“Imagine. All the artists of the time would work at an atelier. And the copying of the Quran was one of the highest arts. So then the designs would get copied onto other portable objects, and we start seeing similar motifs on all sorts of items,” says Amira Salleh, gesturing to a display case that contained a Quran from Safavid-era Iran.
Zahra Khademi walks over to an adjacent display, which showed a golden-hued Quran from 19th century Kashmir, with the distinctive Chinar leaf motif that is native to the region.
“Flowers and leaves are the most common designs on Quran covers because figures of living creatures are forbidden. Arabesques are popular, they represent the endless nature of God. The rose and nightingale (motif) – the gul u-bulbul – can be seen in many Persian-influenced book covers. They represent the beloved and the lover, where God is often viewed as the beloved,” says Zahra.
Both women are co-curators of the Islamic Bookbinding exhibition, currently on, at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.
“I am from Iran. I do research with this museum, so I have been here in Kuala Lumpur for five years now,” says Zahra.
“And I am Malaysian, of course,” adds Amira with a laugh. “Do you know, every item in this exhibition is from the museum’s own collection? Many people are surprised when they hear that.”
“When we put together the exhibition, it was a little like going on a treasure hunt. We had to investigate the history and significance of each piece we displayed,” says Zahra.
Amira points to a prayer book from 17th century China.
“See the swastika and Chinese characters on the cover? One of the most interesting aspects of doing this exhibition was seeing how Islam merged and evolved with local cultures, how the original identity did not change,” reveals Amira.
“And this is the masterpiece of our collection,” says Zahra.
“It shows two Shahs of the Qajar Dynasty in Iran, Fath Ali Shah Qajar and his son Mohammad Shah Qajar. This kind of court scenes were very popular with the Qajar rulers. They actually sent their artists to France to learn this type of portraiture.”
The exhibition, featuring 70 artefacts, is divided into a few sections. It first begins with the history and types of bookbinding, followed by the designs and techniques, and ends with the constituting elements that form a bookbinding.
The book cover materials are mainly leather, lacquerwork and textiles in addition to few bindings made with metal and decorated with precious gems. Some manuscripts also come with additional housings such as boxes, pouches and slipcases.