Owning Books in Arabic Script inside and outside Muslim Communities

In all literate societies, the vast majority of books are utilitarian commodities whose most important feature is their reproducibility, be it in the same medium (e.g., manuscript to manuscript) or be it in a new medium (e.g., manuscript to digital surrogate).  The technology of writing allows for the manufacture of new copies, irrespective of a book’s format (that is: tablet, scroll, roll, codex, e-book), whenever it seems opportune or necessary to replace an old copy with a new copy.  At the same time, books and their contents are continually destroyed in the course of natural disasters, warfare, censorship, deaccession, or wear and tear.  Between these extreme poles of unlimited reproducibility and pending permanent disappearance, we can recognize the contours of two different book cultures: utilitarian books with texts for readers and rare or bibliophilic books regarded as valuable.  But what we think about particular texts and artifacts changes over time, and thus books move back and forth between these two cultures.

In their introduction to Provenance: An Alternate History of Art (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2012), Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Reist conceive of provenance as “a kind of shadow social history of art” (p. 3).  Books, though, are different from works of art – if we are disregarding livres d’artistes.  While works of art nowadays require provenance records as documentation of legal ownership, David Pearson observes in the introduction to his handbook about Provenance Research in Book History (2d ed. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2019) that the complete absence of any information about earlier owners is as common as the preservation of some details indicating a book’s social history (pp. 9–10).

It is against this backdrop that I will draw on selected holdings of Columbia University Libraries in order to explore how the officially available information about the provenance of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script provides new insight into changing perceptions of their international trade and their value.  The investigation of their provenance and sale cannot be separated from the interrogation of the legitimacy of their ownership, because their social history inside and outside Muslim communities is linked to contemporary debates about Orientalism and Islamophobia.  I argue that the dual nature of books – they can be cultural heritage and run-of-the-mill cheap copies – necessitates a reflection about different concepts of individual and collective ownership vis-à-vis representations of power and historical responsibility.  

Note 1. With regard to the methodological challenge which is posed by the economic reality that books are commodities, and this economic reality comprises even rare luxury volumes which are manufactured to order for wealthy patrons or religious institutions, I find it useful to contrast the heritage value of mobile commodities such as old books to the heritage value of old buildings which can be neither replaced by a new copy nor picked up and whisked away; see Jaume Franquesa, “On Keeping and Selling: The Political Economy of Heritage Making in Contemporary Spain, Current Anthropology 54.3 (June 2013): 346-369; DOI: 10.1086/670620.

Note 2. While scholars investigate an artefact’s provenance when determining its authenticity or its legal owner, antiquarian book dealers explore the associations which form a book’s web of human relations in order to possibly enhance its emotional or intellectual value in the eyes of its customers. Three contemporary glossaries on book collecting, western codicology, and bookselling illustrate different perceptions of provenance vis-à-vis association, documenting that in the world of books provenance and association are complementary concepts.

John Carter and Nicolas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors, 8th ed. with corrections, Newcastle, Del.: Oak Knoll, 2006. 1t ed. in the UK, London: R. Hart-Davis, 1952.

Michelle P. Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms, London: BL, 1994.

Glossary on the website of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), available at: https://ilab.org/glossary

* Abstract of my talk at the workshop about Provenance: Interdisciplinary Conversations, organized by Emma Hagström Molin at the Centre for Integrated Research on Culture and Society (Circus) of Uppsala University (Sweden). The ZOOM workshop will take place on 20-21 August 2020.

Enlarged, 16 August 2020

3 thoughts on “Owning Books in Arabic Script inside and outside Muslim Communities

  1. As I am currently staying away from Twitter, I missed a recent Twitter discussion of a fifteenth-century Quran on Ming paper which was sold by Christie’s as lot 29 of sale 18371, dedicated to Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets, London, 25 June 2020:
    https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/books-manuscripts/a-timurid-or-aqquyunlu-quran-on-chinese-6255702-details.aspx
    For access to images, many thanks are due to the antiquarian bookseller Nicholas G. McBurney (https://twitter.com/mcburney_nick) who made his photos available at: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/8a4726enakx3r0x/AAA2JE-EeAX8J6WFxjPmAMdba?dl=0
    The URL was tweeted by the handle @incunabla as part of their detailed thread about this Quran: https://twitter.com/incunabula/status/1271430166582042628
    Art historians Stephennie Mulder (https://twitter.com/stephenniem) and Yael Rice (https://twitter.com/Yael_Rice) critiqued Christie’s lack of transparency with regard to provenance in general and for this Quran in particular; their observations are available at: https://twitter.com/stephenniem/status/1275238292884197377
    and https://twitter.com/Yael_Rice/status/1273352899549167619

  2. A Twitter thread about the international trade with manuscripts in Arabic script, with a focus on the situation in and beyond Cairo around 1900, was posted by the collective “Historians of Iran” (https://twitter.com/HistorianofIran) on 30 May 2020; as the person responsible for the handle changes each week, I do not know who authored this thread about the Yahuda family as manuscript dealers: https://twitter.com/HistorianofIran/status/1266731705290784769

  3. For an example of colonial manuscript looting, see the 2019 article about the Maqdala (Magdala) manuscripts by Eyob Derillo, a PhD student at SOAS who was the curator of the BL’s first exhibition of its Ethiopian manuscript collection. The article was published in African Documentation & Research (no. 135, 2019, pp. 102-116) and is available for download from his academia.edu page at: https://www.academia.edu/43270967/Exhibiting_the_Maqdala_Manuscripts_African_Scribes_Manuscript_Culture_of_Ethiopia

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