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Arabic Manuscripts

The British Library’s collection of Arabic manuscripts is world-famous. It is one of the largest in Europe or North America, comprising almost 15,000 works in 14,000 volumes.  The collection includes some of the finest manuscripts of the Holy Qur'an along with autograph and other high-quality copies of major legal, historical, literary and scientific works. The manuscripts offer a rich resource for study of Islam and the Muslim world, Islamic arts and sciences, the Arab world and all aspects of Arabic writing.

Materia Medica

The work of Dioscorides on materia medica. Dated Baghdad AH 735 (1334 AD). Or.3366. Copyright © The British Library Board

The Arabic manuscripts cover a broad subject scope including the Holy Qur'an, Qur'anic sciences and commentaries, Hadith, Kalam, Islamic jurisprudence, mysticism and philosophy, Arabic grammar and philology, dictionaries, poetry and other literary genres, history, topography and biography, music and other arts, sciences and medicine, texts relating to the Druze and Bahais, Christian and Jewish literature, and a range of other subjects including magic, archery, falconry and the interpretation of dreams.  

The manuscripts range in date from the early 8th century C.E. to the 19th century, and are drawn from a wide range of Arab countries, from Yemen to North Africa, and from other countries with Arab or Muslim communities including India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and West Africa, showing fascinating variations in style and script.

Arabic manuscripts are drawn from two historic collections.  The celebrated manuscripts of the British Museum are combined with those of the India Office Library.  The British Museum Foundation Collections included 120 Arabic manuscripts until 1825, when a further 390 manuscripts were added thanks to the purchase of the library of Claudius Rich (1786-1812).  As a collector Rich was interested in religious subjects and in Middle Eastern communities as they then existed; he even commissioned the compilation of historical works where only oral traditions were available. The collection was supplemented throughout the 19th century by the acquisition of the collections of travellers, scholars, diplomats and military personnel.

The collection of Arabic manuscripts contributed by the India Office Library is centred on acquisitions made in India during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most traditional Islamic subjects are well represented with a special emphasis on Sufism and the Sunni-Shia controversy. Among these is the Delhi collection including approximately 2,900 Arabic manuscripts. This collection represents what remained in 1858 of the Royal Library of the Mughals. These manuscripts form a unique collection of works on Sufism and mysticism, and religious works in general relating to India. Approximately 200 manuscripts from India are the only known copies of such works to survive.

The collections continue to grow through the highly selective purchase of manuscripts giving further breadth to the collection, or building on its existing strengths.

Arabic manuscripts in the India Office Records

There are some handwritten Arabic documents from the Arab world, particularly from the Red Sea area, Arabian Peninsula, Gulf States, and Iraq (c1600-1947) in the India Office Records which are the documentary archives of the administration in London of the pre-1947 government of India.  Details of Arabic resources may be found in:

Tuson, Penelope : A brief guide to sources for Middle East studies in the India Office Records (London : India Office Library and Records, 1982).

Tuson, Penelope : The creation of modern Saudi Arabia (Leiden; IDC, 2004)

Tuson, Penelope : The creation of modern Iraq (Leiden; IDC, 2003)

Tuson, Penelope : Archival sources for Arabian and Gulf Studies in the India Office Records (s.l., 1977)

Consulting the Library’s Arabic manuscripts

Arabic manuscripts may be consulted in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.  You need to register for a Reader Pass to use our Reading Rooms.  Additionally, certain manuscripts can only be made available with the approval of Arabic curatorial staff.

You should note that manuscripts may be withdrawn or restricted for preservation or other reasons.  Readers who have a long distance to travel are advised to contact the Arabic Section before their visit.

Athar al-bilad wa-akhbar al-'ibad

Athar al-bilad wa-akhbar al-'ibad. The geography of Zakariya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini (died AH 682 / 1283 AD). This copy is dated AH 729 (1329 AD).
Or.3623. Copyright © The British Library Board

Aja'ib al-makhluqat

A 14th-century AD manuscript of Zakariya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini's Aja'ib al-makhluqat (The Wonders of Creation). Or. 14140. Copyright © The British Library Board

Kitab Na't al-hayawan wa-manafi'ihi (c.13th century AD).

Kitab Na't al-hayawan wa-manafi'ihi (c.13th century AD).

Contact 

Dr Colin Baker, Head of Near and Middle East Collections
Asian and African Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7645

E-mail: colin.baker@bl.uk

Dr Debbie Cox
Asian and African Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7649

E-mail: debbie.cox@bl.uk

PDF files

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