Tag Archives: Manuscripts

The Muslim World Manuscript Project: A Codicology Workshop

On September 20th, sixteen students, along with a number of faculty members and librarians, gathered in the Chang Seminar Room of RBML to attend a full-day workshop on codicology led by Dr. Kelly Tuttle, the Muslim World Manuscript (MWM) Project Cataloger at UPenn. The workshop was supported by the Center for the Study of Muslim Societies (CSMS), and is a  part of a series of scholarly events and engagement activities around the ongoing MWM. (Check out the catalog of the digitized and cataloged manuscripts from the MWM project here and here.) 

The aim of the workshop was “to give students a grounding in how to describe the material aspects of Islamicate manuscripts and to prepare students to identify key bibliographic features so that they may more confidently go to repositories and study manuscripts in person.” The day was full of hushed, intense discussions, with heads moving back and forth between the beautiful slides Kelly projected on the screen and the pages of the various manuscripts put in front of the students, who often worked in pairs on the numerous hands-on exercises Kelly had prepared.

Kelly  guided the students through the various components and aspects of these manuscripts “from the very outside to the inside,” beginning with safe handling measures, and then going over covers, spines, boards, fly-leaves, the nature of support (paper or parchment, types of paper, watermarks), collation, quires, bindings, common types of scripts, decoration and layouts, including traditional locations and styles of recording authors, titles, and dates in Islamicate manuscripts. She went into detail about the various types of notes that manuscripts can include and how the layout of the page and other material features (including the different colors of ink, the use of different scripts or locations for writing, etc.) can indicate the type of discourse written down (e.g. poetry vs sharh) or the nature and goal of the inscriptions (e.g. marginalia by different authors written in different directions that indicate different sources, authors, etc.). Students could see in a clear, simple and organic way how form and content work hand in hand in material culture, to great communicative and functional effects.

Throughout, students exchanged tips, background knowledge, and questions, and one could see very clearly in their eyes how the Muslim World Manuscript collection was coming to life. Curiosity, cell phones to take photos, zoom in on any given detail, but also laughter and humor, and an increasing level of confidence and comfort marked the day.

The day wound down with an exercise in which students gathered together what they had learned, filling in a template to describe a manuscript as thoroughly as they could and applied some of the best practices and recommendations from the workshop. They then presented their findings to the group and spoke about what they found most interesting in the manuscript they were responsible for presenting, and about the learning process throughout the day.

The next day, some of the students wrote to thank Kelly, the Libraries and the Center for the Study of Muslim Societies, and to express the wish for further hands-on opportunities to familiarize themselves with the material culture of the Islamicate world, stressing how important such opportunities are for their learning and graduate studies. Navid Zarrinnal,  a fifth-year PhD candidate in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, currently working  on Persian and Iranian intellectual history, wrote: “Friday’s workshop prepared us for a central task of our scholarship, rarely offered in the classroom, namely the discovery and deciphering of previously unedited manuscripts. We learned to locate a manuscript in the context of its intellectual and scholarly history by deciphering key information, such as author, title, summary of contents, and genre. In anticipation of future research, the workshop also prepared us for reading hard-to-decipher manuscripts. I applaud the Muslim World Manuscript Project’s efforts and encourage similar training for the future.”

Shabbir Abbas, a graduate student at MEASAS who focuses on the development of the Shi’i Imami school of jurisprudence in his work, also stressed the interactive nature of the workshop, and how he benefited from the various exercises and discussions throughout the day: “The codicology workshop was beneficial in the sense that I was able to focus for the first time on the physical and artistic/aesthetic aspects of the manuscripts instead of my typical textual analysis. Likewise, interacting [and even debating] with other grad students and scholars coming from different perspectives on the topic of manuscripts was an invaluable experience.”

