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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

07/2015 manuscript  of the month

Better than a cat!

The multiple lives of a Qur’an commentary from Yemen

Between 1035 and 1054, the last exegete of the Sunni school of Nishapur (Iran), Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-Wāḥidī, wrote the Tafsīr al-Basīṭ (Large Commentary). This work was the first one to explain the Qur’an mostly by analysing its words, language and historical context. Three hundred years later, a scribe copied the text into a set of sixteen manuscripts, and seven centuries after that, the seventh volume of the work ended up on the conservation bench. In conservation, having an artefact tell its story is as important as healing its physical form. The material evidence of the present manuscript immediately shows that it must have had a very adventurous life. It was in relatively bad shape, with signs of multiple alterations, embellishments and ownership changes. What exactly happened to this manuscript over the past seven centuries that allowed it to live several different lives, just like a cat?

Its first life

The paper, quires and peculiarities in the nash script all say that the story of the manuscript began in the first half of the fourteenth century in southern Yemen, ruled by the Rasulid, a Sunni Muslim dynasty. Without any decoration (Fig. 1), the manuscript was written by a scribe who worked by candlelight and was obviously not very meticulous in his work: a number of pages were stained with wax, but were not discarded since paper was so valuable; they were used nevertheless, the scribe writing over drops such as the one seen in Fig. 2. Although not a luxurious item to display, the set of sixteen manuscripts would doubtless have been expensive to buy. A religious school for young men might have commissioned such an item, but the lack of annotations it contains suggests that it was more likely to have been owned by a single scholar and did not see much use at all.

Fig. 1: fol. 1v beginning of the text
(before conservation) > Enlarge

Fig. 2: fol. 170r, writing on wax > Enlarge
Fig. 3: fol. 1r, illumination and notes on ownership (Touch the image with the cursor to toggle between before and after conservation. Click the links to enlarge.)

Its second and third lives

In the first half of the fifteenth century, our manuscript became an exorbitantly expensive gift from someone very important, perhaps from the royal family and possibly presented to a religious institution. This is testified by the first folio (Fig. 3), embellished by a new, lavish illumination and eventually a whole new binding; a work of high quality ensured by an ownership annotation that would become very problematic two centuries later, when the manuscript was stolen (in 1659–61), reclaimed as a war trophy by Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan, nephew of al-Mutawakkil ‛alā Allāh Ismā‛īl, the man who united northern and southern Yemen under Zaydite rule, which was Shia-oriented. We know this thanks to a new ownership note written between the illuminations on the same page (Fig. 3). The old one was erased: it very likely proves the ownership of the manuscript by a religious institution prior to this bloody acquisition; in fact, personal items could change hands easily, while the property of religious institutions was protected by a special law. Muḥammad had to delete such proof in order to reclaim the manuscript as his own. The interest in this manuscript – a Sunni Qur’an commentary in the hands of a Shia general – may have been due to the rich illuminations in it rather than to the commentary itself.

Its fourth life

In 1849–50, the manuscript was bound for the third time (Fig. 4), now by ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd b. ʿAbd al-Muqīm, a fact testified by the seal tooled on the fore edge flap of the leather cover (Fig. 5). This binding is peculiar to that period and area: workshops needed to be competitive on the market and therefore used materials of lower quality coupled with faster techniques compared to the mediaeval ones, thus creating solutions merging Western and Islamic traditions. In this case, a conservative style was preferred, as the full leather cover and its decoration show, but signs of modernity can be observed in the techniques and the provenance and quality of the materials.

Fig. 4: new binding after conservation > Enlarge

Fig. 5: seal tooled on the fore edge flap
> Enlarge

Fig. 6: annotation on the front
flyleaf, detail. > Enlarge

Fig. 7: Leone Caetani’s coat of
arms on the back pastedown.
> Enlarge

Its fifth life

Was it sold? Or presented as a gift, perhaps? Whatever happened, on 16 December 1872, the manuscript became the property of ‛Alī ‛Abd al Taftīr(a)lī, a man living in the village of Al Qāriḩah in the aẓ-Ẓāhira area, now in north-east Oman (see the annotation in Fig. 6). Currently, we do not have any further information about the use or purpose it had in those days.

Its sixth life

In the following thirty years, our manuscript was taken out of the Arab Peninsula and eventually reached Italy. Probably through British booksellers, it became part of the library of Prince Leone Caetani (1869–1935), an important Italian orientalist, between 1888 and 1908 (Fig. 7). The manuscript then appeared in the list of the Prince’s belongings that were moved to the Regia Accademia dei Lincei in 1911–1912 where, despite the loving care of orientalist and librarian Giuseppe Gabrieli (1872–1942), it suffered most of its deterioration due to humidity and insects afflicting the “bad wooden closets” where it was kept (according to R. Traini, curator of the Oriental Department in the 1970s). A less traumatic journey in 1919 moved the whole collection to the second floor.

Fig. 8: the book in its conservation box after treatment
> Enlarge

Its seventh life and the future

According to Arab tradition, cats have six lives. The manuscript presented here has already crossed this critical line, however. Upon the creation of the Fondazione Caetani per gli Studi Musulmani in 1924, the Accademia officially obtained Caetani’s collection. In 1941, the library moved to the first floor, and then in the 1970s its volumes were placed on metallic shelves and reordered.
The story of the manuscript does not end here, but it will continue for much longer, I hope, partly thanks to my own treatment and care (Fig. 8).


COLINI, Claudia / DI BELLA, Marco / RUBINO, Marcella (2015): “Bound by tradition. New ways and old paths in Yemeni bookbinding workshops between XIX and XX centuries”. In: Chroniques du manuscrit au Yémen (forthcoming).

COLINI, Claudia (2011): Un unicum arabo dallo Yemen: dialogo tra conservazione, restauro e archeologia del libro. Unpublished M.A. thesis. Università degli Studi di Roma Tor Vergata.

DÉROCHE, François / SAGARIA ROSSI (2012), I manoscritti in caratteri arabi. Al-maḫṭūṭāt bi-l-ḥarf al-ʿarabī (Scritture e Libri del medioevo, 9). Rome: Viella.

D’OTTONE, Arianna (2006): I manoscritti arabi dello Yemen: una ricerca codicologica. Rome: Nuova cultura.

SALEH, Walid (2013): “The Introduction to Wāḥidi’s al-Bāsiṭ: an edition, translation and commentary”. In: Karen Bauer (ed.): Aims, Methods and Context of Qur’anic exegesis. Oxford: University Press, 67–100.


Italy, Rome, Biblioteca dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana
Shelfmark: Ms. Or. 78a
Material: Arab paper, I+241+I folios, 23 lines per page in one column, illuminated title page, red three-piece leather binding with a flap, blind-tooled, dated 1265 h./1849–50 C.E. [The conservation work took place at Istituto Centrale per la Conservazione e il Restauro dei Beni Archivistici e Librari, Rome, and was conducted by Claudia Colini and Silvia Sotgiu between May 2010 and May 2011.]
Dimensions: 17.7 x 25.9 cm
Provenance: First half of the 14th c., Yemen. The opening page was illuminated during the first half of the 15th c. in Yemen or Egypt.

Text by Claudia Colini