THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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55 posts categorized "Persian"

08 July 2020

Toys and ephemera in a fifteenth-century multilingual illustrated dictionary from India

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The Miftāḥ al-Fużalā or Key of the Learned of Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī (BL Or 3299), a multilingual illustrated Persian dictionary written in 1468 gives us glimpses into the ephemeral life of the sultanate of Malwa in Central India. This illustrated dictionary (farhang) has quadruple the number of illustrations (179 in total) as Mandu’s famed Ni‘matnāmah or Book of Delights (BL IO Islamic 149), but it has mostly escaped scholarly attention until recently. It has been attributed to 1490 based on its paintings’ close relationship to a contemporaneous Shirazi idiom. Like the Ni‘matnāmah, it is a unicum and no other known illustrated versions survive. Other works by Shadiyabadi include a vernacularised Persian transcreation of al-Jazarī’s twelfth-century Arabic book on automata (Wonders of Crafts, ‘Ajā’ib al-Ṣanā‘ī, BL Or 13718) and a commentary on the Persian poet Khāqānī’s oeuvre (Bodleian MS Fraser 63).

My doctoral thesis, Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of South Asia (ca. 1450–1600)—a study of the corpus of Islamicate cosmographies and related wonder manuscripts in South Asia—was prompted by the Miftāḥ. My work on the Miftāḥ and the ‘Ajā’ib al-Ṣanā‘ī led me to conduct a global search of early-modern manuscripts devoted to wonder and the cosmos made in South Asia. Through a philological and codicological analysis of the Miftāḥ my thesis argues that the experience of this book generated a playful, didactive soundscape and its form and function owed much to the genre of the Islamicate cosmography (‘ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt). The definitions contained in the Miftāḥ shed light on nearly every aspect of early-modern material culture including metalwork, textiles, arms and armour, food, and architecture.

Dolls (bādajan), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490. Or3299_f51v
Fig. 1: Dolls (bādajan), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490 5.9 x 6.8 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 51v)
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As a happy diversion from today’s world, here I present some of the toys from the Miftāḥ. The Miftāḥ’s large, well-spaced nasta‘līq writing suggests that it may have been intended for a young learner, likely a child. The inclusion of several entries devoted to toys also implies a child reader. For example, the first illustrated entry one encounters in the Miftāḥ is for the term dolls. Shadiyabadi defines ‘bādajan’ as “dolls that young girls make clothes for and play with, and in Hindavi they are called ‘guriy[a]’.” (fig. 1). Like a child playing with their early-modern Cabbage Patch Kids, the entry shows a young girl putting her three dolls to bed. It captures a lost moment of childhood play from the past.

Dolls (lahfatān), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490 .Or3299_f259v
Fig. 2: Dolls (lahfatān), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.5 x 8 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 259v)
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To work on the Miftāḥ I developed a finding aid in Excel that allowed me to notice how its craftsmen created several visual synonyms. So, for the word ‘bādajan,’ we have the visual synonym of ‘lahfatān’ (fig. 2). Shadiyabadi states that these are dolls for which young girls (dukhtarān) make clothing and play with. This entry, however, does not include the Hindavi equivalent.

Yo-yo (farmūk, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.6 x 7.6 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 212v)
Fig. 3: Yo-yo (farmūk, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.6 x 7.6 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 212v)
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Yo-yo (bādfarah, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 6.2 x 6.5 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 55v)
Fig. 4: Yo-yo (bādfarah, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 6.2 x 6.5 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 55v)
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Lady with a Yo-yo, India, Rajasthan, Raghugarh, ca. 1770. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, sheet: 9 1/4 x 6 3/16 in. (23.5 x 15.7 cm) (Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Alan Kirschbaum, 80.268.1)
Fig. 5: Lady with a Yo-yo, India, Rajasthan, Raghugarh, ca. 1770. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, sheet: 9 1/4 x 6 3/16 in. (23.5 x 15.7 cm) (Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Alan Kirschbaum, 80.268.1)

In addition to dolls, the Miftāḥ contains entries on toys that one would recognise from South Asian art more broadly. For example, it devotes an entry to the whip-top or yo-yo which Shadiyabadi calls a farmūk in Persian and laṭṭū in Hindavi (fig. 3). It too has a visual synonym in the word bādfarah that is also accompanied by its Hindavi equivalent (fig. 4). These yo-yos, like many of the crafts and objects depicted in the Miftāḥ, can be found in numerous other examples. There are several Rajput paintings of ladies playing with yo-yos, for instance (fig. 5). The Miftāḥ gives words to these objects in both Persian and Hindavi thereby allowing art historians to come closer to these objects through philology.

Kazhmazh, Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 5.9 x 7.9 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 228v)
Fig. 6: Kazhmazh, Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 5.9 x 7.9 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 228v)
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By way of one final example, a teaser for forthcoming work on the Miftāḥ’s sonic elements and sultanate soundscapes, I offer the definition of kazhmazh. Shadiyabadi defines kazhmazh as the child whose language is still not fully developed. The word itself is onomatopoetic, suggesting a childlike babble. The painting depicts a larger woman, probably the mother, speaking to her son. The child is comparatively much smaller. As we know so little about childhood and play in early-modern India, this illustrated definition gives us one vision of that ephemeral world. We can both hear and see the child struggle to correctly pronounce words correctly. It, along with the entries devoted to toys, draw us into a world of the pleasures of sultanate children.

I dedicate this piece especially to my nieces Anika and Zarina Tekchandani.

Vivek Gupta, PhD History of Art at SOAS, University of London; Postdoctoral Associate in Islamic Art at the University of Cambridge based at the Centre of Islamic Studies (from September 2020); and former doctoral placement at BL Asian and African Collections
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Supplementary Reading

Baevskiĭ, Solomon I, Early Persian Lexicography. Trans. N. Killian. Global Oriental: Kent, 2007.
Gupta, Vivek, Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of  South Asia, ca. 1450—1600. PhD thesis, SOAS University of London, 2020.
Karomat, Dilorom, “Turki and Hindavi in the World of Persian.” In After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-Century North India, eds. Francesca Orsini and Samira Sheikh, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 131-66.
Qaisar, A. Jan, and Verma, Som Prakash,  “The Miftah-ul Fuzala’: A Study of an Illustrated Persian Lexicon.” In Art and Culture Painting and Perspective vol. II, eds. Ahsan Jan Qaisar, Som Prakash Verma, Abhinav Publications: New Delhi, 2002, pp. 17-32.
Titley, Norah, “An Illustrated Persian Glossary of the Sixteenth Century,” The British Museum Quarterly 29. no. 1/2. (Winter 1964-1965), pp. 15-19.

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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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
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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

19 June 2020

An eighth century Judaeo-Persian letter from Dandan-Uiliq

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A recent post on the Kaifeng Torah Scroll, a seventeenth century Torah scroll from Kaifeng, Henan province, featured the British Library’s Judaeo-Persian letter Or.8212/166 dating from the end of the eighth century as one of the earliest records of the Jewish community in China. Our post today coincides with Silk Road Week 2020 to celebrate the anniversary of the Silk Road - from Chang'an to the Tianshan Corridor - becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site on June 22, 2014. It highlights the long-term collaboration between the British Library and the National Library of China as part of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) by focussing on our Judaeo-Persian document and a comparatively recent acquisition of the National Library of China BH1-19.

Judaeo-Persian letter discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)
The Judaeo-Persian document discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)
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The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (National Library of China BH1-19)
The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (BH1-19, image reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of China)

The earliest of these two to be widely-known is the British Library document which was discovered early in 1901 during M.A. Stein’s first expedition to Central Asia. A group of his workmen were indulging in some independent ‘treasure-seeking’ after the completion of formal excavations at Dandan-Uiliq, the site of a former Buddhist monastery and Imperial garrison located to the northeast of Khotan between the Khotan and Keriya rivers in what is now the autonomous region of Xinjiang. While searching the debris left in the sand outside the broken east wall of an ancient dwelling-house (Stein’s D.XIII), they came across a document which Stein described (Margoliouth, p. 737):

as it then presented itself, was a lump of thin brownish paper, so closely crumpled up that in the absence of proper appliances I found it quite impossible to attempt its opening and unfolding. Only where one edge of the paper could be partially loosened was I able to make out some characters which manifestly looked like cursive Hebrew.

Map of Dandan-Uiliq, after Stein Sand-buried ruins of Khotan
Map of Dandan-Uiliq based on M. A. Stein's Map showing portions of Chinese Turkestan, Survey of India 1900-1901, scale 1 : 760,000 (Sand-buried ruins of Khotan, London, 1904)
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The document was provisionally dated to the end of the eighth century when the site was abandoned, and this dating was confirmed by an analysis of the paper by Professor J. Wiesner (Margoliouth, pp. 742-3) which found that the structure was indistinguishable from the paper of Chinese documents found at Dandan Uiliq, dating from between 781 and 790.

The letter proved to be written in Judaeo-Persian, i.e. Persian written in Hebrew script. However since the beginning and end of each line was missing, there was only a limited amount of contextual information to be deduced (for an edition and translation see Utas, 1968 below). Mention of sheep trading and cloth indicates the document’s commercial nature and a reference to the author having written “more than 20 letters[1]” attests perhaps to a thriving trade. There is also an intriguing request for a harp required for instructing a girl how to play (see Yoshida, pp. 389-90 for a possible explanation of this).

In 2004, however, an almost intact leaf (BH1-19) of a similar document was acquired by the National Library of China. Published in 2008 (Zhang Zhan and Shi Guang), it appears to be the initial page of possibly the same letter and gives a more detailed historical context by referring to the defeat of the Tibetans at Kashgar which happened around 790.

The letter (translated by Zhang Zhan in Hansen, pp. 381-2) is from a Persian speaking Jew of Khotan to the ‘lord master’ Nisi Chilag, Abu Sahak and others on the subject of sheep trading. It lists bribes to officials, arranged no doubt in order of sociological importance and headed by a local ruler (dihgān) who can perhaps be identified with the King of Khotan or someone of equal status (Yoshida, p. 392). The gifts include a vase, scent, silk cloth, raw silk, sugar and other items which are not yet fully understood. Perhaps the most important information was the news from Kashgar that “They killed and captured all the Tibetans”. The writer himself contributed “a sum worth 100 strings of coins, or 100,000 coins” for the war effort.

Montage showing the two letters Or.8212/166 and BH1-19 superimposed for comparison
Montage showing the two letters BH1-19 and Or.8212/166 superimposed for comparison

As demonstrated by the montage above, the two documents are almost certainly part of the same letter with the National Library fragment forming the opening page and the British Library fragment a subsequent folio. From a morphological, palaeographical, and content-wise point of view we can be fairly certain that both were written by the same Judaeo-Persian trader. The author is identified in the second letter as ‘Sogdian,’ and despite being written in Persian, Yutaka Yoshida has convincingly argued on the basis of various sogdianisms in the letter itself that he was most likely a Persian speaking Sogdian Jew (Yoshida, pp. 390-92).

Taking both parts together the Dandan-Uiliq letter is probably the oldest surviving document of substance to be written in early New Persian, marking the first phase of the Persian language after the Islamic conquest. As such it provides important evidence for the development of the Persian language in addition to documenting the history of eighth-century Khotan.

