Habits of Mind

  • Communicate

Principles of Art

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.




  •  Islamic decoration tends to avoid using figurative images, making frequent use of geometric patterns. Inspired by the illuminated geometric and radial designs in this manuscript, use grid paper and a ruler to create a design that employs symmetry to convey balance and unity.  Repeat design and add color to accentuate pattern and promote movement and rhythm.
  • Optional: Grid paper could be tea stained to emulate the texture and look of the parchment paper.

  • Describe what you see. How is this similar to some items in your classroom?

  • This book is carefully crafted from parchment paper. If you were to turn the pages, imagine how they would feel.Describe those textures.

  • At what point in the book do these two pages appear to occur?How do you conclude that?

  • How would you characterize the condition of this work of art?Does it appear to have been touched often?Support with visual evidence. This manuscript was created in 1318.How does that knowledge influence your assessment of its condition?

  • How are these pages similar to pages from books today? How are they different?

  • Follow the interlocking patterns of line on each page. What similarities and/or differences become evident? How do the lines work together to form both actual and implied shapes? Where and how are those designs repeated?

  • How does the artist use shape and placement of design to create a sense of balance and unity on each page?Explain, using elements of art such as color, line, and shape.

  • Describe the overall patterns produced. Is pattern used to create emphasis in certain areas? How?

  • Color is an important part of creating movement in manuscripts. Trace the color blue as it moves throughout the pages.How does its placement accentuate pattern and promote rhythm?

  • Is a sense of radial balance achieved? In what areas? How?

  • Would you say symmetry is evidenced? Cite specifics in justifying your observation.

  • Do you think this was used for ornamentation only or also served as a functional piece? Explain.

  • This book provides the text for the Q’uran, the foundational beliefs of Islam. It is often the most important possession a Muslim owns. How do the materials, size, and ornamentation illustrate that importance?

  • How do you think this manuscript looked when it was first created?Why?

  • This example of manuscript production is from Morocco, a region in North Africa (either from the cities of Marrakesh or Fez). How and where do you think parchment would have been stored in the varied climate of that region? Explore possibilities.

  • This holy book of Islam displays an elaborate program of illumination, a technique that often employs gold to decorate the opening and closing pages of the book. Why would this extravagant material be used in the creation of these opening pages?

  • If you could turn the pages of this Q’uran manuscript, you would see Arabic writing in Maghribi script, which is read from right to left. To see those pages, search the MFAH collection at https://www.mfah.org/art/detail/88341.   

    Calligraphers copied the sacred text and developed an impressive range of calligraphic styles. How would you describe this style of calligraphy?  Observe the multicolor dots, marks, and gold trefoil markers (composed of three small overlapping circles). Investigate how these affect the meaning of the script.

  • The word qur’an literally means recitation, and the Qur’an gathers the revelations of Muhammad and the five pillars of Islam. The beauty of this Qur’an manuscript lies not only in its calligraphy and illumination but also in its spiritual content.  Would you agree? Why or why not?

  • Imagine ways this book would have been treated by its owner. Explain.

  • Do you own a book of similar importance?How is it the same and/or different?

  • How would this book compare to mass-produced books of today? Elaborate.

The Qur’an is the foundational text of Islam and a Muslim’s most important possession. Through stories about God’s messengers and teachings that illustrate moral conduct, the text provides guidance on living a pious life. The Qur’an emphasizes theological concepts such as the oneness of God, resurrection and the Day of Judgment, and other important acts of devotion including the ‘five pillars of Islam’. The five pillars of Islam are the fundamental elements that every practicing member of the faith should continuously fulfill, which are: (1) testifying that God is One and that Muhammad is His prophet (Shahada); (2) praying five times a day (Salat); (3) giving charity (Zakat); (4) fasting during the month of Ramadan (Sawm); and (5) making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (Hajj). Muslims strive to develop a full knowledge of the Qur’an, and are encouraged to contemplate and reflect on God’s words in all aspects of their lives, including social, economic, legal, and political matters.

This large Qur’an is a superb example of manuscript production from western Islamic lands, which encompass North Africa and Spain. This particular script of Arabic writing, known as the Maghribi script, was developed in Maghrib, a region in North Africa, and Muslim Spain. Arabic is read from right to left, and in this example, deeply curved, looping terminals of words characterize the script.

In a Qur’an, there are 30 parts (Juz’), 114 chapters (Surah), and over 6,000 verses (Ayah).Situated between some of the words are gold trefoil markers composed of three small overlapping circles. These markers indicate the end of a verse and the beginning of another. In the margins, large illuminated medallions of geometric or radial designs contain notations in red, which indicate every fifth and tenth verses, or which Juz’ the reader has reached. Illuminated chapter headings stretching across the page boldly highlight each new Surah with ornamental gold letters written in a different script known as Kufic.

Another visual interest of this manuscript is the multicolor dots and marks that accent the letter forms. These are not merely decorative but a crucial element of the Arabic script. In the Arabic alphabet, some letters are formed from the same basic shape but are distinguished by the number of dots and their placement. The diacritical marks indicate short vowels and can completely change the meaning of a word. A single dot can differentiate between one letter in the Arabic alphabet and at least two other letters. The diacritical marks indicate short vowels and can completely change the meaning of a word.

The Qur’an is a written form of the revelations that the prophet Muhammad received from God through the archangel Gabriel. Calligraphers copied the sacred text and developed an impressive range of calligraphic styles. Calligraphy thus became the highest and noblest form of expression in art because of its connection with the holy Qur’an. The beauty of this Qur’an manuscript lies not only in its calligraphy and illumination but also in its spiritual content. Ultimately, the Word of God – the foundation of Muslim inspiration and creation – is what defines beauty in Islam.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider