth. It states that the chapter consists of 37 ayat (verses) and was revealed in Mecca. The blue transcription was probably added at a later date to clarify the rather illegible surah heading, as well as to give the number of verses (although the numbers 30 and 7 are transposed in the transcription). The first verse of al-Jathiyah appearing after the initial bismillah (In the name of God) contains only the letters ha (h) and mim (m), a double-letter combination appearing at the beginning of surahs 40–46, all dated from the later Meccan period. These letters usually appear in various combinations at the opening of certain surahs in the Qurʼan. Because the exact meaning of each letter or letter combination is unclear, the letters are referred to as the mystery letters, an appellation suggesting that only God knows their meanings. The Qurʼan is written in dark brown ink on a light beige rag paper. The script is masahif. It is smaller than muhaqqaq and was used principally for the copying of Qurʼans. The diacritical marks are executed in the same brown ink, while three upturned gold-painted commas (or virgules) represent the verse markers. The layout of five lines per page is typical of 15th-century Qurʼans made in Mamluk Egypt (1250–1517).