Islamic Manuscripts Hold Hidden Pearls of Knowledge

While studying an untitled text as part of UCLA’s “Encountering Arabic Manuscripts” course, doctoral student Brooke Baker found that it contained
a work by Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani, the 16th-century mystic and scholar who founded an Egyptian order of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam.

This remarkable discovery is just one of several that have been made in the course, an ongoing collaboration between UCLA’s Islamic studies program and UCLA Library.

The Library’s Middle Eastern and Islamic manuscripts collection is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world, totaling at least 8,000 handwritten medieval manuscripts in Arabic, Persian and early Ottoman Turkish. Yet much of the collection has not yet been extensively described so that manuscripts can be discovered via the Library’s online catalog, presenting a tantalizing opportunity for students, faculty and other scholars to plumb its unknown depths.

“These collections encompass rare and beautiful illuminated manuscripts, poetry and literature, significant medical and scientific tracts, and works of historical importance,” said Ginny Steel, the Norman and Armena Powell University Librarian. “It’s no surprise that among these collections are undiscovered gems and opportunities for trailblazing research.”

Beyond the wealth of knowledge available in each manuscript, many offer intriguing windows into the past. Marginal annotations, personal notes and even stamps from libraries across the centuries give invaluable insight to those seeking to understand specific works in their full context. Using such clues, another doctoral student in the Arabic manuscripts course, Hinesh Shah, was able to identify a manuscript as having belonged to specific officials of the 18th-century Mughal Empire of South Asia.

Shah and Baker’s research has been so promising that UCLA Library has begun collaborating with community partners and donors to support the cataloging, accessibility and preservation of the entire manuscript collection for anyone wishing to explore it.

One such community partner is M. Fareed Farukhi, founding president of Universal Heritage, Inc. (formerly Universal Heritage & Research Center), who has established an endowment to support Middle Eastern and Islamic collections. “These manuscripts and special collections are rare and irreplaceable. It’s our collective responsibility to ensure the wealth of knowledge contained within is protected and made easily accessible to scholars and to advance cultural understanding.”

To learn how you can support this important project, please contact Sherry Wickware at swickwar@library.ucla.edu.