Asian and African studies blog

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04 October 2017

The Establishment of BBC Arabic & Egyptian 'Nahwy'

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On January 3rd 1938, the BBC’s first ever foreign language radio station – BBC Arabic – made its inaugural broadcast. The station was launched in almost direct response to Radio Bari, the Arabic-language radio station of the Italian Government that had been broadcast to the Arab world since 1934. Radio Bari’s broadcasts consisted of a mixture of popular Arabic music, cultural propaganda intended to encourage pro-fascist sentiment in the Arab world and news bulletins with a strongly anti-British slant. British officials had initially been largely unperturbed by Italy’s efforts, but from 1935 onwards as Radio Bari’s output became more overtly anti-British and specifically attacked British policy in Palestine, they became concerned and began to discuss how Britain ought to respond.

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Radio Araba di Bari January – April 1941, a supplementary magazine produced by Radio Bari with details of its Arabic broadcasts (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214)  noc

It was soon decided that Britain needed to establish its own Arabic radio station in order to counter Italy’s broadcasts. As the Secretary of State for the Colonies remarked in August 1937, “the time has come when it is essential to ensure the full and forcible presentation of the British view of events in a region of such vital Imperial importance”. Detailed discussions began over what form the station should take. In addition to logistical issues concerning content and where it should be based, British officials were concerned as to what type of Arabic should be used in its broadcasts. There was a keen awareness that in order for the proposed broadcasts to be both widely understood and taken seriously, making the appropriate choice linguistically was crucial. The Cabinet Committee that was formed to discuss the issue reported that the Arabic used in Radio Bari’s broadcasts in the past – speculated to be that of a cleric of Libyan origin – had been “open to criticism as being pedantic and classical in style and…excited the ridicule of listeners”. The potential for ridicule, in addition to the fact that many uneducated Arabs would struggle to understand it, made classical Arabic an undesirable choice. Yet given the significant variation in regional dialects that exists throughout the Arab world, the choice of a single dialect was equally problematic. British officials in the region possessed strong and sometimes divergent opinions about what course of action should be taken.

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Details of Radio Bari’s broadcast schedule as contained in Radio Araba di Bari January – April 1941 (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214)  noc

Britain’s Political Agent in Kuwait, Gerald de Gaury, believed that Nejdi Arabic was the ideal choice, arguing in March 1937 that the “Nejdi accent and vocabulary are accepted by all unprejudiced persons as the finest in Arabia” and form “the common denominator of the whole Arabic language”. He supported this assertion by providing quotations from the 19th century travelogues of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys, 1831) and Charles Montagu Doughty (Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1888), both of whom stressed the supposedly uncorrupted nature of Nejdi Bedouin Arabic in comparison with – in Burckhardt’s words – “the low language of the Syrian and Egyptian mob”. De Gaury emphasised the importance of getting the decision right, noting that the Ruler of Kuwait – “who regretted the absence of an Arabic broadcast from London” – had commented to him on the poor grammar of the announcer used by Radio Bari. He argued therefore that there was “an excellent opportunity to be taken up by the British Arabic Broadcast Station of having a really first class man much more welcome than those of other foreign Arabic broadcasters”. In a further display of his simplistic understanding De Gaury concluded his argument by stating that “the Arab is far more language conscious than any other race”. De Gaury’s stance was more a reflection of a racist attitude then rife amongst British officials regarding the ostensible purity of Bedouin Arabs than of reality.

A more nuanced proposal was put forward by Robin Furness, a Professor of English at King Fuad University in Cairo who had been approached by the Foreign Office for his expert opinion. Furness had previously served as Deputy Director General of Egyptian State Broadcasting, as a Press Censor for the Government of the Mandate of Palestine and later served as Deputy Chief Censor in Egypt. He too stressed the importance of making the right decision, commenting that Radio Bari now employed a broadcaster who spoke "ungrammatical Arabic with a marked Levanese [sic] accent…those Palestinian Arabs who spoke to me about these broadcasts ridiculed the accent of the broadcaster: Egyptians…would have ridiculed it even more”.

