From an enigmatic binding stamp to a holistic reassessment: the St Andrews Qur’an

Tuesday 20 December 2016

This week we have a one-off post by Dr Keelan Overton, reporting on her work as a Visiting Scholar during 2016. You can apply to the 2017 Visiting Scholarship Scheme here:

Figure 1 (left). Detail of the scalloped tooled medallion associated with Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II of Bijapur (r. 1580-1627), front doublure of the St Andrews Qur’an. Figure 2 (right). Detail of the same, rear doublure of the St Andrews Qur’an, (r. 1580-1627), St Andrews Qur’an.

In an essay in an edited volume on Indo-Persian culture (2000), Francis Richard observed the following critical connection between the St Andrews Qur’an and a manuscript preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France: “On fol. 3a [of the Paris manuscript], a very large round seal bears a short citation from Sura II, 129 [actually 2:130], of the Qur’ān, concerning the religion of Ibrahim, the true believer.  It is the seal of the library of Ibrahim II of Bijapur [Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II, r. 1580-1627], visible on some other manuscripts, and even as a central medallion, stamped on the binding of books, as is the case with a Timurid Qur’ān of AH 845, now MS. 0.19 of the St. Andrew’s University Library of Scotland (Richard, 244).” Indeed, both doublures (interior covers) of the Qur’an’s binding feature a large scalloped medallion (figs. 1-2) framing an epigraphic circle that closely replicates the seal of the ruler in question (fig. 3). The quality of these medallions – caused by pressure stamping with a metal tool – is extraordinary.

Figure 3. Impression of the Qur’anic seal of Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II (inscribed with Qur’an 2:130; diameter: 41 mm.), from a Divan of Jami, Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Ms. 260 (Photograph by the author, 2009)
Figure 4. Detail of gold-flecked paper and illuminated chapter (surah) heading, St Andrews Qur’an. (Photograph by the author, 2016)
Figure 5. Lower right corner of a standard text panel and gold-flecked margin, St Andrews Qur’an. (Photograph by the author, 2016)
Fig. 6.1 Illuminated incipit page (right), St Andrews Qur’an.
Fig. 6.2 Illuminated incipit page (left), St Andrews Qur’an.

In the field of Islamic manuscript studies, the St Andrews Qur’an is well known as a luxury codex of the highest caliber. Its gold-flecked paper, calligraphy in at least four scripts, and meticulous illumination are the finest of their kind (figs. 4-5). The manuscript’s illuminated incipit pages exemplify the sober technical perfection of fifteenth-century Timurid Herat (fig. 6.1 6.2, 6.3 and 6.4), and this stylistic association seems supported by the colophon’s date of 845/1441-42 and naming of Abu Sa‘id (r. 1451-69), a ruler linked to fine examples of tilework and book arts. The Qur’an’s Timurid provenance has been emphasized in two momentous exhibitions: the British Library’s The Qur’an of 1976 and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s Timur and the Princely Vision of 1988-89. The former’s catalog also highlighted the manuscript’s later owner, Tipu Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-99), who ruled in India three centuries after the supposed Timurid patron. The doublure stamps associated with Ibrahim II, the early modern ruler of the Deccani city of Bijapur, therefore imply a critical intermediary sojourn in the biography of the book.

Figure 6.3
Figure 6.3 Detail from illuminated incipit pages, St Andrews Qur’an.
Figure 6.4
Figure 6.4 Detail from illuminated incipit pages, St Andrews Qur’an.
Figure 7. Front cover of the binding of the St Andrews Qur’an, with a small note written by Tipu Sultan (r. 1782-99) of Mysore.
Figure 8. Marginalia by a professional scribe, period of Tipu Sultan, St Andrews Qur’an. (Photograph by the author, 2016)

During its peripatetic life between Greater Iran, India, and the United Kingdom, the St Andrews Qur’an was routinely modified, annotated, and “improved” to satisfy the needs of distinct contexts and audiences. The most indelible, and at times intrusive and personal, interventions transpired at the court of Tipu Sultan. The ruler himself composed the small note on the front cover (fig. 7), as attested by comparison to a British Library manuscript (my thanks to Jake Benson and Ursula Sims-Williams for this connection), and a professional scribe wrote detailed instructions for liturgical use throughout the margins (fig. 8). Comparable marginalia is found in other Qur’ans associated with Tipu, including an example today in the University of Edinburgh. The link between the Edinburgh and St Andrews Qur’ans rests in a seminal period in the history of Indian and British book collections. Upon Tipu’s defeat by the East India Company at Srirangapatna in 1799, his library was transferred to the College of Fort William in Calcutta, and by 1805-6, his Qur’ans and other volumes were selected for dispersal amongst British collections. St Andrews was the lucky recipient of this example, as documented by two inscriptions on an opening folio (fig. 9).

Figure 9
Figure 9. Endpaper with inscriptions dated 15 August 1805 and 1806, St Andrews Qur’an.

My study of the St Andrews Qur’an began in 2010, while I was completing a dissertation on book culture in Ibrahim’s Bijapur. The notion that a version of the ruler’s large seal, for impression on paper, was also used to mark the leather doublures of his books was intriguing. In the late medieval and early modern context (Mamluk, Safavid, Ottoman, Mughal, ‘Adil Shahi), ownership was generally conveyed on the binding’s spine or envelope flap, meaning it would be visible to an external viewer. On the initial pages of the book, it could also take the form of an ex libris in the shape of a shamsa (sunburst). In both types of documentation, the phrase “made for the library (or treasury) of” was typically followed by the ruler’s name and titles. To date, I have only located one other example of ownership occurring in a comparable format on doublures (see Ohta, fig. 11). In this Mamluk instance, the ruler (then an amir) is explicitly named, whereas in the St Andrews example, Ibrahim is simply alluded to via a Qur’anic verse honoring his namesake, the prophet Ibrahim/Abraham (2:130). This verse was also selected to decorate Ibrahim’s tomb, the Ibrahim Rauza, and was part of a larger effort to present the ruler in an orthodox mode (Wannell).

