Preserving Islamic Manuscripts
Sonia Zelksendrian | Arrajol

Arab News

  In 1984 experts in preservation at The British Library began a project aimed at repairing and preserving the library's large collection of Arabic Islamic manuscripts. The project came about when David Jacobs, one of the most prominent of the experts, realized that the Islamic manuscripts obtained by the library in the 19th and 20th century had been bound according to the structure and design of a western book. A large number of manuscripts in the Indian section had also been bound in this way and they too had been affected.

Mr. Jacobs, who worked on preserving both European and Islamic manuscripts for 30 years, explained, "We were not worried that the books would be damaged but about the possibility of losing historical information about the manufacture of Arabic and Islamic books and the structure of the book itself. The binding of manuscripts in east and west was very different and as a result, the manuscripts' original bindings were not being properly preserved. When we approached universities and other large libraries, we found that it was unusual for an Islamic manuscript to have retained its original binding and structure."

In the preservation studios, the experts study the changes in manuscript design and the role of Arabic and Islamic culture through the changes in the manufacture of the binding ad the condition of the paper itself.

Jacobs says, "When we began looking at the earlier designs of Islamic manuscript manufacture from Java, we were surprised by the strong Yemeni influence. Then we discovered that when Islam came to Java, the local residents lacked expertise in binding books so foreign experts came, bringing their knowledge and experience with them. Similarly, we find traces of Arabic influences in early Persian manuscripts."

This year The British Library has obtained a collection of old Qur'ans with one being an especially rare copy. I asked Dr. Colin Baker, who is responsible for the Arabic section, about what this very rare Qur'an. He answered: "This particular Qur'an may have been copied in Iran about the end of the thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century. It is very old and very important because it contains a Persian translation. Qur'anic manuscripts of that date which contain Persian translations are rarely found today. This in turn makes the copy very rare which is why the library is so glad to have obtained it. It is written in beautiful script which indicates that it was done by a very talented hand.

Furthermore, the size of the paper used as well as the gold design indicates that it might have been made on orders from a ruler. Qur'anic manuscripts have different characteristics with designs and use of gold corresponding to different historical periods. The British Library wants to present these different characteristics as they are illustrated in its manuscripts." In the studio, I asked David Jacobs about the most important considerations in preserving and caring for the rare Qur'an. He explained, "The size of the manuscript and the design of its pages are unusually large. It is assumed to have been originally copied in Iran during the fourteenth century and it is scripted in Persian with the Arabic originals added later under the Persian lines. Many pages of the manuscript are missing and no more than 40 pages remain. The manuscript itself has decayed because of exposure to water and humidity. Some missing parts of the text have been rewritten and sometimes entire pages in new script have been added to replace the missing pages. This is unusual since missing or damaged parts are hardly ever rewritten. Furthermore, when the manuscript was repaired, strange paper was used - a nineteeth century European one which is unsuitable for the original Islamic design. We found that the fibers of the original paper had become wet from humidity which had seriously weakened the edges of the paper. And there was nothing left of the binding but a few threads."

Mr. Jacobs explained part of the repair process: "In the first stages, we remove all that is left of the binding threads but we keep them as a source of specific information about the manuscript before being repaired. Then we mechanically cleaned the manuscript with a soft fine brush and a chemical sponge. We were then able to remove some of the former repairs which had weakened and damaged the manuscript. For what we were unable to remove by hand, we used a special substance. The parts in which text had been added to older parts, we left as is. After testing the manuscript paper, we employed the Craven Mill Company to make the paper fiber from the same material and the same color as the original manuscript. We used this paper and special fiber to strengthen the original manuscript paper and to compensate for the paper lost from the missing manuscript parts so that our repairs are in keeping with the characteristics of the original. This is all conducted without subjecting the manuscript to any 'washing' process and it is the reason for not using the normally-used standard Japanese paper. This Qur'anic manuscript will be covered in a way which will securely contain and maintain its contents so it will guarantee researchers and readers the capacity to study the significance and outstanding beauty of this amazing manuscript."