Penn Library Exhibitions

Bibliotheca Schoenbergensis: An Exhibition from the Collection of Lawrence J. Schoenberg

Peoples of the Book
The Islamic Manuscript Tradition

Authors in Islamic countries "published" their works by reading them aloud, or dictating from memory, in front of an audience. The dictated composition would be transcribed by one or more copyists and, in order to ensure the accuracy of the transcription, would be read back to the author. A reliable transcription secured the author's permission (ijazah) to transmit a work to others in the same manner. Booksellers themselves were often copyists, who would prepare copies to order or provide copies made by others for sale.

After its introduction from China, paper began to be made in the Islamic empire as early as 800 A.D., and by the middle of the 10th century it had replaced papyrus. The preferred writing instrument was the reed pen. Paper was prepared for writing first by applying a sizing material and then burnishing the surface. Decoration of the text, whether in the form of simple rubrications, diagrams, or elaborate illuminations, was added after the text had been copied. Finally, the book was bound.

Although printing made its appearance in Europe in the mid-15th century, printed books were banned for religious reasons in Muslim lands until 1712. In that year the Ottoman sultan issued a firman making it legal to print books on all subjects except Islam. Even then the use of printing did not become widespread and books continued to be reproduced in manuscript form well into the 20th century. Books on Islam and copies of the Qur'an did not begin to be printed in Islamic countries until the first years of the 19th century. The Islamic manuscript tradition therefore lasted a great deal longer than it did in European countries, explaining the relatively recent dates of most the Islamic manuscripts included in this exhibit.


al-Ikhtisar min al-maqalat min kitab Uqlidis
(Abridgement of articles from Euclid's book)
Syria or Iraq?, 502-504 A.H. [1108-1111 A.D.]

Euclid's Stoicheia ("Elements") was written around 300 B.C. and remained the definitive textbook of geometry for the next 2,000 years. It was the first ancient mathematical book translated from Greek into Arabic, around 820 A.D. It was retranslated several times thereafter by Arab mathematicians who hoped to improve on the previous translations and to provide textbooks which would transmit the gist of the work in a simpler form. Evidence in the colophon suggests the present manuscript took its author two years to complete, which, along with frequent substantive corrections to the text, suggest that the book records the process of his reading and simultaneous epitomization of Euclid's Elements.

Between 1200 and 1400 Europe acquired the inheritance of Greek mathematics through the Arab world. It was the Arabic translations of Euclid, Archimedes and Ptolemy which revived interest in their works in Europe, and in some cases only the Arabic versions have survived. Arabic-speaking authors of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths translated Greek works into Arabic, often through Syriac intermediate versions, some of which survive. In their mathematical works they also introduced Indian numerals (which we now call Arabic numerals). There is evidence that at least some parts of Euclid's Elementswere translated or summarized in Latin from an original Greek source by European authors around the 4th century A.D., but later authors writing around the 12th century found that the text available in its several Arabic versions was the more complete and clearer.

This manuscript was produced as part of the ongoing Arab assimilation of Greek mathematics and at the point in time when this inheritance began to be transmitted to the West.

Glazed paper, 92 leaves, 188 x 95 mm, 15 lines, in arabic, written in naskh.


Collection of prayers
Turkey, Safar 889 H. (March 1484)

This collection of prayers may have been assembled for use by a non-Arabic speaking Turkish Muslim in his private devotions. Each prayer in Arabic is preceded by a commentary in Ottoman Turkish. At the end of the book, diagrams and tables are included for calculating the direction of Mecca from different latitudes-perhaps the book's owner intended to take it with him on travels in the Islamic lands, or perhaps its compiler hoped it would be copied and have wide distribution beyond his home country. In the late 15th century, when this book was compiled, the Turkish language was beginning to come into its own in the Ottoman Empire as a devotional language, alongside Arabic. At the same time the Ottomans were promoting the advancement of Islam and Turkish culture throughout their domain. They did not favor the use of print for the transmission of this culture, however, and Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512) would, only a year after this book was compiled, declare the possession of printed material to be forbidden. The Arabic colophon of this text gives its copyist's name as Ilyas ibn Khamzah [sic] 'Ali Niyat 'Ali ibn Khamzah. The spelling of the name Khamzah, perhaps for the Arabic name Hamzah, suggests the copyist was not himself a native speaker of Arabic.

Glazed European paper, 221 leaves, 140 x 112 mm, 11 lines, in Arabic with Turkish commentary.


Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli (d. 1465)
Dala'il al-khayrat (Guides to good things)
Levant, 17th or 18th century

The text consists of a collection of prayers for the Prophet Muhammad, a description of his tomb, lists of his names and honorary epithets, and a host of other devotional material for use by Sunni Muslims. It has seen many printed editions in modern times and is used by Sufi religious orders in Egypt as the basis of their public devotions to this day. It includes two large illustrations, one (p.[31]) representing the great mosque of Mecca, the other (p. [32]) representing the mosque at Medina and the tomb of the Prophet. Marginal annotations in red ink give the day of the week on which a particular prayer should be read and indicate separation of text into ahzab (1/60ths), so that it may be read easily over two months' time.

