Bookmarks: Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia's Qur'an Collection

artist book: a work of art realized in the form of a book.

The definition may sound simple, but the world of artist books can be a bewildering place. From the familiar pairing of images and text, to sculptures created out of paper and complicated bindings that create a performance each time the book is opened, nearly anything can be called an artist book if there is intention and consideration. This series showcases artists from different realms of the art world exploring the structure and meaning of the book.

Yaqut Al-Musta'simi, 1291 AD

On my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, I made a point to visit the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia, which is known for its excellent displays of Islamic architecture. While their architectural wing was an exciting find, I was extremely pleased to find that they had an entire wing dedicated to the production of the Qur’an and historic manuscripts. The vast number of works that this small museum possesses is impressive. 

Often cited for a lack of figural and animal representation, Islamic art focuses primarily upon ornamentation to embellish works and structures that possess a religious context. Unlike Christian themed art, the art of Islam avoids idolatry, for it is believed that the creation of forms is unique to God alone. This, however, does not mean that their illuminated texts are any less elaborate than those stemming from the Western world; in Islam, the written word is glorified. Scribes were among the most honored members of society, and the emphasis on penmanship and subtle variations in its beauty were esteemed.

Among the numerous texts and Qur’ans that the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia possesses include a Qur’an by the calligrapher Yaqut Al-Musta’simi (1221-1298 AD). Known as kiblat al-kuttab (model of calligraphers), Yaqut Al-Musta’simi is the third most prominent figure in Arabic calligraphy. A master scribe in the royal court of Caliph Al-Musta’sim, Yaqut Al-Musta’simi is renowned for the improving and stylizing letter shapes in a way that was to be mimicked by Turkish and Persian calligraphers for years to come. He accomplished this by re-crafting his pens, which he devised to be more slanted than those used previously by his predecessors. 

Hafiz Osman, Ottoman Turkey, 17th Century AD

The museum also owns a Qur’an by the calligrapher Hafiz Osman (1652-1698 AD).  Working over 400 years later than Yuqat Al-Musta’simi, Hafiz Osman is considered among the greatest Ottoman calligraphers during the 17th century. He was credited with re-invigorating the traditional style of his mentor, Shaykh Hamdullah, and re-introducing a number of scripts that had fallen into disuse. The volumes produced by this calligrapher were among the most sought-after in his time.

Finally, amongst the highlights in this wing, the mueseum owns the Terengganu Qur’an. This Qur’an is thought to have been produced for the sultan’s courts of Terengganu, Malaysia. Referred to as a “Royal Qur’an,” this book is oversized and was most likely used in a royal mosque. The motifs depicted were taken from Malay traditional accessories. Completed by hand in 1871, archivists believe that this impressive work was created specifically for Tuanku Umar Ibni Almarhum Sultan Abdul Rahman.

Royal Qur'an, Terengganu, 1871

Elizabeth K. Harris is the Director at Louis K. Meisel Gallery. She holds an MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University and has co-authored two books on art. She likes looking at books more than reading them.