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.  

* 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.