Exploring the Art of the Qur'an

Episode 297

hosted by Emily Neumeier

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The preeminent position of manuscript painting and poetry at the Ottoman court has been well established by historians, yet the equally important practice of commissioning and collecting sumptuously decorated copies of the Qur’an--the sacred text of Islam--has been less explored. The role of the Qur’an in the artistic culture of the Ottoman world is just one facet of the landmark exhibition The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. The show traces the formal evolution of the Qur’an, especially in terms of calligraphy and manuscript illumination, with over 60 manuscripts and folios spanning a thousand years and created in an area stretching from Egypt to Afghanistan. Besides having an opportunity to appreciate the level of labor and skill invested in producing such high-quality manuscripts, visitors will also be surprised to learn about the mobility of these books, as they were avidly collected, repaired, and donated by members of the Ottoman court to various religious institutions around the empire. In this episode, curators Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig sit down with us to reflect both on the reception of the exhibition in the United States, as well as the process of organizing this collaborative venture between the Smithsonian and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul.

This episode is part of a series entitled "The Visual Past."

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Contributor Bios

Massumeh Farhad is Chief Curator and Curator of Islamic Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. She is a specialist in the arts of the book from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Iran, and has curated numerous exhibitions on the arts of the Islamic world at the Freer and Sackler, including Falnama: The Book of Omens (2009-10), and Roads of Arabia: History and Archaeology of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2012).
Simon Rettig is Assistant Curator of Islamic art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. He previously worked at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul and the Freie Üniversität in Berlin. Rettig curated the 2014 exhibition Nasta‘liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy at the Freer and Sackler.
Emily Neumeier is ACLS Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at The Ohio State University and recently earned her Ph.D. from University of Pennsylvania. Her research concerns the art and architecture of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic. She is co-curator of our series on The Visual Past and editor of the blog stambouline, a site where travel and the Ottoman world meet.

Bonus Material

Listen to Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig go inside the Smithsonian Art of the Qur'an exhibit and tell the stories of some extraordinary artifacts.

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Episode No. 297
Release Date: 10 February 2017
Recording Location: Freer & Sackler Galleries, DC
Audio editing by Chris Gratien
Music: Katibim (Uskudar'a Gider iken) - Safiye Ayla
Special thanks to Kara Güneş for permission to use the composition "Istanbul"
Images and bibliography courtesy of Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig


Figure 1: Entrance to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, where The Art of the Qur’an exhibition is on display.
Figure 2: This mushaf was copied by Yaqut al-Musta’simi (died ca. 1298), considered to be one of the greatest calligraphers of all time. It was donated to the tomb of Sultan Abdülhamid I in Istanbul, also noted as a great calligrapher. Single-volume Qur’an, Copied by Yaqut al-Musta’simi, Iraq, Baghdad, Il-Khanid period, 1286-87 CE
Figure 3: This copy of the Qur’an, penned by Ferhad Pasha, was also donated to the tomb of Sultan Abdülhamid I by his son, Mahmud II. Istanbul, Ottoman period, 1571 CE.
Figure 4: This Qur’an was donated by Nurbanu Sultan, the wife of Selim II, to the Atik Valide mosque in Istanbul in 1719-20. Single-volume Qur’an, Sura 18:64-83, Copied by Abd al-Qadir ibn Abd al-Wahhab ibn Shahmir al-Husayni, Iran, Shiraz, Safavid period, ca. 1580. 
Figure 5: Two large-scale folios from a Qur’an, Sura 45:9-16, attributed to Omar Aqta’, Historic Iran, present-day Uzbekistan, probably Samarqand, Timurid period, ca. 1400.
Figure 6: Chest with ebony, ivory, and silver inlay, once kept in the mausoleum of Hürrem Sultan. It was probably intended to hold a complete set of a single thirty-volume Qur’an. Ottoman period, ca. 1530-60.
Figure 7: View of the gallery.

Further Reading

Exhibition Catalog: Farhad, Massumeh, and Simon Rettig (ed.). The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. Exhibition Catalog. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2016.

Accompanying Symposium: “The Word Illuminated: Form and Function of Qur’anic Manuscripts,” December 1-3, 2016

For English translations and commentary on verses from the Qur’an, listeners can visit https://quran.com/ as an online reference. There are also a multitude of printed translations available, including those by Muhammad Asad, Yusuf Ali, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, and M.A.S. Abdel Haleem.

Blair, Sheila. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Derman, Uğur. Letters in Gold: Ottoman Calligraphy from the Sakıp Sabancı Collection, Istanbul. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.

Déroche, François. The Abbasid Tradition: Qur ̓ans of the 8th to 10th Centuries; Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art. New York: Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1992.

George, Alain. The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy. London: Saqi Press, 2010.

Unustası, Müjde (ed.). 1400. yılında Kur'an-ı Kerim. Istanbul: Antik A.Ș. Kültür Yayınları, 2010.


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