There’s no way to miss it when you walk into “The Art of the Qur’an,” the Sackler’s newest exhibit. It’s a Quran from 1599, and it’s the size of a table. And it weighs more than 100 pounds. And it takes more than one person to turn its pages. Where was the Nook when we needed it? “It took three big men to carry it,” says Massumeh Farhad, the museum’s chief curator and curator of Islamic art, adding that people (mostly royalty) commissioned giant Qurans — sometimes covered with so much gold they were rendered illegible — to show off their wealth and power. It wasn’t all just vanity. “They’d put the Qurans on display to be seen on special occasions, to be experienced by all five senses,” Farhad says, “a reminder of the presence of God.” “The Art of the Qur’an,” the first major exhibition of Qurans in the U.S., features more than 60 examples of the Muslim holy book from all over the Islamic world and from the eighth to the 17th centuries. Most are on loan from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul, which, Farhad says, has “the best collection of Qurans in the world.”
Near East, Umayyad period, before 725
The earliest Qurans date from the late seventh and early eighth centuries, not long after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. “People who wrote the first Qurans already knew the entire text by heart,” Farhad says. “This was just to get it written down.” That’s why these earliest examples often simply consist of handwritten — not calligraphic — text that covers the parchment from edge to edge. “Parchment was very expensive,” Farhad says. “You needed the hide from hundreds of sheep for just one Quran.”
Near East, Abbasid period, ninth century
By the ninth century, Qurans were written in a more codified script. The oldest Arabic calligraphic form, the kufic script (seen at left), was created specifically for the Quran. “The regular letters and spaces created a formal rhythm. It’s like putting recitation on paper,” Farhad says. “It’s beautiful but difficult to read, and there are only a couple of lines on each page — so many sheep!” Around the same time, illuminations — non-figurative drawings — also started to appear on pages in Qurans to help readers keep track of their place in the book.
Iraq, Baghdad, Il-Khanid period, 1307–08
The 10th and 11th centuries saw the spread of paper and more legible cursive scripts. This example is “considered one of the great masterpieces of Islamic art,” Farhad says. The written lines in this 30-volume Quran alternate between black and gold, all of them outlined in the opposite color. “There’s a lot of space around the text,” Farhad says, “letting it breathe.” This Quran has a long and complicated history, having changed hands numerous times and traveled the whole Middle East. It was at one time even owned by the Ottoman Empire’s greatest leader, Suleiman the Magnificent.
Iran, Timurid period, circa 1440
This Quran is small but really heavy, partly because it’s covered in gold flakes. “It’s made of bright Chinese paper, and all the pages are different colors, decorated with Chinese designs — fruit, landscapes and flowers,” Farhad says. She calls this Quran “a capsule of the interactions between China and Iran,” which traded considerably in the early 15th century. “There are other manuscripts that used this same paper. The early ones were bigger; they get smaller and smaller as they started running out of the paper.”