Ibrahim’s scalloped seal stamp
A lower quality corner stamp

Although I included a brief section on the Qur’an’s binding in my 2011 dissertation, it remained elusive in many respects. What explained the discrepancy in quality between Ibrahim’s scalloped seal stamp and the four surrounding corner stamps? What stimulated this apparently novel approach to conveying ownership? Was there anything else in the book that could be confidently linked to Bijapur? As for the textblock within, the colophon had clearly been altered, and several clues indicated that this canonical manuscript was perhaps little understood. It became clear that a holistic reassessment (textblock and binding and afterlife) was imperative and that such a comprehensive “archaeology” would require interdisciplinary collaboration.  I hence invited Kristine Rose Beers, an expert in Islamic bookbinding, and Bruce Wannell, a linguist who had recently concluded an epigraphic analysis of Ibrahim’s tomb, to join the project.

Keelan Overton and Kristine Rose Beers
Figure 10
Figure 10. Detecting papers inserts with the use of a light sheet. (Photograph by the author, 2016)
Figure 11. Detail of a paper insert in the vertical panel flanking the text in black naskh. (Photograph by the author, 2016)

During the August 2016 residency, our team investigated the codex from multiple angles. Kristine conducted an extensive structural analysis, including identifying endpapers, examining the technique of gold-flecking, parsing through the binding’s layers, and assessing areas of inserts (figs. 10-11), heavy sizing (fig. 12), and effaced inscriptions. This examination was facilitated by the use of basic imaging tools (UV torches and light sheets), but it became clear that multi-spectral imaging might help to recover now lost inscriptions (the team continues to work toward this end, with the kind support of the Library staff).

Figure 12. Detecting areas of heavy sizing with the use of a light sheet. (Photograph by the author, 2016)
Kristine Rose Beers and Erica Kotze using a camera with an infra-red filter with Maia Sheridan, manuscript archivist looking on

A second major task focused on a complete reading of the lengthy colophon (Bruce being the Arabic specialist), and Bruce and I also strove to identify the Tipu-period interventions, a task that led to additional research of manuscripts in Edinburgh, Cambridge, and London. Although I had presumed that two weeks would be sufficient to “mine” all physical, stylistic, linguistic, and biographical aspects of the volume, it was only on the last day that my eye centered on a series of major discrepancies between the left and right-hand pages of the famous illuminated opening. The residency thus concluded on an enigmatic note that exemplifies the layered and multivalent manuscript in question.

In October, I presented our research at the Historians of Islamic Art Association Biennial Conference at the Courtauld Institute of Art and received excellent feedback. We are close to offering a reattribution and reassessment of the manuscript’s constituent parts, as well as a detailed history of its life over four centuries. Our findings will be published in about a year, in an interdisciplinary volume that I am editing on cultural exchange between Iran and the Deccan. Until then, the detective hunt continues.


I am sincerely grateful to the Library team (Gabriel, Maia, Rachel, Briony, Erica, Moira, Sean) for awarding and accommodating the 2016 residency, as well as several earlier visits. I also thank Jake Benson, Sheila Blair, Francis Richard, and Ursula Sims-Williams for invaluable insights that have informed this project.

-Dr Keelan Overton
Independent Scholar, California

Works cited and further reading

Beers, Kristine Rose. “Toward an Archaeology of Islamic Bookbinding.” Presentation given at the Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art, Doha, 2015.

Chester Beatty Conservation Blog,

Lentz, Thomas W. and Glenn D. Lowry. Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century. Los Angeles and Washington: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1989.

Lings, Martin and Yasin Hamid Safadi. The Quran: Catalogue of an Exhibition of Quran Manuscripts at the British Library 3 April – 15 August 1976. London: British Library, 1976.

Ohta, Alison. “Filigree Bindings of the Mamluk Period.” Muqarnas 21 (2004), 267-76.

Overton, Keelan. “A Collector and His Portrait: Book Arts and Painting for Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II of Bijapur (r. 1580-1627).” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2011.

___.  “Between Herat, Bijapur, and Mysore: The Layers and Lives of the St Andrews Qur’an.” Presentation given at the Historians of Islamic Art Association Biennial Conference, London, October 2016.

___. “Book Culture, Royal Libraries, and Persianate Painting in Bijapur, circa 1580-1630.” Muqarnas 33 (2016), 91-154.

Overton, Keelan, Kristine Rose Beers, and Bruce Wannell. “The Layers and Life of the St Andrews Qur’an.” In Iran and the Deccan: Persianate Art, Culture and Talent in Circulation, c. 1400-1700, ed. Keelan Overton. Indiana University Press, forthcoming.

Richard, Francis. “Some Sixteenth-century Deccani Persian Manuscripts in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.” In The Making of Indo-Persian Culture, eds. Muzaffar Alam, Françoise ‘Nalini’ Delvoye and Marc Gaborieau. New Delhi: Manohar, 2000, 239-49.

Wannell, Bruce. “The Epigraphic Program of the Ibrahim Rauza in Bijapur.” In Sultans of the South: Arts of India’s Deccan Courts, 1323-1687, eds. Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011, 252-67.

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