Back to the french section Hommages aux Scribes


Celebrating Scribes, Scholars and conservators
An Exhibition of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish Manuscripts
in the McGill Library

Texts written by Dr. Adam Gacek
Head librarian of the Islamic Studies Library at  McGill University

The McGill Library Collections
The Koran (Qur'an)   
Piety and popular culture  
Writing surfaces 
Writing Implements
Scripts and hands 
Calligrapher's diploma 
The composition of the text  
Painted decorations  
Painted illustrations  
Preservation project

McGill Library Collections

Among the rare books in McGill Library’s collections there are some 670 volumes of manuscripts written in the Arabic, Persian, Ottoman-Turkish, and Urdu languages. In addition, there are some 280 single or double-leaf fragments and pieces of calligraphy, including illustrations from Persian MSS and signed calligraphs. They are distributed between Blacker-Wood Library of Zoology and Ornithology, Osler Library of the History of Medicine, Rare Books and Special Collections Division and Islamic Studies Library.

Most of these manuscripts have been at McGill since the 1920s. They were collected by the well known Russian scholar Wladimir Ivanow (1874-1970) for Dr. Casey A. Wood (1856-1942), who supplied them to McGill. W. Ivanow was a curator of Persian MSS in the Imperial Library in St. Petersburg and later at the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. The manuscripts were collected in Northeastern India (Lucknow and Sandila), where most of them had been copied, making them therefore of great interest to palaeographers and codicologists.

In terms of subject coverage, these collections embrace all aspects of Islamic literature: Qur’anic exegesis, Tradition, Jurisprudence, Philosophy, Theology, Mysticism, History, Belles Lettres, and Sciences. Well-represented among the latter are Medicine and the Natural Sciences. Among the manuscripts in the Blacker-Wood collection there are a number of important illustrated texts on falconry and farriery, while Rare Books and Special Collections Division houses 20 early fragments of the Qur’an and some of the finest examples of book illustration and illumination. The collections span the period from the 9th to the early 20th centuries with a good number of MSS from the late medieval period.

The most valuable manuscripts in these collections are gradually being provided with special tailor-made boxes thanks to the efforts of volunteer bookbinders and conservators from ARA (Les amis de la reliure d’art – Canada). Their valuable contribution, as well as that of the donors who made their work possible is acknowledged here with gratitude.

the koran (Qur'an)

Islam is the religion of the book. The Qur’an for the Muslim is therefore the book par excellence and this fact is fundamental to an understanding of the Muslim religion and Islamic manuscript-making as a whole. Although originally any addition of coloured ink to the copied text of the Qur’an was strictly prohibited, with time this book became the most decorated and cherished of all books among Muslims.

A specific etiquette, applicable to both the reader and the scribe, grew around it. The scribe, for instance, was required to be in a state of ritual purity (aharah), wear clean clothes and face the Ka`bah (in Mecca) while engaged in copying the Book (al-Kitab). The copying of the Qur’an was very meritorious for the Muslim. It fact, it was regarded as an act of worship, which conferred upon the calligrapher numerous blessings from God. It is not surprising therefore that calligraphers and illuminators, throughout the manuscript age, tried to surpass themselves in producing the most sumptuous copies of the Qur’an.

Some of the most visually stunning manuscripts of the Qur’an were produced in the early Abbasid period (8th to 10th centuries). They exhibit a variety of calligraphic styles and decorations, as well as diacritical pointing by means of slanted strokes and vocalization in the form of red dots. The horizontal format manuscripts of that period often had only a few lines per page, which meant that, in order to produce a complete copy of a parchment Qur’an, some 500 to 700 animal skins would have been required.

piety and popular culture

The Islamic manuscript is an expression of Muslim piety. This phenomenon stems from the fact that Islamic culture is essentially a book culture having the Qur’an as its main pillar. This piety may be seen not only in the manner books were composed but also in the way they were transmitted. When reading Islamic manuscripts one is struck by the existence of pious formulae of all sorts, both inside and outside of the text, and attributable not only to the author himself but to the scribe/copyist as well.

