Whenever anyone thinks of the art of Islamic Spain it is usually the great architectural monuments which come to mind; the Alhambra must be as familiar to most Europeans as the Parthenon. Yet the Muslim craftsmen of Islamic Spain—Al-Andalus—were equally skilled in the arts of metalwork, pottery, woodcarving, tilework and—as the museums of Spain and Europe testify—the art of manuscript illumination.
The production of manuscripts was always a thriving concern in Islamic Spain, but never more so than during the 10th and 11th centuries, when Al-Andalus probably boasted the highest literacy rate in Europe. The great Dutch historian of Muslim Spain, Reinhart Dozy, declared that during the days of the Andalusian caliph 'Abdul-Rahman III (912-961), nearly everyone could read, and although doubtless this was an exaggeration, it is fair to assume that the country contained an unusually large percentage of literate people. Certainly book-collecting was one of the passions of the times. Both 'Abdul-Rahman and his son Al-Hakam II (961-976), amassed huge libraries. The son's library is said to have numbered 400,000 works, with the catalogue alone filling 44 volumes and many of the works lavishly decorated by the scribes, gilders, printers and binders.
The Koran, of course, as the Holy Book of Islam, was richly embellished. By the 11th century most Korans began and ended with double pages of decoration and contained elaborate surah-chapter-headings and marginal embellishments. The opening and terminal pages were geometrical in character, usually based upon a circle within a square. They frequently included floral and vegetable motifs and the total design was enclosed within a knotted or interlaced border.
Unfortunately, knowledge of Andalusian manuscript illumination is limited; for large quantities of books suffered wholesale destruction in Spain on numerous occasions. Orte such time, according to the 19th-century Spanish historian Don Pascual de Gayangos, was in 1499, when Cardinal Ximénez de Cisneros burned a veritable mountain of Arabic manuscripts in Granada (on the assumption that anything written in Arabic had to be a Koran and therefore a danger to "the faith.")
Perhaps this wide destruction accounts for the strange absence today of western Arab-world manuscripts containing miniatures such as those commonly seen in Turkey, Persia and India. In fact, only three are known to have survived. One is a copy of the treatise on astronomy by Al-Sufi (died 986); the second is a 13th-century love story titled after its hero and heroine "Bayad and Riyad," and the third is a book of fables, "The Consolation of the Sovereign," illustrated by a Morisco in the 16th century.
Even with the Korans it is often difficult to establish an Andalusian origin. Because of the close cultural ties with Morocco prior to the end of the 16th century there was constant interchange of population and it is difficult to decide whether an "Andalusian" Koran was actually written in Spain or whether it was written in North Africa by an Andalusian refugee—especially since the first to leave the conquered Kingdom of Granada were the noble families and the well-to-do, the natural patrons of the arts.
But as the art declined in Spain, it flourished in North Africa wherein the 17th and 18th centuries painters turned their attention to many other works. Prominent among these was a well-known collection of prayers and devotions called Dala'il al-Khayrat, "The Indications of Grace," composed by Muhammad bin Sulay-man al-Juzuli, who died in 1465. This work offered much greater possibilities to the illustrator, with as many as 60 illuminated pages, including paintings of Mecca and Medina and an elaborate genealogy of the Prophet. One of the earliest copies of this work was made in 1639 and at one stage belonged to the famous historian of Islamic Spain, Don José Conde (1765-1820), who inscribed his name in Arabic on the cover: "The owner of this book is Yusuf Antun Qunday. May God lengthen his days!"
The designs adorning religious manuscripts, however, were more than mere decoration. Attempts to create an ideal symmetry also indicate the feeling of a divinely ordered universe as if the artists were reflecting the perfection of the Almighty's plan as revealed within the sacred scriptures.
Although printing and lithography appeared in the Arab world in the 19th century, many manuscripts were still written and illustrated by hand, particularly prayer books and Korans. Illumination endured into the 20th century—as can be seen in the opening pages of a little book of prayers written about 1910 either in Morocco or Rio de Oro. But this must have been one of the last manuscripts to be so produced. Today it is an extinct art.
David James, who studied Arabic and art history at the University of Durham, is assistant librarian of the Chester Beatty Library and teaches at the National University of Ireland.