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Gleaming beauty of Afghanistan’s ‘conflict mineral’

Quranic manuscripts exhibit possesses the capability to revive a love for the art of calligraphy

By Shazia Tasneem |
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PUBLISHED September 12, 2021

When it comes to the creativity of Islamic illuminators, one just should visit the National Museum of Karachi to take a glimpse the beautifully illuminated Quranic manuscripts. These manuscripts convey the sense as to how artists from Arab to Samarqand, Bokhara, Bulkh, Central Asia and Iran found different ways to honor the same sacred text of Islam.

While carefully observing the manuscripts, I was awestruck by the strong explosion of blue bursting out from some of the manuscripts. This blue pigment of colour was produced from Afghanistan’s mineral treasure of lapis lazuli, which has given a mesmerising effect to the pages of the Holy Quran. The stone has a unique feature of gold streaks striking through blue, which is not available in any part of the world. The splash of blue is extravagant in illuminated artworks adorned with a lavish use of gold and marjan or ruby. Although color of lapis lazuli has been used as a strong base to intensify the beauty of the copies, it is not hurting the human eye.

The Quran illumination is a comprehensive part of Islamic Arts preserved in the custody of the National Museum of Karachi. It reminds us of how much we don’t know but given a chance like this will love to learn about a religion, culture and creativity lived by and treasured by a quarter of the world’s population. At the Quran Gallery here is a major display of handwritten copies of Islam’s holy text. It’s a glorious show and utterly like nothing I have ever seen. The outburst of colours in the ornate pieces exhibits a common theme among the artists of all ages, while their concept and embellishment remained united with a single idea of reverence to the Almighty Allah (SWT), the Prophet (PBUH) and the principles of Islam.

The artwork of these rare manuscripts displays bright and blooming colours, and stand out from the pack of contemporary manuscripts as the producers of the past had an unsaid unison of deep reverence that cannot be seen or even touched. They must have felt with their hearts to unite together on a single page to create the masterpieces of documents. Written in finest quality of Kufic calligraphy and embellished with geometrical and vegetal motifs, these manuscripts are a kaleidoscope of gold, red, blue and rarely green.

To produce these costly manuscripts colours were generated from precious and semi-precious stones or metals. In most of the manuscripts gold dominated the scheme as inlay work and decorative designs made from pigments of precious stones like coral, ruby, cinnabar and garnets. But the magic of lapis lazuli appears as supreme force of creativity.

Source, importance, & feature of lapis lazuli

The finest azure lapis lazuli mine is in Sar-e-Sang, Badakhshan in the north east of Afghanistan, This mine was the main source of lapis lazuli since the earliest civilizations. The mine lies in the Hindu-Kush Mountains. Its importance in modern age emerged highly in 2012 when the US facilitated lapis lazuli corridor agreement of trade and transport Silk Road was signed between US, Afghanistan to connect central Asia with Europe. The beautiful stone hit the headlines again in early 2015, when the government of Afghanistan had banned lapis lazuli mining because the mines could not be secured.

Use of lapis lazuli in the Quranic manuscript

Afghanistan was a busy section of the Silk Road, a route that merchants have traveled over land between China, India and Europe for over 2,000 years. The stone is prized for its rich blue color and used in jewelry and other ornaments and traded along the Silk Road since ancient times. Using lapis lazuli for decorating the Quranic manuscripts became a culture at that time. When asked about its use in Islamic manuscripts former Director, National Museum Karachi, Dr Muhammad Shah Bukhari, who is also a scholar of Islamic calligraphy & manuscripts said, ‘use of gold, lapis lazuli and other precious stones’ colors had begun in the manuscripts, particularly in the Quran manuscripts in the second century A.H. (8th-9th c.e) when the Muslims had reached Seestan (Iran) and Khurasan (Afghanistan).’

‘Blue decoration is a mark of illumination and was extensively used by the illuminators of Persia, Iran, Afghanistan and others,’ Bukhari said. He also said that lapis lazuli and other stones from Afghanistan were used largely because Herat was the heart of creating illuminated and decorated copies of the Quran. Herat was once part of Iran and people there still speak Persian.’

About the choice of using lapis Bukhari mentioned that creative workers used to produce colours from precious stones for a long-lasting effect on hand made papers to illuminate the copies. They believed that vegetable colors were of inferior quality and could cause early deterioration of the whole manuscript.

Early Kufic Qurans from the 9th century CE exhibits the beginnings of illumination and decoration. The method was refined and decoration technique became progressively complex during late 10th century and onwards. This was the time when commissioned illuminators introduced Arabesque to the front pages. Due to the Islamic proscription on figurative images in religious contexts, the words of the Quran took on great visual importance with Arabesque, a theme of repetitive, stylised pattern of geometrical, floral or vegetal designs to decorate the front pages, headers and footers of the Surahs. This art led to an incredible degree of creativity.

Illumination of lapis lazuli in Kashmiri style of manuscripts is unique because of their artistry and decoration. They are beautiful as the region itself is. Floral and leafy motifs have been taken from the nature. The illuminators used to process expensive colors from precious and semi-precious stones while pure gold has been used to create the effect. They created superfine paper that can be compared with silk fabric. The lavish illumination found at the opening to the Surah Fateha, of this Quran is luxuriantly decorated in blue and gold palette, which is characteristic of the Kashmiri style.

Again, in the opening page of the Holy Quran in Naskh script with Herati (Afghanistan) style of decoration has a superb front piece and Arabesque on margin in lapis lazuli and gold. The piece is dated 11th CE and looks stunning in its extravagance and luxuriant decoration.

Nature remained a consistent feature in the work of the majority of the artists. Over time though, highly refined penmanship styles, colourful visuals creation strokes of the spoken word, were designed specifically for the Quran, and masters of those styles were revered as cultural stars.

The 300-year-old script of Tajalli Ali Shah is only one of its kind because of its paper, decoration, binding and calligraphy. Tajalli Ali Shah was the finance minister of Hyderabad Deccan. He was a poet and a calligrapher of highest order but his script is not available in India or anywhere in the world. Therefore, it is absolutely unique and rare. It is also a marvelous piece of art due its illumination of lapis lazuli motifs and designs.

The Quran illumination has made these masterpieces remarkable. The Qur’an can never be illustrated, so it was through illumination, whether using gold and other colors, that one could have decorated the holy text. Many of the manuscripts were really intended to amaze, whether by their size, their illuminations, calligraphy, choice of paper, or choice of ink.

Quranic verses were compiled during the period of the second caliph Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddique (RA). In the 2nd century Hijra, when Islam started flourishing outside Arab, keeping in view the difficulties of reading Quran by the non-Arabs, punctuation marks were introduced to the copies of the Quran. This gave the artists a new concept of decoration and illumination and they created different motifs, designs and medallions to create the punctuation marks. From then on, the art was refined with tremendous sophistication.

One of the striking features of the Qurans of all periods is the decorative illumination that appears at the beginning of the manuscript, around chapter or surah header and to mark the fifth and tenth verses within the chapters, consisting of leafy, floral, and geometric motifs. Illuminated ornament also varied by period and region. Although gold decoration appears frequently in early dated manuscripts of the Quran, lapis lazuli blue was combined with gold by the later centuries. Some of the manuscripts have gold sprinkled too across the pages.

Thousands of years ago people really loved and possessed a passion for calligraphy. Whether Islamic or classic, these manuscripts are an extravagant bonanza of superfine handwriting of scribes who copied the masterpieces, illuminated and bounded those in a period when there was no technology evolved for machine composing, recharged them to their credit and left those to the flow of time thus conveying the history to the people of modern era - best of my commendation to the illuminators of the past.