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The Islamic Manuscript Association, Dalia al-Nashar

Fig 1

Bifolium from the Andalusian Pink Qur’an, Spain or North Africa, ca. 7th/13th century. Metropolitan Museum, 2017.232.


Dalia al-Nashar is the executive director of The Islamic Manuscript Association (TIMA). She studied Islamic art and architecture at the department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations at the American University in Cairo. In Fall 2019, she joined the department as an adjunct faculty member where she teaches courses on Islamic art and architecture around the world.

We talk to Dalia about purpose of The Islamic Manuscript Association, the challenges researching Islamic manuscripts and the benefits of digitizing collections.

“The Islamic Manuscript Association (TIMA) is an international non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting Islamic manuscript collections and supporting those who work with them.” For those unfamiliar, what are Islamic manuscripts, and can you share some examples?

The importance of the book and its role, as well as the written word in Islam, within Islamic civilisation can hardly be neglected or underestimated. Most probably the emphasis on the importance of the Qur’an (the Holy Book) gave the book in Islam its central role. In the course of time, this fundamental importance of the book in Islamic culture has only increased, leaving in its wake millions of manuscripts, ranging from the earliest period till today, commissioned either for charitable public institutions (waqf) or private collections.

The term “Islamic Manuscripts” usually refers to a wide and varied range of books produced during the period of Islamic civilisation, and especially before the onset of mechanised printing, whether written in Arabic or in other languages that used Arabic-script as a tool to produce their respective written materials, like Persian, Turkish, Berber, Pashto, Kurdish, Urdu, Sindhi, Kashmiri and Uyghur, among others. Under this category fall not only the lavishly decorated manuscripts exhibited in museums, which were usually commissioned by patrons as a prestigious addition to their personal collection or a precious charitable bequest preserving their name for posterity, but also the many less elaborate surviving copies scribed by students, scholars, and book collectors.

Even though mechanised printing has drastically changed the realm of the book industry around the world, still, in countries like Turkey and Iran, Qur’anic manuscripts or the corpora of renowned Persian poets (such as Hāfiz, Sa’īi, Nizāmī or Firdawsī), through the efforts of various famous calligraphers, are produced in handwritten form as examples of Islamic or Muslim art.

Fig 2

Frontispiece and sūrat al-A'rāf (the Hights). Part 9 of a Qur'ān in thirty volumes in Rayhani script commissioned by the Mamluk Sultan Faraj ibn Barqūq, Cairo, 8th/14th century. British Library, Or. 848, ff. 1v-2r.

Fig 3

Frontispiece of a Qur'ān, Daghistan, 1777. British Library, Or. 16127, ff. 2v-3r.

Why and how did you develop a connection and interest in Islamic manuscripts?

…Not yet had [Babur Mirza] plucked the rose of desire from the garden of completion when the barren wind of autumn of fate left not a leaf on the tree of his life.

Thereafter, Pir-Budaq Mirza was seized by the same desire [to have the work completed]. Still unsuccessful, he withdrew the foot of his life into the skirt of death, and he too, not having quaffed of this goblet, carried the baggage of existence to the waystation of nothingness.

Thereafter, Sultan Khalil, son of Sultan Hasan, desired to have it completed…. Scarcely had one of the “Five Treasures” been completed when the patrol of misfortune shackled the hand of his prosperity, and he too stopped in the lane of annihilation, turning over his workshop to his brother, Ya‘qūb. He too strove to have it finished and exerted much effort, but suddenly the victor death seized him by the collar, and he too stepped into the wildness of nonexistence.

In accordance with the saying, “Many a wish has turned to dust,” none of them was able to achieve this goal or drink in fulfillment from the goblet of competition. Although all wished it, it was but in their keeping during their days. [however], in the felicitous time if the Leader of Mankind, His Exalted Highness, Shadow of God, Refuge of the World, who was prefigured in the Qurʾānic verse, “and mention in the book of Ishmael,” … bestower of crowns and thrones … in accordance with God’s word, “the earth shall be inherited by my pious servants,” it was completed as wished through the care and concern if His August Majesty.

By this rhetoric, the convoluted history of an illustrated copy of Nizami’s Khamsa (‘Quintet’), known today as the royal Aq Quyunlu Khamsa of Nizami and part of the Topkapi Sarayi Library collection under the archive number Hazine 762, was documented within its colophon, and, encountering this, my attention was captured by Islamic manuscripts, and has been ever since.

Manuscripts contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the cultural and literary heritage of Islamic civilisation in a way that is different to buildings or objects – they are, for me, a living heritage.

Fig 4

Bahram Gur at the yellow pavilion. From Khamsa of Nizami. Tabriz, late 15th century. Topkapi Sarayi Library, Istanbul, H. 762, fol. 177b

How did you embark on your role as Executive Director of The Islamic Manuscript Association?

In 2019, I joined the Association to work exclusively on the “Arabic-Script Manuscript in Africa” conference, organised with Bibliotheca Alexandrina. In December 2019, I was offered the position of Assistant Director, and in January 2022 I was offered the position of Executive Director.

Could you explain the purpose of The Islamic Manuscript Association (TIMA) and its aims?

The Islamic Manuscript Association (TIMA) is an international non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting Islamic manuscript collections and supporting those who work with them, and with the aim to introduce a new generation to the importance of Islamic, Arabic and Arabic-script manuscript cultures.

In 2006, TIMA was established in response to the urgent need to address the poor preservation and inaccessibility of many Islamic manuscript collections around the world. After more than a decade in the field, in January 2022, the Association announced its reorganisation and restructuring, which allowed it to be even more responsive to its members and improve how it promotes the care and study of Islamic manuscripts.

The Association aims to: articulate standards and guidelines for best practice in cataloguing, conservation, digitisation and academic publishing, so that Islamic manuscript collections may be made more accessible and be preserved for posterity; promote the highest ethical and professional standards in the care and management of Islamic manuscript collections, and excellence in scholarship on Islamic manuscripts, particularly Islamic codicology and disciplines related to the care and management of Islamic manuscript collections; and facilitate dialogue between individuals with scholarly and professional interests in Islamic manuscripts and institutions holding collections of Islamic manuscripts.

Fig 5

The Islamic Manuscript Association's course Traditions of Papermaking in the Islamic World held at the British Library in 2015.

What are some of the challenges researching Islamic manuscripts?

Unfortunately, the accessibility of some manuscript collections and resistance by some to the option to digitise are still considered a challenge. Researchers, especially text editors, may require copies of various sources in different collections, and even if one knows where they are, some institutions or owners possess no means of providing copies; others might possess them, but are constrained by procedural obstacles or lack of resources.

Cataloguing, on the other hand, is another issue that TIMA, alongside other institutions, is drawing attention to, especially for inaccessible collections. Catalogues are one of the many ways scholars and researchers can locate an extant text, aside from consulting bibliographies and other sources.

Which are some of the institutions you work with?

The Association has collaborated with many institutions around the world, including: Cambridge University Library, the British Library, King’s College London, Qatar National Library, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Stanford University, the American University in Beirut, Hamburg University, the University of Manchester, Orient-Institut Istanbul, the Royal United Services Institute in London, the Thesaurus Islamicicus Foundation, al-Azhar, and Matenadaran in Armenia.

Fig 6

Professor François Déroche discusses medieval libraries of the Islamic world during an event organized by the Association at Pembroke College, Cambridge University

How do you promote and support best practice in the cataloguing, care and conservation of Islamic manuscripts?

TIMA promotes and supports best practices through a serious of specialised courses, workshops and lectures, alongside symposiums and conferences, which address both the academic and technical studies of Islamic, Arabic and Arabic-script manuscripts.

Additionally, through the Grant Scheme, TIMA has been able to provide direct financial and expert assistance to more than 50 different projects in over 20 countries, including Yemen, Mali, Nigeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Turkey, the USA, the UK, France, Germany and Spain, between the years 2007 and 2018.

Fig 7

The Tenth Islamic Manuscript Association conference: Manuscripts and Conflict in 2014.

Why is digitizing collections important and what are the future benefits?

Digitisation is but another form and tool to ease access to manuscript collections. It has provided many scholars around the globe with the means to study and carry out research into collections, especially where there is the absence of opportunity to physically examine the collection.

Many manuscripts are fragmented and scattered across the world in different museums, galleries and collecting institutions, how can we bring them together?

The reconstruction of manuscripts, libraries and manuscript collections has been the topic of much research, but digitisation offers the visual aspect of the reconstruction process. This can be demonstrated by one of the projects supported by the Association’s grants: The Digital Mushaf project, which virtually reconstructed dispersed early Qur’anic fragments.

Should collecting institutions be more transparent with regards to the provenance of Islamic manuscripts?

Of course. Provenance is essential to understanding the history of an object, whether it’s a manuscript, an object of art or even a historical building. Collection and archival records are important to understand the history of a collection, while manuscripts hold within themselves traces of their history represented in their material, through the existence of seals, annotations, colophons, in addition to the style of their calligraphy, illuminations, illustrations, binding, etc.

The Islamic Manuscript Association provides a platform for presenting scholarship on Islamic manuscripts, what are some of the most interesting areas of research you have brought to light?

Through the Annual Grant scheme and Collection Care and Emergency Response Grant scheme, with a maximum of £5,000 per project offered annually from 2007 until 2018, TIMA supported projects and research of its members in the field of Islamic manuscripts.

Among the projects and research supported through the grants have been:

- al-Bukhārī’s Ṣaḥīḥ: The digitisation of two manuscripts held at Leipzig University Library: al-Bukhārī’s Ṣaḥīḥ (Fleischer Catalogue CLXXX / B. or. 227), and Georg Jacob Kehr : De Mohammedanorum Sonna (1723) (Fleischer Catalogue CLXXXI / B. or. 355).

- Focus of the Shahnama: The creation and publication of digital surrogates of Rylands Persian MS 932 to support teaching and learning, to develop new research opportunities, and to make this important manuscript accessible to wider audiences.

- The digitisation and publication of the Muhammad Juki Shahnamah, Royal Asiatic Society Manuscript 239.

- Gateway to the Koran of Kansuh al-Ghuri: A study of a Mamluk Qur’an commissioned my Kansuh al-Ghrui in Cairo, Egypt

- The Digital Mushaf: The virtual reconstruction of dispersed early Qur’anic fragments.

- Islamic Painted Page: A database of Islamic book arts.

- Codicologia: The development of a French–Arabic vocabulary for cataloguing manuscripts.

- The cataloguing of the Ancient Manuscript Collection of Timbuktu, Mali.

- A catalogue of Arabic manuscripts in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

- 'Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Manuscript Archiving Project: The creation of an online catalogue for the historic manuscripts of Ibn 'Arabi and his school.

For people looking to learn more about Islamic manuscripts, are there any useful resources you could recommend?

On the Association’s webpage, we have a dedicated section for external resources, which provides list of annotated links to other organisations and individuals’ resources on the scholarship of Islamic manuscripts, and the care and management of manuscript collections. It includes bibliographies, cataloguing tools, short courses and workshops, online manuscript catalogues, and list of professional and scholarly organisations.

With your knowledge of the development of Islamic manuscripts over time, what do you think of the future opportunities and potential to continue this area of study, especially with the development of digital technology?

Interest and progress in the systematic study of Arabic, Islamic and Arabic-script manuscripts has undoubtedly progressed since the Association was established in 2006. However, the field is still rich, with hundreds of thousands, if not several millions, of manuscripts yet to be properly explored. There are many manuscripts that have not yet been critically edited or which stand in need of being re-edited.

For more information about The Islamic Manuscript Association (TIMA):

Twitter : @Islamic_MSS

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