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Sultan Baybars' Qur'an

Of all the British Library's collection of Qur'ans, this is the most magnificent. Each of its seven volumes is written in gold, and has a superb frontispiece combining intricate geometric patterns with ornamental script. It was made in Cairo between 1304 and 1306 (704-5 in the Islamic calendar) for a high-ranking court official called Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir, who later became Baybars II, ruler of the Mamluk Sultanate. This manuscript – written, unusually, in the cursive script called thuluth – is the earliest dated Qur'an from the Mamluk period.

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Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an

Sultan Baybars' Qur'an. Calligraphy by Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, illumination by Muhammad ibn Mubadir and Aydughdi ibn 'Abd Allah al-Badri, Cairo, AD 1304
British Library Add. MS. 22406, ff.2v-3
Copyright © The British Library Board

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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 CE 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 Baybars?

By the time he commissioned this opulent Qur'an, Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir had risen to one of the top administrative posts in the Mamluk Sultanate. He was responsible for organising the restoration of Cairo's al-Hakim mosque after it was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1303.

As the equivalent of chief-of-staff to Sultan an-Nasir, he wielded considerable power. When the sultan was deposed in 1309, he used it to seize the throne as Baybars II. His triumph was short lived. 11 months later an-Nasir returned, had Baybars put to death, and ruled for another 30 years.

Sultan Baybars was a staunch defender of Islam. He made legal the torture of those who turned from the true faith, yet he was also the first to allow brethren of the Christian order of Franciscan monks to set up small communities in the Holy Land.

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.


Sultan Hassan mosque in Cairo, Egypt, dates back to the 1350s, and is a fine example of Mamluk architecture

Who made this manuscript?

The text was copied out by a highly talented calligrapher called Muhammad ibn al-Wahid. This Qur'an is the only known surviving example of his work. He wrote in gold, using the 'thuluth' style of script usually reserved for ornamental headings. Thuluth is characterised by curved letters with barbed heads, often linking and intersecting in complex flowing forms. Its use throughout a whole Qur'an is very rare - an indication of the high status of this commission.

Lavish decoration was added by a team of artists headed by the master illuminator Abu Bakr, also known as Sandal. Its typically Mamluk style features gold filigree and delicate geometric patterns with 'kufic' script. In contrast to the flowing thuluth text, kufic script has square or rectangular letter forms with a strong horizontal emphasis. It was the dominant form of writing for Islam's first religious texts, and is named from the Iraqi city of Kufa, a major centre for Islamic theology and literature during the 8th century CE (2nd century AH). The flexible geometric form of kufic script lent itself to ornamental use in everything from textiles to architecture.

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