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16 posts categorized "Arabic"

24 February 2017

Arabic manuscripts of al-Ghazālī

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In a recent post I wrote about Malay translations of works of Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (450-505 AH/1058-1111 AD) by ‘Abd al-Samad al-Jawi al-Palimbani, a Malay scholar from Palembang in south Sumatra who spent most of his adult life writing and teaching in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century. According to Azyumardi Azra (2004: 131), ‘the immense popularity of the Ghazalian taṣawwuf in the [Malay] archipelago can to a great extent be attributed to al-Palimbani’. The British Library holds manuscripts of two of al-Palimbani’s works transmitting Ghazalian thought to the Malay world: Hidāyat al-sālikīn fī sulūk maslak al-muttaqīn, ‘A guide for travellers on the path of those who fear God’ (Or. 16604), completed in 1778, based on al-Ghazālī’s Bidāyat al-hidāya, ‘Beginning of guidance’, and Sayr al-sālikīn ilā ‘ibādat rabb al-‘ālamīn (Or 15646), in four books, completed in 1789, based on Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, ‘The Revival of Religious Sciences’. This short post aims simply  to highlight a few manuscripts of these original sources in the Arabic collection in the British Library. 

Or 4268 (2), f. 20v
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, title from a 13th c. manuscript. British Library, Or 4268, f. 20v (detail)  noc

The collection of Arabic manuscripts in the British Library numbers some 14,000 volumes containing around 15,000 works, dating from the early 8th to the 19th centuries. It unites two historic collections from the British Museum and the India Office Library, with many of the manuscripts in the latter originating from the Indian subcontinent. There are a number of detailed  catalogues but the only published listing covering the entire collection is the Subject-guide to the Arabic manuscripts in the British Library, compiled by Peter Stocks and published in 2001. According to the Subject-guide, the British Library holds over thirty titles by al-Ghazālī, some in multiple copies, including two manuscripts of Bidāyat al-hidāya and no fewer than 27 manuscripts of Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, listed below in chronological order (Stocks 2001: 62-63):

Manuscripts of Bidāyat al-hidāya in the British Library:
14th c: Add 9517/1 (AH 800/ AD 1397); 17th c: Add 9495/2

Manuscripts of Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn in the British Library:
13th c.: Or 4268, Or 8347; 13th-15th c.: Bij 381; 14th c.: Or 5937, Or 6431, Add 9486 (AH 763/ AD 1362); 15th c: Or 6430, Or 14889, Or 13003 A-E (AH 846/ AD 1442), Add 23479 (AH 890/ AD 1485); 16th c.: Or 4374, Or 14883, Add 16644 (AH 917/ AD 1511), IO Islamic 2021 (AH 952/AD 1545); 17th c.: Bij 377-80, Add 16641-43, Add 18402, IO Islamic 2145 (AH 1098/ AD 1687), IO Islamic 2046 (AH 1111/ AD 1698); 18th c.: IO Islamic 749, Delhi Arabic 1750, 1763, 1764, 1768, 1769, 1798; 19th c: Or 13003 F-G (AH 1296/ AD 1879)

Reproduced below is a selection of these manuscripts, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries.

Add 9517  (1)
Bidāyat al-hidāya, dated AH 800 (AD 1397). British Library, Add 9517/1, ff. 1v-2r  noc

Or 8347
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, 13th century.  British Library, Or 8347, ff. 67v-68r  noc

Or 4268 (1)
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, Book 3, in a Persian hand, 13th century (Rieu 1894, no. 173). The name of the owner (and possibly scribe) is given on f. 89r as Ḍiyā al-Dīn Abu al-Fakhr ‘Abd al-Raḥīm b. Muḥammad al-Karsafi. British Library, Or 4268, ff. 20v-21r  noc

Add 18402  (1)
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, dated AH 1098 (AD 1687), from the Fort William library. British Library, IO Islamic 2145  noc

Add 18402  (3)
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, 17th century. This MS formerly belonged to William Yule and bears his bookplate dated 1805. British Library, Add. 18402, ff. 9v-10r  noc

Del Ar 1769  (1)
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, in poor condition, 18th century. British Library, Delhi Arabic 1769  noc

Further reading:
Subject-guide to the Arabic manuscripts in the British Library, compiled by Peter Stocks, edited by Colin F. Baker. London: The British Library, 2001.
Azyumardi Azra, The origins of Islamic reformism in Southeast Asia: networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern 'ulama in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2004.

Find Arabic manuscripts in the British Library

ghazali.org: a virtual online library

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

06 February 2017

Abdul Samad of Palembang, Malay guide to the writings of al-Ghazālī

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Abdul Samad (ca. 1704-1791) from Palembang in south Sumatra (‘Abd al-Ṣamad al-Falimbānī) was  the most prominent and influential Malay religious scholar of the 18th century, who spent most of his life studying, teaching and writing in the Arabian peninsula. From references in his own works we know he was living in Mecca and Taif between 1764 and 1789. According to al-Nafas al-Yamānī by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Sulaymān al-Ahda, in AH 1206 (AD 1791) Abdul Samad arrived in Zabid, Yemen, to teach. This is the last firm date that we have in his biography, and he probably died in the Hijaz without ever returning to Sumatra. Abdul Samad wrote in Malay and Arabic on the Sammaniyya Sufi brotherhood and on jihād or holy war, but his most important contribution is undoubtedly his Malay translations of the great 12th-century theologian, Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (ca. 1058-1111), who was born in Tus in Khorasan, Iran. Al-Ghazālī earned from his contemporaries the sobriquet Hujjat al-Islam, ‘Proof of Islam’, and is credited for reconciling in his writings both legal and mystical aspects of Islam. 

Abdulsamad
‘Abd al-Ṣamad al-Jāwī al-Falimbānī, ‘Abdul Samad, the Jawi [i.e. Muslim from Southeast Asia], from Palembang’: the name of the author as given in a manuscript of his work Hidāyat al-sālikīn . British Library, Or. 16604, f. 2r (detail)  noc

In 1778 Abdul Samad completed Hidāyat al-sālikīn fī sulūk maslak al-muttaqīn, ‘A guide for travellers on the path of those who fear God’, a Malay adaptation of al-Ghazālī’s Bidāyat al-hidāya, ‘Beginning of guidance’, which deals with a number of subjects pertaining to dogmatics, sharī‘a and other matters in a somewhat mystical way. According to the colophon the work was completed in Mecca on  5 Muharram 1192  (3 February 1778).  This work was extremely popular throughout the Malay world: over 82 manuscripts have been documented from published catalogues alone, held in Leiden, Paris, Jakarta, Palembang, Aceh and Malaysia, including 50 in the National Library of Malaysia. Hidāyat al-sālikīn was one of the first Malay works to be published in the 19th century in Cairo, Mecca, Bombay and Singapore, and it is still in print in Malaysia and Indonesia today.

MNA 07-0002
Hidāyat al-sālikīn, a copy from Aceh, 19th c. Museum Negeri Aceh, 07-0002. Source of image: Portal Naskah Nusantara

The British Library holds one manuscript of Hidāyat al-sālikīn from Aceh which appears to be the earliest dated copy known (Or. 16604). According to the colophon, the manuscript belonged to Teungku Busangan who had married the daughter of Teungku Abdul Rahman, who was of Ottoman extraction (saudara bani ‘Uthmaniyyah), and it was copied by Teungku Haji Hasyim ibn Abdul Rahman Patani in negeri l.m.s.y.n (Lamsayun in Aceh?), on 4 Rabiulawal 1197 (9 February 1783). The manuscript thus dates from just five years after the composition of the work, at a time when Abdul Samad was still actively writing. Another manuscript – one of ten copies of this text now held in the famous Islamic madrasah at Tanoh Abee in Aceh – is dated just a few months later, as it was copied in Mecca by Lebai Malim from Lam Bait in Aceh on 19 Jumadilakhir 1197 (22 May 1783) (Fathurahman 2010: 196). The presence of two manuscripts of this work copied thousands of miles apart, within five years of the work’s composition, illustrates well the impact of Abdul Samad’s writings within his own lifetime.

BL Or.16604, ff.1v-2r
Initial pages of Hidāyat al-sālikīn by Abdul Samad of Palembang, a translation of Bidāyat al-hidāya by al-Ghazālī. British Library, Or. 16604, ff. 1v-2r  noc

BL Or.16604, ff.147v-148r (1)
Final pages with colophon of Abdul Samad al-Palembani’s Hidāyat al-sālikīn, copied in Aceh in 1783. British Library, Or. 16604, ff. 147v-148r  noc

A year after completing Hidāyat al-sālikīn, Abdul Samad started on his final and most ambitious project, a rendering into Malay of an abbreviated version of the most influential of al-Ghazālī's works, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, ‘The Revival of Religious Sciences’.  The Iḥyāʾ is presented in four sections, each containing ten chapters. 'Acts of worship' (Rub‘ al-‘ibadāt), deals with knowledge and the requirements of faith; 'Norms of daily life' (Rub‘ al-‘adat), concentrates on people and society; 'The ways to perdition' (Rub‘  al-muhlikāt) discusses vices to be overcome, while the final book, 'The Ways to Salvation' (Rub‘  al-munjiyāt), focusses on the virtues to be strived for.

Abdul Samad’s Malay work, entitled Sayr al-sālikīn ilā ‘ibādat rabb al-‘ālamīn, was likewise presented in four parts (bahagi), each comprising ten chapters (bab). The first, Pada menyatakan ilmu usuluddin, on prescriptions for ritual purity, prayer, charity, fasting, pilgrimage, recitation of the Qur’an, and so forth, was started in 1779 and completed in Mecca in 1780. The second, Pada menyatakan adat, on manners related to eating, marriage, earning a living, friendship and other societal matters, was finished in Taif in Ramadan 1195 (August-September 1781). The third book, Pada menyatakan muhlikat yakni yang membinasakan, discusses the destructive impact of vices, and was completed in Mecca on 19  Safar 1197 (24 January 1783). The fourth and final book, Pada menyatakan munjiyat yakni yang melepaskan dari pada yang membinasakan akan agama ini, focusses on virtues which overcome threats to faith, and was completed on 20 Ramadhan 1203 (14 June 1789). Sayr al-sālikīn was also extremely popular throughout Southeast Asia, with over 60 manuscripts known today (often containing just one part), including 14 manuscripts in Dayah Tanoh Abee and 36 in the National Library of Malaysia, with the majority originating from Aceh.

MSS 2399
A beautifully written and decorated copy of the third book of Sayr al-sālikīn, a copy from Aceh, probably 19th c. National Library of Malaysia, MSS 2399, ff. 2v-3r.

The British Library holds a manuscript which contains only the final two-thirds of the third book of Sayr al-sālikīn , in two stitched bundles of quires, enclosed in a loose leather wrapper (Or. 15646). The text begins in the middle of the third chapter, on crushing the two desires, of the stomach and the genitals (pada menyatakan memecahkan syahwat), with the section on curbing the appetite for food (pasal pada menyatakan bersalah-salahan hukum lapar). The manuscript continues through the chapters on defects of the tongue (kebinasaan lidah), and condemnations (kecelaan) of anger (marah), worldly mores (dunia), love of wealth (orang yang kasih akan arta), ostentation (kasih kemegahan), pride and conceit (kejahilan) and self-delusion (orang yang terpedaya).  According to a note on the leather wrapper, this manuscript was owned by Muhammad Yusuf from Tanoh Abee in Aceh.

 Or.15646-col
Colophon to the third part of Abdul Samad's Sayr al-sālikīn, composed in Mecca in 1783; this undated manuscript was probably copied in the 19th century in Aceh. British Library, Or. 15646, ff. 136v-137r  noc

Public institutions in the UK hold some of the most important Malay literary and historical manuscripts extant, in line with the interests and preoccupations of their mainly 19th-century British collectors, but these collections are equally characterised by a marked absence of works reflecting Islamic thought and practice in Southeast Asia. It is remarkable that these two manuscripts in the British Library of works by Abdul Samad of Palembang, found in such large numbers throughout Southeast Asia, are the only known copies in British collections. Both have now been fully digitised, and can be read through the hyperlinks or on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website.

