Mahmoud Malik Saako

Qur’an. 16th-17th century. Mossi in Togo. Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich [Inventar Nr: 20-3-1a]


This Qur’an at the Museum Fünf Kontinente is handwritten in black, red, gold or yellow on brown paper. It is bound with a leather strap between two hard paper covers at both ends and is then placed in a leather case which is closed with another leather strap wrapped around it. All 114 chapters of the Qur’an are intact. It came from the Mossi in Togo in 1953 but was brought to the museum in 2014. This Qur’an is one of the oldest Qur’ans from West Africa, probably dated between the 16th-17th century, if not earlier. This assumption is based on similar Qur’ans found elsewhere in West Africa such as Mali, Ghana, Nigerian Ivory Coast etc. The paper is very dirty with finger marks on them suggesting it was intensively used - perhaps they were the only Qur'ans in the communities. The paper is very fragile possibly indicating the old age of this particular Qur’an.

  • Mahmoud Malik Saako
    Mahmoud Malik Saako

    The Qur'an is typical for the time and the West African region in general. The idea originated in North Africa such as Morocco and Algeria. But the writing was later, influenced by the Hausa and Mande scholars in West Africa. The texts in this Qur'an are the same as the original from Arabia. But there are differences in the kind of calligraphy found in these Qur'ans and those found in Arabia. One important aspect of these Qur'ans is the calligraphy that comes after the beginning of a new chapter or Surah. Again, the use of red, gold and black colour in writing the Qur'an makes them unique.


    Artistic features of the Qur'an

    • The leather cover used to protect the Qur'an was designed with some relief using black ink. It shows that leather workers were very important in society. Similar covers are made but in a form of a bag for the Qur'an while others are wooden covers with a leather thong used to hold the wooden covers together with the Quran.
    • The Holy Qur’an has Ayahs (words or verses) and Surahs (chapters). There is Bismillah before each Surah. The Qur'an has 114 Surahs or chapters.
    • Calligraphy works in some portions of the Qur'an. Calligraphy as the art of beautiful, decorative writing has existed in Islam since the word of God, the Qur'an, began to be written. In West Africa which was known to the Muslim world as Bilad-al-Sudan (land of the blacks), Islamic calligraphy naturally came with Islam. They are just symbolic to honour the holy text.
    • The use of three colours in writing such as gold, red and black: This shows how versatile the person was in giving an artistic impression of the Qur'an based on the Kanemi
    • A large decorated sign known as shurafah (ennoblement) is written at the end of every fifteen hizb (that is the division of the Qur’an into parts and portions). This is done as a means of honouring the holy text. (See images below.)


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    The shurafah or ennoblement at the beginning or end of a chapter (surah) is indicated in the two images. The gold, red and black colours are used to give it a splendid look. (Courtesy Museum Fünf Kontinente. Nr. 20-3-1. Photo Kaestner)


    Material used for the Qur'an

    The paper used is brown and a bit hard as compared to today’s paper used for printing. The ink is mixed in a variety of colours. There is jet-black ink that shines. Then there is a colour of black mixed with red and another colour which is neither black nor red. The ink is obtained through the following method. The roots of the desert date tree are collected and burnt into charcoal. This charcoal is then scraped into fine powder. The powder is filtered through a light piece of cloth. Water and gum Arabic are then added and the whole mixture is left to warm up in the sun. The mixture once prepared in this way gives out a very nice smell and its taste is very sweet.


    Another method employed to produce the calligrapher's ink is to obtain the chaff of bulrush-millet (Pennisetum Spicotum), chips of the gum-yielding acacia (sieberiono), pods of the plant Egyptian mimosa (Acacia Arobico), slag from smithy and some bits of iron. All these items are then mixed with water. The mixture is filtered and boiled and once it is cooled it becomes ink. If the calligrapher wants a reddish colour or magenta colour imported dye of green or magenta colour is added. This type of ink is meant for the writing of the alphabet only and is always done in pure black. The ink is usually stored in small clay ink pots or small round gourds. The recent time, the ink is kept in small bottles.


    What are the general specifics of these early Qur’ans?

    The Qur'an is the holy text of the Islamic religion. In Islam, the Qur'an is believed to be the book of God’s words. The holy text remains sacred and unchanged since the beginning of time. The Qur'an is known as the most powerful text in Islam. Islam is a monotheistic faith and people of the religion take great pride in believing in pure monotheism. As followers of the Qur'an, Muslims must believe there is no one else besides Allah because Allah is the only one we worship sincerely, thus he is seen as the most powerful figure in the religion of Islam.


    The Arabic text of the holy Qur'an in a book is known as the mus-haf (literally "the pages"). There are special rules that Muslims follow when handling, touching, or reading from the mus-haf. The Quran itself states that only those who are clean and pure should touch the sacred text. It is indeed a Holy Quran, a book well-guarded, which none shall touch but those who are clean... (56:77-79). The Arabic word translated here as "clean" is mutahiroon, a word that is also sometimes translated as "purified."


    It was only Muslim believers who are physically cleaned through formal ablutions should touch or handle the pages of the Quran. Again, the Qur'an should be closed and stored in a clean or respectable place. Nothing should be placed on top of it, nor should it ever be placed on the floor or in a bathroom. Furthermore, when copying the Qur'an by hand, it should be legible with good handwriting. If you are reciting it you need to use a clear and beautiful voice. A worn-out copy of the Quran, with broken binding or missing pages, should not be disposed of as ordinary household trash.


    Acceptable ways of disposing of a damaged copy of the Quran include wrapping it in cloth and burying it in a deep hole, placing it in flowing water so the ink dissolves, or, as a last resort, burning it so that it is completely consumed. But the translated Qur'an according to some scholars can be handled either by Muslims or non-Muslims.


    Uses of the Qur'an

    The Qur'an is meant for reading or recitation known in Arabic as taliwa. The recitation of the Qur'an is a highly honoured performance in Islam in which Allah blesses both the reciter and the listener. A person who memorizes the whole Qur'an is given the honorary title of a Hafiz (memorizer of the Qur'an). Again, the reproduction of the written Qur'an is as important as oral recitation. Two early calligraphic styles evolved in the writing of the Qur'an, Kufic (the more boxy, angular, heavy, and formal script) and Naskhi (the more elongated, rounded, cursive script).


    The words in the Qur'an are regarded as the words of Allah and, therefore, handled with respect. Muslims also hold the view that some of the words contain mystical properties and as a result, Muslim religious scholars are sometimes consulted by people who have spiritual or psychological problems. They write verses from the Qur'an to ward off such evil spirits or for protection. The Qur'anic verses are often accompanied by diagrams drawn on a board and then washed off and given to the client to drink. As a result, these boards have high values based on the extent they have been used. It is believed that the older the board the more efficient it would be and vice versa.


    At the Museum, there is one of the Qur'anic writing wooden boards that have verses from the Quaran on one side and diagrams on the other side. This board is brown and round at the base with a handle in a form of an animal beak. The surface is smooth while some old writing has remained and can be seen (see image below).


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    Board (Courtesy Museum Fünf Kontinente. Nr. 9-48. Photo Kaestner)


    Where is the Qur’an kept?

    Old Qur'ans were usually placed in two wooden covers before the use of leather cases or bags. It was easy to carry it once it was placed either in the wooden covers or in the leather bag. This is very important not to mess up the loose papers of the Qur'an. The two wooden covers after the Qur'an is placed and bound with a thong. There are two holes in the middle edge of the covers where the thong is passed through to bind the two wooden covers with the Qur'an. This method of bounding the Qur'an with wooden covers was practised during the early Abbasid period. Many of the early Abbasid manuscripts were copied into several volumes based on the Kufic script which was fairly heavy and not very dense. The Qur'ans of this early period were bound in wooden covers, structured like a box enclosed on all sides with a movable upper cover that was fastened to the rest of the structure with thongs. In this period, the Quran was arranged into 20 Juz or parts instead of the original 30 Juz during the Umayyad period. These wooden covers can be found at the Museum Fünf Kontinente (Inventar Nr 15-17-148).


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    Wooden cover of a Qur'an. Museum Fünf Kontinente. (Courtesy Museum Fünf Kontinente. Nr. 15-17-148. Photo Kaestner)



    When is it read and how?

    It is read during the five daily worship by Muslims, at leisure times, during periods of hardship, during important occasions etc. However, in West Africa, it is read even at funeral celebrations. In many instances, the whole Qur'an is shared among those who can read, or the 30 Juz are shared among 30 people who recite or read it.


    Islam in West Africa

    Islam as a religion was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed in the 6th century in the Arabian Peninsula. Africa was the first continent into which Islam spread, from the Arabian Peninsula in the early 7th century. By the 10th century, the Berbers of West Africa were converted to Islam by their North African counterparts. It was the Berber Muslims who began to spread Islam into Western Sudan by the end of the 10th century through their trading activities. The Berbers of West Africa also converted some of the Manding-speaking traders to Islam, and they also began spreading it alongside their commercial activities. It was the Mande traders who began to spread Islam into many parts of West Africa through trading activities. The nature of Islam made it easy for the indigenous people to accept it as adherents were able to tolerate, to some extent, some of the local beliefs.


    Later, the Hausa from northern Nigeria were also involved in the Kola-nut trade in the mid-15th century. The rulers of many of the Western Sudanese States encouraged the trans-Saharan trade and extended hospitality to both traders and visiting Muslim clerics. The most crucial factor in the diffusion of Islam into many parts of West Africa was the conversion of some of the rulers to Islam. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, many rulers of the Mali and Songhai empires were Muslims and performed the annual Islamic pilgrimages to Mecca to establish trade relationships with the Muslim world. It was during the era of European colonization of West Africa that led to the spread of Christianity among the locals.