Persian manuscripts with special reference to Iran

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Īraj Afshār

Before considering the work being done on Persian manuscripts and the places where they are kept, attention should first be focused upon two related topics. First, the place where the manuscripts were written. By looking at colophons where the place of origin is indicated, and in some cases, by assessing the style of the calligraphy, we discover that over a period of six or seven centuries, Persian manuscripts were written in all the lands where people either spoke Persian or were familiar With Persian literature. There are numerous Persian manuscripts which have been written in Arabic- speaking lands such as Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, and the European dominions of the Ottoman Empire, a number of which still remain in these countries. Moreover, the existence of Persian manuscripts in public libraries and private collections in India, Pakistan, and Turkey is an indication of the prevalence of the Persian language at the courts and at literary gatherings in those lands. The style of the calligraphy and illumination of these manuscripts was specific to these various regions, and one can distinguish them at a glance.

The other aspect of Persian manuscripts which should be considered is their present location. Today, they are to be found beyond the borders of Persian-speaking countries, Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, as well as beyond those of their neighbours, Turkey, India, and Pakistan, so that many Persian manuscripts are now to be found in the libraries, museums, and private collections of other countries. They are dispersed all over the world, although sadly we do not have any accurate statistics. Many of them have not even been catalogued. Islamic manuscripts, whether in Persian or other languages, have been displaced over eleven centuries by way of trade and plunder, and as gifts and souvenirs. They have been dispersed over the four corners of the world.

A significant number of Persian manuscripts still remain in those places where they were written. In fact, these are manuscripts with a regional identity, like many compilations which were written by the Persian-speaking writers and scholars of India and Pakistan in the various cities of that vast sub-continent, especially between the eleventh to thirteenth centuries AH. Many of them are still accessible in India and Pakistan, and it is natural that scholars and text-specialists interested in the history of India and that part of Indian culture which is recorded in Persian, particularly in the biographies and speeches (malfūzāt) of the Sufis of the sub-continent from tarīqahs such as the Chishtiyyah, Qādiriyyah, Nurbakhshiyyah and Suhravardiyyah, should pay special attention to the treasures of the libraries in India and Pakistan. For those interested in the Sufi culture of Central Asia, and such orders as the Khvajigān and the Naqshbandī, the collections of the republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are of the greatest importance. In order to gain access to manuscripts from the towns between the Axartes and the Oxus, the collections of the libraries of Tashkent, Dushanbe, Samarkand, and Bukhara are of the greatest interest. Of course, in the last two hundred years, a number of these manuscripts have found their way to European countries, and a small number have fortuitously reached Iran.

Fortunately, the majority of the Persian manuscripts dating from the last two hundred years are still in the libraries and private collections within the country, and for those dating from the Qajar period, the National Library, as well as the libraries of the Gulistan Palace, Tehran University, and the Parliament, the Malik Library and those in Mashhad, Tabriz, Shiraz, and Isfahan are the main centres.

Manuscript description

There is no doubt that in the field of Eastern historical manuscripts description the most important need is for individuals who have mastered the basic essentials and methods of cataloguing, and who have acquired the relevant experience under the appropriate supervision. This applies equally to the field of manuscript illumination.

Up to now, the specialist in this field has been trained by his experience, following his own personal predilections, and the results of contact with numerous and varied manuscripts. This knowledge is transferred orally from one generation of specialists to another, and librarians and cataloguers have no access to any specific books of instruction or equipment. Although the number of such individuals is limited, their knowledge is reliable. He or she used to be known among Iranian literati as a kitābshinās, meaning ‘knower of the contents of books’, and not a ‘bibliographer’, as is the terminology today. Such a person would know the author/compiler, the subject of the book, the kind of paper, calligraphy, and the different kinds of illumination used in the book, and he would be able to assess these different aspects. If the manuscript lacked any details or was missing folios, by looking at the other chapters the kitābshinās could determine the identity of the book and specify the date of its writing and compilation.

In the last sixty to seventy years, several individuals Who learned kitābshināsī from the previous generation and taught them to contemporary scholars deserve to be mentioned: Muhammad Qazvînī, Muhammad ‘Alī Tarbiyat, Muhammad Nakhjavānī, Husayn Nakhjavānī, MuhammadMishkāt, Mujtabā Mīnuvī, M. T. Mudarris Razavī, Jafar Sullān al-Qurra’ī and Mahdi Bayānī.

The first stage in the history of Persian manuscript cataloguing was accomplished thanks to the efforts of Qa’ān Mīrzā Uktā’ī (the Mashhad catalogue), Abū al-Qāsim I’tisām al-Mulk (the Majlis catalogue), Hada’iq Shīrāzī (the Sipahsālār catalogue), and ‘Abd al-Azīz Javahir-Kalām (the Ma’ārif catalogue). They tried to bring together their own personal knowledge, combining traditional methods with the new procedures followed in the catalogues compiled by Orientalists. In this way, the first Iranian catalogues were printed and became the guide for future generations. In the second stage of cataloguing in Iran, the learned, hard-working, committed and untiring leader was, and still is, Muhammad Taqī Danishpazhūh, followed by ‘Alī Naqī Munzavī, Ahmad Munzavī, MahdīValā’ī, Ahmad Gulchīn-Ma’ānī,  ‘Abd al-Husayn Hā’irī, and  ‘Abd Allāh Anvār. It was in fact these few specialists who expanded this subject.

In the third stage, which takes in the last twenty years, not only cataloguers, but also a number of library figures played a part, as a result both of the scattered nature of the manuscripts and the enthusiasm which had become fashionable in the field of the cataloguing of manuscripts, especially following Danishpazhūh’ s efforts.

Now the future of manuscript cataloguing in Iran requires that clear rules and regulations be coordinated and compiled in the form of a book which can be made available to every cataloguer. If such an endeavour were successful, then it could also be used by cataloguers in other countries.

This skill of compilation needs to be taught academically and as a specialization, perhaps at the level of a master’s degree. In the short courses of modern librarianship and even in librarianship courses at the level of a university master’s degree, there are alternative classes on manuscripts, but because there has always been a tendency to learn the new techniques of librarianship in order to be able to find a job in a library, students have never had an adequate interest in classes on manuscripts and have never felt a need to revive the traditional knowledge.

The rules of cataloguing

In the catalogues that have been compiled for the Persian manuscripts of Iran, there is no standard for the rules and expressions used. In fact there are often distinct differences between then, since each cataloguer has written according to his own specific knowledge, according to his personal enthusiasm and effort, and, in some cases, based on written particulars noted in registers of manuscripts.

The absence of any standard rules as well as the variety in terminology, have led to problems in bibliography. As for European cataloguers, they have often followed their own rules and have not necessarily shown any sensitive awareness of the specific characteristics of Islamic bibliography. It is especially in translating the terminology and adapting it to present circumstances that they have been unsuccessful.

Mahdī Bayanī’s published work, Kitābshināsī-yi kitāb-hā-yi khattī, (Tehran, 1352/1973), which comprised the text of his lessons, and which was published posthumously, as well as Rizā Māyil Hīravī’s book, Lughāt va istilahat-i fann-i kitābsāzī ham-rāh bā istilahat-i jildsāzī, tazhīb, naqqāshī, do not solve the problems of cataloguing, and are not thorough enough to include all the information and terminology that is essential for teaching purposes.

The preparation of a book comprising all the rules and terminology peculiar to traditional Persian librarianship (quite apart from the terms used in other Islamic countries) is necessary. These terms should also be published with their English equivalents.

Such a compilation should exclude similar terms and expressions used in other Islamic countries, because the varied and parallel terminology current in Arab countries, as well as in India, Afghanistan, and Turkey, will lead to a new kind of confusion. On the other hand, their separation will lead to cataloguers in each language using local and traditional expressions current among themselves. The problem is not only that the rules and terminology concerning copying, calligraphy, illumination, and binding are not standardized, but that today we no longer know the signification of many of the old expressions. For example, I have extracted thirty-one names of different papers from the old registers of manuscripts and classical Persian texts, but I have no idea how one could correlate these different names with the actual paper of manuscripts, and say accurately that the paper of such and such a manuscript is of this or that kind.

In order to overcome these obstacles the most important task is to publish the Persian literature concerning calligraphy, paper, illumination, and binding of such authors as sayrafi, Rafiqī, Sabzavārī, Mīr-Alī, and sādiqī-yi Afshār in a series. Although a few of these have been published, and tanslated, for example the Gulistān-i hunar by Vladimir Minorsky, and Rang-i kāghaz-i sīmī Nīshābūrī by Louise Marlow, and notes to it by Yves Porter, it is still essential that a corpus should be available from which the old terminology and probable rules and definitions can be extrapolated; and the history of the development of the different styles of writing should be made accessible to the bibliographer. Although the translation of Gulistān-i hunar is useful, it is only since the edition of the text published by Suhaylī al-Khvānsārî that a more accurate use of the contents of the book has been made possible.

Another suggestion for achieving an authentic record of the terminology and finding a way of extrapolating accurate rules for rediscovering the artistic subtleties of manuscripts is to compile the Persian registers (arz) indicated at the end of manuscripts.

From same manuscripts one can compile a list of monographs and books which may otherwise only exist either separately or at the back of other books. An example of such a monograph is the valuable index which was prepared in 1172/1759 from the manuscripts of Āstān-i Safi in Ardabil and which was published under the name of Ganjīnah-i safī by M. V. Sayyid Yūnisī (Tabriz, 1348/1969). This is a very good reference for the old terminology that was current among the ‘treasure-holders of manuscripts’.

Estimation of the Persian manuscript heritage

Obviously it is impossible to determine the true number of manuscripts in Iran, let alone the total number of Persian manuscripts. The major problem in reaching an accurate and realistic figure is the way these manuscripts are scattered in public and university libraries, as well as in government institutions, mosques, and shrines; in addition, the paucity of information about many of them, the fact that not all manuscripts have been catalogued, and the many that are hidden away in private collections are all aggravating factors. An approximate guess is that the number of manuscripts in Iran is more than 200,000, half of which are probably in Arabic. About 60,000 of these manuscripts are mentioned in published catalogues and periodicals, as well as in the prefaces to published classical texts. Thus there remain about 140,000 uncatalogued manuscripts in Iran; of these 7,000 are in the National Library, and about the same or more in other important libraries. The important point is that manuscripts in private collections constitute about half of the uncatalogued manuscripts. At present, some of the Iranian libraries such as the Central Library at Tehran University, the Mar’ashî Library in Qum, the National Library, and the Foundation of the Great Persian Encyclopaedia of Islam are adding to their collections, and are buying manuscripts that become available on the market. Sometimes manuscripts are donated to these libraries, and these, too, have to be catalogued. The collection of Sultanī-yi Bihbahānī, which was recently donated to the Library of the Great Persian Encyclopaedia of Islam, is a case in point.

Selective and critical cataloguing

Considering the great number of uncatalogued and even unknown manuscripts, and the need for making available manuscripts which are vital for research, one must proceed in accordance with clear priorities. Each library should publish a list of all its manuscripts, but, in view of the fact that such a task would take years and would require efficient personnel as well as adequate financial resources, the only way of creating awareness of important manuscripts would be through a selective and critical hand-listing according to the needs of scholars. To this end, a list of the most important manuscripts could be provided as soon as an assessment had been made by text-specialists and bibliographers. In order to elaborate on this point, I will mention a few historical works. By way of introduction, it should be said that I will concentrate only on the Persian manuscripts of those historical texts that are relevant for general history.

Among important general histories in Persian are a few of which the total number of manuscript copies is as yet unknown. Those which have been published either in part or in full are not entirely reliable. In order to edit a more accurate text it is necessary to study all the texts. Among these texts which require more reliable editions are the Jāmi’ al-tavārīkh by Rashīd al- Dîn Fazl Allāh Ḥamadanī, the Zubdat al-tavārīkh by Hāfiz Abrū, the Habib al-siyar, by Khvāndmīr, the Rawzat al-safā, by Mīrkhvānd, and the Khuld-i barīn, by Muhammad safi Qazvīnī.

Among the dynastic histories, of which reliable versions would lead to a better understanding of world events and regional history, one can mention the Zafarnāmah by Sharaf al-Dīn Alī Yazdī, and the  Ālam ārā-yi ‘Abbāsī by Iskandar Beg Munshî In the domain of histories relevant to. neighbouring countries, the Tāj al-mu’āsir by Taj al-Dīn Hasan Nizāmī Nīshābūrī, a good reference for the history of India, and the Hasht bihisht, for the history of the Ottoman Empire, should be mentioned; many more books fall into this category.

Regarding the biographies of the great men of history, the example that comes to mind is Rashīd al-Dīn Fazl Allah Ḥamadānī; most of his writings remain unpublished, and the manuscripts of his works have yet to be assessed. These include the Taqrīzāt, the As’ilah va ajvibah and the Majmū’at al-Rashīdiyyah, of which excellent copies in Turkey and Iran could made into facsimile editions.

In the field of religious biography, although there are many manuscripts of a book like the Ahsan al-kibār fi ma’rifat al-a’immah al-athār, written by Muhammad b. Abî Zayd b. ‘Arabshāh ‘Alavī Varāmīnī (eighth century), it has not yet been published. As for the Majālis al-mu’minīn by Qazî Nūr Allah Shūsbtarī, which is the best biography of Shī’ī ulamā’ of the eleventh century hijrī, no critical edition based on reliable manuscripts has been published. Even the Rawzat al-shuhadā’ by Mullā Husayn Kashifi is still being reprinted without any reference to the manuscripts.

Literary research must be based on reliable manuscripts, — those closest to the time of the author. In order to achieve progress in this field, a chronological catalogue of the manuscripts of important works should be compiled, and in this way many of the problems bedevilling the editing of such central texts as the Dīwān of   Ḥāfiẓ, Firdawsī’s Shāh-nāmah, and Sa’adī’s collected works could be circumvented. A further requirement in the domain of literary texts is to make known such texts on traditional sciences as the Javāhir-nāmah-i Nizāmī (sixth century) on precious stones (itself the basis for Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī’s Tanāsūkh-nāmah) and the Safādat-nāmah by ‘Alā Tabarī (seventh century) on dīwān and siyāq.

Bibliography of Persian manuscripts catalogues

From 1305/1927, when the first catalogues of the manuscripts of the libraries in Mashhad (Āstān-i Quds) and Tehran (Majlis-i Shūrā-yi Millî) were published, until today, cataloguing has been continuous, but progress is intermittent as a result of political events or the financial situation of the libraries. At present, there is no general plan to determine the exact number of extant manuscripts in the many small and scattered libraries, or any of the details which are needed for proper cataloguing. However, in major libraries such as the National Library, the Majlis Library, Mar’ashī Library (Qum), the Central Library of Tehran University, and the Library of the Foundation of the Great Persian Encyclopaedia of Islam, cataloguing is progressing well. With the publication of the ninth volume, due to appear this year, the cataloguing of the Malik Library will have been completed.

The number of published catalogues of manuscripts has now reached about 1,000 (including those in article form). Accordingly, Kitābshināsī-yi fihrist-hā-yi nuskhah-hā-yi khattī-yi fārsī dar kitābkhānah-hā-yi dunyā which I compiled at the suggestion of UNESCO and which was published in 1337/1958 is now out of date, and the bibliography must now be begun afresh taking into account all recent efforts in this field.

Two Iranian periodicals deserve mention, although, unfortunately, they have not been published continuously. These are Nashriyyah-yi nuskhah-hā- yi khattī published by Tehran University Central Library starting in 1339/1950 (12 issues), and Āshnā-yi bā chand nuskhah-hā-yi khattī published by Husayn Mudarrisī Tabāvabā’ī and Riza Ustādī, both of the Islamic University in Qum, in 1335/1976, but now stopped.

The future of cataloguing

Collective attempts to index manuscripts have been made on several occasions in Iran, and it may be useful to recall them here. The Sipahsālār library indexed its manuscripts with the help of Muhammad Taqī Danishpazhūh and Alī Naqī Munzavī. The Anjuman-i Āsār-i Millī accepted the plan suggested by myself and Muhammad Taqī Dānishpazhūh that the manuscripts of each city be indexed by specialists in that city. Catalogues were compiled and published in three volumes for six libraries in Mashhad by Kazirn Mudīrshānahchî, ‘‘Abd Allah Nūrānī, and Taqī Bīnish, as well as the public library in Rasht, where Muhammad Rawshan was the principal contributor. The Majlis Library was catalogued in six volumes, (nos. 11—16) as a result of the collective effort of several indexers. The Malik Library was catalogued in nine volumes through the collective work of ten scholars.

Secondly, although the work of Basil Gray, B. W. Robinson, and Ernst Grube, as well as the index of the illustrated Persian manuscripts of Dār al- Kutub al-Misriyyah compiled by Nasr Allah Muhashshir al-Tarāzī have made important contributions to the understanding of the material characteristics of manuscripts, the art of Persian folkloric, religious, and kingly book-making has not been sufficiently emphasized. In the field of bookbinding, especially Persian binding, new research is needed.

Thirdly, the vocabulary and grammar of early (pre-eighth-century) manuscripts should receive more attention. This would in itself contribute to a greater understanding of linguistic change and Persian dialects, as well as of stylistics. Manuscripts that can be of help in clarifying either of these two aspects should be made known, and those which deserve to be facsimiled should be specified.

A union catalogue

After the important and original compilation of C. A. Storey, Ahmad Munzavī, who had a great deal of practical experience in the cataloguing of manuscripts, and had helped his father in the preparation and publication of a few volumes of the latter’s work, Al-Dhariah, decided to compile a combined index of Persian manuscripts extant in Iran. He published the results in six volumes. Not only did he utilise all the published indexes in Iran, but he also mentioned the names of those manuscripts which he had seen personally in various libraries and whose titles had not been recorded. Occasionally, he cited the titles of manuscripts available in other countries on the basis of sources that had been translated into Persian, or those mentioned in other catalogues he consulted.

The publisher (CENTO) stopped working after the sixth volume was finished, so Munzavī left for Pakistan where he was able to persuade the Iran-Pakistan Centre of Persian Studies in Rawalpindi to adopt a proposal to publish a new combined index, that is, a combined index of manuscripts in Pakistan, twelve volumes of which have now been published (1983—1990). His originality in the last volumes of this catalogue consists of the addition of the fihristvarāh, i.e. index sections, arranged according to subject-matter. These include the particulars of Persian manuscripts and published works, in the order of the titles of the books, With reference to the sources. This section is not limited to manuscripts from Pakistan. At present, Ahmad Munzavî is in Tehran and has started discussing another project in the same field of combined indexing With the Foundation of the Great Persian Encyclopaedia of Islam. This project consists of the continuation of the index work which he started in Pakistan.

Apart from this major work in the field of combined bibliography one should take note of three other projects. The first of these is the index of Arabic manuscripts in Iran which Muhamrnad Bāqir Hujjatī, the cataloguer of manuscripts of the Theology Faculty at Tehran University, started a few years ago. He has compiled this according to the published catalogues of public libraries (not private collections); he has arranged the information according to subject-matter, the date of compilation, and the title of the book, and the Centre of Documents affiliated to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has begun the publication of the first volume. Secondly, there is a union list of works on jurisprudence (fiqh), and tradition (hadith), in both Persian and Arabic, which was compiled at the behest of the Islamic Revolution Foundation. Finally, there is the idea which Muhammad Taqī Danishpazhūh suggested to the Faculty of Theology and Islamic Sciences at Tehran University. His view was that in order to encourage the furtherance of Iranian studies, the information contained in the books of Brockelmann, Sezgin, Storey, and Hofman, as well as in the catalogues published in Iran, be brought together in a union list which would bring together information about, for example, Ibn Sīnā, in Persian, Turkish, and Arabic in one single place. This project, however, was not realized.