Further reading:
Azyumardi Azra, The origins of Islamic reformism in Southeast Asia: networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern 'ulama in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2004. [See pp. 112-117, 130-136.]
G.W.J. Drewes, Directions for travellers on the mystic path. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977. [See pp. 222-224.]
Oman Fathurahman, Katalog naskah Dayah Tanoh Abee Aceh Besar: Aceh manuscripts, Dayah Tanoh Abee collection. Jakarta: Komunitas Bambu, 2010.
R. Michael Feener, ‘Abd al-Samad in Arabia: the Yemeni years of a Shaykh from Sumatra.  Southeast Asian Studies, 4(2), 2015.
Sair as-salikin
. Banda Aceh: Museum Negeri Aceh, 1985/1986. [Transliteration of MS no. 923 in the MNA by A. Muin Umar, with a biographical note by Henri Chambert-Loir, ‘Abdussamad al-Falimbani sebagai ulama Jawi’.]
Hidayatus salikin: Syeikh Abdus Shamad al-Falimbani, ed. Hj. Wan Mohd. Shaghir Abdullah. Kuala Lumpur: Khazanah Fathaniyah, 1997-2000. 3 vols.

ghazali.org: a virtual online library on al-Ghazali, including a page in Malay

This blog was updated on 11 February 2017 to incorporate new biographical information from Feener 2015.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

04 November 2016

Jerusalem 1000-1400: Four Gospels in Arabic

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In a recent post in our Medieval Manuscripts blog (Every People Under Heaven), Cillian O'Hogan wrote about the early 13th century Harley Greek Gospels and the 12th century Melisende Psalter and its ivories which are currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a stunning exhibition Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. With some 200 exhibits from 60 lenders from all over the world, the exhibition tells the story of Jerusalem, a polyglot city and cultural centre during the Crusades, the rule of the Ayyubids and the Mamluk Empire. In this post I will highlight one of our Arabic loans, Add.MS.11856, a translation of the four Gospels, copied in Palestine in 1336.

Add_11856_f001-2
Double page opening to the Gospel of St. Matthew. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, ff. 1v-2r)
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Add_11856_f2-3_2000
Portrait of St. Matthew followed by the translator's prayer and introduction to the Gospel of St. Matthew. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, ff. 2v-3r)
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Although the Bible may have been translated into Arabic as early as the late seventh century, it was during the eighth and especially the ninth centuries that translations were made under Christian patronage. These were produced in the multilingual monastic communities of Palestine. The earliest surviving dated manuscript of the Gospels in Arabic is dated 859 and is in the library of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai (Griffith, p. 113). In his 'Abridged List of the Arabic Gospel Manuscripts' Hikmat Kashouh (below, pp. 55-8) lists 18 copies in the British Library collections of which the oldest, Add.MS.14467, dates from the 10th century. Add.MS.11856 is a copy of what became known as the Arabic Vulgate version which, translated from Greek, Syriac and Coptic, developed by the 13th century and remained the standard Arabic version until modern times.

Add_11856_f059r
Opening to the Gospel of St. Mark. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 59r)
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Add_11856_f059v
Portrait of St. Mark. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 59v)
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Our manuscript, Add.MS.11856, was completed on 20 Jumada I AH 737 (25 Dec. 1336) and includes four portraits of the evangelists, a double page illuminated heading at the beginning and three single page headings at the start of the following Gospels. The copyist was Yūsuf ibn Walī al-Dawlah Mīkhāʼīl ibn Faḍl Allāh, the Treasury scribe (kātib al-khizānah). Originating in Palestine, the manuscript had various owners, one being the early Albanian writer and national hero Peter Bogdani (ca. 1630-89), Archbishop of Skopje and alumnus of the Collegio di Propaganda Fide, Rome, to which he subsequently presented it. It was acquired in 1841 by the British Museum as part of the collection of Samuel Butler (1774-1839), Bishop of Lichfield.

Add_11856_f095r
Opening to the Gospel of St. Luke. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 95r)
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Add_11856_f095v
Portrait of St. Luke. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 95v)
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Perhaps the most striking feature of this manuscript is its illumination and decoration which clearly demonstrate the cosmopolitan nature of the community in which it was written. Each Gospel is introduced by a portrait of its author holding a copy of the book, but whereas these portraits are based on Byzantine models, the opening and the introductory leaves to each Gospel are richly decorated in a carpet page design - so called because of its close resemblance to intricately woven carpets - which is in keeping with Qur'ans dating from the Mamluk period. The opening of each Gospel consists of two illuminated bands containing the title above and below while the central panel is filled with an abstract geometrical pattern. Decorative rosettes in the margins complete the design.

Add_11856_f157r_2000
Opening to the Gospel of St. John. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 157r)
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Add_11856_f157v
Portrait of St. John. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 157v)
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The exhibition Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven is open at the Met. until 8 January 2017. If you don't have the opportunity to go in person, there is a detailed catalogue available by the exhibition curators Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb.

This manuscript has now been digitised and will shortly be available on our Digitised Manuscripts site, so watch this space for more details!


Further reading

W. Cureton and C. Rieu, Catalogus codicum manuscriptorum orientalium qui in Museo Britannico asservantur. Pars secunda, codices arabicos amplectens. London: British Museum, 1846-71, pp. 11-13.
Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, Jerusalem, 1000-1400 : every people under heaven. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016.
Hikmat Kashouh, The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: the Manuscripts and their Families, Berlin: De Gruyter, c2012.
Sidney H. Griffith, The Bible in Arabic: the Scriptures of the "People of the Book" in the Language of Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, c2013.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies, with thanks, for help, to Colin Baker
 CC-BY-SA

01 August 2016

An in-depth look at the British Library’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa

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In his previous blog, PhD student Paul Naylor introduced the BL’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa, on which he has been working. In part two of this blog series, and with the cataloguing of the collection almost complete, Paul looks at the collection in more depth, picking out some particularly interesting items.

Religious Works
Most of the material in the collection is of a religious nature, reflecting the strong link between literacy in the Arabic language and Islamic learning in 19th century West Africa. There are five complete copies of the Qur’an – the holy book of Islam – and many more incomplete sections. (In a forthcoming blog I will reflect on some unique features of the BL’s collection of illuminated Qur’an copies produced in West Africa.)

Other religious works include copies of biographies and praise poems of the Prophet Muhammad, many of which are recited on the occasion of the Prophet’s Birthday (Mawlud). There are also many devotional and mystical works from the Qadiri and Tijani Sufi orders, founded in 12th century Baghdad and 18th century Aïn Madhi (present-day Algeria) respectively and popular in West Africa.

The collection also features spiritual works from West African religious movements. In 1804, the teacher and social reformer Usman dan Fodio embarked on a military campaign resulting in what we know today as the Sokoto Caliphate, in the area of present-day northern Nigeria. Usman’s movement had a profound effect on West African society and for many Muslims he is a figure of immense spiritual importance. The British Library’s collection includes a fine copy of the 'Meadows of Paradise' (Rawḍ al-Jinān). This is a work of 'miracle literature' about Usman written by Gidado dan Layma, one of his closest associates, and compiled sometime in the 1840s. Its presence in this material, which is almost certainly from a region beyond the Sokoto Caliphate, is testament to the extent of Usman’s influence throughout the West African region. A page from this work is shown below.

Image 1 OR 6953_279v
Page from the 'Meadows of Paradise' (Rawḍ al-Jinān), by Gidado dan Layma. Or 6953 f. 297v.

Educational Works
For the British Library’s recent ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ exhibition, we showcased items from the collection demonstrating the breadth of the Islamic ‘core curriculum’  still being taught to students in centres of Islamic learning across the West African region (Hall & Stewart 2011: 109-74). These works include canons of Maliki law (the branch of Sunni Islam followed in West Africa) and texts on Islamic beliefs and  practices, as well as classical works on Arabic grammar and syntax such as the Ājurrūmiyya.

West_africa_Arabic_ms_work_on_grammar_or6593_255v_west_africa_a80145-15_lores
Page from a West African copy of the Ājurrūmiyya, a work on Arabic grammar by the Moroccan scholar Ibn Ājurrūm al-Ṣanhājī (1273-1323). Or 6953, f. 255v. Noc

There are also many works authored by West African scholars on subjects such as the preparation of halal meat and the eating of kola nut, as well as obituaries for local scholars who passed away. This page is from an obituary for one such scholar, al-Haj Salim al-Zaghawi al-Kasami, from a town called Touba, a common name for settlements of Muslim scholars in the Senegambian region. This personage is listed as the owner of several manuscripts in the collection, some of which may be written in his hand or the hand of his students. The author laments, ‘Knowledge has left Touba and Futa. The time of grammar, inflectional endings (iʿrāb) and conjugation is over’ and compares the death of this scholar to a disaster rivalling the Biblical flood.

Image 3 OR 6473 cropped 105r
Obituary for the Senegambian scholar al-Haj Salim al-Zaghawi al-Kasami. Or 6473, f. 105r. Noc

Fawāʾid
Most of the remaining material comes under the category of ‘Fawāʾid’. This term is an Arabic word meaning ‘benefits’ and constitutes a practice or ritual said to result in a supernatural effect. This practice could be something as simple as reciting a Muslim prayer or section of the Qur’an on a certain day, at a certain time or in a certain place. Other documents explain how to manufacture talismans (Ar. aḥrāz). In an Islamic context, a talisman is usually a small piece of paper with a passage of Arabic writing on it. Depending on the intended effect, the paper could be worn about the person as a protective amulet (Ar. khātim), buried in a special place or, most commonly, written out in ink on a slate and then washed off with water, milk or plant extracts. This mixture is either drunk or applied to the body. The image below shows a religious scholar writing an amulet for a widow.

Boilat_sengalese_sketches_intro_article_2_west_africa_b20081_82
A marabout or Muslim religious leader writing an amulet for a widow. P.D. Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises, etc. (Paris, 1853). British Library, 10096.h.9. Noc

Many fawāʾid are accompanied by number squares (Ar. awfāq) in which each row and column add up to the same number, not unlike a Sudoku. The squares, which are common throughout the Islamic world, are said to have come to the Middle East from China. They originally consisted of 3 lines of 3 small squares, before being enlarged and made more complex by medieval Arab mathematicians (Camman 1969). Later they were combined with the science of numerology, in which each letter of the Arabic alphabet is assigned a numerical value, so that the squares could also be used to express words. When filled with a name of God or a Prophet - in letters or in their numerical value - the square was thought to have very powerful spiritual properties. When filled in with a personal name, the square could be used to tell one’s fortune or to protect (or alternatively curse) that person. The earliest Europeans to visit West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries commented on the ubiquitous nature of these devices, which were used by Muslim and non-Muslim alike and made by specialists called mallams (Ar. muʿallim, a learned person).

Image 5 OR 6576 11v, 12r
Examples of number squares. Or 6576, ff. 11v and 12r. Noc

In the past, this material was deemed to be of little interest to scholars. However, in more recent times, the value of these documents is being recognised (Brenner 1985; Epelboin 2016).  As well as being a fascinating record of West African trees and plants used in such preparations, what we must remember is that each talisman was made at the request of a ‘patient’ for a specific malady or problem.

Thus, these documents are perhaps the most personal of the collection. They reflect preoccupations we can all relate to: the relief of back pain, a guarantee of a happy marriage, the conception of a child, an aide for students to memorise their lessons, or even a husband’s appeal for his wife to come back to him. There are also many ‘love amulets’ with space left for the name of a man and a woman. A detailed study of these talismans will undoubtedly tell us much about the social history of the societies that produced them. The image below is a page from a fāʾida (singular of fawāʾid) to make all who see the bearer love them, ‘as a Muslim loves paradise, as a faithful person loves prayer, as a stomach loves food, as fields love the rain, as infidels and wolves love unclean meat’.

Image 6 OR 6880 334r
A love fāʾida or amulet. Or 6880, f. 334r. Noc

In the next few months, detailed descriptions of every one of the Arabic manuscripts from West Africa held in the BL’s collection will be uploaded onto the British Library’s online catalogue of manuscripts. This will make it easy for readers to know what is in the collection and facilitate access and study.

Further reading:

Bruce S. Hall and Charles C. Stewart, ‘The Historic “Core Curriculum” and the Book Market in Islamic West Africa’, in Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon (eds), The Trans-Saharan Book Trade (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 109-74.

Schuyler Cammann, ‘Islamic and Indian Magic Squares. Part I’, History of Religions, 8, 3 (1969): 181-209

Schuyler Cammann, ‘Islamic and Indian Magic Squares. Part II’, History of Religions, 8, 4 (1969): 271-299.

Louis Brenner, ‘The Esoteric Sciences in West African Islam’ in Brian M. Du Toit and Ismail Hussein Abdalla (eds), African Healing Strategies (Buffalo: Trado-Medic Books, 1985), pp. 20-28.

Alan Epelboin, ‘Amulettes et objets magiques du Musée de l'Homme collectés dans les ordures du Sénégal Collection ALEP (1983-‐2016)’ (2016). The author spent many years collecting more modern devices from rubbish dumps in Senegal; this collection can be found online.

 Paul Naylor  Ccownwork

31 May 2016

An 18th Century North African Travelling Physician's Handbook

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POSTSCRIPT from editor: This manuscript has now been digitised and can be viewed online

While cataloguing the British Library’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa (see BL blog passim) I came across a very strange item. This manuscript, Or.6557, was given to the British Museum Library (the forerunner of the British Library) by a Muhammad Shami on the 10th of October 1903 and catalogued the following year. According to a slip of paper pasted on the blank recto of the first folio in the handwriting the donor, this work is a “book on Reml [Arabic: ʻIlm al-Raml, meaning divination by sand] and magic and some of austronomy by Saidi Saeed Abdoul Naim” with the date of composition given as 1202AH (1788 AD). The text block is loose-leaf, as is often the case in North and West Africa, and protected at either end by squares of animal hide.

OR6557 Magical writing_2000
Key to writing a secret alphabet (British Library Or.6557, f. 47r)
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The reason for the work’s composition seems to be to detail practices for the curing of various physical and mental conditions. Throughout the work, subjects are itemised in the left-hand margin, suggesting ʻAbd al-Nāʼim used it as a reference guide during his practice. The lack of any clear order nor beginning or conclusion, along with various small pieces of paper scattered throughout the text block featuring simple arithmetic, receipts or aides-memoires, suggests that the work was compiled gradually over the course of ʻAbd al-Nāʼim's career and was meant to be a private document. The handwriting of  ʻAbd al-Nāʻim seems to be a mix of several different styles and –confirmed by the mention of various North African place names- it appears he travelled widely in search of learning, or perhaps new patients.

True to the words of the donor, among the subjects covered are sand divination and astronomy. However, the work is a veritable compendium of all kinds of knowledge, ranging from the purely scientific to the very occult. There are sections on alchemy, the fabrication of potions and talismans, the exorcism of demons and jinn and the voiding of black magic, to the treatment of a plethora of medical complaints, from sore eyes to bad backs. Toward the end of the work, ʻAbd al-Nāʻim also quotes versified works by the Egyptian al-Ḍimyātī, whose poems are still renowned in North Africa for their therapeutic properties. ʻAbd al-Nāʻim refers several times to the use of hashish as well as other recognisable drugs and chemical compounds, often noting that he has tried many of the cures on himself.

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Two of the “nine family heads”. Text in red indicates that these are instructions for performing the exorcism, while the text in black gives their personal name and a description (British Library Or.6557, ff. 40r and 41r)
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However, the most impressive aspect of the work is its full-page illustrations. The work features nine full-page illustrations of beings ʻAbd al-Nāʻim calls “tisʻa rahṭ”. This phrase can be traced to the Qur’an 27:48 in the line “And there were in the city nine family heads causing corruption in the land”. In the tafṣīr of al-Jalālayn, this city is identified as Thamud and the “corruption” is described as “sins such as clipping dinars and dirhams”. From this obscure Qur’anic reference, ʻAbd al-Nāʻim elaborates the story, giving each “family head” a personal name, listing his attributes, signs of the interference of this entity in the world of the living and the means to exorcise or remove him. His representations of each “family head” –executed in black or red ink- are highly original, ranging from a horned demon to a long-beaked red bird, to a long-armed creature with a brazier for a head. If these forms are not unsettling enough, ʻAbd al-Nāʻim ends his section on the “nine family heads” with the warning that “whoever says that they are birds or anything else has lied for I saw them [myself] in Safar 1214 (July/August 1799)”.

LegionsofJinn_2000 OR6557 Jinns shooting and riding_2000
Left: “Legions of Jinn” (Or.6557, f. 6v); right: group of Jinn or humans, engaged in shooting and riding (British Library Or.6557, f. 26v)
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Aside from numerous astrological and alchemical diagrams and talismans, the work also includes many pictorial representations of jinn. ʻAbd al-Nāʻim’s illustrations are again highly idiosyncratic and he has taken pains to differentiate each jinn from the next. Some sprout three horns, some are stooped over while others stand tall, thrusting batons or other implements; some appear to be holding firearms while others ride on beasts of burden.

There is still much work to be done on this item -which I believe must be a unicum- and no doubt further textual analysis will shed more light on the circumstances of its composition.

My thanks to Constant Hamès, with whom I have corresponded concerning this item.

Paul Naylor, British Library Collaborative Doctoral Student, Asian and African Studies
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Paul Naylor, British Library Collaborative Doctoral Student, Asian and African Studies
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28 April 2016

An A-Z of Arabic Propaganda

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The British Government’s Arabic-Language Output during WWII

Throughout the Second World War, Britain’s Ministry of Information (MOI) produced and disseminated a remarkable assortment of propaganda material in Arabic. The material that it produced was intended to counter pro-Axis sentiment in the Arab World and bolster support for Britain and its allies. This propaganda effort arose largely in response to the German and Italian Governments’ own large scale propaganda campaigns that, with some success (more so Germany than Italy), targeted the Middle East and North Africa from the 1930s onwards.

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Abjad al-ḥarb ʻThe alphabet of warʼ (British Library, COI Archive, ‘Arabic A.B.C.’ PP/1/28L).
© British Library, 2016

The German Government broadcast Arabic language radio programmes to the region seven days a week before and throughout the duration of the war. These broadcasts portrayed the Nazis as friends of Islam and staunch supporters of anti-imperialist movements, especially those that were opposed to the British Empire. Unsurprisingly, they found a receptive ear amongst some individuals then under the control of British colonial authorities; notably so after the fall of France in May 1940, when the prospect of Britain losing the war appeared a likely outcome to many. Pro-German sentiment in Iraq and other areas has been well-documented, but the broadcasts also had an impact on the periphery of the region. For example, in Sharjah on the British controlled Trucial Coast (present day UAE), pro-German graffiti was written on walls and large crowds gathered around the palace of its ruler, Shaikh Sultan bin Saqr al-Qasimi, to listen to the German radio broadcasts.

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Ministry of Information poster (British Library IOR/R/15/1/35). © British Library, 2016

A wide selection of this MOI material is preserved in the archive of its successor organisation, the Central Office of Information (COI) that since 2000 has been held at the British Library. The contents of the MOI archive – hundreds of pamphlets and posters produced in Arabic, Persian, French, Italian, Russian, Dutch, Spanish and many other languages – demonstrate the large scale and broad scope of the MOI’s propaganda activities during the war. The Arabic language propaganda material produced by the MOI is interesting for the diversity of its form as well as its content. This material includes posters (copies of which have been preserved by chance in the British Library’s India Office Records), pamphlets, satirical cartoons and even lavishly illustrated short stories for children.

One of the most fascinating examples of this propaganda is a pamphlet entitled Alphabet of the War (Abjad al-ḥarb) that contains an illustrated entry for each of the letters of the Arabic alphabet. The entries are a curious assortment of geographical locations (England, USA, Iraq, Egypt and London), people (Churchill, Roosevelt and Hitler), armaments (Battle Ships, Tanks and Fighter Jets) and concepts (including Freedom, Bravery, Corruption and Honesty) that project an image of Britain as the last ‘bastion of freedom’ that is on the path to victory against the Nazi regime and its allies. Unlike many of the MOI’s other publications that were written for a general audience and then simply translated into different languages, this particular pamphlet was clearly written specifically for the Arab world.

