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Library Research Guides

Islamic Manuscript Studies

Resources for the study of manuscripts produced in the Islamic world and the manuscript cultures they represent.

Resources for Arabic script palaeography

Palaeography (or paleography) is the study of handwriting. It involves characterizing and classifying scripts and hands, deciphering handwritten texts, and dating and placing manuscripts on the basis of their handwriting. 

Arabic script palaeography applies these methods to the study of handwriting in the Arabic alphabet and thus encompasses several languages. The field is still fragmentary with much room for advancement despite the special challenges presented. For essential readings, albums, and exemplary studies, see the lists below.

Exercises are essential to developing one's palaeography. A few strategies and advice for such exercises are given below.

Professor Jan Just Witkam's "Course in Islamic paleography" is also highly recommended, particularly for students of Arabic and Persian

General Strategies

  • Acquire a basic knowledge of the Arabic script.
  • Familiarize yourself with scripts and hands of various historical periods and regional styles via transcription and characterization exercises.
  • Consult palaeography albums (Vajda, Arberry, etc.), model books and descriptive catalogues (Gacek’s catalogue of Arabic manuscripts at McGill, catalogue of our collection in Mirlyn, etc.) for purposes of comparison and characterization on that basis.
  • Consult legible transcripts where available, remembering to account for variants.
  • Use context, knowledge of formulaic phrasing and likely word choices to decipher especially illegible words, consulting dictionaries where necessary.
  • Enhance your knowledge of the language(s) employing the Arabic script.

Transcription Strategies

Compare a portion of the manuscript text under study with a legible transcript of the same passage (it may be printed, typed, even handwritten), noting (even listing) the idiosyncrasies of the hand. Where available, a published edition, a transcript of the incipit and or explicit in a descriptive catalogue, or a more legible manuscript copy of the same text may serve, though variants must be addressed.

Palaeography Exercises

  • Review the manuscript description.
  • Compare the manuscript text with a legible transcript (it may be printed, typed, even handwritten), begining to characterize / describe the hand and noting the idiosyncrasies of the hand in terms of letterforms, ligatures, spacing, relation to the baseline, size, counters, pointing, etc. (see list below).
  • Now transcribe a portion of the manuscript text yourself. Try to avoid consulting the provided transcript.
  • Compare your transcript with the transcript on hand.
  • Describe the hand and list any especially unusual features, e.g.

Size >> Especially small or large?
Spacing >> Compact, generously spaced, etc.?
Inclination >> Any effect of tilt / inclination to the left or right or are the ascenders fairly vertical?
Line >> Adhering to the baseline or effect of words descending to baseline? Any superscripting of final letters or words?
Line thickness >> Thin and delicate, medium, thick and heavy? Any variation in thickness of horizontal and vertical strokes?
Serifs >> Seriffed or unseriffed? Shape and direction of serifs? Variation by letter?
Elongation >> Any elongation of horizontal strokes? Especially tall ascenders?
Descenders >> Rectilinear or curvilinear descenders? Flattened? Tapered? Any sweeping? Variation by letter?
Assimilation >> Any letters or pointing unconventionally joined (freely ligatured)?
Counters >> Open or closed counters? Variation by letter?
Pointing >> Fully pointed, casually pointed, unpointed? Pointing in distinct dots, conjoined dots, strokes? Yāʼ unpointed? Alif maqṣūrah pointed as yāʼ? Point of final nūn assimilated with bowl?
Letterforms >> Kāf (mashqūqah or mabsūṭah? shaqq on final kāf?) ; Lām alif ligature (muḥaqqaqah? mukhaffafah? warrāqīyah?) ; Final nūn (width of bowl, height of bowl, placement of point) ; etc.

cf. Gacek's Vademecum, "Letterforms (allographs)" and "Scripts and hands"  as well as Appendix 2 and the articles for the various scripts, i.e. "Naskh script," "Nasta’liq script," "Ruqʻah script," etc.

Essential reading

Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright, Eds. The World's Writing Systems. New York : Oxford University Press, 1996 (Hatcher Graduate Reference P 211 .W7141 1996)

Eminoğlu, Mehmet. Osmanlı Vesikalarını Okumaya Giriş. İlâveli 2. baskı. Ankara: Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı, 1992. (Hatcher Graduate PL 117.5 .E54 1992)

Gallop, Annabel Teh, et al. "A Jawi Sourcebok for the Study of Malay Palaeography and Orthography." Indonesia and the Malay World, Special Issue in honour of E.U.Kratz 43, 125 (2015): 13-171

Grohmann, Adolf. Arabische Paläographie, I Teil. Wien: H. Böhlau, 1967. (Hatcher Graduate AS 142 .V662 v.93-96)

———. Arabische Paläographie, II Teil, Das Schriftwesen, die Lapidarschrift. Wien : Hermann Böhlaus Nachf., 1971. (Hatcher Graduate AS 142 .V662 v.94 pt.2)

Hanaway, William L. and Brian Spooner. Reading Nasta'liq: Persian and Urdu Hands from 1500 to the Present. Second and revised edition. Costa Mesa, CA : Mazda Publishers Inc., 2007 (Hatcher Graduate PK 6228 .R431 2007)

"K̲h̲aṭṭ" In Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition (EI2), (available electronically via the Library's subscription to Brill Online)

Kurt, Yılmaz and Muhammed Ceyhan. Osmanlı Paleografyası ve Osmanlı Diplomatikası. 2. baskı. Ankara: Akçağ, 2013. (Hatcher Graduate CD 251 .K87 2013)

"Ch2. Palaeography." Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies: An Introduction (Hamburg: Tredition, 2015): 267-320. Available online ; see especially Arianna D'ottone, "2. Arabic Palaeography," 271-276.

"Scripts." In D François Déroche, et al. Islamic Codicology: an Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script (London : Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 2006): 205-224. (Hatcher Graduate Z 115.1 .D4713 2006)

"Scripts and hands," "Letterforms (allographs)," and the articles for the various scripts i.e. "Naskh script," "Nasta’liq script," "Ruqʻah script," etc. In Adam Gacek, Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers, Leiden: Brill, 2009 (available as an e-book through the Library's subscription to Brill Online)

Sijpesteijn, Petra. "Palaeography." In Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics, Ed. Kees Versteegh (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2008): vol. 3, 513-524 (Near East Reference PJ 6031 .E531 2006 and available electronically via the Library's subscription to Brill Online)

Sirat, Colette. Writing as Handwork: A History of Handwriting in Mediterranean and Western Culture. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006 (Hatcher Graduate Z 107 .S57 2006)

Albums and Model Books

Arberry, A.J. Specimens of Arabic and Persian Palaeography. London: India Office, 1939. (Hatcher Graduate Z 115X .A6 G7)

Fichier des Manuscrits Moyen-Orientaux Datés (FiMMOD), ed. François Déroche. Paris, 1991-2001. Published in the various fasicles of Nouvelles des Manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, with an index appearing in NMMO X/2 décembre 2001 (available via Interlibrary Loan or online via the Islamic manuscripts reference library of Professor Jan Just Witkam).

Koningsveld, P.S. van and Q. al-Samarrai. Localities and Dates in Arabic Manuscripts: Descriptive Catalogue of a Aollection of Arabic Manuscripts in the Possession of E.J. Brill (Catalogue No 500). Leiden: Brill, 1978. (available via Interlibrary Loan)

Moritz, Bernhard. Arabic Palaeography: A Collecton of Arabic Texts from the First Century of the Hidjra till the year 1000 (Publications of the Khedivial Library, Cairo, no 16) Cairo ; Leipzig: K. W. Hiersemann, 1905. (Buhr Z 115X .A6 C2)

Munajjid, Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn. al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī al-makhṭūṭ: ilá al-qarn al-ʻāshir al-hijrī [= Le manuscrit arabe jusqu'au Xe s. de l'hégire]. al-Juzʼ al-awwal: al-namādhij. al-Qāhirah: Maʻhad al-Makhṭūṭāt al-ʻArabīyah, 1960. (Hatcher Graduate Z 115X .A6 M96)

Vajda, Georges. Album de Paléographie Arabe. Paris, A. Maisonneuve, 1958. (Hatcher Graduate - Near East Reference - Z 115X .A6 V13)

Witkam, Jan Just. Seven Specimens of Arabic Manuscripts. Leiden, 1978. (available via Interlibrary Loan or online via the Islamic manuscripts reference library of Professor Jan Just Witkam).

Further model books provided online with Professor Jan Just Witkam's "Course in Islamic paleography."

Studies and Guides

Abbott, Nabia. The Rise of the North Arabic Script and its Kur’ānic Developmentwith a Full Description of the Kur’ān Manuscripts in the Oriental InstituteChicago, University of Chicago Press [1939]. (Buhr 892.06 C532p v.50 ; aslo available for free download from the Oriental Institute

Aktan, Ali. Osmanlı Paleografyası ve Siyası̂ Yazışmaları. İstanbul : Osmanlılar İlim ve İrfan Vakfı, 1995 (Hatcher Graduate Z 115.1 .A48 1995)

Baltacı, Câhid. İslâm Paleografyası: Diplomatik-Arşivcilik. İstanbul: M.Ü. İlahiyat Fakültesi Vakfı, 1989 (Buhr  CD 221 .B19)

Beken, Süheyl. Osmanlı paleografyası. Ankara : Ankara Üniversitesi, Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi, 1964-1969 (Buhr Z115.5.O7 B42 v.2)

van den Boogert, N. Some Notes on Maghribi Script. Manuscripts of the Middle East (MME) 4 (1989): 30-43. (catalogue record for MME).

Déroche, François. “Les études de paléographie des écritures livresques arabes: quelques observations”. Al-Qanara, revista de estudios árabes 19, fasc.2 (1998): 365-381. (catalogue record for Al-Qanṭara).

D'ottone, Arianna. "Un’altra lezione negata. Paleografia araba e altre paleografie." Rivista degli Studi Orientali. Nuova serie. Volume LXXXVII, Fasc. 1-4 (Pisa-Roma: Fabrizio Serra, 2014): 213-221

Elker, Salâhaddin.  Divan rakamlari. Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basimevi, 1953. (Buhr Z 115.5 .T9 E43)

Fekete, Lajos. Die Siyāqat-Schrift in der türkischen Finanzverwaltung.  Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1955 (Buhr Z 115x .T9 F325)

Gacek, Adam. "Al-Nuwayri's Classification of Arabic Scripts." Manuscripts of the Middle East (MME) 2 (1987): 126-130. (catalogue record for MME).

———. "Arabic Scripts and Their Characteristics as Seen Through the Eyes of Mamluk Authors." Manuscripts of the Middle East (MME) 4 (1989): 144-149. (catalogue record for MME).

———. "Technical Practices and Recommendations Recorded by Classical and Post-Classical Scholars Concerning the Copying and Corrections of Manuscripts," In François Déroche, ed. Les manuscrits du Moyen-Orient: essais de codicologie et de paléographie, Actes du Colloque d’Istanbul, Istanbul, 26-29 mai 1986 (Istanbul ; Paris : Institut français d’études anatoliennes et Bibliothèque Nationale, 1989): 51-59 (Hatcher Graduate Z 115.5 .P45 C6411 1986)

———. "The Head-Serif (Tarwīs) and the Typology of Arabic Scripts: Preliminary Observations." Manuscripta Orientalia 9/3 (2003): 27-33 (catalogue record for Manuscripta Orientalia).

———. "Scribes, Amanuenses, and Scholars. A Bibliographic Survey of Published Arabic Literature from the Manuscript Age on Various Aspects of Penmanship, Bookmaking, and the Transmission of Knowledge." Manuscripta Orientalia 10/2 (2004): 3-29 (catalogue record for Manuscripta Orientalia).

George, Alain. The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy. London: Saqi, 2010. (Hatcher Graduate NK 3636.5 .G46 2010)

Grib, Anastasia. "Toward the Analysis of the Early Monumental Qur'anic Scripts: Attribution of the Qur'anic Folios from the Archive of E. E. Herzfeld (Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art)." Manuscripta Orientalia 14/2 (2008): 36-50 (catalogue record for Manuscripta Orientalia).

