Deep in the belly of the Fisher Library, there is an entire wall of shelves dedicated to Arabic manuscript materials. While many of these are uncatalogued, those that are can be found by searching for “arab mss” call numbers in the University of Toronto Libraries catalogues. Reader, I strongly encourage you to peruse those search results. These texts are home to stunning gold leaf work and intricate brushwork. The calligraphy they contain is as beautiful as it is complex. And if you can read Arabic, Turkish, or Urdu, the debates they contain are varied and fascinating.
I began my dive into these materials in January 2020, when I began work on curating the March Fisher Collection Highlight, The Qur’anic Page. This mini-exhibition (please indulge me in calling it an exhibition) was curated with one thing in mind: shedding some light on the incredible Qur’anic works held by the Fisher. From a printed Italian Qur’an to an Arabic-language manuscript page with gold leaf which shines like the sun, every single item in this exhibition was carefully chosen. In highlighting the artistry of the Qur’an and the role it has played in the growth of the world’s second most common religion, Islam, the goal of this exhibition was to spark curiosity in a little-explored section of the Fisher’s collections.
Curating this exhibition meant exploring these shelves, seeking out beautiful and unique pieces which exemplified the themes I chose to highlight: the art and beauty of the Qur’an, the skills required to create these incredible texts, and the spread of Islam throughout the Mediterranean. My personal favourite work featured in this exhibition is MSS 01239. The beautiful illuminated colophon in this 18th century Turkish Qur’an is a tribute to the artistry and care that went into the creation of Qur’anic manuscripts. Hours of exacting work would have gone into creating the beautiful pages featured here, followed by careful burnishing in order to make the gold leaf glow.
Illumination refers to the use of images and fine art in manuscripts in order to heighten the readers’ understanding of the text. Gold leaf was a particularly sought-after material for illumination, as it added an extra level of finery to manuscripts. In addition to gold leaf, floral details and flourishes were often added in ink to bring manuscript pages to life. Illumination was painstaking work, and the breathtaking results emphasize the devotional and holy nature of the Qur’an. This 19th century Qur’an was transcribed by an individual named Hafiz Ahmad Hamdi in 1861-1862 CE. In addition to gold leaf this beautifully illuminated colophon includes hand-drawn ornamentation in red, green, rose, and blue inks. [Catalogue record: MSS 03067]
I am particularly fond of the floral details of this 19th century CE manuscript from Medina, now in Saudi Arabia. It is a book of prayers excerpted from the Qur’an, with the prayers arranged by Hussein Serrie Ibn Muhammad Beselourie. [Catalogue record: MSS 01219]
This detail from MSS 01219 demonstrates the level of great detail achieved by the artists working on Qur’anic manuscripts. Such fine illustration would have required years of technical training and practice, and a keen eye for colour and composition.
This late 18th century Ottoman text concerns a series of questions raised about differing interpretations of a Qur’anic excerpt. This is a later transcription of a pair of medieval Arabic commentaries by Muslim scholars Kashshāf of al-Zamakhsharī and al-Anwar al-tanzīl of al-Bayḍāwī. In this text, these works appear in both Arabic and Ottoman Turkish. [Catalogue record: arab MSS 00567]
This is but a tiny sliver of the Arabic materials housed at the Fisher, and it was such a pleasure to explore this collection in curating this exhibition. I hope that you were able to stop by the Fisher and visit The Qur’anic Page, and if not, I hope this post gave you a taste of the wondrous works featured in the exhibition. Make sure to stop by the Fisher and explore some of these texts yourself once we open back up. Until then, these treasures wait for you.
- Samantha Summers, Toronto Academic Libraries Intern, Fisher Library