Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

69 posts categorized "Arabic"

26 February 2024

Restoring access to the British Library’s Asian and African Collections

Following the recent cyber-attack on the British Library, the Library has now implemented an interim service which will enable existing Registered Readers to access some of our printed books and serials and a significant portion of our manuscripts. This service will be expanded further in the coming weeks. 

We understand how frustrating this recent period has been for everyone wishing to access our Asian and African Collections and we would like to thank you for your patience. We are continuing to work to restore our services, and you can read more about these activities in our Chief Executive's post to the Knowledge Matters blog. 

The Using the Library page on our temporary website provides general information on current Library services, and advice for those without an existing Reader Pass. Please read on for information about the availability of specific Asian and African collections. 


Printed books and serials 

You can now search for printed items using a searchable online version of our main catalogue of books and other printed material. Online and advance ordering is unavailable, so Registered Readers will need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room and fill in the required details. Please write the shelfmark exactly as it appears in the online catalogue. 

Only a small portion of the printed books and serials in the Asian and African Collection will be available for consultation in the Reading Room. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee availability of any printed items. Materials stored in Boston Spa are current unavailable, and items stored in our St. Pancras location might be in use by another Reader or restricted for other reasons. If you wish to gain greater assurance on the availability of a particular item before you visit us, please contact our Reference Services Team by emailing [email protected].


Manuscripts and archival documents 

Although the Library’s online catalogue of archives and manuscripts is not currently available, the Reference Services Team can assist with queries about these collections, checking paper catalogues and other sources. Please speak to the team in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room or email [email protected] Some of our older printed catalogues have been digitised and made available online without charge. For quick access to the digitised catalogues of manuscript and archival material, or to online repositories of images, please make use of the links below:




East Asia 


Digitised Content

Middle East and Central Asia 


Digitised Content

South Asia        


Digitised Content

South-East Asia


Digitised Content

Visual Arts (Print Room)


Digitised Content







East Asia 



  • CiNii Books - National Institute of Informatics (NII), a bibliographic database service for material in Japanese academic libraries including 43,000+ British Library books and periodicals. Please use FA012954 in the Library ID field 



Middle East and Central Asia 

  • FIHRIST (Largely Persian, but also includes some Kurdish, Pashto, and Turkic materials) 







Turkish and Turkic  


South Asia 

Early printed books:

South Asian language manuscript catalogues:

Bengali and Assamese 

Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani

Marathi, Gujrati, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Pushtu and Sindhi 



Sanskrit and Prakrit 




South-East Asia 





Access to some archival and manuscript material is still restricted, but the majority of special collections held at St Pancras are now once again available. Our specialist archive and manuscripts catalogue is not online at the moment so you will need to come on-site to our Reading Rooms, where Reading Room staff will be able to help you search for what you need, and advise on its availability.

To place a request to see a manuscript or archival document, Registered Readers need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room and fill in the required details, including the shelfmark (manuscript number). The Library has created an instructional video on finding shelfmarks.  


Visual Arts 

The Print Room, located in the Asian and African Reading Room, is open by appointment only on Monday and Friday between 10.00 am-12.30 pm. Prints, drawings, photographs and related visual material in the Visual Arts collection can be consulted by appointment. Please contact the Visual Arts team via email (apac[email protected]) to check the availability of required items and to book an appointment. Please note that advanced booking is required. Restricted items including the Kodak Historical Collection, Fay Godwin Collection, William Henry Fox Talbot Collection are not currently available to Readers. 



The Reference Services Team in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room has a list of microfilms of printed and manuscript materials. 


Digital resources 

A number of our early printed books are available on Google Books. 

We regret that our digitised manuscripts and electronic research resources are currently unavailable. Nevertheless, some of our digitised manuscripts are available on external platforms: 

East Asia 

Middle East 

  • Digital Edition of the Coptic Old Testament, including leaves of British Library Coptic papyri interwoven with images from other institutions  
  • Ktiv (Manuscript Database of the National Library of Israel), including all digitised Hebrew manuscripts from the British Library
  • Qatar Digital Library, including digitised Arabic manuscripts from the British Library

South Asia 

  • Jainpedia, including digitised Jain manuscripts from the British Library

South-East Asia 

  • South East Asia Digital Library, including a collection of digitised rare books from South East Asia held at the British Library 
  • National Library Board, Singapore, digitised Malay manuscripts and Qur'ans, papers of Sir Stamford Raffles, and the accounts by Colin Mackenzie on Java held at the British Library
  • Or 14844, Truyện Kiều (The tale of Kiều) by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), the most significant poem in Vietnamese literature 
  • Or 15227, an illuminated Qurʼan,19th century, from the east coast of the Malay Peninsula
  • Or 16126, Letter from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja (Daing Ibrahim), Ruler of Johor, to Napoleon III, Emperor of France, dated 1857
  • Mss Jav 89, Serat Damar Wulan with illustrations depicting Javanese society in the late 18th century
  • Or 14734, Sejarah Melayu (Malay annals), dated 1873
  • Or 13681, Burmese manuscript showing seven scenes of King Mindon's donations at various places during the first four years of his reign (1853-57) 
  • Or 14178, Burmese parabaik (folding book) from around 1870 with 16 painted scenes of the Ramayana story with captions in Burmese 
  • Or 13922, Thai massage treatise with illustrations, 19th century 
  • Or 16101, Buddhist Texts, including the Legend of Phra Malai, with Illustrations of The Ten Birth Tales, dated 1894 
  • Or 16797, Cat treatise from Thailand, with illustrations, 19th century 
  • Or 4736, Khmer alphabet, handwritten by Henri Mouhot, c.1860-1 

Visual Arts 


We thank you, once again, for your patience as we continue to work to restore our services. Please do check this blog and the temporary British Library website for further updates. 



23 September 2022

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth

Readers may have noticed the new placards and billboards at the British Library announcing Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth which opens exactly four weeks today. Son of Philip II of Macedon and his wife Olympias, the historical Alexander was born in Pella, capital of Macedon in July 356 BC. By July 330 BC he had defeated the Persian army, becoming, at the age of twenty-five, ruler of Asia Minor, pharaoh of Egypt and successor to Darius III, the ‘Great King’ of Persia. During the next seven years, Alexander created an empire that stretched from Greece in the west to beyond the Indus river in the east – before his early death in Babylon aged thirty-two.

Alexander billboard

This exhibition, however, is not about history, but the first of its kind to explore 2,000 years of  storytelling and mythmaking. With objects from 25 countries in 21 languages, it shows how one figure could serve so many purposes, creating shared narratives of universal appeal. The Alexander Romance, composed originally in Greek in the third century AD, was at the heart of this storytelling. But legends also found their way into epic poetry and drama, and more recently into novels, comics, films and video games. You will see examples of all of these in the exhibition.

Out of approximately 140 objects, some eighty-six are from the British Library's collections. To give a taste of what’s in store, I have chosen to highlight a few of the thirty-eight exhibits from our own Asian and African collections.

A Christian Alexander
A Christian Alexander described as ‘enemy of devils’ heads this amulet scroll in the Ethiopian Ge‘ez language. Ethiopia, 18th century? (British Library Or.12859)

The exhibition is arranged in six sections based around Alexander’s legendary life. After an introduction,  A Conqueror in the Making explores the different versions of Alexander’s origins, his education by the philosopher Aristotle and Bucephalus, his faithful warhorse.

Nahid is presented to Dara
Nahid, daughter of Philip of Macedon, is here married to the Persian emperor as part of a diplomatic alliance. Rejected on account of her bad breath, she was sent home, unknowingly pregnant, to Greece where she gave birth to a son, Alexander. This version of Alexander’s origins saw him, in Persian eyes, as the legitimate heir and successor to the throne. From the Darabnamah (Story of Darab), by Abu Tahir Muhammad Tarsusi, Mughal India, 1580–85 (British Library Or.4615, f. 129r)

Aristotle instructs a pupil
Aristotle instructs a pupil in the Kitab na‘t al-hayawan (On the Characteristics of Animals). Baghdad?, about 1225 (British Library Or.2784, f. 96r)

Section three, Building an Empire, describes Alexander’s victory over Darius III of Persia and his expeditions further east to India and China — by the way Alexander did reach India but he never went to China!

Alexander comforts the dying Dara
Alexander comforts the dying Darius and agrees to his final requests in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (Book of Kings). According to one Persian tradition, Darius was in fact his half-brother. Isfahan?, Iran, 1604 (British Library IO Islamic 966, f. 335r)

In Kandahar, Alexander was persuaded by a beautiful priestess not to destroy the sacred statue. This copy of the twelfth-century poet Nizami’s Khamsah (Five Poems) was especially commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar who had conquered Kandahar in 1595 while this manuscript was still being copied. The painting would have deliberately invited comparison between Akbar, famous for his religious tolerance, and Alexander. Artists: Mukund and La‘l, Lahore, 1593–95 (British Library Or.12208, ff. 317v–318r)

In a section on Alexander’s relationships, we introduce the important people in his life: his wives, the powerful women he encountered, his general Hephaestion and the eunuch slave Bagoas.

Alexander's wedding to Roxana
The wedding of Alexander and Darius’ daughter, Roxana. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah (Book of Kings), Qazvin, Iran, about 1590–95 (British Library Add MS 27257, f. 326v)

The Mythical Quest is the most fantastical section. Here Alexander travels through strange lands inhabited by people with faces in their chests, sirens, griffins and dragons. His journey leads him to the ends of the earth, into the skies above and to the bottom of the ocean, always seeking new experiences and the key to immortality.

Coptic fragment of Alexander Romance
This Coptic fragment of the Alexander Romance describes Alexander setting off to explore the Land of Darkness. When a mysterious voice predicted his imminent death, he turned back bringing with him some objects he had gathered in the dark. These later turned out to be diamonds. Atripe, Upper Egypt, 14th century (British Library Or.3367/2)

The final section, Journey’s End, describes Alexander’s return to Babylon and the mystery of his subsequent death. His body was transported on a magnificent carriage to Egypt, where it was eventually placed in a mausoleum at Alexandria. The tomb is now lost, but his final resting place is still a subject of debate.

Iskandar's funeral procession
This popular prose version of Alexander’s life reflects a Persian tradition. In accordance with his final wishes Alexander’s coffin was carried through his dominions with his arm hanging loose to show that he travelled to the grave empty-handed. From the Iskandarnamah (Story of Alexander) by Manuchihr Khan Hakim, Tehran, 1857–58 (British Library 14787.k.8)

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth opens on 21 October. It will be accompanied by a book of the same title. Edited by Richard Stoneman, it includes nine essays by leading scholars together with images and descriptions of the exhibition items. During the next few months we’ll be writing blogs about several of the items in the exhibition, and also some which we were not able to include. Meanwhile tickets are already on sale and may be booked on our Events page.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

28 August 2022

Translating Piracy: On the origin of the Arabic words qurṣān/qarṣanah

The terms pirate(s) and piracy feature heavily in India Office Records relating to the Persian Gulf during the nineteenth century. Many of these records have now been digitised through the British Library / Qatar Foundation partnership and can be accessed on the Qatar Digital Library accompanied by catalogue descriptions in English and Arabic. In these records, “piracy” was used to justify British naval presence in the Gulf, forming the basis of the early agreements signed with local tribal leaders. However, the Arabic versions of these agreements indicate that the Arab inhabitants of the region did not have an equivalent concept in their lexicon. So where did today’s Standard Arabic word for piracy come from? And why wasn’t it used in these agreements?

Text in Latin script followed by Arabic script in black ink on cream-coloured paper with a Latin-script title centred at the top of the image.
Article 1 of the English (IOR/L/PS/10/606, p. 131r) and Arabic (IOR/L/PS/10/606, p. 146v) versions of the 1820 treaty between Britain and the Arab tribes of the Persian Gulf. The word piracy is translated as ghārāt [raids].


Tracing the Etymology

Modern Arabic dictionaries list the terms qurṣān (pirate) and qarṣanah (piracy) under the trilateral root Q-R-Ṣ, giving the impression that this is a true Arabic word derived from this root (which generally means ‘to pinch/sting’). In fact, some Arabic sources devoted to the subject of piracy define qarṣanah as a derivative of that root (see for example, Hamid 2016: 22). However, this is a common misattribution.

The term is actually a relatively recent addition to the Arabic language, and is a cognate of the English term ‘corsair’ from the Latin cursarius. The earliest Arabic dictionary to include qurṣān to mean ‘sea thief’ is al-Bustānī’s Muḥīṭ al-Muḥīṭ (1870), where it is listed as a plural noun and marked as ‘foreign’ (إفرنجية). Further clues can be found in Reinhart Dozy’s Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes (1877-1881) which includes colloquialisms and foreign borrowings in Arabic. Dozy lists قرصل ( qurṣul), قرصال (qurṣāl) and كرسالي (kursālī) in addition to qurṣān to mean both ‘pirate’ and ‘warship’, and he links them to Spanish (corsario) and Italian (corsale). Also listed are the now common forms qarāṣinah (pirates) and qarṣanah (piracy).

Black text in Latin and Arabic scripts in spaced lines on cream-coloured paper
The entries for قرصل (qarṣala) and قرصن (qarṣana ) in Dozy’s Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes (1881, p. 329). Public Domain. Image taken by author.

As a Semitic language, Arabic has a root-and-pattern morphology. Words are formed by casting (typically 3-letter) roots into a variety of templates to produce different meanings. In the case of the borrowed word for piracy, it was a happy coincidence that it could be filed under the existing root Q-R-Ṣ.


Early Use

All this confirms that the words qurṣān and qarṣanah are of foreign origin, and that their meanings did not stabilise until modern times. One of the earliest attested uses of qurṣān in Arabic comes from a 1767 maritime treaty between the Sultan of Marrakesh, Muḥammad V (1710-1790) and the King of France, Louis XV (1710-1774).

Colour image of two manuscript pages with handwritten cramped text in Latin script on the top two thirds of the left page, and spaced Arabic script in Maghribi style on the right above and below a stylized floral seal
Image of the 1767 treaty signed between the Sultan of Marrakesh and the King of France. Public Domain.

Article 17 of the Arabic version begins:

إذا دخل قرصان من قراصين الفرنسيس لمرسى من مراسي الإيالة المولوية فإن القونصوا الحاضر في الوقت بالبلد يخبر حاكمها بذلك ليتحفظ على الأسارى الذين بالبلاد لئلا يهربوا للسفينة المذكورة...

Translation: If a qurṣān (of the qarāṣīn) of the French enters one of the harbours of the Mawlawī territory, the attending [French] Consul in the town must inform its governor so that he may take precautions over prisoners in the country to prevent them from fleeing to the aforementioned ship…

There is no doubt that qurṣān and qarāṣīn (pl.) refer to a type of ship in this context. Other parts of the treaty mention qarāṣīn flying the French flag and carrying French passports. While we can assume that qarāṣīn here means military rather than pirate ships, the line between piracy and naval warfare had been blurred in the Mediterranean for centuries. This is particularly clear in accounts of Ottoman Berber “pirates”, or the infamous “Barbary corsairs”.

Colour image of a painting of naval battle with a ship with many full sails topped by flags in the middle of a rough sea, and a smaller ship with sails in the left foreground.
‘A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs’ (after 1681) by Flemish painter Laureys a Castro. Public Domain.


Transmission and Popularisation

Given these encounters, it is not surprising that the term qurṣān entered the Arabic language through North Africa. The Arab tribes of the Persian Gulf lived on the other side of the Arabic-speaking world, so this neologism would have taken time to reach them. When they entered into maritime treaties with Britain in the nineteenth century, there was no distinct word in their vocabulary to denote ‘piracy’ as something that is exclusively perpetrated at sea.

The final step in the accession of the term into Arabic came with the language standardisation efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period known as the Arabic nahḍah. This period saw a flurry of production of dictionaries that standardised the term qurṣān as a singular form meaning ‘sea thief’. Advancements in education, media, and transport networks across the Arabic-speaking world ensured the establishment and transmission of the term.

Along with the term itself, a stereotypical Western image of the pirate also spread into modern Arab culture. Ironically, this Western image was influenced by contact with Ottoman and Arab “pirates”. For instance, the character of Redbeard is based on the Ottoman “corsair” Baba Oruç (Barbarossa), while the characteristic eye-patch is inspired by the Qāsimī “pirate” Raḥmah bin Jābir al-Jalhamī.

Black and white sketch of a man in Arabian-style robes with his face covered, and a brief textual description in Latin script at the bottom.
Sketch of Raḥmah bin Jābir al-Jalhamī from Ellms’ (1837) The Pirate’s own Book. Public Domain.

The British narrative of piracy has been challenged by writers from the region in recent years. Two notable examples are The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf by scholar and ruler of Sharjah, Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Qāsimī, and The Corsair by Qatari journalist and novelist Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud. The latter is a fictionalised account of the exploits of Raḥmah bin Jābir al-Jalhamī from an anti-imperial point of view. Its original Arabic title is al-Qurṣān. Even where the narrative is challenged, its language has stuck.


Modern Use

In the modern world, the term “piracy” has come to stand for so much more than aggression at sea, and the Arabic term qarṣanah has evolved in tandem. An example of this is the now commonly used expression ‘pirated films’ and its Arabic equivalent alflām muqarṣanah أفلام مُقَرْصَنَة.

White page with black text in two columns, with Latin script on the left and Arabic script on the right, and some words highlighted in yellow.
Screenshot of concordance results for the term piracy and its translation in memoQ, the translation management system used by BL/QFP translators.

As BL/QFP translators, wherever the English term piracy appears in catalogue descriptions, we translate it using the now established Modern Arabic word qarṣanah. However, this does not reflect historical usage and it is unlikely that the nineteenth-century Arab inhabitants of the Gulf would have heard this word, let alone used it.

Mariam Aboelezz, Arabic Translator
British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership
CCBY Image


al-Bustānī, Buṭrus (1870) Muḥīṭ al-Muḥīṭ: qāmūs muṭawwal li-l-lughah al-ʿArabīyah. Beirut (OIE 492.73)

Al-Mahmoud, Abdulaziz (2011) al-Qurṣān. Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing

Al-Mahmoud, Abdulaziz (2013) The Corsair. Noweira, Amira (trans.). Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (H.2015/.9446)

al-Qāsimī, Sulṭān Muḥammad (2016) The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf. London: Routledge (DRT ELD.DS.562531)

Majmaʿ al-Lughah al-ʿArabīyah (1961). al-Muʿjam al-Wasīṭ (1961). Cairo (14589.c.21)

Dozy, Reinhart P. A. (1881). Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes, Vol II. Leiden: Brill (X.985/73)

Ellms, Charles (2004[1837]) The Pirate’s own Book. Project Gutenberg [accessed 23 June 2022]

Ḥāmid, Ḥāmid S. M. (2016) al-Qarṣanah al-Baḥariyyah: bayn al-asbāb wa-l-tadā‘iyāt wa-l-ru’á al-istrātījiyyah . Cairo: al-Markaz al-Qawmī li-l-Iṣdārāt al-Qānūnīyah

London, British Library, 'File 2902/1916 ‘Treaties and Engagements between the British Government and the Chiefs of the Arabian Coast of the Persian Gulf’' IOR/L/PS/10/606. Qatar Digital Library [accessed 23 June 2022]

Riḍā, Muḥammad R. (1904) Kitāb al-Muṣālaḥah al-Muntaẓimah bayn Ṣulṭān Marākish wa Luwīz al-Khāmis ‘ashr Malik Faransá. Majallat al-Manār, 7, pp. 783-791. Al-Maktabah al-Shāmilah [accessed 23 June 2022]

Woodbridge, David, Aboelezz, Mariam and Abu Shaban, Tahani (2021) “Piracy” in the India Office Records: some historical context . Qatar Digital Library [accessed 23 June 2022]

04 July 2022

A Historical Narrative of the Kaʿba and the Hajj Season Reflecting on the Visual Materials Found in the IOR

The India Office Records (IOR) contain some fascinating visual materials, mainly photographs capturing the Kaʿba and the Hajj Season (pilgrimage) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These visual materials are provided with short descriptions without any further elaboration on the history of the places or people captured. Displaying a number of those photographs along with some external materials, this blog presents a historical narrative of the Kaʿba, its physical features, and the development of its religious status before becoming the site of Muslim pilgrimage.

The Kaʿba and the Great Mosque during the Hajj season in the 1880s
The Kaʿba and the Great Mosque during the Hajj season, 1888. Photographer: al-Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghaffar  (British Library, X463/1)

The Kaʿba is the holiest site in Islam. It is known as al-Bayt al-Haram (the Sacred House), and the second qibla (direction). It is located at the centre of the Great Mosque in Mecca. Although other Kaʿbas existed in the pre-Islamic period, such as the Kaʿba of Petra and the Kaʿba of Najran, the Kaʿba of Mecca was the most popular, hence taking over the name without the need to specify its location (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 380).

The city of Mecca
The city of Mecca. Photographer: H. A. Mirza & Sons, c. 1907 (British Library, Photo 174/3

Muslims in general believe that the Kaʿba was the first structure on earth. Behind its majestic cubic shape hides an interesting story of its construction. Its foundation is believed to go back to the Day of Creation, when Prophet Adam built it as a house of worship.

إنّ أولَ بيتٍ وُضعَ للنّاسِ للَّذي ببكَّة مباركاً وهدىً للعالمين
The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka [Mecca] full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings. (Qurʼan 3:96)

It was, however, during the time of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) that the Kaʿba acquired its current shape and characteristics. Following God’s instructions, Ibrahim and his son Ismaʿil (Ishmael) raised the walls of the building on the foundations that were already in place since Adam’s time. The first Kaʿba was without a roof and there are different traditions concerning the number of its doorways.

وإذْ يَرفَعُ ابراهيمُ القواعدَ منَ البيتِ واسماعيلُ ربَّنا تقبلْ منّا إنكَ أنتَ السميعُ العليمُ
And remember Abraham and Ismail raised the foundations of the House (with this prayer): “Our Lord! accept (this service) from us for thou art the All-Hearing and the All-Knowing” (Qurʼan 2:127)

The significance of Ibrahim’s Kaʿba is in establishing of most of the features present in today’s Kaʿba. These are, al-Hajar al-Aswad (the Black Stone), Maqam Ibrahim (the Station of Ibrahim), Hijr Ismaʿil (the Lap of Ismaʿil), Biʾr Zamzam (the Well of Zamzam), and al-Mataf (the circular space around the Kaʿba).

Situated in the eastern corner of the Kaʿba, al-Hajar al-Aswad is believed to have descended to Ibrahim from heaven. He then set the stone as the starting point of tawaf (circumambulation) around the Kaʿba. When pilgrims pass by the stone, they know they have completed one round. Maqam Ibrahim on the other hand, is named after the place that is believed to have “miraculously” preserved the marks of Ibrahim’s feet when standing at the spot to build the Kaʿba. Today, the Maqam is in a multilateral structure made of glass and brass bars.

Main physical features of the Kaʿba
A photograph showing the main features of the Kaʿba (British Library, 1781.b.6/2)

Hijr Ismaʿil refers to the place where Ibrahim left his wife and son in Mecca. The Hijr is situated on the north-western side of the Kaʿba, and is marked by a wall surrounding it. Biʾr Zamzam, on the other hand, is believed to have sprung in the place where Ismaʿil stood, thirsty, while his mother engaged in finding water for him. Although it was subject to periods of dryness, the well continues to provide pilgrims with water until today. Al-Mataf refers to the courtyard around the Kaʿba and starts from a fixed point: al-Hajar al-Aswad.

Kaʿba during the Hajj season
Kaʿba during the Hajj season. Photographer: H. A. Mirza & Sons, c. 1907 (British Library, 174/5)

Announcing the Kaʿba as the House of One God, Ibrahim is considered the founder of tawhid (monotheism) in Mecca, and the one who set up the pilgrimage ritual. It is believed that, pilgrimage performed by Muslims today is very similar to the one practiced during Ibrahim’s time. The Kaʿba continued its status as a place of monotheistic religion under its new guardians, the Yemenite tribe of Jurhum. The Jurhum claimed ‘they were related to Ismaʿil by intermarriage, hence their right to the guardianship’ (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 100 and 222). They were powerful in the region and greatly contributed to the prosperity of Mecca. Pilgrims brought expensive gifts to present to the Kaʿba, which eventually became full of treasure.

Pilgrims camping near Mecca in the 1880s
Pilgrims camping near Mecca in the 1880s. Photographer: al-Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghaffar, 1886-9 (British Library, X463/8)

The major change to the Kaʿba occurred when the head of the Khuzaʿa tribe, ʿAmr bin Luhayy al-Khuzaʿi, took over the guardianship from the Jurhum. During his trading expeditions, al-Khuzaʿi came across numerous idols (assnam); worshipped by the locals. He brought some of those with him to Mecca and placed them inside and around the Kaʿba. Al-Khuzaʻi was thus the first to introduce paganism to the region (Ibn al-Kalbi, Kitab al-Assnam, 8-9). Eventually, each of the region’s tribes began to install its own idol in the courtyard of the Kaʿba, which housed over three hundred of them (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 366). The most popular of these were Hubal, Manat, Allat, and al-ʿUzza.

