This blog post was written by Naureen Ali, Cataloguer and Adlib System Officer at the Ismaili Special Collections Unit (The Institute of Ismaili Studies) as part of a series of posts on the theme of ‘Human Discovery: Experiencing Science’ for History Day 2022.
The Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) holds a significant repository of heritage materials related to Ismaili communities and other Muslim traditions. These collections include nearly 3,000 manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Indic and other languages, as well as coins, glass weights, medals and other historical artefacts, photographs and audio-visual materials, rare and special printed materials (including periodicals and magazines) and archival collections, among others.
In 2013, the IIS established the Ismaili Special Collections Unit (ISCU) as part of its continuing endeavours to systematically preserve, develop, digitise and catalogue these collections, as well as to study and facilitate research on these materials so as to contribute to the Institute’s vision of promoting scholarship on the heritage of Ismaili communities and that of other Muslim groups.
We are excited to share three rare books from our collections in celebration of History Day 2022, on the theme of Human Discovery: Experiencing Science. These items highlight different aspects of scientific discoveries and their influence on human lives, including in the fields of medicine, optics and the printing of the Qur’an.
Kitab al-manazir (Book of Optics)
Known as Alhazen in Europe, Abu ‘Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham was born in Basra in the tenth century and later moved to Cairo during the Fatimid Caliphate. Owing to his work on human visual perception, he is considered the father of modern optics. In 2015 UNESCO celebrated the International Year of Light by marking the 1,000-year anniversary of his most famous work, Kitab al-manazir (Book of Optics), which was translated into Latin in the thirteenth century and influenced European thinkers and scientists.
In the mediaeval Islamic world, numerous mathematicians and physicists were preoccupied with the science of optics (‘ilm al-manazir), which is concerned with the nature of vision and light. Ibn al-Haytham’s ground-breaking work in the field of optics, Kitab al-manazir explored the nature of vision by demonstrating that seeing results from the introduction of rays of light into the human eye, rather than the emission of actual light rays from the eye.[i] Fatimid Cairo in al-Haytham’s lifetime was home to a dedicated institution of higher learning known as the Dar-al-Hikma (House of Wisdom). Built in 395 AH/1005 AD by the Fatimid Imam-Caliph Abu ‘Ali al-Mansur al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (386–411 AH/996–1021 AD), the institution served those who specialised in non-religious sciences. Being a polymath, al-Haytham not only worked on the principles of optics but also produced works on mathematics and astronomy.
al-Qanun fi al-tibb (The Canon of Medicine)
Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna) was born in 980 AD near Bukhara (present day Uzbekistan) and is renowned for his contributions to not only the field of philosophy but also medicine. His five-volume encyclopaedia, al-Qanun fi al-tibb (The Canon of Medicine), which includes and builds on medical knowledge from Hippocrates and Galen, is among the most famous books in the history of medicine. The Canon explores the principles of medicine such as the constitution of the body, the causes and symptoms of disease, preventive medicine, treatment of disease with an emphasis on diet and regimen, personal hygiene, and different types of drugs and prescriptions.[ii]
Featured here is a seventeenth-century Latin translation of this encyclopaedia, with a historiated (decorated with historical scenes) title page. The Canon was one of the most frequently printed books on medicine in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Avicenna held an esteemed place in Western European medical studies, ranked together with Hippocrates and Galen, and was known as princeps medicorum (prince of physicians). His works continued to be used for teaching in Europe up to the eighteenth century.[iii]
Along with this rare printed book, the special collections at IIS also include a manuscript of al-Urjuza fi’l-tibb, a didactic poem on medicine by Avicenna containing a theoretical and practical part, which was also well known in medieval Europe. It is part of the Hamdani Collection at the IIS, the details of which are available on the ISCU online catalogue (special-collections.iis.ac.uk), which features close to 4000 items from the IIS special collections.
An early printed Qur’an
The rare books collection at the IIS also includes an early printed Qur’an from the seventeenth century. Although the advent of the printing press enabled widespread dissemination of texts, in the Muslim world textual production took longer to adapt to printing. More characters were needed to print Arabic script, as the complete font with the inclusion of vowel marks ran to more than six hundred in number.[iv]
Sheila Blair, in her book Islamic Calligraphy has explored the impact of the adoption of the printing press for religious texts, and the struggles it entailed, stating that the “religious primacy of calligraphy in transcribing the Koran and other holy texts seems to have excluded its [the printing press’s] use for religious books for a long time.” Calligraphers and scribes themselves objected to the use of printing, as this would have resulted in a loss of their livelihoods.[v]
Along with mistakes in the text of this early printed version of the Qur’an, one can see a stark difference between the aesthetics of the printed text and handwritten Qur’an manuscripts where various artistic styles such as calligraphy and illumination come together to preserve an aesthetically adorned text. This nineteenth-century Qur’an manuscript from Kashmir is a fine example of such an endeavour, and combines calligraphic styles, marginal translation and brilliant illumination.
Written in elegant naskhi hand (a style of Arabic calligraphy) and transcribed in 1298 AH/1891 AD, the manuscript features Persian translation and commentary in the margins. The featured folios have blue and gold illumination, which is a typical aesthetic feature of Kashmiri manuscripts.[vi] Along with calligraphy and illumination, Qur’an manuscripts also contain marginalia and interlinear annotations which reflect cultural and educational practices prevalent in Muslim societies. Dr Wafi Momin explores some of these scribal cultures in his edited volume, Texts, Scribes and Transmission, which is the fruit of a symposium organised by ISCU on scribal cultures and transmission of texts, among other themes.
These rare books and manuscripts offer a window into the past to see how human lives have changed and been impacted by advancements in scientific methods, be it developments in the field of optics, discoveries in the field of medicine or the struggles associated with printing texts that were previously copied by scribes. When examined closer, these items also shed light not only on the cultures and milieu in which they were produced but also the varying impact of scientific developments on communities, with many reaping benefits of the advancements while some—namely those whose livelihoods depended on outdated technologies—were adversely affected.
[i] El-Bizri, Nader. “Optics,” Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopedia, 2006. Reprinted by The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2007, available online at https://www.iis.ac.uk/learning-centre/scholarly-contributions/encyclopedia-articles/optics/ (accessed 10th November 2022).
[iii] Weisser, U. “AVICENNA xiii. The influence of Avicenna on medical studies in the West,” Encyclopædia Iranica, III/1, pp. 107-110, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/avicenna-xiii (accessed on 9th November 2022).
[iv] Blair, Sheila S. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006, p. 487.
[v] Ibid p. 487.
[vi] Gacek, Adam. Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts in the Library of The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Vol. 2). London: Islamic Publications Ltd., 1985, p. 129 (MS 585).