Fig3Fig4Fig8
Inkiltirā: England – a bastion of freedom and the focal point of the war against injustice and aggression.
Ḥurrīyah: freedom – what Britain fights to defend and secure for all the peoples of the world.
Khiyānah: treachery – Hitler’s favourite weapon with which he tries to enslave the world.

Fig6
Fig9Fig11
ʻIrāq – an independent Arab state with total independence that is allied to its friend, England and refused to ‘enjoy the privileges’ of the new Nazi regime because it holds fast to its freedom and independence’.
Fasād: Corruption – the primary characteristic of the Nazi Government and what Hitler wants to spread around the world.
Qūwah: force – the only thing that is understood and feared by the Nazis.

Fig5
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Miṣr: Egypt – a completely sovereign and independent state that is Britain’s sincere ally in war and peace.
Hitlar – he is the arch-enemy of God and humanity’s greatest enemy.
Ya’s: despair – the feeling in Hitler’s heart whenever he sees Britain and her allies increasing their force and power, when it is clear to him that the decisive victory will be on the side of the Democracies.

In the entry for Hitler, the Nazi leader is described as the ‘arch-enemy’ of God, and the entry for treachery (khiyānah) states that he is trying to ‘enslave the world’. In another entry (corruption/fasād) the Nazi regime is portrayed as morally degenerate; its soldiers depicted drinking alcohol and dancing with scantily clad women, an image presumably intended as an affront to the religious beliefs and perceived social conservatism of the Arab world.

The pamphlet appears to have been produced after Britain’s mass aerial bombardment of German cities had commenced, as the entry for planes (ṭā’irāt) describes British bombers as ‘messengers of wrath raining down woe and destruction on the heart of Germany’. This is a sentiment remarkably reminiscent of the official aims of Britain’s bombing campaign on Germany that stated:

The ultimate aim of the attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger. The immediate aim, is therefore, twofold, namely, to produce (i) destruction, and (ii) the fear of death.

This violent tone is also contained in the entry for force (qūwah), which is described as the only thing that the Nazis understand and fear. The final entry in the pamphlet, despair (ya’s), leaves the reader with little doubt that Hitler will eventually be defeated and that Britain and its allies will be victorious.

The MOI also produced cruder, humorous style propaganda, notably a series of satirical cartoons entitled Adolf and his Donkey Benito which depict Hitler as a bumbling fool riding his unfortunate donkey, Benito (an obvious anthropomorphic representation of Mussolini). As well as being distributed as pamphlets, these cartoons were also inserted into local newspapers in the Arab World, including the Bahraini newspaper, al-Baḥrayn which was controlled by the British authorities at this time. The MOI’s Director of Middle East Propaganda, Professor L. F. Rushbrook Williams, had previously demonstrated that he was not averse to propaganda of this kind when he had encouraged the British Embassy in Baghdad to disseminate material that depicted Hitler and Mussolini as a pig and a jackal respectively.

Fig13 Cartoon
Adolf and His Donkey by Kem (British Library, COI Archive, PP/1/20). © British Library, 2016

The Adolf and Benito cartoons were drawn by Kimon Evan Marengo (1907-1998), better known by his pen name, Kem, who was an Egyptian–born British cartoonist whose work appeared in the Daily Herald and the Daily Telegraph. Kem was heavily involved in the work of the MOI and produced hundreds of cartoons in Arabic as well as in Persian - for example the famous Shahnamah cartoons described in a previous blog. One of the cartoons in the series depicts Mussolini as afraid of confronting a tiny mouse (labelled the Greek mouse), a not too subtle reference to the Italian military’s unsuccessful invasion of Greece in the Greco-Italian War of 1940-41.

In a clear attempt to target children, the MOI also produced of a series of short stories named Ahmad and Johnny. These stories were illustrated by William Lindsay Cable, an illustrator most widely known for his work in the books of the famous children’s author, Enid Blyton.

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‘Ahmed and Johnny’ (British Library, COI Archive, PP/1/8 and 7). © British Library, 2016

In a manner reminiscent of Blyton’s work, Ahmad and Johnny follows the adventures of Ahmad, a Sudanese boy living in England with Johnny and his family. In one issue of the series, it is explained that Johnny’s father had worked in Sudan and brought Ahmad (presumably an orphan) back with him to Britain. In the same issue, Ahmad and Johnny go for a walk in the Kent countryside where they bump into a farmer whose son is said to be serving with the British military in Sudan. Britain is described as the ‘home of freedom’ and the ‘source of hope of the future’. Ahmad and the peasant compare life in England and Sudan and the ostensibly friendly relations between the two nations are stressed.

In 1938, as a response to the aforementioned Arabic-language radio broadcasts of the German and Italian Governments, Britain established the BBC Arabic radio station. Subsequently, the MOI produced a pamphlet entitled ‘This is London’ that promoted the new station and its radio broadcasts.

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‘This is London’ (British Library, COI Archive, PP/12/27A). © British Library, 2016

The pamphlet gives details of the station’s broadcasts including its lineup of announcers and its first ever news broadcast. It also contains details and photos of the official opening of Cardiff Mosque in 1943. An event that was attended by Hafiz Wahba (then Saudi Arabia’s representative in London) and was broadcast by BBC Arabic.

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Official opening of Cardiff Mosque in 1943 (British Library, COI Archive, PP/12/27A). © British Library, 2016

Ultimately, the diverse MOI materials now held at the British Library are testament to the multi-faceted propaganda effort that was carried out by the ministry, one which utilised the skills and expertise of British academics, cartoonists, authors and many other skilled professionals. It was a campaign which sought to belittle Britain’s enemies and project an image of the country as a righteous, commanding military power that was close to victory against the forces of evil. In the context of the Middle East, this entailed a wholly cynical attempt to portray Britain’s military occupation and colonial domination of the region as merely ‘brotherly’ friendships between allies.

Ironically, in 1948, a British official in the Persian Gulf bemoaned the manner in which the MOI had popularised self-expression as a counter to Nazism as a ‘weapon of war’. He argued that this effort had served to increase the Gulf’s inhabitants knowledge of the world’s problems, ‘particularly of the rights of small nations and the independence of Arab nations’ and was causing them to question Britain’s dominant position in the region.[1]

Those interested to learn more about the MOI will be pleased to hear that in September 2016, the British Library is releasing a publication entitled Persuading the People, in which the renowned expert on Propaganda, Professor David Welch of the University of Kent, explores the role of the MOI and its propaganda output in closer detail.

 

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist
@Louis_Allday
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[1] National Archives, FO 924/695, ‘Education problems in the Middle East and Persian Gulf’

07 April 2016

The British Library’s oldest Qur’an manuscript now online

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The British Library’s oldest Qur’ān manuscript, Or.2165, dating from the eighth century, has now been fully digitised and is available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. Among the most ancient copies of the Qurʼān, it comprises 121 folios containing over two-thirds of the complete text and is one of the largest of known fragments of an early Qurʼān written in the māʼil script.

Or_2165_f007v
The end of Sūrah 7 (Sūrat al-A‘rāf, ‘The Heights’) and the beginning of Sūrah 8 (Sūrat al-Anfāl, ‘The Spoils of War’). The heading in red ink gives the title of the Sūrah and says that it contains 77 verses (British Library Or.2165, folio 7v)  noc

This manuscript was purchased by the British Museum in 1879 from the Reverend Greville John Chester (1830-1892) as noted on a fly leaf at the back of the manuscript. Chester was an ordained clergyman interested in archaeology, Egyptology and natural history and made numerous trips to Egypt and the Near East, where he acquired objects and manuscripts, which are now in the collections of major UK cultural and library institutions. It is very likely he acquired this Qur’ān when he was in Egypt.

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Acquisition details recorded at the end of the manuscript (British Library Or.2165, endpaper)  noc

The earliest Qur’ān manuscripts were produced in the mid-to-late seventh century, and ancient copies from this period have not survived intact and exist only in fragments. Or.2165 contains three series of consecutive leaves (Sūrah 7:40 – Sūrah 9:96; Sūrah 10:9 – Sūrah 39:48; Sūrah 40:63 – Sūrah 43:71) from the so-called mā’il Qur’ān, which is about two-thirds of the Qur’ān text and is one of the oldest Qur’āns in the world. It probably dates from the eighth century, and as far as can be ascertained, was produced in the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Arabic word mā’il (by which this Qur’ān is known) means ‘sloping’ and refers to the sloping style of the script – one of a number of early Arabic scripts collectively named ‘Hijazi’ after the region in which they were developed. The main characteristic of mā’il is its pronounced slant to the right. It can also be recognised by the distinctive traits of some of its letters, for example, the letter alif does not curve at the bottom but is rigid, and the letter yā’, occurring at the end of a word, turns and extends backwards frequently underlying the preceding words.

   Fig 1               Fig2
Left: the letter alif; six small dashes mark the end of the verse
Right: the letter yā’; the Sūrah heading in red ink was added later

In early Qur’āns there are no vowel signs, and this early style of script is also notable for its lack of diacritical marks to distinguish between letters of similar shape. Verse numbering had also not yet been established; the end of each verse was indicated by six small dashes in two stacks of three. The sūrah headings were added much later in red ink in the recognisable space purposely left blank to distinguish between the end and the beginning of chapters. Red circles surrounded by red dots to mark the end of every ten verses were also added later.

Opening
The beginning of Sūrah 12 (Sūrat Yūsuf, ‘Joseph’) showing the verse markers and also the red headings and circles which were added later (British Library Or.2165, folios 23v-24r)  noc

As with all early Qur’āns, the text is written on vellum and would have been bound into a codex or muṣḥaf – originally a collection of sheets of vellum placed between two boards. Each double sheet was folded into two leaves, which were assembled into gatherings then sewn together and bound as quires into a codex.

The importance of Or.2165, in addition to all other known early Qur’ān fragments, cannot be overestimated. They provide the only available evidence for the early development of the written recording of the Qur’ān text and help towards our understanding of how early Qur’ān codices were produced.        


Further reading

Rieu, Charles, Supplement to the Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts, London, The British Museum 1894, Item 56, pp. 37-38.
Déroche, François and Noseda, Sergio Noja, Sources de la transmission manuscrite du texte coranique I, Les manuscrits de style ḥiǧāzi, Volume 2, tome 1, Le manuscrit Or.2165 (f. 1 à 61) de la British Library, Lesa, 2001.
Baker, Colin F., Qur'an manuscripts: Calligraphy, Illumination, Design, London, 2007, pp.15-18.

Colin F. Baker, Head of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Collections
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30 March 2016

The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection

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The British Library holds a small but significant collection of manuscripts from West Africa. As part of his PhD research, Paul Naylor is cataloguing the collection and identifying its contents for the first time. Here, he introduces the collection and gives his preliminary results.

The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection
The British Library’s collection consists of eight bound volumes of written material and five Qur’ans, numbering some 3,000 manuscript pages altogether. Most of these items date from the mid-19th century, and were acquired by the British Museum Library (the forerunner of the British Library) between 1895 and 1917. In addition, two of the Qur’ans were acquired in the 1970s, and two other manuscripts have been purchased since 2000.

The manuscripts were paginated and bound in leather, and have remained largely undisturbed ever since. That they were not seen as important is shown by the brief, vague and sometimes shockingly dismissive handwritten records of acquisition: an 1895 entry, for example, uses the phrase: ‘Muslim catechisms prayers and charms in a barbarous African style of writing’.

Thankfully, scholarship has moved on from this view, and manuscripts from West Africa, as from any other part of the world where manuscripts in the Arabic language are created and studied, are now seen as valuable in their own right and important for the study of the societies that produced them. One of the aims of my research project is to facilitate the study of these manuscripts by providing detailed catalogue records and search terms for the collection, so that it will be easily searchable through the British Library’s online catalogue.

Image 1 OR 16751Illuminated pages from a loose leaf Qur’an, kept in a leather bag, on display in the British Library’s exhibition ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ (16.10.15-16.2.16). Late 18th/19th century  (British Library Or.16,751)  noc

Work on the West African manuscripts to date suggests that these items can play a part in removing some of the myths and stereotypes about pre-colonial West Africa. They show that the region was very much connected with the rest of the world, and a place in which education and the written word had a high value. The collection shows a real desire to widen horizons and expand knowledge, and gives us a very personal glimpse of the individuals at the forefront of this movement, to which they dedicated their lives. It is for this reason that it is so satisfying to re-examine and bring to light this rich collection, which should now gain the recognition and scholarly attention it deserves.

