Lot 10
  • 10

A rare and finely decorated Qur’an leaf in eastern Kufic script, Persia or Central Asia, circa 1075-1125 AD

200,000 - 300,000 GBP
377,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Ink on paper
  • 31.7 by 21.2cm.
text: surah al-ma'idah (V), part of verse 41
Arabic manuscript on buff paper, four lines to the page, written in fine eastern Kufic script in black ink, letter-pointing (i'jam) in black, vocalisation in red, blue and yellow, the entire background decorated with finely drawn floral and foliate scrolls in red ink on the recto and yellow ink on the verso, recto inner margins with gold scallops in gold, verso margins of strap-work against a gold ground, both sides with outer blue rules, with halved medallions stretching into outer margins


Fragments of only three sections of this Qur'an survive: juz' 6, juz' 14 and juz' 16. All those in Western collections are from surahs IV and V in juz' 6. The folios in both the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Cleveland Museum of Art were acquired in 1939, possibly from Kirkor Minassian, who supplied many of the institutional collections in the USA with rare books, manuscripts and calligraphy in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the Near Eastern manuscripts and cuneiform tablets in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. were acquired from Minassian in the 1930s.

Catalogue Note

This folio is an example of one of the most striking and beautiful Qur'anic scripts. It originates from a Qur'an of majestic elegance and breathtaking graphic power, and the decoration of the background of the entire text area throughout the manuscript marks it out as one of the most luxuriously decorated Qur'ans of the medieval period. The original manuscript was produced in thirty volumes, each containing around seventy-five leaves, giving a total of approximately 2,250 leaves (Saint Laurent 1989). It must have been a truly majestic sight.

The calligraphic display is characterised by acute angularity and an almost ethereal attenuation. The tall, slim vertical letters contrast with the compact and tightly controlled sequence of letters that sit along the line, out of which the sub-linear tails of letters such as terminal nun extend, urging the eye of the reader along the line of script with rhythmic elegance. The tall, strong verticals of letters such as alif and lam also set up a beautiful contrast with the more subtle circular scrolling tendrils of the background decoration. And yet where the script produces a lam/ alif combination the scribe has curved both verticals in a concave manner to meet at the top, producing a perfect pointed oval which lies between the circular motion of the background scrolling and the vertical thrust of the tall letters. It is a calligraphic display that combines elegance, energy, originality and immensely skilful execution.

In relation to the technical aspects of the script, Anthony Welch has observed that the vertical letters are six to seven times the height of the others, and that where the word Allah occurs, the double lam in the middle of the word, nestling below the majestic initial alif, forms a shape resembling the single lozenge mark made by the impression of the reed pen on the paper, which is the basic building block of Islamic calligraphy.  He suggests a spiritual aspect to the script in this context, where the foundation of the script (the lozenge dot) reflects the faith's true centre (Allah) (Welch 1979, p.64 and Geneva 1985, p.44).

Although other Qur'ans of the period show elegant calligraphic displays and fine background decoration within the text area (see Lings 2005, nos.12, 14, 15, 17, 21, 24) the majority have the background decoration only on selected pages, and in a more simple style of tightly scrolling whorls executed in one colour. In the case of the present Qur'an, every page appears to have been decorated with the more elaborate floral scrolls seen here, and it is to be noted that the colours used to draw the scrolling background alternated between the brown seen here, a dark red, and a pale blue (for example, a folio in the Aga Khan Museum Collection, formerly the Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection, see London 2007, no.5, p.34) The overall effect must have been truly breathtaking as the (no doubt princely) patron leafed through the complete manuscript.

The dating of the manuscript is based on two other Qur'ans which employ very similar scripts and decorative schemes, one of which was copied in 466 AH/1073-74 AD by a scribe called Uthman Ibn Husayn al-Warraq (Mashhad, Imam Reza Shrine Library, no.4316, see Lings 2005, no.14), and the other in 485 AH/1092 AD (Istanbul, Topkapi Saray Library, R14, see Lings 2005, no.16). The question of the geographical origin of this Qur'an, and others in similar scripts, is an interesting one. While more cursive and less vertically stretched versions of so-called 'Eastern Kufic' script (also referred to as broken Kufic, broken cursive, Persian Kufic, New Style and Qarmathian) were known and used in Abbasid Iraq and as far west as Sicily in the tenth and eleventh century (the well-known Palermo Qur'an of 372 AH/982-3 AD and the famous Mushaf al-Hadinah, or 'Nurse's Qur'an', made at Qairawan in 410 AH/1019-20 AD are examples), it does appear that Eastern Persia had a particular taste for, and skill in executing, the types of graceful, attenuated and graphically extreme versions seen on this folio, especially those with an emphatic vertical thrust.

The production of ceramics featuring elegant varieties of Eastern Kufic script in brown or black on cream grounds (known as Samanid epigraphic pottery) was a speciality of Nishapur and Samarkand under the Samanid dynasty (861-1003 AD) and represent some of the most elegant and arresting ceramics of the whole of Islamic cultural history (see, for example, London 1976, nos.279-281).

Other related examples of Eastern Kufic and ornamental Kufic script occur on Seljuk, Ghaznavid and Ghurid monuments in Eastern Iran and Afghanistan, and it is likely that the popularity of this type of script seen in the epigraphic tradition of this region was present in the Qur'anic calligraphy of the same period.

However, a more central geographic origin cannot entirely be ruled out, since there are examples of related scripts used in titles and headings of manuscripts produced in Iraq from the late ninth century onwards - the well-known Kitab al-Diryaq (Book of Antidotes), dated 1199 and produced probably in Northern Iraq (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, arabe 2964, see for example, Ettinghausen 1977, p.84), also employs a related script with a background floral scrolling decoration. Nevertheless, it has to be noted that most manuscripts from Iraq that employ this type of script do so predominantly in the context of titles and headings, rather than the main text, and by the mid-eleventh century in Iraq the calligraphic revolution set off by Ibn al-Bawwab's use of a small naskhi-style cursive script for his famous single-volume Qur'an of 391 AH/1000-01 AD (Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Ms,1431) had established the use of cursive scripts for the majority of Qur'an manuscripts in the central Islamic lands. Thus it remains likely that the Qur'an from which the present folio originates, and related types, was produced in Persia or Central Asia.

Another interesting aspect is the precise design of the background decoration of the text area, particularly the beautifully executed scrolling foliate motifs against which the script is set. A very similar motif is visible in one of the registers of the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan, built during the second half of the twelfth century (see Haussig 1992, p.85), perhaps strengthening the attribution of this Qur'an to an eastern Islamic origin. The scroll probably represents a stylized lotus scroll and, assuming that the date of this manuscript is the stated circa 1100 and the place of origin is indeed Eastern Persia or Central Asia, then it is interesting to note the spread westwards of this design, which appears in a very similar form in a Byzantine manuscript of Missals of the early thirteenth century (Moscow, GIM, Sin.604, see Dzurova 2002, no.106).

Other leaves from this dispersed Qur'an are in the following collections:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Minneapolis Art Institute; The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Cincinnati Museum of Art; Topkapi Saray Library; Istanbul; the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin; the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin; the David Collection, Copenhagen; the Keir Collection, London; the National Library Cairo; the Aga Khan Museum Collection (formerly in the Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection, Geneva); the Al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya, Kuwait.

For other published examples see Lings 1976, no.17; Lings 2005, no.23; Welch and Welch 1982, p.47; Atil 1990, p.113; Geneva 1985, no.13; Arberry 1967, no.37; James 1980, no.15; Robinson 1976, pl.139; London 2007, p.91; Blair and Blom 2006, no.5, p.34; Metropolitan 1987, p.33. For a full account and analysis of the manuscript, see St. Laurent 1989.

Folios from this Qur'an appear extremely rarely on the market. Only five complete folios have appeared at auction, all in these rooms: 22 April 2015, lot 61; 6 April 2011, The Stuart Cary Welch Collection, Part One, lot 15; 15 October 1997, lot 10 and 7 December 1970, lot 3 (two in the lot). The 1997 leaf is now in the David Collection, Copenhagen (see Blair and Bloom 2006, p.91). A fragmentary folio appeared in these rooms 16 October 1996, lot 7.