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23 November 2020

Christian Arabic Bible Translations in the British Library Collections

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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)

Folio from an early translation of Job in Arabic
Folio from an early translation of Job in Arabic (Add. Ms. 26116, fol. 1r)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)


Miriam L. Hjälm. Sankt Ignatios Academy, Stockholm School of Theology
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).


[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.


31 July 2020

A Mughal Musical Miscellany: the journey of Or. 2361

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Scribal notes in a Mughal-period manuscript of fourteen musical texts shed light on its historical context and the process of its creation.

Fig. 1. Equestrian portrait of Aurangzeb
Fig. 1. Equestrian portrait of Aurangzeb, 17th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1925: 25.138.1)

Four years after the accession of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707; ruled from 1658) [Fig. 1], a senior courtier entitled Dīyānat Khān commissioned a manuscript compilation of fourteen Arabic and Persian texts on music theory. Now held at the British Library as Oriental manuscript 2361, this manuscript is first and foremost a bilingual handbook of important reference works – some the sole surviving copies – on the scientific analysis of sound, rhythm and harmony, as well as practical instruction on instrument-making.

While the significance of its individual texts to Arabic and Persian musicology has long been recognised, the book has not yet been appreciated as a whole. Furthermore, a remarkable quantity of internal evidence testifies to its specific creation process and its historical context within the peripatetic Mughal court.

Dīyānat Khān: servant of Aurangzeb

Fig. 2. Inscription and seal recording the ownership of Diyanat Khan's grandson.jpg
Fig. 2. Inscription and seal dated 1120/1708-09 recording the ownership of Dīyānat Khān's grandson, Mirzā Muḥammad (British Library Or. 2361, f. 2r)

Dīyānat Khān (Shāh Qubād ʿAbd al-Jalīl al-Ḥārithī al-Badakhshī, d. 1672) was a scholar, provincial administrator, and progenitor of a family of intellectuals. According to his grandson Mirzā Muḥammad ibn Rustam Mu‘tamad Khān, a historian who later inherited Or. 2361 [Fig. 2], he was born in Qandahar in today’s Afghanistan, but grew up in India. Complementing his interest in Arab-Persian musicological heritage, Dīyānat Khān also commissioned copies of texts on contemporary Indian instrumentation and performance, as well as on other scientific subjects.

Following Aurangzeb’s recovery from a serious illness in 1662, the imperial court travelled to Kashmir from Shāhjahānābād (Delhi) via Lahore, a six-month journey lasting from December 1662 to June 1663. This massive expedition is documented in an account based on contemporary Mughal court sources, the Maʾāsir-i ʿĀlamgīrī by Sāqī Mustaʿidd Khān. A description of the grand procession was also published in the memoirs of one participant, the French traveller François Bernier (1620-88), who was a member of Aurangzeb’s court until 1668 [fig. 3].

Fig. 3. Title page and engraving from Voyages de François Bernier (angevin) contenant la description des Etats du Grand Mogol, de l'Indoustan, du royaume de Kachemire
Fig. 3. Title page and engraving from Voyages de François Bernier (angevin) contenant la description des Etats du Grand Mogol, de l'Indoustan, du royaume de Kachemire (Amsterdam: Maret, 1699)

Bernier vividly pictures the complexity of the organisation and the throngs of people who joined this long and difficult expedition. These comprised the whole nobility of Delhi each with their own grand tent, the ladies of the court, the army, and all the attendant servants, porters, and aides-de-camp, as well as numerous beasts of burden including camels, mules, and elephants.

While neither Bernier nor Maʾāsir-i ʿĀlamgīrī mention him, the places and dates recorded in the colophons of Or. 2361 inform us that somewhere among all this travelled Dīyānat Khān, his entourage, scribes, and this unfinished musical manuscript.

A mobile manuscript: begun in Delhi…

Almost the whole process of Or. 2361’s creation can be reconstructed from its detailed colophons (short statements found at the end of a text that record when and where the texts were copied, and sometimes later checked, and by whom), which are particularly informative thanks to the large number of texts and the close attention paid to the work by its patron, Dīyānat Khān.

The book was started in Ṣafar 1073/September 1662 during the lead-up to Aurangzeb’s departure from Delhi, with two Persian treatises on the lawfulness of music and singing, copied back-to-back by a Persian-language scribe, Muḥammad Amīn of Akbarābād (today’s Agra).

Shortly thereafter, six Arabic texts were copied during the four weeks from 17 Rabīʿ I/29 November to 13 Jumādá I/24 December 1662. The first was a short musicological treatise– today the only surviving copy – by the great Arab philosopher of the early Islamic period, al-Kindī (d. 873), followed by a work on Arabic modal structures by the Abbasid courtier-scholar Yaḥyá ibn al-Munajjim (d. 912).

Fig. 4. Colophon to al-Farabi’s treatise, copied in Delhi, 3 Jumada I, 1073/14 December 1662
Fig. 4. Colophon to al-Fārābī’s Kitāb al-madkhal fī al-mūsīqī, copied in Delhi, 3 Jumādá I, 1073/14 December 1662 and checked by Dīyānat Khān in Lahore, 22 Rajab 1073/2 March 1663 (British Library Or. 2361, f. 240r)

The following Arabic texts are the second version of a treatise by Fatḥallāh al-Shirwānī (d. ca 1453), a unique copy of an earlier work by a disciple of Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037), Ibn Zaylah (d. 1048), and the first part (madkhal) of al-Fārābī’s (d. ca 950) Great Book on Music (Kitāb al-mūsīqī al-kabīr) [Fig. 4]. These were followed by an anonymous commentary on al-Urmawi’s (d. 1294) highly influential musicological treatise, the Book of Cycles (Kitāb al-Adwār).

These works were transcribed by the scribe Sayyid Abū Muḥammad ibn Sayyid Fatḥ Muḥammad Samānī (or Samānaʾī), probably from Samana in Punjab. The other colophons in the manuscript, and the consistency of handwriting throughout, indicate that all the texts within Or. 2361 were written by either Samānī or Muḥammad Amīn alone, specialising in Arabic and Persian respectively.

… continued in Ambala and Lahore…

Aurangzeb and his entourage left Delhi on 7 Jumādá I/18 December 1662. By late January 1663, the seventh Arabic text (another extensive commentary on Kitāb al-Adwār) and the third Persian text, entitled Mūsīqī ḥikmat-i ʿAlāʾī (excerpts on music from Ibn Sīnā’s Dānish nāmah-‘i ʿAlā'ī) were simultaneously completed at Anbālah (modern Ambala), a fortified town famous for its pleasure gardens, almost half-way to Lahore [fig. 5].

Fig. 5. Opening of Musiqi hikmat-i ʿAlaʾi by Ibn Sina
Fig. 5. Opening of Mūsīqī ḥikmat-i ʿAlāʾī by Ibn Sīnā (British Library Or. 2361, f. 157r)

After taking a leisurely route, hunting and managing affairs of state along the way, Aurangzeb and his companions reached Lahore on 10 Rajab/18 February 1663. They then stayed until May, awaiting the melting of snow on the high mountain passes to Kashmir.

It was during the halt in Lahore that Dīyānat Khān’s active involvement in the volume began, with the colophon to al-Shirwānī’s treatise recording that he personally checked the text against the manuscript from which it was copied ‘in the vicinity of Lahore’, completing this task on 9 Rajab/17 February. A couple of weeks later, he also checked the work by al-Fārābī. Meanwhile, Samānī was producing a full copy of the original text of Kitāb al-Adwār, which was completed on 3 Ramaḍān/11 April in Lahore.

Most camp followers did not continue to Kashmir due to the difficulties of traversing the mountain passes and scarcity of supplies, so when Aurangzeb left Lahore in May, Dīyānat Khān took his half-finished manuscript with him to Kashmir, but apparently not the scribes, whose whereabouts are unknown until that December in Delhi, when Amīn copied a Persian song collection for Dīyānat Khān.[1]

Bernier evokes the trials of the journey from Lahore to Kashmir on the imperial Mughal road: the heat of the Punjab, hazardous river crossings by pontoon, and perilous mountain ascents, including a terrible accident which killed several people and elephants and caused Aurangzeb never again to visit Kashmir.

… and reviewed in Kashmir

By early June, the royal party had arrived at Srinagar, called Kashmir Town (Baladat Kashmīr) ‘the heart-pleasing’ (dilpazīr) in the manuscript, and Bernier describes the relief occasioned by the temperate beauty of the landscape [fig. 6].

