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Near East Collection Islamic Books and Bookbinding

Exhibit "Islamic Books and Bookbinding"

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Muslims learned the art of papermaking in the eighth century through their contacts with the Chinese, following their expansion into Central Asia. By the 11th-12th centuries, this technique reached Europe by way of Muslim Spain. Prior to the introduction of paper, Muslims used parchment (made from goatskin) and papyrus (indigenous to Egypt which they conquered in 641) for writing. Papermaking contributed to the flourishing of Islamic civilization in the middle ages, by providing readily accessible writing materials, and to the proliferation of the Islamic book and the craft of bookbinding.

The oldest surviving sample of early Islamic bookbinding is a fragment made of cedar wood dating back to 9th century Egypt. In general, early Islamic bindings show a Coptic influence: leather covers with pasteboard made of wood, papyrus or collated sheets of paper.


A distinctive feature of the medieval Islamic book is the flap, an extension of the back cover (the left side of an open book). It is tucked under the front cover when the book is closed, and has the dual purpose of protecting and preserving the book, and serving as a bookmark.

The decoration of early book covers was accomplished through the tracing of the design on the leather and its execution through tooling. Stamping was introduced later through Iran.

Lacquered bindings began to appear in Iran in the 15th century. From the 16th century onward, some book covers exhibited decorations similar to Persian miniatures. These new features are examples of the impact that Mongol rule in Iran had on the development of new art forms in that country and in the rest of the Islamic Middle East.

Tooled and stamped leather binding
(ca. 18th cent. A.D. / 12th cent. A.H.)

Dala'il al-khayrat. A work in Arabic, written in praise of the prophet Muhammad by the Moroccan mystic Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli (d. 1465).
Vowelled Naskhi script.

The binding, in traditional Arab style, incorporates Persian elements that became dominant in leather bindings from the 16th century onward. The compass-and-ruler border frames stamped medallions with floral motifs and the flap has been designed to match the cover.

Beinecke; Arabic ms. 40

Stamped leather binding
(1472 A.D. / 876 A.H.)

A treatise on the qualifications of Muslim judges.
Naskhi script.

All patterns on this binding have been created using stamps. The painstaking method of handtooling began to disappear in the 15th century, as larger and more elaborate stamps became common. The six-pointed star had no particular association with Judaism and was a common motif in Islamic art.

Beinecke; Arabic ms. 13

Ottoman binding
(18th cent.)

This Koran was copied in Naskhi script by Ali al-Qaramani.

Artists in Ottoman Turkey produced works that drew on centuries-long aesthetic traditions. This binding resembles the 16th century Persian style, also popular in Turkey. A subtle difference is the use of European-type floral patterns. European art, in particular French rococo, had an important influence on Turkish artists/artisans of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Beinecke; Arabic ms. 49

Lacquered Koran binding
(ca. 18th cent.)

This illuminated Koran is copied in ornate Naskhi script with brief marginal notes in Persian (in Nasta`liq script).

The elaborate decoration of this Koran is an example of the way European motifs were incorporated into Islamic arts in the 18th and 19th centuries. The techniques and overall design of the binding and the illuminated text are traditionally Persian, but the execution of the individual flowers, particularly within the medallions and on the interior cover, reflects a European influence.

Beinecke; Arabic ms. 56

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