Art of Qur’an Frontispiece: Illumination of the sacred text

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

  • Introduction

Islam is a rigid religion and demands complete obedience to the way life is mentioned in the Holy book of Islam, the Qur’an.

I feel grateful that I finally am able to write about this topic in particular, since the Qur’an was the inspiration behind my practice in Islamic art. After every obligatory Islamic prayer (Salah), I take some time out to reflect on the beauty of the Qur’an.

Qur’an manuscripts have played a vital role in the rituals involving the recitation of the holy text. Since Islam prohibits the representation of the human or animal form in religious contexts, Islamic art finds its ultimate spiritual expression in beautiful calligraphy and illumination of the sacred script. The richly illuminated frontispieces of the Qur’an would emanate a golden and blue shine; this effect would collectively lift up the spirits of the congregation and inspire the believers to enter the doorway to paradise- the symbolism that is said to be the purpose of the illumination of the Qur’an manuscripts. The artists would render their different concepts of paradise visually through the art of illumination, either in the frontispieces or in the opening chapters of the Quran manuscripts. The language of illumination has widely expanded over centuries to include influences from cultures from various parts of the world. However, the main inspiration has been derived from certain themes mentioned in the Qur’an.

The language of illumination of the Qur’an is a vast subject and in this essay, I have drawn attention to the aspect of Qur’an frontispieces- about their history, production and rituals behind the ornamentation and its symbolisms, with examples from India and other parts of the world.

  • Illumination and Islamic Illumination- Meaning

Illumination is the art of applying gold or other metals to add reflection (illuminates) to the surface when light hits it. In the Arabic/ Persian culture, the art of illumination is known as Tezhip/ Tazhip/ Tadhhib which means ‘gilding’. An illuminated work is referred to only that which has been ornamented/decorated with gold. Islamic illumination simply means illuminating the Qur’an and other sacred manuscripts by the use of gold and decorating with geometric or biomorphic patterns, which usually follows hidden underlying geometric grids and ratios.

  1. Art of Qur’an Frontispieces

Over the course of ten centuries, Islam has developed a rich heritage that is visible in paintings, calligraphies and manuscripts. Since Islam prohibits the representation of the human or animal form in religious contexts, one reason for getting rid of human and animal-like identifiable forms is to emphasize the negative “namely, that of eliminating a ‘presence’ which might set itself up against the Presence- albeit invisible- of God, and which might in addition become a source of error because of the imperfection of all symbols”. Essentially, this avoids limiting God, in His Infiniteness of Space, Time or Form. The second reason is positive, which is to affirm God’s transcendence, according to what He says in the Quran (2:11)

“To God belong the East and the West; whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God; God is All-embracing, All-knowing.”

Hence, Islamic aniconism, by getting rid of this solidification of the Divine Presence in an image, ascertains the spiritual significance of the void in the Muslim mind. God is not to be associated with a particular plane of time, space or material sold because His Presence is all-encompassing and ubiquitous.

Islamic art finds its ultimate spiritual expression in beautiful calligraphy and illumination. The art of Qur’an illumination developed long after the art of calligraphy. Beautifying the Qur’an manuscript can be considered as an act of religious devotion and also has the function of facilitating the recitation of the Qur’an.

The Qur’an itself holds certain opportunities for the illumination of the text and the expression of the artist. The opening pages of the Qur’an, known as the Frontispieces, the opening pages of the first two Suras, and the subsequent Sura headings along with the marginal ornaments and the finispieces (the last two Suras)— these are the parts in the Qur’an which are commonly illuminated. Qur’an illumination emphasizes key words and headings. These are generally illuminated in gold or other colours, or written in a different script from the rest of the text, or sometimes even with a combination of all the three. The task of decorating the Qur’an is not a one-man’s job; it includes an illuminator to embellish the Qur’an and a calligrapher to write the Qur’an verses.

