Craftsmen and the Making of the Manuscript

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François Déroche, with contributions by Annie Berthier, Marie-Geneviève Guesdon, Bernard Guineau, Francis Richard, Annie Vernay-Nouri, Jean Vezin, Muhammad Isa Waley

Article contents:
The identity of the copyists
The professionals
Scholars and amateurs
Internal evidence of a personal nature
Places of transcription*
Copying work-rates and methods*
The conditions of manuscript copying*
Writing posture*
The process of transcription*
Copyists and the role of market conditions*
Painters and illuminators*
Sketch for a miniature painting, End of the 14th century CE. Paris, BNF suppl. persan 1561, 6. 111vo.

In the context of a general introduction to the codicology of Arabic and Islamic manuscripts, it may appear superfluous to discuss the working practices of copyists. In the first place, this aspect of book production is not always easy to discern in the finished product since a number of basic facts - such as who was to receive the work, how long it took, and where it was undertaken - often remain unknown. In addition, illustrations of specific points are frequently taken from literary sources or, more occasionally, from archives, and still have to be compared with the facts as they transpire from the manuscripts themselves. And lastly, the preceding chapters have already detailed many of the operations involved in the making of books, and thus introduced the reader, to a certain extent, to the tasks of the copyist. Moreover, colophons, which could at least potentially provide compelling evidence in this connection, call for separate treatment and accordingly will be dealt with below. It is nevertheless worthwhile drawing the attention of researchers to the importance of this question in the broader context of the history of the Islamic book. The aim of the following pages is little more than to present a succinct account some of the more important advances in contemporary research.

The identity of the copyists

Who, then, were the men, and sometimes women,[1] who lavished effort and patience on the time-consuming task of copying manuscripts? Colophons are generally speaking so sparing of details that, unless they provide the name of a specific individual - author, scholar, physician, or other - already recorded in other sources, they are of little help in determining the identity of the person who transcribed the text. In the absence of catalogues of dated manuscripts with a full series of indexes, and lacking a general inventory of all copyistsʼ names, to build up a picture of the oeuvre or career of an individual scribe, is, in the current state of affairs, very much an uphill task.[2]

The professionals

Since the art of calligraphy occupied such a pre-eminent place in the Islamic world, it seems perfectly natural to begin with the calligraphers, a group a priori distinct from the general run of copyists. Treatises on the calligrapherʼs art[3] often incorporate brief biographies of these craftsmen, and they and their creations are regarded with the utmost respect. According to the data provided by their colophons, Qurʼāns Paris BNF arabe 6o82 and BNF arabe 67ɪ6 were copied by the celebrated Yāqūt al-Musta‘ṣimī:[4] both bear fulsome notes expressing the regard in which they were held. Nonetheless, BNF arabe 6082 is in fact a forgery, as are many similarly attributed manuscripts in other collections.

Without even entering into the discussion of forgeries, to which the existence of these two manuscripts inevitably gives rise, the codicologist is confronted with two particularly thorny questions: should calligraphic manuscripts be put into a special category? And if so, how may calligraphers be identified? Some copyists overtly claim this status: a Kalīla 𝓌a-Dimna (a famous collection of fables) copied in 66ɪ/ɪ262 is signed by a certain Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn ‘Umar Ibn al-Kamāl al-khaṭṭāṭ.[5]

As has already been mentioned, from a certain juncture, a number of specialised texts were composed in which artistsʼ names are listed, while the teaching system, mirroring that found in the religious sciences, introduced the ijāza, the possession of which served as an equivalent of a calligrapherʼs ‘certificationʼ.[6] Such sources make it possible to identify a given calligrapher, but they are far from covering the entire Islamic world: such texts are indeed a relatively recent phenomenon and do not cover all areas. There are many old manuscripts, exhibits or illustrations in books about calligraphy, with colophons bearing the name of a copyist unrecorded in the surviving corpus of biographical sketches of scribes. Does that necessarily mean that the individual concerned was not in fact a calligrapher?

