When I was asked to write about manuscripts, or manuscript-as-relic, I have to admit I was somewhat stumped. This is surprising, as the only job I have ever had in my adult life, other than attempting to teach about Islamic manuscripts and history, is as a manuscript curator. In fact, it’s the only job I’ve ever wanted, and manuscripts are the only objects I’ve ever been interested in. I was recently offered a wonderful curatorial job working with astrolabes, but astrolabes aren’t flat enough, or papery or codex-y enough, so I turned it down (admittedly, those weren’t the real reasons, but they suffice for our purposes here). You might say this interest is somewhat limiting, but when you consider the range of topics that are contained within the covers of manuscripts, you quickly realise that a lifetime is not enough to master even a tiny fraction of the knowledge therein. And of course, a great deal of that knowledge is considered to be obsolete, or if not obsolete, then certainly effete and rarefied to the point that someone who cares about earning a living in the modern world would avoid entangling themselves with it.
My own specialisation in this topic, if it can be called that, began with Arabic and Persian, both of which have ancient manuscript traditions. Although not many Islamic manuscripts pre-date the Mongol invasion of 1258, a plethora of re-copied texts survive that date and flourish in the early modern period with commentaries and super-commentaries. After Arabic and Persian, my work turned to Ottoman Turkish, and I experienced the dubious pleasure of learning the various forms of Ottoman palaeography, which is famous for being painfully illegible to the uninitiated. And now I attempt to work with Urdu, a much younger manuscript tradition that is intertwined with Indo-Persian culture and material production and is rather under researched compared with manuscripts in the other major languages of Islamic knowledge production.
So that’s me and my interest in manuscripts, which might help to explain why I had such difficulty approaching this essay – when you are too close to a topic, it becomes impossible to narrow down what to communicate about it to an audience who may not share your obsession. In my case, after my first few codicology workshops, which provide instruction in how to study the materiality of the manuscript – its paper, the type of binding, the many scripts, inks, etc. – in order to date it, to understand more about the context of its production, I was hooked. It was a gateway drug, I suppose, to my present state. Strangely, I am not interested in the illustrations, or let’s say minimally interested – and this is what most manuscripts are famous for – but rather in the epistemic and cosmological worlds that can be reconstructed from the contents of the manuscripts, and the physical presence of the manuscript itself as an object.