Language and script in the manuscript culture of West Africa
Before the colonial period, ‘Arabic was the Latin of Africa’, in the words of the distinguished Africanist scholar John Hunwick[1]. Islam and Arabic learning first reached the West African region between the 9th and 13th centuries. Muslims must recite the Qur’an and the five daily prayers in Arabic, and therefore in West Africa, like anywhere else, to be a Muslim means at least learning to read Arabic script. Religious education in West Africa is and was in Arabic, although the teacher may in some cases explain the reading material in the local language. In 19th century West Africa, a place with more than a thousand regional languages but a remarkably uniform Arabic education system, Arabic was the means of written communication between educated people.

Almost all the West African material in the British Library’s collection is in Arabic. However, while the main body of text is always in Arabic, copyists and authors often include extensive notation in their own language transcribed in Arabic script (ajami) in the margins. In our collection we have established so far the presence of two West African languages, Soninke and Fulfulde.

Image 2 or6473_214r_a80145-19
Page from the ‘Middle Creed’ of Yusuf al-Sanusi, a text arguing for the existence of one God. The larger text is in Arabic, the smaller text a gloss in the Soninke language (British Library Or.6473, f.214r)  noc

The type of Arabic script used by West African copyists can broadly be classified as ‘Maghrebi’, that is, Arabic in the style written in historical Andalusia and North Africa. It was from these regions that Arabic learning first reached West Africa. Although the French ethnographer Octave Houdas first described Arabic calligraphy south of the Sahara as a unique category in 1886, it was not given much attention. In the 2000s, several Arabic scholars with an interest in West Africa begun to note the wide variety of regional West African calligraphic styles, tentatively classifying features unique to each centre of manuscript production such as Hausaland, Bornu and Masina (Mali)[2]. Much work remains to be done in this field however, and neither the number of distinct styles of West African calligraphy nor the terms to designate them have been fixed. Making the British Library collection more accessible may provide significant contributions to a field that is still in its infancy.

The book in West Africa
Historically, books in West Africa were rare and expensive items and were normally held in small private libraries and passed between scholars, who copied them by hand for their own use. These scholars were teachers and sometimes copyists and scribes as well; many travelled extensively in the West African region, taking their books with them. Manuscripts were generally unbound, and none of the West African works in the British Library collection were originally bound. A century ago, the practice of the British Museum was to bind them upon acquisition, which means that there can be up to 150 separate works in a single volume.

Paper in West Africa was expensive, imported from Europe via North Africa and later the Atlantic coast. As a result it is very rare to find a blank or sparsely covered sheet of paper in the collection. Every scrap of paper was utilised.

One of the really spectacular finds in this collection is a letter from a Muhammad al-Amin Suwaré in Touba (probably in the Senegambian region) to his son, living nearby. Muhammad complains that a scholar to whom he had lent one of his books to copy had not given it back, and had even demanded payment for its return. Muhammad al-Amin asks his son to get this book back to him ‘quickly, quickly, quickly’, angrily remarking ‘I would never agree to buy my own book!’

Image 3 or6473_190r_west_africa_a80145-20
Letter from Muhammad al-Amin to his son, with words underlined in red ink by the indignant scholar (British Library Or.6473, f. 190r)  noc

As well as capturing the importance of books and book ownership in 19th century West Africa, the letter is wonderfully personal. Muhammad fumes against the scholar in question, saying he is a man of no religion, before adding in a rather embarrassed note that this scholar could not really have stolen the book, ‘because he is a god-fearing man of faith and learning’. Muhammad also highlights some expressions in the letter as good examples of Arabic grammar for his son, giving their explanation with notes linked by arrows to the main text.

Identifying the collection
Before I started work on the collection, there was very little information about what kind of material it contained, where in ‘West Africa’ it may have come from and how old the works might be. The main task was to look at each work in detail and glean as much information about it as possible. What is the subject area? Does the work have a title? Do we know the identity of the author? Can we get any information about the person who copied it? Where might they have lived, and when?

In a pre-printing age, the only way to reproduce written texts was to copy them out by hand. As a result, almost all the works in this collection are copies of earlier, well-established works. It was not common practice to record the date a work was copied, although strangely the copyist often notes the day and time the copy was finished, ‘on Friday, after the midday prayer’, for example. The best way to estimate the earliest date the copy could have been made is therefore to find out the dates of the individual who created the original work.

The collection has copies of the works of many authors who were writing around the middle of the 19th century. Judging also by the paper – and in West Africa paper has an especially short lifespan - these manuscripts were probably written around the same time. However, many works in the collection were originally composed as long ago as the 12th or 13th centuries, so these manuscripts may well be older than the mid-19th century.

While it is sometimes possible to identify the authors of these works, more often than not the copyist is more elusive, providing no name or often ‘signing’ the copy only with pious epithets such as ‘I have completed it, may God forgive my sins’. However, many works in the collection have colophons, that is, statements at the end of a work giving the name of the copyist, the owner and sometimes additional information. The colophon was also the occasion for the copyist to show off his drawing skills and many colophons in the collection have colourful or geometric designs.

Image 4 Or. 6880 f236 K90132-69
Colophon marking the end of a series of commentaries on lines of poetry by Sheikh Abdullah ibn Ali, who also made this copy (British Library Or.6880, f. 236r)  noc

Most names given for the copyists are so common as to be untraceable, although one, the family name Suwaré, occurs ten times across two manuscripts in the collection. The Suwaré were a family based around the town of Toubacuta in present-day Guinea, founded in 1824[3].

Part 2 of this blog will take an in-depth look at some of the items in the British Library’s West African manuscript collection.

Further reading
Blair, S. S., ‘Arabic calligraphy in West Africa’ in Shamil Jeppie and Suleymane Bachir Diagne (eds), The meanings of Timbuktu (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2008), pp. 59-75.
Brigaglia, A., ‘Central Sudanic Arabic scripts (Part 1): The popularization of the Kanawī script’, Islamic Africa, 2.2 (2011), pp. 51-85.
Brigaglia, A., and M. Nobili, ‘Central Sudanic Arabic scripts (Part 2): Barnāwī’, Islamic Africa, 4.2 (2013), pp. 195-223.
Nobili, M., ‘Arabic scripts in West African manuscripts: a tentative classification from the de Gironcourt collection’, Islamic Africa, 2.1 (2011), pp. 105-133.


Paul Naylor, British Library Collaborative Doctoral Student, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork

[1] John Hunwick, West Africa, Islam, and the Arab World: Studies in Honor of Basil Davidson (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2006).
[2] See ‘Further reading’ below for more information on this subject.
[3] L. Sanneh, ‘Futa Jallon and the Jakhanke Clerical Tradition. Part II: Karamokho Ba of Touba in Guinea’, Journal of Religion in Africa 12, 2 (1981), 105-126.