Ursula Sims-Williams
Lead Curator, Persian, Asian and African Collections

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Further reading

Margoliouth, D.S., “An early Judæo-Persian document from Khotan, in the Stein Collection, with other early Persian documents; with an introductory note by M.A. Stein and communications from W. Bacher, A.E. Cowley and J. Wiesner”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1903), pp. 735-60.
Utas, Bo, “The Jewish-Persian fragment from Dandān-Uiliq”, Orientalia suecana 17 (1968) pp. 123-136 (republished in From Old to New Persian: Collected essays, Wiesbaden 2013, pp. 25-38).
Zhang Zhan and Shi Guang, “Yijian xinfaxian Youtai-Bosiyu xinzha de duandai yu shidu [A newly-discovered Judeo-Persian letter]”, Dunhuang Tulufan Yanjiu 11 (2008), pp. 71-99.
Hansen, V. The Silk Road: a new history with documents. Oxford: OUP, 2017, pp. 357-9, with Zhang Zhan’s translation of BH1-19, pp. 381-2.
Yutaka Yoshida, “Some new interpretations of the two Judeo-Persian letters from Khotan”. In A thousand judgements: Festschrift for Maria Macuch, eds. A. Hintze, D. Durkin-Meisterernst and C. Neumann, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2019, pp. 385-94.

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[1] Literally “more than twenty and …[word missing]”

23 January 2020

Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library

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The British Library is fortunate in having an unparalled collection of over 100 Zoroastrian works ranging from the oldest, the ninth century Ashem Vohu prayer written in Sogdian script discovered by Aurel Stein in Central Asia in 1907, to, most recently, manuscripts collected especially for the Royal Society in London during the late-nineteenth century. Although Zoroastrianism is Iranian in origin, most of our manuscripts in fact come from India. They are written in Avestan (Old Iranian), Middle Persian, New Persian, and also in the Indian languages Sanskrit and Gujarati.

In the past few years several of our manuscripts have become familiar through exhibitions such as Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination held at SOAS (2013) and New Delhi (2016) and also through the Zoroastrian articles and collection items included in our recent website Discovering Sacred Texts. Building on this and thanks to the philanthropic support of Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, we have now been able to complete digitisation of the whole collection. This introductory post outlines the history of the collection and is intended as the first in a series highlighting the collection as the manuscripts go live during the next few months.

1 Zoroastrian prayer in Sogdian-Or MS 8212 84
One of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem vohu, discovered at Dunhuang by Aurel Stein in 1907. Transcribed into Sogdian (a medieval Iranian language) script, this fragment dates from around the ninth century AD, about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text (BL Or.8212/84). Public domain

The collection is made up of three main collections described below, dating from the seventeenth, the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, in addition to individual items acquired by British travellers to India and employees of the East India Company. I’ll be writing more about these individual collections in future posts.


Thomas Hyde (1636–1703)

Our oldest collection, and the earliest to reach the West, was acquired for the seventeenth century polymath Thomas Hyde. Hyde became Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford in 1691 and Regius Professor of Hebrew in 1697 and also served as Royal Secretary and Translator of Oriental Languages for three successive monarchs: Charles II, James II and William III. While he had never travelled in the East himself, he built up a network of travellers and East India Company officials whom he asked to purchase books and manuscripts on his behalf. Several of these were chaplains whom Hyde had personally recommended to the Levant and the East India trading companies. After his death in 1703 part of his collection was purchased by Queen Anne for the Royal Library. It was subsequently given to the British Museum by King George III in 1757. 


2 Hydes Khordah Avesta-royal_ms_16_b_vi_f001r
A copy of the Khordah Avesta (‘Little Avesta’) which contains prayers, hymns and invocations. This manuscript begins with the Ashem vohu (featured also in Sogdian script above) and is dated 30 Ardibihisht 1042 in the era of Yazdagird (1673). It was copied at the request of the English Agent Kunvarji Nanabhai Modi probably on commission for Hyde. Hyde could read though never wholly understood Avestan, but he used this particular manuscript as a model for the special Avestan type he created for his well-known History of the Persian Religion published in 1700 (BL Royal Ms 16.B.vi, f. 1r). Public domain


Samuel Guise (1751-1811)

Samuel Guise began his career as a Surgeon on the Bombay Establishment of the East-India Company in 1775 and from 1788 until the end of 1795, he was Head Surgeon at the East-India Company’s Factory in Surat where his work brought him into close contact with the Parsi community. An avid collector, he acquired altogether more than 400 manuscripts while in India. At some point he was fortunate enough to be able to purchase from his widow, the collection of the famous Dastur Darab who had taught the first translator of the Avesta, Anquetil du Perron, between 1758 and 1760 (Guise, Catalogue, 1800, pp. 3-4):

This Collection was made at Surat, from the year 1788 till the End of 1795, with great Trouble and Expence. ... Of this Collection, however rich in Arabick and Persian works of Merit, the chief Value consists in the numerous Zend and Pehlavi MSS treating of the antient Religion and History of the Parsees, or Disciples of the celebrated Zoroaster, many of which were purchased, at a very considerable Expence, from the Widow of Darab, who had been, in the Study of those Languages, the Preceptor of M. Anquetil du Perron; and some of the Manuscripts are such as this inquisitive Frenchman found it impossible to procure

In 1796 he retired to Montrose, Angus, where he lived until his death in 1811. The story of his collection and what subsequently happened to it is told in my article “The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,” but eventually in 1812, 26 Zoroastrian manuscripts were acquired at auction by the East India Company Library. They include one of the oldest surviving Avestan manuscripts, the Pahlavi Videvdad (‘Law to drive away the demons’), a legal work concerned with ritual and purity which was copied in 1323 AD (Mss Avestan 4). Other important manuscripts are a copy of the liturgical text, the Videvdad sādah (Mss Avestan 1), attributed to the fifteenth century, and one of the oldest copies of the Yasna sādah – the simple text of the Yasna ritual without any commentary– (Mss Avestan 17).

3 Yasna sadah-mss_avestan_17_f128r copy
Verses 6-7
 of Yasna 43 on the creation of the universe. The red floral decorations are verse dividers and are a feature of this manuscript. This copy was completed in India in 1556 (BL Mss Avestan 17, f. 128r). Public domain


Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner

Burjorji Ashburner was a successful Bombay merchant, a Freemason, and a member of the Bombay Asiatic Society. He was also a member of the Committee of Management for one of the most important Zoroastrian libraries in Bombay, the Mulla Firuz Library and made a special point of having copies made of some of the rarer items. In April 1864 Burjurji wrote offering some 70 to 80 volumes as a gift to the Royal Society, London, promising to add additional ones:

In the course of antiquarian researches...with special reference to the Parsee religion, I have had the good fortune to obtain some valuable ancient manuscripts in Zend, Pehlui, and Persian. I do not wish to keep to myself what may be useful in the literary world. [1]

His collection consisted of standard Arabic and Persian works in addition to nineteen specifically Zoroastrian manuscripts in Persian, Avestan and Pahlavi. A number of Bujorji’s manuscripts came originally from Iran. The oldest is an illustrated copy of the Videvdad sādah (RSPA 230) which was copied in Yazd, Iran, in 1647. Whereas Zoroastrian manuscripts are generally unillustrated except for small devices such as verse dividers and occasional diagrams, this one, exceptionally, contains seven coloured drawings of trees, used as chapter headings not unlike Islamic manuscripts of the same period.

4 An illustrated Videvdad Sadah-RSPA230_64R
The beginning of chapter 19 of the Videvdad sadah in which Zoroaster repels an attempt on his life by the demon Buiti, sent by the evil spirit Angra Mainyu. Note the elongated calligraphic script which is typical of the older manuscripts from Iran (BL RSPA 230, f. 227r). Public domain

Several of Bujorji’s manuscripts were copied or written by Siyavakhsh Urmazdyar an Iranian poet and writer living in Bombay in the mid-nineteenth century. His poetical name was Azari, but he was otherwise known as Sarfahkar Kirmani or Irani. These include works in Persian on the calendar (the subject of a major controversy at the time), a dictionary, treatises on divination and the interaction between Zoroastrians and Muslims, in addition to copies of Avestan texts.


Other sources

The remaining manuscripts were acquired in India, mostly by East India Company servants Jonathan Duncan Governor of Bombay (1756–1811), Sir John Malcolm (1769–1833), and the Scottish linguist and poet John Leyden (1775-1811). They range from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

5 Qissah Sanjan-io_islamic_2572_f001v copy
The beginning of the Qissah-i Sanjan, the traditional story in Persian verse of the settlement of the Parsis in India composed by Bahman ibn Kayqubād at Nausari in AD 1600. This copy is undated but was written, most probably for John Leyden, on paper watermarked 1799 (BL IO Islamic 2572, f. 1v). Public domain

Further reading

Samuel Guise, A Catalogue and Detailed Account of a Very Valuable and Curious Collection of Manuscripts, Collected in Hindostan. London, 1800.
Almut Hintze, An introduction to Zoroastrianism, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Jenny Rose, Zoroastrianism from the early modern period, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Ursula Sims-Williams, Zoroastrianism in late antiquity, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
----------------, “The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19, 2005 (2009), pp. 199-209.
----------------, “Zoroastrian Manuscripts in the British Library, London,” in The Transmission of the Avesta, ed. A. Cantera. Wiesbaden, 2012, pp. 173-94.


We are grateful to Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, Mr Neville Shroff and Mr Zarir Cama for their generous support towards this project.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library
© CCBY



[1] Royal Society Archives MC.7.53: Ashburner to the Foreign Secretary, 13 April 1864

12 November 2019

A testament to diversity: Kurdish manuscript collections at the British Library

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In the exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, we explored the connections between power and the written word. The use of writing can be an exceptionally efficient means of expanding a state's sovereignty far beyond the reach of its armies. Similarly, when a particular community or government chooses to use a particular script or language, it bestows upon that means of expression a sheen of officialdom and prestige synonymous with state sponsorship.

Or 11996 ff1v-2r Mam u Zin
The opening pages of Mam û Zîn by Ehmed Xani, copied in 1221 AH/1806-7 CE (Or. 11996, ff. 1v-2r)
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What does this have to do with the British Library's holdings of Kurdish manuscripts? For starters, it helps us to understand the context within which they were created. Unlike Ottoman Turkish, Arabic or Persian, Kurdish was not the language of a widespread, long-lasting Imperial power. As a result, prior to the end of the 20th century, it was not employed over long periods of time as a vehicle for the creation of state documents, or a state-sponsored literary corpus. Moreover, Kurdish was not the liturgical language of a large religious community with a long tradition of written cultural production. Hebrew might not have been a state language for thousands of years before the creation of the State of Israel, but its use as a liturgical language by Jews around the world helped ensure the creation of a hefty corpus of both religious and secular material in it. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, for Syriac. Kurdish was thus doubly disadvantaged in finding patronage for the creation of a large written canon prior to the 20th century, and as a result, we are left with relatively fewer manuscripts in it than compared to Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Hebrew or Syriac.

Or 6444 f11r Gorani Anthology_1500 Or 6444 f55r Gorani Anthology_1500
Two pages of poetry in Gorani from the Gorani anthology in safina format. Copy dated 1197 AH/ 1782-4 CE (Or. 6444, f. 11r and f. 55r)
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Indeed, the British Library holds a total of 8 manuscript texts in Kurdish, compared to the estimated 4000 items in Turkic languages. Of these, only 6 are volumes composed entirely, or nearly entirely, of poetry written in Kurdish. The best known of these is Or. 6444, a codex of Gorani poetry, which was transliterated and translated by Mr. Anwar Soltani, and eventually published as a bilingual edition entitled Anthology of Gorani Kurdish Poetry (YC.1999.b.8850). Some of the poetry included in the volume was composed by well-known Kurdish authors. None of them, however, is as famous as Ehmed Xanî, the author of the Kurdish epic Mam û Zîn, which the Library holds in manuscript form under the shelfmark Or. 11996. This work is a meditation on forbidden love, but it also encapsulates some of the core themes of a nascent Kurdish national identity. Mam û Zîn has been copied and published numerous times, especially since the creation of a de-facto Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq following the first Gulf War, when the Kurdish publishing industry blossomed. Nonetheless, this manuscript recension brings to life a historical dimension of the development of Kurdish literacy in the Middle East, while also acting as a window onto Xanî's poetical genius.

