The Anxiety of Influence: Framing the Blue Quran

Folio of the Blue Quran, Metropolitan Museum of ArtQuran.  MS arab., parchment, 30.5 x 40.3 cm.  North Africa, late 9th-early 10th century.
MMA 2004.88 – Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2004.

In the spring and summer of 2012, three leaves of the famous Blue Quran were shown in New York City, in two unrelated exhibitions in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rubin Museum of Art.  The unusual Quran manuscript was first brought to the attention of Western scholars by the Swedish diplomat and Orientalist Fredrik Robert Martin (1868-1933), who had purchased a few of its leaves in Istanbul before 1912.  Today the largest part of this luxury manuscript from the ninth or tenth century CE is preserved in the National Library, Tunis, while about a hundred detached leaves and bifolia are held in private and public collections, such as the Chester Beatty Library Dublin, the Agha Khan Museum (AKM248), the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (2 fols. Acc. no. KFQ 53; cf. F. Déroche, The Abbasid Tradition, Oxford: Azimuth, 1992, pp. 92-95), the Seattle Art Museum (69.37 – Purchased from Mark Lansburgh, Colorado College, 30 January 1969), or Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Two leaves are owned by New Yorker institutions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA 2004.88 – Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2004) and the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA 1995.51a-b – Gift by Beatrice Riese).  During the last decades, leaves were repeatedly sold in auction, for example, by Quaritch (catalog 1213, items 13-14), Sotheby’s London (24 Sept. 2007, lot 7; 5 October 2010, lot 7; 4 October 2011, lot 2), and Christie’s (26 April 2012, lot 39); for an almost complete list of published leaves in public and private collections until 2008, see Alain George, “Calligraphy, Colour and Light in the Blue Qurʾan,” Journal of Qurʾanic Studies 11/1, 2009, pp. 110-111.

The Blue Quran has attracted considerable attention, and the manuscript’s authenticity has been doubted.  One reason is the technical challenge of dyeing deeply saturated parchment leaves, even though there are Quran fragments written on parchment leaves dyed yellow, safran, pink or violet (see F. Déroche, The Abbasid Tradition, Oxford: Azimuth, 1992, pp. 58 and 93).  The use of a dyed writing surface continued in later times, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France owns an incomplete set of a late fourteenth-century Quran from North Africa, written in silver on purple paper (BNF MSS arabe 389-392).  Another reason for the doubt’s persistence is the choice of color for its writing surface.  There is not any other known example of an Islamic book, written on parchment or paper, whose leaves were dyed in such an intensive blue, and so historians of Islamic art have searched for the Blue Quran’s precedents in other book cultures.  Since the largest part of this manuscript is nowadays dispersed among North African collections, it seems plausible that the Blue Quran reflects the impact of Byzantine luxury manuscripts of the Bible, written in silver and gold on parchment dyed purple, and was produced in the early tenth century CE for a Fatimid patron in Egypt or North Africa.  But luxury manuscripts were always a widely circulating commodity, and a manuscript’s current location does not necessarily provide any clue to its date and place of production.  Alain George (“Calligraphy, Colour and Light,” op. cit. ) has recently speculated that the manuscript was produced for a high ranking patron at the Abbasid court in Baghdad in the early ninth century.  As there is indirect evidence for the production of canonical Buddhist scriptures in gold script on a dark blue surface in the eighth century CE, George raises the question, though merely as an afterthought in the first appendix (ibid., p. 109), whether Chinese artisans in the Abbasid capital Baghdad might have acquainted their Abbasid patrons with the Chinese taste for chrysography on a dark opaque surface.  After all, the impact of Chinese artisanship on the Islamic ceramics industry is well documented.

In the MMA two leaves of the Blue Quran were featured in the large Byzantium and Islam exhibition, while in the Rubin Museum the third leaf was included into in a small exhibition of illuminated sacred books.  In neither exhibition, the audience was given any information about the scholarly controversies triggered by the hermeneutic impossibility of making sense of a unique object.  Experiencing these three leaves in two different contexts elicited mixed emotions. It was frustrating and stimulating, since a book is always also defined by its material characteristics and its appearance.  Although the arguments about the place and time of the Blue Quran’s production cannot be settled with a visual argument, showing leaves of the Blue Quran together with other books creates a paratactic narrative in the course of which possibilities of causation are implied through sequence and context.  It is of course a logical fallacy to argue “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” and yet, the power of sequential narratives in all pictorial art is derived from this logical fallacy.

fol. 3

Gospel.  MS greek, parchment, 32 x 26.5 cm.  Syria or Constantinople, 500-600 CE.
Codex Cottonianus fragment of the Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus (N, Uncial 022).
British Library, MS Greek Cotton Titus C. XV, fol. 4.

