Writing the Word of God

“I do not know of any other form of writing in which the letters undergo so much beautifying and refining as they do in Arabic writing.”
Al-Kindi (died ca. 873)

Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the written record of a series of divinely inspired revelations, the actual word of God. These revelations were mediated through the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, and occurred in Mecca and Medina between 610 and Muhammad’s death in 632. In 610, at the age of forty, Muhammad went to a mountain cave called Hira’, on the Jabal al-Nur outside Mecca, for devotional purposes. It was there that he received his first revelation, which would become the first five verses of chapter (sura) 96 of the Qur’an.

The fact that the revelations had come to the Prophet Muhammad in Arabic, along with the high status accorded to the writing in the Qur’an, created a new prestige for the Arabic language, its written form, and visual expression. Although no other book matched the Qur’an in holiness—as God’s eternal word—the Qur’an elevated the status of all books and the art of writing. The examples in this exhibition highlight some of the chief developments that took place in the art and practice of copying Islam’s sacred text from the seventh to the fifteenth century.