There is no need, therefore, to invent a whole new class. As Sellheim has suggested,[7] a better course of action is to subsume calligraphers under the umbrella term ‘professional copyistsʼ, a group whose diversity is outlined below. The author of a history of Cordoba compiled in Umayyad Spain reports that in the Eastern suburb of the city alone ‘one hundred and seventy women were occupied transcribing Qurʼāns in Kufic charactersʼ.[8] It is tempting to imagine that individuals such as these earned their means of subsistence from copying. An important and familiar figure had emerged at an early period - that of the 𝓌arrāq, although it remains difficult to place this protean character in any one fixed category. Johannes Pedersen has documented a number of incidents in which the 𝓌arrāq played a part somewhat resembling that of a modern publisher.[9] Though a 𝓌arrāq might have run the store and sold books, it is more difficult to ascertain whether he was also involved in actual copying[10]. A measure of versatility seems to have been the rule in the book trade[11], for example, there exist manuscripts transcribed by copyists whose colophons state that they were 𝓌arrāq (among them the ‘Qurʼān of the Nurseʼ,[12] dated 4ɪo/ɪoɪ9-ɪo2o and MS. Mashhad Āstān-i Quds 43ɪ6,[13] from 466/ɪo73-ɪo74).[14] According to these colophons, both ‘Ali ibn Aḥmad and ‘Uthmān ibn Ḥusayn respectively copied the text, punctuated it, and illuminated and finally bound the manuscripts concerned. It may be that during the early centuries it was the 𝓌arrāqʼs role to oversee every stage of a manuscriptʼs production. More than a century after the above examples, at the end of the sixth/twelfth century, Rāwandī, author of the history Rāḥat al-ṣudūr and himself a calligrapher, declared that he ‘had learned seventy types of script and practised as a copyist of the Qurʼān, an illuminator and a bookbinder, skills [he] had acquired to perfection.ʼ[15] Not quite such an all-rounder as some of his predecessors, the copyist of one manuscript (Montreal McGill ISL 9ɪ, dated 967/ɪ560) was also nonetheless an illuminator; this combination of roles was fairly common.[16] On the other hand, were the tasks performed by the nassākh who signed a manuscript in London (BL Add. 25o26)[17] in 672/ɪ274 any less wide-ranging than those of the 𝓌arrāqs mentioned above? The sources indicate that professional copyists set up shop in the market-place, though when the term 𝓌arrāq is used it is not always easy to tell whether it refers to copyists or to booksellers.[18] By the beginning of the seventeenth century in Central Asia, they were plying their trade in the bazaars.[19]

On occasion, colophons introduce practitioners of other trades concerned with book production: the copyist of MS. London BL Add. 72ɪ4 dubbed himself al-mudhahhib (‘the illuminator),[20] while that of MS. Paris BNF suppl. persan ɪ4ɪɪ and ɪ528, a certain Darwīsh Maḥmūd, describes himself as a naqqāsh (painter): he must have both transcribed the text and executed illustrations in both volumes.[21]

Another writing professional, the kātib, or scribe, also sometimes copied texts. In 562/ɪɪ67, a certain ‘Ali ibn Ja‘far ibn Asad al-kātib transcribed a Qurʼānic text which was endowed as 𝓌aqf by Abū l-Qāsim Maḥmūd ibn Zankī.[22] Marginally later, a figure practically contemporary with the calligrapher of the aforementioned Kalīla 𝓌a-Dimna, a kātib, Amīr Ḥājj ibn Aqsunqur al-Qūnyawī, copied a manuscript now in Paris (BNF suppl. persan ɪ447).[23] MS. Paris BNF suppl. persan 2ɪo5 (completed in ɪɪ67/ɪ754), was copied by Ḥāfiẓ Ibrāhīm, kātib of the ṭūpchī at the fortress in Khania, Crete. The name of Sayyidī Muḥammad al-Munshī too, who copied a number of manuscripts in a style closely related to Āq Quyūnlū chancery scripts, should not be forgotten.[24] These figures, though, were only following in the illustrious footsteps of Ibn Muqla: chanceries offered an opportunity for writing specialists to exercise their profession under the auspices of the prince, even if that meant working - depending on the requirements - for a government office or the princeʼs library.[25] In MS. Paris BNF arabe 6997, ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Shukrī emphasises his position as calligraphy master at the Sublime Porte.[26]

Scholars and amateurs

Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī earned his keep as a copyist,[27] as had the philosopher Yaḥyā ibn ‘Adī.[28] before him. Scholars and students alike were induced to transcribe texts to earn money. It sometimes fell to such individuals to copy manuscripts for study purposes: besides solving the problem of obtaining the texts they needed, copies might also become channels through which knowledge could be transmitted, as shown by occasional reading or audition certificates appended to manuscripts.[29] The final appearance of a manuscript thus might differ greatly depending on circumstances: since a hand is rarely unintelligible to the writer himself, copying for oneself is quite different from working for another party, a task requiring a higher standard of legibility. External features, such as the way a script is laid out and the page composed, can convey additional data in this regard, though these too should be treated with caution. Sometimes, a colophon recording that the copyist carried out the work li-nafsihi,[30] for him- or herself, goes some way to filling this information gap. Of course, not all manuscripts transcribed for this purpose were copied in a slapdash manner. Finally, there were the ‘amateursʼ who occasionally turned their hand to copying: this is especially frequent in the case of Qurʼāns and other pious works. As Shadman Vahidov and Aftandil Erkinov have noted in the case of late thirteenth/nineteenth-century Central Asia, many of those who worked for Ṣadr-i Ḍiyāʼ were his friends: ‘a qāḍī, a mufti, a mudarris, or anyone else who wrote a fine hand could transcribe books, either to order or for his own useʼ.[31] A manuscript in the hand of the author (an autograph or holograph) belongs to a special category and will naturally command the especial attention of anyone editing, studying, or translating a text.

Internal evidence of a personal nature

Only rather rarely do colophons in Arabic-Islamic manuscripts offer pointers to the personality of the copyist or to the conditions in which transcription took place. One may sometimes glimpse the odd biographical detail, as in MS. Berlin SB or. 4794, where the copyist proclaims that his father was khaṭīb of the mosque of Aḥmad Pasha;[32] while in MS. Paris BNF arabe ɪ6ɪ2, it is the copyist himself who was imām and khaṭīb of the mosque at Qinā in Egypt.[33] Details concerning the manuscript used as a model were customarily held in high regard by copyists, as for example in MSS. Istanbul Köprülü Kütüphanesi 949 and 956.[34] There are instances, admittedly few and far between, when the pen lets slip details of a more personal nature. Max Weisweiler (for Arabic manuscripts)[35] and Angelo Michele Piemontese (for Persian examples)[36] have traced passages in verse conveying personal sentiments, though they tend to be rather conventional, such as pious exclamations or an appeal to the reader to show compassion and indulgence towards the copyistʼs shortcomings.

By comparison, colophons in Christian Arabic manuscripts were far more forthcoming. As Gerard Troupeau has stressed, while the place of copying is more commonly mentioned in this corpus, it is the many self-deprecating adjectives applied by the copyist to himself, as well as the pleas he addresses to the reader, that puts these colophons in a tradition quite distinct from that of Islamic manuscripts in Arabic.[37]

Places of transcription...

*The remainder of this article is exclusively available in the printed version of the related book. The book is available in both electronic and printed formats within Our Publications in the following link:

[1] Female calligraphers almost seem to have received the lionʼs share of attention: see Z. M. ‘Abbās, ‘Nisāʼ kharṭṭāṭārʼ, al-Ma𝓌rid 15/4 (1986), p. 141-148. Ṣ. al-Munajjid, ‘Womenʼs roles in the art of Arabic calligraphyʼ, The Book in the Islamic World (New York, 1995), pp. 141-148.

[2]  Francis Richard has unearthed several cases of the hand of the same copyist surfacing in more than one manuscript (see PARIS 1997, passim).

[3] Among the numerous works of this genre of literature, mention may be made of Sulaymān Mustaqīmzāda (Süleyman Mustakimzade), Tuḥfat al-khaṭṭāṭīn, ed. M. K. Inal (Istanbul, 1928); Qāḍī Aḥmad, Calligraphers and painters: a treatise by Qāḍī Aḥmad, son of Mīr Munshī (ca 4. H. 1015A. D. 1606), transl. V. Minorsky, (Washington, DC, 1959); or again al-Zabīdī, Ḥikemat al-ishrāq, ed. ‘A. S. Hārūn, (Cairo, 1373/1954).

