Spiritual Couplets (Masnavi-yi Maʿnavi) of Jalal al-Din Rumi Iran, early 19th century CE (13th century AH) Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper Courtesy of Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham (Persian 1) ©Cadbury Research Library

Spiritual Couplets (Masnavi-yi Maʿnavi) of Jalal al-Din Rumi
Iran, early 19th century CE (13th century AH)
Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper
Courtesy of Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham (Persian 1)
©Cadbury Research Library

This lavishly illuminated manuscript is a copy of the spiritual poem ‘Masnavi-yi Maʿnavi’, composed by the 13th-century Sufi master Jalal al-Din Rumi. It contains over 25,000 couplets copied in an elegant ‘naskh’ hand, while the chapter headings appear in ‘thuluth’ script.

The type of decoration on this double-page is often referred to as illumination, because of the glow created from the use of gold and brilliant colours. The paint was prepared by mixing a binding agent with pigments made from natural minerals as well as plant and animal substances.

Once the calligrapher had finished writing the text, a painter would sketch the design and apply the colours using fine brushes, ideally made from squirrel hair.


Collected works of Amir Khusraw of Delhi Iran, 1498–99 CE (904 AH) Ink, colour and gold on paper Courtesy of Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham (Persian 5) ©Cadbury Research Library

Collected works of Amir Khusraw of Delhi
Iran, 1498–99 CE (904 AH)
Ink, colour and gold on paper
Courtesy of Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham (Persian 5)
©Cadbury Research Library

Producing luxurious manuscripts could take several years and involved the work of many skilled artists and craftsmen. Once the paper was prepared, the calligrapher started copying the text. Sometimes master scribes would sign their work in the colophon on the final page.

This manuscript is written in a script known as ‘nastaʿliq’. The scribe recorded documentary information about where and when the manuscript was copied in a colophon on the final page. It is separated from the rest of the text in a framed triangle. It contains the date 904 AH, the name of the calligrapher Shaykh Murshid Satrallah Ayuba (?) Bidar al-Mulk, and the place of production, Shiraz.


Illustrated manuscript of ‘Kalila and Dimna’ Central Asia or India, 1412 CE (815 AH) Ink and colour on paper Courtesy of Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham (Persian 10) ©Cadbury Research Library

Illustrated manuscript of ‘Kalila and Dimna’
Central Asia or India, 1412 CE (815 AH)
Ink and colour on paper
Courtesy of Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham (Persian 10)
©Cadbury Research Library

This book is written in Persian and contains a collection of animal fables. It is named after the main characters, two jackals called Kalila and Dimna. Popular stories such as these would be illustrated by one or more painters.


When the manuscript was completed, the pages were sewn and bound into leather covers decorated with geometric or floral designs. Finally, the manuscript was presented to the patron. Many Islamic rulers commissioned and collected luxury manuscripts and treasured them as works of art and symbols of enduring knowledge. (Courtesy of Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham, Persian 8. Photo ©Cadbury Research Library)

Farid al-Din ʿAttar was a 13th century Persian poet and mystic. He composed at least 45,000 couplets and many prose works and his ideas, literary themes and style influenced the literature of many countries.