By Holland Cotter
November 10, 2016
“The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery here, is
the first major United States display of handwritten copies of Islam’s holy
text. It’s a glorious show, utterly, and like nothing I’ve ever seen, with more
than 60 burnished and gilded books and folios, some as small as Smartphones,
others the size of carpets.
Flying carpets, I should say. This is art
of a beauty that takes us straight to heaven. And it reminds us of how much we
don’t know — but, given a chance like this, will love to learn — about a
religion and a culture lived by, and treasured by, a quarter of the world’s
The manuscripts, most on first-time loan
from a venerable museum in Istanbul, date from the seventh to 17th centuries,
and come from various points: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and
Turkey. Some volumes are intact; others survive as only single pages, though so
great is the Quran’s spiritual charisma that, traditionally, every scrap is
deemed worthy of preserving. And the Sackler curators, Massumeh Farhad and
Simon Rettig, give the material all the glamour it deserves, with a duskily
lighted installation in which everything seems to glow and float, gravity-free.
The word Quran (or Koran) is derived from
an Arabic verb for speaking from memory or reading aloud. And the book
originated with the sound of a voice heard by a man named Muhammad ibn Abdullah
near Mecca, the city in what is now Saudi Arabia. A trader by profession, he
was in the habit of spending periods of reflection in a cave outside of town.
On one visit, in A.D. 610, when he was 40, he heard a command, seemingly coming
from nowhere, in Arabic:
Recite! In the
name of thy Lord,
Who taught by
Taught man what
he knew not.
Fearing for his sanity, he fled the cave.
But he returned, and the voice, which belonged to the Angel Gabriel, spoke
again, bringing a message from God. The message named Muhammad prophet of a new
monotheistic religion and explained its tenets and beliefs to him. He began to
share what he’d heard, but encountered violent resistance, and had to move to
another city, Medina. The voice followed him there and would continue to speak
until Muhammad’s death in 632.
By that point, the new religion, called
Islam — “submission, surrender” — had found its footing and attracted
followers, though the words Muhammad heard had been only partly written down.
With the prophet himself gone, and his closest companions aging, there was fear
that the revelations would be lost. So a great effort of copying, collecting
and collating began, and by the end of the seventh century, the Quran acquired
something like a final shape.
A curious shape it is. About the length of
the New Testament, the book has 114 chapters, or Suras, all but one beginning
with the same invocation: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the
Compassionate.” Some chapters run several pages; others are just a few lines.
Many of the shortest are urgent and rousing: They seem to record what Muhammad
heard in those first hair-raising sessions in the cave. Yet they tend to come
toward the back of the book, while longer, later passages — about communal
practicalities and social justice — are placed up front.
There are many theories addressing this
ordering, but no final explanation. The Quran, like all foundational religious
texts, is a tangle of ambiguities and mysteries, to which endless annotations
can be, and are being, written.
And the pen, along with the voice, became
the book’s primary medium. The physical act of copying the text was thought to
bring blessings — Baraka — to the writer, though the earliest example in
the show looks like a quick-and-dirty job. Dating from the late seventh or
early eighth century, and found in the archives of the Great Mosque in
Damascus, it’s a time-stained parchment folio covered almost edge to edge with
Quranic passages. Written in an informal script, with chapter divisions barely
acknowledged, it looks more like a personal letter than like a religious text.
Over time, though, highly refined
penmanship styles, visual equivalents to the cadences of the spoken word, were
designed specifically for the Quran, and masters of those styles were revered
as cultural stars. So wide was the fame of the 11th-century Baghdad artist Ibn
al-Bawwab (“son of the doorman”) that his signature was routinely forged, as is
the case with a Quran in the show that bears his name but was copied by someone
One of his 13th-century Baghdad successors,
Yaqut al-Mustasimi, was comparably celebrated. When a Mongol army laid waste to
the city in 1258, his life was spared so that he could work for the new rulers,
which he did for years. Although very few genuine examples of his work are now
known, the show has one.
Largely because of its Quranic association,
calligraphy came to be regarded as the greatest of Islamic art forms, sacred or
secular. Spilling out of books onto wall tiles, ceramic vessels, glass lamps,
textiles, mosque domes and building facades, it was both a sensual and
ideological unifier, totalisingly utopian in the way that Mondrian’s
environmental Modernism would be.
Yet calligraphy was not the only
elaborating gloss applied to the Quran. After the introduction of paper from
China in the eighth century, copying the text on parchment — animal skin — fell
into disfavour, and all kinds of experimentation came into play.
Multivolume Qurans — 30 volumes was a
typical number, corresponding to the days of Ramadan — became more common as
paper made them easier to produce, and compact one-volume versions gained in
popularity. Size increased. The show has two pages from one of the largest
Qurans on record. Probably made for the Mongol emperor Timur around 1400,
they’re the equivalent of six-foot-high billboard advertisements for
institutional power: the power of rulers, patrons, artists, religion, the Quran
Over the centuries, the holy book became
increasingly treated as an aesthetic object and a ritual instrument. Symbols
were introduced to orchestrate the all-important recitation of its contents:
indicators of where to pause, where to place emphasis, how to pronounce words.
These signs, exquisitely painted, wreathed the text in networks of florets,
medallions and arabesques, done in lapis-lazuli blue or light-catching gold.
Material preciousness became an end in
itself, turning Qurans into prestige objects and political currency, valued as
diplomatic gifts, as war booty and as pious, grace-earning donations to mosques
and mausoleums. Many Qurans in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts’ collection
were transferred there from royal tombs at the turn of the 20th century, when
Europe was plundering Turkey for art.
The impression of the Washington exhibition
is of splendour, not just from book to book and page to page, but within
individual pages, with their nested divisions, their lustrous ornaments and
their sprouting, rolling, singing Arabic phrases, which form the ethical heart
of a faith and a culture. In a short video at the start of the show, we learn
how these elements work together: A male voice intones one of the Suras;
simultaneously, an animated version of the Arabic text appears, spelled out in
gold, on the screen, with an English translation below.
Once inside the show, though, we don’t have
the voice, and we only occasionally have translations. What we have are the
written words, which, for those of us who don’t read Arabic, we must accept as
examples of text-as-design. Is that enough?
The day I was at the museum, there were
just a few late-day visitors, and of those, several were women wearing hijabs.
I watched them as they looked intently at the manuscripts arrayed around us,
and I knew they were seeing things I couldn’t see, and feeling things I
couldn’t feel, because they could read the words.
I was aware — and this is an easy
perception — of the larger barriers of unknowing that stand between art and
understanding, and of the barriers that stand between cultures, barriers that
have, among other things, led our United States president-elect to propose
banning entry to this country for women like these, who cover their heads and
read a book that most of us don’t, and can’t.
Soon that president-elect will take up
residence mere blocks from the Sackler. This show will still be on then. Will
he see it? We can hope. But whether or not he does, some of us did, and stayed
a long time, looking at, and lingering over, miraculously beautiful things and
sharing, in different but not so different ways, the blessing that beauty
"Indeed, it is a Qur’an most noble,
In a Book well-guarded.
None but the pure (of heart) can touch it" (56:77-79)