The Gwalior Qur'an Manuscript: The Polysemy of an Illuminated Codex

Paris, 14–15 June, 2012
Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Site Richelieu).

Conference introduction

Convenors: Éloïse Brac de la Perrière (University of Paris – Sorbonne), in collaboration with Francis Richard (Bibliothèque Universitaire des Langues et Civilisations, Paris) and Jean-Pierre Van Staëvel (University of Paris – Sorbonne).

Coordination: Sandra Aube (Panthéon-Sorbonne University).

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Sponsorship and partner institutions: The Institute of Ismaili Studies has co-sponsored this conference in partnership with other institutions, mainly ‘Orient et Méditerranée’, Laboratoire Islam médiéval, unité mixte de recherché (UMR) 8167 and ‘Mondes iranien et indien’, unité mixte de recherche (UMR) 7528. Other supporting institutions include the Aga Khan Trust for Culture; the University of Paris – Sorbonne; the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris; the Laboratoire d’excellence ‘Religion et Sociétés dans le Monde Méditerranéen’ (Labex RESMED) and the Museé des Beaux Arts, Orléans.


On 24 September 1398, Tamerlane crossed the Indus River and invaded Delhi, bringing an end to the reigning sultanate there, which had been weakened by internal dissent within the Indo-Muslim territories and by incessant conflict with the Hindu kingdoms. That was a definitive turning point in the history of pre-Mughal Muslim India, as Delhi became deserted and abandoned by a population who moved to other sultanates hoping to find refuge in quieter areas of the most prosperous regimes.

It was in the summer of 1399 in Delhi, which was characterised by an air of doom, that the copy of an extraordinary manuscript was completed, a copy of the Qur’an whose existence has raised many questions since it was brought to scholarly attention in 1974. This copy of the Qur’an, known as the Gwalior Qur’an, is now housed in the Aga Khan Collection, and is the focus of this conference.

A multifaceted work and project

The analysis of this codex began in 2009 as part of a four-year research programme at the unité mixte de recherche (UMR) 8167 ‘Orient et Méditerranée – Laboratoire Islam médiéval’. Such research on the codex is crucial for furnishing a better understanding of illuminated manuscripts in the Eastern Muslim world in medieval times.

The immense wealth of illuminations in this copy of the Qur’an immediately excites interest and raises far-ranging issues. Indeed, this manuscript from the Aga Khan Collection provokes questions closely related to the history of art (iconography, compositions, chromatic scales) and all subjects tangential to it (artisans, artistic exchanges); however, it also elicits questions related to the reception of the Qur’an itself, its transmutations and developments in distant areas of the Muslim empire.

The manuscript presents itself as a sort of catalogue of ornamental motifs used in the Near and Middle East between the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries. This quite exceptional iconographic variety invites us to reflect on the artistic transfers and the political and economic exchanges between the centre of the empire and its confines. The problem is made more complex by the fact that this is a period marked by a stabilisation of aesthetic forms which saw the birth of ‘classical’ Persian painting, with its well known miniatures. Moreover, the manuscript includes a complex apparatus with marginal notes and a book of divination in its final part, the first example of this type in the Muslim world. Thus, the text offers specialists an unprecedented field of research on the mystical rituals associated with Qur’anic materials.

Thanks to collaborative work, an international team of researchers in various fields has produced very important results pertaining to Islamic codicology. The joint analysis of the various elements has allowed them to question a number of assumptions about manuscript production in Indo-Muslim contexts as well as the nature of trade in the Muslim world during the medieval period.

The multidisciplinary nature of the research was of paramount importance because it has brought together, and combines for the first time, data belonging to fields of specialisation which were in principle quite distant from each other, as well as data of diverse chronology and from different geographical areas.

Over the past three years, the work proceeded along two main lines. Researchers participating in the project took part by either:

a) working on the codex itself by analysing the Gwalior Qur’an manuscript of the Aga Khan Collection in Geneva, where it was preserved, or taking a comparative perspective, by studying other manuscripts scattered in different funds, both public and private, such as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, the Keir collection, now housed in the Pergamon Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore; or

b) holding monthly workshops at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris, where researchers and doctoral students could engage in a dialogue concerning a problem directly related to their speciality (divination, exegesis, iconography, and so on).

The conference: presentation of results and perspectives

This two-day conference is the concluding point of four years of research. It brings together, for the first time, all the participants in this project. They are recognised specialists in the areas of art history, history, codicology, paleography, Islamic studies, divination and magic.

On the first day, always within a multidisciplinary perspective, the results obtained after all these years of joint research (the dynamics of which has been particularly fruitful) will be presented. The second day will open the debate on related issues and will provide a methodological reflection on the art history of books in Muslim contexts.

Far from being restricted to a coterie of specialists, and because of the exceptional nature of this rare Qur’an manuscript, the conference is open to a wider audience – those interested in areas such as the artistic exchanges within the medieval world, the circulation of the patterns, models and actors involved in book production outside courtly contexts, the esoteric interpretations of the Qur’an, and the material expressions of the Qur’anic text. It is expected that the proceedings of the conference will be published.