It is written in the Qur’an that the prophet Muhammad turned to his followers saying: ‘Beautiful writing clarifies the truth’. It is the aim of the Oxford Ashmolean’s Al-Qur’an Al-Karim collection to explore that very possibility. Comprising little more than ten antique pages, two modern paintings and some folio artifacts, one might initially feel underwhelmed by this humble exhibition; however, the condensed nature of the exhibit is a strength rather than a weakness. Indeed, it allows for a clear focus and easy comparison of calligraphic styles which would be lost if awash with multifarious examples.
The word Qur’an comes from the Arabic word Qura’a meaning ‘to recite’. This is unsurprising considering that not only was the Qur’an not codified until after Muhammad’s death, completed finally in its present condition under the Caliph Uthman between 644-656, surviving through oral transmission until that time, but also the Islamic Adhan, ‘call to prayer’, which occurs five times a day for Muslims, includes the recitation of the Shahada, ‘the statement of faith’. Indeed, with Adhan having been by some scholars derived from the word Udun meaning ‘ear’, we get a vibrant impression of the importance of aural communication in Islam; the inception of the Qur’an supposedly having been when Allah told the Prophet to ‘Proclaim’ the word of God.
However, debate has raged over the true meaning of God’s request, with some suggesting that the word ‘Proclaim’ should be translated as ‘Read’; with this, the importance of the written document is given primacy in a world in which most were illiterate, including the Prophet himself. As such, the Ashmolean’s collection is arranged in chronological order, demonstrating the progression of calligraphic styles as each generation and nation sought to refine their own codified version of God’s word.
The kufic script emerged in the eight century as the preferred script and continued well into the twelfth century; however, the development of paper, in place of parchment, in the tenth century allowed for experiments with more rounded scripts. As such, six cursive hands were developed – the al-aqlam al-sitta or ‘six pens’ – which began to be adopted at various times and in various regions. The collection contains a beautiful example of the muhaqqah script which was predominant in Egypt and Iran from 1200-1400, considered by many to be the most majestic.
The calligraphy of a text is not the only means by which the scribes adorned their works, and there are interesting examples in the exhibition of illuminated writing. This, of course, differs greatly from those found in western manuscripts from the time, most notably owing to the fact that Muslims are forbidden from depicting in art the images of sentient beings. However, the inability to create images to adorn focuses the efforts of the calligrapher on the writing itself, with unsparing use of gold leaf to further impress.
W. J. Humphries