Programme of the inaugural BBC Arabic broadcast, 3rd January 1938 (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/4132) ©BBC

While Furness concurred with De Gaury regarding the importance of the decision, he did not agree as to what form of Arabic should be used. Furness explained that on Cairene radio, classical Arabic was generally used only for broadcasts that were related to religion, literature and history and that colloquial Egyptian was used only occasionally for stories or broadcasts intended for children. Otherwise, what Furness terms “Egyptian Nahwy” was generally used. Nahwy (literally ‘grammatical’) is a term used in Egypt to refer to classical Arabic (i.e. fusha), but it is clear that at this time it referred to something distinct. Furness elaborates on what he meant describing it as the way “an educated Egyptian would read prose, endeavouring to avoid grammatical errors, not indulging in what would be regarded as classical preciosities, and using so far as he can an accent which would be called ‘Egyptian’ but not e.g. ‘Cairene’, ‘Alexandrian’ or ‘Saudi’ [Sa’idi or Upper Egyptian]”. Furness gives the specific example of the pronunciation of ثلاثة أيام (three days) which, in Nahwy, would not be pronounced in the classical way as “thalāthatu ayāmin” nor in the fully colloquial Egyptian way of “talat ayām” but rather as “thalāthat ayām”. Furness argued that the announcer chosen for the British broadcasts should avoid colloquial dialects, eschew classical Arabic except for such purposes as Cairo radio used it (“otherwise he would generally be regarded as absurdly pedantic”), avoid grammatical mistakes as much as possible and use Egyptian Nahwy. He reasoned that as Egypt was “the largest and most advanced of the countries affected, and the centre of Islamic education. A broadcaster will be best understood by the most of the listeners, and least criticised, if he uses Egyptian Nahwy”. Aside from classical Arabic, he concluded, “it is the nearest approach to a common language”.

At this time, Britain already operated a local Arabic language radio station in the Mandate of Palestine and for this it utilised what the Cabinet Committee on Arabic Broadcasting referred to as Palestinian Nahwy. This committee acknowledged that although the type of Arabic to be used in the broadcasts for the Arab world as a whole “presents certain difficulties…these are not considered to be insuperable”. Through constructive comments on style and pronunciation it was believed that a “type of Arabic may gradually be evolved which would be palatable to the largest Arabic-speaking audience”. This succinct description brings to mind a form of Arabic that emerged in the 20th Century and is now usually referred to as Educated Spoken Arabic (ESA) or Formal Spoken Arabic (FSA).

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Details of BBC Arabic broadcasts for Sunday 23rd January – Thursday 27th January 1938. (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214) ©BBC

Sir Miles Lampson, Britain’s Ambassador in Cairo, was receptive to Furness’ argument regarding the use of Nahwy but believed that there could “be a conflict of opinion between him and those who advocate the use of classical Arabic, except in the exceptional cases of broadcasts for children, popular stories, humorous items etc”. Lampson also feared that although Egyptian Nahwy “approximates very closely to classical Arabic minus the inflectional terminations, there may be many who hold the view that to give an Egyptian flavour to material which was intended for general consumption in the Arabic-speaking countries might well detract from its wider effectiveness”.

Notwithstanding Lampson’s concerns, it appears that Furness’ argument was influential, for the first chief announcer appointed by BBC Arabic was an Egyptian named Ahmad Kamal Suroor who had previously worked for Egyptian radio. The first ever broadcast of BBC Arabic, that was announced by Suroor, can be listened to here. After its launch, BBC Arabic quickly became popular, Suroor in particular, who was praised by listeners as having “forcible and clear delivery”.

Ahmad Kamal Suroor delivering the first ever BBC Arabic broadcast, 3rd January 1938. Copyright BBC

By September 1938, a secret report produced by the BBC was able to report that “[n]ative opinion” unanimously approved of both the type of Arabic used and the quality of the announcing in BBC Arabic broadcasts, which were said to “compare favourably with the performance of other stations broadcasting in Arabic”. Interestingly, the only adverse comments reported had come from Europeans, criticism which the BBC report argued could largely be discounted as it was “based on hasty impressions and incorrect information”. For instance, the report claimed that the specific criticism by some Europeans that the Egyptian accent of the announcers was “displeasing outside Egypt” was “not endorsed by native opinion”. The report quoted at length the thoughts of a “well-informed Englishman in Baghdad” who stated:

A friend told me the other day that he and his friends really enjoy listening to an Egyptian talking correctly in contrast to the best of the announcers from the local Baghdad broadcast, who was always getting his (vowel) points wrong.

