The written word is glorified in Islam, and at its summit is the Qur’an. Venerated as the word of God, this creates a huge responsibility for those who commit to writing.
The oldest fragments of the Qur’an come from the 8th century. Their origins are usually unclear, but they are usually attributed to North Africa or the Middle East. From around the 11th century onwards, paper took over from the original vellum. Decoration went from the minimalism of early Kufic to later examples adorned with enough gold and colour to overwhelm the words completely.
The Qur’an was supplemented by other works with a religious theme. Books of hadith and prayers, genealogies of the Prophet Muhammad, and treatises on Islamic law were important genres. Works of astronomy, mathematics and medicine looked less spectacular than religious texts but they led the world in scholarship, ending up in libraries throughout the known world of that time.
A quite different tradition existed in the form of miniature paintings. Figural art continued to thrive in some Islamic lands, long after their incorporation into Islam. For most manuscripts, however, it is a combination of the written word and non-figural details that raises them to the sublime.