The Quran in East and West: Manuscripts and Printed Books

Introduction > Historical Context

Muslims and Christians have been neighbors in Europe and the Near East since the emergence of Islam in the seventh century CE, and yet their perceptions of each other have not always been compatible.

In Europe, Muslims and Christians competed for territory in Spain and southern Italy during the Middle Ages, and during the early modern period in Greece and eastern Europe when the Ottoman Empire repeatedly besieged Vienna, the Habsburg capital.  But until the beginning of the sixteenth century the Near East was Europe’s only gateway to the riches of India and China so that the control of the Mediterranean and trading privileges in the Levant heavily impacted the economies of Christian Europe.

During the seventh and eighth centuries, Muslim elites created a legal framework (al-shurūṭ al-ʿUmariyyah) that allowed for the coexistence of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities under Muslim rule (dār al-Islām).  Since Muslims acknowledged that the Torah and the Bible were written revelations predating the Quran, Jews and Christians could be accepted as believers in related though now corrupted revelations (ahl al-Kitāb).  Muslim societies consequently enjoyed considerable latitude in granting varying degrees of minority rights to their non-Muslim populations.

Throughout the Middle Ages, European Christians perceived Islam as a Christian heresy, while condemning Christians in the Byzantine Empire, Russia, and the Near East at times as heretics who were even less Christian than any Muslim.  Only in the eighteenth century did Enlightenment philosophy develop concepts of religious tolerance and state authority that separated religion from citizenship.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte enacted the Code civil, and France became the first European state to grant all rights of citizenship irrespective of a citizen's official religious affiliation.

Both Muslims and Christians reflected on the history of their communities to identify its place within God’s divine plan for humanity.  The Islamic concept of history was based on a model of succession that explained why God had revealed his will first to Jews, then to Christians, and finally to Muslims.  European Christians, in contrast, had to reconcile the memories of a persecuted minority in Imperial Rome with the political and military reality of a well-organized church that christianized northern Europe with brutal force and yet no longer controlled Jerusalem, the cradle of Christianity.

The Quran is at the center of Islamic book culture.  When the Umayyads established the first Islamic dynasty in Damascus in the second half of the seventh century, a Muslim minority ruled over Jews, Manichaeans, Christians, and Zoroastrians in the territories conquered from the Byzantine and Sasanian empires.  During the next two centuries Islam’s written revelation (al-Qurʾān, al-Kitāb) acquired a distinct format: while the Quran became a book like the Torah and the Bible, design and illumination set it apart.  The text’s organization and some conventions of its illumination are still preserved in modern printed Qurans.  The arrangement of the 114 suras according to length together with the text's division into 30 equal parts (juzʾ, pl. ajzāʾ) structure the Quran.  Consequently, illumination is used to orient the reader through visually highlighting the beginning of suras, verses, and parts, as well as to indicate recitation and moments of prostration (sajdah).  In the following, most Qurans are opened to their first two pages to allow for a comparison between the continuity of the Islamic conventions and their adaptation in Christian Europe.

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