Or 8208 Seyfu-l-mulûk f45v-46r
Two better-preserved pages of the Seyfu'l-mulûk showing a fully-vocalized rendering of the Kurmanji text. Copy dated 1286 AH / 1869-70 CE (Or. 8208, ff. 45v-46r)
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Among the other Kurmanji Kurdish manuscipts is Or. 8208, a poem known as Seyfu'l-Mulûk, or The Sword of Kings. The Library's copy is badly damaged, and although the text is largely legible, many of the pages have lost their edges, in some cases depriving readers of complete words of phrases. This story is set in Egypt, where the action revolves around the adventures of a particular prince, but the origins of the tale are Persian. Versions of the Seyfu'l-Mulûk can be found across the Islamic world, and this Kurdish version attests to the manner in which such texts were accepted and assimilated into broader Kurdish creative culture.

Add MS 7829 ff91v-92r. Gorani Poem
A section of the Gorani translation of Khvurshīd-i Khāvar, early 19th century (Add MS 7829, ff. 91v-92r)
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Add MS 23554 f37r Bahram u Gulandam
A folio of Bahrām va Gulandām translated into Gorani showing a later addition to the text, early 19th century (Add MS 23554, f. 37r)
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Other items within the Kurdish collections are translations of well-known Persian works into the Gorani dialect. Add MS 7829 presents us with two stories: that of Leyla and Mecnun; and another of Khvurshīd-i Khāvar. Add MS 7826, in contrast, is a Gorani translation of Khusraw va Shīrīn. Finally, Add MS 23554 is the story of Bahrām va Gulandām, yet another Persian epic of reasonable fame amongst Middle Eastern communities. The simple production of all three manuscripts, as well as the lack of information about the copyist or where they were created, lead us to believe that they were part of a broader reading culture among Kurdish speakers. They might not be remarkable items of art and luxury, but their construction and formatting provide us with valuable information about the manner in which Kurds read and shared literature in their native tongue, all while remaining part of a broader West Asian cultural space.

Or 5932 14v
The start of the earliest Kurdish-Arabic dictionary in verse, the Nûbihara Biçûkan, composed by Ehmed Xanî. 18th century (Or. 5932, f. 9v)
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Or. 5932 9r: The opening part of the Edîqeya Îmanî, a didactic poem composed by Ehmed Xanî
The opening part of the Edîqeya Îmanî, a didactic poem composed by Ehmed Xanî. 18th century (Or. 5932, f. 14v)
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The last item in the collections containing Kurdish poetry is Or. 5932. It contains two Kurmanji Kurdish poems among various other works in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish and Persian. The first Kurmanji Kurdish work is the Nûbihara Biçûkan, composed by Ehmed Xanî as a means of teaching the Arabic language to Kurdish students at madrasas. The second is known as the Edîqeya Îmanî, another didactic work originally composed by Ehmed Xanî. The Edîqeya was also traditionally used as a starter text by Kurdish students at madrasas. The inclusion of these two particular poems in the codex is apt, given that the final text is an Arabic didactic poem aimed at helping Persian-speaking students learn the Arabic language; a mandatory subject for anyone studying the Qur'an.

One of the most challenging aspects of creating a cohesive and cogent collection of Kurdish works is the dialectical differences that exist between Kurdish speech communities. Today, there are two main dialects, or languages (the distinction is far from hard and fast), spoken and written across the Middle East. Kurmanji is the dominant Kurdish language in North and West Kurdistan, primarily spoken by Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Armenia, as well as parts of northern Iraq and north-eastern Iran. Sorani, by contrast, is used primarily in Central and East Kurdistan, covering northern Iraq and western Iran. Today, Kurmanji in Turkey and Armenia is written in Latin script, while Sorani in Iraq and Iran is written in Arabic script (as is Kurmanji in Syria). Cyrillic script was used in Armenia prior to 1991, but Armenian Kurds and Yezidis have since switched to the Latin standard. Add to this a plethora of local dialects that differ, in various degrees, from the commonly used lects of Amed (Diyarbakır), Slêmanî and Hêwler, and the related but distinct Zazaki and Gorani languages, and you get the totality of the Kurdophone sphere. All of this leads to a situation of remarkable diversity within the written corpus, one not usually seen in that of a state language. All texts in the British Library's Kurdish manuscript collections are written in Arabic script, which bedevils the task of the cataloguer. They are faced with the exceptionally difficult task of properly identifying the dialect of the text, in addition to the other pertinent information relating to the manuscripts, without the handy tool of state-sponsored standardization usually employed when cataloguing published works.

Add MS 26319 ff2v-3r Laki
A page of the Persian-Laki dictionary featuring terms in both languages written in neat nasta'liq. Dated 1811 CE (Add MS 26319, ff. 2v-3r)
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Add MS 26319 ff9v-10r English Kurdish
A page of the English-Kurdish wordlist featuring terms of common usage. Early 19th century (Add MS 26319, ff. 9v-10r)
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Linguistic diversity, far from being a hindrance, enriches our collections. In addition to the variety of dialects reflected in the poetic works, the British Library also holds a number of handwritten wordlists of Kurdish dialects in Iraq and Iran. The first of these, found under the shelf mark Add MS 26319, round out the collections and help to bolster our corpus of scholarly material relating to the Kurdish linguistic space. The codex is one that was created by the last owner of the manuscripts - C. J. Erskine - prior to its purchase by the British Museum in 1865. It holds an English-Kurdish glossary, as well as Persian-Laki Kurdish and Persian-Ardalani Kurdish (possibly a reference to Gorani) wordlists. While far from serious linguistic treatises on Kurdish dialectology or grammar, they do nonetheless provide a look at some of the pre-standardization aspects of Kurdish speech communities. They point to the ways in which linguistic diversity among the Kurds was conceived, sometimes by Western Orientalists, and sometimes by Kurds themselves. Such glossaries were a common phenomenon among British military and colonial officials, and more official versions were often published by governmental agencies. One need only look at IOR/L/MIL/17/15/52, a mass-produced multilingual volume entitled "Vocabularies: English, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, Syriac" (digitised as part of the Qatar Digital Library), to see their importance within the context of the late British Empire.

Together, this motley collection of holdings produced by Kurds and colonial administrators provides a unique entry point to pre-20th century Kurdish cultural life. A lack of state sponsorship deprived Kurdish communities of some of the resources needed to create a written canon on the scale of the Persian, Arabic or Ottoman Turkish ones. It did not, however, stops the Kurds from seeking to write down, share and disseminate texts, and to preserve their cultural production for future generations. The British Library is lucky to be custodian of a small snapshot of such dynamics, which it aims to make available to all those seeking to understand better the history of Kurdish cultural expression.

The author would like to thank Mr. Yakup Aykaç of Artuklu Mardin Üniversitesi for his great help in the identification and description of Kurmanji Kurdish works within the British Library's collections.

Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
Ccownwork

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 tablet.bl.uk
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.

Shrinebab-terraces-night
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.

Daira
Dā’ira
(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.pub., 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.

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
 ccownwork


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.

07 October 2019

Arts of the South Asian Sultanates at the British Library

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The British Library holds one of the richest and most diverse collections of fifteenth-century South Asian manuscripts belonging to the sultanates. In association with a recent symposium, Connected Courts: Art of the South Asian Sultanates hosted at Wolfson College, Oxford, from 20-21 September, the library held a study session for a group of scholars who work on manuscripts, literature, and architecture. This viewing session provided a rare occasion for researchers of varying disciplines to share ideas on these manuscripts and discuss the interplay of different traditions.

Frontispiece of Shāhnāmah (BL Or 1403)
Fig. 1. Frontispiece of Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī, Bidar or Shiraz, 1438, Folio: 27 x 16 cm (BL Or 1403)
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An initial group of manuscripts invited us to consider how and where the Persian narrative tradition spread across South Asia. Persian literature was certainly known, copied and enjoyed in India since at least the late thirteenth century. However, the earliest surviving manuscripts date to the fifteenth century. A copy of the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī (Or 1403, fig. 1), dated 1438, contains illustrations that do not fit with contemporary Persian painting traditions, and has no colophon providing a provenance. Certain scholars have concluded this manuscript must have been produced elsewhere. There are various factors that suggest a South Asian origin, perhaps the Deccan region under the Bahmani sultanate. An intervention in the preface recounts Firdawsī’s journey to India and his visit to the Delhi court, not usually found in Persian copies of the Shāhnāmah.

Sharafnāmāh of Niẓāmī, Bengal (Gaur?), 1531. Iskandar shares the throne with Queen Nushabah (BL Or 13836, f. 37v)
Fig. 2. Sharafnāmah of Niẓāmī, Bengal (Gaur?), 1531. Iskandar shares the throne with Queen Nushabah. Folio: 31 x 20 cm (BL Or 13836, f. 37v)
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Another manuscript viewed at the session was a copy of the Sharafnāmah (Or 13836, fig. 2), dated 1531 and produced for Sulṭān Nuṣrat Shah, ruler of Bengal (r. 1519-38). The text is from Niẓāmī’s Khamsah (Quintet), and is the first half of the Iskandarnāmah that describes the conquests of the Alexander the Great, the last poem of the quintet. This slim volume contains nine vibrant paintings that show the assimilation of both Indic and Persian artistic traditions. Such adaptations were common to several fifteenth-century manuscripts from the Indian sultanates.

Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century (BL Or 4110); Qur’ān, India, ca. 1450-1500 (BL Add 5548-5); and Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā, dated 1427 (BL IO San 3177)
Fig. 3. Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century, Folio: 37 x 26 cm (BL Or 4110); Qur’ān, India, ca. 1450-1500, Folio: 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add 5548-5); and Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā, dated 1427 (BL IO San 3177)
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Within the second grouping of manuscripts a Qur’ān (Add 5549) was juxtaposed with an anthology of Persian poetry (Or 4110), and a Sanskrit work of Jain scriptures, all created in fifteenth-century India (IO San 3177) (fig. 3). Although each of these manuscripts is written in a different language they come into dialogue in their use of script and ornament. The Qur’ān’s interlinear Persian translations are inscribed in the naskhī-dīvānī script similar to the Persian anthology of poetry. The illumination and deep red and orange floral ornament used in the Jain Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā bear striking resemblances to illumination in the Persian anthology and Qur’ān. While we know such similarities exist in theory, viewing these manuscripts together highlights these connections and opens new paths for research.

Wild ass or tomb, definitions of ‘gūr,’ Miftāḥ al-Fuz̤alā ( Key of the Learned) by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī, Mandu, India, ca. 1490
Fig. 4. Wild ass or tomb, definitions of ‘gūr’ in Miftā al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned) by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī, Mandu, India, ca. 1490, Folio: 33 x 25.4 cm (BL Or 3299, f. 248v)
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A final grouping brought together three manuscripts from the court of Malwa. Beyond the Ni‘matnāmah (Book of Delights), the British Library holds a few other manuscripts associated with the court of Malwa, based primarily in the capital of Mandu, each of which is entirely unique. The multilingual intellectual Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī authored both of these manuscripts. The first is a multilingual Persian illustrated dictionary known as the Miftā al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned, Or 3299, fig. 4) and the second is a Persian adaptation of al-Jazarī’s twelfth-century book of automata, the ‘Ajā’ib al-anā‘ī (Wonders of Crafts, Add 13718). This group of manuscripts from Malwa revealed how rich the libraries of fifteenth-century India were—long before the Mughals—and how we can place the Ni‘matnāmah within a larger context.

The opportunity to view these manuscripts with other specialists in the field allowed us to imagine more vividly the inter-connected world of the sultanates, and will no doubt inspire further research. We are grateful to Ursula Sims-Williams, Malini Roy, and Saqib Baburi for their help in organizing this session, and the support of the Barakat Trust, Khalili Research Centre, and Iran Heritage Foundation.

Further reading

On BL Or 1403:
Brend, Barbara, “The British Library’s Shahnama of 1438 as a Sultanate manuscript.” In Facets of Indian Art, eds. Robert Skelton et al (London: V&A, 1986), pp. 87-93.
Firouzeh, Peyvand. “Convention and Reinvention: The British Library Shahnama of 1438 (Or. 1403).” Iran (2019):1-22.

On BL Or 13836:
Skelton, Robert, “A Royal Sultanate manuscript dated 938 A.H./1531-2 A.D.” In Indian painting: Mughal and Rajput and Sultanate Manuscripts (London: Colnaghi, 1978), pp. 135-144.

On naskhī-dīvānī:
Brac de la Perrière, Éloïse, “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî: remarques sur deux calligraphies de l’Inde des sultanats.” In Ecriture, calligraphie et peinture, Studia Islamica, eds. A.L. Udovitch et H. Touati (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003), pp. 81-93.

On the Ni‘matnāmah:
Skelton, Robert, “The Ni‘matnama: A Landmark in Malwa Painting.” Marg vol. 12 no. 3 (1959): 44-48.
Titley, Norah, The Ni‘matnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu: The Sultan’s Book of Delights (Oxford: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005).

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD Research Placement
Dr Emily Shovelton, Research Associate, The Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford
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24 September 2019

Marking the bicentenary of the birth of the Bāb

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Today's post coincides with the launch of  the British Library's new learning resource Discovering Sacred Texts  and exhibition of Sacred highlights in the British Library’s permanent Treasures Gallery. Our guest writer is the Baha'i scholar Dr. Moojan Momen who writes about the three unique works of the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh, the twin founders of the Baha'i Faith which are on display for the first time.

Section of teh Bab's Star Tablet, Or 6887
A section of a tablet hand written by the Bāb in the form of a five pointed star (BL Or 6887). Public Domain

October 2019 marks 200 years since the birth of Sayyid ‘Alī Muḥammad Shīrāzī (1819-1850), known as the Bāb (the Gate), one of the two founders of the Baha'i Faith. A merchant from Shiraz, Iran, the Bāb founded his own distinctive religious movement as well as preparing his followers for the coming of  “Him whom God shall make manifest,” Bahā’u’llāh (1817-1892). Both the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh are considered by Baha'is as Manifestations of God, intermediaries between God and humanity, who reveal God’s will for the age in which they come. Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Moses, Zoroaster, Krishna and the Buddha are also considered by Baha'is as Manifestations.

Western responses to the Bāb

Accounts of the life of the Bāb and the brutal treatment meted out to his followers, made a profound impression both in Iran and further afield, especially in the West, where many thought the story of the Bāb reminiscent of that of Christ. Gobineau’s Religions et Philosophies dans l’Asie Centrale (1865) was the most influential volume in carrying the story to Western minds. The poet Matthew Arnold wrote in 1871 that “most people in England have a least heard the name” of the Bāb,[1] an indication of how deeply his fame had penetrated into far-off societies. An ongoing survey has discovered that almost 1,400 articles about the Bāb movement appeared in the Western press between 1845 and 1859. With his books such as A Year Among the Persians (1893), Cambridge orientalist Edward G. Browne did much to familiarise readers with the Bāb’s “gentleness and patience, the cruel fate which had overtaken him, and the unflinching courage wherewith he and his followers, from the greatest to the least, had endured the merciless torments inflicted upon them by their enemies.”[2]

Writing in 1925, French writer Jules Bois recalled:

All Europe was stirred to pity and indignation over the martyrdom of the Bāb…among the littérateurs of my generation, in the Paris of 1890 the martyrdom of the Bāb was still as fresh a topic as had been the first news of his death. We wrote poems about him. Sarah Bernhardt entreated Catulle Mendès for a play on the theme of this historic tragedy…[3]

Another influential figure whose attention was captured by the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh was Tolstoy, who wrote that the Baha'is

have a great future…because they have thrown away the artificial superstructures which separate [the religions] from one another and are aiming at uniting all mankind in one religion…And therefore, in that it educates men to brotherhood and equality and to the sacrificing of their sensual desires in God's service, I sympathize with [it] with all my heart.[4]

Bābī and Bahā’ī Scriptures

The religion founded by the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh is very much a religion of the Book. Baha'is believe that central to all the world’s great faiths, the power of the “Word” inspires human beings to develop their noblest qualities and create new patterns of society. Baha'i scriptures consist of the words of the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh that were immediately written down, authenticated, and shared far and wide.

Iranians considered calligraphy the highest art form and the Bāb’s own calligraphy is of exceptional quality. His works were often composed in the shape of a five-pointed star, called a “Temple” (ḥaykal) because of its resemblance to the human form. The British Library holds an example of such a manuscript in the Bāb’s own handwriting, the only known copy of this work.

The handwriting of the Bāb in the form of a five pointed star, the ḥaykal  (BL Or 6887)
The handwriting of the Bāb in the form of a five pointed star, the aykal  (BL Or 6887). Public Domain

The Bāb placed a great emphasis on perfection and refinement. “Whoever possesseth power over anything,” He wrote, “must elevate it to its uttermost perfection that it not be deprived of its own paradise.”[5] He gave the example of a piece of paper upon which some words have been written. The ‘paradise’ of that paper is to be adorned with gold illumination and patterns. In trying to bring all things to perfection, a human being is replicating the work of God, who brought into being the whole of creation in such a state. These ideas of the Bāb continue to influence the Bahā’ī community, especially in the building of Bahā’ī houses of worship around the world.

