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Art of the Book : Quran & Calligraphy

Tonight is the start of Ramadan, and as our Muslim friends start celebrating, here’s a glimpse into the collection of Quran manuscripts from around the world along with some fascinating objects with calligraphed verses. Discover how the art of the book, and calligraphy evolved. Ramadan Kareem !

Pin It for Later: Read about the smallest, biggest and oldest Quran & see how different styles of calligraphy evolved – through Quran manuscripts displayed at museums.

It is tradition in the Islamic world (Surah-e-fateha), to begin every written document with the name of Allah. And so before I begin, I must type: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”. 

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12th century calligraphy of Surah-e-Fateha at the Salar Jung Museum.

The first verses of the Quran which were revealed to the Prophet at the beginning of his prophetic mission mentioned the art of writing

Recite, in the name of thy Lord Who created
He created man out of a leech-like clot.
Recite, and thy Lord is Most Bountiful,
Who taught (man) through the pen.
He taught man what he knew not. (Quran 96: 1-5)

#DidYouKnow : The word Kitab (book) is mentioned in 230 places in the Quran Click To Tweet

It is no wonder then, that those who practiced the Art of the Book, and Calligraphy , i.e the scribes became honoured members of Islamic societies.

Islam as a religion emerged sometime around the 7th century, and with it, began the serious effort to develop the Arabic Script. It became a prestigious task for calligraphers to convey the exalted words of the Quran as beautifully as possible.

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Since Islam does not permit illustrating holy texts with images of human figures the script itself became art.  Today, calligraphed pages of the Quran can be found in various museums around the world, and in this post, I would be highlighting some of my favourite ones!




The oldest script types (7th – 11th century) were the Ma’ili , Kufic, Eastern Kufic, and Maghribi . These were fairly angular. More cursive forms that were easier to write evolved at the same time and not all could be used to copy the Quran. At around the beginning of the 10th century, rules were formulated for how the cursive scripts – Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Rayhani, Tawqi, and Riqa – were to be written. This popularised the cursive scripts, as the earlier ones faded. For example, the Persian script Nastaliq developed in around 1500 and was used especially for poetry. Divani was the script of the chancelleries, and regional styles were also developed – Bihari in India and Sini in China.

Kufic Script : 7th – 12th century (Middle East, Africa)

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9th century Kufic script. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division.

Kufic script was the first formal calligraphic style and is named after the city of Kufah in Iraq.

This script is characterized by short vertical and long horizontal strokes though no pronunciation-marks  (that were later commonly used to distinguish among consonants and to denote vowels) are visible here. The verses above describe the nature of God and how He reveals Himself.

Following the introduction of paper in the late eighth century, 11-century calligraphers were able to write on relatively large sheets and experiment with the relationship of the text to the page as a whole. The verses here are from surah 8, entitled “al-Anfal” (the Spoils of War) and explain some of the advantages of military discipline.

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Eastern kufic script probably from eastern Iran. Late 11th century. Courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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The Salar Jung Museum (SJM), Hyderabad boasts of the oldest folio of the Qur’an on parchment in the Kufic script belonging to the ninth century, representing rare calligraphy work. The miniature Qur’an, measuring a mere two cm. by three cm. and printed in 31 folios is simply awe-inspiring. There are only two such minature Qur’ans in the world – one in Iran and another at SJM.

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a 7th century Quran at the Raza Library, Rampur Uttar Pradesh.


Check out this image I found of the oldest written Quran. A very old manuscript of the Quran, ascribed to Caliph Uthman, is preserved at Mashhad al-Husayn mosque in Cairo. It has 1087 folios, has a size of 57cmx68cm and weighs 80 kilograms.

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Maghribi Script, 11th century, Spain.

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From the Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia [12th-13th century]
As one of the most sophisticated cultural and artistic centers of the medieval Islamic world, southern Spain (Andalusia) and northern Africa developed their own distinct script, known as Maghribi.

Calligraphers in the Maghrib (i.e. North Africa and Spain) favored thin, light letters with deep, voluptuous curves below the line to create a rhythmic effect; it is void of decoration except for geometrial forms drawn inside circles and squares. This script is often decorated with pronunciation-marks in red, green, blue, or yellow, and with gold, as here. The Quran from which these non-continuous leaves were taken is further distinguished by its high-quality, pink-tinted paper.

Rayhani Script, 12th century Egypt

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14th century. Rayhani script. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division.

The above fragment includes Bismillah and verses 1-14 of surah 81 entitled al-Takwir of Folding Up. It is believed to have been made in Iran and is attributed to the style of master calligrapher Yaqut al-Musta’simi.


Muhaqqaq Script, 1300s

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Iran, 14th century Muhaqqaq script. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The above image is that of verses 79 – 80 from the chapter ‘House of Imran’. “Allah” is written in gold and this passage stresses the importance of submission to God.
By the thirteenth century, a number of more cursive writing styles had replaced Kufic as the preferred scripts for the Quran. One of the most prevalent scripts was Muhaqqaq, notable for its tall, slender verticals and sweeping sublinear strokes. The combination of horizontal-vertical letters made this one of the most popular, widely used and preferred script to be used throughout the Islamic world—from Egypt to India—for copying of the Quran. The other popular cursive script was Thuluth, used mainly for monumental inscriptions on objects, buildings, and chapter headings.

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Line in Thuluth script (13th c.)

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From the largest Quran ever recorded. One line measures 24 x 96.5 cm. Muhaqqaq script. Courtesy of the Nasser D Khalili Collection of Islamic Art. Provenance: Herat or Samarkand, Iran. 1400-1405 A.D.

According to the Nasser David Collection’s curatorial note,  the image above is possibly that of Samarkand calligrapher ‘Umar Aqta’, who was one-handed and left-handed. He was said to have written a Quran for Tamerlane that was so small it would fit inside a signet ring. When that failed to impress, he presented Tamerlane with a giant Quran, each line more than a cubit in length (the width from elbow to fingertip), which had to be delivered to the palace in a wheelbarrow. For this he was rewarded on an appropriate scale.

Nasqkh or Naskh Script

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Courtesy: The David Collection

The manuscript above was once in the Qutb Shahis’ library in Golconda, but fell into the hands of the Great Mughals when Aurangzeb conquered Golconda in 1687.
Interestingly calligraphers during this time wrote Quran verses on material other than paper too!

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Quran on Cloth | Aga Khan Museum

According to the publisher’s statement on this, the scribe Munshi ‘Abd Khan al-Qadiri, began this Quran on 3 Ramadan 1130 H/31 July 1718 CE and completed it on 5 Ramadan 1132 H/11 July 1720 CE. The challenges involved in writing on a painted cloth perhaps explain the amount of time it took to make. This Quran was presented to the then governor of Allahabad, Amir ‘Abdallah.
In the image below, present-day conservators are shown working on a Quran-on-Cloth . The cloth’s dimensions are 9.5 feet x 5 feet. Today these are of immense value not just because of their heritage and history but because of the special quality of ink used in them. Inks made of gold, silver, powdered gems and semi-precious stones, and even the mother-of-pearl were used  on this cloth-Quran.

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Conservators working on the antique cloth Qur’an at Chowmahalla Palace, Hyderabad, India.

This Jade armlet at the Solar Jung Museum has a minute Naskh-script inscription from the Quran and is encased in silver.
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However, this is not to say that the use of paper ended. Qurans were written by hand well into the 19th century, and many copies were produced in about 1800, when Kashmir was still under Mughals. The Kashmir ones differ from Turkish Qurans, which usually provide a date and name of the scribe. The type of decoration found on this double-page spread represents typical Kashmiri work of about 1800.

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Quran from Kashmir| Northern India, Kashmir, ca. 1800 | The David Collection

This Quran has been divided into sevenths (manzil), one to be read each day of the week, much like the Psalter.

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Kashmiri Paper Machie covers | Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

I also found this image from the Lahore Museum : A Holy Quran in Naksh, Scribed by Muhammad Jaafar ibne Muhammad Sadiq Isterabadi in 1164 A.H 1733 A.D at Arkat Fort INDIA

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Bihari Script, 1400s

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Qurans written in the bihari script such as this one have mostly been attributed to 15th century India. The letters’ exaggerated swoops give the impression of sailing boats. The outer border contains a Persian translation of the text in naskh script, in a zig-zag layout. India. Courtesy of the Nasser D Khalili Collection of Islamic Art.

