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Kufic Qur'an

Early Qur'ans are important as evidence of the development of the written recording of Islam's holy book. This copy of the Qur'an in Arabic, probably from the ninth century, is copied on to vellum and uses an early script called kufic.

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Kufic Qur'an

Qur'an Verses 24 to 25 of chapter XXIX, al-'Ankabut (The Spider); verses 22 to 25 of chapter XXXI, Luqman. c.850
British Library Or. MS 1397, ff.18v-19
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Qur'an?

The Qur'an is the central text of the Islamic faith. Islam takes its name from the Arabic word for 'submission' since believers must submit themselves to the will of God - in Arabic, Allah.

It is believed to be the actual word of Allah, as revealed by the archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad from around 610 until his death in 632. This marked the start of Islam. Muhammad is seen as last in a line of prophets stretching back to Abraham, from whom Judaism and Christianity also claim descent.

Abraham was the leader of a group of nomadic tribes in the Middle East some 4,000 years ago. He established a religion that departed from other beliefs in worshipping just one, all-powerful god. The revelations of Muhammad were seen as a cleansing of Abraham's tradition, which had grown corrupt in Judaism and Christianity.

This heritage is reflected in the content of the Qur'an, which has much in common with the Bibles of Jews and Christians. The word Qur'an comes from the Arabic verb meaning 'to read' as it is designed to be recited aloud.

How was the Qur'an written down?

Few could write in the seventh century. The revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad were originally committed to memory by the early believers. Following the Prophet's death in 632, Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, instructed Muhammad's secretary, Zayd ibn Thabit, to record them in writing. The original compilation of the text was made from oral recollections, and from early transmissions written on fragments of parchment, papyrus, stone, camel bone, palm leaves and leather.

With the spread of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula, it became necessary to establish a standard text to preserve the sanctity of the message and to fix an authorised spelling for all time. This text was collated and codified by order of the third Caliph, 'Uthman ibn 'Affan, about 650. This is the authoritative text of the Qur'an to this day.

Picture of the swearing of allegiance to Ali at Kufah in the seventh century following the murder of 'Uthman, from a late-16th century Turkish manuscript on the martyrdom of Husayn

What is kufic script?

The striking angular Arabic script known as kufic takes its name from the Iraqi town of Kufah, one of the earliest centres of Islamic learning, and where the script probably developed. Kufic, literally, helped to shape the Qur'ans it was written in: because the script's vertical strokes were very short but its horizontal strokes elongated, it was written on materials in a landscape (wide) format.

Kufic Qur'ans of the ninth and 10th centuries were also characterised by the use of red dots to represent the vowels of the text and of short black diagonal strokes to distinguish different letters of similar shapes. In this copy, green dots denote the letter hamzah (the glottal stop, like the 'tt' in an Estuary-English pronunciation of the word 'butter'). Gold ornaments mark the end of each verse.