last month
next month

Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

07/2013 manuscript  of the month

Stitches, patches and glosses:

traditional preservation measures of a Qur’an manuscript from Borno

This Qur’an was copied in the ancient Borno Sultanate possibly in the seventeenth but certainly not later than the eighteenth century. As typical of many other Qur’ans from Borno, northeast Nigeria, this manuscript features extensive annotations to the Arabic text of the Qur’an. The annotations are written in Old Kanembu (an exegetical language closely related to Kanuri spoken around Lake Chad) and in Arabic and they both reflect advanced study of the Qur’an by Islamic scholars and their disciples. Originating from classroom situations, the Qur’anic commentaries in both languages were not meant for copying which explains the absence of identical passages or words in all known manuscripts. The manuscript presented here is a unique exception because the entire content of the last leaf was copied and placed together with the original. What could have been the reason for this unusual insert?

Figure 1. Fol. 2a. Second page of the
front matter. > Enlarge

The manuscript is a complete Qur’an, totaling to 251 leaves (so-called folios). The manuscript is in the possession of an Islamic scholarly family in Konduga, the state of Borno, hence the name “Konduga manuscript”. As typical of Islamic Africa, the manuscript is held in loose leaf format. It is wrapped in a leather folder and incased in a leather satchel. Marginal areas and line spacing in this large size manuscript (32x22 cm) are rather spacious, with thirteen to sixteen lines per page increasing gradually through the volume. The paper was imported from Italy as evidenced by an “anchor” watermark typical of the Venetian paper produced until the seventeenth century.

The manuscript has many quotations from various Arabic commentaries (tafsīr by al-Bayḍāwī, al-Samarqandī, Tha‘labī and many others) in different hands in brown and black ink (Fig. 2). Old Kanembu annotations are mostly written interlineally. The Qur’anic text and annotations are written in the so called “Barnawī” type of Arabic script, typical of Borno.

The “Konduga” manuscript is unusual in many respects. It is the only Borno Qur'an known to date which has a two-page front matter (folios 1b and 2a, Fig. 1) with texts dedicated to the virtues of the Qur’an, information about its recitation and transmission and possibly the name of the original owner of the manuscript (yet to be identified). The text of the Qur’an itself – the opening Sūrat al-Fātiḥa – only starts on folio 2b (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Fol. 2b. The opening chapter
of the Qur’an (Sūrat al-Fātiḥa).
> Enlarge

The scribe who wrote the front matter on folios 1b and 2a carried over to the left margin of folio 2b and included a passage from the popular Arabic commentary by al-Samarqandī alongside the beginning of the Qur’an, the latter penned by a different scribe (while the commentary in the right margin from tafsīr Kashf al-bayān by Tha‘labī is written in yet another hand).

Folio 249 contains the last and shortest chapters (suras) of the Qur’an (from 102 to 114) and forms the final leaf of the original manuscript. It is followed by an insert of two folios (folios 250 and 251) with the same twelve suras written in a different hand and in an enriched combination of ink, the yellow being added to fill in the three-petal verse dividers in addition to the black of the main text and the red of the sura titles. The insert was included a century or so later as can be judged from the counter-mark “Andrea Galvani” on the last page (fol. 251b) which refers to the famous Italian paper mills in Friuli (the tre lune watermark is visible on the preceding folio 250).

The same last page of the insert bears an invocation to the poisonous plant kaykataj (buttercup, or crowfoot) used against insects and worms (Fig. 5). The formula must have helped against insects, but seems to have been ineffective against other destructive elements such as moisture and mold to which the lower part of the manuscript was exposed sometime later. This resulted in brittleness of paper along the lower margins. In order to shield off the fissures creeping in from below, one of the owners or more likely several owners across generations used paper slips and threads for making patches and stitches.

Figure 3. Fol. 249a. The recto of the
last leaf of the original manuscript.
Qur’an, sura 102 to sura 107.
> Enlarge

Figure 4. Fol. 250a. First page of the
copy of the original fol. 249. Qur’an,
sura 102 to sura 106. > Enlarge

Figure 5. Fol. 251b. Invocation
‘Oh kaykataj’ to a poisonous
plant used against insects and worms.
> Enlarge

These mends occur on every second or third leaf starting from the beginning of the manuscript (Fig. 2) to the last two folios of the insert (Figures 4 and 5). Since the folios of the insert are affected in the same way as the preceding original volume, it is likely that the copying of the original last folio was a first step towards preservation of the manuscript, later followed by stitching and patching. In the context of Qur'anic studies in Borno, this preservation attempt accounts for the unique case of copying a part of the Qur'an together with the Old Kanembu glosses and the interlinear tafsīr commentaries in Arabic.

The content of folio 249 was copied in its entirety. For example, the gloss in Old Kanembu simnin bǝrsibi ‘with an eye of trust’ in the upper right corner of folio 249a (Fig. 3) which appears above the Qur’anic ‘ayn al-yaqīn ‘with the eye of certainty’ (Q. 102:7) is copied in the same place (Fig. 4). The commentaries in Arabic from tafsīr al-Jalālayn and some other exegetical text are also repeated verbatim and even the direction of writing is preserved, with the same gloss written upside down in the original and copy (Fig. 3 & 4). However, the overall layout was not of the copyist’s concern. The main text is arranged in a different number of lines per page (sixteen lines in the original vs fourteen in the copy), and the verses of the Qur’anic texts are broken into lines differently.

The copying of all three textual layers of the last original folio (the text of the Qur’an, commentaries in Arabic and glosses in Old Kanembu) shows that there was no text unworthy of copyist’s restoration undertaking. His carefulness was most probably driven by veneration of the whole manuscript as a collection of exegetical practices across generations.

BIVAR, Adrian David H. (1960): “A dated Kuran from Bornu”. In: Nigeria Magazine, 65, 199–205.
BIVAR, Adrian David H. (1968): “The Arabic calligraphy of West Africa”. In: African Language Review 7, 3–15, I–VIII.
BONDAREV, Dmitry, (2006): “The language of the glosses in the Bornu Qur’anic manuscripts”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 69, 1, 113-140.
BONDAREV, Dmitry (2013a): “Multiglossia in West African manuscripts: a case of Borno, Nigeria”. In Dmitry Bondarev, Jörg B. Quenzer and Jan-Ulrich Sobisch (eds): Manuscript Cultures: Mapping the Field. De Gruyter (forthcoming).
BONDAREV, Dmitry (2013b): “Qur’anic exegesis in Old Kanembu: linguistic precision for better interpretation”. In Dmitry Bondarev and Tal Tamari (eds): Qur’anic exegesis in African languages, a special issue of the Journal of Qur’anic Studies (forthcoming).

Qur’an; Borno, north-east Nigeria
Paper, 251 folios, 32x22 cm
18th-19th century
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Digital collection MS380808

Text by Dmitry Bondarev