Changing the scripts: from Kufic to round scripts in Qur’anic manuscripts

When we read a text the script influences the way we interpret the contents. Scripts provide an important key to decode the message we are reading and add meaningful information to what is written. For the same reason, when the visual form of the text undergoes a radical change, it is legitimate and important to understand why such change has occurred in the first place. Around the 10th century, Qur’anic manuscripts went through a radical transformation: while for centuries copies of the Qur’an had quite consistently displayed angular scripts, commonly referred to as Kufic, starting from the 10th century, manuscripts of the Qur’an began to be written in round scripts. Of course, this shift did not go unnoticed and scholars have tried to determine the reason for the change.

To clarify how scripts can and do influence the way we interpret a written text and how they can be used to bring an additional layer of meaning to a message, take what happened in December 2019 on a bus in Dresden, Germany. A bus driver decided to put on his bus door a sign reading “This bus is driven by a German driver”. To convey his message more clearly, he decided to print it using a blackletter typeface, resembling the Fraktur (“the Nazi typeface”). In fact, Fraktur has a far more complicated history and Hitler personally disliked blackletter typefaces. Regardless, using blackletters is a statement and sends a signal of emphasizing the “Germanness”.

Tweet by @Barldarian, showing a blackletters typeface sign on a bus door reading "This bus is driven by a German driver"
“What the hell is this about?”. The reaction of a bus rider in front of the sign written in blackletters “This bus is driven by a German driver” put on on a bus in Dresden, Germany. Dresden Public Transit Authority condemned the sign and the driver was let go.

Back to Qur’anic manuscripts, the first calligraphic script that gained prominence was the Kufic script. It is easily recognized for its angular style, with vertical strokes giving a visual rhythm to its typical horizontal format. Variations of Kufic emerged through time, but the main characteristic of the angular script remained. Calligraphers worked on the vertical strokes to decorate the script: in the floriated Kufic the vertical strokes are embellished with vegetal motifs, resembling leaves and flowers; in the knotted Kufic the strokes are interwoven to form intricated knots.

Kufic remained ubiquitous for centuries: it was used in Qur’anic manuscripts, as well as to decorate architecture, pottery, metalware, and portable works of art. From Umayyad Syria to Fatimid Egypt and Buyid Iran: everything was written in Kufic. And let’s admit it: it was beautiful.

Blue Qur'an, written in kufic script.
Folio from the so-called Blue Qur’an. This copy of the Qur’an was produced between the 9th and the 10th century probably in North Africa. The Blue Qur’an is written in Kufic script: the vertical strokes give rhythm to the horizontal format of the text.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.88.

Yet, with the 10th century, a new type of script started to emerge and to be used by Qur’an copists: the cursive script. The canonization of this new script is traditionally linked to the names of two famous calligraphers: Ibn Muqla (d. 940) and Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1022). In fact, many types of scripts fall under the broad category of cursive: Ibn Muqla standardized the “Six Pens”—NaskhThuluthTawqiRuq’ahMuhaqqaq, and Rayhan; Ibn al-Bawwab further developed the cursive scripts.

Slowly but surely, the cursive scripts started to replace the use of Kufic in Qur’anic manuscripts.

Scholars have proposed a variety of theories to answer the question: why did they change the script?

Yasser Tabbaa and the ideological explanation

Yasser Tabbaa, who studied thoroughly the Sunni revival, has linked the change in the script to the political turmoil in the Middle East in the 10th century. The 10th century was indeed a period of unrest, political fragmentation, and social change: the Fatimid dynasty, fervent Shia, was rising to power and very soon (in 969) would have conquered Egypt, posing a serious threat to the Sunni Abbasid empire. Abbasid power was also challenged by the Umayyads from Spain, whose caliphate was founded in 929 in Al-Andalus. Set against this background, the development and gradual adoption of the cursive scripts by Qur’an copyists, according to Tabbaa, had a strong political value. According to him, Ibn Muqla developed the new script as an endorsement to the seven canonical readings of the Qur’an canonized under the auspices of the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir. Later on, Ibn al-Bawwab and his generation would have used the cursive script as a re-assertion of Sunni orthodoxy—while the Fatimid would have decided to stick to the traditional Kufic script.

Tabbaa’s interpretation, though fascinating, has been rejected by scholars such as Sheila Blair and Alain George for a variety of reasons: the new cursive styles were used also in Fatimid manuscripts—and this would hardly have happened if the script had such strong ideological connotations; also there is no evidence that scribes used calligraphy to take a side in political and religious controversies at the time. Tabbaa’s theory is based on lack of evidence: since he knew no manuscript made in Egypt in cursive scripts before the 13th century, he assumed that such a manuscript could not have existed. As Sheila Blair cleverly pointed out, though, “what has survived does not necessarily reflect what was made.”

Also, we have the Palermo Qur’an: a copy of the Qur’an completed in 983 in Sicily—when the island belonged to the periphery of the Fatimid caliphate. The Palermo Qur’an’s script has been described by Jeremy Johns as “a round, almost proto-cursive version of Déroche’s New Style”.

Folio from Palermo Qur'an, written in a proto-cursive script.
Folio from the Palermo Qur’an, produced in Palermo, Sicily, 982-983. The Khalili Collection.

