Volume 94, No.5, September-October 2008

Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
An eighteenth-century Qur'an

First sura (section), Arabic MS 23, Qur'an, Harar, Ethiopia, 18th century.
First sura (section), Arabic MS 23, Qur'an, Harar, Ethiopia, 18th century.

The art of creating elegant handwritten copies of the Qur'an has long been cherished in the Islamic world, a reflection of the belief that the physical form of the text should reveal the beauty and power of the content. Copying the Qur'an, in addition to making the text available, was (and is) an act of devotion.

To support the growth of the Duke Islamic Studies program, the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library recently acquired an eighteenth-century manuscript Qur'an, produced in Harar, Ethiopia. This copy is particularly interesting as, in addition to the text of the Qur'an in the Sudani Arabic script, the manuscript features a commentary on the text running diagonally down the margin of each page.

Ethiopia has large populations of both Muslims and Christians, but Harar was, at the time of this manuscript's production, an independent Islamic emirate and remained so into the 1880s. One of the Islamic centers of Africa, it was also a major commercial city.  Trade routes may hold a key to understanding this manuscript: The script and the design of the commentary are very similar to fifteenth-century manuscripts from north India.

This manuscript volume reflects the Muslim beliefs and traditions of Qur'anic copying in many ways, in the quality of its contemporary tooled-leather binding, the careful border around the text, and the illumination of the first section in a decorated border.

The manuscript also facilitated memorization and recitation of the text: It includes an introduction outlining the rules that were followed by the copyist and recitation marks in the text to act as cues for correct intonation, pronunciation, and rhythm.

The newly acquired Qur'an complements Duke's large collection of Christian Ethiopic manuscripts, which document the diversity of religious and artistic practices in Ethiopia.