This page from a tenth-century Qur’an is part of a manuscript donated by Abd al-Mun im Ibn Ahmad to the Great Mosque of Damascus in July, 911 CE. Here, Surah (chapter) 29, ‘The Spider’, is written in curving calligraphic script. This Surah likens worshippers of gods other than Allah to spiders, suggesting that the protection offered by a false god is as flimsy as a spiderweb. The golden rectangle, with a brilliant orb at its right end and densely written script within, is the heading of Surah 29.
There is no figurative decoration. In this, the illuminated page conforms to the prohibition against graven images more explicitly than the other two works in this exhibition. Islamic artists were tasked with beautifying religious objects without using representational imagery; in the secular realm figures were acceptable, but sacred art typically followed the commandment more literally. The Hadith says, ‘Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created’ (Sahih Muslim, Book 24, Hadith 5268). Artists would be punished for presuming to create as God did when they were unable to bring those creations to life. This is close to the way that the commandment in Exodus 20:4 forbids the crafting of images of that which God has created.
So, Islamic artists developed elaborate decorative scripts instead. Such scripts provoked an initial backlash for defying the Hadith, but became increasingly popular and were soon accepted for their aesthetic value. Calligraphy was distinct from ornamentation because it was not an additive element, but merged text and illumination. Calligraphic writing glorifies the Word of God directly, instead of relying on additional decoration to beautify a more simple script.
The lines are not simply decorative, but are essential to the text. The word remains the primary element, and the decorative aspects are subsidiary, allowing Islamic artists to manipulate the visual form of the word and honour God through calligraphy. While some Qur’ans feature vegetal motifs and animals, the human figure was consistently avoided in sacred books and in architectural religious decoration.
Early Christian writers interpreted the second commandment as a reminder to ‘worship none other than the supreme God who made heaven and everything else’ (Origen, Against Celsus 5.6). This is an example of how artists in a different religious tradition sought to achieve the same end.
Chadwick, Henry (trans). 1953. Origen: Contra Celsum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Ettinghausen, Richard, and Oleg Garber. 1987. The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650–1250 (Penguin Books: England)
Siddiqui, Abdul Hameed (trans). 1971–75. Ṣaḥiḥ Muslim; being traditions of the sayings and doings of the prophet Muhammad as narrated by his companions and compiled under the title al-Jāmiʻ-uṣ-ṣaḥīḥ (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf)
Whelan, Estelle. 1990. ‘Writing the Word of God: Some Early Qur’an Manuscripts and Their Milieux, Part I’, Ars Orientalis, 20: 113–47
4 “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.