Arabic manuscripts

A horseman impaling a bear
A horseman impaling a bear. From Book 3 of Nihāyat al-su’l, a manual of horsemanship and military arts. Dated 773/1371 (Add.MS.18866, f. 113r)

Our Arabic manuscripts date from the early 8th to the 19th century AD. They originate from a wide range of Arab countries, from Yemen to North Africa, and from other regions with Muslim communities including Iran, Central Asia, India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and West Africa, showing fascinating variations in style and script.

About the collection

Our collections include material held by the British Museum prior to 1973 and acquisitions made since then, together with the collections of the India Office Library which were transferred to the British Library in 1982. Taken together, our collection is among the largest in Europe and North America. Comprising almost 15,000 works in 14,000 volumes, it includes some of the finest copies of the Holy Qur'an along with autograph and other high-quality copies of major religious, 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 and other arts of the book.

Highlights include an early 14th century calligraphic and illuminated Qurʻan commissioned for Baybars II, Mamluk Sultan of Egypt (Add.MS.22406-22412); an illustrated copy of ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt ‘Wonders of Creation’, dating from the same period by Zakarīyā ibn Muḥammad al-Qazwīnī (Or.14140); Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥah, ‘The Maintenance of Health’ a medical digest composed by Ibn Buṭlān dating from 1213 AD (Or.1347); and a 13th century copy of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Ṣūfī’s Kitāb Ṣuwar al-kawākib al-thābitah, an illustrated description of the 48 classical constellations in Ptolemy’s Almagest (Or.5323).

What is available online?

A selection of our scientific manuscripts are currently being digitised as part of a joint project with Qatar Foundation, the Qatar National Library and The British Library. These are available via the Qatar Digital Library. So far 80 have been digitised and details together with hyperlinks can be found in the following two posts:  

A small collection of Arabic manuscripts containing a number of Druze theological texts have also been fully digitised and are available in Digitised Manuscripts (search for Druze).

You can find also images relating to Arabic material in the British Library Images Online.

Our Endangered Archives programme includes several Arabic collections from the Middle East and Africa.

The Qatar Digital Library also includes archival material in Arabic and English which relates chiefly to the Middle East and Gulf, c1600-1947, and forms part of the India Office Records.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Arabic manuscripts are available to read in the Asian and African Reading Room. Some especially valuable or fragile manuscripts are restricted and available only in exceptional circumstances. Self-service photography is allowed for certain categories of material, provided that its condition allows this.

To locate individual Arabic manuscripts you will need to consult our catalogues.

What is available in other organisations?

Information on manuscript collections outside the British Library will also be found in:

Further information

Useful reference resources include: