Three Penn art history scholars were given a challenge last November: Put together an exhibition on the Qur’an in three months. Despite the lack of lead time, they managed to assemble a rich trove of texts from local sources. The exhibition at Van Pelt Library’s Rosenwald Gallery, The Qur’an: Revelation, Illumination, and Tradition, also brought to light numerous objects that had been languishing in storage for years.
“It was really exciting to find out there was all of this material right around us,” said Stephennie Mulder, a graduate student who curated the event along with Yasmine Al-Saleh G’02 and Rebecca Steffens, also a graduate student.
In addition to a Qur’an that belonged to a Turkish soldier during the Russian-Turkish War of 1887, a match-box sized Qur’an from India, and an 18th-century Qur’an from Iran (with a frontispiece so ornate it took the illuminator six months to decorate one page), they came up with something thoroughly modern: a digital Qur’an that they acquired from Arabic.com.
While the Qur’an as a sacred book is treated with “a tremendous amount of respect,” says Mulder—citing, for example, the rule of keeping it off the ground—“to take the Qur’an and put it into digital form, to put on headphones so you can listen to the recitation at the same time as you’re reading the Arabic or English translation —does, I think, profoundly change the experience of this book. I wouldn’t want to say exactly how, not being a practicing Muslim, but I think that’s the sort of question we wanted to bring up.”
Yet throughout history, the exhibition points out, the Qur’an’s words have been put on other surfaces—from tiles to textiles to protective amulets. One example on display, a silk fragment that may have been part of a cenotaph cover, was found tucked in a drawer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The exhibition’s purpose was not to look upon the books as objets d’art, Mulder explained. “We all felt we wanted to bring the Qur’an back down to earth for people … and bring back the point that the Qur’an is something that informs everyday life for Muslims on multiple levels. We wanted to show both the way the book is created and also the way the Qur’an comes out from between the codex, the covers of the book, itself.”
The curators worked under the direction of their advisor, Dr. Renata Holod, professor of the history of art, as well as Dr. Barbara von Schlegell, assistant professor of religious studies, who initiated the exhibition. Von Schlegell also organized a conference in February for the Penn Humanities Forum in which scholars aired competing theories over when and how the Qur’an was collected and canonized.
“It’s really impressive,” von Schlegell said of the exhibition. “They found all this rich Arabic material, quite old and precious, that before the show nobody had ever seen.”