One of the Europeans highly critical of BBC Arabic’s broadcasts was James Heyworth-Dunne, a senior lecturer in Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies, who attacked the technique of the announcers. The report commented that although Heyworth-Dunne claimed to voice the opinion of “every Arab to whom he has spoken on the subject”, his view directly conflicted with a large volume of evidence gathered from all parts of the Arab world. The report argued that since modern literary Arabic was an “artificial and bookish language” with no universally accepted fixed standards, discussions on disputed questions of grammar and style were to be expected and that few “achieve unquestioned correctness”.

Debates around the appropriate use of classical and colloquial Arabic – often heated – continue to this day, but it is fascinating to consider whether BBC Arabic, that remains widely listened to throughout the Arab world, may have played a part in the development of media Arabic throughout the 20th century and the emergence of Educated Spoken Arabic as distinct from both classical Arabic and the numerous regional and national dialects that exist throughout the Arab world.

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist


Primary documents:
(These are all due to be digitised as part of the  Qatar Digital Library)

India Office Records, British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/4131-4134
India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214

Further reading:
Louis Allday An A-Z of Arabic Propaganda: The British Government's Arabic-Language Output during WWII Jadaliyya (May 2016).

Callum A. MacDonald “Radio Bari: Italian Wireless Propaganda in the Middle East and British Countermeasures 1934-38” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May, 1977), pp. 195-207.

F. Mitchell “What is educated Spoken Arabic?” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 61 (1986), pp. 7-32.

Andrea L. Stanton “This is Jerusalem Calling” State Radio in Mandate Palestine (Texas, University of Texas Press, 2013).

Kees Versteegh “The Emergence of Modern Standard Arabic” (Edinburgh University Press, 1997).

Manuela A. Williams Mussolini’s Propaganda Abroad, Subversion in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, 1935-1940 (London/New York: Routledge, 2006).


05 September 2017

Vietnamese traditional markets

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One striking feature of South East Asia is its traditional markets. They can be easily set up in any available space in communities, with vendors laying out their goods on makeshift stalls or on street pavements. Despite global and international retail chains mushrooming in many parts of the region, traditional markets are still going strong and in many areas are making a comeback.

In Vietnam, traditional markets have played a vital part in daily life, especially in the past when people still lived under a self-sufficient and rural economy. Markets provided a place where they could trade their daily necessities, while socialising and exchanging local news. Their importance is best expressed by the Vietnamese proverb “A market has its regulations; a village has its customs.” Vietnamese traditional markets come in different forms and sizes, from a tiny and basic hamlet market, to a more substantial village market which takes place where roads meet, or a town market, which also has proper shop houses (buildings which combine a shop with simple living accommodation for the trader). Markets can be held on any day but are usually busiest on the 2nd, 6th, 12th, 16th, 22nd, and 26th of the lunar month (Hưu Ngọc 2012: 178) .

Bà Chiểu vegetable market, Sài Gòn, from Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ, 2015, p.22. British Library, OIJ.915.97

The origins of the Vietnamese traditional market can be traced back from written records to the end of the 13th century. In 1293 Trân Phu, a Chinese envoy of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) who travelled through Vietnam during the Trầ n Dynasty (1226-1400), made a note in his records (An Nam tức sự) that “Vietnamese markets took place every two days. Hundreds of goods were laid out. A building of three rooms width with four bamboo benches was erected at every five (Chinese) miles as a place for a market.” (Trịnh Khắc Mạnh 2015: 6).

Food vendor, from Oger 1909, p.75. British Library, Or. TC 4

According to Trịnh Khắc Mạnh, traditional Vietnamese markets before the modern period can be divided into two types, namely those managed by the local administration and those managed by a local temple. Profits from market management would thus go back either to local communities or to the temple (Trịnh Khắc Mạnh 2015: 7).

In the past, markets were not only a place for businesses but they served as a community’s centre where locals were able to socialise. In addition to being able to sell or buy goods, both traders and customers also had a chance to meet up and exchange or gather news about their neighbours and communities. A market was a place where other daily activities took place, as this folk song about a girl looking for a man of her dreams demonstrates: “I’m like a length of rose silk / Waiting in the market for the right buyer” (Hưu Ngọc 2012: 178).

Poultry vendor from Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ, 2015, p.23. British Library, OIJ.915.97

Markets in small villages or communities required no permanent fixtures. They could be easily set up with makeshift stalls, benches or even just a piece of cloth laid out on the bare ground. Markets in towns were generally bigger and would also have permanent shop houses. In the 18th and 19th centuries in prominent towns such as Sài Gòn, Hà Nội or Huế there were markets that specialised in one particular trade, such as clothes, paper, tin and copper household utensils, and leather. Street names in the old quarter of Hà Nội clearly reflect the specific commercial history of parts of the city as each name gives you a clue as to what you could expect to buy from the area. For example, Phố Hàng Đào was a place where you could buy silk or fabric, Phố Hàng Bạc specialised in silver products whereas Hàng Chiếu would have plenty of sleeping mats for you to choose from. Some of these traditions still carry on to the present day.

Paper shop, from Oger 1909, p.131. British Library, Or. TC 4

A pharmacy, in Oger 1909, p.90. British Library, Or. TC 4

Records of western travellers to the region in the 19th century also give good accounts of what traditional markets were like. George Finlayson, a surgeon and naturalist attached to the Crawfurd Mission to Siam and Vietnam in 1821-1822, gave an account of the principal market in Huế, which he visited on 3rd October 1822, as follows:
“It consists of a spacious street about a mile in length, with shops on either side of the whole of its length. Many of the shops are mere paltry huts, made of palm leaves; the rest are more substantial houses, constructed chiefly of wood, and have tile or thatched roofs. Here also, the poverty of the shops was particularly striking. A very large proportion contained nothing but shreds of gilt and coloured paper used in religious ceremonies and at funerals. Chinese porcelain, of a coarse description; fans, lacquered boxes, Chinese fans, silks, and crapes, the two latter in small quantity; medicines without number, coarse clothes made up, large hats made of palm-leaf, and a sort of jacket of the same material; rice, pulse, and fruit; sago … were the common articles exposed for sale. There were but few, and those very coarse articles of manufactured iron, as nails, hatches, and chisels, which bore a high price …” (George Finlayson 1826: 371-2).

Ceramics and pottery shop, from Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ, 2015, p.57. British Library, OIJ.915.97

The British Library is fortunate to hold some items which depict Vietnamese markets at the beginning of the 20th century. The three-volume set of Introduction générale a l’étude de la technique du peuple annamite by Henri Oger, published in Paris in 1909 (Or. TC 4) has detailed and informative drawings of daily activities of the Vietnamese in and around Hà Nội in the first decade of the 20th century. In addition to this finely illustrated item, the Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ (OIJ.915.97) depicts daily life activities of the Vietnamese in the Gia Định-Sài Gòn area in the 1920’s-1930’s. The item in our collection is a 2015 re-publication of the Monographie Dessinée de L’Indochine: Cochinchine, first published in Paris in 1930. It is a collection of beautiful drawings from the Gia Định School of Drawings (Trường vẽ Gia Định or Ecole de Dessin, founded in 1913, the predecessor of the present University of Fine Arts, Hồ Chí Minh City). Both items are wonderful historical records of the lives of Vietnamese commoners at the turn of the 20th century.

Further reading:
George Finlayson, The Mission to Siam and Hue, the Capital of Cochin China in the years 1821-2. London: John Murray, 1826.
Henri Oger, Introduction générale a l’étude de la technique du peuple annamite. Paris: Geuthner Librarie-Éditeur, [1909].
Hưu Ngọc, Wandering through Vietnamese Culture. Hanoi: Thế Giới, 2012.
Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ. TP. Hồ Chí Minh : Nhà xuất bản văn hóa văn nghệ, 2015.
Trịnh Khắc Mạnh. Chợ truyền thống Việt Nam qua tư liệu văn bia. Hà Nội: Khoa học xã hội, 2015.

Sud Chonchirdsin
Curator for Vietnamese

29 August 2017

A Hindu munshi’s ‘Chain of Yogis’: a Persian manuscript in the Mackenzie Collection

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Reading about the recently opened exhibition ‘Collector Extraordinaire, Mackenzie Collection exhibition’ at Lews Castle, Stornoway, in the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides - see our recent post Colin Mackenzie, collector extraordinaire -, I was reminded that there was a small but significant number of Arabic and Persian manuscripts in Colin Mackenzie’s collection which is often overlooked. In this post I will feature one which is especially interesting, the Silsilah-i jogiyān (‘Chain of Yogis’) which played an important role in Western understanding of Indian religious groups.

Descriptions of the 12th, 13th and 14th groups of Shaiva ascetics: the Rukhara, the Ukhara  and the Aghori (BL IO Islamic 3087, ff. 24-25)

Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821) was born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis but spent most of his life from 1783 until his death 38 years later working for the East India Company. His most important work was as a military engineer and surveyor in Mysore (1800-1809), in Java (1811-1812/13) and from 1815 until his death in 1821 as the first Surveyor General of India. During his long career Mackenzie built up a unique collection consisting of 1,568 manuscripts, 2,070 ‘local tracts,’ 8,076 inscriptions, 2,159 translations in addition to 79 plans, 2,630 drawings, 6,218 coins, 106 images and 40 antiquities (Wilson, vol 1, pp. 22-23). This collection today is divided between several different institutions in India and the UK including the British Library.

At the time of his death Mackenzie had been hoping to complete a catalogue of his manuscripts and books but this task was left to Horace Hayman Wilson to complete in 1828. Wilson gives details of 10 Arabic and 87 Persian mss (Wilson, vol. 2, pp. 117-144) which he rather dismissively described as (vol 1 p.lii) “of little consideration, but some of them are of local value”. In fact we have 94 Persian items in our collections at the British Library. These are mostly historical works, biographies, collections of letters in addition to a few volumes of poetry, tales, and philosophical and religious works.

H.H. Wilson’s 1828 catalogue of Mackenzie’s Persian manuscripts, including no 81, Silseleh Jogiyan

In 1828, in what was the first major work in English on the religions of India, Wilson published the first of two articles “A sketch of the religious sects of the Hindus”. The second, a continuation with the same title, was printed in 1832. Wilson’s account was based on two Persian works, both written by Hindu authors, one of which was Silsilah-i jogiyān (‘Chain of Yogis’) by Sītal Singh, Munshi to the Raja of Benares (Wilson, 1828, p.6). This was no 81 in Wilson's catalogue, now numbered IO Islamic 3087.

Sītal Singh (see Carl Ernst’s chapter on him, below) had been commissioned to write an account of the different religious groups in Benares in 1800 by a British magistrate John Deane. Also titled Fuqarā-yi Hind, it includes descriptions of 48 different types of ascetic groups divided into 5 chapters on Vaishnavas, Shaivas, Shaktas, Sikhs and Jains. The descriptions are followed by a short philosophical defence of the Vedanta and an early census of the different religious and professional groups to be found in Benares. In addition to this work, Sītal Singh wrote several other philosophical works and poetry under the name Bīkhwud.

IO Islamic 3087 includes 48 miniature portraits painted in the margins next to the relevant descriptions. Unlike the typically more sophisticated company paintings which occur in similar works, these are comparatively simplistic in style. Although the manuscript is not dated, the paper is watermarked J. Whatman 1816 so it must have been copied after that but before Mackenzie's death in 1821. Several of the paintings are dated between 13th and 27th January, but without any year. Perhaps these were the dates when the paintings were added in the margins.

The sects are arranged as below:

The sixteen Vaishnava sects
Gosain of Vindraban (f. 4v); Gosain of Gokul (f. 5v); Sakhibhava (f. 7r); Ramanandi (f. 8r); Vairagi (f. 8v); Virakta (f. 8v); Naga (f. 9r); Ramanuji (f10r); Kabirpanthi (f10v); Dadupanthi (f11r); Ravidaspanthi (f11v); Harichandi (f. 12r); Surnapanthi (f. 12v); Madhavi (f .13v); Sadhavi (f. 13v); Charandasi (f. 15r)

IO Islamic 3087_f5v_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f7r_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f10v_1500
Left: Gosain of Gokul (f. 5v); centre: Sakhibhava (f. 7r); right: Kabirpanthi (f. 10v)

IO Islamic 3087_f13v_a_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f13v_b_1500  IO Islamic 3087_f15r_1500
Left: Madhavi (f. 13v); centre: Sadhavi (f. 13v); right: Charandasi (f. 15r)
(BL IO Islamic 3087)  noc

The nineteen Shaiva sects
Dandi (f. 16r); Agnihotri (f. 17v); Yogi (f. 19r); Shankaracharya (f. 20r); Atit (f. 20v); Sanyogi (f. 22r); Naga (f. 22r); Avadhuta (f. 23r); Urdabahu (f. 23v); Akasmukhi (f. 24r); Karalingi (f. 24r); Rukhara (f. 24v); Ukhara (f. 24v); Aghori (f. 25r); Alakhnami (f. 25v); Jangama (f. 26r); Nakhuni (f. 26v); Chokri (f. 27r); Paramahansa (f. 28r)

 IO Islamic 3087_f16r_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f17v_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f20v_1500 
Left: Dandi (f. 16r); centre: Agnihotri (f. 17v); right: Atit (f. 20v)
IO Islamic 3087_f22r_b_1500  IO Islamic 3087_f23v_1500  IO Islamic 3087_f26v_1500
Left: Naga (f. 22r); centre: Urdabahu (f. 23v); right: Nakhuni (f. 26v)
(BL IO Islamic 3087)  noc

The four kinds of Shaktas
Bhakta (f .29v); Vami (f. 31v); Kanchuliya (f. 36v); Karari (f. 38r)

IO Islamic 3087_f31v.JPG_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f36v.JPG_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f38r.JPG_1500
Left: Vami (f. 31v); centre: Kanchuliya (f. 36v); right: Karari (f. 38r)
(BL IO Islamic 3087)  noc

The seven kinds of Nanakshahis (Sikhs)
Udasi (f. 40r); Ganjbakhshi (f. 40v); Ramra’i (f. 41r); Suthrashahi (f. 41r); Govindsakhi (f. 42v); Nirmali (f.  46v); Naga (f. 47v)
IO Islamic 3087_f41r_a_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f42v_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f47v_a_1500
Left: Ramra’i (f. 41r); centre: Govindsakhi (f. 42v); right: Naga (f. 47v)
(BL IO Islamic 3087)  noc

The two kinds of Sravakas (Jains)

IO Islamic 3087_f47v_b_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f48v_1500
Left: Sravaka (f. 47v); right: Jati (f. 48v)
(BL IO Islamic 3087)  noc 

Further reading
Blake, David M., “Colin Mackenzie: Collector Extraordinary”, in The British Library Journal, vol. 17, No. 2 (Autumn 1991): pp. 128-150.
Wilson, Horace Hayman, The Mackenzie Collection. A descriptive catalogue of the oriental manuscripts, and other articles ... collected by Lieut. Col. Colin Mackenzie, etc. 2 vols. Calcutta: Printed at the Asiatic Press, 1828. vol. 1vol. 2
––– “Sketch of the religious sects of the Hindus”, Asiatic Researches, vol. 16 (1828): pp. 1-136  and vol. 17 (1832): pp.169-313.
Ernst, Carl W., “A Persian philosophical defense of Vedanta”, in Refractions of Islam in India: Situating Sufism and Yoga. India: Sage Publications, 2016, pp. 461-476.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian



17 August 2017

Illumination and decoration in Chinese Qur'ans

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A seventeenth-century Qur’an from China in the British Library recently attracted much interest in a belated Eid show-and-tell arranged for the local community. This provides an ideal opportunity to go into more detail about the British Library’s collection of Chinese Qur’ans.

