*Above is a recording of a lecture delivered by Dr. Muhammad Isa Waley on February 6, 2018 at the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. Dr. Waley’s essay is based on this lecture.
The main aim of this article is to try to show that research on the form and content of manuscripts is not only an essential adjunct to Islamic studies but a significant field of Islamic studies in its own right. I will outline the importance of manuscripts in Muslims’ intellectual life; what we can learn from them; and some ways in which one can and should benefit from research in this field in future. After that will come a discussion of aspects of the academic study of handwritten books with reference to the Islamic cultural domain – codicology, palaeography and textual criticism – their uses and (very briefly) the state of the art.
I will try to illustrate the intellectual challenges involved in the study of manuscripts and some ways in which they contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the cultural and literary heritage of Islam. This will involve three things: giving examples of kinds of information that can only be gleaned from manuscript sources; outlining how one goes about trying to extract such information; and describing some research, undertaken in spare moments during a career spent helping others to pursue their research. It may perhaps help to convince readers that an area of academic research is intellectually respectable if one can walk them through the experience, so to speak.
Manuscripts as sources for the Muslim cultural and scientific heritage
For the purpose of rediscovering and analyzing the Islamic cultural and scientific heritage there is a wide range of subjects that depend upon texts. That being so, the number one reason why manuscripts are important for research is a straightforward one. A great many works of Islamic literature (in the wider sense, not just meaning belles-lettres, i.e. works of creative literature) are unpublished. That is to say, if they survive at all it is only in the form of one manuscript copy or more. And of those texts that have been published, there is a sizeable proportion of which printed editions do exist but are not satisfactory – whether because of the choice of sources, the editing itself, the production, or a combination of these.
This is hardly a situation for Muslims to take pride in; but at least the physical survival of such texts despite the vicissitudes of history leaves open the possibility that they may someday be edited and published. Also, the very extent of the Muslims’ written legacy is something for them to be proud of and thankful for. But it does appear that, on the whole, Muslims have not attached as great importance as some other religious communities have (the Jewish people, for example) to the mission of preserving this written legacy and making it accessible in a reliable, attractive form conducive to its appreciation and investigation. On the face of it, this is paradoxical, considering the immense importance that Islam attaches to the pursuit of knowledge and to the written word and other means of knowledge transmission. One must hope that it can be remedied.
Manuscripts in their Historical Context
Let us now consider manuscripts in their historical context as vehicles for wisdom, knowledge and information. Part of the importance and the interest of Islamic manuscripts has to do with the part they have played in the transmission of knowledge. Although we all know in a general sense that for many centuries before the advent of printing in the Muslim world texts were transmitted orally and in manuscript, we do not always take full account of all the implications.
One implication is that one should not be surprised to find that just as students would travel long distances in order to study with a scholar or to receive Hadith transmissions from a narrator who possessed a special isnād or chain of transmission, scholars would likewise go to great lengths to locate and copy a sought-after text. Before the days of printing, it was far easier to appreciate the true value of sources of learning, be they oral or written. If rare books have a certain mystique in our times, that was all the more true then. Another factor in the cost of manuscripts was the value of the time and skills of those who produced them. That said, however, a great many surviving manuscripts are not so much artistic creations as straightforward copies made in their own, often very amateurish, handwriting by students, scholars and ordinary booklovers. Museum pieces are something else; anyone who could afford to commission one knew it would be a prestigious possession to show to others, or a precious waqf or charitable bequest preserved in their name for posterity.
“…without making a thorough study of the manuscript tradition and the evidence it contains, we cannot trace in full the routes and the individuals through which knowledge was disseminated in the traditional world of Islam.”
To return to the transmission of knowledge: without making a thorough study of the manuscript tradition and the evidence it contains, we cannot trace in full the routes and the individuals through which knowledge was disseminated in the traditional world of Islam. What kinds of evidence are there? Ijāzas, samā‘s, commentaries, translations, plagiarisms, etc. can all be found in manuscripts, as are forgeries (the latter too may repay study if they are accomplished ones). An ijāza here means a written authorization from a sheikh to his student to teach the text; these are normally found at the end of the volume. Typical ijāza inscriptions contain formulae of praise and blessings, followed by the writer’s name, the student’s name, the work(s) in respect of which the authorization was given, and the date (sometimes also the place) of the certificate. A samā‘ generally certifies that a specific copy of the work or commentary in question (or part of it) has been read with the author, who has checked its correctness. Such documents are most valuable evidence about the transmission of learning and the careers and travels of individuals. Sometimes one can glean analogous information from the identity of the copyist of a manuscript, showing where a particular scholar or manuscript was to be found at the date in question. However, the fact that a scribe or author has a particular nisba indicates that at some point he or his ancestors had a connection with a particular geographical area or ethnic or tribal group. It does not necessarily mean that they themselves had any direct connection. So, for example, a manuscript copied by someone named Tabrīzī could have been copied in Isfahan, Baghdad, Delhi, or Bukhara.
In an important study called “Conceptual tradition and textual tradition: Arabic manuscripts on science,” Roshdi Rashed explains and analyzes aspects of the process of establishing the history of a text and the relationships between the known copies and also, where possible, the partially or wholly unknown ones. Sometimes part or all of an otherwise lost work is known of by being mentioned or described in an extant source; sometimes it is partially known inasmuch as one or more extracts from it have survived, either mutated or related verbatim, inside another work by – or attributed to – a different author. Rashed distinguishes and discusses seven categories of manuscript tradition: the absent text, the hidden text, the truncated text, the summarized or abridged text, the complete text in a unique manuscript, the complete text in multiple manuscripts; and the author’s manuscript. Rashed then explains how he established the text and manuscript tradition of a work by Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī that has survived in 25 versions.
Another approach to textual studies focuses on the recensions and versions through which works have passed, whether in manuscript or in print. An Egyptian scholar, Kamāl ‘Arafāt Nabhān, advocates this approach with Arabic literature, which seems to complement the literary-historical concept of intertextuality. It involves making a ‘bibliochronogram,’ which charts the historical development of a text and its offshoots.
What, then, are the practical processes involved in research on a text?
- Locating the extant texts by consulting bibliographies, catalogues, and other sources. One can also ask colleagues elsewhere for information, something that the Internet has made easier, quicker and cheaper.
- Obtaining copies. A problem that text editors of old faced and has by no means disappeared is how to obtain copies of all the sources needed. Even if one knows where they are, not all institutions or owners are helpful. Some possess no means of providing copies; others do possess them but are – or claim to be – constrained by procedural obstacles or lack of resources. This can lead to frustration or even possibly to failure.
- Studying the relationship between the extant copies. The ideal is to establish a stemma, a ‘family tree’ with symbols representing all the known manuscripts of a work and the relationship between them. This involves complex comparative analysis and is a theoretical ideal, rarely possible in practice: one expert, Jan Just Witkam, has dubbed the stemma ‘The Philologer’s Stone.’
- Next comes selecting which copy (if there are more than one) to use as basis for the edition. The oldest copy is often best; but that is not always the case. Other criteria for preference include completeness, signs of care taken to check the text and establish its correctness, lack of obvious poor variants and obscurities, and clarity of handwriting.
- Word processing and layout. Getting the work into a form ready for publication is another source of potential problems. Multilingual word processing software, powerful desktop publishing programs, and the advent of Unicode have not ended altogether the problems associated with producing texts in non-roman scripts, whatever claims may be made to the contrary. This affects the economics of publishing, and still may usually be easier to have an Arabic-script text edition printed in an Arabic-script country. Lastly, there is the question whether to publish in printed or in digital form.
Codicology and its applications
Codicology as a term and as a discipline came into being in Europe in the eighteenth century. It refers to the study of handmade books as physical entities, including both the materials they are made of and also their measurable attributes, such as the type of writing surface used, the size of the folios and of the written area of each folio, and the number of bifolia or folded sheets each gathering contains.
“…every manuscript is by definition a handmade artefact and as such is bound to be unique in some degree, however small. Every single one can potentially add to our knowledge and understanding of the process involved in its production and the nature and value of the culture that produced it.”
What is the significance of this kind of data? It may sound trivial and mundane. For one thing, every manuscript is by definition a handmade artefact and as such is bound to be unique in some degree, however small. Every single one can potentially add to our knowledge and understanding of the process involved in its production and the nature and value of the culture that produced it.
“The physical characteristics and make-up of a codex, scroll, or any other kind of document are often among the most reliable indicators of its date and geographical provenance; many manuscripts lack any written statement to inform the reader of them.”The physical characteristics and make-up of a codex, scroll, or any other kind of document are often among the most reliable indicators of its date and geographical provenance; many manuscripts lack any written statement to inform the reader of them. Hence, to compile codicological data and correlate it with examples of manuscripts whose production can be securely dated and located is a valuable exercise. An impressive example is the codicological database of Hebrew manuscripts compiled by Prof. Malachi Beit-Arié of Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Much smaller in scale but still useful is the Fichier des Manuscrits Moyen-Orientaux Datés (FiMMOD), a non-digital project initiated by Prof. François Déroche with contributions from several institutions. Entries contain a reproduction of a full page from a securely dated manuscript, along with a standard set of codicological data.
The following summary of the subject matter of Islamic codicology comes from the handbook (of which I edited the English version): Islamic Codicology by François Déroche and others. All these elements can at times provide evidence about manuscript production.
Physical form of manuscript: codex (the conventional form of book comprising folded sheets stitched and bound together), a scroll, or one or more sheets.
Writing surface (‘support’): parchment made from animal skin, papyrus made from reeds, paper of one kind or another, and occasionally other things such as wood.
Quires of a codex: the number of sheets of paper (bifolia) folded and sewn together as gatherings.
Writing instruments: the qalam or reed pen itself, as well as materials such as the ink made from soot or from gall-nuts, as well as colored inks and pigments.
Ruling and page layout: In Islamic manuscripts the layout is set using of a masṭar or frame with cords which is pressed into the page to leave a network of vertical lines framing the text and horizontal lines on which the text is written.
Scripts: style of handwriting, ranging from the simple kind of hand in which a madrasa student might copy a textbook needed for his studies to the most elegant, or convoluted, calligraphy.
Orthography, meaning the way that words are spelled or accented.
Ornamental features: such as non-figurative illumination or figurative illustrations.
Binding: ranging from simple boards to masterpieces in leather with intricate filigree ornamentation.
To expand on one of these elements, it is fair to say that the history and provenance of writing materials is receiving deserved attention. A British conservator, Helen Loveday, has written an excellent study of the characteristics of types of Islamic paper from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century; to underpin comparative study of papers she proposes a matrix of parameters covering color, opacity, fiber density, etc. For the analysis of inks and pigments, various advanced scientific techniques have been developed such as particle emission x-ray analysis and ramen spectroscopy. Simply determining the chemical content of pigments, however, has yet to take us far towards establishing dates or places of provenance.
Materials and styles of bookbinding represent another area where fruitful research is being carried out. An article in Persian, eighteen pages long, describes the various types of cardboard used in books produced in Iran from medieval times until today. Does that sound boring? For codicologists, it opens up an avenue of research that may lead to a new understanding of how, when and where hardback books first came to be developed.
“Materials and styles of bookbinding represent another area where fruitful research is being carried out. An article in Persian, eighteen pages long, describes the various types of cardboard used in books produced in Iran from medieval times until today. Does that sound boring? For codicologists, it opens up an avenue of research that may lead to a new understanding of how, when and where hardback books first came to be developed.”
Another groundbreaking study, by Mandana Barkeshli, describes how her laboratory analyses confirmed the efficacy of a trade secret of medieval scribes in Iran: adding saffron to iron-based ink can prevent it from corroding the paper. Yet another Iranian scholar, Najīb Māyil Haravī, has published a collection of treatises in Persian by medieval Islamic book artists. These cover ink-making, the layout and decoration of page frames, and binding. Such formulae and techniques were often transmitted as trade secrets, and so the appearance of this material was surprising as well as enlightening.
This term denotes the study and decipherment of different scripts and styles of writing. Anyone working on handwritten documents, even those in their own language, may need to invest time in acquiring experience in deciphering them. Learning to read, interpret and contextualize more complex material, such as archival documents in Ottoman Turkish, requires more in-depth study and also background knowledge of the administrative jargon – or phraseology, if you prefer – used in them. For this reason, there are some textbooks in Turkish on the deciphering of documents and manuscripts in Ottoman. So far as I know, no such work has yet appeared in Arabic.
Many kinds of Islamic manuscripts and documents call for skill and experience in order to decipher them. An example from my own career will serve to illustrate the point. I became interested in a British Library manuscript containing Persian texts, all copied at Baghdad during the early ninth/fifteenth century by a man named Niẓām. It seems he had an opportunity to copy some rare texts which he had come across in one of the metropolis’ many libraries, but had only a few days to do so. In order to achieve his objective, he transcribed the texts in a kind of shorthand. What kind? He omitted almost all the dots from the letters. Eventually I succeeded in deciphering most of the text I most wanted to read, but that left some gaps. In the end, though, all the queries were solved when Muḥammad Ja’far Maḥjūb, an Iranian scholar, visited from Los Angeles. Besides being a great expert on Persian literature, he had once worked in the law courts in Iran and learned to read every kind of obscure handwriting. A truly precious asset!
Orthography (rasm al-khaṭṭ) is one area on which relatively little work appears to have been done but which offers considerable potential as a means of enhancing our knowledge of where and when manuscripts were produced (or added to). Orthography relates primarily to philological aesthetic aspects of writing. For example, the postvocalic letter dhāl in Persian was replaced by dāl almost everywhere by the mid-eighth/fourteenth century, so buvadh becomes buvad. More work has been done in the area of handwriting, where some of the early publishing relating to manuscript studies began in the form of examples of various styles of writing.
Particularly important in this regard, from the Muslim viewpoint, is research on the development and typology of Qur’anic scripts. As the work of Yasin Dutton shows, there is much to be learned by looking at the variant readings (qirā’āt) in conjunction with handwriting and orthography, especially since qirā’āt can be correlated more specifically with transmitters, localities, and dates. Aspects of the history of manuscripts, such as waqf deeds, ownership inscriptions, valuations, and the history of libraries and private collections and the connection between the latter and the development of western interest in and research on the Islamic world are being investigated by scholars in both East and West. “
…a major failing in the study of the Islamicate heritage to date is the fact that so many texts are not available in reliable editions. Why has this important task of publishing our unpublished texts so far remained largely undone?”
The problem of unavailability of text editions
As we have seen, a major failing in the study of the Islamicate heritage to date is the fact that so many texts are not available in reliable editions. Why has this important task of publishing our unpublished texts so far remained largely undone? To be sure, much good work has been undertaken, not only during the past hundred years nor only by non-Muslims. According to the experts, many of the printed text editions produced by Ottoman scholars represent a high level of scholarship and rigor. That has been said about, for example, the old Cairo edition of Imam Ghazālī’s Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn and also Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Umar al-Suhrawardī’s ‘Awārif al-ma‘ārif, a classic manual of Sufism. Although a modern edition was published in Beirut in the 1970s, it cannot be said to have wholly superseded its predecessor; for one thing, the editor has simply exercised his own judgement, or at least one hopes he has, and has included no record at all of any variant readings in the text. Almost certainly some do exist, however.
“Regrettably, a great many texts of importance to Islamic studies, be they on religious subjects or on other branches of learning and literature, have yet to appear in editions befitting their significance.”
Regrettably, a great many texts of importance to Islamic studies, be they on religious subjects or on other branches of learning and literature, have yet to appear in editions befitting their significance. Compare for example the number of different text editions of English poets like Tennyson or Browning, let alone the greatest figures like Shakespeare, Milton or Pope. One factor is the attitude of academics: I have spoken with professors who refuse to accept as a valid doctoral thesis project the preparation of an annotated edition of a text, however important and/or difficult that text. This does not apply at all in Iran where many fine editions are appearing. There are also honorable exceptions to what appears to be a general acceptance of mediocrity elsewhere. Two examples are in Arabic, Ayman Fu’ad Sayyid’s magnificent edition of al-Maqrīzī’s Khiṭaṭ on Egyptian history; and in Chaghatay Turkic, Eiji Mano’s edition of the memoirs of the Mughal emperor Bābur.
