Al-Khatt Al-Jameel is a Sydney based private collection of Qur'an manuscripts that span more than 1200 years. Mohamad Ali is its Founder, Director and Curator who has been collecting and studying Qur’an manuscripts for 21 years.
We talk to Mohamad about acquiring the collection, the stories behind the collection and why preserving Qur’anic manuscripts is important for the future.
You have a collection of Qur’anic manuscripts, can you tell us more about how many pieces you have in your collection?
The collection is comprised of over 100 Qur’an manuscripts from across the Muslim world. The types of calligraphy used to scribe the Qur’an in the collection include: Kufic, Eastern Kufic, Maghrebi Andalusi, Maghrebi Sudani, Muhaqqaq Al-Mamluki, Muhaqqaq Al-Ussmani, Naskh, Naskh Ghubar, Thulth, Bihari, Sini and Rayhani. The provincial range of the manuscripts covers an array of Islamic Empires, including: Abbasid, Fatimid, Ayyubid, Seljuq, Umayyid/Cordoba, Ilkhanid, Mamluk, Safavid, Qajar and Ottoman, with a date range from 9th Century to early 20th Century.
Below: Some examples from our collection.
A Qur’an Folio in Kufic Script on vellum,
North Africa or Near East
9 th or 10 th Century A.D.
7 lines of a round style Kufic in black ink; red and green vocalisation markers. Fading of text on the hair side.
Sura: 4, Al Nisa (The Women)
Ayat: 171 (recto) – 176 (verso)
Size: 150 mm (w) x 110 mm (h)
Text Area: 100 mm (w) x 60 mm (h)
Fragments from a Seljuk Qur’an Juz on buff paper,
11th Century A.D.
5 lines of black Eastern kufic, vocalisation of red dots, other diacritical marks in green, opening folio with title of sura in yellow within panel on red-hatched ground issuing palmettes into the margins, gold inverted ‘ha’ between verses, staining and old repair.
Sura: 15, Al-Hijr (The Migration) - Ayat 1 – 4,
Sura: 15, Al-Hijr (The Migration) - Ayat 20 – 27,
Sura: 15, Al-Hijr (The Migration) - Ayat 50 – 54,
Sura: 15, Al-Hijr (The Migration) - Ayat 66 – 77,
Sura: 15, Al-Hijr (The Migration) - Ayat 82 – 86
Size of leaf: 90mm (w) x 135 mm (h) per leaf
Text Area: 58 mm (w) x 86 mm (h) (verso & recto) per leaf
Juz 14, of what was a 30 volume Qur’an
A folio from a Sultanate Qu’ran on paper,
15th Century A.D.
13 - 14 lines of bold Bihari script, Sura heading in gold thulth-style Bihari script set against a red, blue, gold and green panel. First line after Bismillah in gold, Allah’s name in gold throughout. Juz marker contained within a red, blue, gold and green teardrop marginal medallion.
Sura: 57, Al Hadid (Iron) – Ayat 27 - 29; 58, Al Mujadilah (She Who Pleaded) – Ayat 1 – 3
Size: 115 mm (w) x 150 mm (h) Text Area: 60 mm (w) x 95 mm (h)
How did you acquire the collection and are you adding new pieces to it?
The collection began 21 years ago. It came about as part of a study I undertook looking into the transcription of the Qur’an across the centuries. Personally, I am intrigued by provincial reckoning, spurred by the thought of the many lands Qur’an manuscripts may have travelled; as trying to trace an exact provenance of a manuscript can be a very difficult task, sometimes impossible, due to a number of factors, including, the travelling lifestyle of a calligrapher and the line of descent that their manuscripts came to be exchanged, inherited and traded.
I am also fascinated and excited by the prospect of investigating, learning and then theoretically piecing the narrative behind each manuscript that comes to be a part of the collection. The result often produces fragmented answers that themselves ensue far more questions than what I originally set off with; that can be attributed to the overwhelmingly anonymous nature of the Islamic artisan’s world, a world where insight is a rarity, but completion is incidentally a work of absolute brilliance.
The manuscripts in my collection have been collected from all over the world, previously under the custodianship of museums, libraries and other private collectors. The collection expands every year. I am constantly looking for pieces that, at a glance, the calligraphy itself makes for an opulent story, and upon closer examination, often reveals near perfect charismatic exertions that are legendarily exemplary of a people, time and place.
Why is the preservation of the Qur’anic manuscripts especially important?
