Islamic Illuminated Books and Kashkols from a Private Collection

Musbah Kafami illumination
Expert Collecting at Biddington's
Editor's note: This is one in a series of articles showing objects from a private collection of Islamic art.
This interview with the collector discusses highlights of the illuminated holy books and domestic kashkol from his Islamic calligraphy collection.

JB: It's delightful to have the opportunity to examine more items from your wonderful collection of Muslim religious and secular objects. Could you give us a brief introduction to these books?
AR: My illuminated texts are religious in nature. They include a copy of the Koran, a collection of Koranic Prayers, the SAHIFA KAMILA--a collection of Prayers of the 4th Shiite Imam, a 20th Century calligraphic book In Praise of Allah, and the masterpiece of my book collection the MUSBAH KAFAMI--one of the basic Islamic texts.

Sahifa Kamila pages with red interlinear annotations
JB: Are the books essentially religious in nature because of your personal preference?
AR: Producing an illuminated calligraphic book was an ambitious, time-consuming project. The only subject deemed worthy of such an effort would be a religious text.

JB: So--by definition--if it's illuminated, then it's religious?
AR: That's generally true. However, I do have one kashkol that includes some lovely illumination.

JB: Having a knowledge of Christian monastic art, our readers are probably familiar with illuminated books & manuscripts, but I suspect, like me, they don't know the term kashkol.
kashkol first and last pages
AR: A kashkol is simply a diary. It is an ongoing record of all sorts of domestic information. It includes information on births and deaths, lines of favorite poetry and thoughts, helpful hints and medical remedies. A kashkol might be the product of one person over a lifetime, or it may be passed along to another family member.

Many include pharmaceutical information such as cures for stomachaches and headaches. For instance, this one contains a recipe for a mixture to help remedy memory loss; its ingredients are: rose hips, tumeric and opium.

JB: From the ingredient list, it sounds like a recipe for making one no longer care about memory loss. What an exquisite little book! Each page is illuminated with a sprinkling of goldleaf flowers.
kashkol with goldleaf flowers
AR: Yes, it's quite extraordinary. Each page is dotted with gold illumination of a different flower or plant. The cover is tooled leather with gold embellishment.

JB: What a pleasure it must have been to write one's own additions or to use it for reference!
This kashkol isn't quite so elegant, but the drawings in it look interesting.

kashkol with astronomical notations

AR: In addition to the usual household information this kashkol contains drawings of grids that are of astronomical & astrological significance. Clearly this field was of particular interest to the diarist. Kashkols are very personal documents--quite different from the illuminated books.

JB: The illuminated books have a certain grandeur about them.

AR: This one is the SAHIFA KAMILA--A Collection of the Prayers of the 4th Shiite Muslim Imam. (You will recall from our earlier discussions that my collection has a Shiite Muslim focus because the objects were collected in the area from Persia westward to India.) This handsome book comes from a princely estate. It would have been his personal copy, but he seems to have handled it very carefully. It is in its original binding of red Moroccan leather. This is a bit unusual; since the books received regular use, most books have been rebound. The background of the text pages is goldleaf with black calligraphy in Arabic, and the interlinear translations into Persian are in red ink. It dates from around the time of your revolutionary war-- the third quarter of the 18th century.

JB: The next book is another collection of prayers?

AR: This collection of Koranic Prayers dates circa 1750 and was produced in Afghanistan. It has some marvelous illumination and a bold calligraphic style.

JB: Tell us about the grandest book in your collection. It's an Islamic theology book?
Musbah Kahfami first text page
AR: The MUSBAH KAHFAMI. It is one of the basic Islamic religious texts. It contains reference to the Koran, annotations, translations and commentary. The book has more than 400 pages in khat e naskh script.

Musbah Kahfami first text page
JB: Several of the pages are gorgeously illuminated.
AR: It's very finely decorated with much gold, lapis lazuli and other vividly colored materials. The elaborate floral decoration around the border is typically Persian in style.

JB: It has the look of a fine Persian carpet.

AR: The marginal annotations are one of the truly marvelous aspects of this book. The marginal calligraphy is a tour de force of imagination and invention. You have to understand, this is where the calligrapher could really display his talent and creativity. Remember, he is inscribing someone else's text and annotations. The calligrapher's goal is to dazzle the viewer with his own ingenuity in presenting the words on the page.
Musbah Kahfami page corner detail
JB: Each of the more than 400 pages is different in its presentation. It's quite remarkable. What is this lattice-work pattern?
Musbah Kahfami lattice page
AR: Each column tells the life history of a prophet. It starts at the top with the name of a prophet. Then it works its way down the page telling many facts about him: where he was born, who his parents were, where he lived, what he wrote, how he died, where he died and when he died.

JB: Sort of a trelliswork combination of biography and geneology. Thank you, once again, for sharing works from your fascinating collection with our readers.

end page
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