Manuscripts of the Quran exist in many different sizes and forms: in single volumes and also in multi-volume sets ranging from two to seven, 10, 30 or 60 volumes. However it was not until recently, while working on Qurans in the Tipu Sultan collection, that I became aware of the popularity of 30-leaved Qurans, described as ‘si-varqī’ which were popular in South Asia from the 17th century onwards. These copies are based on the 30 equal sections juz’ (pl. ajzā’), designed to be read over a single 30-day month, notably the fasting month of Ramadan, with one juz’ spread over two facing pages.
The earliest reference to this format that I have come across is in the Tazkirah-ʼi khvushnivīsān, a biographical dictionary of calligraphers by the late 18th-century calligrapher Ghulam Muhammad Raqim Haft-qalami (Haft-qalami, pp 125-6, quoted by Bayani, pp.172-3). Haft-qalami writes that in the reign of Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58) a scribe called ʻAbd Allah, better known as ʻAbd al-Baqi Haddad, a particularly famous naskh calligrapher, came to India from Iran and presented prince Awrangzeb with a 30-leaved Quran and other manuscripts for which he was awarded the title Yāqūt-raqam before returning home again.
The earliest 30-leaved Quran that I have detailed information about is CBL Is 1562, in the Chester Beatty Library, which dates from before 1083 (1672/73) – the date of an inscription following the colophon. The illuminated opening contains the Sūrat al-Fātiḥah spread over two pages, while throughout the manuscript margins, delineated by ruled borders, are filled with stemmed flowering plants in gold (similar to those found in the margins of many seventeenth-century imperial Mughal albums) and simple gold medallions marking divisions of the text.
The British Library has altogether four 30-leaved Qurans, three of which belonged formerly to Tipu Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-99). Although undated, one, IO Islamic 1267, is stamped with the octagonal seal of a previous owner Zu’l-Fiqar ʻAli Khan 1141 (1728/29). The other two, IO Islamic 1376 and IO Islamic 3250, are probably more recent, but Tipu Sultan’s death in 1799 places them in the 18-th century or earlier. A fourth Quran, IO Islamic 3534, dated 1266 (1849/50), is much later and includes a Persian commentary in the margins.
These Qurans share many features typical of Indian Qurans such as the division of the text into quarters or eighths of a juzʼ and the use of interlinear rulings between each line of text. However one especially striking feature is the use of the letter alif at the beginning of each line, which occurs in two of our four copies. Such Qurans are today much prized and termed “alifi”. A search on the web reveals any number of deluxe printed editions. However “alifi” manuscript Qurans seem to be comparatively little known, or at least they have not been the subject of written research.
The largest of our four 30-leaved Qurans, IO Islamic 1376 (pictured above), is 43 x 23.2 cms, so from a practical point of view it would be quite easy to hold. The limitations of the 30-leaved format, however, required that the text be proportionally small making it therefore correspondingly difficult to read. Our copies were written in a small naskh hand although in IO Islamic 1376 and IO Islamic 3534 the top, middle and bottom line of each page has been copied in a larger script. This tri-partite division is particularly noteworthy, shared, for example, by only one of the 13 30-leaved Qurans in the Salar Jung collection. To save space the headings in three of the four are also quite minimal, placed in the upper margin above the text block so as not to interfere with the basic design of one juz’ per opening.
In terms of marginal decorations, only IO Islamic 1376 has the typical medallion-shaped devices which are a regular feature of Quranic illumination. The margins of IO Islamic 1267 are decorated with gilt floral arabesques on a blue ground in the opening and on a clear ground in the subsequent pages. The margins of IO Islamic 3534 contain a Persian commentary enclosed within gilt leaf-inspired edges, with occasional flowers and leaves interspersed.
Thirty-leaved Qurans were clearly a popular format. Although only four are preserved at the British Library, Charles Stewart’s 1809 Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore mentions six (out of a total of 79 Qurans or parts of the Quran in Tipu Sultan’s collection). There are descriptions of a further five in the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library, Patna, one of which (no. 1171) was copied in Muharram 1112 (1700) by the same calligrapher ʻAbd al-Baqi Haddad mentioned in the Tazkirah-ʼi khvushnivīsān referred to above.
Muhammad Ashraf, in his catalogue of the Salar Jung Qurans, describes 13 copies which include one (Ms 202, no 108), an alifi Quran dated 1109 (1697/98), copied by Muhammad Baqi in the island of Socotra. Four of the Salar Jung copies date from the 17th century, eight from the 18th and one from the 19th. Three of these are alifi Qurans.
For those interested in Quranic illumination and decoration in general there is an extensive literature available and Qurans have been the subject of several recent exhibitions including Sacred,at the British Library and The Art of the Quran: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. at the Freer Sackler. However the study of Indian Qurans has been much neglected with even less written on manuscripts from the 17th to 19th centuries apart from Manijeh Bayani and Tim Stanley’s work on the Khalili Collection. There is a vast amount of material available, however, leaving plenty of scope for future research by enterprising scholars.
This article first appeared on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog
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