The Qur’an manuscript emerged as a thoroughly physical entity: a container

for divine revelation and on occasion, non-Qur’anic prayers, a material vehicle for the transmission of baraka (divine blessing), a bearer of the calligrapher’s trace, a site for the negotiation of and experimentation with aesthetic and linguistic practices and a statement of filial and political loyalty

Qur’an manuscripts are deeply layered objects; they are mediums for the divine words of God but they can also give voice to a diverse range of sectarian, devotional, artisanal and dynastic claims. Early kufic Qur’ans from the 9th century CE exhibit the beginning of illumination and decoration but from the late 10th century onwards, these were accompanied by more elaborate illumination. As the decoration became progressively complex, certain pages, such as the frontispiece, were treated more elaborately than others. Due to its lavish and costly production, an ornate Qur’an required a wealthy patron – usually a ruling sultan or an influential courtier – who gifted it to a mosque or other religious institution. The name of the patron is often documented in the volume, testifying to their power and piety.

In architectural terms, opening a Qur’an resembles entering the mosque or any sacred building, which opens the door to the paradise.


  • Numbers

In the Islamic art and architectural world, it has often been said that the usage of geometry represents fear or awe of God, Arabesque represents the love of God and calligraphy, the knowledge of God.

Geometry was widely used in Mamluk Qur’an frontispieces. The idea was to use something that will not diminish the sacredness of the holy book. Lings quotes “if a sufficiently powerful centrifugal movement can be set up in a given space, then it can be circumscribed without fear of limitation” , which means that the design is not limited to the barriers and the eye is forced to move across the page. Geometry itself is connected with numbers, and numbers in the Islamic world have deep symbolic meanings. For example, the number one forms a point, two points generates a line, and three points, a triangle and also symbolize heaven. Furthermore, the circle defines the unity of the unmanifested and the square signifies the unity of the manifested and a number of creation (the earth). Ardalan and Bakhtiar describe, “the square, the most externalized form of creation, represents, as earth, the polar condition of quantity, whereas the circle, as heaven, represents quality; the integration of the two is through the triangle, which embodies both aspects. The square of earth is the base upon which the intellect acts in order to reintegrate the earthly into circle of heaven.” Five relates to man, eight to the eight-pointed star that represents the Throne of Heaven in Surah al-Haqqa [Qur’an:69:17] wherein stated that “On the day of Judgement, His Throne will be carried by eight angels”.

Also, eight, the octagonal structure is a common symbolism in architecture; examples include the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Taj Mahal in India —the octagonal structure and the square base represent the heaven and the earth respectively. The number twelve represents the rhythm of the day and night, the monthly cycle.

In the above example, one can see a clear representation of an intricate frontispiece with an eight-pointed star combining geometric patterns with ornamental script. The eight-pointed star is also known as Khatam and this specific pattern depicted above, is also known as the “Breath of the compassionate”—the preparedness within a thing, its inner archetype, actualised in an intelligible form the moment when its name flows into it through a word. The Divine Spirit of the logos flows into a thing through the process of the Divine Breath, the Breath of the Divine Name Rahman, Compassionate

  • Colours used in the Frontispieces

Regarding the symbolism of colours, the main element used in Qur’an illumination is gold (therefore called ‘illumination’). It is the art of decorating the work with gold and various earth-based colours. As far as the illumination of the Qur’an was concerned, the Qur’an often speaks of itself as being as radiant as Light. The expenses of production was not a matter of concern and the illuminators lavishly used genuine gold for illumination. Lapis-lazuli (a semi-precious stone, crushed to make paints) was commonly used. Blue and gold were the primary colours usually used in Qur’an illumination, which also pose as symbols; blue is the colour of heaven and gold represents the sun, the source of light, a symbol of the spirit and a symbol of knowledge. Lings quotes, “blue in the presence of gold is therefore Mercy inclined to reveal itself ”.

