Review: Qur’ans: Books of Divine Encounter, Keith Small.

After being away from here for a few months, I took a look at this blog and realized it didn’t fit with what I’m doing now. I originally started this blog as a place to talk about ancient languages—still one of my interests—but other things started creeping in too. I reorganized the blog to reflect that, and to make it look more professional in general. Enjoy.

The banner above is from Word Made Flesh, the frontispiece to John in The Saint John’s Bible.

I don’t have time to write any blog posts until August because of a book deadline I’m trying to meet, but it doesn’t take much time to repost some of the things I’ve been writing for other venues. Below is a book note I wrote for Theological Studies, out in the June issue.


Qur’āns: Books of Divine Encounter. By Keith E. Small. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2015. Pp. 170. $25.

quransSmall, a Manuscript Consultant to the Bodleian Library, Associate Research Fellow at the London School of Theology, and author of Textual Criticism and Qur’ān Manuscripts (2011), has produced a visually pleasing compendium of 53 Qur’ān manuscripts, most of them from the Bodleian Library. Each manuscript is shown in one photo and accompanied by a short description. In the first three chapters, S. explores the history of Qur’an manuscripts, and in the process delivers a gentle, non-technical introduction to issues in studying Qur’ān manuscripts, such as dating, orthography, script, colophons, palimpsests, materials.  He also introduces decorative elements, including carpet pages and gold leaf, and aspects of the manuscripts related to liturgy and recitation.

The second half of the book is organized thematically, and showcases European Renaissance encounters with the Qur’ān, global dissemination of the Qur’ān, and personal copies of the Qur’an. S. showcases Qur’ān manuscripts owned or produced by European scholars, including Robert of Ketton’s 12th-century Latin translation and Renaissance critical editions noting textual variants. His misleading overemphasis on the sympathy with which many of these scholars approached the Qur’ān creates a contrast with the next section. There, he provides the fascinating backstory to how some of the Bodleian’s Qur’ān manuscripts came to Oxford: “plunder in piracy and war” (89), or through former officers in British colonies (e.g., 126-127). This section’s vignettes provide a fascinating window into the past few centuries of Islamic history. The final section, on believers’ personal copies of the Qur’ān, includes talismans and even an undershirt with the Qur’ān written on it to ward off harm in battle.

S. excellently analyzes how details of decoration and calligraphy relate to Islamic theology and the believer’s personal encounter with revelation. I would have liked to see more examples of contemporary Qur’āns. While S. includes an appendix of recommended reading, it would be more useful for scholars if it had a bibliography for each manuscript. This book is aimed at the general reader, but is also of interest to scholars, and would also be a useful supplementary text for courses in art history, book history, or Islamic studies.

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