Islamic Manuscripts Collection

About this collection

The Islamic and Oriental manuscripts are part of the Richard C. Jenkinson Collection in the Special Collections Division of The Newark Public Library.

“The Oriental Manuscripts and printed books represented in this portfolio have been gathered from many sources, as will presently be shown, and are fairly representative of the progress of the art of writing, and to a lesser degree of printing, throughout Asia. In my comments attached to these examples there has been an attempt to describe the development of the various languages represented, but it would be a thankless task to arrange these examples under arbitrary language groupings or to assign a chronological order or too definite a pedigree to the languages themselves. For if there is anything positive to be stated on the origins of the languages and alphabets of Asia, living or dead, it is that most of the theories of the philologists of a generation ago are today discredited and have been replaced at best by cautious suppositions. The conjectures so plausibly elaborated by Lacouperie fifty years ago, for example, have entirely gone by the board, and so far as the Chinese language is concerned, the most that the modern Sinologist can say is that it seems to be of indigenous origin. And there is equal uncertainty about the native tongue of the Japanese, as distinguished from their written language. Greater progress, perhaps, has been made with the languages of the Near East, but here again the scholar becomes less assertive the farther he probes into the past.

Of course, were it not for the advent of written speech, either by means of picturegraphs, ideographs, or by the use of the alphabet, there would be no such science as comparative philology. Fortunately, however, inscriptions on stone and brick, particularly in India and throughout the Near East, and the perfection of writing materials in the Far East, make it probable that the early written languages of all the Asiatic peoples will eventually be restored to us. Whether, on the other hand, we will ever be able to determine the beginnings of writing, and assign primitive inscriptions to exact periods, remains to be seen. Certainly no more fascinating field of research lies before the paleographer than the early records of these cradle lands of civilization.

As Foliophiles is frequently asked how and where the diverse materials used in its collections have been acquired, the following details regarding some of the examples contained in this portfolio may prove interesting: The Syriac Manuscript was purchased on our premises from an eloquent Armenian who tried to hasten the sale by swearing, with a brave disregard of anachronism, that is was Eighth Century Coptic. The Syriac printed Bible and the Armenian printed Ritual came from the library of the late Professor Yohannan of Columbia University. The Armenian Manuscript, the Algerian Koran and the illuminated Sanskrit manuscript turned up in bookshops respectively in New York, Southampton (England), and out Crystal Palace way in London. The Egyptian Koran and the Persian manuscript containing the lives of the Sufis were acquired for us by a discerning agent respectively in Cairo and Constantinople. The Persian “Gulistan” of Sa’di was left with us seven years ago by a young lady whom we have utterly failed to trace, so we have appropriated her manuscript, and stand ready to make amends. The plain Sanskrit manuscript and the Sinhalese Pali Taliput leaves came from the collection of Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, while the Burmese Pali Taliput leaves were purchased from an old gentleman who informed us that this manuscript had been presented to his family by a missionary in Burma, more than fifty years ago. The Javanese manuscript was sent to us from Batavia by our own representative, who also procured the Japanese and Chinese books and manuscripts, with many similar treasures, at Kyoto, Tokyo, Shanghai, and various other places in the Far East.

An interesting chapter might be written on the history and peregrinations of these books as indicated by names, places, and dates on fly leaves and margins. The Persian Sufi manuscript, for instance, bears a seal and a note declaring that it was purchased in Kandahar in 1475, while the “Gulistan,” written in 1563, has a note in Persian at the end which proved to be the poetic comments of a recent owner, dated Chicago, 1901." - G.M.L. Brown, New York, 1928. 


The library would like to extend its thanks to Emma Crist, who assisted in scanning and creating metadata for the Islamic and Oriental Manuscripts collection. 