Relief_of_the_Arabian_goddess_Al-Lat _Manat_and_al-Uzza_from_Hatra._Iraq_Museum
Manat, Allat and al-ʿUzza, from the 5th temple at Hatra, Ninawa Governorate, Iraq. Parthian period, 1st to 3rd century CE. Iraq Museum, Baghdad
Wikimedia Commons

Another exterior addition to the Kaʿba under the Khuzaʿa was the tradition of hanging poems on its walls. These were chosen during literary ceremonies usually performed during the pilgrimage seasons. One of these poems was the muʿallaqa of Zuhair bin Abi Sulma, which has a reference to the Quraysh and the Jurhum tribes performing pilgrimage:

فأقسمتُ بالبيتِ الذي طافَ حولَهُ         رجالٌ بنوهُ من قريشٍ وجرهم
And I swore by the House, men of Quraysh and Jurhum built it and performed circumambulation around it

Later on, a new tradition was instituted, namely, the covering of the Kaʿba called Kiswa (also Kuswa). There are different accounts about the first person who put the Kiswa on the Kaʿba, the majority of which agree on the name of the King of Himyar, Tubbaʿ al-Himyari. During his pilgrimage, al-Himyari brought the first Kiswa made of the finest of cloths from Yemen as a gift to the Kaʿba. This influenced many tribes to follow his example up until the time of Qussay bin Kilab of the Quraysh tribe.

Kiswa fragment
Kiswa fragment. Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888 (British Library, 1781.b.6/32)

When Qussay bin Kilab, the Prophet Muhammad’s fourth grandfather, came to power he announced himself the new guardian of the Kaʿba, and established the Quraysh power in Mecca. Qussay rebuilt the Kaʿba with stronger walls and for the first time in its history, the Kaʿba was roofed. He allowed the Kiswa to be placed over the Kaʿba only by the head of a tribe, and each year by a different tribe. The covering of the Kaʿba with a Kiswa continues to be a significant custom today.

Drawing of a 19th century ceremonial mahmal carrying the Kiswa to Mecca
Drawing of a 19th century ceremonial mahmal carrying the Kiswa to Mecca, 1888  (British Library, 1781.b.6/5)

Qussay was also the holder of the key to the Kaʿba, which was transferred to his descendants until it reached its final destination in the hands of a Meccan family called, the Banu Shayba who are still the key holders today.

Sons of Banu Shayba
Sons of Banu Shayba. Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888  (British Library, 1781.b.6/22)

A few years before the advent of Islam, between 600 and 607 CE, Quraysh decided to rebuild the Kaʿba, adding more facilities to the building. According to the Sira (Prophet’s biography), when the Quraysh tribes rebuilt the Kaʿba, there was a debate on who would replace the Black Stone back on its wall. Muhammad bin ʿAbd Allah (later Prophet Muhammad) was chosen to do so. He placed the stone in the middle of a robe and asked for one man of each tribe to hold onto the robe while he placed the stone to the wall. This way all the tribes participated in placing it into the wall (Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham, 33-35).

Muhammad and the black stone. Eul.Or.MS.20.f45r
Muhammad helping in placing the Black Stone. From Jamiʻ al-tawarikh by Rashid al-Din.Iran, c.1314 (Edinburgh University Library Or.MS.20, f. 45r)
©The University of Edinburgh

During the ascent of Islam, Prophet Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca and captured the Kaʿba in the eighth year of the Hijra (629-30 CE). The Prophet’s first mission was to revive the function Ibrahim built the Kaʿba for. He himself broke the idols inside and around it (Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham, 234-235 and Kitab al-Assnam, 31). As the Kaʿba was recently built, the Prophet decided to keep the old building, announcing the Kaʿba as the House of the One God, where Muslims are to perform their annual pilgrimage. One of the Prophet’s companions, Bilal bin Rabah, was the first to raise the adhan (the call for prayer) from the roof of the Kaʿba.

From that day on, the Kaʿba continues to be Islam’s holiest place of worship. Today, over two million Muslim worshippers from all over the world, gather around the Kaʿba to perform their annual ritual of Hajj during the month of Dhul-Hijja of the Islamic Hijri calendar.

Zanzibar pilgrimsPilgrimsPilgrims
PilgrimsPilgrimsZanzibar pilgrims
Pilgrims from Morocco, Malaysia, Java, Sumbawa, Baghdad, and Zanzibar. From ‘Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka.’ Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888 (British Library, 1781.b.6)

To mark the conclusion of the ritual, pilgrims sacrifice animals in the name of God and start their celebration of ʿEid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice), which this year falls on Saturday July 9th.

Day of ʿArafa followed by animal sacrific and ʿEid celebration
Day of ʿArafa followed by animal sacrific and ʿEid celebration (British Library, Photo 174/6)

Primary Sources
Album of 'Views of Mecca and Medina' by H. A. Mirza & Sons, Photographers ‎ (c. 1907). Photo 174
‘Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka’, by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje ‎ (1888). 1781.b.6
‘Bilder aus Mekka’, by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1889). X463
Ibn Hisham, Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham: al-Sira al-Nabawiyya. Ed. Muhammad ʿAfif al-Zuʻbi. Beirut: Dar al-Nafaʼis, 1987.
Ibn al-Kalbi. Kitab al-Assnam. Ed. Ahmad Zaki Pasha. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya, 1995.
The Holy Quran translated by A. Yusuf Ali

Secondary Sources
Ahmed Hebbo. Tarikh al-ʿArab qabla al-Islam. Hims: Manshurat Jamiʿat al-Baʿth, 1991.

Ula Zeir, Content Specialist Arabic Language and Gulf History/ British Library Qatar Foundation Project



10 April 2022

Christian Bibles in Muslim Robes with Jewish Glosses: Arundel Or.15 and other Medieval Coptic Arabic Bible Translations at the British Library

Today's guest post is by Miriam L. Hjälm, Sankt Ignatios Academy, Stockholm School of Theology

One of the most impressive Christian Arabic manuscripts at the British Library is Arundel Or.15. This beautifully ornamented codex, presented like a Mamluk Quran, contains a carefully copied translation of the Psalms into Arabic preceded by an elaborate introduction on the use and perception of this biblical book.

1.Beginning of Psalm 1
Beginning of Psalm 1, c.1350 (BL Arundel Or. 15. ff. 38v-39r)

The codex is undated and anonymous but the handwriting of the main text appears to be identical with that of the Arabic translation of the Pentateuch in Paris (BnF. Ar. 12). The latter was composed by Jirjis b. al-qass Abū al-Mufaḍḍal b. Amīn al-Mulk Luṭf Allāh and dated 1353. It was copied from a manuscript copied by (bi-khaṭṭ) al-Shams ibn Kabar (f. 290r), a known Coptic writer who served as the secretary of a Mamluk minister. Ibn Kabar died in 1324, around thirty years before the copy was made, but it is likely that both he and Jirjis belonged to the same scribal elite and shared common views on the literature they produced.

The ornamented frames and calligraphic style used for the rubrics in the two copies differ somewhat, but both codices are exactly the same size, are arranged in groupings of five sheets (quinions) with the quire number written in conjunction with the word kurrās (quire) and are foliated using Coptic Epact numbers.

2. The end of Psalm 40:41
The end of Psalm 40/41 (BL Arundel Or.15, f. 106r)

Yet another luxurious copy produced by Jirjis is found in Copt. Museum, Bibl. 90. Here he is called Jirjis Abū al-Faḍl ibn Luṭf Allāh, yet the handwriting in the main text appears to be identical to that in Arundel Or.15 and the Paris manuscript, which are both written in elegant naskh and include headings in muḥaqqaq and other scripts associated with Qurans. This Gospel translation was produced in 1340 (Hunt, p.122) during the time of Buṭrus, the metropolitan of the Copts in Jerusalem and Syria.

Both the Paris manuscript and Arundel Or.15 contain a similar text critical apparatus. The scribe collated the main text with several different copies and marked alternative renderings preceded by various sigla in red color. The same system is described in detail in another manuscript at the British Library: Or. 3382, dated 1264–65. This copy contains the Gospels in Arabic, which are carefully compared with the Coptic text and with Arabic translations from Greek and Syriac. In an epilogue appended to the translation, we learn that the text was originally composed by Ibn al-ʻAssāl. The text-critical system in these three copies can thus be associated with Ibn al-ʿAssāl and his text-critical projects of the thirteenth century.

The system is described in the epilogue to the Gospels: the letter qāf is used for Arabic translations of Coptic, sīn for Arabic translations of Syriac, and rāʼ for Arabic translations of Greek. A Coptic translation is also referenced. Combinations of letters, such as sīn- rāʼ, indicates that both the Syriac-based and the Greek-based translation share a reading. This interpretation makes perfect sense if applied to Arundel Or. 15. In the latter, we also find the siglum ʻayn, which almost certainly stands for Hebrew. From this and other various sigla used, we know that the scribe collated a considerable number of texts, some of which represented standard versions in Jewish and Christian communities in the Middle East. Most notably, the Hebrew-based version coincides with Rav Saadiah Gaon’s (d. 942) tafsīr of the Psalms, and Syriac-based glosses often match the Arabic translation by the East Syriac polymath Abū al-Faraj ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Ṭayyib (d. 1043).

3. From Psalms 1 and 2 (BL Arundel Or.15  ff. 39v–40r)
From Psalms 1 and 2 (BL Arundel Or.15, ff. 39v–40r)

A beautiful illustration of king David precedes the Psalm translation. The illustration does not imitate typically Coptic iconography but rather resembles Byzantine images. David is featured as a scribe, in the process of composing his psalms.

4.King David writing psalms (BL Arundel Or.15  f. 38r)
King David writing psalms (BL Arundel Or.15, f. 38r)

In format the codex resembles a Mamluk Quran, and the scribe used terms associated with Islam, such as al-fajr for ‘morning prayer’. The iconography, however, is Byzantine while the Psalm translation itself was compared with Coptic, Rūm (Orthodox), East Syriac, and Jewish bible versions. The manuscript thus testifies to an astonishing openness to other communities among the Copts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. We understand from his ecclesiastical encyclopedia Miṣbāḥ al-Ẓulmah wa Īḍāḥ al-Khidmah (The Lamp of Shadows and the Illumination of Service) that Ibn Kabar was questioned for his inclusive approach to other people’s texts and traditions and to counteract such claims, he explains (my italics):

Also included are those later writers … who composed anything on religion, whether from those sects that are joined with us in confession, or those that are separated from us in creed. But we have not listed the compositions of this latter group, unless we have received thorough knowledge of them and grown in understanding from them, even though something differing from the views of the orthodox and inconsistent with the aims of the Jacobites [i.e. miaphysites] might be mixed in among them, for eminent men do not gather gems, without being interested in pearls: they pick out what is suitable without harping on the differences (Abū al-Barakāt, Catalog of Christian Literature in Arabic; tr. A McCollum).

5. Beginning of the introduction to Psalms (BL Arundel Or.15  ff. 2v-3r)
Beginning of the introduction to Psalms (BL Arundel Or.15, ff. 2v-3r)

The same or a similar scribal Coptic workshop produced several other impressive manuscripts. In addition to those already mentioned above and without the text-critical apparatus, British Library, Or. 1327 contains a beautifully ornamented Arabic Gospel translation, dated 1334.

6. Frontispiece to the Gospel of John (BL Or.1327  ff. 185v-186r)
Frontispiece to the Gospel of John, dated 1334 (BL Or.1327, ff. 185v-186r)

Another manuscript from the same time period is Add. MS 11856, a Gospel translation dated 1336–1337. This copy was presented to the Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa and includes, besides the Gospel texts, short summaries of each book. Add. 11856 is less lavishly decorated than Arundel Or. 15 but includes beautiful frontispieces and  illustrations (Jerusalem 1000-1400: Four Gospels in Arabic):

7.Add MS 11856 Portrait of St Luke
Portrait of St. Luke. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 95v)

The examples provided in this blog represent a peak in Christian Arabic Bible production. Despite the political hardship the Coptic communities faced in the fourteenth century, scribal workshops thrived and produced expensive and scholarly advanced copies of the Bible, which impress their readers still today. These copies are not only aesthetically appealing but also show us how Bible translations could be used to mediate –or dominate– in socio-religious conflicts. By dressing their Bibles in typically Muslim robes, the robes were no longer Muslim, but an expression of holy Scriptures, and by using Jewish translations as one of several authoritative sources, the Jewish claim to Scripture was partially disarmed. It appears that for Ibn Kabar, ‘eminent men’ were those bold enough to delve into other peoples’ traditions and confident enough to decide what was good in them, regardless of origin. The ‘Coptic renaissance’ was indeed a bold project.

This post was written with the support of the Swedish Research Council (2017-01630)

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



Further reading

Wadi Awad, ‘al-Shams ibn Kabar’, in Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History, vol. 4 (1200-1350), ed. Thomas et al. (Brill: 2012), 762–766.
Miriam L. Hjälm, ‘1.2.12 Arabic Texts’, in The Textual History of the Bible, vol. 2A, ed. Feder and Henze (Brill, 2020), 483–495.
Lucy-Anne Hunt, ‘Christian Arab Gospel Book: Cairo, Coptic Museum MS Bibl. 90 in its Mamluk Context’, Mamlūk Studies Review 13, no. 2 (2009): 105–132.
Duncan B. MacDonald (ed. and trans.), ‘Ibn al-ʿAssāl’s Arabic Version of the Gospels’, in Homenaje á D. Francisco Codera en su Jubilación del Profesorado, ed. Saavedra (M. Escar, 1904), 375–392.
Ronny Vollandt, ‘The Conundrum of Scriptural Plurality: The Arabic Bible, Polyglots, and Medieval Predecessors of Biblical Criticism’, in Editing the Hebrew Bible in the Variety of its Texts and Versions, ed. Lange et al. (Brill, 2016), 56–85.
————————, ‘Flawed Biblical translations into Arabic and How to Correct Them: A Copt and a Jew study Saadiah’s Tafsīr’, in Studies on Arabic Christianity in Honor of Sidney H. Griffith, ed. Bertaina et al. (Brill: 2018), 56–90.
Vevian Zaki, ‘Al-Asʿad Hibat Allāh ibn al-ʿAssāl: His Contribution to the Formation of New Identity of Copts in Egypt Through his Critical Translation of the Gospel of Luke’. MA thesis, Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, 2011.
——————, ‘The business of copying manuscripts: Tuma al-Safi and his elite clients’ (forthcoming).

07 March 2022

Arabic Manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library

Today's guest post is by Prof. Andrew Peacock of the University of St. Andrews.

Despite the status of Arabic as the sacred language of Islam, and of Islamic law, across the Muslim world, surprisingly little is known about its history and textual production in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia. The first edition of the standard reference work on Arabic literature, Brockelmann’s Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur (1902, vol. 2, 422 ), lists only three texts from the region, and while its Supplement (1942, vol. 3, 628-9) adds a handful more, but these references are marred by errors such as confusing the African kingdom of Bornu on Lake Chad with Borneo. However, a significant tradition of composing as well as reading Arabic texts existed in Southeast Asia, but one which is scarcely known owing to the fact it is very little represented in western libraries.

The British Library holds a small but interesting collection of Arabic works from the region which illustrate some of their characteristics. A manuscript (Add 12367) from the royal library of the kingdom of Bone in South Sulawesi, seized in the British attack of 1814, contains two Arabic works by ‘Abu’l-Fath Yayha ‘Abd al-Basir al-Dariri, who is said by local tradition to have been an Arab who came to Sulawesi in 1678 and died there 1723. Both ‘Abd al-Basir’s works were dedicated to local rulers. The Bahjat al-Tanwir (‘The Beauty of Illumination’) was written at the behest of the sultan of Gowa (Makassar), Fakhr al-Din ‘Abd al-Jalil (r. c. 1677-1709), while the Daqa’iq al-Asrar (‘Subtleties of Secrets’) was written for a sultan of Bone, Idris A‘zam al-Din (1696-1714). Apart from the British Library manuscript, Add 12367, these works -which constitute our sole evidence for ‘Abd al-Basir’s activities – are known from only one other manuscript, also from the court of early nineteenth century Bone, now held in Jakarta (National Library of Indonesia, MS A 108; it is this manuscript which provides the title of Daqa’iq al-Asrar, missing in Add 12367).

‘Abd Basir al-Dariri’s Bahjat al-Tanwir, composed for Sultan ‘Abd al-Jalil of Makassar
‘Abd Basir al-Dariri’s Bahjat al-Tanwir, composed for Sultan ‘Abd al-Jalil of Makassar. British Library, Add 12367, fol. 28v Noc

As this very limited manuscript circulation suggests, Arabic literary production was primarily associated with royal courts, and scarcely circulated beyond them even within Southeast Asia. These characteristics are also suggested by a library from Buton in Southeast Sulawesi recently digitised by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, the Abdul Mulku Zahari collection (EAP212/2). This collection remains in the hands of the descendant of the hereditary secretaries to the sultans of Buton, and contains numerous works composed in Arabic by Sultan Muhammad ‘Aydarus of Buton (r. 1824-1851). Yet as far as we know, none of Muhammad ‘Aydarus’s Arabic works ever circulated beyond the island of Buton, and possibly not even beyond the court there. Even today, these Butonese Arabic works remain in private hands on the island, without even any copies in regional collections such as the National Library of Indonesia.

The Sabil al-Salam li-Bulugh al-Maram (‘Way of Peace to the Attainment of Desire’) by Sultan Muhammad ‘Aydarus of Buton
The Sabil al-Salam li-Bulugh al-Maram (‘Way of Peace to the Attainment of Desire’) by Sultan Muhammad ‘Aydarus of Buton (EAP 212/2/17)

Almost all the Arabic works known from Southeast Asia deal with Sufism. ‘Abd al-Basir’s Bahjat al-Tanwir, for instance, emphasises prayer, contemplation and the recitation of God’s name (dhikr) as means of attaining the divine presence. His Daqa’iq al-Asrar discusses similar themes while emphasising that attainment of the divine presence was only open to the elite of the elite (khass al-khawass). While this concept in Sufism has long roots stretching back to al-Ghazzali (d. 1111) and originally designated those who were especially advanced on the Sufi path in piety and understanding, in Southeast Asia it evidently attained distinctly political undertones as well. Sufism became embedded in local political systems; for instance, in the Bone sultanate admission to certain Sufi orders was banned to all but the nobles and the sultan. In Buton, the Sufi concept of the Seven Grades of Being was transposed into the political organisation of the sultanate, and the sultan was elected on the basis of his learning and Sufi credentials. One reason for the extensive Arabic production of Muhammad ‘Aydarus may have been to underline these credentials.

These Arabic works thus were intended for the consumption of a small political elite. Their composition in Arabic, rather than one of the numerous written local languages such as Makassarese or Bugis, or the regional lingua franca of Malay, was precisely because it was less readily understood. Although on occasion these works were later translated – again largely for a court audience - Arabic became a marker not just of possession of esoteric religious knowledge, but also of political power, as is also suggested by the consistent use of Arabic on royal seals in Sulawesi (Gallop 2019: 547-8).

The ending of ‘Abd al-Basir al-Dariri’s Daqa’iq al-Asrar, written for Sultan Idris A‘zam al-Din of Bone
The ending of ‘Abd al-Basir al-Dariri’s Daqa’iq al-Asrar, written for Sultan Idris A‘zam al-Din of Bone and dated the beginning of Safar 1126 (February 1714), which is followed immediately by a translation into Bugis. British Library, Add 12367, fol. 11r Noc

Works in Arabic were also composed specifically for Southeast Asian audiences by scholars in the Hijaz, of whom the most notable was Ibrahim al-Kurani of Medina (1615-1690), the towering figure of seventeenth century Islamic intellectual life. Al-Kurani attracted a circle of Southeast Asian students (known as al-Jawa), with some of whom he maintained a correspondence after their return to their homeland. In contrast to the very limited distribution of Southeast Asian Arabic works, al-Kurani’s fame ensured his answers to questions from the Jawa were widely read in the central Islamic lands. His best known work of this type was the Ithaf al-Dhaki bi-Sharh al-Tuhfa al-Mursala ila Ruh al-Nabi (‘Gifting of the Sagacious commenting on “The Gift Descended to the Prophet’s Spirit”'), a commentary on Sufi metaphysics, but in 1673 he also composed a work specifically responding to debates over Sufism that raged at the court of Aceh in North Sumatra, al-Maslak al-Jali fi Hukm Shath al-Wali (‘The Manifest Way to Judge the Ecstatic Utterances of the Saint’). The international interest such questions attracted is suggested by the British Library copy of this treatise, which comes from the royal Mughal library, seized by the British after the Mutiny in 1857 (Delhi Arabic 710, fol. 40b-51b).

al-Maslak al-Jali fi Hukm Shath al-Wali by Ibrahim al-Kurani. British Library, Delhi Arabic 710, ff. 40b-41a.
al-Maslak al-Jali fi Hukm Shath al-Wali by Ibrahim al-Kurani. British Library, Delhi Arabic 710, ff. 40b-41a. Noc

Further reading
Fathurahman, Oman, “New Textual Evidence for the Intellectual and Religious Connections between the Ottomans and Aceh” in A.C.S. Peacock & Annnabel Gallop [eds.]. From Anatolia to Aceh: Ottomans, Turks, and Southeast Asia (Oxford, 2015).
Peacock, A.C.S., “Arabic manuscripts from Buton, Southeast Sulawesi, and the literary activities of Sultan Muhammad ‘Aydarus (1824-1851),” Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 10 (2019): 44-83.
Gallop, Annabel Teh, Malay Seals from the Islamic World of Southeast Asia: Content, Form, Context, Catalogue (Singapore, 2019)

Andrew Peacock, University of St Andrews Ccownwork
This research was supported by the British Academy through a Mid-Career Fellowship.

14 February 2022

The art of small things (5): Recitation markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

This is the final part of a series of blog posts which has firmly resisted the temptation to dwell on the impressive illuminated frames in Qur’an manuscripts, in order to focus on the smallest artistic elements found on the inner pages. The first post looked at verse markers, the second text frames, the third surah headings and the fourth juz’ markers, all features which are common to many Qur’an manuscripts from all over the Islamic world. This fifth post, on the recitation markers ruku‘ or maqra’, is rather different, as these are not found in Qur’ans in all regions, or even in all parts of Southeast Asia, and are rarely mentioned in the scholarly literature on Qur’an manuscripts.

Maqra’ inscribed twice in tiny red letters in the margin, at the start of Juz’ 2 (Q.1:142), in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century
Maqra’ inscribed twice in tiny red letters in the margin, at the start of Juz’ 2 (Q.2:142), in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 13v. Noc

The more widely-used term is ruku‘, which has two related meanings. The first is the ritual act of bowing from the waist while standing during the formal prayer (salat). The second meaning of ruku‘ is a section of the Qur’an, in principle forming a thematic unit, selected for recitation. According to a recent study by 'Abd al-Qayum al-Sindi (2012/3), the tradition of dividing the Qur'an into ruku‘ appears to have developed in Central Asia and India around the 3/4th (10/11th) centuries. The aim was to facilitate reciting the Qur’an in Ramadan, aiming for completion by the 27th day of the holy month, the Laylat al-Qadr, believed to be the day that the Qur’an was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad. As a section of the Qur’an would be recited during each of the 20 rakat (cycles) of the evening tarawih prayers during Ramadan, each concluding with the ordained bow or ruku‘, the Qur’an was therefore divided into 540 (20 x 27) ruku‘, although other authorities give the number of ruku‘ as 558.

The division of the Qur’anic text into ruku‘, indicated with the letter ‘ayn inscribed in the margin, is indeed strongly associated with South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia, both in manuscripts and in printed Qur’ans, but is not found in western Islamic lands or in the Ottoman realm. In Southeast Asia, the use of marginal ‘ayn to signify ruku‘,  often placed in illuminated ornaments, is prominent in the early wave of Qur’an manuscripts in the Sulawesi diaspora style dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as in Mindanao.

EAP1020-3-2 (4)-3.11-15-det
Ruku‘ indicated by the letter ‘ayn in an illuminated 8-pointed star-shaped medallion, with the actual point in the text marked by a composite roundel. Folios from a Qur’an in the Sulawesi diaspora geometric style now held in Kampar, Riau, part of a larger manuscript copied in 1740 now in the Sang Nila Utama Museum, Pekanbaru, Riau, Indonesia. EAP1020/3/2, p.4 

MRSR Mushaf A (9)-DET  MRSR Mushaf A (12) 'ayn-det  MRSR Mushaf A (32) 'ayn-det
Marginal ‘ayn ornaments in a Sulawesi-style Qur’an, copied in Kedah in 1753, held in Masjid Sultan Riau, Pulau Penyengat, Riau Archipelago.

SB-Quran-01 (7)-a   UVL MSS 13296  (23)-a  Bristol D.M.32  (18)a
Marginal ‘ayn ornaments in Qur'an manuscripts from Mindanao, 18th-19th century; (left) Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Ms or. fol. 4134; (middle) University of Virginia Library, MSS 13296; (right) University of Bristol Library, D.M. 32.

From the 19th century onwards, marginal ‘ayn markers indicating ruku‘ are most strongly associated with Qur’an manuscripts from Java, and are often executed with stylish calligraphic flourishes.  In two Qur’ans from Java in the British Library, Add 12312 and Add 12343, the ruku‘ adhere to the locations given in modern printed Qur'ans, but in Add 12343 - and in a number of other Javanese Qur'ans - each marginal ‘ayn is accompanied by a number that is hard to interpret, seeming not to bear any correlation to either the number of the ruku‘, or the number of the verse, or the number of verses in that ruku‘.  These numbers are given here in bold in this listing of the 16 ruku‘ in the first juz’ of the Qur’an (S. al-Baqarah Q.2:1-141): 1 (2:1), 2 (2:8), 3 (2:21) 3 (this is the first ruku‘ marking in Add 12343), 4 (2:30) 13, 5 (2:40) 7, 6 (2:47) 7, 7 (2:60) 3, 8 (2:62) 9, 9 (2:72) 19, 10 (2:83) 4, 11 (2:87) 1, 12 (2:97) 7, 13 (2:104) 9, 14 (2:113) 9, 15 (2:122) 8, 16 (2:130) 12, with the 17th ruku‘ starting with Juz' 2 at Q.2:142.

Add 12343 f.x
Marginal letter ‘ayn in red accompanied by the number '7', marking ruku‘ 5 (Q.2:40), in a Qur'an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add 12343, f. 3v. Noc

Add 12312 ayn
Marginal letter ‘ayn in red topped with an elaborate triangle of alternating red and black lines, but without a number, while a tiny ‘ayn above the verse marker indicates the exact start of ruku‘ 5 (Q.2:40), in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add 12312, f. 3v. Noc

Ruku‘ marked with the letter ‘ayn in red ink in the margin, with a small ‘ayn at the exact verse, in a Qur’an from East Java, 19th century. EAP061/2/35, p.87.

According al-Sindi's research (2012/3), it was the Sindhi scholar Muhammad al-Tattwi (d. 1174/1761) who replaced the term ruku‘ with maqra’, dividing each juz' into 16 maqra’. He was the author of the Tuhfah al-Qari bi-Jama‘ al-Maqari (‘A Gift to the Reader of a Collection of Maqra’), said to be based on the ‘opinions of scholars from Bukhara’. Maqra’ inscriptions in Qur'an manuscripts are most evident in Southeast Asia, mainly in the Malay peninsula and Java. Important evidence of the usage of this term in the Malay world to refer to sections of the Qur’an for recitation is found in the historical chronicle by Raja Ali Haji, ‘Genealogy of the Malays and Bugis’ (Salasilah Melayu dan Bugis) composed in 1868. In one episode, Gusti Jamril, son of the ruler of Mempawah on the west coast of Kalimantan (Borneo), pays a visit to Pangiran Dipati, the elderly ruler of Pinang Sikayuk. The young prince is quizzed on his religious learning:

His Highness asked him, ‘Has my grandson learned to recite the Qur’an?’ Gusti answered, ‘Yes’, and so His Highness instructed him to do so. So Gusti recited two makra before pausing, and His Highness listened to him with pleasure. (Dan baginda pun bertanya pula, "Apa cundaku tahu mengaji Quran?" Maka jawab Gusti, "Tahu". Maka disuruh baginda membaca Quran. Dan membacalah Gusti ada dua makra berhenti. Maka baginda pun suka mendengarnya.  Raja Ali Haji 2016: 212, identified via the Malay Concordance Project.)

Pakualaman Is.4 (2)-ed
Maqra’ marking in a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 19th century. Pura Pakulaman Library, Yogyakarta, Is. 4.

IAMM 1998.1.3501  maqra c-ed
Illuminated floral maqra’ marking in a Qur’an manuscript in the Patani style, 19th century. Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 1998.1.3494

IAMM 1998.1.3494  maqra' c-det  BQMI  (1)-a  BQMI  (3)-a
Illuminated maqra’ markers, from left to right: from a Patani-style Qur’an, 19th century, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 1998.1.3501; and two from the royal La Lino Qur'an, early 19th century, probably made on the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula but long held in the Palace of Bima, Sumbawa, now in the Bayt al-Qur'an and Museum Istiqlal, Jakarta. Note the similar stylish calligraphic treatment of the letter alif.

Or 15227-maqra
Maqra’ inscription in red ink, in a Qur’an manuscript in the Patani style, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 24v Noc

Illuminated maqra’ ornaments are actually quite rare, as maqra’ markings in Qur’an manuscripts are usually just inscribed in the margin in red ink, as shown in Or 15227 above. In this manuscript each juz’ is divided into not 16 but eight maqra’, and those in the first juz’ are located at Q.2:26, 2:44, 2:61, 2:75, 2:91, 2:106 and 2:124. Thus maqra’ do not relate to ruku‘, but rather constitute an eighth of a juz’, thereby matching the divisions of a juz' notated in other manuscripts as thumn (eighth), rub‘ (quarter) or nisf or hizb (half). And indeed, in a recent official Malaysian government publication, the maqra’ is defined as a quarter of a hizb: ‘the Qur’an contains 323,671 letters, 77,437 words, 6236 verses, 114 surah, 30 juz’, 60 hizb and 240 maqra’ (Panduan Rasm Uthmani, 2012: 3, cited in Muhammad Azam 2021: 9).

In the manuscript cultures of Sumatra, notably in Aceh and Minangkabau, neither ruku‘ nor maqra’ markings are generally found in Qur'an manuscripts, which are more likely to indicate fractions of a juz' (although, as can now be recognized, these are in fact the same divisions as indicated by maqra’ markings). The illustration belows show a Qur'an manuscript from India, which was probably brought to Aceh and used and rebound there. The original manuscript has marginal 'ayn in red ink, but a local (Acehnese) hand has added in black ink the inscription rub', indicating a quarter of a juz'.

BL Or.16603 10 (23)-b
Qur'an from India, brought to Aceh, ca. 19th century. British Library, Or 16603, f. 73r.

The evidence so far from Southeast Asian manuscripts suggests that maqra’ are a simple quantitative division of the Qur’anic text, while ruku‘ are a qualitative division, aiming for thematic completeness within each section. However, in some manuscripts from Java, both inscriptions are found together (see illustrations below), and certain current Indonesian sources suggest that the terms ruku‘ and maqra’ are used interchangeably.  A recent study of the tradition in Lampung of reciting Surat al-Taubah over a woman in the seventh month of pregnancy describes how the Imam will read until he reaches the 'ayn: "the sign of 'ayn, also called ruku‘ and makra’, placed in the margin, is a sign of the completion of a story or discussion within the Qur'an. Thus it is advised that when you wish to stop reciting, this should be done when you encounter the 'ayn sign" (tanda ‘ain disebut juga ruku’ dan makra’ yang terletak di pinggir garis yaitu isyarat sempurnanya kisah atau suatu pembahasan di dalam Al-Qur'an. Sehingga dianjurkan ketika ingin mengakhiri bacaan al-Qur’an hendaknya ketika menemui simbol ‘ain, Musrochin 2021: 330).

IAMM 2004.2.4  text-ayn    IAMM 2004.2.3  text-maqra'  nisf-a
Two Qur'an manuscripts from Java, with marginal inscriptions in the same place of 'ayn for ruku‘ and maqra’.  Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, (left) 2004.2.4, (right) 2004.2.3.

The terms ruku‘ and maqra’ for Qur'anic divisions for recitation may thus defy firm categorisation, but have meanings which continue to evolve over place and time.

‘Abd al-Qayum b. ‘Abd a-Ghafur al-Sindi, Mustalah ar-ruku fi l-masahif, madlulahu, nashatuhu wa aqwal al-ulama’ fiha (‘The term ruku‘ in mushafs: its meaning, origin and opinions of scholars on it'), Majallah Tibyan li-d-Dirasat al-Qur'aniyah / Tbeian: for Qur’anic Studies, 1434 (2012/3), 24: 20-73.
Raja Ali Haji Raja Ahmad, Salasilah Melayu dan Bugis, diusahakan Mohd. Yusof Md. Nor. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2016.
Masruchin, Pembacaan Surat At-Taubah dalam tradisi “Tobatan” pada usia kehamilan tujuh bulan di Dusun 2 Umbulkadu Desa Sendang Asri Lampung TengahAl-Dzikra: Jurnal Studi Ilmu al-Qur’an dan al-Hadits, 2021, 15(2): 317-336.
Muhammad Azam bin Adnan, The Malay Quran manuscripts in Muzium Negara. Malaysia Museums Journal, 2021, 38: 7-25.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

I would like to acknowledge the valuable help of Mykhaylo Yakubovych in sharing and interpreting the article by al-Sindi, and I am also grateful for comments from Johanna Pink and Ali Akbar.

27 September 2021

The art of small things (4): Juz’ markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

The Qur’an is traditionally divided into thirty parts of equal length called juz', which are of great practical significance as they facilitate the planned reading or recitation of the Holy Book in its entirety over one month, particularly the blessed fasting month of Ramadan. Each juz’ can further be subdivided into half (nisf or hizb), quarters (rubu‘) and eighths (thumn). The start of a new juz,’ and often the subdivisions too, may be indicated in a Qur’an manuscript through a number of graphic devices. These range from a marginal inscription or ornament to a marker within the text itself, or by highlighting the first few words of the new juz’ in red ink or in bold; sometimes all these devices might be found together in a single manuscript. Preferred ways of signifying the start of a new juz’ often vary regionally, and will be illustrated in this post by Qur’an manuscripts from different traditions in Southeast Asia held in the British Library, starting with a Qur’an from Patani.

Marginal ornament signifying the start of the 28th juz’, at the start of Surat al-Mujadilah, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 273v-274r
Marginal ornament signifying the start of the 28th juz’, at the start of Surat al-Mujadilah, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 273v-274r  noc

The East Coast of the Malay peninsula is home to two distinct styles of manuscript illumination, one centred in Terengganu and the other further to the north in Patani, but all Qur’an manuscripts from this region adhere faithfully to the same principles of text layout. This follows an Ottoman model known as ayat ber-kenar, whereby each juz’ occupies exactly ten folios of paper and hence twenty pages, and each page ends with a complete verse. As well as streamlining the copying process, this uniform layout also aids the memorization of the complete Qur’an, as each verse occupies the same position on the page in any manuscript consulted. Thus a new juz’ always commences at the top of a right-hand page, and is signalled by a beautiful marginal ornament, as shown above. In this manuscript all the juz’ markers are constructed according to the same basic design of two concentric circles inscribed in the middle al-juz’, but each is slightly different in coloration and in the detail of the delicate floral and foliate ornaments extending upwards and downwards.

Marginal ornaments signifying the start of (left) juz’ 10 in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century  Marginal ornaments signifying the start of juz’ 11, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century-Or 15227 f.103v-j.11
Marginal ornaments signifying the start of (left) juz’ 10 and (right) juz’ 11, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. The small inscription in red ink, maqra’, indicates a section for recitation. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 93v and 103v  noc

The Ottoman system of page layout is occasionally also encountered in Qur’an manuscripts from Java, but in general there are no set prescriptions for fitting a juz’ into a precise number of pages. In two Javanese Qur’ans in the British Library we see a quintessentially and uniquely Javanese method of signifying the start of a new juz’, by the placement of two marginal ornaments – very often semicircular in shape – at the midpoints of the outer vertical borders of the double-page spread, while the exact point in the text is marked with a composite roundel in red ink.

AStart of juz’2, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r
Start of juz’ 2, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r  noc

Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an.Add_ms_12343_f013r-det  Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an.Add_ms_12343_f012v-det
Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an’. The stylized letter 'ayn in the margin indicates ruku' divisions for recitation. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 12v and f. 13r (details)  noc

In two other Qur’ans from Java, the start of a new juz’ is just marked with a calligraphic inscription in red ink in the margin, and an starburst roundel in red ink at the appropriate point in the text, as seen below in a manuscript from Madura, off the northeast coast of Java.

The beginning of juz’ 14, at the start of Surah al-Hjir (Q.15), in a Qur’an from Madura, 19th century. British Library, Or 15877, f. 130v
The beginning of juz’ 14, at the start of Surah al-Hjir (Q.15), in a Qur’an from Madura, 19th century. British Library, Or 15877, f. 130v  noc

In Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, there was no pre-ordained system for copying the Qur’an. The number of pages required for each juz’ therefore depended on the style of writing of each scribe, while a conventional set of graphic symbols signified the exact starting point of a juz’ within a page of text. In the most elaborate manuscripts – such as the fine Qur’an Or 16915 shown below – the precise point of the start of the 14th juz’ is marked with a composite roundel made up of six intersecting circles; the first line of the juz’ is written in red ink and set within ruled frames; and a magnificent ornament in the adjacent margin serves to draw the eye to the page.

Start of juz’ 14 at the beginning of Surat al-Hijr (Q. 15) in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 117v-118rr
Start of juz’ 14 at the beginning of Surat al-Hijr (Q. 15) in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 117v-118r  noc

Or 16915 is exceptionally rich artistically in not only signifying the start of each juz’ with illuminated marginal ornaments, but also indicating each eighth part through coloured roundels in the text accompanied by smaller marginal medallions. All are composed of a series of concentric circles often embellished with a variety of rays, petals, and vegetal ornaments added on four-fold or eight-fold principles, in the same palette of red, yellow, black and reserved white, but every single ornament is different, reflecting the artist’s delight in creating countless variations on a limited theme. Shown below (not to scale) is the complete set of marginal ornaments for the constituent parts of juz’ 10.

Or_16915-f.80r-j.10  ornament marking part of juz’ 10-Or_16915_f081r  ornament marking part of juz’ 10-Or_16915_f082v
From left, large ornament marking the start of juz’ 10; small roundel marking 1/8th of the juz’; roundel with monochrome petals (possibly added later) marking 1/4 juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 80r, 81r, 82v  noc

Or_16915_f083v  Or_16915_f085r
Left, star-shaped ornament marking 3/8th of the juz’; right, four-rayed medallion at 1/2 (nisf) of the juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 83v and 85r  noc

Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f087r  Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f088v  Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f089v
From left, roundels marking 5/8, 3/4 and 7/8 of the 10th juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 87v, 88v, 89v  noc

Despite such an abundant display of artistic virtuosity in this manuscript, it is hardly surprising that the artist’s creativty and stamina began to flag towards the end of the volume. Preparatory sketches are still in place for all the marginal ornaments, but many of the later ones have not been worked up and remain skeletal ink diagrams.

Unfinished marginal ornaments in a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s.-Or_16915_f114v  Unfinished marginal ornament, Or_16915_f240v  Unfinished marginal ornaments in a Qur’an from Aceh-Or_16915_f247r
Unfinished marginal ornaments indicating parts of a juz' in a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 114v, 240v, 247r  noc

There are two other Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh held in the British Library. Both of these highlight the first words of a new juz’ in red ink, and one also marks the precise point in the text with a composite illuminated roundel, but neither were created with marginal ornaments. However, Or 16034 bears testimony to additions by subsequent hands to highlight each new juz', with occasional inscriptions and pencilled ornaments added in the margins.

The start of juz’ 4 in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, indicated in the text by writing the first line in red ink, with later additions in the margin of the pencilled inscription al-juz’, a cross-shaped ornament, and the number ‘4’ in black ink. British Library, Or 16034, f. 20v
The start of juz’ 4 in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, indicated in the text by writing the first line in red ink, with later additions in the margin of the pencilled inscription al-juz’, a cross-shaped ornament, and the number ‘4’ in black ink. British Library, Or 16034, f. 20v  noc

As noted above, the standard division of the Qur’an is into thirty parts or juz’, but other principles of dividing the text are also known, for example into three, seven or ten parts. A division based on word-count identifies the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, in Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), as the precise mid-point in the Qur’an, and the significance of this word is often recognized in Qur’an manuscripts from the Malay world. Of the eight Southeast Asian Qur’ans in the British Library, three – two from Aceh and one from Java – highlight the word walyatalattaf either by rubricating in red ink or by elongating it and writing it in bold.

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalataf-12312-95v

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalataf-Or 15034 f.116v

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalaf-16915-f.131v
The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts, one from Java (top) Add 12312, f.95v, and two from Aceh (middle) Or 16034, f. 116v and (bottom) Or 16915, f. 131v.  noc

Over the course of this study of minor decorative elements found in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, very often it was the less polished manuscripts, with scribal errors or omissions or unfinished sections, which were the most helpful in reconstructing the process of copying and decorating Qur’an manuscripts, which seems to have progressed in the same order across the Malay archipelago. First the scribe would write out the entire Qur’anic text in black ink, using red ink for the the first words of a juz’ as necessary, and indicating the ends of verses with small marks. Then, verse markers – usually in the form of red or black ink circles – were added, and coloured in if necessary. The text was then checked for accuracy and to make good any omissions. Only after this stage were frames added to each page of text, composed in accordance with regional preferences. Titles of chapters or surahs were then added in red ink, and ruled frames placed around the surah headings. After this, marginal ornaments would be added to indicate the juz’ and other textual divisions.

This article on Juz’ markers is the fourth installment of a five-part series of blog posts on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first post is on Verse markers, the second on Text frames, the third on Surah headings, the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

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