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Princeton University Library

Islamic Manuscripts, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections

Collection Profile

Among the greatest treasures of the Princeton University Library are some 9,500 Islamic manuscripts, chiefly bound paper codices containing more than 20,000 texts. Princeton’s rich holdings constitute the premier collection of Islamic manuscripts in the Western Hemisphere and are among the finest in the world. The collection is located in the Manuscripts Division of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, and housed at the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library. Robert Garrett collected approximately two-thirds of these manuscripts and donated them to the library in 1942. Since then, the library has continued to acquire manuscripts by gift and purchase. The manuscripts are chiefly in Arabic but also include Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and other languages of the Islamic world. They date from the early centuries of Islam through the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Most of the manuscripts originated in Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and other main centers of Islamic civilization. But there are examples from Moorish Spain and the Maghreb in the West, from the Indian sub-continent and the Indonesian archipelago in the East, and even from sub-Saharan Africa.

Subject coverage is broad and comprehensive, including theology based both on Quran and tradition (hadith); Islamic law (fiqh); history and biography, especially of the Prophet and other religious leaders; book arts and illustration; language and literature; science; magic and the occult; and other aspects of the intellectual and spiritual life of the Islamic world and its diverse peoples. Representative works of virtually every important Muslim thinker are present. Although textual manuscripts are predominant, there are also illuminated Qurans and Persian literary works, including five Safavid and Qajar manuscripts of Firdawsi’s Shahnamah, the Persian national epic. The Manuscripts Division also holds Arabic papyri and documents, calligraphy collections, and modern personal papers relating to the Near East. Supporting research in this area are some 300,000 printed volumes in the library’s Near Eastern Studies circulating collections.

The Princeton Library has long been committed to making these collections available to researchers worldwide, with access provided by published catalogs, principally those compiled by Philip K. Hitti (1938), Mohammed E. Moghadam and Yahya Armajani (1939), Rudolf Mach (1977), and Rudolf Mach and Eric L. Ormsby (1987). Thousands of additional manuscripts, including most of the Persian and Ottoman Turkish holdings, are described briefly in an online checklist. In order to improve access to these rich collections and share them worldwide through digital technology, the library has recently embarked on a four-year project under the overall direction of Don C. Skemer, the library’s Curator of Manuscripts, made possible by generous support from the David A. Gardner ‘69 Magic Project. The project will produce accurate and consistent cataloging, searchable through Web-based bibliographic utilities, to replace the existing patchwork of printed catalogs. Two full-time Near Eastern Studies project catalogers are already at work. The library has also begun digitizing an initial group of 200 manuscripts, with more to follow, and will make them accessible on the Internet.

Collection Profile and Overview: Don C. Skemer
Illustrations: John Blazejewski

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