Islamic Manuscripts in the West

Angelo Michele Piemontese

A manuscript is both a text, that is, a written document of a certain literary genre, and a handwritten work, be it a codex or a scroll. A manuscript as a whole is endowed with an everlasting value, and as a result is kept in libraries and archives as well as museums. The relevance of a manuscript is proportionally dependent on its main features: origin, contents, structure, history, ownership, and state of preservation. Its importance is partially related to the fact that the manuscript is described as such in a list or catalogue. How to define and record a manuscript is still a difficult methodological question.

These two constituent aspects of a manuscript, its being a text and a handwritten work, are co-existent and equally worth considering. They are indeed so relevant that they need to be studied by the sister disciplines of paleography and codicology. Codicology deals with the exterior form of a manuscript: context, collection, and cataloguing. In fact, the history of literary production can be best studied only by using data resulting from both paleography and codicology.

For a deeper understanding of a text it is necessary to study the process which Ieads to its physical production, transmission, conservation, and cataloguing. Tllis process can be called ‘the specific and individual history of the text’, or ‘its cultural individuality’. However, because of the number of factors involved in such a process, its study is a complicated one. The methodologies related to the study of this process are the result of long expcricnce involving knowledge from several branches of study.

The scientific effort required is nevertheless rewarding. After all knowledge was able to progress, throughout history, mainly thanks to the acquisition of books, through which sources could be examined and eventually manuscripts deciphered.

With regard to Islamic studies, the stress has been mainly put on the comprehension of the text, rather than on the cataloguing of the handwritten work. Scholars seem to have been interested, above all, in the meaning of the text, rather than in examining the importance of its editorial apparatus, or even in appreciating the beauty of its decoration. It took them a long time before they came across quotations from Arab, Persian, or Turkish scribes about the dignity and high esteem assigned to books and calligraphy throughout the Islamic world. To quote but one example by the well-known scribe al-Marzubān: ‘The art of writing is a difficult geometry as well as an exact technique[1].’

The vibrancy of Persian miniatures, for instance, was appreciated in Europe rather late: around the beginning of the twentieth century. This was due to a more mature aesthetic taste at that.time. It is only towards the end of the twentieth century that scholars would agree that calligraphy and illumination, together with binding and paper, are the constituent factors of a book, and that a book is a document of a literary civilization.

During the middle Ages, when Europe began to discover Arabic literature, scholars translated several scientific and philosophical works into Latin, without describing the original manuscripts they were using.

Generally speaking we can state that, both in the translation of a text from one language into another, and also in the transposition within the same language from a traditional way of writing into a new one, little or no importance was given to the original form of the manuscript used as a source. For example a typical of writing in the Islamic world was that from kūfī script to naskh. This transition involved the transcription of old texts. Apparently, once used for translation or for the old book was dismissed and thrown away.

The appreciation of original Arabic texts, together with the first collections, was a result of the Renaissance: a time when interest in the activities and techniques of writing changed and when classical scienceswerebthe object of a profound, renewed interest.

Just before the invention of printing, in 1441 a considerable number of Arabic manuscripts, of Egyptian origin, which included Christian, medical’ philosophical, and hermetic texts, was presented to Pope Eugenio IV, and became a part of what was to become the Vatican Library (founded c. 1450).Giovanni Pico, in a letter (1486) to Marsilio Ficino, wrote that the study of Arab philosophers through Latin translations was nothing other than a repetition of medieval knowledge, and that therefore the time had come to read the original works, something which he had just started to do[2]. Shortly afterwards some Italian calligraphers, editors, and scholars began to devote attention to the study of Arabic calligraphy, including its Maghribī variant.

It is worth remembering that this change in attitude was also due to the intention of the Humanists to rediscover classic Latin and Greek texts whose originals were apparently missing in the West through the Arabic versions of these texts, which were kept in the East. The scholar and traveller G. B. Vecchietti and his brother Gerolamo, following the instructions of the sponsors of the Oriental Medicean Printing House (Stamperia Orientale Medicea, founded in Rome in 1584), brought some Arabic manuscripts from the East containing the tanslation of Greek texts.

