A Small, Maltese Qurʾān

Penn has an eclectic mix of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish manuscripts that are now being cataloged as part of the Manuscripts of the Muslim World (MMW) project. The project is cataloging and digitizing previously ‘hidden’ materials from Penn and other Philadelphia area repositories. Along the way, lots of fun discoveries are being made about items that have been sitting, uncatalogued, on the shelves for years.

One of the first discoveries we made as part of the MMW project is Ms. Codex 1904, a small format Qurʾān. It measures only 87 mm square and from the outside, it looks much like any other pocket-sized Qurʾān with a blind tooled cover and a flap-style binding. A binding with a flap on the left side that goes over the fore-edge and under the upper cover is quite common for codices produced in the Islamicate world.

UPenn Ms. Codex 1904, front cover, blind tooled with flap binding
UPenn Ms. Codex 1904, former housing

When this Qurʾān first came into the collection at Penn, in 1966, it was housed in a bright red box with “al-Qurʾān Arabic MS. in Kufic III Century A.H.” stamped in gold on the spine. Were that stamp entirely true, then the manuscript would have been produced in the 800s CE, which is too early to be in any way likely, since only very few Arabic codices exist from that time period. Guessing solely from the outside, the fact that the codex is square instead of rectangular gives us a clue that it is probably North African in origin.

When we open the codex, we see that the hand is, in fact, a neat Maghribī, a word used to describe the style of writing from North Africa. The text is written in brown ink with red vowels. There are also yellow and blue dots scattered over the text. The copy is missing the first folio, so it begins with the beginning of the second sūrah (chapter). The missing folio would have held the opening chapter, al-Fātiḥah, and would likely have had an illuminated border or headpiece as well.

UPenn Ms. Codex 1904, f. 1r detail, beginning of al-Baqarah (2)

Since there are two other illuminated headings in the manuscript (f. 50r, 172v) in addition to decorated sūrah headings, we can get an idea of what kind of illuminations the copy would have had on the first leaf verso, where texts usually begin in Islamicate manuscripts. The colors used are blue, red, yellow. And, although it doesn’t sparkle in the picture, the somewhat splotchy decorations around the chapter headings are a flaking gold color and look exactly as if they had been written in glitter pen.


Now that we know this Qurʾān was likely produced in a North African context, we can see if the colophon tells us anything else about the writer.

UPenn Ms. Codex 1904, f. 238r, colophon framed in a yellow braid-pattern box with marginal medallion in red and blue

The colophon says that the copy was completed on Thursday morning in the mosque of the Muslims on the island of Malta, on 16 Muḥarram 1065 A.H (which is November 26, 1654 CE). The copyist gives his name as Muḥammad ibn ʻAbd al-Wāḥid ibn ʻAbd al-Qādir al-Fāsī (from Fez, Morocco). He further says that he is currently a prisoner on Malta, adding ‘May God destroy it’ after each mention of the island. That refrain implies that although he was able to produce art while being imprisoned, he certainly was not happy to be there and did not see eye to eye with The Order of the Knights of St. John who were ruling Malta at the time of the copying of this Qurʾān.

Although the colophon gives a comparatively large amount of information about the timing and location of the production of this copy, what we know about this manuscript’s journey begins and ends there, for now. Once this Qurʾān was produced, we know virtually nothing about where it went and how it got there. We can say that at some point in its more recent history, an owner of this manuscript added some blue lined paper written in bright pink ink describing how much and when to read portions of the book to the inside back cover and the last page verso.

Although we cannot come to very many definitive conclusions about this manuscript, the fact that it is a Qurʾān produced on Malta in the 17th century makes it an intriguing holding for the Penn libraries. The digital version of this manuscript and the other Islamicate manuscripts donated by Gordon A. Block, Jr. in 1966 are all now available on OPenn. His Arabic donations, given as a memorial to his mother Mrs. Reba Fleisher Block, include two copies of a popular prayer book, Dalāʼil al-khayrāt, several other Qurʾāns and a lovely calendar scroll. They are all available on OPenn so that anyone who likes may take images and do more research on these newly-cataloged items.

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