Uncovering Bookbindings The Beauty and Workmanship of Handmade Islamic Manuscripts

by Adline Abdul Ghani

19th century Quran from Iran, depicting Fath Ali Shah Qajar and son Mohammad Shah Qajar.

Typically, when studying a manuscript, the focus is on what’s in the book, rather than what’s on the outside. After all, as the old adage goes, we must “Never judge a book by its cover.” However, here’s an exhibition that invites you to take a closer look at the covers of books, instead of their contents. Simply called “Islamic Bookbinding,” the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia’s (IAMM) latest temporary exhibition showcases 70 artefacts that comprehensively portray the beautiful elements of bookbindings from around the Islamic world.

18th century Quran from Iran with a protective pouch.
18th century Quran from Iran, adorned with multi-coloured gems.

Opened to the public on 8th May, the exhibition begins by tracing the history and types of bookbinding. This is followed by a look at the intricate designs and techniques, as well as the constituting elements that form a bookbinding. The objects displayed are beautifully-handmade, most from leather, lacquerwork and textiles. Some specimens show their age and evidence of frequent use, while others are perfectly-preserved time capsules.

Overall, the exhibition hearkens back to an age where bookbinding was a treasured artform in royal ateliers. Besides their practical function, book covers were ornamented with fine tooling, stamping, gilding and painting to showcase the status of the owner.  Some manuscripts are also equipped with additional housings, such as boxes, pouches and slipcases. And then there are those that are so sumptuously decorated with gemstones, they have to be seen to be believed!

The highlights of the exhibition are several rare masterpieces, such as a pair of royal Qajar lacquered book covers, depicting Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar (r. 1797 –1834) and his son Mohammad Shah Qajar (r. 1834 –1848). Another outstanding piece is a Qur’an binding from the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula, featuring red Moroccan leather and elaborate tooled decorations with a central medallion.

19th-20th century Quran from the Malay Peninsula, featuring bright red leather and gold tooling.

Bookbinding is a topic rarely featured by art institutions, and this pioneering exhibition takes it a step further. It is the first exhibition of its kind to showcase a little-known and almost forgotten part of Malaysian heritage – the art of local bookbinding. Unique emphasis is given to local bindings made from textile that show detailed stitching of the endband placed over the spine.


In conjunction with the exhibition, the IAMM has produced a special catalogue of the same name, featuring artefacts from the museum collection, which will no doubt be a valuable reference on the subject. In addition, the IAMM’s Education Department has lined up a variety of public programmes, including lectures and hands-on workshops for adults and children, throughout the exhbition’s eight-month period.


For further information on this exhibition and its public/ educational programmes, please visit iamm.org.my.

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