The Qur’an, of which the present leaves form by far the largest surviving block, was one of the most impressive Qur’ans produced on vellum in the early Islamic period. It is conceived on a magnificent scale, not quite the largest, but still strikingly more impressive than almost all other examples. The leaves are large, but it is in the script that there is the most marked opulence in approach. While there are indeed 16 lines to each folio, the individual letters are frequently elongated such that on a few occasions a single word occupies a complete line. It is a very individual script, with various features not found elsewhere. The rounded nuns at the end of a word, the way the letters either side form a cup in which the raised fes rest, the trumpet-like lower strokes of the waws are all very idiosyncratic. The terminal yes running back under the word long beyond where the word started, meaning that the scribe had to think about the terminal before starting to write the word, also help serve to elongate the script. All indicates a project that was carefully considered, the scribe proceeding in an unhurried way, making sure that all was well-balanced. The script is so idiosyncratic and identifiable that, when he was dividing the various kufic scripts into different groups, François Déroche created a completely separate category, F, for the present manuscript, relating it only to two other manuscripts, one in the Topkapi Palace Library, the other an unpublished example in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Istanbul (Déroche, 1992, pp.120-122, no.66). The distinctive features are well clarified by Alain George (George, 2010, appendix, p.159.)
Few illuminated pages from this Qur’an have been published. However, with the present group of leaves, we are able to have a far clearer idea of how the Qur’an would have looked when first produced. It started with the carpet page that is included in this lot; we cannot preclude the possibility of further carpet pages or even pages with architectural designs preceding this (George, 2010, pp.53 and 54; Christie’s, 18 October 1994, lot 37). The opening of the text is on f.1v. as it stands now, but unlike in later Qur’ans there is no attempt to complete sura I, al-fatiha in one composition. It is enclosed within a broad frame of knotted strapwork. The text continued onto f.2 which again placed the text within a border of knotted strapwork, the illuminated band indicating the start of sura II, al-baqara running horizontally from side to side within the frame (Sotheby’s, 8 October, 2008, lot 1). The text continued onto f.3, both sides of which were similarly decorated with frames of knotted strapwork (Christie’s, 6 October 2011, lot 25). To date we do not know the whereabouts of f.4, to know whether the illuminated margins continued for another folio. The assumption would be, judging from the general tradition of Qur’an manuscripts, while allowing for the fact that this is earlier than almost all illuminated musahif, that there would have been at least one side that was illuminated, to face the preceding folio before moving to complete pages of text for the remainder of the volume.
Up until the appearance of this block, and with the exception of the heading for sura II, al-baqara, already noted, only three illuminated sura headings were known (Sura XX, Ta Ha – Sotheby’s, 29 April 1998, lot 2; sura XXII, al-Hajj – Christie’s 17 October 1996, lot 47; sura XLIII al-Zukhruf – Bonham’s, 1 May 2003, lot 1). The present block contains the headings for sura XI, Hud, sura XVI, al-Nahl, sura XXI, al-anbiya’, together with three other incomplete fragmentary headings, two on the same page due to the composite nature. All are of a similar form, an illuminated band running the width of the text block linking two marginal palmettes. The sura titles themselves are almost always inserted in red kufic, appearing almost as an afterthought – and the absence on one folio also indicates that they were not an essential part of the original composition. Those that have the sura heading panel at top or bottom of the page write the red kufic heading on the ‘outside’ of the illumination in each case.
Verse endings are indicated by groups of five diagonal lines. This is a very early feature, being found on the Tashkent Qur’an (see: Christie’s, 20 October 1992, lot 225 and 225A) and also on the Sana'a Qur’an with architectural opening (Amsterdam, 1999, pp.100-103, nos.36-41). In addition to these, there is a variety of illuminated motifs at the end of every fifth or tenth verses, including alif-like motifs, roundels, square panels, and linked roundels or square panels. The colours used throughout for the illumination are a green, a brown which may well originally have been closer to red, and a blue which has mostly disappeared, all within brown outlines.
When discussing the script, Déroche compares it to two inscriptions, one of which is dated 100/718-9, the other to 160/776-7. He also notes at the same time that the extended letters which are such a feature of this Qur’an 'seems to be present only in the material from Damascus' (Déroche, 1992, p.42). George develops the comparisons between architectural inscriptions and manuscripts, showing clear similarities between a Qur’an in the Bibliothèque Nationale and the mosaics in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (George, 2010, pls.50-51, pp.76-7). The pronounced large rounded 'ain that is such a feature of this script also appears on the mosaic inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (George, 2010, pl.2.41 and 42, p.65). The colours used, and particularly the use of entwined strapwork filled with small diaper pattern is also very close to that of a Qur’an given in waqf to the Dome of the Rock (Salameh, 2001, pp.47-55, no.5).
While individual leaves from this magnificent Qur’an have appeared in various sales, and exist in many collections, (see: the Al-Sabah Collection, the Brooklyn Museum, the David Collection, Copenhagen, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), it is exceptional to find a block of this size, more than doubling the number of known sura headings, clearly defining how the Qur’an started, and with the same extraordinary unique controlled but exciting kufic script throughout.