Déroche: a matter of pen and paper

Another theory behind the change of script was proposed by Francois Déroche, a specialist in codicology and paleography. His idea is that behind the change there are the material conditions of the act of writing. Therefore, he argued, there might have been a new type of pen, or a new method of sharpening the nib, or a new way to hold the pen, place it, and move it across the page. All these elements triggered the creation of a New Style in calligraphy.

Starting from the 9th century, we know that a deeply important change was happening in the scribes’ world: the introduction of paper as writing material and the gradual replacement of parchment. The new medium, in turn, caused a change in the ink that was used.

The changed material conditions might well have triggered a change in the calligraphic style—we know that in 14th-century China (from lishu to kaishu script) and Russia (from uncial to semi-uncial script) practical factors influenced the writing traditions.

Estelle Whelan’s (and Sheila Blair’s) historian perspective

Estelle Whelan was an art historian, and the theory she proposed closely reflected her training. She argued that the cursive script started to be widely used because of the new role of the chancery scribes as Qur’an copyists. Traditionally, Qur’anic manuscripts were copied, and never signed, by the members of the ulema—the body of Muslim scholars experts in Islamic theology and law. With the 10th century, though, copies of the Qur’an often contain colophons where we learn that the manuscript was made by a warraq (bookseller or copyist) or a katib (secretary or scribe).

According to Whelan, then, the chancery scribes started to copy Qur’anic manuscripts, introducing new materials, techniques, and styles.

Sheila Blair agrees with this explanation: the change from angular to round script “represents the triumph of the secretarial class” who had long used the round script and new materials (pen and ink) and surface (paper). The shift, points out Blair, was not abrupt and Kufic was used alongside the round script for long.

In her analysis, Sheila Blair underlines that Ibn Muqla’s and Ibn al-Bawwab’s names are usually associated with the development of the cursive script, but that in fact, they must have been only two of the many scribes that contributed to a slow, gradual change: a change that meant the old guard of the ulema class, with their Qur’anic manuscripts made for being displayed at the mosque, being displaced by a new class of scribes that produced copies for private patrons.

Needs of a changing society, according to Alain George

Alain George, in his The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy, while rejecting Yasser Tabbaa’s interpretation, stick to an explanation that focuses on the changes that were occurring in the Muslim society at that time. He argues that by the end of the 10th century, Islam was widely spread over different regions, and Muslim society included communities whose main language was not Arabic. These communities wanted to have access to the sacred text of their new religion and needed the copies to be written in a clear, easy-readable style—and a cursive script is way more readable than Kufic for a person not fully acquainted with the Qur’anic text, or Arabic language.

At the same time, the great number of copies of the Qur’an that the new Muslims needed, pushed copists outside the ulema class to produce Qur’anic manuscripts: this caused in turn a change in how the manuscripts were produced.

In George’s own words: “The major force behind this development lay in the transformation of Muslim society and the need of wider, less specialized audience to consult the Qur’an”. It’s not by chance that Alain George uses as an example the Palermo Qur’an, most probably commissioned by a local patron—who presumably was not of Arab descent.

Non-exclusive explanations

All these different explanations are not exclusive: rather, the different scholars stress different aspects and propose ways of reasoning in line with their interests and training experience. While Yasser Tabbaa’s theory of the round script being linked to the Sunni revival has been rejected and surpassed, the ones that Déroche, Whelan and Blair, and George have proposed, when combined, offer an accurate picture of what might have happened.

It is a fact that Muslim society changed radically during the 10th century: Muslim lands stretched from Spain to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, including new communities of believers that needed and wanted to approach the sacred text and were commissioning copies of the Qur’an for their personal use—and readability was a must.

This, in a moment when the scribal class was gaining more and more prominence in the Abbasid court, and gradually these scribes would have replaced the body of ulema, that until then had taken care of copying the sacred text. The new copyists, used to compiling chancery documents, brought with them new materials, techniques, and styles.

A last note on Ibn Muqla and Ibn al-Bawwab

I have already mentioned, borrowing from Sheila Blair, that Ibn Muqla and Ibn al-Bawwab are just two of the many calligraphers that, trained in the chancery, contributed to the gradual transformation of the script. So, one might ask: why do we keep considering them the originators of the new scripts?

Folios from the Ibn al-Bawwab Qur'an, displaying cursive script.
Two folios (nr. 278v and 279r ) of the Ibn al-Bawwab Qur’an. The Chester Beatty Library (Is 1431).

Again, Sheila Blair gives us an answer: it’s the modern-day obsession with the idea of the discovery, on the one hand, and with the designer’s signature on the other.

Today, every scientific discovery has a name attached to it. Likewise, stylistic innovators’, designers’, and artists’ names are showcased on design collections, furniture, and paintings—also to raise the price tags. Conversely, artistic change is more of a process than a sudden discovery. That is why it is important to celebrate Ibn Muqla and Ibn al-Bawwab as contributors to the development of the round script, a new style that they came to master, but we should not stubbornly label them as the originators of a new style.

It was a whole community of scribes that changed manuscript tradition, and those changes took centuries to occur.

bibliography

Blair, Sheila. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

George, Alain. The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy. London: Saqi Books, 2010.

Johns, Jeremy. “The Palermo Qur’an (ah 372/982–3 ce) and its Historical Context“. In The Aghlabids and their Neighbors, edited by Glaire D. Anderson, Corisande Fenwick, and Mariam Rosser-Owen, 587-610. Leiden: Brill, 2017.

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