Qur’āns from Africa to the Silk Road

The Holy Qur’ān has occupied a central position in the spiritual and intellectual life of the Islamic world since the 7th century, serving as a common bond among Muslims, whether native speakers of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or other languages. Not surprisingly, the Manuscripts Division’s extraordinary holdings of nearly 10,000 Islamic manuscripts include a substantial number of Qur’āns, complemented by Qur’ānic commentaries and related texts. Sacred text merited the most luxurious production by book artisans, writing in calligraphic hands on parchment or glazed Arabic paper, which was then handsomely embellished with geometric and non-representational forms in gold, lapis lazuli, and other colors, and finally encased in hand-tooled, decorated morocco bindings. Most of Princeton’s manuscript Qur’āns are from the Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Persia, Turkey, and the Indian subcontinent, dating from the earliest centuries of Islam through the 19th century, when printing finally replaced scribal production of the Qur’ān. Among the oldest Qur’āns at Princeton are two on parchment: a 17-line Qur’ānic fragment (Sūrah 21:15-36), written in Hijāzī script, probably dating from the 8th century, early in the history of the Abbasid Caliphate (Islamic Manuscripts, no. 14G[a]); and a largely complete Qur’ān (Sūrahs 1-100), in Kufic script, dating from the late 9th or early 10th century (no. 34G).

In recent years, the Manuscripts Division has been making a conscious effort to acquire Qur’āns from other geographical areas of the extended Islamic world, in order to document the book arts and trace minor variations in textual transmission. Holdings of Qur’āns now include 19th-century examples from the Philippines, Malaysia, and Nigeria. The most recent additions are two complete Qur’āns from China under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), written in Arabic on paper and elegantly decorated in gold and vivid colors. Both are in contemporary bindings. In style, they combine Arabic, Central Asian, and Chinese influences. One of the Qur’āns dates from the 17th century (Islamic Manuscripts, Third Series, no. 875), and the other has a scribal colophon dated AH 1138 / 1726-27 CE (Third Series, no. 876). Islam was introduced to China in the 7th century and survives to this day as a minority religion, practiced by the Hui people, an ethnically Chinese group, chiefly in northwestern China, bordering on Muslim areas of Central Asia; by the Uyghurs, a Turkic people in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwestern China; and by Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Tartars, and other less numerous ethnic minorities in China.

The Princeton University Library has the largest collection of Islamic manuscripts in North America and one of the finest such collections in the Western world. About two-thirds came to the Library as part of the collection of Robert Garrett (1875-1961), Class of 1897, one of Princeton’s preeminent manuscript collectors. He donated most of his collection to the Library in 1942. The rest have been acquired by gift and purchase since the 1950s. Most of the manuscripts originated in Near Eastern centers of Islamic civilization. But holdings also include manuscripts from Moorish Spain and the Maghreb in the West, to the Indonesian Archipelago in the East, and even a few from sub-Sahara Africa. The chief strength are Arabic texts relating to all aspects of the world of learning. Subject coverage is broad and comprehensive, including theology based on the Qur’ān and tradition (hadīth); Islamic law (fiqh); history and biography (especially of the Prophet and other religious leaders); book arts and illustration; vernacular literature; science; magic and the occult; and other aspects of the spiritual, intellectual, and artistic life of the Islamic world and its diverse peoples, including non-Muslims.

The Princeton University Library has long been committed to making these collections available to researchers worldwide. Access was initially provided by printed catalogs. In the last two decades, with initial support from the U.S. Department of Education, followed by more substantial support from Princeton’s Magic Project and Council of the Humanities (Virginia and Richard Stewart Memorial Fund), the Library has put many thousands of bibliographic records online and has digitized over 1,200 Islamic manuscripts. For more information about Princeton’s Islamic manuscripts, one can search bibliographic records in the online catalog or access the Princeton University Digital Library. Reference assistance is available from Public Services staff, rbsc@princeton.edu

Chinese Qur’an, AH 1138 / 1726-27 CE (Islamic Manuscripts, Third Series, no. 876).