European paper, 91 leaves, 160 x 105 mm, 11 lines, in Arabic


Collection of prayers and charms
Egypt, 18th century

Including several prayers inspired by the Qur'anic Verse of the Throne (Ayat al-Kursi), commonly used as a means of protection from evil, this manuscript also contains prayers (awrad) ascribed to Shaykh Ahmad Baha'i, the prophet Yahya (John of the Bible), and other religious figures. At the end of the text are two charms: one for love, the other a general prophylactic against evil. On the first leaf is the invocation "ya Kabikaj!," a spell to avert a book's destruction by bookworms.

Glazed European paper, 150 leaves, 173 x 116 mm, 11 lines, in Arabic.


Megillat Esther
Italy, 15th century

Written in square Italian script with vowel points and cantillation marks, this manuscript of the Book of Esther is distinctive in at least two ways. It is part of a larger work--a miscellany--which contained other books of the Bible as well. The manuscript begins with the last seven verses from the Book of Lamentations. It may be that the Book of Esther was removed from the original miscellany for use on the Purim holiday, when the scroll of Esther is read in the synagogue. Added to the text are two liturgical poems, "Asher Heini" and "Shoshanat Yaakov," written in a semi-square (rabbinic) Italian Sephardic hand.

The manuscript is also noteworthy for its illustrations. Although it was originally laid out with provisions for miniatures, the work was never done. The illustrations that one finds in the manuscript today were recently executed by an artist who followed motifs from a number of well-known illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, including the De Castro Pentateuch, the Rylands Haggadah, the Kaufman Mishneh Torah, and the Prayer Book of the Rabbi of Ruzhin.

Parchment, 16 leaves, 60 x 87 mm, 16 lines, in Hebrew, written in Italian square script.


Moses Almosnino (ca. 1515 - ca. 1580).
Commentary to Beit Elohim and Sha'ar ha-Shamayim
Salonika, mid-16th century

This important codex, written in Sephardic semi-cursive script, consists of two unpublished texts: a commentary to the Beit Elohim, the Hebrew translation of Sacrobosco's De sphaera mundi, and a commentary to the Sha'ar ha-Shamayim, the Hebrew translation of Georg Peuerbach's Novae theoricae planetarum. The colophon of the first text indicates that it was written in Salonika for Peretz ben Yehuda Mintz Ashkenazi by Hayyim Luzio in 1551; the colophon of the second states that it was composed by Moses Almosnino in 1546 and was also copied by Luzio. It is possible that both texts were written under the supervision of their author.

Almosnino was a well-known rabbi and preacher in sixteenth-century Salonika who was learned in philosophy and science. In these works, he cites Euclid, Aristotle, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Pythagoras, Avicenna, Averroes, and Albertus Magnus, among others. The texts chosen for commentary were two of the most important sources for late medieval cosmography and astronomy. Beyond these, Almosnino presents a geography of the world, including a detailed, seven-page description of America. In fact, he is one of the few Jewish writers of the period to have commented on the New World.

Paper, 162 leaves, 268 x 187 mm, 40 lines, in Hebrew, written in a semi-cursive script.


[Qasa'id?] Shah Qasim wa-ghayruhu min tasanifih ([Poems?] and other works of Shah Qasim)
Iran?, late 18th-early 19th century?

This is a collection of ruba'iyat (quatrains) and qasa'id (lyric poems), in four sections, by an author identified only as Shah Qasim. He may be Mawlana Qasim, a poet of the Moghul court who flourished around the mid-sixteenth century. The decoration of the book was apparently not completed: towards the end of the text are empty spaces left for headings to be inserted in red ink, and one of the four sections is missing its illuminated 'unwan'(headpiece). The manuscript was once in the collection of the noted bibliophile, Sir Thomas Phillipps and bears a presentation inscription: "Given by Captain Thomas Mignan to Sir Thos Phillipps Bt 1827."

Glazed paper, 252 leaves, 212 x 116 mm, 1 and 2 columns, 13-14 lines, in Persian, written in nasta'liq script.


Collection of poems
India, first half of 18th century?

Collections of Ghazals (love poems) and ruba'iyat (quatrains) were common in the Islamic tradition. In addition to the illumination of the 'unwans (headpieces) and margins of the text, the entire page surface has been flecked with silver. The colophon gives the calligrapher's name, Muhammad ibn Walad Qasim ibn Mawlana Muhammad Rida. Previous owners were Abu al-Fazl ibn Ghiyath al-Din Mansur(?) and Anwar al-Dawlah, whose seal bears the date 1170 A.H. (1756 or 7 A.D.). This date has been used as a terminus post quem.

Glazed paper, 345 leaves, 180 x 85 mm, 1 and 2 columns, in Persian.


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