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

Not a Good Fit: Islam and Book History

In February 2013 I submitted, within the deadline, a proposal for a conference about the scientific author and cultures of scientific publishing, organized by the Program about the History of the Book at Harvard University.  But my proposal for a presentation about scholarly authority in the Ottoman Empire after 1517 was neither reviewed nor rejected.  Harvard’s spam filter flagged my email, and that was that.  The conference program is now posted on the internet, and I am left with the question of what I will do next with the sequestered proposal about the Muslim reception of Euclid’s Elements between the tenth and the seventeenth centuries.  Even though in this instance it was Harvard’s spam filter that decided against a presentation about the changing perception of scholarly authority in the Ottoman Empire, similar proposals of mine have not fared any better.  Irrespective of the merits of my work, it seems that these rejections are not just about me.  Rather they also suggest that in North America and Europe fitting Islam into Book History remains a challenge.  Research on books in Arabic script is difficult to classify for scholars outside and inside Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, as well as well for scholars outside and inside Book History.

One reason for this challenge is practical.  Scholars, librarians, and curators without any prior background in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies have little opportunity to obtain additional training for manuscripts, printed books, archival documents, or ephemera in Arabic script.  At Princeton University and UCLA, where strong Near Eastern Studies departments have access to rich library collections of more than 10,000 manuscripts in Arabic script, there is no tradition whatsoever for using these Islamic holdings for teaching.  In North America only Adam Gacek of the Institute for Islamic Studies at McGill University does regularly teach an introduction to Islamic codicology, such as this 2013 course at Stanford University.  In 2006, Marianna Shreve Simpson offered an introduction to Islamic manuscripts at the Rare Book School, but this course has not been offered since.

Another reason for this challenge is conceptual.  In Europe and North America the study of Islam continues to be located in a geography-based curriculum that was derived from the nineteenth-century division into western and non-western subject matters.  The study of Islam remains strongly associated with research on the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, even though many Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies scholars are strongly opposed to the Cold War Area Studies paradigm according to which “the West” generated knowledge about “the East “in order to perpetuate its global economic and political power.  Undergraduate and graduate education concentrates on providing students with language skills and critical methodologies that allow for research on, and in, Muslim societies (see, for example, the mission statement of Columbia University’s Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies).  Specialists of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies usually have a methodological foundation in disciplines such as Anthropology, History, Linguistics, Literary Criticism, Political Science, or Religious Studies, so that source criticism is generally practiced as the historical evaluation of written texts.  Since regional expertise has remained more important than the focus on a particular period, specialists of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies do not relate themselves to Medievalists or Renaissance scholars, and so are not exposed to their expertise in codicology, paleography, and bibliography.  Conversely, the contemporary western discourse on Islam and Muslim societies has remained anchored to the premise that the intellectual decline of Islamic civilization from the thirteenth century onwards is one of the root causes for the undeniable socio-economic and political problems of twenty-first century Muslim societies in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  This negative view of Islamic civilization between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries has ensured that this middling period attracts fewer scholars and much less is known about it.

The most twisted reason for the seeming incompatibility of Book History and Islam is the comparatively late acceptance of printing technology in Muslim societies in the nineteenth century.  In its Anglo-American tradition, Book History is so closely linked to research on Gutenberg’s invention of letterpress printing that a contemporaneous book culture without the printing press is hard to stomach.  This hands-off attitude is further compounded by the fact that many Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies scholars shy away from research on the academic study of Islam in early modern Europe.  Since the history of Oriental Studies  appears as merely supplementary to the insights of Edward Said’s Orientalism, it is rarely noticed how little is known about the printing of books in Arabic script in early modern Europe.  Nor do we have a comprehensive history of the European and North American collections of Islamic manuscripts and printed books.  Despite the new Center for the History of Arabic Studies in Europe at the Warburg Institute, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies scholars who focus on Oriental Studies in early modern Europe tend to keep a low profile, often by adopting an antiquarian attitude.

