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Qur'an with Persian translation

This crisp and elegant Qur'an from India of the Delhi Sultans has Persian translations discreetly inserted between Arabic lines. It is an example of script used not only for decorative and explanatory effect, but also to highlight specific words or sentences, guiding the reader through the shape and flow of the text.

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Qur’an with Persian translation

Qur’an with Interlinear Persian Translation India, early 16th century.
BL Add. MS 5551, ff. 135v–136
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 relationship did calligraphy have to the sacred text?

Scripts in various styles and colours were employed not only for decorative purposes: they often had a more functional role, highlighting particular text. This was to help the reader to identify the hierarchy where there is more than one text on the page, and was particularly important for those pages that carry not only the sacred text, but also a translation of the original Arabic.

One of the most popular scripts for Arabic manuscripts of this period was naskhi, favoured for its legibility. It is a cursive, proportional script first developed in the 10th century by the Abbasid vizier and calligrapher Ibn Muqlah (886-940). It was later perfected by Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1022), the master calligrapher who continued his tradition.


Doorway at the palace of the mid-1600s Mughal king Shah Jahan in Delhi, India, which became today's tourist attraction known as the Red Fort

What is special about this Qur'an?

This Qur'an from India, copied around 1500 during the rule of the Delhi sultans, is a fine example of how script can be used for both visual appeal and functionality. The text, in black ink, is in a variety of naskhi known as bihari, named after the province of Bihar in northern India with which this style of script became associated.

Because the Qur'an is the word of God, and was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in Arabic, only the Arabic original version of the Qur'an has sacred authority. Any translation can only be considered an interpretation, and in many translations (such as here) the original Arabic is given in parallel.

The Persian translation is written between the lines and is penned in red naskhi in a minute hand (so as not to diminish the status of the sacred text). Emphasis is given to the word Allah (God), the name being highlighted in blue throughout the text, and in gold where mentioned in the pious basmalah or invocation (In the name of God) beneath the illuminated chapter heading.