South Asian Islamic Collection

Panoramic view of the old city of Lahore
Panoramic view of the old city of Lahore

Manuscripts and printed books in Perso-Arabic script

About the collection

The South Asian Islamic Languages Collections cover materials in all South Asian languages that are written in Perso-Arabic script. The major languages of the collections are as follows:

  • Urdu
  • Sindhi
  • Kashmiri
Other South Asian languages written in Perso-Arabi script present in the collections are: Baluchi, Panjabi, Pashto and Siraiki.

Urdu Language Collections

The British Library’s Urdu collection is unparalleled outside South Asia. It contains more than 950 manuscripts, the earliest of which is dated 998 AH [1590 AD]; approximately 80,000 printed books, from the presses of the nineteenth century to the most significant publications of present-day India and Pakistan; and 442 Newspapers and Periodicals.

The collections provide a unique resource for those involved in South Asian research, particularly in the fields of history, politics, language, literature, Islam, law, education, anthropology, genealogy, geography, music, art and architecture.  

The collection is available in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.


The manuscript collections contains some of the earliest Urdu works extant today. Rich and varied in content, they are particularly strong in poetry, from exquisitely illuminated Dakhani masnavis to the divans of later famous Urdu poets and the tales and romances composed by the munshis of Fort William College in the early 19th century.

Islam is, naturally, well-represented, as are Urdu grammar and lexicography, history, geography, politics, genealogy and biography (including the tazkirah). There are some important works on music.

The collection also offers a wide variety of archival material, such as autograph letters from prominent litterateurs, ‘ulama and politicians, historical diaries, farmans, notifications, rules and petitions.

Printed books and periodicals

Urdu printed books and periodicals range from the early output of European missionary presses to current research-level publications from India and Pakistan.

In content, they span the whole range of humanities and social sciences. Historically, the Indian Press and Registration of Books Act of 1867 and the resulting selection of titles by both the India Office Library and the British Museum Department of Oriental Printed Books from the quarterly lists of Indian publications have led to a good coverage of works from the last quarter of the 19th century through to 1947.

Within this, ‘Proscribed publications’ are of particular interest – as they contain more than 200 pamphlets, periodicals, handbills and posters banned by the British government in India during the crucial four decades leading up to Independence. 

What is available online?

Digitised Manuscripts


Post-1984 Urdu publications are included in Explore the British Library. Entries for our earlier printed book collections, including ‘Proscribed publications’, are currently being added to the South Asian Union Catalogue.

The following catalogues detailing sections of the British Library’s Urdu manuscripts and early printed books can also be consulted on websites:

  • J.F. Blumhardt, Catalogue of Hindustani printed books in the Library of the British Museum. London, 1889. Online PDF file.
  • J.F. Blumhardt, Catalogue of the Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani manuscripts in the Library of the British Museum. London, 1899. Online PDF file
  • J.F. Blumhardt, A supplementary catalogue of Hindustani books in the Library of the British Museum acquired during the years 1889-1908. London, 1909. Online PDF file

Another series of printed catalogues can be consulted in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room at the British Library (see below).

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Manuscripts: printed catalogues

Printed books, proscribed publications and periodicals: printed catalogues

What is available in other organisations?

Digital Urdu resources elsewhere

  • The Digital South Asia Library at the University of Chicago includes a wealth of digital material relating to South Asian Studies, in particular a collaborative Wiki with information about Archives and libraries in South Asia. 
  • Of specific relevance to Urdu are John Shakespear’s A dictionary, Hindustani and English and John T. Platts’ A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi, and English are available online here, and the Annual of Urdu Studies, Muhammad Husain Azad’s Ab-i  hayat , and C.M. Naim’s Introductory Urdu and Readings in Urdu prose and poetry are all on-line
  • A digital copy (from the British Library’s collections) of Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada has been contributed to Columbia Universities In-house Book Digitization Project and can be viewed at here, together with additional information by Professor Frances Pritchett on her website of South Asian study resources
  • Urdu books included in the Million Book Digital Library project can be seen at here.    

Further information