This rarely preserved Qu’ran folio is around 1,300 years old. As Frances Keyworth, a cataloguer in Christie’s Islamic Art department reveals, it is written in one of the earliest forms of Arabic script, on a page that was contained within one of the world’s oldest Qur’ans.
According to the Muslim tradition, Muhammad received the revelations that make up the Qur’an between 610 and 632 AD, the year of his death.
Over the following three decades, the revelations were unified and subsequently committed to writing. This came in two key stages. The first was during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr, who, fearing that parts of the Qur’an would be lost as those who had memorised it were dying, commissioned Zayd ibn Thabit, the former personal secretary of the Prophet, to collate the text.
The second impetus came under Caliph Uthman, who sought to establish a definitive version of the Qur’anic text as variations were beginning to be heard in the different centres of Islam. Again, Zayd ibn Thabit was called upon to supervise the task, and the resulting authoritative text was distributed while the variants were suppressed.
‘It’s written in hijazi, an early form of Arabic calligraphy from the seventh century that is noted for its vertical strokes’ — cataloguer Frances Keyworth
Scholars tend to agree that between four and seven complete copies of this authoritative text were made by 650. Each was sent to one of the main centres of Islam at the time, from Mecca and Damascus to Kufa and Basra, while another was kept at Medina.
‘Sadly, nothing from these authoritative Qur’ans has been confirmed to have survived,’ says Keyworth. ‘Crucially though, the text remained unchanged, passed down through copies like the one coming to auction.’
An early example of Arabic illumination
This substantial folio, which measures roughly 34 cm by 31 cm, is one of a handful of fragments to have survived from the copies made in the decades that followed the founding of Islam. It could even have been created by a scribe born in Muhammad’s lifetime, suggests Keyworth.
‘It’s written in hijazi, an early form of Arabic calligraphy from the seventh century that is noted for its vertical strokes,’ she says. ‘It remained in use until the eighth century, before gradually giving way to the kufic script.’
Remarkably, the majority of the text on this large folio has survived, displaying 18 out of the original 19 lines of script. They are verses 82-98 from Chapter 19 of the Qur’an, concerning God’s love for those who act righteously.
‘Running along the bottom of the folio there is also a small band of illumination — a geometric pattern that marks the chapter breaks,’ says Keyworth. ‘This has to be one of the earliest forms of Arabic manuscript illumination in existence.’
A handful of other known fragments
Some 38 fragments from these earliest Qur’an manuscripts are known to exist today. The majority are in museums — notably the British Library in London, the Vatican in Rome and the Tokapi Palace in Istanbul.
Two hijazi Qu’ran sections in particular match the size, format and style of this page. One is at Leiden University in the Netherlands, the other at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. ‘These pages almost certainly all came from the same original Qur’an and were possibly written by the same hand,’ says Keyworth.
Helpfully, the Leiden folio has been radiocarbon-dated to the second half of the seventh century, confirming that this page was made somewhere between the years 650 and 700.
‘The last time Christie’s sold a fragment from a seventh-century Qur’an, it achieved £2.5 million against an estimate of just £100,000’
‘People get incredibly excited when these fragments appear,’ Keyworth continues. ‘They’re of great importance to scholars and a highlight of any Islamic art collection.’
The folio in question was formerly in the private collection of Doctor Jean-Michel Thierry de Crussol (1916-2011), an authority in the field of Armenian and Byzantine art, and former lecturer at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures (Paris III, Sorbonne). The last time Christie’s sold another fragment from a seventh-century Qur’an, in 2008, it achieved £2.5 million against an estimate of just £100,000.
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The seventh-century hijazi Qur’an folio will be on view in London between 25 and 27 October, ahead of the Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds sale on 28 October.