The Muslim World Manuscript Project

How do archives get activated? The Muslim World Manuscript Project at the Columbia University Libraries

On the shore where Time casts up its stray wreckage, we gather corks and broken planks, whence much indeed may be argued and more guessed…. Anonymous

MS Or 152c Single leaf with illustration, between 1850 and 1950?. Manuscript leaf with painting. The recto contains six lines of text in four columns, interrupted by a pastiche painting of six figures, four on the right side in helmets and chains and two on the left side.


Turkish calendar, with a lunar table showing the phases of the moon. Includes information on prayer times for each day of the year and astrological signs for finding the best times for curing different illnesses.
MS Or 24, Turkish Calendar for year 1064 AH, 1653, Turkey? (New York, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

One question that fascinates me is how the power of archives gets activated. What decisions, resources, and institutional support; what historical, intellectual, social and scholarly factors, interests and ideas; what serendipities need to converge for an archive at a research library to become “an active site where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed” (Schwarz and Cook, Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory, in Archival Science 2(1):1-19 · March 2002) or for a documentary record to make it into our collective multi-faceted narratives and discourses, and be lent the power of representation and participation in the scholarly, social and cultural dialogues of our times?

This concern particularly pressed upon me as I considered a specific collection of over 500 codices of Islamic manuscripts housed at the Columbia University Libraries since the early 20th century, when collecting “Islamic” and “Oriental” manuscripts began in earnest at many research libraries in North America. Recently, I was extremely pleased to learn that the stars seemed to have aligned for this collection, which is now the focus of a preservation and intellectual engagement plan at the University. In the spring of 2018,  the Columbia University Libraries, in partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, and Bryn Mawr College, received a three-year Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), which is supported by funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for a project entitled: the Muslim World Manuscripts (MWM). The project was motivated by a shared interest across the partner institutions in uncovering hidden collections from and about Islamic cultures and societies and in encouraging new scholarship based on the items to be digitized. Over three years, the MWM aims to provide digital access to 576 Islamic manuscripts and 827 paintings from the various participating institutions’ collections. (The Columbia University Libraries will be digitizing 345 manuscripts out of its 500 codices). 

The project also aims to make the discovery of and access to these collections much easier, by allowing for a number of access points, including a unified online collection portal on the University of Pennsylvania’s OPenn site, the Columbia Library Catalog CLIO, WorldCat, the Internet Archive and, eventually the Columbia Libraries Digital Collections’ portal.

The importance of supporting and encouraging inclusiveness and diversity within the overall knowledge production and scholarly landscapes within the academy, as well as the need to advance and support rooted engagement with historical, unique and rare collections from world areas have both been recognized for quite a while at Columbia, and the impetus to preserve and digitize these Islamic manuscripts in particular was the result of the hard work of a group of students, Shabbir Abbas, Catherine Ambler, Sadegh Ansari, Zeinab Azarbadegan, Trevor Brabyn, Mahmood Gharavi, and Matthew Gillman.

MS Or 261 Dalāʼil al-khayrāt. / [دلائل الخيرات], Jazūlī, Muḥammad ibn Sulaymān, -1465 جزولي، محمد بن سليمان،Morocco, between 1800-1850?
The students took it upon themselves to uncover these hidden gems, and to engage with the collection in an interdisciplinary and multi-faceted manner. They built interest on campus and connected with faculty from a  variety of disciplines and backgrounds, including the Religion, History, Middle Eastern, South Asian,African Studies, and Anthropology departments as well as the Libraries, specifically RBML and Global Studies. They  also succeeded in organizing a conference as well as a codicology workshop and an Experimental Methods in Humanistic Research workshop. Faculty members supported and kindled this renewed interest in research and teaching based on scribal material culture from Islamic societies. Shortly after the student organized conference, a joint CLIR application was submitted by the various partners, and the project is now underway, making strides in digitizing, but also in cataloging, and better describing  these collections, with the help of the students (who are learning how to catalog manuscripts), the Middle East and Islamic Studies Librarian at Columbia, Peter Magierski, and the hiring of a full-time cataloger at UPenn, Kelly Tuttle.


Here, as elsewhere, accounting for the success story of an archive is an extremely complex task, and indeed perhaps can only be managed well much later, long after an archive emerges from the dust of oblivion, so to speak. And the discoveries along the journey, the newly noticed silences and gaps, the pitch of the voice or where the accent may have been put, our perceptions of these factors, all tell invaluable stories about the times, and the people around the archive, as much as about any specific item in the archive per se. The story of who gets to tell a story over time, how and why they get to do it, is itself a truer story that fleshes out more fully and accurately who we are as scholars, as students and librarians, as academics, and indeed, who and how we are in the world.

With the Muslim World Manuscripts project, one can certainly appeal to the story of the shifting tides of “oriental studies” and the evolution of their trajectory at academic institutions, which may explain, in part, why this particular collection may not have received full individualized attention as a distinct body of knowledge earlier on. And one can also appeal to changes in the politics of representation within the academy; the resurgence of interest in the marginalized, and finally perhaps the impact of digital technology, which has opened new interests and supported various inter-disciplinary perspectives on scribal material cultures, and has opened new venues for access and collaboration.

MS Or 152c Single leaf with illustration, between 1850 and 1950?. Manuscript leaf with painting. The verso holds two clippings of unrelated text pasted in different directions

Questions of provenance and genealogy also deserve to be scrutinized, and unraveled: the provenance of a collection, what scholarly and socio-cultural currents motivated initial collecting efforts around it, and how the collection was used at past times at the University are all important questions to address. For an archive is always more than the sum of its parts, and the collectors behind it, as well as the scholars and students who use it over time, the people who catalog it, present it and valorize it– or not– are all part of what an archive is. Some very informative articles and posts about the history of the Islamic manuscript collection at CUL which touch upon some of these questions have been recently published by Dagmar Riedel. We will come back to some of the questions raised by the genealogy and usages of the collection in future blog posts, but for now, a very basic narrative of some aspects of this historiography can be given here.

The beginnings of the collection can be traced back to an initial gift in the late 19th c. from Alexander I. Cotheal (1804-1894) who donated a number of books from his large library. The library was amassed throughout Cotheal’s travels to Africa and the Middle East, where Cotheal engaged in trade. (Cotheal also served as the Consul to Nicaragua). Cotheal was a businessman, but also a true bibliophile, a man who even translated and published a short story from Alf Layla wa Layla, the One Thousand Nights that had not been included in the seminal translation and edition by Sir Burton of 1897, “Attaf the Generous: the Tale of Attaf”. (Burton thanks Cotheal in subsequent editions of the preface of his translation for sharing some manuscripts with him for his seminal edition). 

Cotheal was also a generous donor and an early member of the American Oriental Society, AOS, which was established in 1840–one of the earliest learned societies in North American that was devoted to the Near East: the bylaws, goals and manner of operation of the AOS were modeled after distinguished learned societies in Europe such as the Societe Asiatique, founded in 1822 (which was headed by Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, Champollion, among others). Most probably due to his participation in the AOS circle, Cotheal became acquainted with William Dwight Whitney (1814-1901), who was a student of the famous orientalist Edward Salisbury (1814-1901), also a member and president of AOS, and the founder of Arabic and Sanskrit studies at Yale, and in fact, as many would argue, in North America. Whitney, a prolific author, succeeded Salisbury as a professor of Sanskrit at Yale upon his retirement and went on to preside over the AOS twice in his career, in addition to holding the prestigious position of AOS Librarian for almost two decades (1855-73). It is probably through Whitney and the AOS that Cotheal also got to know many of the figures who played an important role in amassing “oriental” manuscripts for Columbia, including Richard Gottheil (1862–1936, CC 1881) and A.V.William Jackson, (1862–1937, CC 1883) professors of Semitic and Indo-Persian languages, respectively.

aid, Omar Ibn, 1770?-1863, Author, and Omar Ibn Said Collection. The life of Omar ben Saeed, a Foulah slave. [New York?: Alexander Cotheal, ?, 1848] Manuscript/Mixed Material.
Cotheal had a deep interest in Arabic and African cultures, and recently, it was uncovered through a project at the Library of Congress that Cotheal translated, at the turn of the century, the recently digitized and uncovered first known extent copy of a diary of a Muslim slave in America, namely the diary of Omar Ibn Said. Shortly after Cotheal’s death, in 1896, his sisters established an endowed fund in his name, for the purchase of “Oriental” books  at he Columbia Libraries. (Cotheal had no other heirs than his sisters). The Cotheal endowed fund allowed for a sustainable resource to build the collection, and it is still active until today, making it one of the oldest continuously active endowed funds at the Columbia University Libraries.

View of the new Columbia campus taken in 1897, photo courtesy of the Columbia University Archives

Several factors supported and fueled these nascent collecting efforts at Columbia, including an interest in comparative philology, which at the time was perceived by many as the height of humanistic endeavor, based on a pedagogical model mostly practiced in Europe. What also helped was the transformation of the College into a full-fledged university in 1896, and its move to its current location in Morningside Heights. The latter factor allowed for the building of a grand library on a prominent spot overlooking the newly acquired Morningside Heights campus, namely Low Library, which opened in 1897 , designed by McKim, and was funded by a donation of one million dollars from President Seth Low (1850-1916), in honor of his father. The former factor–namely the move to a liberal arts university model, on the other hand, in addition to a rapidly changing world which was witnessing further mobility and connectedness, (as well as unprecedented world scale tragedies such as a first world war) also ushered in an era of active interest in the wider world, and in collecting about and from world cultures and languages, to support the rise of the liberal arts teaching model within the academy (the core curriculum was pioneered at the University after WWI in great part as a response to the war, and as an embodiment of the liberal arts educative impulse).

A dedicated department (one out of six departments that formed the University then) for “Oriental languages” was formed in 1896 as part of the Faculty of Philosophy, and  courses in Semitic and Indo-Persian languages, including Sanskrit, were offered. In general, existing information suggests that four main collections form the core of the Islamic manuscripts collection. These sub-collections have entered the Libraries at various dates, and continuously until the 60s, after which growth slowed tremendously, coming almost to a halt.

After the establishment of the Cotheal fund in 1896, several manuscripts started to enter the Libraries, and now form what is known as the X collection, which is a very broad collection, built in increments of large and small gifts and purchases of manuscripts of all types, up to the 1950s. It is worth noting several factors about this collection: first, its odd naming as X, perhaps signalling the bewilderment of the librarians working with its many unfamiliar non-Roman languages; second, its huge eclecticism, as many subjects, and a wide variety of provenance and languages seem to be allocated in it, and third, its foundational status, as most items in this collection seem to have been acquired in an era predating the official establishment of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML) in the 30s. This is a collection that remains understudied, both in terms of its provenance, as well as in terms of its content, and much remains to be done to uncover its scholarly significance.  

The two other biggest sub-collections came from the Smith and the Plimpton collections, donated respectively in 1931, 1934 for Smith, and in 1936 for Plimpton, and then combined in 1938-39, to form  the Smith/ Plimpton Collection with a dedicated librarian to look after the collection. David Eugene Smith (1860-1944) was a professor

MS Or 327 Qurʼān leaves. Item is undated, perhaps 14th-15th c.? Smith, David Eugene, 1860-1944, former owner

of mathematics at Teachers College, as well as a librarian (1902-1920), and served as the editor of the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, the American Mathematical Monthly, among other important journals about the history of mathematics. Perhaps Smith is best known for his Rara Mathematica (1907) , and his authorship of over forty mathematical textbooks. Smith was an avid collector of manuscripts and mathematical instruments, and he had a clear love for Islamic manuscripts, and went to great lengths to include in his collection beautiful Qurans and other Arabic manuscripts, in spite of his inability to read the language. Smith was also very interested in Persian culture and manuscripts and was instrumental in bringing to the University a number of important Islamic art

MS Or 21 al-Mulakhkhaṣ fī al-hayʼah. / الملخص في الهيئة, Jighmīnī, Maḥmūd ibn Muḥammad, -1221? جغميني، محمود بن محم, Not dated; text was dedicated to Ulugh Beg when first composed; a marginal note on p. 2 also gives a date of A.H. 1256 (1840). Date between 1500 and 1840? Ulugh Beg was a notable astronomer and mathematician (1394-1449), and a Timurid Sultan.

exhibitions in the 30s, where many of his own recently donated manuscripts to the Columbia University libraries were featured. Smith’s personal papers are currently located at RBML, and in his papers, there is a very interesting account of a trip he took to Persia in the late 20s, to which we will come back in subsequent posts. It is an exquisite document that testifies to Smith’s erudition and true love of Persian and Arabic manuscripts, and of the various Near Eastern cultures and ways of life he witnessed during his travels. In her annual report of 1933-34, Ms. Bertha Frick, Librarian of the Plimpton, Smith and Dale collections, gives a clear account of Smith’s passion, as well as his connoisseurship, and keen 

MS Or 344 Rubāʻīyāt-i ʻUmar Khayyam. / رباعيات عمر خيام, Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Subḥān, active 1688, scribe محمد عبد السبحان، Smith, David Eugene, 1860-1944, former owner

eye for valuable manuscripts related to the history of science and mathematics:  “The Oriental material was added to this year, after Dr. Smith’s return from Persia, by some ninety Arabic and Persian manuscripts. Two of these are remarkable mathematical manuscripts of the 14th century – one the algebra of Omar Khayyam, the other the astronomy of al-Khowarizmi. In this new group there are also some tables of Ulugh Beg, books on number mysticism and a number of Korans, prayer books and religions subjects.” (Bertha Frick, Smith Library Annual Report 1933-34). Smith himself stated his love for Arabic and Persian books, particularly for copies of the  Qurans in the following terms: “I have always felt that the most beautiful manuscripts in the world are Korans…” See L.G. Simons, “David Eugene Smith—in Memoriam,” Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. Volume 51, Number 1 (1945), 40-50.

Smith’s colleague and friend, George Arthur Plimpton (1855-1936, 1873 CC) started at the educational publishing house of Ginn and Heath in 1882, and then rose in the ranks to head the firm in 1914, until his death in 1936. Plimpton was an avid manuscript and rare book collector. Describing his love for books, Plimpton wrote in the Preface to his first book, The Education of Shakespeare: “It has been my privilege to get together the manuscripts and books which are more or less responsible for our present civilization, because they are the books from which the youth of many centuries have received their education.” The collection would come as a gift to Columbia in 1936. See the fabulous exhibit: Our Tools of Learning for a glimpse of the many gifts (not all related to Islamic manuscripts, as the collection’s focus on mathematics encompasses many cultures, times and locations) that Plimpton bequeathed to the University Libraries. Plimpton also served as the Trustee of Barnard College upon its opening in in 1889, and then went on to serve  as its Treasurer from 1893 until his death in 1936. With David Eugene Smith, he founded the Friends of the Columbia University Libraries, serving as its Chairman from 1928 until his death. He was a member of the Grolier Club; the Academy of Political Science, and of the Constantinople College for Women, later part of Robert College, and the Union Theological Seminary, among many others. Plimpton’s papers are currently housed at RBML

Plimpton 322

The Smith/Plimpton collection comprises some 413 manuscripts and forms the core of the Islamic manuscript collection. it includes many interesting items related to the history of mathematics, Islamic science, astronomy, and philosophy, in addition to a number of stunning Qurans and astronomical and mathematical instruments. Indeed, the Plimpton collection may be most famous for an important mathematical artifact, Plimpton 322, a clay tablet that gives pre-Pythagorean evidence of the Pythagorean theorem.

A  much smaller collection that entered the Libraries in the late 50s, is the Jeffery collection. It contains some 50 manuscripts and was purchased from Jeffery’s widow in 1959, following Jeffery’s passing. Arthur Jeffery (1892-1959) was Professor of Semitic languages at Columbia University from 1938 until his death, and spent his professional life teaching and writing about Islamic Studies, with a particular focus on Quranic Studies. Jeffery is perhaps best known for his books “The Quran as Scripture” and “The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an, both works exemplify Jeffery’s obsession with the then popular question among many orientalists regarding the “seduction of the myth of origin” for orientalist studies of Islam and the Quran, and the fascination with Islam’s “debt” to other cultures and traditions.. Jeffery counted Joseph Schacht (d.1969) as one of his most famous students at Columbia. (Schacht is known for his interest in and his teaching of Islamic law (Shariah)  at the University).  Jeffery’s papers are housed at RBML

In addition to these collections, we should mention the Burke Library’s small collection  of 25 Arabic, 5 Ottoman Turkish and a few Coptic and Ethiopic manuscripts, in addition to a number of Assyrian manuscripts and fragments. It is not entirely clear when these entered the Library, and much research is still needed regarding this collection.

MS Or 173 Ziyārat-i ʻĀshūrāʼ. / زیارت عاشوراء, Item not dated, likely copied in the mid-18th to mid-19th century, Smith collection
MS Or 355 Kitāb nafīs yufṣaḥu fīhi ʻan al-lughah al-Turkīyah. / كتاب نفيس يفصح فيه عن اللغة التركية, undated, between 1850-1950?, hand-stamped Morroccan cover.

Besides these four main collections, there were numerous gifts and purchases throughout the years, of which I cite a couple, just to give a sense of the complementary collecting around Islamic manuscripts that was going on in the first half of the 20th c.  in the city, across several institutions, including the NYPL, the Metropolitan Museum, the Morgan Library, etc. Often the same donors or scholars would be involved in developing the “oriental” collections and shaping the focus of the collecting at each of these institutions, with roughly the items of higher aesthetic value would go to the Met, the Morgan or NYPL, while Columbia would receive items of pedagogical, rather than pure aesthetic value. I cite here a gift in 1904 of 22 Arabic and Persian manuscripts purchased for Columbia by Jacob H. Schiff (1847–1920), with the assistance of James Speyer (1861–1941) and Professor J. Dyneley Prince (1868–1945) from the widow of Carl Reinhardt (d. before 1904) and another gift from 1907 of several manuscripts (number still to be determined) from the industrialist Alexander S. Cochran (1874–1929) who inherited a vast fortune from his father, and had a keen interest in Islamic art. Cochran traveled with Prof. Jackson in 1907 to India and purchased a number of art objects and manuscripts, many of which he donated the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1913, along with an endowment for the care and purchase of illuminated Persian and Arabic manuscripts, while manuscripts of less aesthetic value and of higher pedagogical interest may have been donated to the Columbia Libraries

These collections did receive scholarly attention, and were integrated into the scholarly life of the University, through a variety of channels, and throughout the years. For example, a number of important celebrations and exhibits were organized in the 30s around the collections, to varying degrees. Two exhibits are worth noting here in particular, one is an exhibition of Islamic art which was held at the Avery Library between January 8th and February  3rd, 1934, including “almost 200 items from the Smith Library and Dr. Smith’s home. It was viewed by about one thousand persons.” (Bertha Frick, Smith Library Annual Report 1933-34). Much research needs to be done about this exhibit, and of the interest in Islamic manuscripts and art in the city during this period, as the donation was very close to the exhibit.


Another large exhibition was held in November 9-21 1934, to celebrate the millennial anniversary of

the birth of Firdawsī, the famous Persian poet, author of the Shahnameh. A lavish exhibit and reception were organized at the Low Library at Columbia and a clear effort to tap into this scholarly and cultural event as an additional cultural diplomacy effort was clearly on display: the exhibit was supported in part by the Persian embassy in Washington, Persian representative to the US was the guest of honor, President Butler was on attendance, and delivered a speech, the Persian Minister to the US, Mirza Ghaffar Khan Djalal was also present. Dr. Isaac Mendelsohn was in charge of the bibliography, and the printed catalog, and he listed, after being in touch with numerous public and private libraries some 350 known manuscripts of the Shahnameh, in addition to some 175 printed editions. A copy of the exhibit catalog, with the bibliography was sent to many members of the Iranian Government, including the Shah. David Eugene Smith was instrumental in helping with all the logistics of the exhibit, as was A. W. Jackson, too. This was a highly advertised exhibit, in which the Metropolitan Museum, NYPL and the American Institute of Persian Art and Archaeology all  collaborated, and the Met showcased some of its finest pieces.

This exhibit coincided with  a time of high interest in Persian art in the city, where Between October 1933 and November 1934, New York alone hosted a staggering nine exhibitions devoted to Persian art and culture , including the following exhibits: Islamic Miniature Painting and Book Illumination (Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 1933–January 1934); Smith Collection of Islamic Art (Columbia University, January–February 1934); Persian and Indian Miniature Paintings in the Kelekian Collection (New York and Detroit, February–March 1934); Persian and Indian Miniature Paintings in the Demotte Collection (March 1934); Persian Silks and Tapestries (Cooper-Union, April 1934); Persian Pottery (Parish Watson & Co., April 1934); The American Institute for Persian Art and Archaeology Photographic Survey of Islamic Architecture (Architectural League, April–May 1934); Celebration of the Millennial Birthday of Ferdowsi (Columbia University, November 1934); Persian Art by Ali Khan Vaziri Hassan (Roerich Museum, November 1934). (“From Pahlavi Isfahan to Pacific Shangri La: Reviving, Restoring, and Reinventing Safavid Aesthetics, ca. 1920–40“, Keelan Overton, this article appeared in the Vol. 19 No. 1 / Spring-Summer 2012 issue of West 86th).

There were also modest, but candid and serious efforts at cataloging and/or listing the collection (even if only partial, and incomplete), including some efforts by Awwād, Georges to document Islamic manuscripts in north American libraries: “Al-Makhṭūṭāt al-ʿarabiyya fī dūr al-kutub al-amrīkiyya.” Sumer  7 (1951): 237-277; Martinovitch, Nicholas N.’s handlist of 47 mss:  “Arabic, Persian and Turkish Manuscripts in the Columbia University Library.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 49 (1929): 219-233; Yvonne Khalil’s cataloging of 45 manuscripts from the Jeffery collection in the 60s:Card catalog of the Arthur Jeffrey MSS, Rare Book and Manuscript Library.  Compiled by Yvonne Khalil, an Egyptian student in Columbia’s Library School, in 1962, and the card catalog of the Smith Plimpton collection by  the distinguished calligrapher, art historian and medical doctor Suheyl Unver’s (1898-1986) the Card catalog of the Smith/Plimpton MSS oriental, Rare Book and Manuscript Library (1958-59). This card catalog  covers 440 manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman from the Smith/Plimpton Ünver, A. Süheyl. “Islamic Manuscripts in the Columbia Libraries.” Columbia Library Columns 8, no. 3 (May 1959): 31-35.)

This cursory survey of the history of the Islamic manuscripts collections at Columbia does not on its own take us very far in the direction of an answer to the question raised earlier about the phenomena through which an archive can successfully get activated, and how serendipity, luck, resources, interest, can sometimes successfully converge, in order to propel visibility of a resource, and crystallize its relevance to researchers, while other collections lie—often for decades– “hidden” and “dormant” in the stacks of research libraries.  But I believe that this history must be reckoned with if we are ever to offer anything fully convincing here. In any case, these are questions to which we will return in subsequent posts, and try to unravel one step at a time, by shedding light on various aspects of these collections and of their uses, and their perceived relevance and interest. We all retain the hope of gaining better self-understanding of our place in the world, and of who we are, as academics, scholars, librarians, archivists and students, as we seek to get ever closer to the shore where wreckage from the ship is retrieved, and awaits being gathered up, examined, and argued about.*

For inquiries regarding the Muslim World Manuscript project at Columbia, please contact RBML: Jane Siegel: Librarian for Rare Books & Bibliographic Services:; Peter Magierski:The Middle East and Islamic Studies Librarian:, or Kaoukab Chebaro: Global Studies, Head: kc3287@

Kaoukab Chebaro, Global Studies, Head, Columbia University Libraries

*Many thanks to Jane Siegel for sharing with me invaluable information about the history of the collection. This post would not have been without her.


4 thoughts on “The Muslim World Manuscript Project

  1. Is there a chance that you expand the project to Muslim World Lithographs. I personally am searching for Maghribian prints from before 1930. Did not find a single one in any library catalog.

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