August 11, 2011

Surat al-Nas and Du'a

This fragment contains on the top line the last two verses of the final surah (chapter) of the Qurʼan, Surat al-Nas (Chapter of mankind). This chapter extols seeking refuge in the Lord from Satan, who, like al-jinn (the spirits), whispers evil things in the hearts of people (116:5–6). The verses at the top of the folio are separated by two verse markers shaped like gold disks with five blue dots on their peripheries. Immediately below the last verse appears a prayer in five lines praising God, the Prophet Muhammad, and all prophets, or al-mursilin (messengers) of Islam. This terminal du'a (formulaic prayer) continues in illuminated bands on the folio’s verso. The prayer is beautifully written in large Ottoman naskh in alternating gold and blue ink. This prayer is said upon completion of the Qurʼan, in which God is praised as the all-hearing and the all-knowing. It continues the initial, non-illuminated five-line prayer on the folio’s recto and serves as an appropriate closing to the Holy Book. In some cases, illuminated terminal prayers in rectangular bands, such as this one, precede a four-page treatise on how to practice fal (divination) using the letters of the Qurʼan. Although only one illuminated folio remains, it originally would have created a double-page illuminated du'a. This layout is typical of Safavid Persian Qurʼans from the second half of the 16th century, as well as Ottoman Turkish Qurʼans from the same period.

Safavid Qurʼan (2:11-27)

This fragment contains verses 11–21 from the second surah (chapter) of the Qurʼan, al-Baqarah (The cow), which continues with verses 21–27 on the fragment’s verso. Al-Baqarah appears immediately after the introductory chapter al-Fatihah (The opening) and, with a total of 286 verses, is the longest chapter in the Qurʼan. Its name derives from the parable of Moses and the cow mentioned in 2:67–71, in which is taught that people should not put forward excuses to justify disobedience. The surah is early Medinan and stresses faith and personal trustworthiness. The ten verses on this folio warn of the consequences of religious insincerity and duplicity. The fragment’s calligraphy and illumination are typical of Safavid Persia (1501–1722). Many Qurʼans were made for export in the southwestern city of Shiraz during the second half of the 16th century and contain similar motifs. These include gold painted flowers and vines highlighted in red and dark purple in the margins and calligraphy outlined in gold cloud bands containing orange and blue flowers. The lavish decoration on the margins sets the folio apart as one of the first folios of the Qurʼan’s second chapter. Subsequent pages, such as the folio’s verso, would not have included such lavish marginal designs. The script is rayhani, one of the six styles of cursive writing developed by the great calligrapher Ibn al-Bawwab, who died in A.H. 423 (A.D. 1032). It is most closely related to naskh and muhaqqaq, though thinner and smaller in scale, and was used for texts where readability was a necessity, in particular Qurʼans or, in the Ottoman tradition, other pious works such as Du'a-namahs, or prayer manuals.

Bismillah and Qurʼanic Verse (81:1-14)

This Qurʼanic fragment includes the bismillah (In the name of God) and verses 1–14 of surah (chapter) 81, al-Takwir (The folding up). These verses constitute some of the most graphic descriptions in the Qurʼan of Doomsday and the associated reversal of natural phenomena. The sun folds up, stars fall from the sky, mountains vanish, oceans boil over, and a blazing fire is kindled. Souls are sorted out and men’s deeds weighed so that “each soul may know what it has put forward” (81:14). The fragment shows a collector’s interest in preserving only verses 81:1–14, which present a complete picture of the eschatology. Neither the chapter’s title nor its subsequent verses, which move on to a different topic, is preserved. The calligraphy is in brown ink on its original laminated beige folio, with multicolored frames and blue-purple borders pasted rather clumsily. The calligraphy is executed in rayhani script, a writing style most closely associated with master calligrapher Yaqut al-Musta'simi (died 1298) and Qurʼans produced in Iran during the 13th and 14th centuries. The script is related to other cursive styles, in particular naskh and muhaqqaq. In contrast to these scripts, the sub-linear letters here display less depth of curve below the line, are more angular, and point to the left. Diacritical marks are executed with a finer pen than the letters; as seen in this fragment, these marks are much smaller, thinner, and in a lighter brown color than the letters on the main line of script. The verses are separated by ayah (verse) markers of simple gold circles outlined in dark brown ink. Above the verses appear a variety of recitation marks, mostly in red ink. Other marks in sloppy blue ink appear on the third line to elongate the “a” sound or add the last letter “s” to the truncated word “souls.” These added marks show that the fragment was used throughout the centuries.