Personal names have honorifics, and so do books, towns, months, etc. Indeed, a blessing is invoked practically on anyone and anything. And thus, the scribe prays for the success of his undertaking, for his family, for those who will come and to read what he has copied, and so on.

Scribal verses, placed usually around the colophon, express sentiments in words that would be quite familiar to readers of Western manuscripts. They can be summed up in such Latin expressions as:

• ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short)
• ora pro scriptore (pray for the scribe)
• finis coronat opus (the end crowns the work)
• errare humanum est (to err is human)
• scriptori vita (long life to the scribe).

Popular culture manifests itself also in various amuletic and talismanic formulae, which can be found inscribed in any number of places within the manuscript.

writing Surfaces

Although papyrus was used in the first two centuries of Islam (especially for non-qur’anic texts), it was mostly parchment and paper that constituted the main writing surfaces. All early extant qur’anic manuscripts were written on parchment, whereas the majority of all surviving non-qur’anic manuscripts were written on paper, which was introduced to the Arab world from China in the early 8th century.

Although papermaking was introduced into Europe by the Arabs in the 13th century, from the 16th century onwards the main Arab lands (with the exception of Yemen) used European (mainly Italian and French) watermarked paper. Locally made paper was however more common in Iran (Persia) and India. The Persian variety is itself very fine, well-glazed and often slightly tinted, whereas the paper produced in India ranges from very fine to somewhat rough and less burnished. The Kashmiri paper of the 19th century, on the other hand, is of fine quality, often tinted light blue, and has fairly regular laid lines.

writing implements

Islamic manuscripts were written with a reed pen (calamus) nibbed either straight, obliquely or in a point, depending on the type of script used or personal preference. The most typical scribal accessory was a pen box (miqlamah, qalamdan). In the medieval period pen boxes were made of metal (often bronze or silver). In Iran and India in the 18th and 19th centuries these were replaced by elegantly painted lacquer. The inkwell had a silk or wool wad in its neck to prevent the pen from picking up too much ink.

Alongside the pens in the qalamdan there was usually a penknife and a nibbing block (miqaah), used for trimming the point of the nib of the reed pen. The block was usually made of ivory or camel bone.

The inks were either carbon- or tannin-(gallnut) based and their quality depended on the right quantity of ingredients used. Ink was often kept in solid form and recipes for ink-making were a guarded secret among scholars and scribes.

Scripts and hands

Throughout the manuscript period a great variety of scripts and styles of handwriting were used. Indeed, from a very defective script that hardly distinguished between various forms of letters and entirely lacked vocalization, Arabic developed into a vehicle of thought and culture without precedence in other civilizations. It is said that in the late Mamluk period (14th and 15th centuries) alone Arab calligraphers had at their disposal some 42 scripts. Some scripts became entirely associated with either the type of work or subject matter. Thus, large Qur’ans of the early and later Middle Ages were usually calligraphed in a script called muaqqaq, whereas the middle size Ottoman Qur’ans were mostly executed in naskh. In the Persianate and Ottoman worlds, on the other hand, the script most suited for poetry was nasta`liq.

Calligraphers’ diplomas

The granting of certificates and/or diplomas (ijazat) for individual works is one of the hallmarks of Islamic civilization. Certificates in such disciplines as Tradition (Hadith) were granted as early as the 9th century. The granting of diplomas for calligraphers appears to have started in the 14th century during the Mamluk period and became characteristic of the Ottoman practice during the 17th to 19th centuries.

A typical diploma of the period consisted of a decorated composition, executed usually in two scripts: thuluth and naskh. The diploma or certificate itself was inscribed in a cartouche at the bottom of the work. The main element of the certificate was the expression “I give him permission to use the word kataba” (literally “to write”) at the end of his work (calligraphic piece).