Asian and African studies blog

28 April 2015

Qur’an manuscripts from Java

The regional origin of an illuminated Qur’an manuscript from Southeast Asia may often be easily detected from the structure, motifs and palette of the decorated double frames that adorn the opening pages and other key locations of the text. Illuminated Qur’ans from Java, however, exhibit such an an extraordinary variety of colours, shapes, forms and patterns that it is not possible to talk about a single ‘Javanese style’ of Qur’anic art. Rather, there appear to be myriad ‘Javanese styles’, which on further investigation may point to links with specific localities within Java, or perhaps certain social, cultural or religious milieux.  

Opening pages of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 1v-2r  noc

It is therefore quite difficult to identify positively a Qur’an manuscript as originating from Java on the basis of illumination alone, although smaller ‘internal’ decorative features such as the shape and colour of verse markers and marginal ornaments may offer conclusive evidence. However, there is one material aspect indicative of a Javanese origin: the use of locally-manufactured Javanese paper or dluwang, made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree, Broussonetia papyrifera. As noted in an earlier blog post about Malay manuscripts written on Javanese paper, dluwang is technically classified as bark cloth or tapa rather than paper, as it is not made from the dried residue of a water-based solution. There are hints that in earlier periods, perhaps prior to the 18th century, dluwang may have been exported from Java throughout the archipelago or even made locally on other islands, for Qur’ans written on dluwang have been found as far afield as Ternate. But with the increased availability through trade of higher-quality European paper, usage of dluwang outside Java appears to have dwindled. Thus while it should be stressed that Qur’an manuscripts from Java – especially finely-illuminated examples – are also written on European paper, at least from the 18th century onwards the use of dluwang in a Qur’an can be regarded as a reliable indicator of Javanese origin.  

Opening pages of a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add. 12343, ff. 1v-2r  noc

The British Library holds two complete copies of the Qur’an and one manuscript containing a portion of the Qur’an, all from Java and written on dluwang, which have just been digitised.  The two Qur’an manuscripts (Add. 12312 and Add. 12343) are from the collection of John Crawfurd, who served in the British administration of Java as Resident of Yogyakarta from 1811 to 1816. As is usual in most Southeast Asian Qur’ans, both Qur’ans have double decorated frames located at the beginning of the Holy Book enclosing the Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the Surat al-Baqarah on the left.  In Add. 12312 these frames are quite elaborate, in a simple but striking palette of black and red ink. Add. 12343 is much plainer, but illustrates well a notable structural feature of some Javanese Qur’an manuscripts, namely a marked preference for straight lines, juxtaposing vertical, horizontal and diagonal elements.

One of the most distinctive internal features of some Qur’an manuscripts from Java – whether written on dluwang or European paper – is that each juz’ or thirtieth part of the Qur’anic text is indicated with semi-circular ornaments on the vertical borders of the two facing pages, with the first words of the juz’ highlighted in a variety of ways. In Add. 12312 the precise start of the new juz’ is marked with a vertical stack of three red circles (seen five lines up from the bottom on the right-hand page below), while in Add. 12343 the first word of the juz’ is written in red ink.  

Start of the 2nd juz’ of the Qur’an, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, with elaborate marginal 'ayn indicating ruku' divisions. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r  noc

Add_ms_12343_f013r-det  Add_ms_12343_f012v-det
Start of the 3rd juz’ of the Qur’an, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an’, with the stylized letter 'ayn  in the margin indicating ruku' divisions. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 12v and f. 13r (details)  noc

In Javanese manuscripts the ruled frames around the text generally comprise a simple arrangement of two, three or four black lines; in Add. 12312, the text frames are triple-ruled black lines, while in Add. 12343 the pages are framed by four lines arranged in two pairs. In both manuscripts the verse markers are red circles, while surah headings are in red ink, with characteristically Javanese decorative multiple knots on the final letters ta and ta marbuta. In the margins the letters ‘ayn indicate the logical breaks between thematically-linked verses in the text where the reader is expected to bow (ruku’).  This feature is common in Qur’an manuscripts from India, but in Southeast Asia is only associated with certain areas, particularly Java and Sulawesi; it is rare to encounter marginal ‘ayn marking ruku’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh or the Malay peninsula. In Add. 12312 the ruku’ positions are further indicated with a pyramidal construction of parallel lines alternately in red and black, surmounted by a finial in black, while in Add. 12343 the start of a ruku’ is indicated with the word awal.

Both manuscripts are undated, but must predate 1816 when Crawfurd left Java. Add.12312 bears a colophon in Arabic and Javanese stating that the manuscript was completed on a Saturday (Saptu) but without a year, while Add. 12343 has an inscription in Javanese identifying its writer as a court official.

Add.12343, own. note
Note identifying the scribe: Puniko seratanipun Abdi Dalem Pengulu Saila[n?], 'This was written by the Court Official Pengulu Saila[n?]' (with thanks to Ali Akbar for this reading). British Library, Add. 12343, f. 1r  noc

The penultimate chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Falaq: the scribe has stretched out the letters as much as possible in order to end precisely at the bottom of the page, so that the final chapter, Surat al-Nas, can be placed overleaf in a decorative frame, alongside the repeated first chapter, Surat al-Fatihah, on the facing page. Note the elaborately knotted final letters ta' and ta' marbuta in the surah heading written in red. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 189r (detail)  noc

The final manuscript, IO Islamic 3048, contains only juz’ 23 and 24 of the Qur’an. It is a very simple manuscript, with no verse markers or text frames, and with the surah headings written in black ink.  

Beginning of Surat al-Mu'min (Q.40). British Library, IO Islamic 3048, ff. 18v-19r  noc

Further reading

Colin Baker, Qur'an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design. London: British Library, 2007, pp. 90-91.
A.T. Gallop, The art of the Qur’an in JavaSuhuf, 2012, 5 (2): 215-229.
A.T. Gallop, Islamic manuscript art of Southeast Asia. Crescent moon: Islamic art & civilisation in Southeast Asia, ed. James Bennett.  Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005, pp.156-183.
Ali Akbar, Khazanah mushaf al-Qur’an Nusantara [Blog on Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia]

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork


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