Seher Agarwala, PhD student in the South Asian Art and Architecture department, who is working on Indo-Persian manuscripts and illuminations,  also wrote to say that “workshops like this would really benefit graduate and even undergraduate history students. We usually work from secondary sources, translations or photocopies so getting a real sense of manuscripts as objects, being acquainted with their idiosyncrasies and specific features and trajectories, their uniqueness,  and getting a chance to form one’s conclusions and opinions based on that encounter is extremely beneficial, and a real eye opener. My research would have taken a completely different trajectory, had I been acquainted with manuscripts earlier on in my studies.” Seher said she was delighted to work with a manuscript of Yuusuf and Zuleikha from  Qissas al-anbiya, The Stories of the Prophets, and the image of Zuleykha seducing Yuusuf in a courtyard, rather than in an enclosed setting, as the scene is usually depicted, stands out in her mind “as something worth returning to, and studying. Had I not been part of this workshop, I am not sure I would have been aware of this variation on the story, and been enticed to  take a closer look at some of the common assumptions around this story “.

After the workshop, I sat down with Kelly and asked her a few quick questions:








How did the idea of organizing this workshop come about? What was your initial motivation in proposing it? I remember my first attempt to work directly with manuscripts. I focused so much on the text that I missed many details and aspects of the history of the material objects I was consulting and that were clearly marked all over them, but that I did not register. After I returned, I realized that not only had I pretty much ignored the materiality of the manuscripts, I also didn’t even know what exactly I should have been looking for, or taking note of, or photographing for later research. It was frustrating. I immediately tried to find a class on Islamic codicology to take, so that next time I went to do research, I’d be better prepared.

That’s exactly what I wanted for the students here: for them to feel more familiar when they go do their own primary source research with manuscripts. Since we are all working to make Columbia’s Islamicate manuscript collection better known through the CLIR-funded Muslim World Manuscripts project, it seemed like a good time to provide an introductory course. My hope is that the students who take the workshop will have a better framework to do research with Islamicate manuscripts, and to think about the manuscripts as material objects with their own stories, their own “presence” and peculiarities, and not simply as “holders of a text”, but as objects in their own right.

How did you prepare for the workshop? What resources did you consult?  When and how did you take the beautiful photos you featured on the sldies? How did you choose the items you are focusing on?

In preparing, I thought mostly about what kind of information I pull out when cataloging manuscripts. The level of descriptive detail that goes into cataloging is also very useful and relevant for research about manuscripts. When I found good examples that illustrated a feature, an aspect of manuscripts which I thought students should know about, I either took photographs myself, if the manuscript hadn’t yet been digitized for the project, or I took one of the digital images that are available on OPenn. As for the hands-on portions of the workshop, I tried to pick items that highlighted specific aspects we had focused on or introduced in my presentation. I also tried to choose items that I thought would be instructive for the students to look at holistically and in greater detail during the final hands-on session. I limited the focus of the workshop to what I thought were the essential elements for a basic understanding of a manuscript.. Since the workshop was only one day, we barely scratched the surface of many of those topics, as you can probably imagine. I hope that the students now have at least a sense of what features to look for and how to describe them. They also came away with a reference sheet of sources where they can go for further guidance.

What was your impression of the students, of the level of interest and attendance? Did any of their questions surprise or intrigue you?

I was quite happy with the variety of backgrounds and experience that came into the workshop. The students had different levels of interaction and familiarity with manuscript culture. Some had worked with the MWM project, doing basic cataloging; some had used manuscripts in their own research, some had even worked on the production side of manuscripts, copying some works, and some had almost no experience with manuscripts. What I most enjoyed about the students, though, was their willingness to share their observations and suggestions. They asked each other for help, they circulated during the hands-on sessions to look at everyone else’s manuscripts and discuss manuscripts that were not assigned to them, they tossed around ideas and observations throughout the day. There was a sense of openness and experimentation. The experience was valuable, for me; I hope it was for them as well.

What type of workshops would you like to offer in the future? Are there any aspects of the project you would like to be more involved in, or see further developed?

I think it would be nice if someone from Art History offered a workshop on Islamicate manuscript illustration, including Perso-Indian. Actually, if someone were to offer a workshop on Perso-Indian manuscripts in general, that would be of real value! If there is interest, a workshop could be developed to delve more fully into manuscript construction, common types of damage and repair, perhaps taught by someone from conservation. With careful selecting, an excellent workshop could be developed to help students understand manuscript notes better, the uses to which they can be put for research, and the basics of provenance research, establishing names, and finding people in biographical dictionaries and other sources.

Thank you, Kelly! Many thanks to all who made this workshop possible!

For inquiries regarding the Muslim World Manuscript project at Columbia, please contact RBML: Jane Siegel: Librarian for Rare Books & Bibliographic Services: jane.siegel@columbia.edu; Peter Magierski:The Middle East and Islamic Studies Librarian: pm2650@columbia.edu, or Kaoukab Chebaro: Global Studies, Head: kc3287@ columbia.edu

Kaoukab Chebaro, Global Studies, Head, Columbia University Libraries


The Muslim World Manuscript Project: A great Pedagogical tool! What can manuscripts teach us?

Ms. Or. 4_ʿAli Qushjī (Risāla dar ʿilm-i hayʾa, Qūshjī, ʻAlī ibn Muḥammad, d-1474 or 1475, unidentified date

Ms. Or. 11_Tūsī (Dar maʿrifat-i taqvīm, Ṭūsī, Naṣīr al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad, 1201-1274, 14th c.? 1354??, Script: Nastaʻliq, Persian, contians a note of ownership by Taqī ibn Ali al-Qumī. ʻĀlamgīr Shāh

The summer months at Columbia University allow more mental space and time to savor enjoyable conversations and delve into the numerous treasures that the Columbia University Libraries offers to the scholarly community.

Last week, I sat down with Prof. A. Tunç Şen, (who just had a baby) and asked him a few questions about his work with the Islamic manuscripts collection at the Columbia University Libraries. Prof. Tunç  Şen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, and his research and teaching focus on the early modern Ottoman period and Islamicate worlds, with a particular interest in the history of science and divination, cross-cultural and historical perceptions of time, as well as material and manuscript cultures from the Islamic worlds. Prof. Şen is one of several professors at Columbia who have shown and keenly supported a renewed interest in the Islamic manuscripts collection at RBML, which is the subject of a current CLIR digitization grant. Prof. Tunç Şen taught a  course on Islamic manuscript culture at Columbia in the Fall of 2018, and plans to offer it again, as the course was the subject of high interest and excitement on the part of the students.

Q: Tunç, could you please tell us about the course on Islamic manuscript culture, which you offered in the Fall of 2018: how did you conceptualize it, and what was the students’ reception of the readings and the hands-on activities you offered through the course?

The seminar I offered in the Fall of 2018 shared the same title as the ongoing “Manuscripts of the Muslim World” digitization project. When I first conceptualized the course, I was planning to name it: “History of Reading and Writing in the Islamic Manuscript Culture,” as that would have been an accurate representation of the scope I intended to cover. But then, for various pedagogical and publicity purposes (regarding both the project and the seminar) I thought that it may be best to use the same title, just to weave the importance of the Libraries’ Islamic manuscripts collection in particular and the significance of material culture for intellectual inquiry around Islamic cultures and societies in general, onto my teaching. I thought it was a nice way to make people more aware of the tremendous resources we have at hand—the Columbia Univeristy Libraries’ rich manuscript collections, especially when it comes to “hidden” collections such as this one—and to highlight the opportunities they present for creating a unique pedagogical experience for our students. That’s how I decided to go with the project’s title for the course, too: the Manuscripts of the Muslim World Seminar.

Throughout the course, we followed a number of thematic arches, all organized in a discernible chronological sequence. The first thematic arch was the material aspect of the Islamic manuscript culture, ranging from the impact of the so-called paper revolution, to tools and techniques utilized in bookmaking and binding. Then we slowly moved onto our central theme and discussed over a few weeks the different ways we can utilize the para-textual elements of manuscripts for understanding, reconstructing and rewriting the social, cultural, intellectual, and material history of the past. These possibilities are not peculiar to Islamic manuscript traditions, but are shared throughout the history of the book, across periods, cultures, and eras, for any culture or period under study. But of course, unraveling the specific history of a book- making and scribal tradition requires a closer look at the individual items, and engaging with their specific micro-histories. We focused on colophons, ownership statements, or traces of ijāzat al-qirāʾa (reading certificates) or samāʿ (audition certificates) as recorded in the books and their margins.

