Historical Images: The Blue Qur’an from the Fatimid Period, “A Very Spiritual Piece”

Compiled by Malik Merchant
Editor, Simergphotos.com & Simerg.com

INTRODUCTION: On Sunday November 25, 2012, Simergphotos began a weekly/bi-weekly series of historical illustrations that underline an artistic, ethical, moral, religious or scientific theme. This fourth piece is on the Blue Qur’an, an exquisite work of art, which has been referred to as “the Picasso of Islamic Art, because the folios (leaves, pages) are so immediately identifiable.” [1]


I am not a Muslim, I don’t read Arabic. I know the sheet from the Blue Qur’an is in kufic script, a religious script. What I am drawn to is the deep blue, the golden letters. Just the intensity of this coloration tells me that it’s a very spiritual piece. So that’s a piece I feel very strongly about without understanding — Marsha Hill, Curator of Egyptian Art, Metropolitan Museum [2].

Folio from the "Blue Qur'an," Fatimid period (909–1171), second half of 9th–mid-10th centuryTunisia, probably Qairawan Gold and silver on indigo-dyed parchment  11 15/16 x 15 13/16 in. (30.4 x 40.2 cm) Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2004 (2004.88)

Folio from the “Blue Qur’an,” (sura 30: 28-32), Fatimid period (909–1171), second half of 9th–mid-10th century Tunisia, probably Qairawan. Gold and silver on indigo-dyed parchment 11 15/16 x 15 13/16 in. (30.4 x 40.2 cm) Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2004. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art..


This folio was once bound in a multi-volume manuscript known as the Blue Qur’an because of its unique indigo-dyed surface. It is one of the most memorable and celebrated works of Islamic art. Although the calligraphy is the type of angular kufic common to most contemporaneous Qur’an manuscripts, it was copied in gold instead of black ink. The gold and the use of now-oxidized silver to mark verse separation make it a uniquely lavish, prized, and costly work. Firm chronology and places of production for early Arabic calligraphy are far from understood, but it seems likely that the Blue Qur’an was copied in North Africa—probably intended as an endowment for the mosque of Kairouan (Tunisia)—in the early tenth century.

….continued after image

A folio from the Blue Qur'an, Sura al-Furqân XXV, verses 55-60.  Credit: Catalogue Chefs-d’oeuvre Islamiques de l’Aga Khan Museum

A bi-folium from the Blue Qur’an, Sura al-Furqân XXV, verses 55-60. Credit: Collection of the Aga Khan Museum. Copyright Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Geneva.


If so, it may have been commissioned by the recently established and fast-rising Fatimid dynasty (909–1171), which would conquer Egypt and Syria and found the city of Cairo. The choice of blue, gold, and silver may represent an attempt to emulate and surpass imperial purple-dyed Byzantine codices in richness, thereby making a powerful political and religious statement. The largest section of the manuscript is in Tunis, and the volume from which the present page comes was apparently dispersed during the Ottoman domination in North Africa. [3]

A bifolium of the Blue Qur'an, Surah al-Baqarah, verses 197-201. Kufic script. The manuscript is originally in Qairawan, Tunisia. Credit: Wikipedia

A bi-folium of the Blue Qur’an, Surah al-Baqarah, verses 197-201. Credit: Wikipedia


Preliminary analyses has established that the indigo used for the dye was imported from Egypt or India, countries with which trade was beginning to develop in the AH 4th/AD10th century. The gold-leaf was glued to the parchment using egg white. The writing is compact and lacks any diacritical signs over the vowels. The letters are not stippled with dots. Contrary to the views of certain art historians, the various pages of Qur’ans copied onto blue parchment and kept in a number of different museums and collections throughout the world originate neither from Mashhad in Iran nor from Spain. They all belong to the Blue Qur’an from the library of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. This is confirmed by similarities in the measurements, the number of lines, the writing and the gilding.

The simple and archaic kufic calligraphy is reminiscent of the writing in other Qur’ans of the 4th/10 century taken from the old library of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. This is corroborated by the palaeographic study carried out by the art historian M. Bloom, who showed that the calligraphy is of Maghrebi origin and can be dated from the 4th/10th century, and even from the second half of that century.

The Fatimid origins of the Blue Qur’an are corroborated by studies conducted by Bloom. [4]


A folio of the Fatimid Blue Qur’an which was recently on display at an exhibition on Islamic art at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. See Andrew Kosorok's impression about the page.

A folio of the Fatimid Blue Qur’an which was recently on display at an exhibition on Islamic art at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. See Andrew Kosorok’s impression about the page.


I have seen in person only a single page of your work, and that is filling to my spirit. The Tongue of Angels, although I am unable to read it myself, flows across the page in Kufic script in crystallized transcendence. I am unable to tell what the symbols mean, but I can feel through your work what they mean. The Qur’an is the Bridge between our mortal state and our Creator, a miracle proving the esteem and hope in which the Infinite holds us limited and feeble beings….by your work you have shown me what the words truly signify. God is beautiful and loves beauty, and your work is a thousand-year witness to this eternal truth — Andrew Kosorok, adjunct sculpture professor, Brigham Young University. [5] 

Date posted: Sunday, December 30, 2012.
Date updated: Wednesday, January 2, 2012 (additional details added)

Please click Home Page for links to fine photo essays and historical images.


Credits for text and photo:
[1]  Kindredsubjects blogspot – Blue Qur’an
[2] Please click Metropolitan Museum of Art – Believing, for Marsha Hill’s 4 minute presentation, Art as a gatekeeper to the world of Belief, a part of the Museum’s enlightening weekly series Connections.

[3] Please click http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2004.88
[4] http://www.discoverislamicart.org/ (Museum with No Frontiers)
[5] Read Andrew Kosorok’s Thank You Letter to the Makers of the Fatimid Blue Qur’an. A folio from the Blue Qur’an was on display at BYU’s recent exhibition, Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture.


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