Against this backdrop it is understandable, though nonetheless annoying, that the 1517 defeat of the Mamluk sultans is not yet perceived as a crucial event of the book history of the Ottoman Empire and its neighbors.  The loss of political independence condemned Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq to becoming a backwater of the Ottoman Empire, and the rich libraries of the central Arab lands provided the Ottoman elites in Istanbul with a hitherto inaccessible wealth of manuscript books.  In the course of the sixteenth century, the Ottoman armies pushed into Eastern Europe.  At the same time, Jewish and Muslim refugees from the Spanish Peninsula were settling in the Ottoman Empire, and West European powers―in particular the Italian city states, France, and Britain―began to establish diplomatic contacts with the High Porte in Istanbul in order to obtain trading privileges and to explore political alliances against their Christian rivals.  The mobility of people around and across the Mediterranean was accompanied by the circulation of printed books into the Ottoman Empire, as well as the diffusion of letterpress printing technology to Jewish and Christian communities within Muslim societies.  In 1493, Samuel and David Ibn Nahmias printed the Arba’ah Turim in Istanbul.  But when the first complete Arabic Quran was printed in Venice between 1537 and 1538, the intended export into the Ottoman Empire could not be realized, and the venture became an abject commercial failure.  In 1647, the Armenians in New Julfa, a suburb of Isfahan, printed the first typeset book in Safavid Iran when they published an almanac for their congregation.

In the proposal that was eaten by Harvard’s spam filter I had suggested an analysis of how the Arabic bibliographies of Taşköprüzade (Aḥmad b. Muṣṭafā Ṭāshkubrāzādah, 901-968/1495-1560) and Katip Ҫelebi (Muṣṭafā b. ʿAbd Allāh Ḥājjī Khalīfah, 1016-1067/1609-1657) classify Euclid’s Elements.  Although both bibliographies are still widely used as bio-bibliographical reference works, neither Taşköprüzade’s Kitāb miftāḥ al-saʿādah wa-miṣbāḥ al-siyādah fī mawḍūʿāt al-ʿulūm (The key of happiness and the light of command over the matters of knowledge) which is a comprehensive prospectus of an Islamic curriculum, nor Katip Ҫelebi’s alphabetical title catalog Kashf al-ẓunūn ʿan asāmī al-kutub wa’l-funūn (The disclosure of opinions about book titles and the branches of knowledge) has been studied as evidence for new strategies for information management.  I believe that these comprehensive bibliographies illustrate a seminal break in the intellectual history of Muslim societies, since their authors surveyed the known, though not necessarily accessible, literature in Arabic script, focusing on the classification of the contents and the titles of books.  But since the study of bibliographies falls into the purview of Book History, I will probably peddle this presentation to another Book History conference, curious as to whether at another institution the spam filter will have an equally voracious appetite for a proposal about the transformation of the concept of authorship in Muslim societies.

Revised because of broken hyperlink, 17 July 2014.

A French Haggadah in Muslim Garb: Whose Book is it?

Braginsky Collection 315 (Photograph by Ardon Bar-Hama)

Well, the legal part of my question is easily answered: This Haggadah manuscript is owned by René Braginsky, a Swiss collector, and belongs to his outstanding collection of Hebrew manuscripts and printed books.  All pages can be seen on the website which accompanies A Journey through Jewish Worlds, an exhibition of his treasures that between 2009 and 2012 traveled from Amsterdam to New York City, Jerusalem, and Zurich.

Unfortunately I missed the exhibition when it was on view in the Yeshiva University Museum in the spring of 2010.  But on April 19, 2012, Emile Schrijver, the curator of the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana at the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands), showed a picture of the Bouton Haggadah during his talk at the Book History Colloquium at Columbia University.  Dr. Schrijver also serves as the curator of the Braginsky collection, and was one of the exhibition curators.