Gold is also mentioned several times in connection with the objects that are part of the Garden of Paradise. Blue and gold are contrasting enough to enhance each other greatly but it has often been said that a third colour brings the perfect balance and, in that case,, red is often used with blue and gold. “Perfect balance cannot come by two but only by three”

Gold was used either as a gold leaf or by crushing the gold leaves with gum Arabic to make shell gold. Shell gold can be used just like paint. Burnishing the gold with a burnisher or agate stone helps to render its brilliance and it illuminates✨ (An example of a Qur’an with all of its frontispieces is seen in the next page, which highlights the symbolism that has been discussed above)

  • Forms of patterns used

Apart from geometrical patterns, the ones most commonly visible in the Qur’an frontispieces are the swirling and scrolling patterns. The patterns of flowers and vines are termed as ‘arabesque’ in the west and ‘islimi’ in the eastern world (Turkey, Iran and the Indo-Pak subcontinent). In Arabic, the pattern is known as tawrik meaning leaves, foliage or flora and consists of highly stylised forms that have developed from the abstraction of classical vegetal themes such as acanthus leaf, fruit, flowers and so on. It appears that this swirling pattern of flowers and vines has been inspired from a number of sources and events. The Arabs were conscious of the movements and rotation of the heavenly bodies: the earth revolves around the sun, the moon revolves around the earth, birds make their nests in a circular pattern, most of the fruits are in circular shape and not to forget, the circumambulation around the Ka’ba (the ritual movement around the Ka’ba known as the Tawaaf) which takes place throughout the year by millions of pilgrims visiting the Mecca Masjid.

In its more stylised versions, an arabesque in plant forms bears no more than a distant likeness to a plant, but it does represent a perfect transcription of the laws of rhythm into visual terms. Its unfolding is continuous, like a wave, with contrasting phrases having various degrees of resonance. The design need not be symmetrical, but to make up for this, it always has certain repetitions, whose rhythmic character is accentuated by the fact that the sounds and the silences are aesthetically equivalent. That rhythm does not belong to space but to time, of which it is not the quantitative measure but the qualitative one. It is by the mediation of movement that rhythm is re-established in the spatial dimension (T.B, pg-66).

In the Arabic/ Persian culture, the art of illumination is known as Tezhip which means ‘gilding’ and it was taken very seriously in manuscript illumination as it increased the value and amount of energy expended according to the status of the authority or the person who had commissioned the artists to make the Qur’an.

The arabesque is not a substitute for producing art without icons. In fact, it is a proactive effort of diffusing images in the mind, as the recitation of the Quran dissolves the obsession of the mind on an object of desire. The repetition of patterns in the architectural designs hints at the infiniteness of God. Islamic art, while fulfilling the negative implications of Tauhid (there is no God but God and there is no one like Him), also asserts the positive dimension which emphasizes not what God is not, but what God is. He is infinite (find verse) in every aspect- justice, knowledge, mercy, love and kindness. That is also why arabesque is also referred to as ‘infinity-art’. On the other hand, one should keep in mind that the motifs that remain same in all decorative arts and constitute the building stones of drawing, have been taken from the nature in a realistic way and complements the personal tastes and views of the artist. With the help of this stylisation or ‘bringing in of a style’, the motifs are neither copied from the nature nor are completely artificial figures created and therefore one can see both the nature and the artist’s work on them. These might be some of the forms that have inspired the artists.

  • Format of the Frontispieces

The formatting of the frontispiece is often done in a double page format. The double pages are an image of harmony wherein the eye travels through the beautiful ornamented pages, which subconsciously brightens up the mind with all the light that hits the illuminated pages and prepares oneself to recite the holy book. Ah the feeling, so pure!

Michael Sells quotes “but rather interiorising the inner rhythms of the Qur’an, sound patterns and textual dynamics—taking it to heart in the deepest manner”. He draws attention to the rhythming quality of the chapters of the Qur’an and states that the complex sound patterns and relation of sound to

meaning “what we call the sound vision of the Qur’an are brought out and cultivated in the Qur’anic recitation”, which is melodious and hymnic.

Laleh Bakhtiar suggests that the different patterns of the arabesque are a reflection of spiritual states, which are to be achieved during Qur’an reading and recitation.Furthermore, there are verses in the Qur’an that refer to the heavens being like a scroll which will be ‘rolled up’ on the day of judgement [Surah al-Anbiya, Q 21:104].

