Islamic Manuscripts: A Brief History

Map of Islamic world in the 8th Century
Map of Islamic world in the 8th Century

The time period between the 6th and the 17th Centuries was varied and sometimes dramatic in this part of the world. Dynasties came and went, capitols changed and new trade routes opened bringing ideas and goods. The subject area of this blog is very broad, with no particular time period or country as a focus. Instead, the aim of this blog is to introduce you to Islamic manuscripts as a whole and illustrate the wide variety of styles, looks and techniques used to create them. Every manuscript is unique with many hands taking part in the production process. To give you an idea of the kind of materials that are included I have chosen three manuscripts to highlight some of the changes that took place in their production over time.

Image from the Chester Beatty Library.
Image from the Chester Beatty Library.

The first manuscript I would like to discuss is a 13th Century medical book that explores the health, diseases and treatment of the eye. The title is Memorandum for Oculists and it is from the Middle East. I chose this book as my first discussion topic because it is not a sacred work like many other manuscript texts. The volume is written in one column which may be a nod to the previous “book structure” the scroll. Notice the large capitols as well as the notations in red ink as well as the small diagram on the right. This was a textbook, laid out methodically for learning about a specific topic, without much decoration or flounce.

Qur'an, Mid 16th Century, Iran. Image from the Chester Beatty Library.
Qur’an, Mid 16th Century, Iran. Image from the Chester Beatty Library.

The second manuscript I want to show illustrates the differences between a textbook and a sacred text. Notice the large white boarders on the writing surface, indicating that cost of material was not of much thought. Many more verses could have fit on these large pages, however it was laid out with roomy boarders. Also notice that the text is still in one column, but it is now surrounded by a decorative boarder with titles in a variety of inks with gilding and geometric illustrations.

Devotional Biography of Muhammad, 1753, Turkey. Image from the Chester Beatty Library.
Devotional Biography of Muhammad, 1753, Turkey. Image from the Chester Beatty Library.

The third and final manuscript I want to use to give a general idea of the variety of Islamic manuscripts is the Devotional Biography of Muhammad. Notice how the entire page is filled with text and decoration. The format of the pages includes an inner column of text surrounded by a gilded board with a second column of text surrounding written on a slant. The single column format has practically been turned on its head. A second more elaborate boarder surrounds the entire page with decoration in several colors and plenty of gold leaf. This is the first opening of the volume, meant to be a show stopper, and I believe it is. Neither of the sacred texts shown include illustrations of figures, instead they focus on geometric decorations in keeping with the religious belief.

As trade routes opened and people moved around the region new styles and changes in format and structure of manuscripts changed as well. Characteristics of Islamic manuscripts can be seen in Western manuscripts and viceversa. I hope that the following posts give a basic idea of the tools, techniques and changes that took place in manuscripts over time. For more reading on Islamic manuscripts or for a few sites to fill some time be sure to click through to my resources and reads page. And if you have something to add please comment or visit the Papyrus Parchment & Paper Facebook page.

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