The French cardinal Jacques Davy Du Perron (1556—1618) wrote with admiration: ‘Vecchieto, recently back from the Indies [1608], has brought back With him several authors of Greek mathematics, but translated into Arabic, which we have never seen before. In the Vatican (Library) there are twenty Greek authors translated into Arabic, [whose originals] have been lost … . We owe a great deal to the Arabs for the large amount of old Greek texts which they have preserved for us.[3]

Access to the new material was made possible by progress in linguistics. The study of Arabic, and, to a certain extent, of Turkish and Persian, was one cultural achievement of the European Renaissance during the sixteenth century and up to the beginning of the seventeenth century and, as a consequence of this, priority was given to the search for textbooks of Arabic grammar and lexicography, such as Sanhājī’s al-Ājurrūmiyyah and Fīrūzābādī’s al-Qāmūs. The publication of the still valuable Arabic Grammar by Thomas Erpenius (Leiden, 1613), as well as the massive Arabic-Latin Lexicon by Antonius Giggeius (Mlilan, 1632) provided scholars with the first tools for their studies. Meanwhile several Arabic linguistic and scientific works were being published, translated, and commented upon.

The seventeenth century also marked an essential step forward in the scientific study of the Turkish and Persian languages. Thus the way was opened for advanced research on the collegium trilingue of the three great Islamic literatures. The collection of manuscripts, which were the foundation of knowledge, became an increasingly important activity. Some scholars went to Eastern countries with the purpose of seeking out manuscripts. Further collections of manuscripts were established by travellers, diplomats, and scholars such as Golius (Holland), N. Hobart (1655, Great Britain), B. Niederstatten (1672, Germany), J. B. Wansleben (1671-5, France), and L. F. Marsili (1679-86, Italy). 

However, the study of manuscripts was a difficult task, and the detailedand effective examination of manuscripts evolved over several centuries. ln particular, the identification and the cataloguing of manuscripts was a complex process, involving several generations of cataloguers, while the manuscript collections continued to expand rapidly.

The Register of Oriental Books belonging to His Highness the Grand Duke (of Tuscany), including a brief explanation of the manuscripts and compiled by M. Barthélémy d’Herbelot, eminent French scholar, in Florence, year 1666[4]can be considered one of the first scientific catalogues of manuscripts, but the ‘explanation’, even though adequate in terms of the identification of the texts, was in no way related to the description of the manuscripts.

The massive in-folio catalogues published during the eighteenth century did not generally devote many words to the description of manuscripts. On the other hand, not all cataloguers had by then mastered the description of the subject-matter of these texts. For example, a copy of the Persian dīwān of Shawkat of Bukhārā (d. c.1107/1695), in the Venetian collection, was described as ‘The history of Shauket, city in Mesopotamia, 99o30’’ longitude, 47olatitude north, situated in the .fifth region, according to Abu l-Fida’.

A solid basis for the classification of manuscripts was the epoch-making edition of Hājjī Khalīfah’s Lexicon Bibliographicum et encyclopedicum, edited by G. Flūgel (Leipzig 1835/London 1858). From this time onwards, cataloguers took more care, and were more attentive to the paleographic elements in a manuscript. As a result, the majority of the greatest collections came to be systematically described; see for example the descriptions of the collections of the Academy of Sciences in Leiden (1851-1877, P. de Jong et al.), of the British Museum (1846-1895, W. Cureton and C. Rieu), of the Imperial Library in Vienna (1865-1867, G. Flūgel), of the Royal Library in Berlin (1887-1899, W. Alwardt), and of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (1883, de Slane; and 1905-1934, E. Blochet) The same applies to other national, provincial, and university collections all over Europe. As for the older and more recent collections in the Vatican Library, it took much longer to compile a description of the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts, as is shown by the ‘Lists’ of G. Levi Della Vida (1935—65) and E. Rossi (1948—53). Meanwhile the collections were now to be found as far away as the United States of America.

To catalogue manuscripts requires a great deal of perseverance and skill, as well as constant revision of methods and continuous up-dating of resources. All this has to be added to the necessity of up-dating and revising the catalogues to accommodate new accessions. In modern times, the sphereof action has considerably expanded, as a result of the cataloguing of Libraries in Islamic countries, where scholars like P. Hom and H. Ritter had already explored some of the collections. The inclusion of indigenous collections has enriched the field of study and has increased information, as well as reference and collation data.

During the second half of the twentieth century research has opened up new perspectives. Among the projects which attest to modern trends are.. the publication of Verzeichnis der Orientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland, the publication of the Arabic manuscript catalogue of the Leiden University Library and other collections in Holland by J. J. Witkam (1983—89), and the new catalogues of Kufic Qur’āns by F. Déroche (1982) and of the Persian manuscript collections by F. Richard (1989), both pertaining to the manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the formation of Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation in London (1991).

Several collections, however, have not been catalogued as well as one would have hoped. In Italy there is still a great amount of work to be done, in particular on Arabic and Turkish manuscripts. For instance, the researcher enquiring into the important Medici collection in Florence, which contains several Qur’ānic manuscripts as well as texts on linguistics, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and mechanics, along with Christian texts, must still rely on the defective 1742 catalogue by S. E. Assemanus, and, similarly, the Marsili collection of Bologna University, which is rich in devotional, historical, geographical, and botanical texts, is still described only by the good but short list compiled by V. Rosen (1885).

The reason for this situation in Italy can be traced back to the enormous number of catalogues that would be required to cover the huge number of ancient collections, both great and small, which are scattered across a bewildering assortment of libraries. Moreover, despite the awareness of this cultural heritage in every part of Italy, a heritage which is one of the country’s great assets, Italian scholars have not been attracted to it, nor encouraged to study it.

The gap has recently been reduced by the catalogue of O. Lòfgren and R. Traini (1975—81) of the Arabic manuscript collection in the Ambrosiana Library of Milan (established by Cardinal F. Borromeo in 1609), a collection which includes texts on theology, lexicography, poetry, and the sciences; the catalogue by A. M. Piemontese (1989) describing the Persian manuscripts in Italian public libraries; and the catalogue of Turkish manuscripts which is being compiled by A. Gallotta.

However, what needs to be done in order to explore and take note of the enormous number of collections, mostly of medium and small size, which are distributed across eighty public libraries in fifty different cities, is to embark on an iter italicum. Such a journey for scientific research was partially undertaken by J. van Hammer between 1826 and 1831. In fact travelling throughout a country, library after library, can lead to some surprises and even interesting discoveries. As for private collections, they remain a totally unexplored field of study.

In order to meet the standards of good cataloguing, especially with regard to Arabic manuscripts, such an itinerary requires: firstly, the direct exarnination in each library of those collections so far unexplored, or only partially catalogued — in practice, this means examining all the collections, except those in the Vatican and Ambosiana Library; then, in the light of the data acquired from this survey, a revision of the current reliable catalogues — this step is a subsidiary task so that a general catalogue comprising all monographic information and indexes can be compiled.

Particularly important in Italian and European collections are the Syriac- Arabic and Copto-Arabic manuscripts, as well as Christian texts in Arabic. Catalogues of Persian manuscripts usually include Christian texts. In fact, works written by missionaries are the expression of a particular literary genre in Persian literature, used, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by several European scholars, not all of whom were missionaries. Also many of these Christian manuscripts were written by indigenous copyists in Persia and in India. A distinctive feature of ‘traditional’ Persian literature is that manuscripts were written over an incredibly wide territory, stretching from India to the Balkans. The inclusion of Persian Christian literature can thus only help us to gain a more complete picture of Persian codicology.

As for Arabic manuscripts, it is usually a matter of defining what to include in the catalogues; for example, mixed and purely Christian works are generally included in a non-lslamic section. However, even with such a distinction, it is not clear why in a library as important as the Vatican Library there is no specific catalogue available on the several hundred Arabic- Christian manuscripts. On the other hand, it seems that Arabic texts written by Christian or Jewish authors dealing with mathematics, medicine, grammar, lexicography, and, to a certain extent, poetry were composed according to the same scientific methods and modes of expression as those followed in Islamic Arabic manuscripts. ln this regard, the importance of comparative codicology ought to be considered. It is worth remembering, for example, that there is some evidence of influence, since the middle Ages, between Greek-Byzantine and Arabo-lslamic manuscript composition.

