Understanding signs and symbols adorning scripture

Museum hosts lecture on Quranic manuscripts.

Express August 17, 2011


Six-pointed stars, in manuscripts of the eighth to the late 20th centuries, signify ‘a perfect man’ in the Islamic context.In the Muslim West this sign is known as Khatem i Sulaiman or Seal of Soloman.

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica the six-pointed star was adopted by Zionists in 1897 as a sign representing Judaism. There is evidence of this symbol being in use as early as 5000 BC. It arrived in Quran manuscripts from the Roman mosaics found in Tunisia around Kairoun which in the early 8th century was one of the leading centres of learning in Islam.

A lecture, Language of Illumination in Quran, was arranged by the Lahore Museum’s education cell on Wednesday. Syed Tajammul Hussain, a London based contemporary artist who specialises in the Art of Quran, spoke about the frequent use of the colours gold leaf, shell gold and blue, six and eight-pointed stars, arabesque patterns and chevron divides in rare Quranic manuscripts of the early Caliphate to Mughal eras.

The eight-pointed star, Hussain said, was prominent in patterns lining Quranic scriptures of the early years following the Ummayad takeover of the Roman Empire (7th century). He showed some manuscripts of that time and demonstrated that artists always used the text of the Quran to illustrate visually albeit sometimes in abstract terms. In one case he pointed out arrow-like patterns lining the script and stated that this Surah heading depicted the Surah Rum in which the Quran predicts to the battles between the Byzantine empire and the Sassanian empire which had yet to take place at the time of Revelation.

Mamluk manuscripts of Egypt depict an abundant use of the lotus flower which is the symbol of the perfected spirit since the lotus is a flower which rises over the surface of water with its roots below. Hussain said.

In subcontinent manuscripts, he said, the lotus inspiration was derived from its use under Buddhism. The lotus is used abundantly in carvings and sculptures of the pre-Gandhara period. The lotus was the symbol most frequently used in place of Buddha figurines in pre-Gandhara civilisations and hence, widely prevalent in East Asian countries. In their rendering the Lotus patterns are inspired from Far Eastern traditions and occur abundantly especially in Quranic manuscripts dating 1296 to 1450 in Mamluk manuscripts of Egypt although they are also part and parcel of the Pharaonic heritage of Egypt. The blue lotus was a symbol of death and resurrection in ancient Egypt and its usage in the Mamluk Quran manuscripts is thus not accidental.

Cloud band motifs with verses written inside manuscripts of the time hint refer to the fact that just as rain renews the earth without which all life would cease, the Quranic text in these cloud band motifs which entered the visual vocabulary after the Mongol invasions renews the soul. Images of thunderstorm known as fire scrolls from contacts with China are seen around verses depicting protection against evil. Hussain quoted from several books and scholars of Islamic manuscripts during the course of the lecture. Arabesque, a circular stem and leaf pattern, has also been used widely in Quranic scripture. Its usage was abundant from the very earliest period and refers to the Tawaf of the flowers when the Quran is revealed and draws inspiration from not only the circumabulation of the Kaaba but all heavenly bodies also move in orbits. The Quranic text itself is circular according to some scholars as some of the themes of life, death and resurrection are repeated time and again thus signifying the more powerful impact on the psyche. Hussain also spoke about the use of black ink and the symbolism of use of the colours blue and gold. The Quran is also referred to as an asmani kitab (heavenly scripture), Hussain said. Asmani means blue and is interpreted as the colour representing heaven. He said gold represents the ‘spirit of radiance and is inspired from the radiance of the sun and is a symbol of knowledge and thus light.

He said green became popular for use in patterns following the expansion of the prophet’s mosque in Madina in 1823.

“A green dome replaced the original blue in the late Ottoman period he said. Evidence suggests that the dome of the Prophet's mosque from 16th to the 19th century was blue and not green. Also, the heavy use of blue in Ottoman, Sultanate and Mughal architecture, arts and
crafts hint that it was the colour of religion, he added.

Hussain summed up the lecture by sharing insights on the earliest Islamic manuscripts of Hijazi scripts which date from the time of the Holy Prophet and the four Orthodox Caliphs. He showed pictures of five sheepskin drafts written with iron gall ink. Due to errors and typos this was rubbed off using pumice stone but the usage of iron gall ink which gets absorbed in the structure of vellum showed that the original script of the Revelation as actually recorded reappeared after 300 to 400 years after being erased. The palimsest pages revealed that the patterns marking the surahs are the earliest decorative features in Islamic manuscripts and are there as early as the Holy Prophet's ministry or immediately in the reign of the first two Caliphs, he said. He also told the audience that distinctive Islamic calligraphy emerged during the 3rd Caliph Uthmans rule and developed in the Caliph Ali’s rule.

This article has been updated from the print version

Published in The Express Tribune, August 18th, 2011.


Cynical | 12 years ago | Reply

Wish we had more posts like these rather than the usual dosess of 'preaching to the already converted ones' telling us what is wrong with muslims.

tajammul hussain | 12 years ago | Reply

The lotus does indeed appear in Hindu religion. However I was specifically referring to the usage of Lotus which appeared in the Mamluk manuscripts of the 13 the century in my lecture and quoting Ettinghausen when he mentioned that the rendering in these manuscripts was inspired from the Buddhist Sacred art. It has to be mentioned that the IL khans ( the descendants of Ghengiz Khan who ruled Iran Iraq in the 13 the century asked for chinese artisans from the court of their cousin Kublai Khan. The article due to space constraints could only partially report on the influences on the Sacred Islamic art and which did also include not only Buddhist but also some abstract images from Hinduism such as the Swastika which appears in a late 13th century Quran manuscript rendered in Baghdad.

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