Fig. 6. Engraving of the Kingdom of Kashmir, from Travels in the Mogul Empire, A.D. 1656-1668
Fig. 6. Engraving of the Kingdom of Kashmir, from Travels in the Mogul Empire, A.D. 1656-1668 (World Digital Library, foldout p. 408a)

Whilst in Srinagar in August 1663, Dīyānat Khān worked on his manuscript alongside serving the emperor, completing the checking of the two commentaries on the Kitāb al-Adwār and the works by Ibn Zaylah and Ibn al-Munajjim. The Persian-speaking Dīyānat Khān only checked Arabic texts, perhaps indicating a greater written literacy in Arabic than in Persian, the language spoken at court.

Fig. 7. Diagram with a note by Diyanat Khan  the book's owner
Fig. 7. Diagram with a note by Dīyānat Khān, the book's owner, dated 1066/1656 (British Library IO Islamic 4419, f. 18v)

Dīyānat Khān’s involvement may well have gone beyond checking the texts: seven years earlier he himself added the diagrams to a manuscript written for him in Hyderabad (Deccan), a copy of al-Birjandī’s (d. 1525–6) Treatise on the Construction and Use of Some Observational Devices (al-Risālah fī ṣanʿat baʿḍ al-ālāt al-raṣadiyyah wa-al-ʿamal bihā, British Library IO Islamic 4419) [Fig. 7]. It is also possible that he was responsible for the many diagrams in Or. 2361, a process requiring significant skill and understanding.

Back to Delhi

After nearly three months of business and pleasure, Aurangzeb left Kashmir on 22 Muḥarram 1074/26 August 1663. It was not until 23 Rabīʿ I 1075/14 October 1664, in Delhi, that further texts were added, when Samānī copied a treatise by al-Khujandī (fl. 1303-1316).

Shortly afterwards, Muḥammad Amīn completed the copying of two Persian works, both at the explicit behest of Dīyānat Khān. The first, completed on 19 Rabīʿ II 1075/9 November 1664, was a treatise on fretting by Qāsim ibn Dūst ʿAlī al-Bukhārī, dedicated to the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605). This was followed back-to-back by a copy of Kanz al-tuḥaf, a fourteenth-century Persian treatise of uncertain authorship on music theory and practice, which includes an illustrated section on the form, manufacture and tuning of nine traditional wind- and string-instruments including the lute, qānūn [Fig. 8], reed pipe and harp.

Fig. 8. The qanun from Kanz al-tuhaf
Fig. 8. The qānūn from Kanz al-tuḥaf (British Library Or. 2361, f. 264v)

The copy of Kanz al-tuḥaf was completed on 12 Rajab/29 January 1665,checked three days later and then again over three years later, against a copy dated 784/1382-83, belonging to a certain Shaykh Badhan [Fig. 9].

Fig. 4. Colophon to al-Farabi’s treatise, copied in Delhi, 3 Jumada I, 1073/14 December 1662
Fig. 9. Colophon to Kanz al-Tuḥaf, recording that it was checked against two different manuscripts over a three-and-a-half-year period (British Library Or. 2361, f. 269v)

The afterlife of Or. 2361

The codex as it is today poses some conundrums. The present order of the texts does not follow any consistent system, whether by date of composition or copying, language, or subject matter. It was evidently written piecemeal and bound together, but the original order, if different from today’s, is unknown. Finally, the manuscript’s Kashmiri-style illumination and gold-tooled blue leather binding date from a later period, likely connected with the series of rapid transfers of ownership in the nineteenth century documented f. 2r that culminated in its purchase from ‘Syed Ali, of Hyderabad’ in 1881. The manuscript as originally produced would have been an altogether more sober, scholarly affair.

With such a wealth of internal information, Or. 2361’s significance goes well beyond its musical subject-matter, providing a snapshot of the sometimes highly mobile context of manuscript production at the time. The pages of this volume trace the interconnecting lives of the emperor Aurangzeb, his intellectual courtier Dīyānat Khān, and the latter’s two scribes over a few years, against a moving backdrop of cities, mountains, plains, and royal encampments. A scholarly life was evidently not a sedentary one for Dīyānat Khān.

Fully catalogued and digitised copies of Or. 2361 and IO Islamic 4419 will be uploaded to the Qatar Digital Library as soon as circumstances permit.

Click here to see this blog post presented as a visual, interactive StoryMap.

Jenny Norton-Wright, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:

For full details on Or. 2361’s musical texts, with a full bibliography, please consult the full catalogue record (note that to see details of the individual works you will need to follow the tab ‘Browse this collection’).

Bernier, François, ‘Journey to Kashemire’, in Travels in the Mogul Empire, A.D. 1656-1668, translated by Archibald Constable, 2nd edition revised by Vincent A. Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1916).

Saqi Mustaʻidd Khan, Maāsir-i-ʿĀlamgiri: A history of the Emperor Aurangzib-ʿĀlamgir (reign 1658-1707 A.D.), translated into English and annotated by Sir Jadunath Sarkar (Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1947).


[1] Lahore University Library PPh III.16, 163.6.

29 June 2020

Two Miscellanies in the Manuscript Collection of Sir William Jones

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Sir William Jones collected a large array of manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Chinese and Sanskrit during both his life as a student and lawyer in London, and also as a puisne judge in Bengal. Collecting primarily Persian and Arabic materials and mostly commissioning Sanskrit materials, Jones picked up quite a number of oddities along the way. By far the biggest part of the collection is made up of well-known or popular works of Arabic and Persian science, literature and grammar as well as standard reference works in Islamic law; his collection is replete with such wonders as a beautifully illustrated copy of Niẓāmī’s Khamsah (MS RSPA 31), three separate copies of Rūmī’s Mas̱navī (MSS RSPA 34-41), and six manuscripts of works by Jāmī (MSS RSPA 46-50), including a Kulliyāt-i Jāmī (the complete, or collected, works of Jāmī; MS RSPA 46).

The opening of Jāmī's first collection of poems (dīvān) in the centre with his Silsilat al-ẕahab in the margins. Copy dated Shaʻban 940/1534 (British Library RSPA 46, ff. 369v-369r)
The opening of Jāmī's first collection of poems (Dīvān) in the centre with his Silsilat al-ẕahab in the margins. Copy dated Shaʻban 940/1534 (British Library RSPA 46, ff. 368v-369r)

In this blog post, however, I would like to shine a light on two of the most unusual and most difficult to classify manuscripts in the collection. Perhaps the most strikingly individual manuscript is MS RSPA 55, written on a mix of poor-quality coloured paper by a variety of hands. Impossible to classify or name, RSPA 55 is made up of miscellaneous segments of texts with no clear order or internal principles. Composed largely out of selections of poetry from a range of Persian authors, there are several sections which are devoted to the Dīvān-i ʻUrfī of the 16th century Indo-Persian poet ʻUrfī Shīrāzī, whose work is the most frequently reproduced in the manuscript.

Beyond ʻUrfī, there appears to be little to no rhyme nor reason behind the selections; there are anecdotes referring to Hārūn al-Rashīd followed immediately by a story of three travellers who share ten loaves, shortly after which we find a description of ten different kinds of script (Arabic, Greek, etc.), sayings in Persian by Plato and quotations in Arabic from the ḥadīth. This is all spread over just 4 folios, ff.87-91.

Excerpt from Miʻrāj al-khalīl by the Indo-Persian poet Tajallī (d. 1088/1677) who emigrated from Shiraz in the reighn of Shah Jahan (British Library RSPA 55, f. 236v)
Excerpt from Miʻrāj al-khalīl by the Indo-Persian poet Tajallī (d. 1088/1677) who emigrated from Shiraz in the reign of Shah Jahan (British Library RSPA 55, f. 236v)

The manuscript continues to spool its way over 469 folios, replete with ghazals, rubāʿīs, letters, witticisms and anecdotes, as well as qaṣīdahs, mars̱īyahs and qiṭʻahs of varying renown; perhaps one of the most striking things about this hodge-podge manuscript is the number of lesser known poets among the ones quoted. Rarely today will students of Persian poetry study in depth (if at all) the Dīvān of, say, Ghanī Kāshmīrī, Mīrzā Jalāl Asīr, Fighānī or Āṣafī, all featured in this miscellany of poetry.

There is no clear indication from the manuscript of how (or why) Jones acquired the work and no reason to suppose he commissioned it. Indeed, there are no annotations on the manuscript that can positively be traced back to him; unusually, the manuscript does not even include title and author details at the beginning in his hand. Who assembled it, and perhaps more importantly why they did so in the way they did, remains, therefore every bit as much of a mystery as how it wound its way into the collections of an English puisne judge in Kolkata.