[4]  MSS. Paris BNF arabe 6082 and 6716; Déroche, Cat. 1/2, pp. 92-93, no. 458, and p. 122, no. 523 and pl. XXVI A. For Yāqūt, see James, The Master Scribes (London, 1992), pp. 58-59, and N. Çetin (in Islām Ansiklopedisi, vol. XIII, pp. 352-357, s. v. ‘Yāḳūt Musta‘ṣimīʼ).

[5]  MS. Geneva B. Bodmer MS. 527, FiMMOD 174.

[6] U Derman, ‘Türk yazı sanʼatında icazetnameler ve teklid yazılarʼ, VII. Türk Tarih Kongresi II [T. T.K. yay. IX/7 a], (Ankara, 1973), pp. 716-728; F. Déroche, ‘Maitres et disciples: la transmission de la culture calligraphique dans le monde ottomanʼ, REMMM 75-76 (1995), pp. 85-87 ; M. A. Karimzadeh Tabrizi, Ijazat nameh=lcāzet name: the most unique and precious document in Ottoman calligraphy (London, 1999).

[7] In index 2 of Materialen, under the heading ‘Ductus’, Rudolf Sellheim places the categories ‘calligraphicʼ and ‘professionalʼ side by side (p. 411).

[8] Ibn al-Fayyāḍ, quoted in J. Ribera, ‘Bibliófilos y bibliotecas en la España musulmanaʼ, in Disertaciones y opúsculos, vol. I (Madrid, 1928), p. 199.

[9] The Arabic Book (Princeton, NJ, 1984), p. 43.

[10] Amongst the documents in the Cairo Genizah Sadan (‘Nouveaux documents sur scribes et copistesʼ, REI 45 [1977], pp. 41-56) found an inventory of the possessions of a Jewish copyist that furnishes a picture of how a thirteenth-century writing professional might have been equipped.

[11] Similar observations may be made with regard to a closely allied area, that of bookbinding: see Y. Porter, Peinture et art du liυre (Paris/Tehran, 1992), p. 170. Later in the present chapter, reference will be made to a bookbinder who was also a copyist.

[12] The MS. thus designated comes from the collection of the Great Mosque at Kairouan: see B. Roy and P. Poinssot, Inscriptions arabes de Kairouan (Paris, 1950), pp. 27-32 and fig. 7-8; the colophon is not strictly speaking the copyistʼs own, as it was written by a secretary (kātiba), a certain Durra. It seems that elements from this MS. are housed in a number of Tunisian institutions: the Centre dʼArt Islamique at Raqqāda near Kairouan possesses several leaves (see PARIS 1983, p. 273, no. 356; PARIS 1995, p. 9), as do the museum of the Bardo in Tunis itself (Inv. 277; see PARIS 1983, p. 273, no. 357), and the Bibliothèque Nationale (MS. Rutbī 13; see LONDON 1976, p. 30, no. 26).

[13] A. Gulchīn-i Ma‘ānī, ‘Shāhkārhā-yi hunari-yi shigift-angīzī az qarn-i panjum-i hijrī va sargudhasht-i ḥayrat-āvar-i ānʼ, Hunar υa mardum, 157 (1354/1976), pp. 45-65; and by the same author, Rāhnamā-yi Ganjīna-yi Qurʼān (Mashhad, 1347/1969), p. 49, no. 21. The same copyist is believed to have written MS. Istanbul, TKS EH 209 (see Fuʼād Sayyid, Makhṭūṭ, pl. 7). Slightly earlier, another manuscript copied in the region (MS. Leiden, BRU Or. 437) also bears the signature of a 𝓌arrāq, Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Abi Rāfi‘; see P. de Jong and M.J. de Goeje, Catalogus codicum orientalium bibliothecæ Academiæ Lugduno Bataυorum, vol. IV (Leiden, 1866), pp. 60-61, no. 1735; P. Voorhoeve, Handlist of Arabic manuscripts in the Library of the Uniυersity of Leiden and other collections in the Netherlands [Codices manuscripti, 7] (2nd ed.) (The Hague/Boston/London, 1980), p. 162; S. M. Stern, ‘A manuscript from the library of the Ghaznawid Amīr ‘Abd al-Rashīdʼ, in R. Pinder-Wilson (ed.), Painting from Islamic Lands (Oxford, 1969), p. 12 and pl. 8- the name is given in the text in an incomplete form; J.J. Witkam, Seυen specimens of Arabic manuscripts (Leiden, 1978), p. 4-5. Material of a more literary character has been collected by Ḥ. Zayyāt (al-Wirāqa 𝓌a-ṣinā‘a al-kitāba 𝓌a-mu‘jam al-sufun [Beirut, 1992], pp. 7-40).

