Sultan Baybars' Qur'an


This seven-volume Qur'an was produced in Cairo for the Mamluk Sultan Baybars by the calligrapher Muhammad ibn al-Wahid and a team of illuminators. 

The manuscript is handwritten in gold, in a form of thuluth, a cursive Arabic script that was not frequently used for copying Qur'ans at the time. Each volume has an intricate frontispiece combining intricate geometric patterns with ornamental script. It took around two years to complete, and was finished in 1306 (705 in the Islamic calendar) when Baybars was a high-ranking court official. He later deposed Sultan Nasir Muhammad to become the first ruler of the Mamluk Sultanate.

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?

The Mamluk Sultanate was the greatest Islamic empire of the Middle Ages, occupying lands from Egypt 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 (to avoid the religious prohibition of Muslim fighting Muslim). Many converted and, like Baybars, obtained high positions. The Mamluks eventually took control in Egypt and later the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. This Qur'an is the earliest dated Qur'an from the Mamluk period and is one of the most beautiful in the British Library's collection.

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.

How can I see more of this book?

We have created a digital version of Sultan Baybars' Qur'an on our award-winning Turning the Pages. To hear a short curator talk about Sultan Baybars' Qur'an click here

Full title:
Volume one of a seven-volume Qur'an commissioned by Rukn al-Dīn Baybars, later Sultan Baybars II
Muhammad ibn al-Wahid [calligrapher], Abu Bakr [master illuminator], also known as Sandal
© British Library
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Add MS 22406

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