As organizations are shuttered indefinitely due to ongoing coronavirus embargoes, more and more institutions seem to be taking steps to make their collections accessible and explorable by virtual means. Whether this is due to the altruistic aspect of art that seeks to bring meaning to life during troubled times, or the ways in which the disruption of business-as-usual has enabled many of us to get into the “deep cuts” of our to-do lists, the result is an abundance of truly beautiful online resources to delight and divert us during self-quarantine efforts. Recent among these, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries announced a new addition to “OPenn” — the Manuscripts of the Muslim World project.
According to the website, OPenn “offers complete sets of high-resolution archival images of cultural heritage material from the collections of its contributing institutions, along with machine-readable descriptive and technical metadata.” All materials on OPenn are in the public domain or released under Creative Commons licenses as Free Cultural Works. The MMW Project characterizes these materials as “mostly unresearched,” perhaps encouraging a curious army of sequestered armchair historians to dig into this wealth more than 500 manuscripts and 827 paintings from the Islamicate world broadly construed.
“Together these holdings represent in great breadth the flourishing intellectual and cultural heritage of Muslim lands from 1000 to 1900, covering mathematics, astrology, history, law, literature, as well as the Qur’an and Hadith,” reads the MMW website. “The bulk of the collection consists of manuscripts in Arabic and Persian, along with examples of Coptic, Samaritan, Syriac, Turkish, and Berber.” OPenn partnered primarily with Columbia University, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the University of Pennsylvania, and additionally received significant contributions from Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College.
“The aim of this project was to find and digitize all the Islamicate manuscripts in Philadelphia collections and along the way we partnered with Columbia on a grant to take a multi-city approach given the strength of the collection there,” said Mitch Fraas, Senior Curator of Special Collections for UPenn Libraries, in an email with Hyperallergic. “We take a broad approach to ‘Muslim World’ and include texts related to Christianity (Coptic and Syriac mss. galore), Hinduism (epics translated into Persian in Mughal India), science, technology, music, etc. but which were produced in the historic Muslim world. There are mss. in Persian, Arabic, and Turkish of course but also in Coptic, Tamazight, Avestan, etc.”
According to project cataloger, Dr. Kelly Tuttle, “From scribal, reader’s and owner’s notes, to layout, copy and illumination style, to later damage, repair and sales each manuscript has its own story to tell. Cataloging only begins to brush the surface. The main three collections in this project are each so different in their focus that working on cataloging them together has been both a real joy and a great education in Islamicate manuscript studies.”
Included among the works are a Qur’an made on the island of Malta by a prisoner, which Kelly identified, and a charm with Quranic verses in Arabic and occasional Soninke (a West African language) words in Arabic script. According to Fraas, this was collected almost certainly from a Muslim person who was enslaved in Haiti or Jamaica in the mid-18th century.
These are just a few gems among a collection offering days and weeks of material that will delight antiquities scholars, devotees of religious studies or practitioners of Islam, those attracted to rare books, and anyone else looking for a window into another time and place during these anxious days.