Folio of a Quran, Metropolitan Museum of ArtQuran.  MS arab., parchment, central Islamic lands, probably 9th century.
MMA 40.164.1b – Rogers Fund, 1940.

Leaf from the Blue Quran, Brooklyn Museum of Art

Quran.  MS arab., parchment, 28.4 x 38.1 cm.
Egypt, North Africa, Sicily,  or Spain,, 9th-10th century.
BMA 1995.51a-b – Gift of Beatrice Riese.

The Noble Mahayana Sutra Named Boundless Life and Knowledge

Amitayus Sutra.
MS tibetan, silver on dark blue paper, ca. 7 x 25 cm.
No place and no date; probably 18th or 19th century CE.
Library of Congress, Asian Division, William Rockhill Tibetan Collection, uncataloged.

In the MMA, the two leaves of the Blue Quran were shown in the last room, surrounded by other fragments of large-format Quran codices. The curators obtained these two leaves as loans from the BMA and LACMA, and decided not to add the example of a Quran also written on parchment though dyed in another color, such as the leaf shown above (MMA 40.164.1b).  Consequently, the Blue Quran appeared as an exceptional object, following the traditional narrative of Islamic art while reinforcing the mission of the MMA as an institution dedicated to art of the highest order.  But in this very well received exhibition (e.g., Peter Brown, “The Great Transition,” NYRB, 10 May 2012), the different religious denominations were kept in splendid isolation.  Even though the exhibition explored how artistic traditions of the Byzantine Empire were transformed during the emergence of Islamic civilization from the seventh century onwards, there was no mingling, mixing, or matching of the artifacts of Greek-Orthodox Christians, Nestorians, Copts, Jews, or Muslims.  This segregationist approach created the maddening situation that the curators united in one exhibition two leaves of the Blue Quran with two leaves of the Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus, a Greek Gospel from the sixth century CE written in gold and silver on purple parchment, and yet they did not use the opportunity to examine the possible influence of Byzantine luxury manuscripts on the Blue Quran.  Not only were the leaves of the Byzantine Gospel and the Blue Quran shown in different rooms, far away from each other, the viewer was not even encouraged to compare these two manuscripts, since the labels remained silent about the possible connection between them.

In contrast, the curators of the Rubin Museum focused on the material aspects of sacred books.  The leaf of the Blue Quran, which was a loan from the Rose Trust, Dubai, appeared quite comfortably in the company of Buddhist and Hindu examples of religious texts written in gold or silver on dark blue or black writing surfaces.  The result of this curatorial decision was surprising, as well as sensible and beautiful.  In Asia Muslims have lived among non-Muslims since the eighth century CE, and despite the complex history of violent conflicts between Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, Islamic books, like all other sacred books, are a commodity made by humans.  The example of the Blue Quran revealed that the religious segregation of books is as detrimental to the understanding of intellectual and cultural history, as the segregation of humans according to ethnicity, race, religion, or wealth is pernicious to all humans.

Corrected, 29 May 2013

PS – On 9 October 2014, Christie’s sold a seventeenth-century Quran written on blue paper (Sale 1557, Lot 6).

Quran in private collection

Quran in private collection

Quran.
MS arab., gold and silver on dark blue paper, ca. 24 x 14.4 cm and 19 x 9.4 cm.
328 folios and 4 fly leaves.
Later added envelope binding.
No place is given in the colophon, which is dated 1099/1687-1688
and signed by Muḥammad Afḍal b. Muḥammad ʿAlī.
On one of the fly leaves, a seal impression is dated 1272/1855-1856 and bears the name of Nawāb Malikah Zamaniyyah Begum, the second wife of Nāṣir al-Dīn Ḥaydar Shāh of Lucknow, the builder of the Imāmbārah-i Gūlah-ganj (r. 1827-1837).
Unidentified private collection.

Updated, 9 October 2014

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