Kufic, Mashq and the other early Quranic scripts

Shortly after the death of Muhammad a number of written codices of the Quran appeared until Uthman ordered the destruction of all but one and further ordered that copies be made of this codex to be sent to the various provinces.

From this text further copies were made and the written manuscripts began to increase in number. Three different forms of script developed in the Hijaz, particularly in the cities of Mecca and Medina. One of these was the al-Ma’il script, unique in the early days in that the letters were vertically inscribed and were written at a slight angle. The very word al-Ma’il means “the slanting” script.” The upright character of this script gave rise to the use of a vertical format for each codex in the form that most books are published today. This script survived for about two centuries before falling into disuse and all manuscripts bearing its form are of obvious antiquity. A sign of its early origin is the fact that it employed no vowel marks or diacritical points and also had no verse counts or chapter headings. Only a very few examples of Quranic script in al-Ma’il survive, the most well-known being a manuscript occasionally placed on public display in the British Museum in London.

The second early script originating’ from Medina was the Mashq, the “extended” style which continued to be used for many centuries and which went through a process of development and improvement. Unlike the al-Ma’il , the Mashq was horizontal in form and can be distinguished by its somewhat cursive and leisurely style. Gradually the developed Mashq script came to closely resemble the Kufic script, yet it always retained its particular characteristic, namely a balanced dispersal of its words and letters in varying degrees of density. It was supplemented by coloured diacritical points and vowel marks in the same way that the more predominant Kufic script was in later years.

A script which also derives from the Hijaz is the Naskh the “inscriptional” script. This took some time to come into vogue but, when it did, it largely displaced the Kufic script and became the standard for most Qurans from the eleventh century onwards and is the script used in virtually all printed Qurans today. A very good example of a complete Quran text in Naskh which is hardly different to contemporary Qurans is the manuscript done by Ibn al- Bawwab at Baghdad in 1001 AD which is now in the Chester Beatty Library at Dublin in Ireland. It differs slightly from the Naskh script of most Mamluk Qurans and has a more oriental character.

The script that most concerns any student of the earliest Ouran manuscripts is the Kufic script, properly known as al-Khatt al-Kufi. its title does not hint at any particular characteristic form of its script as the others from the Hijaz do but indicates its place of origin. It derives from Kufa in Iraq where Ibn Mas’ud’ s codex had been highly prized until Uthman ordered its destruction. It was only after this event that the Quran text as we know it came to be written in Kufic script in this region and it took some time to become predominant but, when it did, it attained a pre-eminence for three centuries as the approved script of the Quran until it was largely displaced by the Naskh script. It reached its perfection during the late eighth century (up to one hundred and fifty years after Muhammad’s death) and thereafter it became widely used throughout the Muslim world. Like the Mashq script it employs a largely horizontal, extended style and as a result most of the codices compiled in Kufic were oblong in format. Its letters are more rigid and austere in character than the Mashq script, however. large numbers of manuscripts and single leaves of Quran texts in Kufic survive from various centres, most of which date from the late eighth century to the early eleventh century. Here too the text became supplemented with vowel marks and coloured diacritical points in time.

No Kufic Qurans are known to have been written in Mecca and Medina in the very early days when the al-Ma’il and Mashq scripts were most regularly used and none of the surviving early Kufic texts are attributed by modern scholars to this region. In any event even the rare complete Kufic Qurans that have survived lack proper colophons giving the time and place of the transcribing of the text and the name of its calligrapher so that it is virtually impossible to date or locate them with any degree of certainty.

The history of the written text of the Quran would tend to suggest, as a general principle, that all manuscripts in the al-Mail or Mashq scripts derive from the Hijaz, usually the second century of Islam with the exception of the developed Mashq texts which would be of later date and more widespread origin, Surviving Kufic Qurans can generally be dated from the late eighth century depending on the extent of development in the character of the script in each case, and it is grossly improbable that any of these were written in Mecca or Medina before the beginning of the ninth century.


Extract from Jam’ Al-Quran by John Gilchrist

One Response to “The Quranic Scripts”


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