The Islamic tradition of decorating different works of art, including first and foremost historical buildings, with verses from the Qur'an has an important place in Islamic culture. As in literary works, quotations from the Qur'an, hadith (Prophetic Traditions) and from the sayings of wise men are included in works of art, with the idea that such quotations add to the value of a work of art by contributing to its artistic value.
What are the important features when quoting from the Quran in works of art, or decorating buildings and other objects with Quranic verses? This essay will address this question by examining only the cases of Masjid al-Haram (the Holy Mosque surrounding the Ka'ba) and Masjid al-Nabawi (the Prophet's Mosque) (1).
Verses and Surahs which are reported in hadiths
Verses and surahs (Quranic chapters) that were reported as being significant in hadiths from Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) can be found in different buildings throughout the Islamic geography. These frequently used verses, which are abundant, include the Basmala (بسملة, that is, the phrase "bismi-llāhi ar-rahmāni ar-rahīm" - which means "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful". This phrase constitutes the first verse of the first surah of the Quran, which is inscribed either as the introduction to a surah or a verse, or by itself; Ayat ul-Qursi (the Verse of the Throne), Surah al-Ikhlas (Chapter 112 of the Quran), and the Surah al-Fatiha (the first chapter of the Quran).
In the Masjid al-Nabawi (or the Prophet's Mosque) in Madina, the second holiest mosque in Islam and the final resting place of Prophet Muhammad , in the oldest section, that is the dome section, are inscribed the following surahs, al-An'am, al-Kahf, Maryam, al-Muzzammil, al-Muddaththir, YaSin, al-Duha, al-Jum'a, al-Rahman, al-Shams, al-Lail, al-Mulk, al-Naba', al-Inshirah, al-Takathur, al-Fath, al-Qadr, al-‘Alaq, the last verse of the sura al-Baqara, al-Ikhlas, al-Mu'awiazatayn (al-Falaq and al-Nas), al-Fatiha, and the first five verses of sura al-Baqara (Alif - Lam - Mim). On the arch of Masjid al-Nabawi (the new section) the following surahs are inscribed: al-Nasr, al-Vaqi'a, al-Jum'a, al-Mulk, Muhammad, Ya Sin, al-Duhan, al-Hujurat, al-Inshirah, al-Ikhlas, and al-Mu'awiazatayn. The dome of the Quba Masjid (the first mosque that was ever built in Islam) contains some sections from Surah al-Fatiha, the Suras of al-Hujurat, al-Juma, Ya Sin, al-Qadr, al-Rahman, and the 34th verse of the sura Ibrahim, as well as al-Nasr, al-‘Asr and al-Kawthar; and the walls are Ayat al-Qursi and the last verse of al-Baqara.
The significance of these three mosques also lies in the fact that they contain almost all of the Quranic chapters and verses about which virtues were reported in the hadiths (In Turkey it is rare for even Surah al-Fath to be inscribed in its entirety, despite its brevity, let alone other longer chapters -all mosques contain, however, many verses, individually or in groups).
This group of verses and chapters inscribed in the mosques also includes verses that are related to the Quran itself. For example, we see on the front façade of the al-Rawda al-Mutahhara (the "Garden of the Prophet" where the tomb of the Prophet is located) there is verse no. 44 of the Surah Al-i ‘Imran, verse no. 98 of the Surah al-Nahl, and verse no. 42 of the Surah Fussilat.
Verses directly related to the building, its construction and/or its function
The best example of having verses inscribed on a structure that are directly related to the building itself are verses on the Kaaba. On the cover, the locks and keys of the Kaaba, are inscribed verses related to the construction of the Kaaba, its being the first temple (al-Bayt al-‘Atiq), its being the qibla (the direction Muslims face during prayer), the necessity of visiting it during the pilgrimage, and the fact that those who enter it are safe and protected. In addition, the first verse of Surah al-Fath (including the verb "to open"), and verse59 of Surah al-An'am are written on the locks and keys of the Kaaba; verse no. 158 of Surah al-Baqara (which mentions the hills of Safa and Marwa that are next to the Kaaba) are inscribed on the Ottoman arches found at the Safa and Marwa exit and on the new dome located on the Safa hill. Moreover, on the Maqam Ibrahim (the "Station of Abraham", which is located in front of the only door to the Kaaba) verse no. 125 of Surah al-Baqara (which mentions this station) is inscribed. Furthermore, both on top of the mihrab (the niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla) in the Quba Masjid and on a stone column in its courtyard, verse no. 108 of Surah al-Tawba, which mentions the mosque, is inscribed. Finally, verse no. 144 of Surah al-Baqara is written on the mihrab of the Masjid al Qiblatayn.
