This Qur'an from the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt provides a splendid example of a carpet page in an Islamic manuscript: the rich, ornate, ingeniously interwoven abstract patterns reminiscent of an exotic carpet.
Mamluk Qur’an. Egypt, 14th century Chapter 7, al-A‘raf (The Heights), verses 88–89
BL Or. MS 848, 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.
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.
What was the Mamluk Sultanate?
It was the greatest Islamic empire of the middle ages, occupying lands from Egypt along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to Syria and across the Red Sea.
In Arabic, Mamluk means 'owned', and was used to describe non-Muslim slaves brought to Egypt to serve as soldiers in struggles between Islamic rulers, in part to avoid the religious prohibition of Muslim fighting Muslim. Many Mamluks converted and, slaves no longer, were able to attain high positions. Eventually Mamluks took power in Egypt. After defeating the Mongol armies in 1260, they annexed strongholds across the eastern Mediterranean and took control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Cairo, the Mamluk capital, became the economic and cultural hub of the Islamic world. Architecture, manuscript illumination, textiles and glass-making evolved rich Mamluk styles that were influential even in Europe.
What is special about this Qur'an?
The first opening of this Qur'an manuscript contains all that remains of the double carpet pages and first page of text. The leaf that was originally between them has been lost. As in most Mamluk Qur'ans, the frame of the first text page is divided into three sections, the middle section containing the text within a flowing, cloud-like motif against a background of scrolls.
The general effect of the carpet page design is that of a rich tapestry, based on a 10-angled, star-shaped medallion with gold and white outlines extending to form a trellis of overlapping polygons, which alternate in gold and blue.
This was part nine of a Qur'an originally in 30 volumes.