Script and Dating
This magnificent kufic Qur'an is of a rare type, bridging the gap between the earlier style, copied on parchment of horizontal format, and the later style of vertical composition, often on paper and generally written with what François Déroche terms the 'new style' of kufic script. Déroche has suggested that the change back from the horizontal to the vertical format in around the 10th century may have been implemented to accommodate the new use of paper in Qur'an production (François Déroche, The Abbasid Tradition, London, 1992, p.18). As such, a Qur'an like ours of vertical form, but still on vellum is both rare and probably representative of an early step in the innovative vertical development.
The script is without a doubt one of the most outstanding features of this Qur'an. Even blown up to the extent that it is on the front cover of this catalogue, it maintains its wonderfully tight configuration. Stylistically it is closest to what Déroche terms one of his 'early Abbasid scripts', which appears on a Qur'an bifolio in the Khalili Collection, dated to the first half of the 10th century (Déroche, op. cit., no.57, p.109). Interestingly that Qu'ran is also on vellum and takes the vertical format, and it seems likely that both are close in date.
In general composition this Qu'ran resembles another in the Khalili Collection (Déroche, op. cit., no.78, p.142-3). It shares with ours a size (it is slightly larger), format and style of sura illumination, although its script comes under what Déroche refers to as 'the new style' and is dated to the 10th century. This 'new style' is the third of James' three chronologically arranged groups of kufic script - the first two of which are 'hijazi', and 'early Abbasid'. Although a few examples of 'new style' script were known in the early 10th century, it wasn't until the end of the century that it became widespread and extensively used. Based on the script therefore, we can say that our Qur'an is earlier in date although probably a close precursor to the 10th century Khalili example (no.78).
This early 10th century dating is reinforced by a most unusual manuscript. The ornamental frontispiece of a Hebrew Pentateuch in the Department of the National Library of Russia (the Second Firkovich collection, Hebr. II B 17, flo. II) shares distinct similarities with the two carpet pages that mark both the beginning and the end of this Qur'an (Manuscripta Orientalia, Russian Asiatic Society, Vol. 12, No. 4, December 2006, plate 3). Although the frontispiece of the Pentateuch takes the form of a lozenge with a central roundel and emerging semicircles, whilst the carpet pages of our Qur'an are conversely constructed of central roundel with inner lozenge and radiating lines, the basic elements of which both forms are composed are similar. Both have thick double white lines of interlocking strapwork, with dark blue interstices. The ground on which both lie is composed of two-tone gold decoration, sometimes of dots and sometimes with vegetal motifs. Both of the illuminated areas are bordered with a thicker gold band that issue comparable palmettes with dark blue outlines and interstices into the margins. Whilst much of this is not particularly noteworthy in that the similarity is echoed in other kufic manuscripts of the period, the significance of the Russian Pentateuch (attributed either to Palestine or Cairo) is that unlike most kufic Qur'ans, it is dated. That date, which is given as 929 AD, and the similarity in illumination between the Pentateuch and our Qur'an reinforce the early 10th century date of the present example.
15th Century Binding and Inscription
Classic Islamic book binding as known from the 16th and 17th centuries find their roots in typical Timurid binding. Large stamps are used instead of tooling, leaving a finely sculpted impression. Qur'anic verses and Prophetic hadiths were also often applied in this manner either to the borders or along the protective flap (David James, Qur'ans and Bindings from the Chester Beatty Library, 1980, p. 118). The dark brown morocco binding of the present Qur'an has Qur'anic verses contained in cartouches around the edges. The spine of the flap has Qur'an, sura lvi, al-waqi'a, vv.77-8 while vv. 79-80 are around the back cover. In addition the calligraphy on the front cover reads 'In the hand of the Commander of the Faithful 'Ali, Peace be Upon Him'.
The verso of the final folio of the manuscript has written within an original frame a later owner's inscription done in large thulth and most probably consistent in date with the binding. Similarly the inscription reads, majmu'-e awraq-e in kalam ke maktuf ast be-khatt-e hazrat-e amir al-mu'minin 'ali karram allah wajhahu wa razi allah ta'ala 'anhu va panj varaq ast (The content of the folios of this Word of God, which is written by His Holiness, the Commander of the Faithful 'Ali - may God honour him and may the Mighty God be pleased with him - is five folios).
The propensity to attribute kufic Qur'ans to [the Imam] 'Ali, 'Umar, Hasan or Husayn demonstrates the importance bestowed upon them even as early as, in this case, the 15th century when the attribution was added. A kufic Qur'an section that was in these Rooms, 20 October 1992, lot 232 had a similar invocation to 'Ali on the final double folio and the extreme reverence in which it was held was deemed such that it was given by Shah Tahmasp to Sultan Selim II on his accession in 1568. The gifts given to Sultan Selim were arranged in lists in order of importance (since collated by J. von Hammer-Purgstall, Geschichte der Osmanischen Dichtkunst, Budapest, 1836), and it is known that the first, and thus most prized, item was 'a Qur'an, allegedly in the hand of [the Imam] 'Ali himself'.
A note in the archives of the Hispanic Society of America from Albert J. Léon, who sold the Qur'an to Mr. Huntington on 12 January 1897, reads 'In case you do not care much for the Kôran I sold you I shall be very glad to buy it back from you. I would never have parted with it were it not for the purpose I explained to you'.