Gruendler, Beatrice. The Development of the Arabic Scripts from the Nabatean Era to the First Islamic Century According to Dated Texts. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1993 (PJ 6123 .G781 1993)

_____. "Arabic Alphabet: Origin." In Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics, Ed. Kees Versteegh, 4 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2006): vol.1, 148-65 (Near East Reference PJ 6031 .E531 2006 and available electronically via the Library's subscription to Brill Online)

_____. "Stability and Change in Arabic Script." In The Shape of Script: How and Why Writing Systems Change, Ed. Stephen D. Houston (Santa Fe, N.M. : School for Advanced Research Press, 2012): 93-118 (Hatcher Graduate Z 105 .S257 2012)

Günday, Dündar. Arşiv belgelerinde siyakat yazısı özellikleri ve divan rakamları. Ankara : Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 1974. (Buhr Z 115X .T9 G96)

Jaouhari, Mustapha. "Notes et documents sur la ponctuation dans les manuscrits arabes." Arabica 56 4/5 (2009): 315-359 (available electronically via the Library's subscription)

Kurt, Yılmaz and Muhammed Ceyhan. Osmanlı Paleografyası ve Osmanlı Diplomatikası. 2. baskı. Ankara: Akçağ, 2013. (Hatcher Graduate CD 251 .K87 2013) 

Kütükoğlu, Mübahat S. Osmanlı belgelerinin dili : diplomatik. İstanbul : Kubbealtı Akademisi Kültür ve San'at Vakfı, 1994. (Hatcher Graduate CD 251 .K88 1994)

Khan, Geoffrey. "The Development of Early Arabic Documentary Script." In Writings and Writing : Investigations in Islamic Text and Script in Honour of Dr. Januarius Justus Witkam, Ed. Robert M. Kerr and Thomas Milo (Cambridge: Archetype, 2013): 229-247 (Hatcher Graduate NK 3636.5 .A2 K47 2013)

LexiQamus : Osmanlıca kelime çözücü (Online tool for assistance with deciphering Ottoman transcriptions, drawn from several dictionaries)

Milo, Thomas. "Towards Arabic Historical Script Grammar Through Contrastive Analysis of Qurʼān Manuscripts." In In Writings and Writing : Investigations in Islamic Text and Script in Honour of Dr. Januarius Justus Witkam, Ed. Robert M. Kerr and Thomas Milo (Cambridge: Archetype, 2013): 249-292 (Hatcher Graduate NK 3636.5 .A2 K47 2013)

Munajjid, Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn. Dirāsāt fī tārīkh al-khatt al-ʻArabī: mundhu bidāyatih ilá nihāyat al-ʻaṣr al-Umawī. Bayrūt: Dār al-Kitāb al-Jadīd, [1972]. (Buhr PJ 6124 .M96)

Öztürk, Said, Ed. Osmanlı belgelerinde siyakat yazısı. Ankara : T.C. Başbakanlık Devlet arşivleri, 1994. 

_____.  Osmanlı Arşiv belgelerinde siyakat yazısı ve tarihî gelişimi. İstanbul: Osmanlı Araştırmaları Vakfı, 1996. (Hatcher PL 137 .O98 1996)

Polosin, Val. "Arabic Manuscripts: Text Density and its Convertibility in Copies of the Same Work." Manuscripta Orientalia. 3/2 (1997): 3-17 (catalogue record for Manuscripta Orientalia).

Stanley, Tim. "Page-setting in Late Ottoman Qur'ans. An Aspect of Standardization." Manuscripta Orientalia. 10/1 (2004): 56-63 (catalogue record for Manuscripta Orientalia).

Whelan, Estelle. "Writing the Word of God: Some Early Qurʾān Manuscripts and Their Milieux, Part I." Ars Orientalis 20 (1990): 113-147 (available electronically via the Library's subscription to JSTOR).

Witkam, "Twenty-nine Rules for Qur'an Copying. A Set of Rules for the Lay-out of a Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Qur'an Manuscript." In Jan Schmidt, ed. Essays in Honour of Barbara Flemming, vol. 2 = Journal of Turkish Studies 26/1 (2002): 339-348.

Wright, Elaine. "The Calligraphers of Šīrāz and the Development of Nastaʻlīq Script." Manuscripta Orientalia 9/3 (2003): 16-26 (catalogue record for Manuscripta Orientalia).

For additional resources see "VI. ARABIC ALPHABET, SCRIPTS AND PALAEOGRAPHY" In Adam Gacek, The Arabic Manuscript Tradition: A Glossary of Technical Terms and Bibliography (Leiden: Brill, 2001): 219-224 and "VI. ARABIC ALPHABET, SCRIPTS AND PALAEOGRAPHY" In Adam Gacek, The Arabic Manuscript Tradition: A Glossary of Technical Terms and Bibliography--Supplement (Leiden: Brill, 2008): 128-131 (available as an e-book through the Library's subscription to Brill Online).