Thanks to progress in Islamic studies, knowledge of Islamic texts has become more and more detailed. However, the same cannot be said aboutthe paleography and codicology related to the same text. This can be seen in C. Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, in F, sezgin’sliterature and in H.F.Hofman’s survey of Turkish literature, where the stress is laid on the classification of texts according to their literary genre, on chronology, and on bibliography. In these massive encyclopaedic works, nointroductory or monograph chapters on the physical nature of the manuscripts concerned, or on materials and writing tools, calligraphy, illumination, histories of libraries, or some of the main features of tbe great collections are to be found. These are the very subjects which shaped from within all Islamic literature. An example is seen in the traditional structure of old Qur’anic codices, the so-called vertical and oriental (Asian) paper structure, and, on the other hand, the horizontal Afro-Andalusian vellum. This distinction reflects not merely a decorative preference, but is, rather, a distinctive factor which proves the existence of territorial distribution, Eastern versus Western, of writing modes in the Islamic world. This distinction is a constant and fundamental difference that involves not only materials but also cultural concepts about the making of books. Despite this, not one line of the long article on the Qur’ān in the new edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam is devoted to paleographic issues.

If calligraphy is the Islamic art par excellence, it ought to hold a relevant place not only in exhibitions but also in the history of literature and literary trends. Studies such as those by J. Pedersen on the art of the Arabic book and by G. Vajda on the transmission of Islamic works and on the communication of knowledge demonstrate that these issues deserve greater attention if better understanding is to be obtained of a civilization that is centred on books and on the art of writing.[5]

European scholars dealing with Islamic manuscripts were, and indeed still are, faced with a particular difficulty and a daunting objective. The particular difficulty is due to the lack in early Islamic sources of consistent and constant paleographic data about the materials and about the terminology proper to paleography and codicology. This means that the paleography of Islamic manuscripts and their techniques draws information from the established classic European tradition of paleographic studies. As a result, the progress of paleography as applied to such manuscripts is very slow.

The daunting objentive, on the other hand, is made up of the mass of Islamic manuscripts which abound in the large European libraries. Their number contrasts with the limited number of librarians and scholars who are capable or competent enough to catalogue the material and to carry out pertinent research. The number of these manuscripts is in the thousands: 2,500 in the Chester Beatty Library, 12,000 in the Bibliothèque Nationale (7,000 in Arabic, 3,000 in Persian, and 2,000 in Turkish); and there are more than 10,000 Arabic manuscripts in Germany. As for Italy, there are about 4,700 Arabic manuscripts in the Vatican Library, 2,000 in the Ambrosiana Library, and more than 2,400 distributed throughout other libraries. The number of these manuscripts is inferior only to that of Latin and Italian manuscripts. As a comparison, there are no more that 2,800 Hebrew manuscripts in all Italian libraries.

The reason why Islamic manuscripts are so abundant lies above all in the fact that in Islamic countries books were produced in manuscript form for almost four centuries longer than in Europe. During a recent Congress, hailed as the first to be devoted to the paleography and codicology of Islamic texts, the number of Arabic manuscripts scattered all over the world was estimated to be several million.[6]

In conclusion, the cataloguing of Islamic manuscript collections, which began in Europe in the seventeenth century and continued during the following centuries up ūntil the last fifty years, concentrated particularly on listing the texts. The cataloguing process contributed greatly to the development of Islamic studies, and in particular to the critical edition of texts, as well as the elaboration of research trends. These issues, however,cannot be described here as they require a monograph of their own.

As mentioned above, most catalogues contain not only few references to the physical structure of manuscripts, but- surprisingly enough, even fewer, or even none at all, to the history and peculiarities of the collections themselves. Such references are not merely a requirement of excessive zeal, but are the specific factors which help in identifying the structure of the process due to which a manuscript or a group of manuscripts has survived.