MS Or 122, Junnat al-amān al-wāqiyah wa-junnat al-īmān al-bāqiyah by Kafʻamī, Ibrāhīm ibn ʻAlī, 1436 or 1437-1499 or 1500, Arabic, manuscript date unspecified

Ms. Or. 21, Jighmīnī, Maḥmūd ibn Muḥammad, d-1221?, Al-mulakhkhaṣ fī ʻilm al-Hayʼa, dedicated to Ulugh Beg, manuscript date unspecified. Ulugh Beg was the grandson of Timur (Tamerlane) (1336–1405), and was an astronomer and a scientist, who established the famous Ulugh Beg observatory in Samarkand between 1424 and 1429

We looked at blurbs, commentaries and other marginalia recorded in the manuscripts, and we tried to show how these extra-textual materials — books within a book so to speak–  can avail us with surprising small details that  shed significant light on the personal stories—the micro-story– of these manuscripts as well as their past owners, readers, makers, etc.. What emerges from all of this is a fascinating fresh look at the bigger social, cultural or historical reality at hand, culled out of the traces left in the books of a “lived perspective”, a relation to these items that the readers, owners, writers, producers of those fascinating works had with the manuscripts at hand. Throughout the course, we visited the RBML on a regular fashion and explored some of the items in our collection. Then, toward the end of the semester, we moved on to discuss the formation of libraries (first private/individual, then public, growingly from the seventeenth century onwards), addressed the accumulation of Islamic manuscript collections in the U.S. and elsewhere, and finally revisited the famous (or infamous) debate on the “late” adoption of print technology in the Ottoman/Islamicate context and its implications for our understanding of this period.

What is the added scholarly and pedagogical value of teaching with material culture?

In all the classes I’ve taught so far at Columbia, be it the Core Civilization courses, the History of the Ottoman Empire, or courses on Islamic material culture such as this seminar on the Manuscripts of the Muslim World, I actively integrated periodic visits to RBML into my regular teaching, always pointing out some of these fascinating sources and collections, but also, and most important, raising the students’ awareness of the richness and depth of the learning experience that can be achieved through an open engagement with the manuscripts.  This is particularly significant in the current context in which learning and education take place: We are now living in a digital age and it is not entirely uncommon to come across an undergraduate student (likely a digital native) who may have never closely interacted with a physical printed book, let alone a hand written one. The word “manuscript” may sound too esoteric or obsolete to students, as lack of familiarity can unfortunately feed a sense of irrelevance or fear, of being passe or in the best of cases, produce a sense of an inflated awe. All of these expectations can act as hindrances to the act of open learning: yes, every manuscript is “unique” and individual by its very nature but this should not keep us away from taking a more sober and demystified approach in studying manuscripts. We, the scholars, librarians, preservation specialists tend to treat them as precious, luxury items (and there are evident reasons for doing that), but not all manuscripts were originally copied and circulated in the past as such. Especially in the Islamicate context, most manuscripts functioned up until the late nineteenth century as the primary form and medium of pedagogy and scholarship. They were the main, one can even say the quotidian tools of learning way into the late 19th c….

So, to come to your question, one obvious value of using manuscripts in class is to bring these historical artifacts to life again, and feed that pedagogical immediate relation between the object and the learner, imbue the students with that vibrant tradition, that share of the past, which was once experienced and lived by the owners/readers/writers/copyists/sellers of these manuscripts in a quotidian, open, engaged manner.

