The international colloquium ‘Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur’an and its Creative Expressions’ was held at the Ismaili Centre in London from 18 – 21 October 2003 as part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations of The Institute of Ismaili Studies. Most Qur’anic Studies conferences focus on the textual reading, codification, transmission and interpretation of the holy text. This colloquium, attended by more than two hundred scholars, students and artists, was unique in that it focussed on the sacred word as a source of creative and artistic inspiration for Muslims worldwide and throughout the ages. The papers took a multi-disciplinary approach and were not limited to a particular historical period or geographical space, leading to rich and varied discussions as the Holy Qur’an was approached from the perspectives of art and architectural history, palaeography (the science of ancient scripts), codicology (the study of the structure and production of a manuscript or codex), numismatics (the study of coinage) and material anthropology.
Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur’an and its Creative Expressions presents selected papers from the 2003 conference along with 120 colour illustrations, some published for the first time, and an extensive bibliography. The volume offers a broad spectrum of recent scholarly work on expressions of the Holy Qur’an vis-à-vis the material arts, stretching from the earliest period of Islam to the present day. The essays explore subjects that range from Qur’anic manuscript illumination in Southwestern Nigeria and Southeast Asia to the use of Qur’anic inscriptions on architecture in 16th-century Safavid Iran and on coinage in 10th-century Fatimid North Africa.
The volume contributes to current discussions on the arts of the book and architecture. It also offers a wealth of new material for investigations into the creative expressions of the Holy Qur’an in other artistic media. This approach helps create a more balanced picture by showing how the Holy Qur’an has affected the work of Muslim craftspeople – weavers, woodcarvers, metalworkers – as well as calligraphers and architects. In this vein, the volume includes an essay on the ways in which modern Muslim artists continue in the footsteps of medieval masters by incorporating the sacred words of the Holy Qur’an in their work, frequently using new and innovative technologies.
The field of Qur’anic Studies has often presumed that the textual interpretation of the Holy Qur’an takes precedence over the study of the ways in which the holy text has affected the material culture of Muslims throughout the ages. However, the essays in this volume demonstrate that the physical manifestations of the Qur’anic codex and its many expressions in Islamic material arts also deserve serious scholarly attention, as they provide alternative perspectives on how Muslims throughout history have engaged with the Holy Scripture. From its influence on the built environment, metalwork, woodwork, coins, textiles and the arts of the book, to its impact on contemporary painting, the language and interpretation of the Holy Qur’an have engaged the minds of Muslim artists, craftsmen and patrons of the arts as much as the minds of theologians and jurists. Word of God, Art of Man examines both how and why the Holy Qur’an has provided the motivation and impetus for many Muslims to adorn with its verses the spaces they inhabit and the objects which they cherish.
The volume is divided into four main sections: ‘Qur’anic calligraphy and inscriptions in the medieval Muslim world’, which includes Professor Gülru Necipoğlu’s plenary lecture; ‘Amulets, talismans and magic’; ‘The Qur’anic text in recent times’; and ‘Qur’anic inscriptions on textiles’. These sections correspond roughly to the way the papers were grouped at the colloquium; both the colloquium and the volume are framed by His Highness the Aga Khan’s address and the opening reflections by Professor Oleg Grabar, and brought to a close with Professor Sheila Blair’s final reflections.
Four key themes are highlighted by the volume as a whole and, to a greater or lesser extent, by individual chapters. These themes include the notion of intertextuality and the Holy Qur’an; the development of the Arabic script and its impact on the arts of the Holy Qur’an; the power of the sacred text to sanctify, beautify, politicise or bestow talismanic properties on spaces and objects; and the encounter between the Holy Qur’an and indigenous artistic traditions. The contextual introduction by volume editor Dr Fahmida Suleman provides a brief summary of the contents of the volume and a discussion of these reoccurring themes.
Like most gatherings of this kind, not all aspects of the arts were represented nor all issues covered at the colloquium. However, its aim was to bring together scholars with different academic perspectives to begin a discussion on the role of the Holy Qur’an in Islamic material culture, in order to generate interest and study in this area. We hope that the essays in this volume will provide material and impetus for further research, in addition to being a lasting document of the event. The colloquium formed an important part of the Institute’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations, and it is fortuitous that the published proceedings should appear during the fiftieth anniversary of His Highness the Aga Khan’s accession to the imamate