  1. History, Production and Rituals

The art of the frontispieces speaks outside of the Qur’an, that the frontispiece often resembles the gateway to heaven. The elaborate frontispieces, with full-page illuminations, are sometimes referred to as ‘carpet’ pages since their appearance resembles oriental carpet— an unfortunate term to describe the art of the frontispieces. Referring this sacred art to ‘carpet pages’ reduces this highly spiritual art to a simple decorative device. The term carpet page is also an offensive term to use for this spiritual art as the carpet is a floor covering and it defeats the purpose of these opening pages.

The story began with the Qur’an’s compilation as a written text during the seventh through tenth centuries. The first step in creating a book was to make the paper. During the ancient and medieval times, instead of paper, parchment (a thin material taken from the skin of an animal, usually a sheep or goat, which was used as a durable writing surface) was most commonly used, which only came into use in the broader Islamic world around the tenth century. In the Islamic world, paper was made from rags of linen and hemp, not tree pulp. The rags were cut into strips and softened in limewater, then pounded into a pulp and soaked in a vat.

To form a sheet of paper, a rectangular mould was placed into the vat and then left to dry. The water seeped out and the page hardened in the mould. Decorative touches were often added to the paper- some were tinted, some were sprinkled with gold and others were marbled.

After the paper was dried, it was prepared to receive ink and paint for further ornamentation by applying a thin layer of starchy liquid onto the surface of the paper, followed by burnishing the paper to make the surface smooth and non- porous. A scribe then prepared his ink (made of carbon boiled with gallnuts), made his pens and pressed guidelines into the paper. After the content of the Qur’an was written in beautiful script, the pages were passed to the illuminators. Most manuscripts are the work of a number of artists. A single page might sometimes represent a collaborative effort. Before starting to paint, the artist laid out the composition with a very fine brush. To create the pigments, the nature was the main source. Mineral sources were gold, silver, lapis lazuli, ground cinnabar (for vermilion), orpiment (for yellow) and malachite (for green).

These materials were expensive and sometimes even substitutes were used. Indigo was a common source of dark blue and azurite was used for a lighter blue. Verdigris produced green, and lead or a combination of mercury and sulphur created red. The pigment had to be suspended in a medium that allowed it to be brushed on to the page. Originally this was albumen or glue, which gave a glossy sheen to the paintings; after the sixteenth century, gum arabic, with a more matte finish, was used instead.

The brushes used were usually handmade using the hair of squirrels or horses or even kittens. The brush has been referred to as kilkalam (hair pen) in old references.

Illuminators and gilders added flourishes to the text, created frontispieces and finispieces and chapter headings, coloured frames and rulings. Finally, each of the gold illuminations was burnished with a hard stone or glass.

Regarding the rituals concerning the opening of the Qur’an, the first to be considered is the rightful way of touching the sacred book. Before it is opened, an intention (niyya) has to be made and then the ablution is performed by every Muslim prior to the obligatory prayer. The reason for this purification and niyya is not only to clean oneself with water but to spiritually prepare oneself to enter the Divine presence.

Styles used in Qur’an Frontispieces

  • Indian Qur’an

The Indian Qur’ans are extensively ornamented and decorated that at first glance, it seems difficult to notice whether there is any writing in the decoration or not. Also, we notice that the illuminated pages highly resemble the rugs and carpets of the culture. The forms used resemble the classic stylised and repetitive free flowing patterns of Tezhip that resemble the nature (flowers, folios and leaves) and the colours used are also very common among Qur’an manuscripts, such as the gold, Lapis Lazuli (blue), white and red.

The centre text pages of the Indian Qur'an are distinguished by their carpet page design. The text here is split up with alternating scripts in various coloured inks. The first, middle and last lines are written in muhaqqaq script, a popular style for large illuminated Qur'ans as its angular and cursive features gives the calligrapher an opportunity to combine fluidity with rigidity. These lines alternate in gold and blue on a white ground.

The two main panels of text are in black naskhi script on a gold ground with red and blue flowers. Naskhi is a cursive, proportional script, first developed in the 10th century by the

Abbasid vizier and calligrapher Ibn Muqlah (886–940), and later