On the website of the Braginsky collection, one finds the following details about the Passover Haggadah:
The undated parchment manuscript of 33 leaves (35.5 x 23.5 cm) was written and decorated by Victor M. Bouton (b. 1819).  It is dated to the second half of the 19th century (ca. 1870?), and includes ritual instructions in French.  The textblock is protected by a burgundy-red velvet binding with metal clasps on leather straps.  The manuscript was sold by Sotheby’s New York in 2007, lot 197.

After his talk on “Defining a Field: Jewish Books in the Age of Print,” I emailed Dr. Schrijver whether it be possible that the lavishly illuminated margins, whose design changes every few pages, were chromolithographed and then finished by hand.  The idea presented itself since Dr. Schrijver had quite forcefully questioned the strict separation between manuscripts and printed books by showing eighteenth-century examples of prayer books that combined printed frames with hand-written texts.  In his catalog note (as available on the internet), Schrijver mentioned that Bouton was mostly known as a heraldic painter.  Bouton’s achievements as a scribe and illustrator of Hebrew manuscripts had been overlooked until Sharon Mintz linked his Haggadah to a similarly decorated, though a bit smaller Seder Hatefilot (parchment, 26.8 x 17.5 cm) from 1876, inscribed by Edmond James de Rothschild (1845-1934) to his mother Bronita (1805-1886) and today owned by the  Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (MAHJ inv. D.99.04.001.CP) in Paris.  A search in OCLC/WorldCat revealed that more information about Bouton’s work may be gleaned from the files of the publishing house Firmin-Didot (OCLC/WorldCat 32257680) which are nowadays owned by by the Newberry Library in Chicago.  I find the possible but not yet confirmed connection with Firmin-Didot noteworthy as the company is famous for its production of deluxe editions of prints and books.

In his talk Dr. Schrijver had argued that in Europe the production of Jewish books since the early modern period need be contextualized as Jews lived cheek by jowl with non-Jews.  For me, as a historian of Islamic books, the Haggadah shows that in the second half of the nineteenth century Jewish patrons, wherever they lived in Europe, shared the taste of mainstream society for artifacts with Islamic design.  Like other wealthy families, the Rothschilds collected Islamic art, and in 1922 the Louvre’s Islamic holdings were significantly increased by a large bequest from the Rothschild family.  Luxury objects with an Islamic design such as rugs, textiles, ceramics, metalwork or illustrated manuscripts have circulated in Christian Europe since the Middle Ages, while scholars were searching for Middle Eastern books to learn about the Quran, Islam, and Middle Eastern history.  In the course of the nineteenth century the increased interest in all matter Muslim and Oriental preceded the emergence of art history as an academic discipline and the acknowledgment of non-Western art as an art in its own right.  But despite the sustained interest in the study of European Orientalism since the early 1980s, European books with an Islamic design have not yet received any sustained attention; at least I am not aware of any published research on Islamic books printed in Europe.  Most of the printed books with a chromolithographed Islamic design that I have found during the last years are works of Islamic literature in Arabic script, often accompanied by translations or commentaries in French, German or Latin, and the printers were primarily working in Paris or Vienna.  At this point of my research it seems that from the 1840s onward publishing houses that had taken up chromolithography experimented with books whose decoration drew on elements of Islamic design.

In 2012 when Jewish-Muslim and Israeli-Palestinian relations are so fraught and difficult, I find it inspiring that the Bouton Haggadah presents a Hebrew-French guide to the celebration of Passover in the style of an illustrated Islamic manuscript.  It is so much easier to acknowledge complexity and depth in beautiful objects, and this Hebrew-French-Islamic Haggadah demonstrates that something as seemingly simple as the classification of objects can be as intricate as the identities of the men and women who made and used them.

Corrected, 17 May 2012

PS – In March 2015 a digital surrogate of the Bouton Haggadah was made available Open-Access via e-codices at: http://dx.doi.org/10.5076/e-codices-bc-b-0315

Updated, 28 March 2016