Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 19, 2018
Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig, eds. The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts Exh. cat. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2016. 384 pp.; 260 ills. Hardcover $50.00 (9781588345783)
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, October 22, 2016–February 20, 2017
Installation view, The Art of the Qur'an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, October 22, 2016–February 20, 2017 (photograph © 2016 Raquel Zaldivar; provided by the Smithsonian Institution)

The exhibition The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, on view just a few steps from the White House in Washington, DC, was the first major exhibition of Qur’an manuscripts in the United States, and timely in countering the fast-growing anti-Muslim rhetoric even though it was not envisioned with such an aim. Along with its publication, under review here, the exhibition offered a nuanced understanding of the Qur’an’s role in Islamic societies and revealed the artistry involved in its making.

Edited by the show’s curators, Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig, the book includes valuable essay contributions by François Déroche, Edhem Eldem, Jane McAuliffe, and Zeren Tanındı. The essays are followed by a catalogue section that contains selections from around seventy Qur’an manuscripts, copied between the seventh and eighteenth centuries, most of which were lent from the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum in Istanbul (TIEM), while the rest came from the collection of the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler. The Qur’ans from the TIEM were originally acquired by Ottoman elites, and many of them were donated to religious institutions throughout the Ottoman Empire before they were brought to Istanbul in 1914 to ensure their preservation. While Eldem’s essay, “The Genesis of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts,” discusses the formation of the TIEM collection and its role in the construction of a cultural Ottoman identity, the book does not present thorough research related to the provenance of Qur’ans in the Freer|Sackler collection. An exploration of the transfer of these manuscripts from the Islamic lands to the United States is still waiting to happen, especially since Charles Lang Freer, the American collector and businessman who founded the Freer Gallery of Art, recorded the source of many of the Qur’ans he had acquired. Such rarely available information not only facilitates research on the business of dealers and art markets of the first half of the twentieth century, but also unfolds stories about power relations between modern states that govern the circulation of the Qur’an. Having said that, the book provides a unique outlook on the Qur’an manuscript as a layered object, a perspective that Farhad unpacks elegantly in her introduction.

The oral dimension of the Qur’an as a recited text first and foremost is discussed in Farhad’s introduction, but its physicality is rightly emphasized as reflected in the agency of the artists producing the manuscripts or in the historical act of gifting them to religious institutions. By highlighting the importance of the Qur’an’s physicality in its study, Farhad suggests that narration of its “biography” is a way to uncover the various layers of meanings that each manuscript gained during its lifetime. As the author proposes, the biographies of each manuscript, traceable sometimes through signs on its pages, can help narrate the Qur’an’s performance in space and uncover its different roles—from an object of display to a support for public recitation. By tracing the Qur’an’s materiality and dissemination through history, Farhad reminds us that the manuscript has always been a mobile vehicle with shifting roles that are manifested in its oral/aural practice and in its spatial display. Such an enlightening and much needed approach bridges the more traditional codicological analysis and the study of the Qur’an’s reception in its wider social context.

The two essays by MacAuliffe and Déroche offer a general view on the Qur’an beginning with its formative period. While MacAuliffe’s essay, “The Qur’an,” lays the historical background of the Qur’an as text—its early collection, codification, structure, interpretation, and translation, among other issues—Déroche’s “In the Beginning: Early Qur’ans from Damascus” presents an overview of the evolution of the Qur’an manuscript from the late seventh to the eleventh centuries. Based on the collection of manuscripts originally gathered in the Great Mosque of Damascus, now part of the Qur’an collection at TIEM, Déroche’s paleographic conclusions paint a clearer picture of the Qur’an’s aesthetic and role during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods. Whether endowed to a mosque or commissioned for personal use, some manuscripts record dates that help establish chronologies of script and illumination. Qur’anic production during this period is still, however, not fully understood, and Déroche suggests that alongside the collection of the Great Mosque of Damascus the deposits in Fustat, Kairouan, and Sanaa can offer a better understanding of the role of the book, the diffusion of styles, and even the various readings of the Qur’an that existed during these early periods.

Rettig’s and Tanındı’s essays look at the aesthetic transformations of the Qur’an manuscript. In “Shaping the Word of God: Visual Codifications of the Qur’an between 1000 and 1700,” Rettig studies the evolution of the Qur’anic page layout between the eleventh and eighteenth centuries and uncovers the agency of artists in the making of the manuscript by looking closely at the aesthetic choices made by the calligrapher. These decisions and other, often neglected, elements—such as corrections, omissions, or additions to the Qur’anic text, or marginal insertions of commentaries and variant readings—reveal the various ways in which the Qur’an manuscript was used. As such, different layouts may reflect different usages of the Qur’an, whether it was commissioned for individual use, or used in religious institutions or for public display. By tracing the visual codification of the Qur’an from the Mamluk to the Ottoman periods, Rettig’s study of layouts uncovers the origin of the modern printed copy of the Qur’an, which is based on the one printed in 1923 in Giza. Rettig’s approach to Qur’anic layout is complemented by Tanındı’s study of illumination in Qur’ans from different periods. In “Illumination and Decorative Designs in Qur’anic Manuscripts,” she presents the development of illumination in relation to the patrons who commissioned the Qur’ans, the artists responsible for their production, and the travel of motifs from one region to another. As the author rightly suggests, local stylistic variations developed from a largely common Qur’anic visual language. However, given the constant movement of artists throughout Islamic lands, tracing the migration of styles and their impact in shaping regional trends of Qur’an production becomes a challenging task that needs a more exhaustive study.

While the essays offer a holistic view on the Qur’an from its formative period until today, their methodological approach illustrates how codicological analysis can be used to uncover different aspects of the Qur’an and point to the various ways in which the manuscript shifted roles in a constantly changing social, religious, and political milieu. This approach is similarly adopted in the chronologically arranged catalogue. With an aim to date, localize, and identify geographic styles of script and illumination, the catalogue section also explores the relation of the Qur’an to its environment by perceiving it as a tool to communicate political or religious power and as a platform on which beliefs are presented and religious debates fought. Each entry lists basic information about the manuscript—such as its size, provenance, date, and place of production (when available)—and presents analysis of the script, illumination, and binding, and also discusses the production, patronage, use, and role of the manuscript. Comparative analysis with aesthetically related Qur’ans and other artistic productions are presented to identify geographic styles and propose the date and the place of origin of each manuscript. Understanding the Qur’an as a layered object, as outlined in Farhad’s introduction, allows for consideration of its circulation, which embeds it with various meanings, that the catalogue uncovers in each entry.

While the essays and catalogue entries seek to answer important questions related to the Qur’an and to the methodology used in its study, it fails to include Qur’ans from the Maghrib (even though the TIEM holds two of the oldest dated Maghribi Qur’ans), leaving us with an incomplete view of Qur’anic production in the Islamic lands. Nevertheless, this book is without doubt an invaluable resource on the Qur’an manuscript and its role in Islamic societies.

Alya Karame
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin