From Copying to Burning the Qur’an: Creating Models & Transposing Sacrality (Alya Karame)

The Qur’an has been copied and mechanically reproduced for fourteen centuries across three continents. Its history, as a book, has been narrated through the lens of the politically powerful cultural capitals that once ruled the Islamic world and through their hegemonic aesthetic trends presenting the Qur’an as invariable. My project narrates an alternative history to the Qur’an by looking at the manuscript models that counter aesthetic and non-aesthetic established paradigms. Whether commissioned in the ‘periphery’ or as ‘forgery’, conceived as a notebook or amulet, gifted, treated in the museum or burned on the streets, these neglected Qur’an manuscripts reflect a process of selection and rejection from already existing traditions. By studying their modelling practices, the project understands the Qur’an’s re-production as a continuous shaping of the relation between the divine and the earthly. While new aesthetic rules, modes of thought and conventions develop, sacrality gets redefined in the material realm adding new roles to the manuscript, reflecting beliefs and articulating ideologies. 

Project description

My project focuses on Qur’anic production during an era of significant change, ca. 950-1250 CE, in the central and eastern regions of the Islamic world stretching from Yemen to Transoxiana. It entails an in-depth examination of the major technical and aesthetic changes that this period brought to the history of Qur’anic production. It is a period that stands between two hegemonic aesthetics: that of the Umayyads, the first Islamic dynasty who codified the Qur’anic manuscript in the 8th century CE, and that of the Mamluks who standardized the Qur’anic scripts based on strict rules in the 14th century CE. Coinciding with the disintegration of the Abbasid empire’s political and aesthetic control, these three centuries brought creative experimentation in the realm of the Qur’an, the development of regional visual trends, and witnessed the birth of the Qur’an as a book. 
One group of previously unidentified Qur’ans from medieval eastern Iran (at the centre of which is present-day Afghanistan) attests to the shaping of new Qur’anic visual trends that developed in the so-called peripheries, the lands of provincial rule. My first monograph, to be published in 2024 with Edinburgh University Press, entitled The Forgotten Qur’ans of the Medieval Eastern Islamic World: The Ghaznavid and Ghurid Dynasties, presents the study of this group of Qur’ans and questions the pre-dominant view on the relationship of the “centre” (the lands of dominant dynastic rule) to the “periphery” (provincial rule). The book places the history of the Qur’an at the intersection of local and global histories, and aims to reveal how objects and practices that are deemed “peripheral” were, in fact, models that challenge established paradigms by uncovering patterns of cross-fertilisation between Indic and Turkic-Persianate cultural productions. As such, the book decentralizes the artistic agency of traditional political capitals from which artistic excellency and a purportedly pure visual language is said to have spread and reclaims the frontiers as centers of cultural production. 

Another corpus of previously unstudied Qur’ans copied in the powerful cultural capitals reflects the loosening of the hegemonic aesthetic grip on the Qur’anic script and the experimental hybridity that proliferated in the central lands of dominant dynastic rule. This corpus of Qur’ans is at the core of my second book project. It presents us with examples of how the Qur’an was modelled to counter mainstream aesthetic fashions shaped in the dominant capitals. More specifically, they inform us of the hybridity in scribal traditions that signal an experimental phase. They also reflect the social and religious changes that were taking place around the Qur’an impacting its conception and use. 

As the research will illustrate, the period between the 10th and 13th century CE saw the birth of the Qur’an as a book creating a structure for different genres of manuscripts to develop in chains of transmission, often including ‘forgeries’. ‘Forgeries’ in Islamic medieval terms mean copying within one tradition, involving a process of selection and rejection. It is within this newly formed professional milieu for Qur’an production that the manuscript gained new roles. Elements for educational purposes, talismanic features among others became part of the Qur’an reflecting the practices and beliefs around it. These transformations echo the changing relation of the manuscript to its beholder, and of the divine to the earthly which reside at the centre of the Qur’an’s materiality and that we define as sacrality. Despite the fact that the notion of sacrality had to be transposed from the oral revelation to its physical manifestation then from one manuscript to the other and ultimately down to the mechanically reproduced manuscripts, new script models developed by inheriting ¬– selecting and rejecting – diachronically and/or synchronically already established traditions. This concern with transposing sacrality, was not central to the creation of new manuscript models only but survived in the afterlives of some of these Qur’ans when they were appropriated, offered as diplomatic gifts, dismembered, dispersed, sold and exhibited as supreme artistic achievements in the field of calligraphy and illumination, and even burned by the so-called Islamic State in 2014. It was these practices of engagement, narrated as part of the biographies of manuscripts, that injected new meanings of sacrality, often reflecting beliefs and articulating ideologies. 

Grounded in art historical methods, my research crosses disciplinary boundaries by borrowing from anthropology, Islamic philosophy, visual and material culture to study the Qur’an’s materiality, often diluting stark divides between the secular and religious spheres, the copy and the original, and the centre and the periphery. It is by highlighting the various channels through which the sacredness of the divine text and its physical dimension are separated and/or joined, I aim in my project to dissolve dichotomies and categorizations established in modern western scholarship on these notions that have been chained to the Qur’an and to Islamic art and material culture in general. As such, my project contributes to the emerging body of scholarship concerned with the study of manuscripts and books beyond stylistic taxonomies. It engages with the Qur’an as an object embedded in multiple practices, investigates its relation to other contemporaneous artistic productions, such as architecture and ceramics, and explores its shifting roles and uses across time and space, long after its initial production.

Author: Dr. Alya Karame