Manuscripts and text editions
Textual criticism is the application to a text or group of texts of criteria of authenticity and soundness. These criteria may be historical or philological, theological or philosophical; or they may be aesthetic, depending on such factors as the subject matter and character of the work.
Aside from whether a given text is authentic, the purpose of textual criticism is to try to reproduce as faithfully as possible the original text as the author themselves intended it to read. In cases where the state of the text as it survives is too disordered to permit that, or where the author was unable to complete the work and his intentions have to some extent to be surmised by detective work.
What is the process involved in this task, and what are the skills required to accomplish successfully? Textual variants, or variant readings, means differences between the wording of a text according to which source you look at. These differences may result from scribal errors in copying: sometimes words are omitted, sometimes repeated, and sometimes misread or misspelled. But often variant readings stem from actual differences in the source manuscripts from which they worked: that is, from differences in the transmission of the text. In either case, it is an important part of the editor’s work to record any such variants.
Scholarship on manuscript texts in Europe began with Greek and Latin, and much of the terminology is in those languages. The apparatus criticus is the area of the page in which the textual variants are recorded; normally the foot of the page, sometimes in endnotes. The word(s) for which a variant exists have marks referring to the apparatus criticus. In critical editions, each manuscript is represented by a letter or symbol that is used in the apparatus criticus in the interests of brevity.
It follows that a critical edition means a version of a text that has been subjected to informed critical assessment and represents the editor’s best endeavors to reconstruct the original. For his work to qualify as a critical edition, the editor must document at least the most significant variant readings; also, it is appropriate for editors to justify their choices in general terms by including in the introduction a reasoned comparison and assessment of the sources, as well as a statement about the approach adopted in reconstructing the text. The editor should also use the introduction to describe and contextualize the work. Also required is a commentary where this is required to elucidate passages in the author’s text. Thus, a variety of skills are called for. Does this not sound like a sufficiently intellectually demanding task?
“a critical edition means a version of a text that has been subjected to informed critical assessment and represents the editor’s best endeavors to reconstruct the original. For his work to qualify as a critical edition, the editor must document at least the most significant variant readings…”
Part of my doctoral research involved editing and translating with a commentary the Tarjī‘āt (stanzaic poems) from the Dīvān-i kabīr (collected lyric verse) of the great seventh/thirteeenth century mystic and Persian poet Mawlānā Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, most famous as the author of the Masnavi. In the early stages of my research a problem came up. Mujtabā Mīnuvī, one of the most distinguished Iranian literary scholars, and who once honored me with a visit, had written a major article about ‘The need for caution in editing the works of Mawlana.’ Noting that many of the poems in the Dīvān were found in some of the earliest known manuscripts but not in others, Mīnuvī had concluded that for that reason such poems were therefore probably inauthentic. However, Mīnuvī had reached this conclusion simply by studying the apparatus criticus of the critical edition by Badī‘ al-Zamān Furūzānfar, which indicates that a large number of the poems in the Dīvān appear only in a few of the early manuscripts. Once I was able to study the earliest manuscripts for myself, analysis showed that Mīnuvī’s conclusion was incorrect. Most of the discrepancies between the contents of the early copies of the Dīvān-i kabīr (still widely known by the later title Dīvān-i Shams-i Tabrīzī) can be explained another way.
In fact, the chief reason is that several of the earliest extant copies are single volumes that have survived from what were originally sets comprising two or three volumes. Some are from copies of the Dīvān arranged by rhyming letter, which is the traditional way of compiling a Dīwān. Others came from sets in which the ghazals were all arranged by meter. Arberry’s hypothesis is surely correct. He says in his catalogue entry for the beautiful Dublin manuscript that it looks rather like an enormous hymn book. In other words, it seems to have been produced for the purposes of singing in sessions of invocation known to adherents of Sufi Orders as samā‘. The chief munshid or singer would select from the book a ghazal appropriate to the rhythm of the dance as well as the mood of the moment.
Thus, analysis of Furūzānfar’s apparatus criticus and comparison with the manuscripts invalidated Mīnuvī’s argument. This leads to an important conclusion: since several early manuscripts do survive and would (if completed by extrapolation) contain largely the same poems although copied by different scribes (with one exception) and at different dates and places, the onus of proof now rests on those who do not accept that Rumi wrote or dictated most of the poems in them.
“There are variant readings shared by the earliest manuscripts of Rumi’s Dīvān-i kabīr showing that most do have textual variants in common. This illustrates the fact that the discrepancy between them is not as large as had been supposed, and is part of the evidence that most of the poems are probably authentic works by Mawlana Rūmī himself”
There are variant readings shared by the earliest manuscripts of Rumi’s Dīvān-i kabīr showing that most do have textual variants in common. This illustrates the fact that the discrepancy between them is not as large as had been supposed, and is part of the evidence that most of the poems are probably authentic works by Mawlana Rūmī himself.
Vignettes from British Library Years
What else can one say about the types of intellectual challenge that come up in dealing with Islamic manuscripts? Without wishing to dwell excessively on my own work, it seems sensible to focus here on my own experiences at the British Library. One challenge that could come up at almost any time would be the arrival, of an enquirer carrying a manuscript or document who wanted to know straight away what it was – and often, problematically since one was not allowed to make valuations, its financial value.
Another task was to identify and assess a potential or an actual acquisition. To identify the text or texts might involve simply looking at the beginning of the manuscript or the colophon inscription and the end of it and finding the title there. But that was not usually the case. To identify the item often one normally had to deploy one’s knowledge and experience; to write a catalogue description, one always had to. Likewise, the majority of manuscripts lack a colophon giving date or place of copying. To identify the text, one would look through the first and last pages, section and chapter headings etc. for clues. To establish an approximate date and locate the item one would look at the writing style, orthography, and codicological features.
There is space here for one example of how cataloging a manuscript can open up a field of research – and in this instance two. The manuscript of Niẓām to which I referred earlier contains a commentary on the Divine Names attributed to the Kubrawī Sufi sheikh Sayf al-Dīn Bākharzī of Bukhara, which I studied with an Iranian professor and translated. It turned out to be part of Sam‘ānī’s treatise on the subject, Rawḥ al-arvāḥ. Secondly, the circumstances of this manuscript’s production as evidenced in the colophon led to my researching the question ‘How long did it take to copy a manuscript?’ my article on which is to be published by Al-Furqan Foundation in London, inshallah.
Another subject rarely explored is that of autograph manuscripts. In this category I include not only works by famous authors in their own hand, but also copies or notes made by other well-known figures. Having combed through parts of the British Library’s collections over the years, I have compiled a list of manuscripts that are in the hand of, or at least annotated by, well-known authors or editors; or that were commissioned and/or owned by famous figures.
What do these examples have to teach us? Handwriting style really does seem at times to relate to personality. The writing of the great polymath and Hadith master al-Dhahabī, for example, is very neat, symmetrical, organized.
“Handwriting style really does seem at times to relate to personality. The writing of the great polymath and Hadith master al-Dhahabī, for example, is very neat, symmetrical, organized.”Working practices are illustrated, and a more ‘inspirational’ handwriting style in evidence, in the British Library’s holograph manuscripts of Ibn Khallikān’s biographical compilation Wafayāt al-a‘yān (Add. 27535 and Or. 1281), which also show how he made additions and emendations to the text in the margins. The Library also has manuscripts with colophons and other inscriptions that cast light on the circumstances of the lives of other authors, commentators, copyists, and patrons.
A Persian manuscript from the British Library’s India Office Library collection contains a treatise on mu’ammayāt, meaning riddles or enigmas in literary form. The author is none other than ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Jāmī, one of the most illustrious figures in Persian literature, who wrote in both poetry and prose on a vast range of subjects. This is the original holograph and shows that he was a good calligrapher in nasta’līq script. Other manuscripts written by Jāmī have survived, so their handwriting can be compared. The colophon casts light on the character of this man who turned his back on academic stardom to follow the Sufi path but still left behind a wealth of classic poetry and prose including treatises on subjects ranging from grammar to metaphysics.
“And thanks are due to God for completion and for the attainment of a goodly ending. Blessings be upon the most perfect of mankind, and upon his pious and noble family. The blackening of this blank book and the watering of these meadows was completed by the hand of the drainer of the cup of bitterness ‘Abd al-Raḥmān son of Aḥmad of Jām – may God grant him success in solving the enigmas of His Most Beautiful Names and deciphering the symbols of His Sublime Attributes – in the year eight hundred and fifty-six” (=1452).
In that year Jāmī was only thirty-nine (in lunar years) and had forty years left to live, during which one hopes he was able to drink from sweeter cups. The colophon, in rhyming prose, fits beautifully into the available space at the foot of the page. The space constraint may account for the lack of a more precise date including the month and day.
Another manuscript in the British Library brings together three illustrious names. The main text is Miftāḥ al-ghayb, a seventh/thirteenth century metaphysical treatise by Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī, one of the successors and major exponents of the theosophical school of Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn al-’Arabī. The commentary is by Molla Fenarî, a great Ottoman polymath scholar. And it was copied by İsmail Hakkı Bursevî, a major Ottoman authority on Sufism and author of classic commentaries on both the Qur’ān and Rūmī’s Masnavī. The colophon does not mention whom it was copied for but it seems not unlikely, given the splendor of the opening page illumination, that at the time İsmail Hakkı was working as copyist for a patron to earn his living.
The naskhī handwriting is very neat and professional-looking. The inscription fits perfectly into the available space, though considering how much room is left blank around the inscription in the panel above it may be that the colophon was to have been written in the large panel above but the scribe decided to use the space beneath instead. An inscription on the same page indicates that in 1212 AH someone completed a muqābala or complete collation of this manuscript with the author’s holograph – probably means Fenarî’s commentary rather than Ṣadr al-Dīn’s original. A smaller, undated inscription in riq‘a script on the other side of the panel records, again in Arabic, that a man named Osman al-Atpazarî read the entire manuscript.
Manuscripts of artistic merit: arts of the book as enhancements or central features
Calligraphy, illumination, binding, and papermaking, and the process whereby sumptuous illustrated and illuminated calligraphic texts were planned and executed, are areas in which art historians have done excellent work. Not so long ago few art historians even knew oriental languages; today their contributions to the study of calligraphy, codicology, and cultural history should be emulated. Examples are Shreve Simpson’s monograph on Jāmī’s Haft Awrang (collected masnavī poems) in the Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C. and Elaine Wright’s forthcoming study of the illuminated Safavid era Qur’ān of Rūzbihān al-Shīrāzī at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.
Such de luxe manuscripts are not entirely the province of art historians rather than manuscript specialist, for reasons to do with codicology and paleography and sometimes other reasons. Styles of handwriting and/or decoration often provide clues to the date and place of production of a manuscript, although caution is required since decorative elements were sometimes added long after the text was copied; one even finds examples of illuminated headings or miniature paintings being cut out of one manuscript and pasted into another. Artistic features can occasionally mislead. But the study of this aspect of manuscripts has made great strides and the sheer beauty of this material has brought them to the attention of lovers of the arts of the book in general as well as the arts of Islam. On that note we must leave this subject.
“In relation to the editing and publication of Islamic texts, despite the praiseworthy efforts that have been mentioned an immense amount remains to be done. More scholars, technical expertise, and resources will have to be devoted to such work…”
In relation to the editing and publication of Islamic texts, despite the praiseworthy efforts that have been mentioned an immense amount remains to be done. More scholars, technical expertise, and resources will have to be devoted to such work if the task of bringing the Islamic Turāth to the world befittingly is to be accomplished. And the importance of manuscript studies as ancillary to other fields of research needs to be fully appreciated. In addition, the interest of manuscripts in their own right is not widely appreciated. Consequently, as we have seen, there is a great shortage of specialists in this subject. The writer hopes this article may encourage some readers to appreciate the importance and interest of the study of Islamic manuscripts.