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Sultan Uljaytu's Qur'an

This lavishly illuminated Royal Qur'an was commissioned by the Ilkhanid Sultan, Uljaytu (r. 1304-17). It was beautifully calligraphed by 'Ali ibn Muhammad al-Husayni. Laid out on a large format even by the standards of grand imperial Qur'ans of the time - 72cm by 50cm - it must have involved an enormous investment of high-quality materials, time and money.

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Sultan Uljaytu's Qur'an

Qur’an, Mosul, Iraq, 1310. Chapter 41, Fussilat (‘explained in detail’), verse 46
BL Or. MS 4945, ff. 2v–3
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.

Who was Sultan Uljaytu?

Genghis Khan's grandson Hülagü led a series of invasions by the Mongols into the Middle East in the 13th century, assuming the title 'Il Khan' ('Lesser Khan'). The name Ilkhanid refers to a branch of the Mongol dynasty. For a century after taking Baghdad in the 1250s, it ruled over Iraq, the Caucasus, parts of Asia Minor, and all of Iran. The arts, especially lavish illumination of holy texts such as this, flourished during the period. Baghdad was a major centre of activity.

The commissioning certificate of this Qur'an traces Sultan Uljaytu's ancestry back to Hülagü and Genghis Khan. Uljaytu's tomb is all that is left of Sultaniyya, in modern-day Iran. After it was founded by Uljaytu's father in the 1280s, the Sultan made Sultaniyya a capital city in 1313. The tomb was started in Uljaytu's lifetime. He was a recent convert from Sunni to Shia Islam, and intended it to be a shrine for the Shia saints Imam Ali and Imam Husayn. He planned to transfer them from their tombs in present-day Iraq (in Najaf and Karbala respectively, where they remain) but this never happened. The building ultimately became Uljaytu's own mauseoleum, which had in any case been his original plan.


The shrine of Imam Husayn in Karbala, present-day Iraq, painted in gold-tipped watercolour by Muhammad Yusuf in 1875

What is the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam?

Islam's principal division is between Sunnis and Shias. Their differences relate to the attitudes towards leadership of the Muslim community, not to disagreements over belief. The division arose in the very earliest days of Islam as we know it today, immediately on the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. He had not named a successor, and the majority (Sunnis) believed that whoever was best able to protect the faith should be the leader (Caliph). They elected Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet's closest companions, to the role, which was seen as political rather than spiritual.

The minority (Shias) believed that the leadership should stay within Muhammad's family and favoured Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law. For Shias the leader had not only a political role but was held to be divinely inspired, an imam. The Sunni-Shia divide was exacerbated when first Ali and later also his son Husayn, the Prophet's grandson, were murdered by other Muslims.

Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam, crosses the Sunni-Shia divide.

What characterises this Qur'an?

The opening pages contain the text in a central panel within a rectangular frame, written in gold muhaqqaq script with vowel signs in black ink. Muhaqqaq was a popular script for larger Qur'ans of the Mamluk and Ilkhanid periods, its angular and cursive features giving the calligrapher an opportunity to combine fluidity with rigidity.

The conventional use of panelling to carry inscriptions is integral to the rectangular frame surrounding the text, as is the decorative palmette that extends from each of the panels into the margin. The inscription in the top panels records that this Qur'an section is volume 25 of a 30-volume Qur'an, while the lower panels contain part of the 'throne verse' (chapter 2, verse 255). This is one of the few complete parts of this multi-volume set to have survived intact.