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KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Spread of Islam, Qur'an, Arabic, calligraphy (maghribi), recitation
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS UNIT
This large leaf is a page from a manuscript of the Qur'an. The skilled calligraphy and elaborate ornamentation reflect the eminence of the Qur'an in Islam.
Large, richly illuminated Qur'ans like the one to which this folio originally belonged, celebrated the word of God and raised the written word to an art form. As manuscripts containing the literal word of God, Qur'ans have an indispensible function in both private and public Muslim religious life. They also support oral recitation: cues in the script helped the reciter identify key details such as where to pause and how to vocalize various letter sounds.
The chapter heading, Sura al-Zumar (The Crowds), appears at the top of the page in gold letters. Read from right to left, the title ends in a large circular medallion with an elaborate vegetal pattern that showcases the illuminator's extraordinary talent. Similar smaller medallions indicate the end of each verse, where the reciter is expected to pause. The blue and red dots that appear throughout the page help ensure the proper pronunciation of short vowels, which are not written out in Arabic. Their colorful and precise execution adds a further decorative touch to the page.
This manuscript was probably produced in Islamic Spain. It features maghribi script, which is characterized by cursive letters and swooping sublinear elements (see also Regional Scripts and Variations). The use of this script is typical of Spanish and North African Qur'ans, as is the use of parchment, which was unusual in other regions at this late date. The text includes the first, second, and part of the third verses of the Sura al-Zumar chapter of the Qur'an, which focuses on the centrality of God and Muhammad’s role as the Prophet.
While all Muslims are encouraged to read the Qur'an, correct recitation is a skill acquired through rigorous practice and schooling. In illuminated copies of the Qur'an like this one, elements that may look purely decorative, including the medallions mentioned above, often have practical purposes, such as marking the ends of verses. Because of the exalted place of the Qur'an in Islamic culture, illuminators often exhibited the finest accomplishments of their craft in these manuscripts.
Qur'ans come in many sizes. Very large Qur'ans sometimes serve for public recitation (see, for example, the massive Qur'an of Umar Aqta: 1972.279 and 18.17.1). Others are very small and could be carried on one's person (fig. 7).