This copy of the Qur'an, written in extremely fine nasta'liq is tremendously important in that are very few known copies of the Qur'an completed entirely in nasta'liq. The earliest copy recorded to date is one written for Shah Tahmasp by Shah Mahmud Nishapuri which is dated AH 945/1538-39 AD and which is now in the Topkapi Library in Istanbul (Martin Lings, The Qur'anic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination, London, 1976. no. 91, p. 190). That Qur'an is also published in Y.H. Safadi's Islamic Calligraphy (London, 1978, p. 28) where the author calls is "the only complete extant Qur'an in nasta'liq". Another section of a nasta'liq Qur'an signed by Shah Mahmud Nishapuri is said to exist in a private collection. One further Safavid nasta'liq Qur'an copied by Muhammad Husayn Damavandi and dated AH 1093/1682-83 AH is also now known (B. Atabay, Fihrist-e kutub-e dini va madhhabi-ye khatti-ye Kitabkhaneh-ye Saltanati, Tehran, 1352, no. 5). There are no other copies that pre-date the 19th century.
Under the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524-76), nasta'liq began to replace naskh and became the natural script for copying Persian anthologies, epics and other literary works. According to the classical tradition however, it was the six cursive scripts that were those reserved for copying Qur'ans. These were thulth, naskh, muhaqqaq, rayhani, riqa', and tawqi. Furthermore nasta'liq is a script designed for writing Persian and so to find an Arabic text, such as the Qur'an, in the script, is yet more extraordinary. A Qur'an in nasta'liq represents a remarkable and unusual counterpoint between the new and fashionable calligraphic style and a religious manuscript.
The strength of the nasta'liq in the present Qur'an is very much in the style of the masters of the script such as Sultan 'Ali Mashhadi, Shah Mahmud Nishapuri and Mir 'Ali. It demonstrates a power and elegance typical of the best contemporaneous calligraphy from Tabriz and Herat. Unusually the Qur'an has no sura headings although there are vacant illuminated cartouches that were probably intended to contain the titles. Another unusual feature is that the bismallah is written in a central panel, following the rules of nasta'liq, where letters are not usually elongated to fill a space. This is in contrast to Qur'anic convention where letters are extended to fill a line. The verse markers towards the end are incomplete.
On the basis of the strapwork borders that flank the calligraphic panels, the medallions set in the outer borders, the black outlines and the bright orange that is written directly on blue, one can attribute the illumination as the work of Herat or Tabriz circa 1525-50. The relative absence of black in the illumination suggests a Tabrizi rather than a Herati provenance. Examples of similar, contemporaneous illumination with all these features can be found in manuscripts including Shah Tahmasp's Shahnama attributed to Tabriz, 1522-35 and a copy of the Khamsah of Amir Khusraw Dihlavi attributed to Tabriz or Herat, 1530-40 (Jon Thompson and Sheila R. Canby (eds.), Hunt for Paradise, New York, 2003, nos. 5.3 and 5.5, pp. 140-141 and 146-47). On this basis, attributing ours to Tabriz circa 1540-50 seems reasonable.
The Last Part of the Qur'an
The final 48 folios of the Qur'an are later replacements. It seems probable however that the replacements were copied directly from the original (which presumably was not in good enough condition to be preserved). The restoration of the latter section of the Qur'an has been done conscientiously in a way that preserves as much as possible of the original. The majority of the marginal medallions and sura heading panels have in fact been cut out of the original and pasted into the new version. The colouration and design of the restored illumination panels indicates that the restoration is perhaps contemporary with the binding and the later owners marks at the beginning of the manuscript (dated AH 1241). The restored text of the Qur'an is also copied in a very strong nasta'liq hand that is very close to that of the original. In this conservative mode it seems likely that the restorer also copied the text and the colophon directly from the original manuscript. We have worked on this assumption.
The Colophon and the Scribe
Not many firm details are known about Mir Husayn al-Sahvi al-Tabrizi. One possible contender for the title, is Mir Husayn Husayni (known as Sahvi) who was a poet and whose only dated work is AH 992/1584-85 AD. He was reported to be a pupil of Muhammad al-Tabrizi. A Mir Husayn is also known to have lived in Tabriz until after the Ottoman conquest when he left the city and moved to Kashan - residing there until at least AH 997/1588-89 AD. According to Qadi Ahmed, he eventually left Kashan for India where he stayed until his death. He is reputed to have the closest handwriting to that of Mir 'Ali (Mehdi Bayani, ahval va asar-e khosh-nevisan, vol. I, Teheran, 1345 sh., pp. 153-4). These dates would make our Sahvi about 70 when he finally departed for India (assuming he copied the present work at around the age of 20), which would make him an elderly man but would render the journey conceivable. Mir Husayn al-Sahvi al-Tabrizi must therefore have belonged to the generation directly after that of Shah Mahmud Nishapuri and indeed, as a talented calligrapher, probably knew and was inspired by Nishapuri's famous nasta'liq Qur'an.
There are historical records of two Shah Bayg Khans in the 16th century. Both happened to hold their main post in Qandahar. The first ruled there until AH 927/1521-22 AD, when he was deposed by Babur. The second, Shah Bayg Khan Arghun, served there as the Mughal governor from 1594 (Samsam al-Dawla Shah Nawaz Khan and Abdul Hayy, The Maathir ul-Umara, translated by H. Beverdge, vol. 2, reprint, Delhi, 1999, pp. 740-42). Neither of these seem likely to be the patron as the first is too early and the second too late. No noble of that name is however recorded in Tabriz in the first half of the 16th century.
It is also possible that in the restoration of the colophon the calligrapher kept the attribution to Shah Bayg Khan, but inserted his own name. Indeed it has been suggested that the calligraphic style of most of this manuscript is very similar to that of Sultan 'Ali Mashhadi (to whom there is an attribution on the opening folio of the Qur'an). Indeed, many individual aspects of the practiced, elegant script support this attribution. If only the later pages (after folio 396) are by Sahvi, it is conceivable that the body of the manuscript could be by Sultan 'Ali Mashhadi (d. circa AH 920/1514-15 AD) and could as such be dated circa AH 915/1510 AD (and made for the first aforementioned Shah Bayg) and as such be the earliest Qur'an copied in nasta'liq.
On the fly-leaves both at the beginning and the end of the manuscript are versions of the Iranian emblem of a lion holding a sword in one hand with a sun rising from his back and topped with a crown enclosed within a circle drawn in gold and ink. The lion here is in fact drawn with stripes like a tiger, and is indicative of an Indian provenance. In both instances the emblems have a seal above, which gives the name of Sultan Muhammad Sulayman Mirza Safavi (who must be a descendant of the Safavids), and the date AH 1241/1825-26 AD.
This copy is at the least the second earliest nasta'liq Qur'an known. It is also the only complete Safavid nasta'liq Qur'an that could ever appear on the market.