Qurʼanic Verses (107-9, 110-112)

This Qurʼanic fragment’s recto includes surahs (chapters) 107–9: al-Ma'un (The assistance), al-Kawthar (The abundance), and al-Kafirun (The unbelievers). The last chapters of the Qurʼan tend to be Meccan and quite short, thus several can fit onto one page. They deal with sincerity in devotion and true worship and warn of persecuting men of different faith. The chapter headings are written in thuluth script. The top heading for al-Ma'un is executed in white ink, rather than gold outlined in black, and states that it is Meccan and consists of seven verses. Like the other headings, it appears above gold flower and vine interlacings on a red and blue background. Verse markers consist of rosettes in gold with red centers, with 12 petals outlined in black and blue and red dots punctuating the perimeter. The text’s rectangular gold and blue border is a bit faded. The verso of the fragment continues with surahs 110–12, al-Nasr (The victory), al-Masad (The plaited rope), and al-Ikhlas (The purity of faith), which discuss victory as given by God, cruelty as self-damaging, and God as the single, everlasting being. Surat al-Ikhlas appears in the lowermost portion of the folio. Its heading is executed in large thuluth with white ink, stating that the surah consists of four verses and was revealed in Mecca. As with the two other chapter headings on the page, the title appears on a bed of gold flower and vine interlacings on a red and blue background. The other two headings are written in gold and outlined in black. The calligraphy used for the verses is masahif, a cursive script that is smaller and less stiff than muhaqqaq. Its name, which means codices or volumes, reflects its common use for copying the Qurʼan. Masahif and other bold cursive scripts, such as naskh and muhaqqaq, are typical of Qurʼans produced in Egypt in the 14th–15th centuries.

Qurʼanic Verses (4: 94-100, 100-105)

This fragment contains verses 94–100 of the fourth surah (chapter) of the Qurʼan, al-Nisa' (The women). The surah addresses the social problems faced by the Muslim community and the need to establish law and order through regulated communal practice. It deals largely with women, orphans, inheritance, marriage, and family rights. These particular verses recommend leaving places hostile to Islam and praise believers who keep their faith when abroad. The verso of the fragment includes verses 100–105 from the same surah, which discuss religious duties during periods of war and suggest that at such times prayer should be carried out with vigilance. The verses are executed on brown paper in a script known as eastern Kufi. During the 10th–13th centuries, Kufi script underwent some variations in eastern Islamic lands (Iraq and Persia) that set it apart from its western equivalents. Many of the letters are drawn out at the vertical, have sharpened angles, and incline slightly, thus giving this script the name “bent Kufi.” The elongation of the letters occurred at the same time as Qurʼans began to be produced in vertical format (rather than oblong, as used for the early and some western Kufi Qurʼans) and the writing surface changed from vellum to paper. Qurʼans in eastern Kufi script, such as this fragment, typically were executed on medium brown paper. Many Qurʼans written in eastern Kufi, such as this example, bear the complete vowel system invented by the eighth-century philologist al-Khalil b. Ahmad, which set the standard for Arabic orthography for centuries to come. Unlike earlier Kufi Qurʼans, diagonal slashes representing vowels began to replace round dots. On this folio, verse markers are almost unnoticeable: they consist of small red circles with a plain center and appear as if added at a later date.

Anonymous Arabic and Persian Poetic Verses

This fragment contains an Arabic poem in eight verses in the center panel and Persian poetical verses in small rectangular registers arranged around the central panel and pasted above a light blue background. The Arabic poem stresses Muhammad’s ability to provide intercession for his community on the Day of Judgment. It is a kind of praise or request directed towards the Prophet that is seen in a number of other calligraphic panels meant either for public display or included in albums of calligraphies. The Arabic and Persian verses are executed in nasta'liq script, also known as ta'liq (in Turkey) and Farsi (in Arab lands). The term nasta'liq, which combines naskh (cursive) and ta'liq (hanging), refers to a blend of the two scripts believed to have been invented by the 14th-century Persian calligrapher Mir 'Ali Tabrizi. This fragment may have been produced in Persia in the 16th century. The central sheet of calligraphy consists of brown paper sprinkled with fine gold dust and contains five rough squares of gold leaf. The calligraphy panels are separated by gold lines outlined in black, forming rectangular frames for the Arabic verses. Around the central panel appears a pink border with floral designs executed in gold, with a light blue border with the 28 panels of Persian verses interlaced with gold vine designs. These calligraphic sheets are all glued onto a tan laminated paper decorated with gold-painted flowers, birds, and plants.