1. Nestorian Syriac Manuscript
From a Nestorian Syriac manuscript of the 16th century, a Book of Prayers. Written with a reed pen on a semi-waterproof paper (in the manufacture of which Damascus was once famous), and distinguished for its bold, clear characters and interesting rubrications.
10. Persian Manuscript
From two Persian manuscripts of the 17th century: 1, Firdausi's Shahnama, or Book of Kings; 2, the Khamash of Nizami. By a coincidence both manuscripts are written in a fine Skekasteh Nasta'liq hand after the style of Mir Imad El Hassan, the famous 16th Century calligrapher. One (the Shahnama), as will be seen, shows greater craftsmanship in the calligraphy, the other (the Khamsah), in the illuminations.
11. Persian Manuscript
This manuscript is written in an early form of Shekasteh Nasta'liq, which was to develop at a later period into the exquisite calligraphy that flourished, as it were, at the expense of Persian pictorial art. It was written for, and dedicated to, Amir Shal Jalal, one of the Mongol feudal kings of Persia, bears the name of the calligrapher, Mohammad ibni Hassan, the Kateb, with the date A.H. 929 (1520 A.D.). These miniatures, which closely correspond to our text illustrations, were evidently the work of two master artists of the period. The delicacy and richness of coloring in this example are at once apparent, and no less striking is the stylized treatment of figures, landscapes, or backgrounds, characteristics that are essentially decorative, particularly when compared with the work of contemporary western schools.
12. Kashmir Manuscript
From a Kashmir manuscript entitled "Poem of Beauty and Love," really a mystical interpretation of love in poetic prose, dated A.H. 1265 (1848 A.D.). Beautifully decorated in the Kashmir style by one of the skilled illuminators who have made that Himalayan province famous for centuries. The work of the calligrapher, who signs himself Pandat, is equally fine, and like previous examples in this collection is in the Shekasteh Nasta'liq, after the manner of Mir Imad.
13. Sanskrit Manuscript
Although the title of this manuscript has been lost, examination shows it to be of a religious and astrological character. It it written in a plain, scholarly hand in the style known as Devanagari or "town script," and reads from left to right. The line running along the tops of Sanskrit characters is believed to be due to the custom adopted by the scribes of writing beneath a ruled line, whereby the latter gradually became part of the letter and so gained its present prominence. The paper of this manuscript, is of native manufacture, the gloss being acquired by sizing and polishing.
14. Sanskrit Manuscript
From two Sanskrit manuscripts, the smaller an 18th century example containing selections from several Puranas, the larger, of the early 19th century, containing excerpts from the Mahabharata; one a plain book for humble use, the other evidently the work of Kashmir craftsmen done at the order of a prince or some person of means. Both books are written in Devanagari script, and correspond somewhat loosely in purpose to a Latin breviary.
15. Hindi Manuscript
From a Hindu manuscript, written in the city of Jodhpur, India, in 1839, retelling some of the ever popular tales from the Bardic Chronicles of Rajputana. The Rajputs, whose heroic deeds are here immortalized, have the reputation of being the bravest race in India. From the 7th Century onward, the Muhammadan invaders found them in their path, but generously acknowledged the intrepid courage of a foe never completely subdued. The language of Rajputana is Western Hindi, which has sprung from vernacular Prakrit.
16. Tibetan Buddhist Manuscript
From a Tibetan Buddhist manuscript, the title of which may be freely translated, "The Sutra of the Excellent and Victorious Vehicle Concerning the Sacred Golden Lights of the Ayra." This manuscript comes from the library of the Imperial Palace, Peking, and both Chinese and Tibetan scholars ascribe it to the reign of K'ang Hsi (1662 - 1722). It is the work of a skilled lama (Tibetan Buddhist) scribe, who has employed the scholarly style known as "thick letters," now largely used in Tibetan printed books. As most of the finer paper used at this period came from Korea, it is reasonable to suppose that this leaf is also of Korean origin, although the blue coloring and black glaze were undoubtedly added in the Tibetan scriptorium.
17. Mongolian Manuscript
A book of Buddhist Scriptures, or rather Lamaist, since the Mongols received from the lamas of Tibet, not only their religion but such culture as they possessed before their conquest of China.
18. Burmese Manuscript
From Two Olas, or palm leaf manuscripts: 1, Burmese; 2, Sinhalese. The sacred literature of both Burma and Ceylon is preserved in Pali, which has survived as the priestly language of the Southern Buddhist countries. Pali was the living tongue of the people of India at the time of the Gotama, but together with the religion the glories of which it still celebrates it gradually receded before the rising tide of Brahmanism. Hence scholars must search the monasteries of Burma, Ceylon and Siam for the sacred Buddhist records long since lost or destroyed throughout India.
19. Siamese Manuscript