Jones also owned another miscellany of poetical works, MS RSPA 109. This very small manuscript, measuring only 200 x 65mm, is a collection of Arabic poetry about love, that Jones entitles Dīwān al-ʻāshiq, with the gloss, “A collection of Arabick poems some of which are extremely beautiful – Anthologia Amatoria.” Including poems written by a wide range of poets, including Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, Ibn Maṭrūḥ, al-Sharīf al-Raḍī and Maḥmūd ibn Fahd al-Ḥalabī. These poets come from all periods of Arabic literature, with perhaps a slightly greater number from the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods than from the earlier periods. This is indeed his only manuscript that would have provided him access to post-Abbasid poetry, as the majority of his Arabic poetry collection was composed of copies of the Muʻallaqāt and other pre-Islamic poetry (MSS RSPA 103-5 and 110), a copy of Abū Tammām’s Ḥamāsah (MS RSPA 106), the Dīwān of al-Mutanabbī (MS RSPA 107) and the Dīwān of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (MS RSPA 108).

Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)
Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)

This manuscript also includes the only specimens of Turkish literature of the entire collection. Famously a scholar of Arabic and Persian, Jones’s scholarship is not so focused on Turkish (see Cannon, Life, 44-5). Whilst his letters make it clear he at one time viewed himself eligible for the role of ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a job posting that never materialised, he only ever published one work of any significance on Turkish literature, this being “A Turkish Ode on the Spring,” a verse based upon Mesihi, which he augmented with a transliteration of the original and a prose translation. This poem and translation were found within Jones’s 1777 publication of Poems, consisting chiefly of translations from the Asiatick languages, before he embarked on his trip to India. In this anthology, however, which does mostly consist of Arabic poems, there are short extracts of poetry by Navāʼī, Nasīmī, Fahmī and others, in both Chagatay and Ottoman Turkish.

Beyond the poetry, the manuscript is also of interest for two further reasons. Firstly, it contains a number of folios dedicated to the writing out of glyphs for numbers of more than one digit, what appears to be several folios of handwriting practice and a folio which lists abbreviations found throughout the manuscript. Whose handwriting practice this is remains a mystery, especially given that the Turkish poetry and these miscellaneous pages were written in a hand different from the Arabic poems.

Finally, the manuscript also includes a page in English that names General John Carnac, a soldier in the East India Company and, later, after returning to India in 1773, a member of the council of Bombay (now Mumbai). This page is a short list of some of his eastern manuscripts with some brief descriptions; it seems likely that this manuscript once formed part of Carnac’s collection of manuscripts; we do not know whether Carnac himself commissioned the manuscript or if he purchased it. Carnac’s work in India did briefly take him to Bengal (in the 1760s), but by the time Jones was resident in India, Carnac was resident in Mumbai and then, Manguluru, both of which are on the western coast of the Indian subcontinent, along the Arabian Sea. It does not appear that Jones ever travelled to the western coast of India. Did Carnac bring the manuscript back to England and give it to Jones before India? Did they meet in India and exchange the manuscript? Did the manuscript go through others’ hands before Jones?

General Carnac's name inscribed in Jones anthology of Arabic poetry (British Library RSPA 109)
A former owner? General Carnac's name inscribed in Jones anthology of Arabic poetry (British Library RSPA 109)

It seems most probable that Carnac might have given Jones the manuscript in India, possibly in Bengal. In May 1787, for example, John Carnac, also a member of Jones’ Asiatic Society, despite being resident in Mumbai, gave six ancient plates to the society that he had come across (Asiatick Researches, 1:356). Unfortunately, MS RSPA 109 remains unmentioned in both Jones’ letters and the volumes of Asiatick Researches, but the interaction proves the two men certainly knew each other and were part of a broader culture among the English colonial officers of manuscript exchange.

These miscellanies, then, are two of the more curious aspects of the collection that both warrant further study and highlight the diverse nature of the collection. Jones was not only set about collecting classic works that today would form part of a Persian Poetry 101 class at university; instead, he was collecting literary works in a wide array of genres and styles, including these miscellaneous manuscripts that would have given him access to a great amount of literature not represented elsewhere in his collection.

Jonathan Lawrence, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, and former doctoral placement at the British Library

Further Reading

Lawrence, Jonathan, “Sir William Jones’ manuscript copy of al-Fatawa al-'Alamgiriyyah
Society of Bengal, Asiatick Researches, Volume the First , London, 1799-1839.
Cannon, Garland, The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones. Cambridge, 1990.
Dennison Ross, E. and Browne, E.G. Catalogue of Two Collections of Persian and Arabic Manuscripts Preserved in the India Office Library, London, 1902.
Jones, William Letters of Sir William Jones, ed. Garland Cannon, 2 v., Oxford, 1970.
——— Poems, consisting chiefly of translations from the Asiatick languages, London, 1777; second edition
Sitter, Zak, “William Jones, ‘Eastern Poetry’ and the Problem of Imitation” in Texas Studies in Language and Literature 50:4 (2008), pp 385-407

10 June 2020

The Politics of Prognostication in the Cairo Sultanate

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In today’s complex and ever-changing circumstances, who wouldn’t want infallible means for interpreting the world around them and even predicting future events? While today’s leaders look to their medical, economic, military and other expert advisers, historically rulers across the world have also consulted astrologers, dream-interpreters and specialists in other forms of divination and occult sciences.

The Mamlūk sultans of late-medieval Egypt and Syria were no different in this regard. Many manuscripts copied within the Cairo Sultanate have survived and a number of them are on various methods of interpreting the present or foretelling the future. Since some of these manuscripts were produced for politically high-ranking patrons, we are in the privileged position of being able to read over the shoulders of Mamlūk sultans and amīrs (military commanders) and get a feeling for the place of prognostication in Mamlūk politics.

Patron statement in the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon
Patron statement in the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon: ‘Intended for the exalted, lordly, sultanic and felicitous treasury – may God dignify and exalt it by Muḥammad and his pure family’ (برسم الخزانة السامية | المولوية السلطانية | السعيدية أجلها | الله وأسماها بمحمد وآله | الطاهرين) (British Library Or. 7733, f. 1ar, recto side of unfoliated flyleaf after f. 1)

One such manuscript is Or. 7733, a manual of dream interpretation called the Book of the Full Moon on the Science of Dream Interpretation (Kitāb al-badr al-munīr fī ʿilm al-taʿbīr), written by Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAlī ibn ʿUmar ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Baṣrī al-Maṣrī, known as Ibn Jaydān. The manuscript is a holograph (i.e. the copy was made by its author, Ibn Jaydān), completed on Wednesday 2 Rabīʿ II 727/25 February 1327 for the Sultan’s treasury (see ff. 1ar and 260r, lines 4-7). Ibn Jaydān explains in the preface that he composed the manual for the Mamlūk prince ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl (b. ca 725/1325, see f. 6v, lines 12-13). Since, however, this prince was still an infant in 1327, the true dedicatee must have been the boy’s father, the reigning Sultan al-Malik al-Nāṣir Muḥammad ibn Qalāwūn (reg. 693-741/1293-1341 with gaps). Ibn Jaydān, claims that ‘the most deserving person concerning this science is the sultan because God bestowed His sovereignty upon him and entrusted him with custodianship of His creation, so of all people after the prophets, his dream is the most true and veracious’ (أَوْلَى الناس بهذا العلم السلطان لما آتاه الله من ملكه وكلّفه رعاية خلقه فكانت رؤياه أصحّ من كافة الناس بعد النبيين وأصدق, f. 4r, lines 10-13), and even tells us that he had dedicated other writings on dream interpretation to al-Nāṣir Muḥammad (see f. 3v, lines 5-7).

It seems, then, that the all-but-forgotten Ibn Jaydān was the personal dream-interpreter (muʿabbir) to al-Nāṣir Muḥammad, or at least that he repeatedly sought this sultan’s patronage. Given the relatively stable political climate in which al-Nāṣir Muḥammad ruled – his third reign, during which Ibn Jaydān wrote the Full Moon, lasted 31 years – it is not surprising that Ibn Jaydān wrote in support of the Sultan’s dynasty, the Qalāwūnids (678-784/1279-1382). In his preface to the Full Moon, Ibn Jaydān takes the opportunity to stress the crucial role dream interpreters have played in foretelling and protecting a ruler’s lineage. To do this, Ibn Jaydān presents a series of examples of dream-interpreters correctly predicting the deaths of presumptive heirs to the throne and the births of future rulers. These stories served to remind al-Nāṣir Muḥammad of the importance of dream-interpreters to the illustrious rulers of earlier Islamicate history, and more importantly of the reliability of their interpretations in foretelling the fortunes of their dynasties.

Ibn Jaydan on dream interpretation
Ibn Jaydān lists his other works on dream interpretation: (1) an abridgement composed at Hamadhān in 716/1316-7 of The Book of The Elixir on the Science of Dreams (Kitāb al-iksīr fī ʿilm al-manāmāt), (2) an unnamed didactic poem (urjūzah), (3) The Book of Glad Tidings Concerning The Science of Dream Interpretation (Kitāb al-tabshīr fī ʿilm al-taʿbīr) dedicated to al-Malik al-Nāṣir Muḥammad, and (4) another didactic poem named after the same sultan (British Library Or. 7733, f. 3v, see lines 1-8)

This is the context in which to understand Ibn Jaydān’s dedication of the work to an infant prince. The dedicatee, ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl, was not much more than one or two years old when Ibn Jaydān presented his dream interpretation manual, and he was not necessarily the heir apparent. In fact, his half-brother, al-Malik al-Manṣūr ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn ʿAlī, as first son of al-Malik al-Nāṣir’s first marriage had been heir to the throne until he died aged 7 and was buried in his father’s royal mausoleum in 710/1310. In the preface to the Full Moon, Ibn Jaydān refers to the late crown prince as ‘the martyred ruler ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn’ (ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn ʿAlī al-malik al-shahīd). Ibn Jaydān correctly predicts that ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl would one day become sultan, and indeed he lived to reign as al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥ (reg. 743-6/1342-5). Ibn Jaydān’s dedication of the Full Moon to ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl was not only a vote of confidence in the viability of the prince’s future reign as sultan and thus the continuation of the Qalāwūnid dynasty, but perhaps more importantly a statement of Ibn Jaydān’s loyalty to the sultan.

Colophon of the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon (Or. 7733, f. 260r)
Colophon of the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon completed at the end of Wednesday 2 Rabīʻ II 727/25 February 1327 (آخر نهار الأربعاء لليلتين خلت من ربيع الآخر | سنة سبع وعشرين وسبعمئة هلالية, see lines 5-6) (British Library Or. 7733, f. 260r)

When the long and relatively stable reign of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad came to an end with his death in 741/1341, the subsequent forty-one years witnessed twelve of his descendants accede to the throne before the Qalāwūnid dynasty ended with the accession of al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Barqūq in 784/1382. Between al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s death and the accession of Ibn Jaydān’s dedicatee, al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥ Ismāʿīl (then about seventeen years old) the following year, no fewer than three of his brothers had taken the sultanate and either died or been deposed in factional intrigues. These tumultuous final years of the Qalāwūnid dynasty were dominated by the short reigns of very young sultans – often legal minors. Meanwhile, powerful Mamlūk amīrs wrestled for power as kingmakers and regents.

One of these young sultans was al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s grandson, al-Malik al-Ashraf Shaʿbān II (b. 754/1353, reg. 764-778/1363-1377). He was only ten years old when he assumed the sultanate, but he held an uncharacteristically long reign for the period. In the early part of this reign, the real power was wielded by his regent and Commander-in-Chief (atābak al-ʿasākir), the ‘slave-soldier’ (mamlūk) Yalbughā al-Khāṣṣakī. Three years after al-Ashraf Shaʿbān’s accession, the child Sultan conspired with a group of six amīrs to overthrow Yalbughā and had him murdered in Rabīʿ II 768/December 1366.

Patron statement in Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations
Patron statement in Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations: ‘Intended for the treasury of the honourable, most illustrious, sublime Lord Sayf al-Dīn Asandamur, Commander-in-chief of the victorious troops – God fortify His partisans!’ (برسم خزانة المقر الأشرف العالي | المولوي السيفي اسندمر | أتابك العساكر المنصورة | أعز الله أنصاره) (British Library Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 1, f. 1r , lower half)

In the ensuing turmoil, one of the six conspirators, the amīr Sayf al-Dīn Asandamur al-Nāṣirī (d. 769/1368), consolidated his power, winning military victories first against mamlūks formerly owned by and still faithful to Yalbughā and then against the Sultan’s own supporters. By the summer of 768/1367, Asandamur al-Nāṣirī had assumed the title of Commander-in-Chief, a position second in rank only to the Sultan. He was now master of the Cairo Sultanate as regent and power behind the throne of al-Ashraf Shaʿbān, who at around 14 years old was only just coming of age.

al-Qaṣrānī’s Book of Interrogations
al-Qaṣrānī’s Book of Interrogations contains historical examples of horoscopes for pre- and early Islamic rulers, such as this horoscope cast for the coronation (ʿiqd al-tāj) of the Byzantine usurper Leontius (reg. 484–488) at sunrise on Wednesday 18 July 484. Note that, despite its shelfmark, Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 2 is not actually the second volume of Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s set of the Book of Interrogations and was copied over a century earlier, in 640/1243 (British Library Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 2, f. 137v ; see text and translation in Pingree 1976, Horoscope VII, pp. 139-42)

It may seem surprising that during his dramatic rise to power Asandamur al-Nāṣirī could have found time to consult a copy of the Book of Interrogations (Kitāb al-masāʾil) by the late third/ninth-century astrologer Abū Yūsuf Ya‘qūb ibn ‘Alī al-Qarshī al-Qaṣrānī. The text is a multi-volume treatise on ‘interrogations’, an astrological practice in which a question is answered by means of a horoscope cast for the time and place the interrogator poses the question. Since this practice was commonly used to predict the political fortunes of newly enthroned monarchs, and al-Qaṣrānī’s Book of Interrogations contains many historical examples of such royal horoscopes, it is not difficult to see why the book would have appealed to Asandamur al-Nāṣirī as he assumed authority over the sultanate.

Colophon of vol. 1 of Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations
Colophon of vol. 1 of Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations, dated first 10 days of Shawwāl 768/late May-early June 1367: ‘The Book of Interrogations is finished with the praise and help of God in the first tenth of Shawwāl 768. May the prayer of God be upon our lord Muḥammad, seal of the prophets and apostles, and upon his family and all his companions. God suffices for us – truly He is the perfect authority’ (تم كتاب المسائل بحمد الله وعونه | في العشر الأول من شوال سنة ثمان وستين وسبعمائة | وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد خاتم النبيين والمرسلين وعلى آله وصحبه أجمعين | وحسبنا الله ونعم الوكيل). At either side of the top line of the colophon, another hand has written the following: ‘The first part of … is finished. It is followed by Chapter Seven: Concerning the Matter of Two Adversaries’ (Right: تم الجزء الأول من; Left: يتلوه الباب السابع في أمر الخصمين) (British Library Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 1, f. 193v)

Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations  was completed during the first 10 days of Shawwāl 768/late May-early June 1367, just as he was defeating the Sultan’s forces to achieve total dominance over the Mamlūk sphere. We do not know if Asandamur al-Nāṣirī or, more likely, an astrologer under his patronage actually used the techniques taught in the Book of Interrogations to foretell what would become of the new master of Egypt and Syria. Despite any astrological support he may have received, Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s regency was short-lived, and in Ṣafar 769/October 1367 his troops suffered a catastrophic defeat by those of the Sultan. Asandamur al-Nāṣirī fled to Alexandria, where he met his end shortly after in obscure circumstances.

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
Thanks to Prof. Jo Steenbergen (University of Ghent) and Dr Noah D. Gardiner (University of South Carolina) for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this blog post.

Further reading
Bauden, Frédéric, ‘The Sons of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad and the Politics of Puppets: Where Did It All Start?’, Mamlūk Studies Review 13.1 (2009), pp. 53–81.
Flemming, Barbara, ‘Literary Activities in Mamlūk Halls and Barracks’, in Barbara Flemming, Essays on Turkish Literature and History (Leiden: Brill, 2018), pp. 105-16.
Franssen, EÏlise, ‘What was there in a Mamlūk Amīr’s Library? Evidence from a Fifteenth-century Manuscript’, in Developing Perspectives in Mamlūk History. Essays in Honor of Amalia Levanoni , ed. by Yuval Ben-Bassat (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 311-32.
Mazor, Amir, ‘The Topos of Predicting the Future in Early Mamlūk Historiography’, in Mamlūk Historiography Revisited – Narratological Perspectives, ed. by Stephan Conermann (Göttingen: Bonn University Press, 2018), pp. 103-19.
Pingree, David, ‘Political Horoscopes from the Reign of Zeno’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 30 (1976) pp. 133 and 135-50.
Van Steenbergen, Jo, ‘“Is Anyone My Guardian…?” Mamlūk Under-age Rule and the Later Qalāwūnids’, Al-Masāq 19.1 (2007), 55-65.
———, ‘The Amir Yalbughā al-Khāṣṣakī, the Qalāwūnid Sultanate, and the Cultural Matrix of Mamlūk Society: A Reassessment of Mamlūk Politics in the 1360s’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 131.3 (2011), 423-43.

20 April 2020

Sir William Jones’ manuscript copy of al-Fatawa al-'Alamgiriyyah

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Upon disembarking in India in 1783 as a new puisne Judge at the Supreme Court of Judicature in Fort William, now Kolkata, which covered the districts of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, William Jones encountered a problem: how do British judges, relying, as they did, on pandits and maulavis to translate Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit legal texts into English and provide interpretations of the law for the Muslim and Hindu communities, ensure that they are applying the law as it ought to be applied, rather than as desired by the translators and scholars? Jones himself was very conscious of the possibility of corruption; indeed, this distrust of the pandits’ interpretations of the texts were his main motivations to learn Sanskrit (Jones, Letters, 2:666).

Beginning of volume 2 of the Fatawa al-alamgiri
 The opening of volume two of William Jones' copy of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah, with Jones’ signature included in the heading (British Library RSPA 88). Public domain

The problem was not so much one of corruption or misinterpretation of the law, of course. Jones, hailing from one culture of law, was confronted by not one but two new legal systems in India, that of Islamic Law (fiqh) and the legal theory and jurisprudence of the Hindu community, which developed into the term Hindu Law during the British colony. In 1772, Warren Hastings, then governor, enforced that all Indians would be subject to Indian (Islamic and Hindu) law and that the approach to this law would be text-based rather than based on local custom. Medieval Islamic Law varied in theory and practice widely between the four Sunni and two (major) Shia schools and was fundamentally constructed on different principles with different goals from English law. The same is true of what became Hindu law; the administration of this by the Supreme Court was “fraught with difficulty” (Evison, 1998, 126) because of both the difficulty the pandits had working in a system where they were not able to access details of the case at hand, but rather relied on notes from the judge, and also the fact that the methods of interpreting traditional shastric literature were not conceived to provide simple universal answers to the questions posed by the British court system (see Evison, 1998, 126-8).

In this text-based legal culture, Jones aimed to acquire his own manuscript copies of important texts in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, in order to ensure he had access to the original material upon which customary law, he assumed, had been based. One of the most important of the texts he acquired was his five-volume copy of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah (MSS RSPA 87, 88, 89, 90 and 91); it was the end result of a long period of legal scholarship undertaken by a wide range of legal scholars and commissioned by the Mughal Emperor ʻĀlamgīr, better known as Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707). The text, recommended to Jones by an acquaintance of his, Mīr Ḥusayn ʻAlī (Jones, Notebook, 7, 13), proved to be one of the cornerstones of the British imperial legal system and one of the most prominent texts through which the colonial authorities administered Muslim law.

MS RSPA 87, is, however, very different from the other manuscripts in the collection. This manuscript volume was rebound in the standard India Office half-leather brown-maroon binding with wine-coloured marbled endpapers (like most of the Jones collection). The other volumes are still in their 18th-century brown leather-and-board binding, which has mostly become detached, except for MS RSPA 91, which is also bound in the India Office Library style.

Seal impressions of former owners (RSPA 87  f. 1r)
The initial leaf of volume one of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah with previous owners' seals and inscriptions (British Library RSPA 87, f. 1r). Public domain

The script and paper of the manuscript are also very different from the others, which are all copied in one continuous neat naskh hand on a light-cream, thick, woven paper. The paper of this volume is, however, a worm-eaten and discoloured woven paper, whilst the hand is a thick, rough nastaʿlīq. The volume, then, is clearly from a different text production and would presumably have formed part of a different set of manuscripts, which are not part of the Jones collection. Equally, the same applies to the other set: whatever happened to the first volume?

It might be seem axiomatic that Jones should buy from different manuscript sets of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah. Why should it matter that one manuscript comes from a different place than the others? Perhaps he just bought the volumes which were available at the time and supplemented elsewhere with MS RSPA 87 (or vice-versa) when he could. Looking at any seals might be instructive. Where did they come from? When did they become grouped together into the same collection of manuscripts?

Seal B Seal C Seal D and inscription
Seals B, C and D indicating former owners of RSPA 87. Public domain

MS RSPA 87 has the greatest number of seals and, naturally, being the odd one out of the series, the most distinct lineage. On the first folio, there are four seals. At the top (seals A and B) are two copies of the same seal with the legend, ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq murīd-i pādshāh-i ʻĀlamgīr sanah 36 (1692-93) which translates to “ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq, disciple of the Emperor ʻĀlamgīr in the regnal year 36,” meaning that this ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq owned this manuscript not earlier than 1692. In the accompanying ownership statement, ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq is noted to be the son of ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, a deceased judge. Seal C is a Qur’anic seal quoting verse 45 of surah 19 (Sūrat Maryam) which does not tell us much about the owner. The final seal (D) on this page is that of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān dated 1153AH (1740-41AD). Alongside this seal, there is a note that states he bought the manuscript in 1162AH (1748-49AD).

Seal of Akram al-Din RSPA90 Seal pf Hafiz Masud RSPA91
Left: seal of Akram al-Dīn (RSPA 90) and right: acquisition note dated 1162 (1748-49) and seal of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān (RSPA 91). Public domain

The other four volumes in the series have a different origin. The oldest seal on all of these manuscripts is that of Muḥammad Abū al-Fatḥ Akram al-Dīn dated regnal year 39, 1107AH (1695-96AD), again making this set of manuscripts a copy of the text dating from the reign of Emperor ʻĀlamgīr, albeit a younger copy than MS RSPA 87. These manuscripts then all bear the same origin; what becomes interesting is that these manuscripts also all bear the seal of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān dated 1153AH (1740-1AD). It is possible that Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān bought them from someone else who previously grouped the manuscripts together, especially given that he acquired them all in the same year (1162/1748-49).

Inscription of Muhammad Anwar RSPA87
Note dated Jumāda al-Awwal 1196AH (April-May 1782AD) by Sayyid Muḥammad Anwar (British Library RSPA 87, f. 1r). Public domain

So, we have identified Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān in the year 1162AH as the point at which we can positively assert that the manuscripts were definitely grouped together, with it being possible that they had been previously grouped and sold together to him. What, then, can we say about what happened next? On MS RSPA 87, there is a final acquisition note from a man named Sayyid Muḥammad Anwar ibn Sayyid Muḥammad Ghawth, who apparently acquired the manuscript in Jumāda al-Awwal in the year 1196AH (April-May 1782AD), only a year and a half before Jones acquired them, making Muḥammad Anwar the likely source of these manuscripts for Jones.

Through the seal record, then, we have been able to reconstruct the past history of Jones’s copies of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah and provide the point at which we can definitively say this heterogenous manuscript collection had become grouped together as one text, predating Jones by some thirty years. In his notebooks, Jones lists this text first, before both al-Farāʼiḍ al-Sirājiyyah (MS RSPA 92), which Jones commissioned, and Mukhtaṣar al-Qudūrī, of which he owned two copies (MS RSPA 83 and MS RSPA 84) (see Jones, Notebook, 41); this manuscript text, covered in annotations and notes, which remain in need of extensive study, was therefore an integral cornerstone of his legal practice in India.

Further Reading

Evison, Gillian, “The Sanskrit Manuscripts of Sir William Jones in the Bodleian Library” in Alexander Murray (ed.) Sir William Jones 1746-1794: A Commemoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Ibetson, David, “Sir William Jones as Comparative Lawyer” in Alexander Murray (ed.) Sir William Jones 1746-1794: A Commemoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Jones, William, Letters of Sir William Jones (ed. Garland Cannon) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970; in two volumes).
——— Autograph Notebook, ca. 1785. Yale University, Beinecke Library MS. Osborn c400; this notebook is from the first few years of Jones’s life in India and details people, places and the books he acquired.
Stephens, Julia, Governing Islam: law, empire and secularism in South Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Jonathan Lawrence, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, doctoral placement at British Library

26 February 2020

William Jones, al-Mutanabbī and Emotional Encounters

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In 1774, William Jones (1746 – 1794), then 27, a graduate from Oxford University, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a barrister with the Middle Temple, received a copy of al-Mutanabbī's Dīwān (poetry collection) as a gift from a certain ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg.

1. William Jones by Arthur William Devis Foster 840
Portrait of Sir William Jones aged 47 by Arthur William Devis (1762-1822). Oil on canvas, ca. 1793 (Foster 840). Public Domain

ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Beg, it would appear (although it is not certain), lived in the town of Hama (Ḥamā) in modern-day Syria and then an important administrative and trade centre in the Ottoman Empire. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg sent this gift (now known as MS RSPA 107), having never met Jones, along with the following inscription:

يصل الكتاب إلى بندر أقفرد ويتشرف بلثم أنامل الألحن الممجد حضرة وليام جونس
يَا رِياحَ العَاشِقينَ أَوْصِلْ مُحِبّينا السَلَامَ *** شابَهو الرَيحان وَالأزْهارَ شَماً فيِ الجِناَنْ
إِنْ وَصَلْتُمْ يَا نسِيم الحُبّ مِنَا قُلْ لَهُم *** يَا عَمِيدَ العِلْمِ كْن عَن كُلّ كَرْيِب في الأمانْ
فِي الفَصَاحَة كَالحَرِير في السَّخاوة حاتمٌ *** كَان هَذَا وِلِيام جُونس انَكليزان في العيان
من عند العبد الفقير عبد الرحمن بيك

This book is to arrive at the port of Oxford and is honoured to kiss the fingertips of the most intelligent and glorious Sir William Jones:

O winds of the lovers, send greetings to our beloveds
They are akin to the sweet smell of flowers in a garden
If you arrive, o fragrant breeze of love, say to them,
“You pillar of learning, be free of all worries!”
Judicious in his generosity, he is like silk in his elegance,
This man is William Jones, the Englishman

From your humble servant, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg.

2. RSPA 107 marbled and note JPG
ʻAbd al-Raḥmān's dedication and Jones note underneath. Jones' translation is just visible, attached to the marbled endpaper (RSPA 107). Public Domain

Below this inscription, Jones has written:

I received this valuable manuscript by the hands of Mr. Howard to whose care it was entrusted in June 1774 at Venice, by Mr. W Montague. It was a present from Abderrahman Beg, who wrote the Arabick verses in this page, which are so flattering to me, that I can hardly translate them without blushing, 3 Oct. 1774, W. Jones.

Jones comment on receiving this book
Jones' note (RSPA 107, flyleaf). Public Domain

Yet, translate them he did – or at least, it would appear, given that the opposite side has been ripped out, but you can still make out the beginning of the word Oxford at the start of the page. Jones was clearly troubled by the verse. In two letters, also dated to 1774, Jones tells of his receipt of the gift and his consequent embarrassment. In a letter to the Mr. Howard who presented him with the manuscript, he wrote (Jones, pp. 229-30):

I have just received your most obliging letter, with a fine Arabic manuscript, containing the works of a celebrated poet with whom I have been long acquainted: this testimony of Mr Montague’s regard is extremely pleasing to me and I have a most grateful sense of his kindness. I am conscious how little I have deserved the many honours I have lately received from the learned in Europe and Asia: I can ascribe their politeness to nothing but their candour and benevolence. I fear they will think me still less deserving when they know that I have deserted, or rather suspended, all literary pursuits whatever and am wholly engaged in the study of a profession for which I was always intended. As the law is a jealous science, and will not have any partnership with the Eastern Muses, I must absolutely renounce their acquaintance for ten or twelve years to come. This manuscript, however, is highly acceptable to me, and shall be preserved among my choicest treasures, till I have leisure to give it an attentive perusal. There is a compliment to me written in Arabic verse, in the first leaf of the book, and signed Abdurrahman Beg: the verses are very fine, but so full of Oriental panegyric, that I could not read them without blushing. The present seems to come from the learned Arabian: but as he has not inserted my name in his verses, and speaks of Oxford, he must have heard me mentioned by Mr. Montague, to whom therefore I am equally indebted for the present.

At the same time in October 1774, Jones wrote a very long letter to Hendrik Albert Schultens, the Dutch linguist, in which he said (Jones, pp. 227-8):

Whilst I am writing this letter, a person called upon me with a manuscript, which he had received at Venice from Mr. Montague, a man of family. I immediately perceived it to be a most beautiful and correct copy of Motanabbi with a letter addressed to myself in Arabic verse, from some person named Abdurrahman, whom Mr. Montague had probably seen in Asia. I owe great obligations to the politeness of the learned Arab but I by no means think myself worthy of his exaggerated encomiums – but you know the pompous style of the Orientals.

In both letters, as well as the note he appended to the verse inscription in the manuscript itself, Jones emphasises his embarrassment at receiving these “exaggerated encomiums”; his response encapsulates a particular form of the colonial encounter, this being the interaction of two emotional regimes, expressed in two very different literary styles. Why did Jones feel so awkward about this poem?

Diwan al-Mutanabbi RSPA107
The opening pages of the Dīwān of al-Mutanabbī (RSPA 107, ff. 1v-2r). Public Domain

The poetry is a fairly standard example of Arabic panegyric (madīḥ ), a genre in which al-Mutannabī was one of the most exemplary poets of the entire tradition; his panegyrics for the tenth century Amir of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawlah established his reputation and was, according to Margaret Larkin, the pinnacle of his career. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg’s poetic homage to Jones is, in many ways, a pastiche of the conventional symbols of poetic panegyric which al-Mutanabbī used – to much greater poetic effect and success – in his panegyrics of Sayf al-Dawlah. The winds of lovers (riyāḥa 'l-ʿāshiqīna), the south-winds of love ( nasīma 'l-ḥubbi) and the sweet floral smell of the odoriferous plants and flowers in the garden which the object of poetry is akin to ( shābahū 'l-rayḥāna wa-l-azhāra shamman fī-l-jināni): these are all very conventional tropes of Arabic love lyric (nasīb), cliché almost. The clichés used by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg may be conventional, but they also reveal an emotional regime which is expressed through the intermingling of the language of love and the language of admiration and an emotional regime in which this literary expression is completely normal, conventional and expected. Our concern here is: how did Jones read such poetry?

Jones was certainly well versed in Arabic poetry and would have been very familiar with the linguistic register of the nasīb and the panegyric which are both on show here. Having already read al-Mutanabbī, he would surely have known the idiomatic nature of the verse in front of him and the hackneyed terms of praise chosen by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg. Why the embarrassment, then?

William Reddy has proposed the ‘emotional regime’ as a useful framework for studying emotion history, this being what he terms the normative set of emotions in any one culture and the linguistic, ritualistic and practical structures of that culture which produce and embed them. Here, we see the interaction and conflict of two such emotional regimes: the “exaggerated encomiums” and “pompous panegyric” of the poetry mixed with Jones’s blushing, embarrassment and ‘English reserve’. Jones’s reading sees the poetry as awkward, over-the-top flattery. This he ascribes to the “pompous style of the Orientals”, rather brushing it aside as a local custom, a linguistic cliché that is, to his mind, in the context of the men never having met, a faintly ridiculous example of such poetry, of which Jones feels “wholly unworthy”. Yet, in the colonial politics of the moment, it would be easy to forget that Jones was subject to his own emotional regime, one which does not valorise such overt intermingling of personal feeling with professional compliment, hence Jones’s feeling ‘unworthy’ of such compliments and emphasising in each of the letters his detachment from the subject of praise (his knowledge of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit literature) and instead his professional attachment to a new field: the law.

However, Jones did not just read the poem. Rather, he struggles to accept the compliments and to see the poetry as anything other than “pompous” because he translates them into his own idiom and sees them from within his own emotional regime, and it is at the English expression of emotions, which has become decontextualised from its linguistic formality, that he blushes. Translation can be a tricky business, displacing a constellation of poetic tropes and images from its historical and literary context and embedding them within a new language’s and a new emotional regime’s constraints of style. Whilst in Arabic the poem is a fairly conventional intermingling of nasīb and madīḥ linguistic registers and images, the English translation stands out as unusual within the broader English poetic tradition and imaginary, exemplifying the discord felt by the inter-linguistic politics of emotional translation, the difficulty of expressing oneself comfortably across languages and emotional regimes which have their own register of emotional expression. In his translation, Jones has transformed the poem: out of a standardised and conventional set of images spread over three short lines of poetry, Jones has created this awkward feeling for himself in his attempt to read the Arabic into English, in his use of Arabic emotional expressions outside of their context.

This single interaction speaks to the difficulty we face in traversing emotional regimes, in translating styles and ways of speaking which are so at home in their own context into a new and unfamiliar emotional background.

Further Reading
Bray, Julia, “Yaʿqūb b. al-Rabīʿ Read by al-Mutanabbī and al-Mubarrad: A Contribution to an Abbasid History of Emotions”, Journal of Abbasid Studies 4:1 (2017).
Jacobi, Renate “Qaṣīda (pl. Qaṣāʾid)” in Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey (eds.) Encyclopaedia of Arabic Literature, 2:630-33.
Jones, Sir William (ed. John Shore and S.C. Wilks), Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of Sir William Jones, by Lord Teignmouth. With the Life of Lord Teignmouth, and Notes, by S.C. Wilks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1835).
Larkin, Margaret Al-Mutanabbi: Voice of the ʿAbbasid Poetic Ideal (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008).
Meisami, Julie Scott, Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Lyric Poetry: Orient Pearls (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
al-Mutanabbī, Abū al-Ṭayyib (tr. A. J. Arberry), Poems of al-Mutanabbī: a Selection with Introduction, Translation and Notes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967).
Plamper, Jan et al, “The History of Emotions: an Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns" in History and Theory 49, no. 2 (2010): 237-65.
Reddy, William, The Making of Romantic: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia and Japan 900-1200 CE (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012).
–––––, The Navigation of Feeling: a Framework for the History of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Sadan, Joseph, “Maiden’s Hair and Starry Skies – Image Systems and Maʿānī Guides” in Sasson Somekh (ed.), Studies in Medieval Arabic and Hebrew Poetics (Leiden: Brill, 1991).

Jonathan Lawrence, D Phil candidate at the University of Oxford, doctoral placement at British Library

18 December 2019

The Avar Miscellany, a rare manuscript from the North Caucasus: (1) Historical background

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The first appearance of Muslims in the Caucasus region dates back to the first century of the Islamic era; but their presence developed gradually over many hundreds of years. The variegation of Islam as practised in this region reflects the divergence of cultural and other traditions between the peoples of a land where immense peaks and valleys separate neighbouring communities whose languages are often not mutually intelligible, but where Arabic has long acted as the common language of the learned.

In the nineteenth century, as in the twentieth, the northern regions of Caucasia, including Chechnia and Daghistan, were frequently riven by conflict. For a few short years in mid-century, while the Imperial Russian Army was engaged in the Crimean War against Britain and her allies, the pressure on the Chechens in their forests and the Daghistanis in their mountain fastnesses was relaxed to a certain degree. Yet they were unable to profit to any great extent from the situation, at least partly because of limitations on communication with the outside world.

That short-lived respite is, however, reflected in the existence of a very special survivor, now preserved in the British Library as Or. 16389: a manuscript of great rarity. This manuscript was previously MS. 39 in the collection of C.S. Mundy, a British Turcologist who was a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Many of the most important items in Mundy’s manuscript collection were eventually acquired, in uneasy instalments, by the British Library. His books, regrettably, were entirely dispersed; Graham Shaw, former Head of Asian and African Collections, noticed some of them on sale on a street stall in Greenwich, southeast London.

Avar Miscellany, with ownership inscription of Ghayūr Beg al-Ṭānusī al-Awarī, son of Ḥājj al-Ḥaramayn Yaḥyà Efendi. British Library, Or. 16389, f. 1r

The Avar Miscellany, as BL manuscript Or. 16389 has been named, is a majmū‘a (or in Turkish mecmua), or composite volume, of Islamic religious texts in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, and Avar, one of the languages of the Northeast Caucasus region. It was copied for al-Amīr al-Muhājir Dāniyāl Sulṭān by Ghāzī Muḥammad in 1270/1853-4. According to an inscription in Arabic on f. 84v, the manuscript was given to Dāniyāl in that year by a man named Muḥammad Beg al-Ākhidī (or al-Āżidī?) who describes himself as al-gharīb al-ghabī, literally meaning ‘the strange’ (or, perhaps, ‘the stranger’), ‘the stupid’. The calligraphed main ex libris page (f. 1r) with highly distinctive ornamentation in puce and black – a rather surprising colour scheme, found also on the second ex libris page (f. 8r) – states that this volume was owned by (ṣāḥibuh wa mālikuh) Ghayūr Beg al-Ṭānusī al-Awarī, son of Ḥājj al-Ḥaramayn Yaḥyà Efendi. Surprising, too, is the latter’s title, which means ‘Pilgrim to the Two Sanctuaries’). Although most Ḥājjīs visit Madīna as well as Makka, that visit does not count as part of the Ḥajj. Possibly he had also visited Jerusalem, which for Greek Christians at least gave them the right to prefix their names with the epithet ‘Khatzi’.

Avar Miscellany, with another ownership inscription of Ghayūr Beg al-Ṭānusī al-Awarī, son of Ḥājj al-Ḥaramayn Yaḥyà Efendi. British Library, Or. 16389, f. 8r

Another interesting feature of the volume is the binding, which is in brown goatskin and is broadly similar to medium-quality Ottoman bindings of the period. The front and back covers, and also the spine, contain impressed inscribed cartouches. Those on the right, as one looks from the side, contain a name which begins ‘Mullā Muḥammad’; this is followed by a name which is probably a nisba, or affiliation name, connected to a place or region. Those on the left appear to begin with the words ‘Ṣāḥib hādhā’ (‘The owner of this…’) and to end with the name ‘Mullā ‘Alī’. These readings are altogether tentative. More adept readers will, one hopes, be able to solve these epigraphic puzzles.

Binding of the Avar Miscellany, with inscribed cartouches. British Library, Or. 16389

Several different copyists seem to have been involved in the production of this manuscript, at one stage or another. Ghayūr Beg himself appears to have copied two of the brief texts included in the volume. The text describes him as governor (vālī) of the Avaria region of the Caucasus in the time of Imam Shamū’īl (1797-1871), commonly known as Imam Shamyl, the overlord of Daghistan and Chechenia (and leading shaykh of the Naqshbandī Sufi Order there) from 1834 to 1859. The actual situation, however, was not so straightforward. Ghayūr was the Imam’s nā’ib or deputy in the region of Aukh, there being other na’ibs elsewhere. Ghāzī Muḥammad, who was the son of Shamyl and the son-in-law of Dāniyāl Sulṭān, claims in this manuscript (in text 3) to be the Mujaddid, or Renewer of Islam, in his time. Dāniyāl Sulṭān, described in this volume as ‘The Commander, the Emigrant [for the Faith]’, was ruler of Elisu and a major-general in the Russian army when in 1844 he defected (this being his ‘emigration’) to join forces with Shamyl; in 1859, however, he capitulated to the Russian invading force together with all his men. By the time of Shamyl’s capture by the Russians, he considered Dāniyāl a traitor who had deserted him.

Ghayūr Beg himself (called Gairbek in Russian) came from a place called Burtuna and was among the four nā’ibs to whom Imam Shamyl addressed a stern letter dated 17 Ṣafar 1269/30 November 1852, enjoining them to be zealous in upholding Islamic prohibitions, curbing worldly inclinations, and other matters – and threatening to send representatives to investigate whether his instructions were being followed. [See Sharafutdinova (2001), pp. 120-123, 199; for an earlier (1267/1850-51) letter from Shamyl to his followers, to much the same effect, see pp. 84-85.]

The texts included in the Avar anthology reflect, inter alia, a concern to direct the Muslims of the region towards theological orthodoxy and strict observance of Sharī‘a rulings and away from the adherence to ‘urf, or local custom, which was prevalent among these fiercely independent-minded mountain people.

The second part of this blog post will describe the contents of the manuscript.

Further reading:
Araboíàzychnye dokumenty ėpokhi Shamilíà. Ed. and tr. R. Sh. Sharafutdinova. Moscow: Vostochnaíà Literatura, 2001.
Baddeley, John F. The Russian conquest of the Caucasus. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1908 and reprinted.
Charachidzé. Georges. Grammaire da la langue avar. Saint-Sulpice de Favières: Éditions Jean-Favard, 1981.
Gammer, Moshe (ed.). Islam and Sufism in Daghestan. Sastamala : Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, 2009.
Gammer, Moshe (ed.). Muslim resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan. London: Frank Cass, 1994.

Muhammad Isa Waley, former Curator for Persian and Turkish

29 October 2019

The Star Tablet of the Bab

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A second post by our guest contributor the Baha'i scholar Dr. Moojan Momen celebrates the bicentenary of the birth of the Bab with an account of one of our most important manuscripts, the Star Tablet written in his own hand.

Today—29 October 2019—Baha’is around the world are commemorating the bicentenary of the birth of the Bab. He was the first of two figures whom Baha’is regard as the founders of their faith. The Bab was the forerunner, preparing people for the appearance of Baha’u’llah, whose teachings Baha’is follow.

The British Library holds one of the world’s best collections of Babi and Baha’i manuscripts. Among the most important of these is one in the handwriting of the Bab himself. It is in the shape of a five-pointed star, called a haykal or temple, because it is representative of the head, two arms and two legs of the human form. However, to appreciate this manuscript, it is necessary to understand something of its context.

The Babs star
The Haykal, the Star Tablet of the Bab (BL Or 6887). Public Domain

The Bab

The Bab first announced his mission in 1844 in the city of Shiraz in Iran. During a brief, six-year ministry, he stirred up a great deal of controversy and consternation—especially among the religious leaders of Iran—with his claims and the writings he produced in support of these. For most of the years up to his public execution in 1850, the Bab was under house arrest or in prison, while thousands of his followers were also killed.

It was not just that the Bab’s claim to be the Twelfth Imam or Imam Mahdi, the messianic figure expected by the Shi`i Muslims of Iran, was highly audacious. But, just as Jesus had refrained from conforming to the expectations of the Jews for a military messiah who would lead them to victory over the Romans and establish the dominion of their people, the Bab did not comply with the expectation of Shi`i Muslims that the Twelfth Imam would lead them to a great victory over their enemies and would establish their religion throughout the world. Instead, the Bab interpreted the Traditions (hadīth) that led to these expectations in a spiritual sense and proclaimed that his words were Divine Revelation and he was the inaugurator of a new religious dispensation superseding Islam.

The Shrine of the Bab and the terraces above and below it at night. Copyright © Bahá'í International Community

The Creation and Significance of the Haykal

In several of his works, the Bab gives instructions for the writing of a haykal, the pentagram or five-pointed star. In the Persian Bayan he states that the five lines that make up the frame of the pentagram create six chambers.PentogramIn the Persian and Arabic alphabet, each letter has a numerical value and this fact was used a great deal by the Bab. Five is the numerical equivalent of the letter H and six the numerical equivalent of the letter W. Together they represent the word Huwa which means “He” and is a common way of referring to God in Islamic mystical literature.[1] The word “Bab” is also equivalent to 5 (B=2, A=1, B=2). The five lines are the outer or manifest and the six chambers created are the inner or hidden. Thus the Bab (= 5) is the outer appearance or Manifestation of the Unseen and Unknowable Divinity (Huwa). In Babi and Baha’i scripture, the Bab is called a Manifestation of God, which should be understood as the Manifestation of the Names and Attributes of God (not that he is an incarnation of God). Indeed, for Baha’is, the prophet-founders of all of the religions have an equal station as Manifestations of God.

The Bab specifies that the pentagram should be carried by men about their person. For women, he gives a different design of six concentric circles, thus forming five spaces in which his verses should be written. Thus the same pattern of five and six also are created in this way. This could be seen as a symbol of the fact that women and men are equal but different.[2] The haykal (temple) represents the temple of a human being, the Perfect Man, and the circle represents the Sun of Truth—both of these representing the Manifestation of God, the Bab.

(Circle), drawn according to the instructions given by the Bab. From Qismatī az Alvāḥ-i Khaṭṭ-i Nuqṭah-ʼi Ūlā va Āqā Sayyid Ḥusayn Yazdī ([Tehran?]:, n.d.), p. 11. Image Courtesy of the Afnan Library

The wearing of amulets containing passages of the Qur’an as a protective talisman is a common custom among Muslims, usually believed to bring good luck or to give protection. The Bab did not prohibit such practices but rather wanted to educate his followers gradually away from them. He saw their function more as a spiritual protection rather than a physical one. He wanted to direct the thoughts of his followers towards their symbolic meaning, towards God and the Manifestation of God, who guides humanity. In the Persian Bayan, the Bab states that the six chambers within the pentagram and the five partitions made by the six circles in the dā’ira should be filled with verses from his writings, but he leaves the creator of the pentagram free to choose which writings to place there. The important point that the Bab makes in this passage, however, is that the purpose of this is not to achieve some magical effect but rather that what is written on the paper should appear in the soul of that person.[3] In other words that they should become the embodiment of the Divine attributes contained in the passages from his writings. And so, men are called the “possessors of the pentagram (haykals)” and women are called the “possessors of the circle (dā’ira)”, not just because that is what each carries but because the Manifestation of the Names and Attributes of God is enshrined within the heart of each individual.[4] Baha’u’llah was later to put this more succinctly thus (Arabic Hidden Words, no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

The second important point that the Bab makes in this passage is that his intention in asking his followers to carry these pentagrams and circles is that by having their attention constantly turned towards God, his followers will, in the day when the next Manifestation of God appears, immediately turn to him.

The British Library haykal of the Bab

The haykal which the British Library holds (Or 6887) is on a large sheet of pale pink paper (27.5cm x 40.5cm) in the exquisitely beautiful and carefully written handwriting of the Bab. Although the words are written very small—such that a magnifying glass is necessary to read it—almost every word is clearly legible and elegantly formed. There is no indication of the person for whom this haykal was written. It is possible to speculate that it was written towards the end of the Bab’s life because it is similar in wording to such works as the Kitāb al-Asmāʼ and the Panj Sha’n, which were written while the Bab was imprisoned in isolated fortresses in the northwest of Iran in the last three years of his life.

Or_6887_f001r-magnification X2
Close-up of the Haykal of the Bab at twice magnification showing the detail of his writing (BL Or 6887). Public Domain

In many religions, there is a tradition of repetitive chanting of short significant phrases; for example dhikr in Sufism, hesychasm in Orthodox Christianity and mantras in Hinduism and Buddhism. This haykal of the Bab is similar in that it comprises repetitions of short rhymed and rhythmical sentences. As with many other writings of the Bab, it is clear that the words are intended to be chanted out loud and experienced as much as understood. The performative aspect is at least as important as the intellectual. The performative nature of the Bab’s own composition of such works and the effect it had on others can be gleaned from an incident that is recorded about him. This occurred in Isfahan in the house of the Imam-Jum‘ih (the leader of Friday prayers), one of the religious dignitaries of the city, which at that time was the foremost centre for religious studies in Iran. The Bab was accommodated in this house for the first period of his stay in Isfahan and many of the clerics and religious students in the city would come in the afternoons and evenings to hear him speak and to ask him questions. When asked to reveal a commentary on the Sūrat al-ʻAṣr (Qurʻan 103), the Bab began to chant and:

They seemed as if bewitched by the magic of His voice. Instinctively they started to their feet and, together with the Imám-Jum’ih, reverently kissed the hem of His garment. Mullá Muhammad-Taqíy-i-Haratí, an eminent mujtahid, broke out into a sudden expression of exultation and praise. “Peerless and unique,” he exclaimed, “as are the words which have streamed from this pen, to be able to reveal, within so short a time and in so legible a writing, so great a number of verses as to equal a fourth, nay a third, of the Qur’án, is in itself an achievement such as no mortal, without the intervention of God, could hope to perform.” (The Dawn-Breakers, (ed. and trans. Shoghi Effendi), p. 202

The content of the haykal may be described as a paean of praise to God. The words consist of repeated rhymed and rhythmic sentences, such as:

  • All the kingdoms of the heavens and the earth and whatsoever lieth between them are God’s, and His power is supreme over all things.
  • Unto God belong the kingdoms of the heavens and the earth and whatsoever lieth between them, and He, in truth, is potent over all things.
  • Nothing whatsoever can escape His knowledge.
  • Unto God belong the kingdoms of the heavens and the earth and whatsoever lieth between them, and He, in truth, hath knowledge of all things.
  • Nothing whatsoever in the whole of creation can thwart His Purpose.
  • He calleth into being whatsoever He willeth at His behest.

Perhaps the most interesting of these repeated phrases, however, is the one that forms the outline of the haykal. The five lines that form the frame of the haykal are formed from one repeated sentence (and then the six chambers thus formed are filled with the other repeated sentences). The repeated sentence that forms the lines of the frame is:

  •  On that Day, the Kingdom shall be God’s, the Incomparable, the Most Manifest.

Given what has been said above about the Bab’s stated intention that these haykals be a constant reminder to his followers about the need for them to watch attentively for the coming of “Him whom God shall make manifest” and to obey him when he comes, we can read the Words “On that Day” as meaning “On the Day of the coming of ‘Him whom God shall make manifest’”. In addition, given that the most manifest aspect of God is the Manifestation of God (the founder-prophets of the major religions), the words “the Kingdom [or sovereignty or dominion, mulk] shall be God’s, the Incomparable, the Most Manifest" also points to “Him whom God shall make manifest”, the next of these Manifestations of God to come after the Bab. And so this key sentence that frames all the other sentences in this haykal can be considered to say: “On the Day of the coming of Him whom God shall make manifest, sovereignty shall belong to him.”[5] Baha’u’llah claimed, and Baha’is believe that, “He whom God shall make manifest” is Baha’u’llah. For example, Baha’u’llah wrote in the Kitab-i Aqdas (ʻthe Most Holy Bookʼ):

O people of the Bayan [followers of the Bab]! Fear ye the Most Merciful and consider what He [the Bab] hath revealed in another passage. He said: “The Qiblih [direction of prayer] is indeed He Whom God will make manifest; whenever He moveth, it moveth, until He shall come to rest.” Thus was it set down by the Supreme Ordainer when He desired to make mention of this Most Great Beauty [i.e. Baha’u’llah himself].

Moojan Momen, Independent Scholar

Further reading

Peter Smith, “An introduction to the Baha’i Faith” in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts
Moojan Momen, “Baha'i sacred texts,” in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts
––––, “Central figures of the Baha'i Faith,” in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts
––––, “Marking the bicentenary of the birth of the Bāb

[1] Persian Bayan, vahid 4, chapter 5.
[2] To be more precise, the Bab says that each circle is a unity (vāhid, numerologically equivalent to 19) and so the five circles are equivalent to lillāh (for God, numerologically equivalent to 95). Thus both the pentagram (Huwa) and the circle (lillāh) are pointers to God.
[3] Persian Bayan, vahid 4, chapter 5.
[4] Nader Saiedi, Gate of the Heart ([Waterloo, Ont]: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2008), pp. 329-330.
[5] I am grateful to Dr Omid Ghaemmaghami for his suggestion regarding this point and for his assistance with the provisional translation of these passages.