SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

The Islamic Manuscript Tradition

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2020/2021
FHEQ Level:
Taught in:
Term 2

This module is run in collaboration with the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation.

The written word holds a place of special dignity in Islamic cultures, and Islamic societies have been amongst the most bookish in human history. The major means of preservation and dissemination of the Islamic written heritage has been through manuscripts copied in a wide variety of settings and circumstances from individual scholars copying texts for their own use, or groups of students copying texts together at reading sessions, to scribes copying texts for the book market or for individual patrons. Even after the first Arabic books were printed in the mid-fifteenth century, Islamic manuscripts continued to be produced in great numbers. Today, some three million Islamic manuscripts are thought to survive in collections around the world. The vast majority of the Islamic written heritage remains unedited and unpublished and is accessible only through these manuscripts.


This course will give MA students the skills needed to work directly with manuscripts in the Arabic script both to consult the texts they contain as primary sources for their research and also to appreciate manuscripts as unique artefacts in their own right. Classes will consist of lectures and hands-on sessions involving physical manuscripts. The module will focus on Arabic-language manuscripts, and students must have an intermediate proficiency in written Arabic as a minimum.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

LO1.  To have a well-rounded appreciation of the richness and diversity of Islamic manuscript culture.

LO2.  To have knowledge of the key concepts and themes in the history of manuscript production and consumption in the Islamic world.

LO3.  To have the palaeographical and codicological skills needed to work directly with primary source texts in manuscript.

LO4.  To read and interpret Islamic manuscripts written in the major bookhands and representative of a wide range of periods, locations and genres, having had guided, hands-on experience in reading and interpreting manuscripts in classes.

LO5.  To find and use the best online and print resources for the study of Islamic manuscripts. 


Five two-hour lectures

Five two-hour workshops

Scope and syllabus

The main topics to be covered:

1.     Scribal practice, book structures, libraries and reading habits.

2.     Reading Colophons: Humility, piety, dating systems and collation statements.

3.     Provenance: Owners’ inscriptions, patron statements, endowments, inspection notes and seals.

4.     Marginalia, abbreviations, readers’ statements and teaching certificates.

5.     Numerals, foliation, quires and calculation.

6.     Transcription, collation and principles of textual criticism.


Classes will involve visits to Archives and Special Collections at SOAS, the British Library and the Al-Furqan Foundation in Kensington, which has a wealth of resources related to Islamic manuscripts. 

Method of assessment


4 twenty-minute quizzes will give students the chance to test their knowledge of the 4 main areas of codicological expertise presented in this module:


1)    Reading Colophons,

2)    Indications of provenance,

3)    Signs of use, and

4)    Numerals and foliation.


The quizzes will allow students to practice the producing the kind of written assessments of manuscripts and transcriptions of manuscript text that will be assessed by the final exam (this exam forms 100% of the total mark for this module).

Suggested reading

Core Reading:

  • Déroche, François et al. Islamic Codicology: An Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script (London: Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 2006).                                         
  • Gacek, Adam. Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers (Leiden: Brill, 2009).       
  • Pedersen, Johannes. The Arabic Book. trans. by G. French, ed. by R. Hillenbrand (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Suggested Reading:

  • Gacek, Adam. Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1981).
  • Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies: An Introduction, ed. by Alessandro Bausi et al. (Hamburg: Tredition, 2015).
  • From Codicology to Technology: Islamic Manuscripts and Their Place in Scholarship, ed. by S. Brinkmann and B. Wiesmüller (Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2009).
  • Gacek, Adam. The Arabic Manuscript Tradition: A Glossary of Technical Terms and Bibliography, 2 vols. (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2001-2008) 
  • Gacek, Adam, ‘Ownership Statements and Seals in Arabic Manuscripts’, Manuscripts of the Middle East 2 (1987) pp. 88-95.
  • Gacek, Adam. ‘Some Remarks on the Cataloguing of Arabic Manuscripts’, Bulletin: British Society for Middle Eastern Studies 10.20 (1983), pp. 173-179.
  • Hirschler, Konrad. The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands. A Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012).
  • Iskandar, A.Z. A Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts on Medicine and Science in the Wellcome Historical Medical Library (London: The Wellcome Historical Medical Library, 1967).
  • Manuscript Cultures: Mapping the Field, ed. by J. Quenzer, D. Bondarev and J. Sobisch (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014).
  • Manuscript Notes as Documentary Sources, ed. by A. Görke and K. Hirschler (Würzburg: Ergon Verlag in Kommission, 2011).
  • Rosenthal, Franz. The Technique and Approach of Muslim Scholarship (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1947).
  • Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient. ed. by F. Déroche and F. Richard (Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1997).
  • The Trade in Papers Marked with Non-Latin Characters: Documents and History. Volume 1, ed. by A. Regourd (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2018).
  • Writings and Writing: Investigations in Islamic Text and Script, ed. by R. Kerr and T. Milo (Cambridge: Archetype, 2013).
  • The Yemeni Manuscript Tradition, ed. by D. Hollenberg, C. Rauch and S. Schmidtke (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2015).


Web Resources

  • Islamic Manuscript Studies, Research Guides, University of Michigan Library
  • Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland
  • Islamic Seals Database, Chester Beatty Library
  • Islamic Scientific Manuscripts Initiative
  • Witkam, Jan Just. Islamic Manuscripts


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules