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Qur’an II, sura al-baqara, vv.74-81, Arabic manuscript on blue vellum, the folio with 15ll. of elegant red-outlined gold kufic, silver verse markers, 'ashr marked in the margin with a silver medallion
Folio 11 ¼ x 15in. (28.5 x 38cm.)
Sotheby's, London, 24 October 2007, lot 7
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Lot Essay

This folio comes from the Blue Qur’an, an important early manuscript, the origins of which remain the source of some debate. The colour of the vellum contrasts exquisitely with the gold calligraphy, making it one of the most distinctive of all kufic Qur'an manuscripts. Although the precise history of the manuscript is still the subject of discussion, there is wide consensus that the Blue Qur’an is one of the most important early Qur’an manuscripts and that the folios are a startling example of luxurious early Islamic manuscript production – made for a patron of considerable wealth and ambition. As discussed in a well-documented essay on a bifolio from this Qur’an published by Bernard Quaritch Ltd, ‘the cost involved in producing so luxurious a manuscript must have limited potential patrons to the caliph himself and other individuals of the highest rank’ (Stanley, catalogue 1213, p.7). Early literary sources mention Qur’anic texts copied in gold, the first of which is from Ibn al-Nadim writing in the 10th century, who attributes to Khalid bin Abi al-Hayyaj the gold inscription in the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina and the subsequent commission of a gold Qur’an by the Abbasid Caliph ‘Umar bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (Stanley, catalogue 1213, p.7).

The inventory of the library of the Great Mosque at Qairouan, compiled in AH 693/1293-94 AD mentions manuscripts copied in gold on black-blue dyed (ahkal) vellum. It is not entirely clear whether the inventory mentions one or two manuscripts as it has suffered some damage. In all probability, there are two manuscripts mentioned: one copied with five lines of gold kufic, the other (which sounds temptingly close to ours) ‘..in seven sections, in the large format, written in gold, in kufic script, on blue-black vellum.. the suras and the verse-counts, and the sixtieths in silver..’ (Stanley, catalogue 1213, op.9 and Bloom, 1986, pp.59-65). Bloom suggests that an attribution to Qairouan is likely, in large part due to an analysis of the alphanumeric counting system used on this manuscript to number the suras. The usual abjad system is not employed here; instead, a slight modification of this alphanumeric system, favoured in the Maghrib, is used (Blair, 2008, p.127). The use of a grid for the text, visible on some folios, also strengthens the link to the western Islamic world.

Over the course of the last century, the provenance of this now iconic manuscript has been much debated. The early 20th century scholar F.R. Martin suggested that the original manuscript was commissioned by the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun for the tomb of his father Harun al-Rashid. He developed this theory after acquiring a group of leaves from this series in Istanbul in 1912. He surmised that the blue was used as a symbol of mourning (Martin, 1912, pp.106 and 141). It is, however, far more likely that the use of the indigo-blue dyed vellum was intended to mimic the purple-stained luxury of Imperial Byzantine manuscripts. Whilst the dyeing of vellum was probably current in the Islamic period (there are accounts of tax accounts copied on saffron-yellow dyed vellum), in the 9th and 10th century there was no longer any direct access to the murex dye needed to produce the purple colour. As a result indigo imported from India was substituted (Blair, 2008, pp.126-27).

The initial assumptions about the manuscript made by F.R. Martin in 1912 were broadly accepted for the subsequent half century, such that in 1976, leaves from the Tunisian collections were exhibited at the Festival of Islam in London, where visitors were presented with conflicting information about the dates and origins of the manuscript (Sabini, 1976, pp.2-4 and George, 2009, p.79). This led to a new concentrated research endeavour, most notably in a series of articles by Jonathan Bloom, in which he offered his new hypotheses on its origins (J.M. Bloom, ‘al-Ma’mun’s Blue Koran’; J.M. Bloom, ‘The Blue Koran: An Early Fatimid Manuscript from the Maghrib’ in François Déroche (ed.), Les Manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, 1989, pp.95-9; J.M. Bloom, ‘The Early Fatimid Blue Koran Manuscript’ in Graeco-Arabica 4, 1991, pp.171-8). His main conclusion was that this was an early Fatimid manuscript made in the Maghrib before the dynasty conquered Egypt in 969 AD. This would be supported by the 10th century account of Ibn Zubayr who mentions Qur’ans written in gold on blue vellum in the Fatimid treasury. Although the interpretation of these literary references is unclear, Bloom uses this source to support the claim that the Blue Qur’an was copied for Fatimid Caliphs of the mid-10th century, Al-Mansur (r. 946-53 AD) or Al-Mu’izz (r. 953-75 AD) (Stanley, catalogue 1213, p.13).

Further observations by Tim Stanley suggested the Umayyad court of Spain as a possible production source, whereas Marcus Fraser suggested that it may have been produced under the Aghlabids or Kalbids in Sicily or North Africa (Stanley, 1996, pp.7-15 and Fraser and Kwiatkowski, 2006, pp. 44-48).

More recent research appears in a paper by Alain George. George disputes the association between the Great Mosque inventory and the Blue Qur’an, and dates the manuscript to the early Abbasid period. He postulates that the style of calligraphy and decoration relates to other examples of the early 9th century which would have been archaic by the mid-10th century (George, 2009, pp. 80-89). His conclusions add to the rich ongoing debate surrounding the exact origins of the Blue Qur’an, within the wide consensus on its status as a most extraordinary and significant medieval kufic manuscript.

The folios of this manuscript have now undergone a considerable diaspora, although the largest sections are in the national museums of Tunis. The earliest known pages brought to Western attention were those bought by F.R. Martin in Istanbul, although the current location of these leaves is unknown. Further folios from the same manuscript are held in the LACMA collection (inv. M86.196a), the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, in the Nasser D. Khalili Collection (KFQ53), a bifolio is published by Bernard Quaritch Ltd, catalogue 1213, item 12, pp.62-63. Others were sold at auction, see: Christie’s, London, 26 April 2012, lot 39; 27 April 2017, lot 18 and 19; Sotheby's London, 4 October 2011, lot 2; 5 October 2010, lot 7; and 24 October 2007, lot 7.

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