Very few collections are properly described according to their historical genesis, patrons, specific consistency, and cultural links. Unfortunately, the history of Islamic manuscript collections in Europe remains a scientific aim postponed to an indefinite future. The general information and statistical tables included in what is otherwise a very useful survey of the collections and libraries all over the world provides nothing more than a vague idea of the basic historical data necessary for such a discipline.[7]

However, we are able to cite the example of a catalogue which does meet the general requirements mentioned above. This catalogue describes both the texts and the paleographic elements of manuscripts, including the full quotation of the original form of colophons (which is a kind of identity card for a manuscript). It includes an introductory survey of the history of the collection, as well as a comprehensive evaluation according to the following criteria: textual content, characteristics of the most important copies, quality of calligraphy, illumination and illustration, and even a summary of ‘type of paper, provenance, kind of fibre and its condition’.[8]

Specific data on the paper and related matters are indeed very rarely found in catalogues. This is due to limitations in the knowledge and technical analysis of the paleography related to Islamic manuscripts.

As to future tasks, the picture drawn from all the data provided by paleography and related cataloguing will be revealing. The data should

include: full statistics, methodological handbooks, a series of editions of a manuscript reproduced in facsimile, samples of types of paper used, albums of writing and calligraphic genres, collections of representative colophon formulae, resumés of the typology of writing and bookbinding materials, descriptions of regional productions, decorative patterns, iconology of miniatures, and essays on comparative codicology, the histories of collections, and biographies of collectors.

The reconstruction of the long historical and geographical chain linking authors and copyists to collectors and readers will attain the dimensions of a history of culture. All this requires paleographic information and documentary research analysis of memoirs and correspondence. This also includes the gathering of old inventories and the detailed analysis of catalogues, especially for early collecting between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries.

Moreover, collectors, as well as sponsors, institutions, informants, travellers, scholars, editors, and booksellers, all played a part in the transmission of the book and played a role in the circulation of manuscripts.

In France, and elsewhere in Europe, cultural enterprises related to research into oriental manuscripts have, since the seventeenth century, given rise to a vast network of contacts and interests that stretch from North Africa to the Middle East and India. Both editors and printers have performed a role in such a network since the beginning of the sixteenth century as a result of the fact that, at the turning point of the modern age, printing gave an enorrnous stimulus to the gathering of Islamic manuscripts in Europe.

This is Why both monographs on, and a comprehensive history of, European orientalism can only remain in an embryonic phase as long as we are not properly informed about all the data mentioned here. 


[1]Franz Rosenthal, Four Essays on Art and Literature in Islam, Leiden,1971, p. 32

[2]Opera Omnia Ioannis Pici, Mirandulae, Basileae, by Heinricum Petri,1557, Epistolaè, p. 367.

[3]Perroniana sive Excerpta ex ore Cardinalis Perronii Per FFPP, Geneva, Apud Petrum Columesium, 1669, pp 18—19.

[4]Firenze, Biblioteca Nazionale, M.S. II.II.115, ff. 305-362; ParisBibliothèque Nationale, M.S. Ital 80; partly published in vol. III ofAmoenitates Literariae, ed. J. C. Shellhorn (Francofurti et Lipsiae,1725).

[5]Johannes Pedersen, The Arabic Book, trans. by G. French, ed. R.Hillenbrand, Princeton, 1984: Georges Vajda, La transmission du savoiren Islam (VII-XVIII siècle), ed. N. Cottart, London, 1983.

[6] François Déroche (ed.), Les Manuscrits du Moyen-Orient. Essais de codicologie et de paléographie. Actes du Colloque d’Istanbul. (Istanbul, 26-29 mai 1986), Istanbul-Paris, 1989.

[7]J. D. Pearson, Oriental Manuscripts in Europe and North America ASurvey, Switzerland,1971, chapter ‘Arabic Persian Turkish’, pp. 189-345. But see G. Roper (ed.), Worldwide Survey of Islamic Manusaipts, Inaugural Volume, London, 1991

[8]P. Hitti, N. Amin Faris and B. Abd al-Malik, Descriptive Catalogue of the Garrett Collection of Arabic Manuscripts in the Princeton University Library, Princeton, 1938, introduction pp. iii—x. 

Source note:
This article was published in the following book:
The Significance of Islamic Manuscripts: Proceedings of the inaugural conference of Al_Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 30th November_ 1st December 1991_ English version, 1992, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 45-54.