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Javanese Qur'an

This simply, almost austerely decorated Qur'an comes from Java, and shows the extent of Islamic artistic influence in Asia. The paper comes from an unusual local source.

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Javanese Qur'an

Qur’an, Java, 19th century Chapter 1, al-Fatihah (The Opening) and the beginning of Chapter 2, al-Baqarah (The Cow)
BL Add. MS 12312, ff. 1v–2
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.

What is special about this Qur'an?

The decorated first opening of text here is unusual in the simplicity and starkness of its abstract design, with each ornamental frame - dramatically outlined in black and red ink - fully symmetrical on a central axis.

While the text area on each page is enclosed within a lozenge with a v-shaped indentation at top and bottom, the simplicity of the design, with its restrained use of colour, is maintained and remains uncluttered, despite the ornamental tendrils and finials, and the large and small semicircles that protrude into the margin.

What is the unusual local paper?

Java had a long tradition of longhand writing and manuscript copying, using a wide variety of materials. It continued even when printed books became common, right up to the 1930s. The professional scribes employed by courts or religious centres might chisel text onto stone, inscribe it on copper plates, engrave it on bamboo cylinders, write it on folding palm leaves, or use 'conventional' European paper.

Qur'an manuscripts in the Malay world were written on paper. Being locally produced, the paper used for Qur'ans in Java was of a particular kind called dluwang, made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree.


Villagers going to market in 19th-century Java, from a book of drawings organised by Colin Mackenzie

What is on these pages?

These pages contain Chapter 1, al-Fatihah, the opening of the Qur'an, and the beginning of Chapter 2, al-Baqarah.

Al-Fatihah is recited as part of the salat, the ritual daily prayers performed five times by every Muslim as part of the Five Pillars of Islam.

Al-Baqarah is the longest chapter in the Qur'an, with 286 verses. Its name refers to a dispute in the chapter between Moses and the Israelites over the sacrifice of a gold-coloured heifer intended to reveal the identity of a murderer.

How did Islam come to Java?

Islam came gradually to Indonesia, of which Java is the biggest island, from about 1200 with Muslim traders. By the end of the 16th century, Islam was established on Java and Sumatra. Indonesia is now the world's largest majority-Islamic country: nearly 90 per cent of its population of 245 million are Muslims. The vast majority are Sunni. A notable exception to the predominance of Islam in Indonesia is Bali, where over 90 per cent of the population of three million are Hindu.