Quran Exhibition Shines A Light On The Holy Books' Dedicated Artists

Dec 2, 2016
Originally published on December 2, 2016 8:16 am

When you walk into the Smithsonian's "Art of the Qur'an" exhibition, you're met with a book that weighs 150 pounds. The tome, which dates back to the late-1500s, has giant pages that are covered in gold and black Arabic script.

"Somebody spent a lot of time, probably years, to complete this manuscript," says curator Massumeh Farhad. "... The size tells you a great deal about it. I mean, clearly this was not a manuscript that could have been taken out every day for private reading. This was a manuscript that was intended for public display."

That manuscript is among more than 50 centuries-old Qurans on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. The exhibition isn't about the words of the Quran so much as the people who laboriously copied the book, letter by letter. Some of their names are listed (one manuscript was written by a vizier, or prime minister, of the Ottoman Empire), but most of the creators are unknown.

Either way, each of the pages is one of a kind, and Farhad has flipped through all of them. She says it was a meditative experience: "You notice things that, you know, nobody else had noticed. For instance, human fallibility — because God is infallible but humans aren't. So there are instances where the calligrapher omitted a verse, but then they always found a way around it. ... They put a little asterisk where the verse actually fits in."

In one Quran, that asterisk looks like an eyelash; it directs the reader to look for the missing verse on the edge of the page. In another, the writer corrected a wrong word by covering it with gold. "It's the gold white out," Farhad says.

The Quran copies are like little peepholes, allowing us to peer back into the lives of people we never knew. When Farhad flips through the books, she says she's really flipping through the past. "And every page is absolutely breathtaking."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A Washington, D.C., museum is showing a collection of books. Actually, it's many handmade copies of one book, the Quran, the holy book of Islam. The centuries-old Qurans are on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery near the Washington Monument. When we arrived, the curator, Massumeh Farhad, gestured toward a book with pages several feet wide.

MASSUMEH FARHAD: That book actually weighs 150 pounds.

INSKEEP: It lay open in a glass case under a spotlight.

Let's go have a look. This is huge.

Years ago, this gallery featured a display of old bibles. Now, it has gathered more than 50 Qurans that were made in countries across North Africa and Asia. We approached the giant pages of the first book covered with Arabic script in gold and black ink.

Somebody spent time on this.

FARHAD: Somebody spend a lot of time, probably years, to complete this manuscript.

INSKEEP: Can I just say also the cover of this 150-pound book is the thickness of a board that could be like the seat of a chair almost? And even the pages seem amazingly thick.

FARHAD: Yes. The story of this manuscript, just given the size, tells you a great deal about it. I mean, clearly this was not a manuscript that could have been taken out every day for private reading. This was a manuscript that was intended for public display.

INSKEEP: It was made in the late 1500s. This museum display is not about the words of the Quran, a text that is both revered and reviled, first written 1,400 years ago and still at the center of intense political debate today. The exhibit is more about the people, long dead people, some of them ordinary, some powerful, who laboriously copied these Qurans letter by letter.

As we walk to the next thing, what do they teach you that you wouldn't get from the plain words on a paperback copy of this?

FARHAD: I think it's the sort of absolute mastery and art history of the individual who has put it together.

INSKEEP: Sometimes the name of that individual is known. One manuscript was written out by a politician, a vizier, or prime minister, of the Ottoman Empire centuries ago in Istanbul. He was called Ferhad Pasha.

FARHAD: And you wrote the Quran sort of as a sign of piety.

INSKEEP: I have a picture now of a prime minister of a fairly large and powerful empire doing this in his spare time, like, to relax, doing a little calligraphy.

FARHAD: That's absolutely true.

INSKEEP: Or maybe saying don't bother me with affairs of state right now. I'm writing.

FARHAD: That's true. That's probably - I mean - and in order to copy something like this, it would've taken a long time. It requires a lot of concentration to copy even a smaller copy of the Quran.

INSKEEP: Some of the handmade Qurans feature decorations that make the pages seem as elaborate as a Persian rug. Because every page is one of a kind, Massumeh Farhad flipped through them all.

FARHAD: I have to admit, the sheer act was a meditative act to go through the manuscripts, and you notice things that, you know, nobody else had noticed. For instance, human fallibility because God is infallible but humans aren't. So there are instances where the calligrapher omitted a verse, but then they always found a way around.

INSKEEP: What do you mean found a way around it? Like, drew a little line and said I omitted something here? What'd they do?

FARHAD: Well, actually, you know, they just put a little asterisk where the verse actually fits in, so...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

FARHAD: And it happens over and over again.

INSKEEP: Which we could see when we descended the stairs to another room.

Oh, look at these huge pages. We're, like, 20 feet above them here, and you can look down on them.

A few feet from those huge pages is one of the Qurans with a missing verse. It reminds me of when I wrote an assignment in school and left out part of the answer and had to squeeze it into the margins.

FARHAD: On the third line, there is a little - oh, do you see? It's like an eyelash.

INSKEEP: That mark is the asterisk telling you to look for the extra verse over on the edge of the page.

FARHAD: He just forgot one, whether he was listening to a recitation, whether he lost his concentration, something has happened.

INSKEEP: Stood up, went to dinner and came back again.

FARHAD: Exactly. But this is the way that he dealt with it.

INSKEEP: And that's common to find things like that.

FARHAD: You find it. There was another one where there was a wrong word clearly, and the calligrapher has covered it with gold.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

FARHAD: So it's the gold Wite-Out.

INSKEEP: These copies of the Quran at the Sackler Gallery in Washington are like little peepholes allowing us to peer back into the lives of people we never knew.

FARHAD: What this exhibition does is bring in the human element, bring in the care and the attention and the humility and humanity that is really reflected in these works.

INSKEEP: So when you flip open that book, are you flipping back through the past?

FARHAD: Yes. And it's - every page is absolutely breathtaking.

INSKEEP: Massumeh Farhad says each book is an artifact of a religion but also of one human life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.