Picture of the Bahā’ī House of Worship in Delhi, India
The Baha'i House of Worship in Delhi, India. Copyright © Bahá'í International Community

Encounter with an Irish doctor

Considered a heretic, the Bāb was put on trial in July 1848 and bastinadoed. An Irish physician resident in Tabriz, Dr. William Cormick treated the Bāb’s wounds and left this account of him:

He was a very mild and delicate looking man, rather small in stature and very fair for a Persian, with a melodious soft voice, which struck me much…In fact his whole look and deportment went far to dispose one in his favour.[6]

Dr William Cormick
Dr William Cormick. Courtesy of Connections

The Bāb was executed in 1850. Thousands of Babis were also killed, many of them in the most gruesome ways.

It was while incarcerated in 1852 in a subterranean dungeon in Tehran that one of the most distinguished of the Bāb’s followers, Bahā’u’llāh (his title means “the Glory of God”), had a spiritual experience that is regarded as the birth of his own prophetic mission. He was subsequently exiled to Baghdad, beginning a 40 year period of banishment and imprisonment at the hands of the Persian and Ottoman authorities.

The Writings of Bahā’u’llāh

In Baghdad, Bahā’u’llāh wrote a number of major works, such as The Seven Valleys and The Hidden Words, as well as his foremost theological treatise, the Kitāb-i Īqān (the Book of Certitude). After ten years, ahead of a further exile, Bahā’u’llāh declared himself to be “He whom God shall make manifest” that the Bāb had foretold. From Edirne in what is now European Turkey, Bahā’u’llāh announced himself to be the Promised One prophesied in all religions and proclaimed his mission in letters to the world’s major kings and leaders, including Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, Tsar Alexander II and Pope Pius IX.

Bahā’u’llāh too was an exceptional calligrapher. The British Library has in its collection an example of some of his handwriting exercises as a child.


Album-of-Bahai-calligraphy-or_11098_f016r-15v
Calligraphic exercises of Bahā’u’llāh when a child (BL Or 11098). Public Domain

On many occasions his writings came into being in an extraordinary manner. Firstly, his secretary would have ready a number of reed pens and stacks of large sheets of paper. Bahā’u’llāh would then dictate to his secretary, speaking rapidly or chanting without pause. Such was the speed with which these verses had to be captured on the paper that they were only readable by the scribe himself.

Bahai-Revelation-Writing-or_16641_f001v
Revelation Writing: the script developed by Bahā’u’llāh’s secretary as a shorthand for taking his dictation (BL Or 16641). Public Domain

Later, the secretary would copy out what he had written in a legible handwriting. Bahā’u’llāh then approved the text. This version would then be copied and shared throughout the Middle East, and even as far afield as India, Burma (Myanmar) and China. Many Bahā’īs would bind collections of these writings into finely decorated volumes.

Collection-of-bahai-tablets-or_7852_f004r-3v
Illumined leaf from a volume of Bahā’u’llāh’s writings (BL Or 7852, ff. 1-2). Public Domain

Encounter with E.G. Browne

Finally imprisoned by the Ottoman authorities in the walled city of Akka (Acco), Bahā’u’llāh, wrote the most important of his works, the Kitab-i Aqdas (the Most Holy Book). In 1877, he moved to a mansion outside the city where he was visited in 1890 by Professor Edward G. Browne, who described the impression Bahā’u’llāh made upon him:

Edward-granville-browne
Portrait of Prof. E.G. Browne at about the time he visited Bahā’u’llāh. Public Domain, Courtesy of Moojan Momen

The face of him on whom I gazed I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one's very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow; while the deep lines on the forehead and face implied an age which the jet-black hair and beard flowing down in indistinguishable luxuriance almost to the waist seemed to belie. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain!

A mild dignified voice bade me be seated, and then continued:- “Praise be to God that thou hast attained!... Thou hast come to see a prisoner and an exile.... We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and banishment.... That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled—what harm is there in this?... Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come...” [7]

Bahā’u’llāh’s shrine outside of Akka is considered the holiest place in the world by Baha'is. On Bahā’u’llāh’s instruction, the remains of the Bāb, which had been hidden in Iran for 50 years, were transferred to the Holy Land. In 1909 they were interred in a simple mausoleum on the slopes of Mount Carmel across the bay from Akka. They now rest beneath a majestic golden domed shrine, surrounded by exquisite terraced gardens.

Shrine of the Bab
The Shrine of the Bāb on Mount Carmel. Copyright © Bahá'í International Community

Today, Baha'is, who number several millions and live in nearly every country in the world, are engaged with their friends and neighbours in a collaborative programme that aims to develop the spiritual and material prosperity of their communities.


Moojan Momen, Independent Scholar
 ccownwork


[1] Matthew Arnold, “A Persian Passion Play”, The Cornhill Magazine, vol. 24 (London, 1871, pp. 668-71), p. 668; also in Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism (London: MacMillan, 4th ed. 1884, repr. 1902), p. 226.
[2] Edward Granville Browne, A Year among the Persians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, new ed. 1926), p. 330.
[3] Jules Bois, “The New Religions of America. III – Babism and Bahaism”, Forum, vol. 7 (Concord, NH, USA, July, 1925), pp. 1-10.
[4] Paul Birukoff, Tolstoi und der Orient: Briefe und sonstige Zeugnisse über Tolstois Beziehungen zu den Vertretern orientalischer Religionen (Zurich: Rotapfel, 1925), pp. 99-100; translated in Moojan Momen, The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts (Oxford: George Ronald, 1981), p. 55.
[5] “The Bāb, Persian Bayān, Vāḥid 4, Chapter 11”. Translated in Nader Saiedi, Gate of the Heart ([Waterloo, ONT]: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2008, p. 255.
[6] Edward G. Browne, Materials for the Study of the Bábí Religion, p. 262.
[7] ———, A Traveller’s Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. xxxix-xl.