Islamic Manuscripts from the Cleveland Public Library Collection
As one of the religions of the book, Islam has long sponsored the arts of the book. The Special Collections Department of the Cleveland Public Library holds an impressive collection of manuscript books from the Islamic world. Its origins lie in the John G. White Collection of Orientalia and Folklore, which was established by White for the Library in 1899. White concentrated on collecting primary source texts that would, in his words, “let Orientals speak for themselves.”
For Muslims, the Qur’an is the word of God as revealed to Prophet Muhammad. In the 800’s, the written Qur’an acquired a distinctive form composed of an angular script known as kufic, an open page layout, and a horizontal format. Around the year 1000, the cursive or naskhi script that had been used for other texts was standardized and applied to the Qur’an. The new manuscripts used a vertical format and had a much denser use of space that was accomplished either through the close spacing of the text itself or with elaborate decoration. The Qur’an manuscript page reproduced here shows the continuing use of these forms in India in the 1700’s. Elites of the Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman empires collected earlier Qur’ans, which they prized as the work of famous calligraphers, and sponsored the production of new manuscripts that refined upon these established forms.
Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity a concern over the use of representational art in religious contexts as potentially idolatrous, therefore Qur’an manuscripts do not contain illustrations. However, manuscripts of other texts from the Islamic world are frequently illustrated, as is demonstrated in this exhibit with copies of Nizami’s allegory of the Seven Princesses and Jami’s romance of Yusuf and Zulaykha. The story of the latter poem comes from the Qur’an and is its version of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife: Jami was influenced by Sufi mystics for whom Zulaykha’s pursuit of Yusuf is an allegory of the soul’s desire for God.
Marian Bleeke, Curator