Conservation of any artefact is important to the preservation of the veracity and candour of history. In the case of Qur’an manuscripts, conservation is important to preserving the cultural, social, political and religious attributes of the lands in which each piece came from, and just as importantly, the lands they travelled through. Surviving Qur’an manuscripts have lived nomadically since their inception by either the commissioner or the devout scribe. Calligraphers often commenced a manuscript in one land and concluded it in another, some years later. The calligraphy (main text and any annotations), ornamentation (including imperial seals), medium(s) (plural, if more than one medium was used to retain the integrity of the artefact), binding and residual surface anomalies (smudging, blotching, staining, foxing), of a manuscript all need to be carefully conserved. Each plays a testimonial role. Conservation is about protecting the manuscript in its present state (unless it presents us with a condition that could lead to its demise or cause uncertainty about a truth it beholds). That is when restoration becomes a requirement. There is an appropriate time for restoration. Sometimes, deleterious layers need to be removed and/or protective ones applied to retain integral features of the era(s) that the manuscript attests. For example, the green pigment (derived from copper acetate) used in the textual border of one of our Qajar manuscripts had deteriorated the paper medium to the point that the textual plate (surface area where the calligraphy has been applied) had become detached from the surrounding blank partition. This required a highly detailed restoration process, that involved deacidification of the affected areas, followed by the reinforcement of the two pieces of manuscript by mending (using Japanese organic cotton tape).
Do you share your collection with the public?
Yes, in various forms. Our manuscripts have been commissioned to be a part of exhibitions across the globe. They have also been featured in publications, in online forums, at Islamic art symposiums and on the rare occasion, they have travelled as a studying exhibition to a school, allowing students and members of the school community to mingle with, closely observe and marvel at the opulence and intricacies of the carefully hand gilded ornamentation and calligraphic forms that adorn this collection. Through detailed annotations accompanying each manuscript, the viewer has been able to develop an appreciation for and understanding of the contribution that the Holiest Book in Islam has contributed to theistic and art studies.
Above: Some of our manuscripts on display as part of a study seminar for students at a senior school in Sydney.
What are your thoughts on Qur’anic manuscripts in public collecting institutions?
I support all efforts that aim to conserve history. Qur’anic manuscripts are, as tangible relics, holy, but as artefacts, they are unparalleled objects that represent so much about how Islam spread and how religious practice was influenced. Styles of calligraphy and ornamentation across the ages were moulded and shaped by local culture, tradition and interpretation of the Qur’an.
It needs to be noted that the existence of artefact Qur’an manuscripts seems to be mainly concentrated across Europe, North America, North African Continent, South East Asia and the Middle East. Here we have to look at the key drivers of the dispersion: trade and knowledge. Recognition of Qur’anic manuscripts as treasured objet d’art dates back centuries in Europe and Arabia. There has always been a market there for the sale of manuscripts, and their subsequent acquisition by private collectors and public art and history institutions. Universities in Egypt, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, just to name a few, have provided course majors in the areas of Qur’anic calligraphy and ornamentation dating back centuries. However, some corners of the globe are still to catch on that Islamic art has a crucial role to play in a wider community, and therefore investment in artefacts for the purpose of serving knowledge about the pivotal cultural elements of the religion is yet to be locally emphasised. In Australia, for example, no museum, gallery or library has a modest collection of Qur’an manuscripts. No university has a course of study dedicated to specialising in Islamic art. That is in spite of the fact that there are over 600,000 Muslims in the population. It is through private and public holdings of Qur’anic manuscripts and other Islamic art forms that efforts to conserve Islamic heritage can be sustained.
Do you have a favourite manuscript in the collection?
Yes, my favourite manuscript in the collection is comprised of two folios from a Mamluk Qur’an (currently on loan to the Museum of Ancient Cultures, at Macquarie University in Sydney, as part of the East Meets West – The Crusades and the Age of Decolonisation Exhibition). However, before I describe the manuscript’s charismatic features, I need to contextualise these folios current condition with a little legend, derived from anecdotal Arabian tales of careless manuscript restoration efforts:
The local imam of a well-established mosque in Medieval Cairo was in the process of spring-cleaning one day when he sauntered on to the street to round up a group of young boys whom he could put to work for a scanty copper dirham. The task they were assigned was one that many modern day preservationists are aghast by. The boys were given a guillotine knife to do away with the fraying edges of a large stack of manuscripts that sat earnestly on the shelves for worshippers to use. “Make sure the pages are crisp”, he would have instructed them. And that was it! No further coaching about the task was given. Amongst this stack, rested a notable Qur’an, whose original dimensions were probably closer to 50 x 40cm per folio, in contrast to its dimensions today, which measure 45 x 33cm per folio. The Qur’an was scribed in an outstanding hand by Abdullah bin Al-Mansur Hashemi Al-Abbasi.
Al-Abbassi’s work was produced in a bold black, sword-tip-inspired, Muhaqqaq script. He adorned the pages with an array of marginal medallions. More specifically the 5th verse markers were embellished by a gold grounded tear drop cartouche bordered by overlapping saffron lappets, bearing the word ‘khams’ in an ornamental kufic. The 10th verse markers appeared as gold sun-shaped discs bordered by green lappets with the word ‘ashr’ in the same style ornamental kufic.
Al-Abbassi must have been a modest man as his generosity was noted in the finished piece by one word, ‘waqf’, which was emblazoned across the top of the verso of every folio in his completed Qur’an. ‘Waqf’ when translated means ‘gifted to a mosque, madrassa or khanqa’.
What gives this Qur’an prominence today isn’t just the anomalies with its diminished size and the striking nature of the script, but also the medium it was scribed on, a rare pink dyed thick laid paper that was then polished to give it a sophisticated charisma. A charisma that led a greedy antique dealer in the early 1900s to go one step further in the mutilation of the original manuscript by striping the text of its binding and selling the folios individually. Today, scattered folios exist in various Museums and private collections across the globe. Two single folios from this Qur’an came into our collection in 2009 and 2011 respectively.
Below: Detail of the 10th verse markers: gold sun-shaped discs bordered by green lappets with the word ‘ashr’ in a floraited kufic.
Which is the oldest manuscript?
The oldest manuscript in the collection is comprised of a two consecutive leaves from a Qur’an in Kufic, Near East or North Africa in provenance. These leaves date back to 8th or 9th Century A.D. Each leaf is scribed on vellum, with 14 lines of elegant sepia kufic, red roundel vocalization markers, gold terminal ‘ha’ shaped ‘khams’ (fifth verse) markers and gold and polychrome rosette 'ashira’ (tenth verse) markers. The use of horizontal letter stretching (mashq) and vertical letter forms, along with the calligrapher’s geometric rules of spacing are what give the style of calligraphy here its ornamental stature. The calligraphy is from Sura: 43, Al Zukhruf (Ornaments of Gold), Leaf 1, Ayat: (flesh side) mid 9 – (hair side) mid 24, Leaf 2, Ayat: (hair side) mid 24 – (flesh side) mid 40. Each leaf measures 200 mm (w) x 136 mm (h) in size, with a text area of 150 mm (w) x 90 mm (h). The small size of the text panel (per leaf), coupled with the fact that the text was scribed on parchment (a thick medium in comparison to the more contemporary paper medium), make it most probable that these leaves came from a multivolume Qur’an. Without a doubt the nature of the script used here and the intricate ornamentation express that this Qur’an would have also been a costly and time consuming project.
Above: a leaf as a bifolio (flesh side) Below: The leaf on the left is the verso (hair side of the leaf on the left above).
What are your hopes and aspirations for Qur’an Manuscript Studies?
For me, the study of Qur’anic manuscripts should commence with a focus on the script’s intricacies and aesthetics. The learner should start off by observing the detail and then trying to unravel the story or stories behind each manuscript. I like to think of each manuscript as legendary in its own right, even if the illumination is not as grand as other manuscripts in the same category. Each piece has its own mantle and therefore its own story, even though it may have a significant relationship to another piece or other pieces, this relationship is just another, of the many subplots in the overarching story.
Do you have any upcoming plans for the development of Al Khatt Al Jameel?
I consider myself very fortunate to be the temporary custodian of the Qur’an manuscripts in Al-Khatt Al-Jameel. As a private collector, my aim is to conserve and preserve, learn and share knowledge about these manuscripts. The next project I am planning is the creation of an online learning centre, where each of our manuscripts has been photographically documented, to allow learners from across the globe to have virtual access. The digital world is undeniably one of the best mediums today to be able to exhibit these manuscripts and share the knowledge they emanate. I will continue working with museums, libraries, galleries and schools in my quest to share these pieces. I have always been of the view that, although these manuscripts are in my possession, I am only provisionally holding them for generations to come.
What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you?
There is an extraordinary amount of knowledge, creativeness and heritage to be explored when studying any art form. But when studying the arts of Islam, and more specifically Qur’anic manuscripts, one soon realizes that in spite of conquer and conquest, plagues and famine, political and religious abdications, Islamic calligraphy always takes centre stage to reveal the magnificent and varied nature of the many cultures of the Islamic dynasties and empires. I am drawn to Nasser Khalili’s philosophy that through the study of Islamic Art we can learn more about the most misunderstood and naively referenced religion in the world. More so, Islamic calligraphy has had and will continue to have an enormous impact on the world through the various art mediums it has announced itself; and the various eras it has found prominence in, ancient, medieval or contemporary; and the range of purposes it has served, for secular or non secular.
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