This very colorful paper leaf from a Quran is written in Bihari– a local Indian variant of the classical Naskh. The lines alternate in blue, black, and gold. The leaf, which was trimmed, has two columns in its outer margin. The inner column has words from the text of the Quran written in red. The outer column has a commentary in Persian on selected words, which once again are highlighted with red. The large, colorful markers in the outer margin are not verse markers. They designate the end of a quarter hizb (a specific part of the text). They also show when the believer should bow.
Little gold rosettes with colored dots are the markers that denote the individual verses. Qurans written in this script are very rare. I’ve only seen two – one in Red Fort (Delhi), and at the Govt. Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh.

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Quran in Bihari Script , India | The Met Museum

Hybrid Scripts

Mixing two or more styles was not entirely uncommon.

This splendidly-illuminated folio from the Quran has three lines of Muhaqqaq and 12 lines of Naskh per page. The original work was most likely re-done in Mughal India under Shah Jahan.
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There are some Qurans from the time of Aurangzeb too! The calligraphic panels are arranged in matching pairs with identical illumination, mounted on double-page spreads. Have a look below:
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Qurans were frequently transported from one part of the Islamic world to another, encouraging the spread and development of certain calligraphic styles and formats. This folio was originally part of a now dispersed, thirty-volume copy that was transcribed in an unusual hybrid script, referred to by scholars as “thuluth verging on muhaqqaq.” The text, notable for the size of the script in relation to that of the folio, is framed with a kufic inscription set against a gold, floral scroll.

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Provenance: Probably Anatolia and India (14th-15th century). Rayhani, Muhaqqaq, naskh and kufic scripts. Courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Quran Adaptations

Such miniature Qurans were often made to be attached to the tip of Ottoman battle standards, and held high when charging into battle.

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Pen boxes were an essential part of a calligrapher’s equipment. In addition to containing an ink pot, a pen box would have held several carefully made reed plumes, a pair of scissors, a knife for shaping the plumes, and an assortment of other necessary items. Along the sides of the box an Arabic inscription in animated script is set against a scrolling background of animal heads.

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Calligrapher: Shazi. Iran. 1210-1211 A.D. 5 x 31.4 cm. Other/unnamed script. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution.


My favourite: This inkwell is one of the finest examples of hardstone carving in the medieval world.

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Kufic script, Iran (10 th century) | Courtesy of the Nasser.D.Khalili Collection of Islamic Art.

On the inkwell is written the Bismillah, as well as a Quranic inscription from surah al-Kahf (the Cave), verse 109:

‘Say: ‘If the ocean were Ink (wherewith to write out) The words of my Lord, Sooner would the ocean be Exhausted than would the words Of my Lord, even if we Added another ocean Like it, for its aid.’

Qurans at Museums in India:

The Salar Jung Museum  has a rich collection of exquisite volumes of the Holy Qur’an. It has 365 copies of the Quran in various caligraphy stiles, including the Kufic, Naskh, Nataliq, Raihan and Thulth scripts. Most of these are illustrated and decorated.
The Quran museum in Bhatkal has rare treasures such as the 1,000-year-old Quran scripted by Ibn Al-Bawwab, dated 413 Islamic Hijri (currently we are into 1435 IH), a prominent calligrapher who created a freer naskhi style. Then there is the Quran with every middle line gilded in gold. Another rare one, just an inch long, is one of the smallest in the world. It is 150 years old and comes from Egypt. Have a look below!

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The 150-year-old Quran which is only an inch long and the smallest in the world.

Rampur Raza Library : Established by the erstwhile ruler of Rampur, Nawab Fiazullah Khan in 1774, the Raza Library has preserved some rare collections like the seventh century AD Quran written on parchment in early Kufic script attributed to Hazrat Ali, an eighth century one by Imam Jafar Sadiq, and a copy of the ninth century Quran written on parchment  attributed to Imam Abul Hasan Musa. The celebrated scholar and calligrapher Ibn Muqla, who served three caliphs of Baghdad as prime minister and died on July 20, 941 AD, copied the Quran in the early Naskh style. His work is at the Raza Library too!

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A folio from the Quran manuscript attributed to Caliph Ali, preserved at Raza Library, Rampur, India

Learning  has no religious boundaries nor those of calendar months; and this is what I realised while making this post. If you enjoyed the post, please share it ahead and spread the learning.

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