MS Or 91 القرآن al-Qurʼān, ا; 1776 Iran, Copy completed at the end of the second part of the month of Dhū al-Qaʻdah, approximately 20 Dhū al-Qaʻdah 1189 A.H. (fī awākhir al-ʻushr al-thānī min shahr Dhū al-Qaʻdah 1189 AH)., 1776. Complete copy of the Qur’ān in an inset, color-contrast paper technique. Binding: Painted lacquer over pasteboards with leather spine. Endbands with chevron-pattern secondary sewing. Decoration Polychrome [red, blue, green] and gold illuminated frontispiece (f. 3v-4r) with text in cloudbands; polychrome [gold, red, blue] marginal verse markers; textblock border ruled [gold, black]; page openings framed in black rules; readings in red and chapter titles in gold; gold roundels with red and blue dots mark verse endings.

MSx892.8 aN8, Sayyid Ahmad Hatif (D. 1783), Divan Text: Iran, late 18th or 19th century Binding: paint, gold, and varnish on papier-mâché boards. The binding is too large for the text-block and may have been made for another work, and was reused for this manuscript.


The lavishly illuminated beautiful copies with fanciful bindings may still dazzle us with their visual/artistic qualities but I think we should also explore more deeply what these individual repositories can reveal to us with their sometimes astonishing personal and mostly quotidian details. It is that sense of discovery of the importance of the lived element in our relation to books and learning, and that deep personal relation to the tools of learning  that I seek to bring back alive, and hope to nourish and bring to the learning experience of my current students. I think there is nothing better equipped to achieve this result than exposing students to manuscripts.

Can you please tell us of a learning moment that stood out in the past term, through the usage of manuscripts in your teaching?

I think this is a question better put to my students…  But joking aside, I very much enjoyed all the sessions we held at the RBML when we engaged in browsing through select manuscripts from our collection, collectively deciphering the colophons, reading and commenting on the paratexts including the audition certificates and all other types of marginalia. Using cellphones is often not permitted in classes but in my manuscript seminar, cellphones were extremely helpful, because all of us got excited  taking photos of some interesting part of a manuscript, and then zooming in to read the text or understand the script  more easily, and feeling that Aha moment: “yes, now I get it!!”.

Ms. Or. 470_Flyleaf, Nawaji, Muhammad ibn Hassan (1386-1455 AD), al-Hujjah fi sarakat ibn Hijjah., A criticism of [his friend] Ibn Hijjah al-Hamawi and of his poetic compositions., written in 1632,.

Are there any particular items in the collection you can highlight as having constituted particularly interesting tools for your course?

One particular manuscript that I would like to note is Ms Or. 470. Interestingly, a note on the flyleaf of this manuscript reveals an interesting story about a book theft committed in 1799 by a few unnamed French soldiers, and the owners’ lament about the morals of any culture who could steal books (this most probably happened during the French invasion of Egypt). I would like to thank my dear colleague Boris Liebrenz, who had flagged this item for me and directed me to this note. So here, you not only have a very interesting manuscript in its own right, but also have a witness to emotions and feelings and ways of acting around war and books that are recorded in this very personal way… I find it fascinating that this testimony is handed down to us in this form.

Ms. Or. 360, Nev’ı̂,d1533-1599, Natāʼij al-funūn wa-maḥāsin al-mutūn, Turkey, 1623

Another interesting piece for me is Or. 360, a late-sixteenth century Ottoman encyclopedia of sciences, that contains numerous minhu records (i.e. glosses added to the margins that can be traced back to the author) presenting interesting details as to different stages/editions the “finished” work might have undergone. Here, too, you have an archive within an archive so to speak, where you get to see a work in evolution. That’s also fascinating…

The medieval Arabic ṭarsh (print block) now located at p. Col. inv. 705, about which Richard Bulliet had written a short article, is also an interesting piece for complicating the debates on printing technology (or lack thereof) in the Islamicate context. This is a small example of how much can be learned from this collection, and often in surprising ways, once we focus on these microstories embedded between the leaves of each work.