[14] Another Qurʼānic manuscript is signed by ‘Uthmān ibn al-Ḥusayn al-Warrāq (F. Déroche, ‘Une reliure du ve/xıe siècleʼ, NMMO IV/1 [1995], pp. 4-5 and pl. I): this is most likely a case of homonymy, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the signature was intended to raise the value of the copy.

[15] D. Meneghini Correale, ‘Il capitolo sulla scrittura nel Rāḥat al-ṣudūr di Muḥammad ibn ‘Ali ibn Sulaymān al-Rāwandīʼ, Annali di Caʼ Foscari 33/3, Serie orientale, 25 (1994), p. 231.

[16] Gacek, McGill, p. 227, no. 253/1.

[17] FiMMOD 157.

[18] See Zayyāt, op. cit., pp. 34-35.

[19] M. Szuppe, ‘Lettrés, patrons, libraires. Lʼapport des recueils biographiques sur le rôle du livre en Asie centrale aux xvıe et XVIIe sièclesʼ, Cahiers dʼAsie centrale 7 (1999), p. 109.

[20] FiMMOD 163.

[21] Richard, op. cit., p. 115, no. 77.

[22] MS. Richmond Keir Collection no. VII, 3 and 4 (B. Robinson et al., Islamic painting and the arts of the book [London, 1976], pp. 287-288).

[23] FiMMOD 1.

[24] F. Richard, ‘Divānī ou ta‘liqʼ, Mss du MO, pp. 89-93.

[25] Rogers, BERLIN 1988, pp. 73-74.

[26] Déroche, Cat. 1/2, p. 114, no. 508, and pl. XXIV A.

[27] Ibn Khallikān, Wafayāt al-a‘yān 𝓌a-anbā abnā al-zamān, ed. I. ‘Abbās (Beirut, s.d.), vol. VI, p. 127.

[28] This Christian Arab philosopher is said to have transcribed al-Ṭabarīʼs immense tafsīr twice (Pedersen, op. cit., p. 43).

[29] See below. See also Pedersen, op. cit., pp. 32-33, note 32.

[30] FiMMOD, nos. 30, 40, 55, 56, 57, 65, 94, 171, 187, 192, 224 illustrate this point. See in this connection the formulae listed by A. Fuʼād Sayyid (Makhṭūṭ, pp. 455-458).

[31] S. Vahidov and A. Erkinov, ‘Le fihrist (catalogue) de la bibliothèque de Ṣadr-i Ẓiyāʼ: une image de la vie intellectuelle dans le Mavarannahr (fin xıxe-début xxe s.)ʼ, Cahiers dʼAsie centrale 7 (1999), p. 147.

[32] Quiring-Zoche, Ar. Hss. 3, p. 35.

[33] Sauvan and Balty-Guesdon, Cat. 5, pp. 159-160.

[34] See e.g. R. Şeşen, ‘Esquisse dʼune histoire du développement des colophons dans les manuscrits musulmansʼ, in Scribes, p. 203 (no. 26) and p. 204 (no. 29).

[35] ‘Arabische Schreiberverseʼ, in R. Paret (ed.), Festschrift E. Littmann (Leiden, 1935), pp. 101-120.

[36] ‘Devises et vers traditionnels des copistes entre explicit et colophon des manuscrits persansʼ, in Mss du MO, pp. 77-87.

[37] G. Troupeau, ‘Les colophons des manuscrits arabes chrétiensʼ, in Scribes, pp. 223-231.

Source note:
This article was published in the following book:
Islamic Codicology: An Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script _ English version, 2005, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 185-204.
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