Object: Religious Text

Persian: Page from the Qur’an
Levantine Area
ca. 11th century
Materias: Paper, ink

This page of the Qur’an includes verses 72-75 of sura 39 and verses 2-7 of sura 40 and is representative of many hand-written Qur’an manuscripts. Composed in the cursive style, the Arabic calligraphy serves as ornamentation itself, in addition to beautiful illumination.

The Qur’an is considered divine speech to adherent Muslims around the world, and its poetic, literary beauty is understood to be miraculous by believers and the supreme work of Arabic literature by scholars. This aesthetic value of the Qur’an is often overlooked, but is of utmost importance both religiously and historically. Indeed, Islamic art derives almost all of its inspiration from the beauty of the Qur’an, as exemplified by the prolific use of Arabic calligraphy – often verses from the Qur’an, the name of the Prophet Muhammad, or Allah – to decorate mosques and in visual art.

The illumination of Qur’an manuscripts is intended to reflect the beauty of the Arabic itself, the beauty of the content of each verse, and the visual beauty of the calligraphy. The written composition and illumination of Qur’an manuscripts, then, is understood to be a religious art, conducted not only by the most masterful calligraphers and artists, but also the most pious. Since the Qur’an is considered unsurpassed, and unsurpassable, in beauty by Muslims, simply to reproduce the words of the Qur’an is the highest artistic achievement. Indeed, given the skill required to produce these incredibly ornate manuscripts, it is not surprising that the epitome of Islamic art is Qur’anic manuscripts such as this one (see picture on right).

The verbal, or spoken, Qur’an also has an aesthetic value of its own. Prayer in the mosque, or outside the mosque, consists exclusively of Qur’anic recitation. The recitation of the Qur’an in prayer is very structured, with prescribed rules for every detail of the performance from the length of the verses to the pronunciation of vowel sounds. The rhythm of Qur’an recitation is quite musical, though Muslims are adamant regarding the non-musicality of recitation. This rhythmic quality is produced in part due to the complex rhyme structure of the Qur’an itself, but also due to the regulations for how Arabic sounds are to be produced during the recitation. To hear a prayer recitation click here.

[Allana Taylor]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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