Verses that are directly or indirectly related to the patron of the building, or a person who lived or is buried there
Examples of such inscriptions includes verses about Prophet Abraham's invitation to the people of the Kaaba and its construction by himself and his son, Prophet Ishmael, which are found on the cover of the Kaaba; some of the verses on the gates of the Masjid al-Haram -which were constructed by Ottomans, or in earlier times- were written for those who constructed them; some are verses about Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), about his being the last Prophet and a model for Muslims, his significance and the respect that must be shown to him, among other things. In particular verses that contain the words Muhammad or The Messenger on the qibla wall and on the covers of the Hujra (the Prophet's room), the minbar (pulpit), and other parts of the Mosque of the Prophet (in Madina) (2); verse 73 of Surah al-Zumar on the back wall of the Hujra; verse 29 of the Surah al-Fath, which is related to the Companions who, together with Prophet Muhammad, founded the Islamic state in this mosque, on the front wall of the Rawda; the inscription of verse112 of Surah al-Tawba, which mentions the positive qualities of the Companions of the Prophet, on the Kayitbay and Kanuni Suleyman mihrabs; an inscription of verses 31 to 34 of Surah al-Ahzab on the women's door of the Mosque of the Prophet, and finally verse4 of Surah al-Tahrim, which mentions the Archangel Gabriel, on the Gabriel door of the same mosque.
One of the best examples of these inscriptions is the quotation on the magnificent minbar that was given as a gift by the Ottoman sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent, from the Quran; "Verily, this is from Solomon and verily it is in the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful". The phrase "this is from Solomon" refers actually to a letter written by Prophet Solomon to the Queen of Sheba; however, by writing it on the minbar the meaning of it also changed; "This minbar is a gift to the Kaaba from Sultan Suleyman". As is well known, it is not mandatory to refer to the literal meaning of a verse when it is inscribed on an artistic work as a quotation, in the same way that quotations are used in literary works.
Verses related to the function of a building
Examples of verses that are related to the function of the building include verse 144 from Surah al-Baqara, which is known as the verse of the qibla, written on the three niches of the Garden of the Prophet, as well as the phrase that contains the word mihrab in verse 37 of the Surah Ali ‘Imran, which is inscribed on the Kanuni and Kayitbay niches of the Garden.
In addition to these, it was customary to write the Qalima-i Tawhid, a phrase that reflects the founding principle of the Islamic state, on the doors of the minbars, as they had a political, as well as, religious significance, as the names of the caliph and sultans were mentioned in the sermons. Thus, in the Mosque of the Prophet, the Qalima-i Tawhid is written at the entrance of the Murad III minbar. Moreover, the verses that are related to the Friday prayer in the Surah al Jum'a (Friday) are inscribed on the minbars, as it is from this that the Friday sermons are delivered. Likewise, verse 56 of the Surah al Ahzab (which states that "Verily, Allah and His Angels send blessings on the Prophet the communicator of unseen news, O' you who believe! Send upon him blessings and salute him fully well in abundance") is written on most minbars, it is customary to mention the name of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and salute him in sermons.
Verses or phrases that reflect the fundamental principles of Islam
The Qalima-i Tawhid, which is written in many places, emphasizes the founding principles of the state, as well as the names of the four rightly guided caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali ( which we find on the cover of the Kaaba and on the arches of the Sacred Mosque (Masjid al-Haram), as well as the phrase "May Allah bless Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali and all Companions", which is written on the bottom of the cover of the Kaaba - all of this reflects the Sunni character of the state.
On the other hand, verse 84 of Surah Isra, which is inscribed on the arches of the Kaaba, states that all religions have one single qibla and foundation, and that everybody acts according to their own convictions, particularly around the Kaaba, but it is only Allah who knows who is on the right path and who is not.
Verses that mention objects that can be compared to the structure
Sometimes if a certain structure can be compared to something that is mentioned in a verse, the verse may be inscribed on that particular building. For example, verse 21 of Surah al-Insan, which states that "...and their Lord will give to [the people of the Paradise] to drink of a Wine pure and Holy" is inscribed at the Zamzam wells, which are located within the Masjid al-Haram in Makka, near the Kaaba. Similarly, one of the best examples of this is the inscription of verse 46 of Surah al-Hijr, which states that "Enter ye here in Peace and Security" (regarding the people of the Paradise) on all the gates of the Mosque of the Prophet, which is likened to Paradise.
Other examples include the inscription of verse of Surah al-Isra on many entrances, and verses 36-38 of Surah al-Nur on the Bab al-Salam of the Mosque of the Prophet. First, as far as the former verse is concerned, the context of the prayer contained ("O my Lord! Let my entry be by the Gate of Truth and Honor, and likewise let my exit be by the Gate of Truth and Honor; and grant me from Thy Presence an authority to aid (me)") is connected to the attempt of the Pagans of Makka to kill or exile Prophet Muhammad (Al-Isra, 17/76). If this is taken into account, it becomes clear that the two phrases of "the Gate of Truth and Honor" refer to Madina and Makka, respectively. This explains why this verse is written on the first gate of the Mosque of the Prophet, which was the center of faith in Madina, hosting Muslims and the Prophet when they migrated from Makka.
Secondly, the latter verses which mention houses where the light of Allah is shining and state that "in them He is glorified in the mornings and in the evenings, (again and again)" refer to mosques, including the Mosque of the Prophet and the verse that "men whom neither traffic nor merchandise can divert from the Remembrance of Allah, nor from regular Prayer" refers to the Companions of the Prophet.
Verses related to the construction and renovation of a building
Many structures contain several verses, including verse no. 197 of Surah al-Baqara ("whatever good ye do, (be sure) Allah knoweth it"), verse no. 61 of the Surah al-Mu'minun ("It is these who hasten in every good work, and these who are foremost in them"), verses no. 261-263 of the Surah al -Baqara ("The parable of those who spend their substance in the way of Allah is that of a grain of corn: it groweth seven ears, and each ear hath a hundred grains"), verse no. 30 of the Surah al-Kahf ("...verily We shall not suffer to perish the reward of any who do a (single) righteous deed"), and in particular verse no. 61 of Surah al-Tawba ("The mosques of Allah shall be visited and maintained by those who believe in Allah and the Last Day, establish regular prayers, and practice regular charity, and fear none (at all) except Allah. It is they who are expected to be on true guidance"). All these verses emphasize the importance of charity, which should be for the sake of Allah alone.
Verses that contain messages for visitors
Though all the types of verses mentioned so far contain messages of varying degrees, some verses are more explicit:
Verses 2-3 of Surah al-Hujurat that state that "O ye who believe! raise not your voices above the voice of the Prophet, nor speak aloud to him in talk, as ye may speak aloud to one another, lest your deeds become vain and ye perceive not and  Those that lower their voice in the presence of Allah's Messenger, their hearts has Allah tested for piety: for them is Forgiveness and a great Reward". These are written in the Hujra Muattara of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) implying that visitors should respect him by not raising their voices.
Verses 133-135 of the Surah Al-i ‘Imran state that "...Those who spend (freely), whether in prosperity, or in adversity; who restrain anger, and pardon (all) men; for Allah loves those who do good ..." These are written on the Safa gate of the Sacred Mosque (Masjid al-Haram), reminding people not only for whom the Paradise was created but also how to behave and be patient in a very crowded environment, that is to avoid bothering each other.
Verse 49 of the Surah al-Hijr ("Tell My servants that I am indeed the Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful"), verse 186 of the Surah al-Baqara ("When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them) ..."), verse of Surah al-Ahzab ("Then give the glad tidings to the Believers, that they shall have from Allah a very great Bounty"), verse 110 of the Surah al-Nisa ("If anyone does evil or wrongs his own soul but afterwards seeks Allah's forgiveness, he will find Allah Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful"), verse 82 of Surah al Ta-Ha ("...I am (also) He that forgives again and again, to those who repent, believe, and do right ..."), are written on the cover of the Kaaba, and verse 53 of Surah al-Zumar ("Say: "O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah ..."), verses1-3 of Surah al-Ghafir ("Allah [is the one] Who forgiveth Sin, accepteth Repentance ...), and verse 54 of Surah al-An'am ("... your Lord hath inscribed for Himself (the rule of) Mercy ..."), are found on the gate of the Kaaba; all of these emphasize the boundless mercy of Allah and refuse to despair of His mercy. Similarly, verses 31-34 of Surah al-Ahzab ("But any of you that is devout in the service of Allah and His Messenger, and works righteousness, to her shall We grant her reward twice: and We have prepared for her a generous Sustenance"), which is inscribed on the Women's Gate of the Mosque of the Prophet, gives an example from the wives of the Prophet as advice to all Muslim women; and verse 33 of Surah al-Nisa ("To (benefit) every one, We have appointed sharers and heirs to property left by parents and relatives. To those, also, to whom your right hand was pledged, give their due portion ..."), which is also on the Women's Gate, reminds men and women that they should play their own roles as men and women without transgressing their respective boundaries. In the Quba Mosque, verses 1-5 of Surah al-Baqara ("... those who fear Allah; Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer ...") indicate who will be saved in the afterlife; on the exterior window, verse 133 of Surah Al-i ‘Imran ("Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord, and for the Paradise ...") encourages Muslims to their prayers; on the Kanuni and Kayitbay niches, verse 112 of surah al-Tawba ("Those that turn (to Allah) in repentance; that serve Him, and praise Him ..."), verse 95 of surah Al-i ‘Imran ("Say: ‘Allah speaketh the Truth: follow the religion of Ibrahim, the sane in faith; he was not of the Pagans'") and verse 68 of Surah Al-i ‘Imran ("Without doubt, among men, the nearest of kin to Ibrahim, are those who follow him ..."), together with Surah al-Quraysh on the cover of the Kaaba remind visitors of the good qualities that a Muslim should incorporate and that Allah should be worshipped by following the foot steps of Prophet Abraham.
We have observed that in the tradition of decorating architectural structures with verses from the Quran, other than the inscriptions on the arches, verses that are relatively short, concise and impressive are preferred. These verses describe Allah in a concise way, summarize the Quran and reflect the fundamental principles of Islam in a succinct manner.
On the other hand, it is not necessary to take these verses in a literal sense when they are related to:
i) the function of the structure, or one of its parts, or
ii) the patron or sponsor of the structure, or persons buried in that structure.
As for the verses and the sura's inscribed in the al-Haramayn al-Sharifayn ("the Two Holy Sanctuaries", The Sacred Mosque and the Mosque of the Prophet), these center around the boundless mercy of Allah, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Prophet Abraham, prayer, pilgrimage, the qibla and the Sacred Mosque itself. In these verses various connections are established between these structures and Quranic verses, and those who visit these sacred places are educated in religion by being reminded that Allah's mercy is vast for those repent their sins and wrongdoings.
This custom has been continued by the Saudi Arabian government in these sacred places, except for the Sacred Mosque. Among the 95 gates of the Sacred Mosque (Masjid al-Haram), the King Fahd and King Abdulaziz gates contain a Basmala in a large kufi style, and on almost all square feet of the walls of Masjid al-Haram, in particular at the points where the arches meet, the phrases Lâ ilâhe illâllah (There is no God but Allah) and Muhammed rasûlûllah (Muhammad is his messenger) are inscribed.
Likewise, the walls of the new section of the Mosque of the Prophet and those of the Quba Mosque, as well as its dome, all contain verses and surahs written by Turkish calligraphers. However, the custom of inscribing verses and surahs on the ceilings could not continue because of some technical difficulties -a circular style of inscription is required and this is very hard to do. In addition, for the door, cover and keys of the Kaaba, different phrases and verses are preferred, as discussed above.
On the other hand, the Prophet's name, "Muhammad" (as well as those of the four rightly guided caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali) and the name of Allah, are written in many places, including the cover and arches of the Kaaba, and the Mosque of the Prophet etc. In the Quba Mosque, the holy name of Allah is accompanied by verse 19 of Surah al-Shura underneath, and the Prophet's (pbuh) name by verse 29 of surah al-Fath, in order to indicate the ontological differentiation between Allah and Prophet Muhammad, who was only a human being, despite the fact that their names are next to each other. The same concern is apparent in the fact that the phrase "O Allah, O Muhammad!" was changed to "O Allah, O Majid (All-Glorious)!" in the Hujra Muattara of Prophet Muhammad in Madina.
1. For further information, see Murat Sulun, Sanat Eserine Vurulan Kur`an Muhru, Istanbul. 2006, Kaynak Yy.
2. Al-Ahzâb 33/ 38, 40, 56; al-Fath 48/ 29. Also, verses on the current mihrab are: al-Tevbe 9/128-129 and al-Ahzâb 33/40.