The compilation of a union catalogue of the Persian collections of even one country is an important and valuable task. In this connection the index which Prof. A. M. Piemontese has made of the 436 Persian manuscripts available in the libraries of the different towns of Italy deserves mention. It should serve as a model and inspiration for similar works.

Copying and microfilms

The first steps towards the photographing of manuscripts was suggested to the Iranian government by Muhammad Qazvīnī in 1925. He was himself commissioned to photograph authentic and important manuscripts which would contribute to progress in research in Persian history and literature. His microfilms are now kept in the National Library.

When Henry Corbin was the director of the French Institute of Iranology, he made microfilms of a number of philosophical, mystical, and historical manuscripts, several of which belonged to private collections. Subsequently, Mujtabā Mīnovī was commissioned by Tehran University and the Ministry of Culture to undertake investigations in the libraries of Turkey and to make microfilms of those manuscripts which seemed useful. He fulfilled this task with pleasure and admirable commitment for about six years, returning with those microfilms which were to form the basis of the section of microfilms in the Central Library at Tehran University.

Dr. Zabīh Allāh Safā made microfilms of the major manuscripts in the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale, all of which were to be kept at the Central Library of Tehran University. In addition to this, the library itself has regularly applied for microfilms from private and public collections both inside and outside Iran, so that now it has amassed a considerable collection, numbering sorne 7,500, with three volumes of indexes published by Muhammad Taqī Danishpazhūh. A major significance of the microfilm collection of the Central Library of Tehran University is that a great number are taken from manuscripts belonging to private collections.

The Āstān-i Quds Library in Mashhad, as well as the Mar’ashī Library in Qum and the National Library also hold microfilms. The Malik Library bas only taken microfilms from its own collection, so that readers can use the microfilms instead of referring to the original manuscripts. The Mar’ashī library in Qum has recently published the first volume of the catalogue of its microfilms, which mentions 500 out of a total of 2,000 manuscripts.

Facsimile edition of manuscripts

ln the endeavour to revive ancient Persian texts, two steps are, fortunately, being taken: the critical editing of texts (in the last half-century about 2,000 classical texts have been published in Iran) and facsimile publications, which date from about twenty years ago (Tehran University, and the Anjuman-i Āsar-i Millī being the pioneers in this undertaking).

Recently, the Centre for the Publication of Manuscripts, affiliated to the Foundation of the Great Persian Encyclopaedia of Islam, has been founded With the purpose of publishing facsimiles of unique and ancient manuscripts, whether they are of artistic or paleographic value. During the two years since its inauguration it has published five texts including the Mafātih.l al-asrār wa- masabīh al-abrār written in Arabic by Taj al-Dīn Muhammad al- Shahristānī, the manuscript of which is dated 667 AH.

Fifty-five years ago, at the request of the Iranian government, Muhammad Qazvīnī nineteen major Persian texts for publication. From among these the Haft iqlīm by Ahmad Rāzī, the Tārīkh-i Jahānārā by Muhammad Fasīh Khvāfi, the Zubdat al-tavārīkh by Abū al-Qāsim Kshānī, the Zubdat al-tavārīkh by   Ḥāfiẓ Abrū, the Tārīkh-i rāqim by Mîr Sharīf Samarqandī, and the Kayhān-i shinākht by Hasan Qattān Marvazī, have not yet been printed, or even critically edited. Further efforts in this direction are urgently needed.


I would to make the following suggestions for improving the situation of manuscript cataloguing. Firstly, as regards manuscripts in Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, in general, a programme for a graduate course in manuscript cataloguing should be proposed to a major university, in which special attention is given to local traditions of manuscript composition. This programme should be supplemented by textbooks on the description of manuscripts, and these should be made available in these three languages as well as in English.

Secondly, with specific regard to Persian a union catalogue based on existing published material should be compiled. In addition, a list of unique and lost manuscripts should be compiled from citations in books and articles, and, consequent to this, a list of manuscripts which are so far uncatalogued. Work should also be done on very early manuscripts which can Provide a basis for the study of the early Persian language, and the registers and indexes of manuscripts which themselves appear in manuscript from should be gathered together in one publication. Finally, a priority list of texts to be critically edited should compiled.

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_Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 19-30.

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