From a Siamese manuscript of the early 19th Century. An interesting inscription on the cover reads: "An alphabet and spelling book (Siamese language) for J.C. Williamson, Lieut. U.S.N., U.S. Str. 'San Jacinto,' from the second king of Siam, &etc." This is in the handwriting of the king himself. Siamese belongs to the Tai group of languages; it bears a distant kinship to Chinese, but is closely related to the rest of the Tai group. The alphabet is derived from Cambodian (which is of South Indian origin), and the characters are written from left to right.
2. Armenian Manuscript
From an Armenian Manuscript, dated 1741, a Catechism and Book of Prayers. Written by one Paul, a monk of Armedan (in Asia Minor), it ends devoutedly in a vigourous burst of anathema against all scoffers, extemporisers and traffickers in books of magic and the black arts.
20. Javanese Manuscript
From a Javanese manuscript of the 19th Century - the History of Rama, rendered into modern Javanese from Kavi, the old literature of the island, which consisted largely of Hindu mythology, modified and localized by patriotic scribes. Many tourists to Java, who have witnessed a shadow-play with its strange wayang figures, do not realize that these popular plays are largely based on the Mahabharata, and that many of the grotesque puppet actors are the heroes, in disguise, of the great Indian epic.
21. Chinese Miniature
From a Chinese album of miniatures, 18th Century, a series of original paintings illustrative of Buddhist ceremonies. Each picture is done upon a leaf of the Bodhi, or tree of wisdom. This tree, known by botanists as the sacred wild fig, is found throughout India and Ceylon wherever there is a Buddhist temple, and is regarded with such reverence that its leaves and twigs are carefully preserved and carried abroad by devout Buddhist pilgrims. For it is believed that underneath its branches Gautama performed a lengthy penance and attained his Buddahood (i.e., Bodhi).
22. Chinese Rubbing
From a Chinese Book of Rubbings, consisting of portraits of leading statesmen, philosophers, scholars, etc. with brief eulogies, prepared by Sung Yun, and dated 1827. "Illustrious deeds come only from virtue," reads the foreword in huge characters covering four pages. The portrait sketch has a statuary quality traditional to Chinese tablet engraving, and the calligraphy is in the best "modern" style, which has been in continued use for more than eight centuries.
23. Chinese Block Printing
From two block printed books: 1, Chinese; 2, Japanese. The former (the narrower leaf) is from a 17th century Buddhist work known as the Sutra of the Multitude of Silent Souls. Wood-block printing, of which this is a good if not a distinguished example, has been practiced by the Chinese for at least twelve centuries; first by the Buddhist monks for the reproduction of little charms on single sheets of paper, and later for books by Buddhists, Taosists and Confucians alike. And although movable type was in use in China long before the time of Gutenberg, it never supplanted the solid block, made now as it always has been, from seasoned pear-or plum-wood.
24. Japanese Buddhist Manuscript
From two Japanese Manuscripts: 1, a Buddhist manuscript of the 14th Century; 2, a copy of the Ise Monogatari. The former (the narrow, yellowed leaf) is from a volume of the Buddhist Canon, and bears the Japanese date corresponding to 1395 A.D. It is written in pure Chinese characters, and the brushwork of the scribe though not notable is scholarly. The paper, made from plant fibres (probably the bark of a mulberry tree), is still tough, and with care likely to endure another five centuries.
25. Japanese color print by Hokusai
From a Japanese Book with Illustrations by Hokusai: Furya Goju-nin Isshu Izaukawa Kyoka Guruna, a collection of humorous poems. The first edition of an exceedingly rare book dated Koiwa 2 (1802). The art of printing in color from wood-blocks reached a perfection in Japan during the 18th and 19th Centuries that challenges the admiration of the world. The amazing thing about these color-prints, as Edward F. Strange has pointed, is "that the perfectly harmonious results obtained in the best period were the product of the united labors of three separate individuals," the artist, the engraver, and the printer, "displaying a perfection of hand craftsmanship almost incomprehensible to the European."
3. Arabic Manuscript
From a Qur'an manuscript in Kufic characters. This rare example, though undated, is attributed by experts to the 12th Century, or earlier. While its style suggests the calligraphy of Mashad (Persia), certain peculiarities point to Egypt as its probable place of origin. In indentifying a manuscript one must bear in mind that centers of learning like Baghdad and Cairo attracted people from all parts of the Muhammadan world, including many scholars, scribes, and illuminators from Persia and beyond: that they latter should assimilate local characteristics would seem to some degree almost inevitable.
4. Arabic manuscript
From two Arabic Manuscripts: 1, a 15th Century book of Islamic devotions; 2, a modern Algerian Qur'an. The former (the smaller leaf) is a splendid example of the style of calligraphy known as Maghrebi, a picturesque script that has been employed for centuries in Algeria, Morocco, and throughout North Africa generally, with the exception of Egypt. Such manuscripts are nearly always decorated, or at least rubricated, and possess a barbaric beauty that gives Maghrebi a unique position among the many styles of Arabic writing. It it less popular with scholars than with artists, however, as it is difficult to decipher.