The International Trade with Manuscripts in Arabic Script: From Commercial Commodity to Cultural Heritage

In 2021, after more than a decade of public acknowledgements of the growing inequality between the poor and the wealthy, the concepts of illegitimate and legitimate ownership of any particular culture, however intangible, has acquired visceral ethical implications in everyday life which transcends academic research on cultural appropriation in postcolonial studies and related fields.  Ownership of a particular culture has been essentialized to protect at least the possession of our immaterial property, that is: intangible cultural heritage, against the absolute logic of market capitalism in the neoliberal age.  Against this backdrop, any investigation of the border-crossing mobility of manuscripts in Arabic script raises the question how contemporary best practices for acquisition and collection management inform our interpretation of the available evidence whether past acquisitions were spoils of war, stolen goods, gift giving, or legitimate commercial transactions.

The question is particularly acute for manuscripts in Arabic script which are nowadays held in private collections and public memory institutions outside Muslim majority societies.  The depth of the historical collections of manuscripts in Arabic script in the former imperial capitals of Paris, London, or Vienna is well known.  Even regional European libraries hold small, though important Islamic collections, like those in Hamburg, Munich, and Bologna which were acquired as part of the private libraries of Albrecht Widmanstetter (1506–1557), Abraham Hinckelmann (1652–1695), and Luigi Marsili (1658-1730), respectively.  At the same time, the border-crossing mobility of manuscripts in Arabic script also occurred within the Islamic lands, between South Asia and North Africa, between the Balkans and Central Asia.  Their circulation across the Islamic lands forces scholars to search for codicological and literary evidence that the manuscripts themselves were moving, and not the artisans.  Art historians vigorously debate whether certain Persian bibliophilic codices were – despite the Safavid style of their calligraphy, illumination, figurative paintings, and bindings – the work of Ottoman or Mughal workshops.  In contrast, the circulation of manuscripts in Arabic script outside the Islamic lands has turned into the proverbial elephant in the room.  In the early 1870s, when traveling in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921) bought for the just founded Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest only printed books because the foreign demand for manuscripts – as Goldziher had learned from his Arab colleagues – had made them too expensive on the book markets in Damascus and Cairo.  About a century later, Edward Said (1935–2003) presented in Orientalism the steady flow of manuscripts from the Islamic lands to Paris and London – the beginning of which he dated to about 1800 – as evidence for the indebtedness of modern European philology to this displaced Arab-Islamic treasure trove of knowledge.

The international trade with manuscripts in Arabic script can be documented from the sixteenth century onwards with the historical holdings which have survived – against considerable odds – in contemporary collections in Europe and North America.  I argue that the work of book dealers like Abraham Yahuda (1877–1951) has to be understood within this long tradition of highly educated middle men selling manuscripts in Arabic script to foreigners in order to make a living.  However, at the current state of descriptive cataloguing, codicological evidence for the international book trade is often omitted from manuscript descriptions as research continues to focus on the manuscripts’ contents as well as on workshops, patrons, or owners.  In other words, the agency of sellers and dealers has received much less attention.  Taking advantage of the less charged research about commercial transactions with “western” books as hard-nosed, unsentimental business, it becomes possible to recognize the codicological evidence of the international trade with manuscripts in Arabic script and its impact on Middle Eastern and Islamic studies as practiced outside the Islamic lands since the Renaissance.

* Abstract of my contribution to the online symposium about A.S Yahuda and Islamic Manuscripts, scheduled for 1-3 June 2021 and sponsored by Princeton University and The College of Charleston; for more information about the organizing committee, see the symposium’s website  

Corrected, 15 May 2021     

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:

* 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

Literary History and the History of the Book in Arabic Script

Sabine Schmidtke of the Freie Universität Berlin and Sarah Stroumsa of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem observe in their prospectus of a special volume of the journal Intellectual History of the Islamicate World that “[D]espite the constantly growing research regarding the literary history of the Islamicate World, our knowledge about what was available/popular/read in different periods and regions is still dismally patchy.”  While I share their dissatisfaction about the state of research on manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script, I do not see a contradiction between the flowering of scholarship on the literary history of the Islamicate world and the lack of interest in the material and social history of the book in Arabic script.  Research on literary history has benefited from the improved access to extant written sources thanks to the continually growing number of digital surrogates.  As there is little interest in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies in integrating manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script into the research programs of Critical Bibliography and Book History, there is less competition for funding and significant resources can be invested into the digitization of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script.

The dramatically increased availability of digital surrogates of Islamic books is not only a consequence of the wide range of digitization initiatives in Europe and North America.  Since the Islamic tradition combines the reverence for written texts, which originated with the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet, with strong oral traditions, the digitization of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script has been smoothly integrated into the pragmatic traditions of Islamic bookmaking that for centuries focused on facilitating the access to written texts by whatever means necessary.  The adaptation of digitization to bookmaking was not hampered by theoretical concerns for the ontological differences between nineteenth-century manuscript copies of much older manuscripts, lithographs, typeset books, microfilms, or digital surrogates: they are all texts.  Historicist awareness for the authentic material artefact and its facsimile or forgery is as irrelevant as legal concerns about copyright law and best practices within the Digital Humanities: as long as the text itself seemingly does not change, it does not matter in which medium a text is reproduced so that it can be studied.  Against this backdrop it is only sensible that source criticism in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies does usually not consider codicological and bibliographical evidence, and is, with the qualified exception of Quranic Studies, mostly practiced as an ahistorical evaluation of content.  Recent publications about editorial practice focus on matters such as transcription, while carefully sidestepping a critical examination of any underlying tacit editorial theory.

At the same time, research on the Islamicate world continues to be defined by the conceptual predicament that follows from placing Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies into a geography-based curriculum that was derived from the nineteenth-century division of subject matter into western and non-western topics.  Almost forty years after the publication of Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism, specialists of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies do not easily relate themselves to Classicists, Medievalists, or Renaissance scholars.  Regional expertise is more highly valued than interdisciplinary and transnational collaboration to conduct research on a particular historical period.  Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at large are committed to overcoming the Cold War Area Studies paradigm according to which “the West” generated knowledge about “the East” in order to perpetuate its global economic and political power.  Undergraduate and graduate training is focused on providing students with language skills and critical methodologies that allow for research on, and in, Muslim societies, but Critical Bibliography and Textual Studies in fields such as Classics or Medieval and Renaissance Studies seem too closely associated with philology and are thus rejected as Orientalist approaches to the literary heritage of the Islamicate world.  Moreover, it seems insensitive to study printed books and manuscripts in Arabic script as mere material objects and quotidian commercial commodities, since scholars of Muslim societies take enormous pride in the Islamic manuscript tradition as a major cultural achievement of the Islamicate world.