Or15604_f2r copy
The opening leaves of a seventeenth-century Qur'an written in sīnī (‘Chinese’) script, part five of a set originally in thirty volumes (BL Or.15604, ff. 1v-2r)

Visitors are always surprised when we show them a Chinese Qur’an, as they don’t automatically associate Islam with China. But in the eighth century, Muslim merchants were already trading in China and a community is known to have been established in Xi'an, where a mosque was built in 742. The impact of Islam in China was, however, not strongly felt until several centuries later during the Song and Yuan dynasties: the network of routes, known as the Silk Road, became the conduit for the spread of religious and cultural influences as well as for goods and merchandise.

Chinese Qur’ans were often produced in thirty-volume sets rather than in a single-volume codex, and many of our Chinese Qur’ans are sections (juz’) from a number of different thirty-volume sets. The script used was a variation of muḥaqqaq and penned in a way which suggests that the pen strokes were influenced by Chinese calligraphy. This is often referred to as sīnī (‘Chinese’) Arabic. A central panel is a prominent feature of Chinese Qur’ans on their decorated pages, which usually contain as few as three lines of text, with only a few words on each.
Or15571_1v copy
The beginning of a late seventeenth-century Qur'an written in sīnī script. This volume is the third of an original thirty-volume set (BL Or.15571, f. 1v)

The assimilation of local traditions in Islamic manuscripts produced in areas not normally associated with the art of Islamic calligraphy and illumination is evident in Chinese Qur’ans. While the illumination and decoration have the same function in all Qur’ans, the influence of local style and culture is manifest, without infringing Islamic practice in sacred art. The adaptation of symbols common to Chinese art and culture is therefore felt very strongly. In the final opening of a seventeen-century Qur’an, a lantern motif has become the visual vehicle for the text in the diamond design in the centre of the lantern. The impression of a Chinese lantern is further reinforced by pendulous tassels attached to the hooks on the outer side of the structure.

Or15256_1_f55-6 copy
The decorated final text opening with lantern motif from a seventeenth-century Qur'an (BL Or.15256/1, ff. 55v-56r)

In the same Qur’an a decorative leaf, exemplifying the use of local flora, functions as a section marker indicating the halfway point in part six of a thirty-volume set.

Or15256_1_f30v copy
A decorative leaf serving as a section marker (BL Or.15256/1, f. 30v)

Chinese Qur’ans often incorporate vibrant colours and gold for typical motifs such as crescents and banners. The impression of petals in the shamsah (sunburst) illumination below is produced by the intricate design of overlapping circles.

A shamsah medallion placed before the beginning of the text (BL Or.15604, f. 1r)

Chinese influence is also visible in the swirling lettering of the basmalah inscription in this shamsah medallion occurring in an eighteenth-century Qur'an, Or.14758, part ten of a thirty-volume set.

Or14758_2r copy Or14758_binding copy
Left: The shamsah containing the basmalah, and right: the same design used as part of the design of the binding (BL Or.14758, f. 2r and front binding)

An  unusual Qur’an is a nineteenth-century volume of selections accompanied by a Chinese translation (IO Islamic 3440). The Chinese translations are placed sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end, sometimes in the middle of the lines and occasionally between them.

IO Isl 3440_f13-14 copy
The beginning of Sūrah 36, Yasin from a nineteenth-century Qur'an with Chinese translation, formerly belonging to the presumably Muslim Admiral at Amoy (BL IO Islamic 3440, f. 13v-14r)

This Qur’an has an interesting history. It was presented to the India Office Library in 1883 by Hugh W. Gabbett, whose father Lt. (later Major General) William. M. Gabbett of the Madras Horse Artillery was Lord Gough’s aidedecamp when Amoy (Xiamen) was taken in 1841 during the First Opium War. A faded note in pencil on folio 1r by William Gabbett describes it as “A Koran found by me at Amoy found in the Admiral’s House. W. M. Gabbett” and “The most valuable Book yet found in China. W. M. G.”

Further reading
Colin F. Baker, Qur'an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design. London: British Library, 2007.
Annabel Teh Gallop, “Was the mousedeer Peranakan?: In search of Chinese Islamic influences in Malay manuscript art”, in Jan van der Putten and Mary Kilcline Cody, Lost Times and Untold Tales of the Malay World. Singapore: NUS Press, 2009: pp. 319-339.

Colin F. Baker and Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections