THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

5 posts from November 2020

30 November 2020

A Golden Legacy: Vakfiyeler and Evkâf in the British Library Collections

Donations and legacies are part and parcel of cultural institutions across Europe. Galleries, libraries, archives and museums have named collections, exhibition halls, cafeterias, and atria - among other objects and spaces - for generous benefactors. The British Library is no stranger to this tradition, and a number of our spaces bear the names of the individuals and families whose contributions, whether pecuniary or in-kind, have helped create what the Library is today. Over time, some associations have proven to be far more controversial than others, but none of them can be ignored when assessing how the Library came to be, and how it presents to the public at the current moment. Legacies, however, also feature in our holdings in much more subtle ways. In the Turkish and Turkic collections, they appear in vakfiyeler, texts that document the establishment of legacies, bequests, trusts and other financial instruments and institutions intended to outlive their donors. Given these documents’ connections to accumulated wealth, it should be no surprise that many, but not all, are lavishly illuminated. In this blog, I’m going to take you through a tour of some of our most spectacular examples, as well as a few that point to the value of the content of the vakfiye beyond the valuation of its form.

The word vakfiye comes from the Arabic waqf (وقف). The Arabic original is connected through its root consonants to concepts such as standing (وقّف) and stopping (توقّف). In this instance, the word refers to an indefinite endowment of some sort of physical asset (often property and/or a building) for religious and charitable ends. Thanks to the spread of Islamic legal system, waqf has made its way into various languages spoken in Muslim-majority societies with this particular connotation. While the vakıf (its Turkish form; plural vakıflar/evkâf) is a concept deeply rooted in Islamic societies, it has also impacted the structure of societies that are not Muslim-majority but that have been profoundly influenced by Islam. Within many states, vakıflar are inextricably linked to tax codes, and no small number of families across the spatial and temporal reaches of the Ottoman Empire sought to use these instruments to keep their accumulated wealth from ending up in Imperial coffers. Thanks to the vakıf, and these families’ aversion to taxation or expropriation, the former Ottoman lands are dotted with exquisite architectural sites as well as a strong tradition of social welfare systems outside of the state’s control.

Double page of text in Arabic script surrounded by intricate gold floral illumination and gold borders. At the top right of the image is copious floral illustration in red, blue, green, white, black, purple, pink and gold inks.
The unvan and opening text of Mehmet Ali Paşa's Vakfiye, featuring floral illumination in the unvan with an aesthetic reminiscent of Western European styles of illustration. (Vakfiye. Cairo, 1813. Or 16280, ff 1v-2r)
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The beauty that can be found in many of the mosques, schools, soup kitchens, and other physical monuments of the vakıf is easily reflected in the documents that underpin such social institutions. After consulting with the Mohamed Ali Foundation, the British Library recently digitized one of its most beautiful examples. Or 16280 is the vakfiye of Mehmet Ali Paşa, known in Arabic as Muḥammad 'Ali Bāshā (محمد علي باشا), Hıdiv (Khedive) of Egypt from 1805 until 1848. Mehmet Ali Paşa was born in Kavala, contemporary Greece, to a family that was ethnically Albanian. After the death of his father, he was taken in by his uncle, and soon started to work as an Ottoman tax collector in his hometown. In 1798, Napoleon I invaded and occupied Egypt, prompting Ottoman authorities to send Imperial reinforcements to the territory in order to push out the French army. Ali arrived in Egypt in 1801 as part of this effort, and quickly parlayed his relationship with both Istanbul and the French occupiers to make himself the most suitable candidate for the post of Vali (Governor). He was awarded the post in 1805, and soon set about on a radical program of social, economic, cultural and political reform, leaving a controversial and contested legacy.

Colour photograph of a statue of a man in Ottoman clothing atop a horse, made of cast ironBas-relief inscription in Ottoman Turkish in white marble, in rectangle subdivided into four sections
(Left) The statue dedicated to Mehmet Ali Paşa by the Katikia Mehmet Ali Museum in Kavala, Greece. (© Michael Erdman)

(Right) An inscription in Ottoman Turkish identifying Mehmet Ali Paşa as the benefactor of the complex at the Katikia Mehmet Ali Museum in Kavala, Greece. (© Michael Erdman)

Mehmet Ali Paşa’s impact on Egypt is not the focus of the vakfiye, but it is worthwhile noting that even during his transformation of Egyptian society, the Paşa was still focused, in part, on his hometown of Kavala. Indeed, his house remains a tourist attraction in the city, testifying to the continued links between his family and the region well past Mehmet Ali’s departure for Egypt. In 1813, he had the above document drafted in Cairo, establishing a medrese, library and other charitable structures (known as the Imaret) in Kavala. The Imaret still exists, albeit as a luxury hotel catering to an exclusive clientele. The document, which outlines the legal framework for the endowment, the financial sums at play, and the eventual management of the site, is an exquisite example of text production from Ottoman Egypt. The unvan or header is particularly attractive, and bears witness to what might be Western European influences in the selection of colours and the design of the floral patterns throughout the start of the text. The sheer volume of the gold itself is another indicator of the value – both financial and legal – of the text, as it is used liberally throughout.

Two page spread of manuscript in Arabic script with gold bands between text and gold margin lines. Top right hand corner features floral illumination in red, green, blue, black, white, pink and purple inks as well as gold.
The unvan and opening text of the zeyl or codicil to Mehmet Ali Paşa's Vakfiye, featuring floral illumination in the unvan clearly inspired by the aesthetic of the original vakfiye. (Zeyl. Istanbul, 1817. Or 16281, ff 1v-2r)
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In 1817 CE, this vakfiye was amended by a codicil, known as a zeyl, by a scribe in Istanbul. The zeyl is found at Or 16281 and provides us with an exceptionally interesting counterpoint to the original document. This text was created in Istanbul, not Cairo, but it shows a clear desire to mimic, at least in part, the illumination found on the original vakfiye. It too features floral scrolls within the unvan that are reminiscent of European styles of painting, as well as a heavy usage of gold through the first few folios. Unlike Or 16280, we can easily identify the scribe who created this beautiful example of Ottoman illumination and calligraphy. Mustafa Vasıf Efendi was gainfully employed as the Royal Scribe and Türbedar of Sultan Abdülhamit I, indicating just how important legal documents sponsored by Mehmet Ali Paşa must have been considered at this time. In some ways, the content of the zeyl – which stipulates that revenue from property at Thasos should be used to finance a charitable institution for boys in Kavala – would appear to be out of sync with the grandeur of the decoration and the stature of the artists. But both point to the importance of rank and hierarchy in the Ottoman Empire, and the manner in which these influenced decisions about cultural production.

Single page of Arabic-script text among considerable gilded illumination in various geometric forms, incorporating ownership seals in black. These surround a naturalistic illustration of roses, some of which have blossomed and others still budsPage of Arabic-script text with gold bands between the lines, surrounded by heavily gilded illumination in various shapes and floral illustrations in pink, green and black
Opening text to a 17th-century vakfiye (right) and explanations of the terms of the vakfiye, as well as signatures and seals of witnesses (left) among heavily gilded floral illumination and the illustration of a rose. (Vakfiye. Thessaloniki, 18th century CE. Or 16615) 
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Mehmet Ali Paşa was obviously an important figure in Ottoman history, and that undoubtedly accounts for the richness of both the vakfiye and the zeyl. But other figures, including those less prominent, were able to finance equally exquisite pieces. Or 16615, an 18th-century document from Thessaloniki, contemporary Greece, is another unique example of gold meets art meets legal document. Commissioned by Eminzade el-Hacc Ahmet Ağa ibnü’l-Hacc Mehmet Ağa İbn-i Yahya Çavuş, a resident of İsa Bey Mahallesi in the Tuzcu Sinan Bey area of Kara Firya, this vakfiye features delicately illustrated roses among heavy gilding. There are also gilded crown-like illumination, gilded cloud bands, and plenty more bling in and among the text, signatures, and seals. The content of the vakfiye is just as captivating. It establishes the source of funds for the creation of a largely self-sufficient charitable, educational and religious community in the İsa Bey Mahalle, all of which would service young men seeking to pursue religious studies. Beyond this, however, it also lists the titles of some 33 books that formed part of a library included in the vakıf as well as their valuation. The document thus provides us with greater insight into the construction of libraries in the Ottoman Empire and their perceived value, at least in monetary terms. These terms, which are included in the main text, are made even more generous following an addendum to the original endowment. In this zeyl, the sponsor, who is now resident in Istanbul as the Director of the Imperial Gunpowder Magazine, gifts further financial support for various institutions of religious education across the centre of the Empire.

Double page of text in Arabic script, primarily in red ink, organized on the left-hand side in a grid with numbers in black ink
The opening of a copy of Köprülü Mehmet Paşa's vakfiye, including a listing of the contents of the document according to the locations of the property disposed of within the text. (Vakfiye. Istanbul?, 18th century. Or 6353 ff 3v-4r)
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Importance of content was not always signalled by ostentatious illumination. Or 6353 contains a series of vakfiyeler that all relate to the Köprülü family in the late 17th century and early 18th century CE. Among the best-known clans of Ottoman bureaucrats and literati, the Köprülü family members contributed to the creation of Ottoman civil and military bureaucracy. An ethnically-Albanian group from the town of Köprülü, now Veles, North Macedonia, they had a profound impact on the articulation of Ottoman court and literary culture. The manuscript itself is an 18th-century copy of the original vakfiye documents, which related the legacies of Grand Vizier Köprülü Mehmet Paşa; his son Fazil Ahmet Paşa; Ayşe Hanım, wife of Mehmet Paşa and mother of Köprülüzade Mustafa Paşa (Mehmet Paşa’s second son); and Mustafa Paşa’s son Vizier Abdullah Paşa. Their vakfiyeler, therefore, show how rich and well-connected men and women acquired and disposed of their wealth in the late Ottoman period, and how such actions were influenced by both social conventions and public perceptions. The vakfiyeler address the disposition of a wide range of movable and immovable properties, including, in that of Fazıl Ahmet Paşa, a complete listing of the manuscripts contained within his library bequeathed as part of the vakıf.

Page of Arabic-script text surrounded by a gold borderPage of Arabic-script text surrounded by a gold border and featuring a small band of gold and red and blue floral designs towards the end of the page
The start of Şemseddin Ahmet İbn-i Abdülmuin's vakfiye, featuring understated gilded illumination, and disposing of property across Istanbul. (Vakfiyename. Istanbul, 920 AH [1514 CE]. Or 12871, ff 1v-2r)
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Similarly, Or 12871, a vakfiye copied in Cemaziülevel 920 AH (June 1514 CE), speaks to the wealth and influence amassed by members of the Ottoman Islamic religious bureaucracy. This manuscript records the legacies of Şemseddin Ahmet İbn-i Abdülmuin, the Mütevelli of the Aya Sofya Mosque, and bears understated illumination in gold, blue and red inks. These take the form of bands with small floral details, or golden stars atop delicate floral illustration. But the real value of Abdülmuin’s legacy is the information that it provides us regarding the urban landscape and demographics of Istanbul in the 16th century CE. As the donor appears to have owned a considerable amount of property across the city, the document speaks of this immovable wealth, its uses and endowment, and the ethno-religious composition of the neighbourhoods in which Abdülmuin’s properties were located. Although not intended as such, this vakfiye is a rich source of social history of the city during its first century under Ottoman rule.

Single page of Arabic-script text in black ink with occasional use or red ink for catchwords, surrounded by a border in goldSingle page of Arabic-script text in black ink with occasional use or red ink for catchwords, surrounded by a border in gold. The top of the page features a triangular illumination showing comprise of small floral image all very detailed, painted in red, blue, green, purple, black and gold inks
The first pages of Ahmet Reşit Efendi's vakfiye describing the establishment of charitable institutions in the Arabpaşa quarter of Lefkoşa, Ottoman Cyprus. (Vakfiye. Lefkoşa?, 1235 AH [1819-20 CE]. Or 13142, ff 1v-2r) 
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The last of the vakfiyeler of interest in the collection is Or 13142, which comes to us from Lefkoşa (Nicosia) in Cyprus. Cypriot manuscripts are relatively rare within our holdings, and the fact that one of them refers to the island’s economy, social organization, and legal structure is exciting. The gold margins seem tame when compared to Or 16615, but the veritable garden of floral illumination found in the unvan is a spectacular example of Ottoman decorative arts. The wide range of hues and tones give the image considerable depth, which is only complemented by the irregular shape of the unvan. Right at the bottom, we find the seal of el-Seyit Mehmet Salim, the copyist of the manuscript. Or 13142 opens a window onto the manner in which families used the institution of the vakıf to keep their wealth in the clan’s hands in all but legal title. The document calls for income from a property owned by Ahmet Reşit Efendi in the Arabpaşa District of Lefkoşa to be used for a medrese at which Kâtip Ahmet Efendi is to be mütevelli (trustee), succeeded, throughout time, by his sons. Ahmet Efendi’s son-in-law, Sufi Mehmet Efendi İbn-i Abdullah, meanwhile, would be the müderris (teacher) at this medrese, as would his sons after him, all of whom would be paid a stipend from the endowment established by Ahmet Reşit Efendi. Whether perceived as nepotistic at the time or not, it is clear that the vakıf helped protect accumulated wealth from seizure by the state, while also providing future generations with relatively secure access to the fruits of that wealth over the years to come.

A single page with Arabic script in black ink and two ownership seals, one of which is large and features ornate Arabic calligraphy
A page from a copy of the Nasihatu'l-müluk featuring an ownership seal identifying this volume as part of the vakıf of eş-Şehit Ali Paşa. (Salihi?, Nasihatu'l-müluk. Cairo, 967 AH [1559-60 CE]. Or 9728, f 1r)
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There are, undoubtedly, other vakfiyeler waiting to be fully catalogued and explored within the British Library’s Turkish and Turkic collections. Even when this is complete, however, it will only reflect part of the story of legacies as contained within our holdings. Or 9728, a copy of the treatise on political science known as Nasihatu’l-müluk, helps to explain why. Among the various ownership seals found throughout the text, one of them identifies the work as being part of the vakıf of eş-Şehit Ali Paşa. As seen in Or 16615 and Or 6353, entire libraries, and therefore individual books, often formed parts of evkâf. A comprehensive survey of the seals and ownership inscriptions in the Library’s manuscripts, therefore, is the only way in which to determine, grosso modo, the extent to which the British Library’s holdings are tied, indirectly, to the institution of the vakıf as practiced throughout the Ottoman Empire.

Until such a monumental feat of manuscript research can be undertaken, we will simply have to satisfy ourselves by remaining in awe of the bold, ostentatious beauty created by many of the Ottoman Empire’s crafters of vakfiyeler.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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23 November 2020

Christian Arabic Bible Translations in the British Library Collections

The British Library holds an impressive collection of Christian Arabic texts, including many Bible translations which served a variety of communal interests. The character of the translations varies greatly. Most were based on Greek and Syriac Vorlagen but Hebrew, Latin, and Coptic source texts were also sometimes consulted. The communities were often bilingual – or even trilingual – which is reflected in many manuscripts.

Folio from an early translation of the Pauline Epistles in Arabic
Folio from an early translation of the Pauline Epistles in Arabic (Or. 8612, fol. 1r)
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Folio from an early translation of Job in Arabic
Folio from an early translation of Job in Arabic (Add. Ms. 26116, fol. 1r)
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The two earliest Bible manuscripts are dated on paleographical grounds to the latter half of the ninth century: Or. 8612, which represents an early version of the Pauline Epistles, and Add. Ms. 26116, a translation of the Book of Job.  The scripts, characterized by their horizontal extension and many angular shapes, are often referred to as ‘Christian Kufic’ or ‘Early Abbasid’ style and are typical of the earliest Christian Arabic manuscripts produced in Palestine.

Alongside the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles, the Book of Psalms is the most widely reproduced biblical text in Arabic[1]. There are several examples in the British Library, including the version commonly attributed to the famous translator and theologian ʻAbd Allāh ibn Faḍl al-Antākī. Ibn Faḍl was active in Antioch in the eleventh century and the translation attributed to him was widely used in the Rūm (Greek) Orthodox communities although it in fact dates from an earlier period and is found in the earliest attested Arabic versions. From the early stage of Arabic Bible production to the modern era, many extant translations of the Psalms show an affinity with the translation attributed to (or revised by) Ibn Faḍl and as such, they probably represent the most homogenously transmitted biblical book in Arabic. Yet, whereas some psalms in these manuscripts are highly similar or even identical to one another, others display notable variations.

Greek-Latin-Arabic Psalter. Harley Ms 5786 f.159v
Greek-Latin-Arabic Psalter (Harley Ms. 5786, fol. 159v)
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A relatively early copy of this translation is found in the polyglot Psalter Harley Ms. 5786, copied before 1153 CE.  A similar version became part of the Biblia Sacra Arabica, the official Roman Catholic Bible in Arabic issued in the seventeenth century. Similar (but not identical) to the latter are Harley Ms. 6524; Add. Ms. 3056; Harley Ms. 5476; Or. 14976; Or. 4055; and Arundel Or. 19 – all seemingly copied in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of these copies are psalters divided into twenty divisions (kathisma) indicating the daily recitation of psalms.

Psalms with Latin words added above the Arabic (Harley Ms. 6524, fol. 2v–3r)
Psalms with Latin words added above the Arabic (Harley Ms. 6524, fol. 2v–3r)
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Another version of the translation attributed to Ibn Faḍl was included in the London Polyglot compiled by Walton in 1654–57 CE and it is interesting to note that the wording in Walton’s polyglot is very similar to that in the magnificent codex Arundel Or. 15. This codex, which is undated, is written in a style typical of Mamluk Qurʼans. As with many translations of the Psalms, it contains the Biblical Odes and some additional prayers prefaced by a lengthy explanatory introduction written for the benefit of the reader and the preacher. It discusses the authorship of the various psalms, their genres, historical and theological aspects, as well as their liturgical use. In addition, the scribe, or team of scribes, added text critical notes to the translation in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Arabic. 

 Arabic Psalms written in Mamluk style
Arabic Psalms copied in Mamluk style (Arundel Or. 15. fols. 38v-39r)
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A further example which appears to be loosely related to the above version is the bilingual Greek-Arabic Or. 5007 dating from the twelfth or thirteenth century.

Another important manuscript in the collection is Add. Ms. 9060 dated 1239 CE and written in Maghribi script. The introduction, which represents a revision of an earlier text, may originally have been composed by the Andalusian author Ḥafṣ ibn Albar al-Qūṭī (fl. 889 CE), who is known for his poetic translation of the Psalms into Arabic. The text of the Psalms in this copy is similar to Ibn Faḍl’s translation.

Psalms in Arabic from al-Andalus (Add. Ms. 9060, fol. 41v–42)
Psalms in Arabic from al-Andalus (Add. Ms. 9060, fol. 41v–42r)
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Of great interest also is the commentary on the Psalms by the famous East Syriac physician, philosopher, and exegete Abū al-Faraj ʻAbd Allāh Ibn al‑Ṭayyib (d. 1043 C.E.). The British Library has two copies of Abū al-Faraj’s commentary: Arundel Or. 4, dating from the thirteenth century, and Add. 15442 dated 1188 CE. A similar version of the Psalms, without a commentary, is transmitted in Or. 5469 (at least for Psalm 1). Ibn Ṭayyib’s philosophical works were known to famous philosophers such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Maimonides and he is often described as the most important Christian Arabic exegete, yet his exegetical works remain largely unstudied. Ibn Ṭayyib’s commentaries mainly focus on moral and historical aspects of the biblical texts, rather than Messianic ones, in contrast to Ḥafṣ ibn Albar and the author of Arundel Or. 15. He also wrote a commentary on the Gospels and an example of this is found in Or. 3201 dated 1805 CE.

The introduction to the Book of Psalms by Abū al-Faraj ibn al‑Ṭayyib (Add. Ms. 15442, fol. 2)
The introduction to the Book of Psalms by Abū al-Faraj ibn al‑Ṭayyib (Add. Ms. 15442, fol. 2)
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A particularly interesting manuscript as regards the history of the Bible in Arabic is Or. 1326, reportedly the second of two volumes containing biblical books. This manuscript, dated 1585–90 CE, includes, for instance, al-Ḥārith ibn Sinān’s translation of the Wisdom books. We know little about al-Ḥārith besides the fact that he most likely translated the Wisdom books and the Pentateuch from the Syriac Syrohexapla and supplied the latter with an introduction. Or. 1326 furthermore contains an Arabic translation of the Gospels, associated with al-Asʻad Abū al-Faraj Hibat Allāh ibn al-ʻAssāl. Hibat Allāh belonged to a famous Coptic family, which contributed greatly to the intellectual and literary life of the Coptic Orthodox church in the thirteenth century. The British Library has a very early example of his translation, Or. 3382 dated 1264 CE, and a later copy, Add. Ms. 5995 dated 1474. Or. 1326 furthermore contains the Pauline Epistles according to the Egyptian Vulgate and the version of the book of Job attributed to a certain Fatyun/Pethion who is mostly known for his translation of the Major Prophets (cf. Or. 5918, dating from the thirteenth or fourteenth century). Despite the wide circulation of his texts, the only thing we know about him is that he translated from the Syriac Peshitta and that he inserted explanations and so-called ‘alternate renderings’ into the text, so that one passage in the source text is represented by two or more different renditions in the target text. The version of the Prophets transmitted in Or.1326, however, is that attributed to a certain al-ʻAlam al-Iskandarī. The same version of the Prophets occurs in Or. 1319 dated 1806 CE which became widely known to biblical scholars through its incorporation into the London Polyglot. Al-ʻAlam translated the Prophets from an old Greek majuscule text, apparently in Alexandria, before or during the fourteenth century, from when the earliest extant copy is attested. This copy is also located at the British Library, Or. 1314, an ornamented bilingual Coptic-Arabic text, dated 1373/4 CE.

The book of Daniel in Coptic and Arabic
The book of Daniel in Coptic and Arabic (Or. 1314, fol. 164r)
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Finally, the most widely circulated version of the Gospels in Arabic, the so-called Alexandrian or Egyptian Vulgate, is well-represented at the British Library. It was widely disseminated among the Copts but also among Syriac communities from the thirteenth century onwards. An early example is Or. 1315, dated 1208 CE  and an especially beautiful copy is Add. Ms. 11856, dated 1336/7 CE (see an earlier post in this blog Jerusalem 1000-1400: Four Gospels in Arabic). Other examples include Arundel Or. 20/1 dated 1280 CE; Or. 426 dating from the thirteenth century; Or. 425 dated 1308 CE; Or. 1327 dated 1334 CE; Or. 1316 dated 1663 CE; Or. 1001 dating from the eighteenth century and Or. 1317 dated 1815 CE.

The Gospels in Arabic dated 1336/7 CE (Add. Ms. 11856, fols. 1v-2r)
The Gospels in Arabic dated 1336/7 CE (Add. Ms. 11856, fols. 1v-2r)
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Miriam L. Hjälm. Sankt Ignatios Academy, Stockholm School of Theology
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This post was written with the support of the Swedish Research Council (2017-01630). My gratitude to Meira Polliack, Camilla Adang, Colin Baker, and Ursula Sims-Williams.

Further reading

Major catalogues of the British Library Arabic manuscripts can be found at Find Arabic manuscripts.

Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History, vols. 1–4 edited by D. Thomas et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2009–2012).
Kashouh, H. The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: The Manuscripts and Their Families (New York: De Gruyter, 2012).
van Koningsveld, P. S. The Arabic Psalter of Ḥafṣ ibn Albar al-Qûṭî: Prolegomena for a Critical Edition (Leiden: Aurora, 2016).
Moawad, S. Al-Asʿad Abū al-Faraǧ Hibat Allāh ibn al-ʿAssāl: Die arabische Übersetzung der vier Evangelien (Kairo: Alexandria School, 2014).
Monferrer-Sala, J.P. Liber Iob detractus apud Sin. Ar. 1 Notas en torno a la Vorlage siriaca de un manuscrito árabe cristiano (s. IX)’, Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 1 (2003), 119–142.
Senses of Scripture, Treasures of Tradition: The Bible in Arabic among Jews, Christians and Muslims, ed. M. L. Hjälm (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
Vollandt, R. ‘Making Quires Speak: An Analysis of Arabic Multi-Block Bibles and the Quest for a Canon’, Intellectual History of the Islamicate World 4 (2016), 173–209.
Zaki, V. ‘The Pauline Epistles in Arabic: Manuscripts, Versions, and Text Transmission’, (Ph.D. thesis, University of Munich 2019).

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[1]. The categorization of the Psalms in this blog is mainly based on an examination of psalms 1, 3, 21 [MT 22] and 22 [MT 23] and sometimes 77 [MT 78]:20–31 and in need of further refinement.

 

16 November 2020

Object, Story and Wonder: Museum Collections Revealed with the British Library

Earlier this summer while in lock down, the Bagri Foundation extended an invitation to curators based in the UK and abroad to collaborate on a new digital series to showcase their collections while museums and libraries were forced to shut down and be closed to the public. For this series, Malini Roy, the Head of Visual Arts (Asia and Africa Collections) at the British Library, talks about natural history drawings produced in South Asia during the early 19th century. The video clip is featured below.

The British Library's collection includes several thousand natural history drawings produced in the subcontinent; only a selection is featured in the YouTube video.  In the late 18th century British and Scottish botanists and surgeons led a movement to document the natural history of the subcontinent. The East India Company, initially established as the British trading company and eventually a major governing power over parts of the subcontinent, recognised the need for this scientific research. Its practice was therefore adopted as official policy and resulted in the collection of rare species of flora and fauna. The specimens were preserved in the newly established Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta and the Barrackpore Menagerie. As part of the documentation process, Indian artists were hired to illustrate the scientific specimens. Sets of the watercolours and drawings remained in archives in India, while duplicates were sent to the East India Company’s Library in London, and are now held in the British Library.

While not all of our collections are on public display, in recent years a range of natural history drawings have been on display in the Library's Treasures Gallery. More recently, the works by Haludar were featured in the Wallace Collection's exhibition Forgotten Masters that ran until September 2020. You can read more about the South Asian natural history collections in the following blog posts and articles:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, H.M.S.O., 1962.

Ralf Britz (ed.) Hamilton’s Gangetic Fishes in Colour: A new edition of the 1822 monograph, with reproductions of unpublished coloured and illustrations, London: Natural History Museum and Ray Society, 2019

Malini Roy, Natural History Drawings from South Asia, Asia and Africa Blog, 8 August 2013.

Malini Roy, 'The Bengali Artist Haludar', in W. Dalrymple, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

Malini Roy, Moloch Gibbons and Sloth Bears: the work of the Bengali artist Haludar, Asia and Africa Blog, 7 February 2020.

William Dalrymple (ed.), Forgotten Masters: Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

 

 

09 November 2020

The Burmese Harp: (1) Seduction of the Senses

The British Library’s collection of digitised Burmese manuscripts, dating mainly from the 19th century, has many depictions of the Burmese harp or Saung (စောင်းကောက်). The Saung appears often in certain Jātaka stories, or tales of the previous lives of the Buddha, which have seduction and pleasure as one of the prevailing themes. The Mandhātu Jātaka tells the story of Mandhātā, a powerful king who had everything he could ever desire. Although he ended up ruling even the heavenly realms, he still remained dissatisfied. Shown below is a detail from an illustrated manuscript of the Mandhātu Jātaka (Or 4542/B). It gives us a peek into Mandhātā's court, which included beautiful musicians. The Saung player is turning curiously to see who is entering the palace.

Harp 1 - picture 1 Mandhātu Jātaka
Women of the court, including a musician holding the Burmese harp or Saung, Mandhātu Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f.57r  noc

The Saung is a unique musical instrument with a continuous history that stretches over a thousand years. It is known for its soothing, melodious sound and can be recognised by its horizontal boat-shaped body and its long, inwardly arched neck. The ends of the strings, which used to be made from silk, are decorated with red cotton tassels. The harp is held on the lap and the strings are plucked with one hand, while the other is used for damping and staccato notes. The Saung usually accompanies a singer, who also controls the tempo with a bell (Si) and a clapper (Wa).

The earliest description of the Saung comes from a temple relief at Bawbawkyi in Sri Ksetra from the 8th century CE. It depicts a dancer with an accompanying harpist and a rhythm keeper. Tang chronicles from the 9th century also describe a delegation from the kingdom with thirty-five musicians and dancers that enchanted the court with their elaborate music performance. The orchestra included two harps and it performed twelve songs on Buddhist texts. These harps were tuned with pegs rather than strings, and interestingly peg-tuned harps are still used in Mon and Karen traditions. A later 10th-century Tang chronicle confirms that the music from these two geographic areas (from the present-day lower Myanmar) was the same.

Harp 1 - picture 2 Telapatta Jātaka
The Boddhisatta and his four brothers at the enchanted pavilion of music. Telapatta Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/A f. 53r   noc

Another of the Jātaka stories, the Telapatta Jātaka (Or 4542/A) recounts the story of the Bodhisatta as a prince who had to travel through a dangerous, enchanted forest inhabited by ogresses. His five brothers accompany him, but are eaten one by one by the ogresses who seduce them with different sensory pleasures. In this manuscript illustration the Boddhisatta (on the right in gold) has arrived to the ogresses’ magical pavilion of music. By this time he has already lost one brother in the pavilion of beauty. One of his remaining brothers, the lover of music, is raising the curtain in order to be fully immersed by the entertainment, and is just about to become the next victim. The harpist is here accompanied by a flute and a singer.

Harp 1 - picture 3 Temiya Jātaka
Temiya’s last temptation. Temiya Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 3676, f. 7r  noc

The famous Temiya Jātaka (Or 3676) is one of the ten last lives of the Buddha. He was a much wished-for son of the king of Benares. However, as soon as he discovered that his future kingly duties would involve inflicting punishment, he stopped speaking and sat motionless, as he did not want to inherit the throne. The king tried to budge him in many different ways, from tempting him with cakes to scaring him with snakes and loose elephants, but with no success. When Temiya turned sixteen he was put to the final test with beautiful women, song and dance. Although this illustration actually shows him quite tempted, he did in fact hold firm, and ended up not having to inherit the kingdom.

Harp 1 - picture 4 Culla Palobhana Jātaka 1
The Bodhisatta hears beautiful music through his window, and slowly falls in love with the harpist. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r  noc

A somewhat similar story is recounted in the Culla Palobhana Jātaka (Or 4542/B). In this story as well, the Bodhisatta was born as a much-wanted prince, but from his earliest days as a baby he didn’t like to be nursed by women, and was only attended by male members of the court. The king grew worried about his son’s lack of desire for pleasure, for surely this would also include ruling the kingdom. A young dancing girl, accomplished in music and song, was therefore asked to seduce him. In return she would become his queen. When morning came she played and sang outside the place where the prince was meditating. Little by little he fell in love with her and they became closer.

Harp 1 - picture 5 Culla Palobhana Jātaka 2
The Boddhisatta and his lover are banished from the kingdom after a fit of jealousy. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r  noc

Unfortunately, the Bodhisatta became so enamoured with her that he ran amok the town in a fit of jealousy. As punishment for this bad behaviour both of them were banished from the kingdom and went on to live together in the forest.

In forthcoming blog posts I will give examples of how male harpists were depicted in manuscript illustrations, and how the Saung was inextricably entwined with the life of the Gautama Buddha.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

Judith Becker, “The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 20 (Mar., 1967), pp. 17-23.

E.B. Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka or stories of the Buddha’s former births, Vols. I-VI. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2004-2005.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

02 November 2020

Muhammad Najib Khan, a Sufi soldier in 18th century southern India

In recent months I’ve been working on manuscripts in the British Library which formed part of Tipu Sultan’s library and were acquired by the East India Company after the fall of Seringapatam in 1799. The history of how this part of the collection came to London has been recently described by Joshua Ehrlich (Plunder and prestige) and in several blogs by myself (notably Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah). The collection itself, however, was made up of many smaller collections, acquired mostly by conquest, and it is on one of these that I will focus today, namely the collection of the Sufi Muhammad Najib Khan Shahid (‘martyr’), an official of Anvar al-Din Khan, Nawab of the Carnatic from 1744 to 1749. While the apparent contradiction between the spiritual and military roles of courtly life has long been acknowledged, it is reinforced by the identification I propose here of Muhammad Najib the political adviser with our Sufi author and collector, an identification which is underlined by a shared Chishti affiliation and high status, further evidenced by the acquisition details of Muhammad Najib's own collection.

Death of Nabob of Carnatic
'The Death of the Nabob of the Carnatic'
in battle against the French in 1749, an anachronistic interpretation by Paul Philippoteaux (1846-1923). According to Burhan ibn Hasan, Muhammad Najib Khan was sitting behind the Nawab. From M. Guizot’s A popular history of France, vol 6, Boston, [187-?], p. 174.
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What do we know about Muhammad Najib Khan?

From the Tūzuk-i Vālājāhī, a history of the Walajah dynasty completed in 1786 by Burhan ibn Hasan, we learn that Muhammad Najib was originally a resident of Ajmer, and was one of the servants of the shrine of Muʻin al-Din Chishti. From the time that Anvar al-Din was stationed at the Mughal court in Shahjahanabad (ca. 1699), Muhammad Najib became “his intimate companion and a counsellor in all his affairs” and subsequently his “most intimate companion and the right hand man”. Caught up in the conflict between the rival factions of Hyderabad, the French and the East India Company, he was killed in action at the Battle of Ambur in 1749 during the Second Carnatic War together with his patron Anvar al-Din — after which they both became referred to in Persian sources as shahid (‘martyr’).

Muhammad Najib Khan’s scholarly credentials are evident from his Makhzan-i aʻrās (‘Treasury of death anniversaries’[1]), a calendar commemorating the deaths of Sufi saints which is based on a wide range of Chishti authorities dating from the 13th century onwards (Ernst, An Indo-Persian Guide). His lengthy introduction, in which he cites his full name as Muhammad Najib Qadiri Nagawri Ajmiri, offers a comprehensive guide to pilgrimage in the 18th century besides mentioning his patron Anvar al-Din Bahadur, a “lover of darwishes, the believer in their believers” (Ernst, p. 193). The work was completed on 5 Shavval 1156 (18 November 1743) during the period when Anvar al-Din was engaged in the army of Nizam al-Mulk Asaf Jah (Nizam of Hyderabad 1724-48). Muhammad Najib may also have been the subject of a biographical account, the Najīb nāmah, by the Sufi poet ʻAbd al-Latif Zawqi of Vellore (d. 1194/1780)[2].

Muhammad Najib Khan as a collector

Altogether sixteen volumes from Tipu Sultan’s library contain indications of having belonged to Muhammad Najib Khan. These include four different seals dated 1143 (1730/31), 1154? (1741/42), 1157 (1744/45) and one in which the date is illegible.

Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1143 (1730/31). IO Islamic 705
Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1143 (1730/31). IO Islamic 705
Muḥammad Najīb Khān, 1154 (1741/42). IO Islamic 1754
Muḥammad Najīb Khān, 1154? (1741/42).
IO Islamic 1754

 

Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1157 (1744/45). IO Islamic 1672
Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1157 (1744/45). IO Islamic 1672
Muḥammad Najīb Khān. IO Islamic 2221
Muḥammad Najīb Khān.
IO Islamic 2221

His manuscripts cover a range of Sufi and religious subjects including several works which he used in his Makhzan-i aʻrās mentioned above. All are in Persian excepting the Arabic ʻAyn al-ʻilm (IO Islamic 1672) which Muhammad Najib copied himself in Chicacole, at the time a dependancy of Hyderabad (Sīkākūl mutaʻallaqah-i Ḥaydarābād), completing it on 1 Jumada I 1149 (7 September 1736). In date they range from 1577 to 1749. Importantly, several manuscripts contain acquisition details which place Muhammad Najib in Hyderabad in 1743 and in Arcot between 1747 and 1749. These dates correspond with the periods when his patron Anvar al-Din Khan was Governor of Hyderabad (1725-1743) and Nawab of the Carnatic (1744-1749). Several of Muhammad Najib's manuscripts were purchased - prices varying from RS 3 to 50 - and a Mulla ʻAbd Allah in Arcot is mentioned as a specific source. One manuscript also carries the seal of an unidentified Ahmad Khakpaʼi whose seal occurs in at least one other manuscript in Tipu Sultan's collection.

IO Islamic 705  f1v  opening of Rashahat
The illuminated opening of Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, biographies of Naqshbandi saints, by ʻAli ibn Husayn Vaʻiz Kashifi, dated 17 Zu’l-Hijjah 984 (7 March 1577) (IO Islamic 705, ff. 1v-2r)
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Details of Muhammad Najib’s manuscripts are given at the end of this post, arranged in approximate order of acquisition. His collection almost certainly included other manuscripts, some of which are likely to be found in the library of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta where a substantial portion of Tipu Sultan’s collection remains. Probable candidates include a copy of the Makhzan-i aʻrās mentioned earlier (Ivanow ASB 1631). Tipu Sultan was undoubtedly very interested in saint anniversaries, in fact a second copy of this work (Ivanow ASB 1632) was copied, presumably at his request, by Sayyid ʻAli Riza, Superintendent (mutavallī) of the Masjid-i aʻla, Seringapatam, who also copied IO Islamic 1638 and IO Islamic 2734 for Tipu Sultan. Tipu also commissioned his own calendar of saints' deaths (Ṣaḥīfat al-aʻrās, IO Islamic 1176[3]) which is, however, just a list of names and dates.

IO Islamic 1672 ff1v-2r
The opening of  ʻAyn al-ʻilm by an unnamed author, copied in Chicacole at the beginning of Jumada I 1149 (7 September 1736) by Muhammad Najib who signs himself in the colophon as Khan Sahib Muhammad Najib Khan. (IO Islamic 1672, ff. 1v-2r)
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It is not clear what happened to Muhammad Najib's collection after his death. A reasonable supposition might be that it was absorbed together with the collection of his patron into the library of Anvar al-Din Khan's son Nawab ʻAbd al-Vahhab Khan, which was siezed by Tipu's father Haydar ʻAli in 1780. However none of the 16 volumes include any seals or other indications of having belonged to ʻAbd al-Vahhab. Until extensive research has been carried out on the corresponding collections of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta we will just have to speculate!

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
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Details of Muhammad Najib’s manuscripts, arranged in approximate order of acquisition

  • IO Islamic 705. Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-hayāt, biographies of Naqshbandi saints by ʻAli ibn Husayn Vaʻiz Kashifi. Dated 17 Zuʼl-Hijjah 984 (7 March 1577) and copied by Muhammad Husayn ibn Mawlana Abuʼl-Qasim al-Haravi. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1143 (1730/31).
  • IO Islamic 1672. ʻAyn al-ʻilm, a compendium on asceticism in Arabic by an unnamed author, copied by Khan Sahib Muhammad Najib Khan in Chicacole (Sīkākūl), Hyderabad, at the beginning of Jumada I 1149 (7 September 1736). Muhammad Najib’s seals of 1143 (1730/31) and 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 1754. A collection of 8 works mostly by or connected with the Sufi saint Gisu Daraz (d. 1422), copied by several scribes between 1646 and 1686. Contains several examples of Muhammad Najib’s oval seal of 1154? (1741/42).
  • IO Islamic 2053. A collection of 4 works including the masnavis Tuḥfat al-aḥrār by Jami and Maṣdar al-ās̱ār by Muhsin Fani dated 22 Rabiʻ I 1067 (8 Jan 1657). Purchased in Hyderabad by Muhammad Najib on 4 Ramazan 1156 (22 Oct 1743), his seal dated 1143 (1730/31).
  • IO Islamic 27. Javāhir al-asrār, on the esoteric meanings and sayings of holy men by ʻAli Hamzah ibn Malik ibn Hasan Shaykh Azari. Copy dated Safar 1014 (June/July 1605). Acquired in Hyderabad in Zu’l-Qaʻdah 1156 (Dec/Jan 1743/44), Muhammad Najib’s oval seal dated 1154? (1741/42).
  • IO Islamic 703. Tarjumah-i Kanz al-daqāʼiq, a Persian translation from Arabic by Nasr Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Jamad. Previous owner Miyan Miran ibn Miyan Husayn called Miyan Hana Manju Khilji ʻAbbasi. Value Rs 11. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 946. Nafahāt al-uns, biographies of Sufi saints by Jami, dated 8 Rabiʻ II 987 (4 June 1579). Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 1372. Badāʼiʻ al-inshā, on the art of prose composition by Yusufi. Copied by Sayyid Muhammad ibn Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghani and dated 29 Jumada I 1078 (16 November 1667). Purchased from ʻAbd Allah, perhaps the same source as mentioned in IO Islamic 972, for Rs 3. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 2209. Shabistān-i khayāl, ornate prose and verse by Fattahi. Undated but possibly 17th century. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 2255. Nuzhat al-arvāḥ, a Sufi treatise in prose and verse by Mir Fakhr al-Sadat Husayni. Dated at Hyderabad 4 Jumada I 1079 (10 Oct 1668). Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 1625. The Divan of a poet Raja or Raju, dated 1158 (1745) followed by the poem Nān u ḥalvā by Amuli. Muhammad Najib’s seal dated 1157 (1744-5).
  • IO Islamic 972 and 973. Ashiʻāt al-lamaʻāt, the first two volumes of a commentary by ʻAbd al-Haqq Dihlavi on the Arabic collection of hadith, the Mishkāt al-maṣābīḥ. Possibly 17th century. Two of three volumes purchased by Muhammad Najib, his seal dated 1157 (1744/45), for Rs. 50 from Mulla ʻAbd Allah in Arcot, in Ramazan 1160 (Sept 1747). Previous owner Ahmad Khakpaʼi, his seal dated 1117 regnal year 49 (1705).
  • IO Islamic 2039. Javāhir al-ẕāt, a masnavi by the Sufi poet ʻAttar, copied by Haji Muhammad Hayat in Benares in 1139 (1726/27). Undated but possibly 17th century. Purchased by Muhammad Najib in Arcot in Jumada I 1161 (April/May 1748), his seal dated 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 523. Maktūbāt-i Yaḥyā Munīrī a fourth collection of letters by Shaykh Ahmad ibn Yahya Muniri copied, perhaps for Muhammad Najib, in Arcot in Muharram 1162 (1749), his seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 2221. Khat̤imah by Gisudaraz. Undated but possibly 18th century. Muhammad Najib’s oval seal with illegible date.

Further reading

Ehrlich, Joshua. “Plunder and prestige: Tipu Sultan’s Library and the making of British India”, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 43 (2020): 478-492.
Burhān ibn Ḥasan.  Tūzak-i-Wālājāhī ; translated into English by S. Muḥammad Ḥusayn Naynar. (Sources of the history of the Navvābs of the Carnatic; 1 & 2). Madras 1934-1939.
Ernst, Carl. “An Indo-Persian Guide to Sufi Shrine Pilgrimage”. In It’s not just academic: essays on sufism and Islamic studies. New Delhi, 2018, pp. 165-95; also available online in an earlier recension. Includes a lengthy discussion of the Makhzan-i aʻrās and also a translation of Muhammad Najib’s introduction.

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[1] A lithographed edition was published under the title Kitāb-i aʻrās in Agra, 1883 (BL 14837.f.17, see E. Edwards, Catalogue of Persian printed books in the British Museum, p. 511).

[2] Nabi Hadi, Dictionary of Indo-Persian Literature. Delhi, 1995, p.636; also Kokan, Muhammad Yusuf. Arabic and Persian in Carnatic, 1710-1960. Madras, 1974, p.147. However it seems quite likely that the work cited there may in fact be a work on Najib Khan, a Rohilla chief in the service of Ahmad Shah Durrani, by Muyhi al-Din ibn Abu al-Hasan Zawqi (IO Islamic 2725).

[3] So titled in the introduction. Attributed in a note on the flyleaf to Muhammad Sharif of Adhoni. See Ethé 2733 for more details.