Are there any parts or sub-parts of the collection you plan to research or publish about?Our collection is particularly strong in terms of works devoted to mathematical and astral sciences thanks in particular to the scholarly and collecting interests of David Eugene Smith, a professor of mathematics at Teacher’s College in the first quarter of the twentieth century. In my own work, I examine the astral lore produced in the fifteenth and sixteenth century Ottoman/Persianate context. I hope I will have more time in the near future to explore more closely the zījes (astronomical tables) and other astronomical/astrological treatises collected by David E. Smith during his travels to the Muslim World.


Ms. Or. 2, Ulugh Beg, d1394-1449, Zīj-i sulṭānī, Zīj-i Ulugh Beg. Ulugh Bey (or Beg) was an astronomer, scientist and ruler who established the famous observatory in Samarkand in the 15TH C. The following names appear in the manuscript: Qāḍīzadah al-Rūmī; Jamshīd Ghiyāth al-Dīn al-Kāshī; Shukr-Allāh; Qūshjī, ʻAlī b. Muḥammad.

Can you please comment on the conception of the MWM project as driven by students’ curiosity and learning interests?

One of the greatest things about the MWM project is the fact that it has been initiated and conceptualized by our own graduate students. I think we should keep that spirit alive in the next stages of the project. My seminar was also partially intended to “recruit” new students to the project. As part of the course requirements, I asked my students to pick a particular item (or a set of items) from our collection and write their final papers to describe and contextualize the content and the scholarly significance of the select manuscript. I very much enjoyed and learned a lot from the final papers my students submitted. Two of my students, Trevor Brabyn and Shabbir Agha Abbas, eventually started working in the ongoing cataloging/digitization project. I strongly believe that this number will increase as more students will get interested in exploring the hidden gems of our collections and of the manuscript universe!

In closing, can you please comment on how you see this project fitting in within the politics of knowledge representation across the bigger scholarly eco-system?

MS Or 24 Calendar for year 1064 AH, Turkish, 1653 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.

Codicology, Manuscript studies, or the History of Reading in the Western/European context are much more established and institutionalized disciplines and scholarly traditions. The scholarship about Islamic manuscript culture has witnessed a promising renewed interest in the last decade or so, thanks not only to a number of digitization projects undertaken by different university and other research libraries but also to the publication of a series of outstanding catalogs and monographs, as well as a number of specialized journals, including the Journal of Islamic Manuscripts; Manuscripts of the Middle East , among others.

I believe that it is our task to create a closer dialogue between the scholars and the students across different traditions. We were particularly fortunate for example, in the  Fall 2018 to be able to encourage such interdisciplinary exchange and dialogue, as during that term, there were several courses offered on campus around Book History, Medieval Manuscripts, and Print Cultures. Joining efforts with other instructors, we managed to organize a “Book Fair” at RBML at the end of the semester. There, students put on display and briefly discussed some manuscript  items from the RBML collections that they were working on. These mini-presentations, from a variety of perspectives, cultures, histories and backgrounds, including Arabic, Jewish, Latin, Persian etc. were extremely interesting and engaging, and opened up possibilities for dialogue and scholarly exchanges. We had side by side a Latin Book of Hours for example, next to a Persian astronomical treatise: you can imagine the wonderful conversations this could spark! A project like the Manuscripts of the Muslim World, and events such as the Book Fair, will certainly help deepen scholarship, support diversity in research over various “hidden” or under-represented perspectives, and explore scholarly possibilities across eras, languages, traditions, cultures and histories. It’s so enriching, and eye opening– for all!!

For inquiries regarding the Muslim World Manuscript project at Columbia, please contact RBML: Jane Siegel: Librarian for Rare Books & Bibliographic Services: jane.siegel@columbia.edu; Peter Magierski:The Middle East and Islamic Studies Librarian: pm2650@columbia.edu, or Kaoukab Chebaro: Global Studies, Head: kc3287@ columbia.edu

Kaoukab Chebaro, Global Studies, Head, Columbia University Libraries


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. https://www.loc.gov/item/2018662614/.

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: jane.siegel@columbia.edu; Peter Magierski:The Middle East and Islamic Studies Librarian: pm2650@columbia.edu, or Kaoukab Chebaro: Global Studies, Head: kc3287@ columbia.edu

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.