One of the most important manuscripts ever to be offered at auction, this is the only Qur'an firmly attributable to the Mongol realm of the Yuan Dynasty in China.
The colophon reads
"The book was completed through God's help and God's assistance by the weak, the one who turns to his Munificent Lord for mercy, Muhammad, son of Mahmud son of Ahmad known as Husam al-Usburki(?) on the eightH day of Jumadi II, the year 737 (12 January 1337) [who is] from the lineage of the son of the most exalted, the most noble, the most pure, the most glorious, the most the unique, the most bright, the most generous Muhammad son of the most excellent, the honoured confidant, the magnified, the ornament of [all] children, the pride of the merchants by the hands and he by the palms, the educator, the strengthener of the weak, the refuge of the poor Khawaja Yusif, son of the generous, the confidant and honoured nobility Khawaja Ibrahim al-Najjar (the carpenter), may God forgive him and his parents".
The text in the illuminated panel below reads "Its illuminator, Mahmud son o f Muhammad son of Husayn, known as "Fath'allah al-Bukhari".
Qur'ans written in thuluth are extremely rare, but the unique feature of this manuscript is the single-minded decorative focus on the basmallah at the start of each sura (chapter). Written in an increasingly inventive and audacious range of scripts, most are in variants of thuluth. In many cases, however, the imagination of the scribe has been given free rein, and the result must surely rank among the greatest calligraphic achievements of medieval Islam.
Each Qur'anic sura starts with a basmallah, which reads bismillah al-rahmani al-rahimi ("in the Name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful"). Commonly in Qur'ans this is given epigraphic significance by the lengthening of the ligatures between certain letters and the terminals of others. In almost all other cases, however, visual precedence is given over to the sura headings before them, often illuminated and in scripts different from the text itself. In this Qur'an, however, it is the basmallah which in every case takes precedence, in scripts up to five times as large as that of the text. Sometimes they are written in black ink in the same thuluth as the text; sometimes they appear in a curious ribbon-like variant, the thickness of letters changing greatly within the same word; in other places this highly eccentric script is left in reserve against a black or hatched ground, occasionally written in surprising directions- clockwise or anticlockwise rather than right to left; and sometimes they are written as if they were sura headings, in gold script within illuminated frames. Perhaps most striking is that, towards the end of the manuscript, where suras are shorter, one can find several of the above on a single page.
A TURKIC GROUP OF QUR'ANS
Although the script of the basmallahs themselves remains unique, certain other features of this Qur'an are shared with a select group of manuscripts also dating from the early 14th century. There are parallels for the script of the main Qur'anic text, written in a powerful thuluth verging on rayhani, with extravagant flourishes on terminal mims, for example, and with kafs surmounted by miniatures of the kufic letter, and also for the interlinear translation written in a variant naskh. The closest match, and similar in length (356ff.), though slightly smaller, is a two-part Qur'an, completed in the same year, now in the Mashad Shrine Library (illustrated in Y. H. Safadi, Islamic Calligraphy, London, 1978, no.31, p.52; David James, Qur'ans of the Mamluks, London, 1988, cat. 58 and fig. 124,p.176; also mentioned in Martin Lings and Yasin Safadi, The Qur'an, London 1976, no.109, p.72. The interlinear translation in that Qur'an is in Chagatay Turkic, but in a remarkably similar hand to that of the Persian translation in our manuscript. The colophon in the Mashad Qur'an, in both Arabic and Chagatay Turkic, tells us "This Final, Clear Book, with translation and commentary, was completed by the slave in need of the mercy of God, Opulent, Omniscient, Muhammad b. Shaykh al-Abari, known among his companions as Sayyid al-Khuttat after great effort and painful torment, transcribing from a faulty copy and worthless tract, which has been corrected as far as possible, in various tongues, with the aid of the Rewarding Monarch, 10 Ramadan AH737 [14 April 1337 AD]".
Not only are the two scripts of the text very similar, so too is the illumination. The division of the sura heading by three roundels within a rectangular frame is similar to the scheme on the illuminated double-page at surat mariam in the present manuscript; so too is the drawing of the palmettes within the roundels and the dense vegetal arabesque forming the rest of the decorative field. Likewise, the marginal palmettes and the florette verse markers are virtually identical.
There are 13 ajza' from another closely related 30-part Qur'an, mainly located in the John Rylands Library, that share so many similarities with the Mashad manuscript that it is attributed the same (or very similar) date by David James (D.James, op. cit., 1988, cat 59, pp.172-177, illustrated pp.172, figs.121,122, p.175 fig 123a, 123b.; D.James Qur'ans and Bindings from the Chester Beatty Library, London, 1980, no. 46, p.63). That Qur'an has both a Persian and a Turkic translation, the later said to be in a Qarakhanid late 12th/early 13th century dialect (D.James, op. cit., 1988, p.174).
Perhaps the most interesting link between our Qur'an and the Rylands sections is the large decorative roundels that precede the opening pages of both. In the present example, which one must assume was originally a two-volume Qur'an, a huge illuminated roundel is found immediately before surat mariam. This consists of a boldly drawn geometric motif comprising six smaller circles and two triangles forming a six-pointed star, the interstices filled with fleshy arabesques. This feature is echoed in each of the Rylands sections illustrated, in one case with almost identical components (see D.James, op. cit., 1988, fig. 123a, fig.13b.). Moreover, although handled quite differently in each case, the roundel is placed in a border of vegetal meander, within an outer border of out-turned palmettes forming pear-shaped projections. Also worth noting are the similarities between the panels of interlace and arabesque illumination (see D. James, op. cit., 1988, fig.122, p.172).
David James attributes the Mashad Qur'an to Central Asia on the basis of its Chagatay interlinear translation, a language which was increasingly spoken in the area to the north east of Khurassan following the Mongol invasion of that area. (D. James, op. cit., 1988, p.176). He cautiously attributes the Rylands sections to either Central Asia or Anatolia, the latter on the basis of the opening illuminations of each juz'. These, he says, recall those of a Qaramanind Qur'an made in AH 714/1314-15 AD (D. James, op. cit., 1988, p.176), but its calligraphy strongly suggests a Chagatayid provenance.
The Chagatayids (AH 624-764/1227-1363 AD, descendants of Chagatay, the son of Chingiz Khan, ruled Transoxiana, Mogholistan and eastern Turkestan. Theirs was one of the four khanates that between them divided most of Asia, the others being the Great Khans (Yuan Dynasty) in China, the Ilkhans in Iran, and the Golden Horde in Russia. By virtue of their key geographical position on the Silk Road, the Chagatayid realm was the conduit between the Iranian world and China (see Clifford Edmund Bosworth, The New Islamic Dynasties, no. 132 "The Chagatayids, Descendants of Chagatay", pp.248-9).
MONGOL QUR'ANS IN CHINA
The most unusual feature of this Qur'an, the extraordinary script of the basmallahs, cannot be explained by links to either of the two Qur'ans previously discussed. However, there are close parallels between them and an early Chinese Qur'an section from Beijing, dated 30 Muharram AH 804/9 October 1401 AD, in the Nasser D. Khalili Collection (Tim Stanley "China. Qur'ans of the Ming Period", in M. Bayani, A. Contadini and T. Stanley, The Decorated Word, Oxford, 1999, pp.10-13; Mikhail B. Piotrovsky and John Vrieze, ed, Heavenly Art, Earthly Beauty, Amsterdam, 1999, cat.61, p.117). The illumination of the present manuscript also shares similarities with that section.
The basmallahs in our Qur'an are written in a variety of scripts and often in unusual directions, frequently with curvilinear ligatures connecting different words. The most ingenious ones are those left in reserve against a black or hatched ground, the words are written in a rotating fashion, with individual vegetal features such as flowerheads and palmettes filling the interstices. The same elements are seen in the opening illumination of the Khalili section, which boasts an illuminated isti'adha written clockwise in a highly eccentric script within a central roundel. There is a clear link between the two, through which we can clearly see the makings of later ornamental sini script.
Moreover, the overall conception of that full-page illumination and the individual motifs from which it is composed are closely related to features seen in our Qur'an. The illumination of the Khalili section, with its single large roundel within a solid gold frame, the spaces filled with split-palmette decoration incorporating lotuses and other vegetal details, and dense interlace of the rectangular panels, together strengthen the links to the present manuscript. The colouring of the illumination in both manuscripts is comprised exclusively of gold, rust-red and blue, not paralleled in the two Turkic Qur'ans mentioned above, but a characteristic feature of many later Chinese Qur'ans. These last became somewhat conservative from the Ming Dynasty onwards, probably a result of their isolation from the mainstream of the Islamic world following the demise of the Pax Mongolica of the 13th and early 14th centuries.
As evidence of a tradition of Qur'an production in China predating the period of Ming rule, Stanley mentions the muhaqqaq-like script of main text in the Khalili section, which is clearly related to that in 13th century Iranian manuscripts and not unlike that in the present Qur'an (Stanley, op. cit., 1999, p.13). In the Greater Iranian world of the early 15th century, that script was archaistic. This strongly suggests a Yuan prototype.
When the Yuan Dynasty was replaced by the native Ming in 1364 AD there were approximately four million Muslims living in China. Founded by Kubilay Khan in 1260, the Mongol Yuan line,ruled an area approximating to the boundaries of modern China and Mongolia. The Mongol tolerance of other religions is well known. Incorporated into their armies were large numbers of Muslims from the western reaches of the empire, causing a massive increase in the Persian-speaking Muslim population in China during the 13th and 14th centuries. Accorded a privileged status second only to the Mongol ruling class, it was not unusual for Muslims to rise to some of the highest offices of state. One of Kubilay's commanders, for example, was the Bukharan, Shams al-Din'Umar, known as Sayyid-i Adjall (1211-1279). The high profile of Muslims in Yuan China finally provoked a backlash, such that under the Ming Dynasty they were excluded from public office and a policy of sinification was undertaken (Encyclopaedia of Islam II, "Al-Sin", Vol. IX, pp.616-625; Stanley, op. cit., 1999, pp.12-15). It is likely that the present Qur'an was made for a patron from among this powerful class of Muslims in Yuan China.
Our manuscript combines features of Iranian, Turkic and East Asian origin, and thus demonstrates that the Yuan period must have been an age of exceptional experimentation. It is an outstanding work of medieval calligraphy, and as the only known Mongol Qur'an from China, provides a unique and fascinating insight into the Islamicized pan-Asian Mongol world of the early 14th century.