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Review of Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers

2013.12.24 | Adam Gacek.  Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers.  Leiden: Brill, 2011. xviii + 350 pages (with 216 ill. and 3 charts). ISBN 9789004221444.

Review by W. Andrew Smith, Shepherds Theological Seminary; originally published at Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies (December 2013).

Many thanks to Brill for providing a review copy.

If the term vademecum is unfamiliar, it refers to a handbook that is carried around at all times for consultation (from the modern Latin “go with me”).  With that in mind, Adam Gacek’s Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers most certainly qualifies as a guide that should be kept readily at hand by scholars interested in various aspects of the study of manuscripts. Gacek, who is a retired lecturer in Islamic Manuscript Studies from McGill University, introduces the vademecum with the qualifier that it is not intended to be a comprehensive manual, but rather “an aid to students and researchers” (xi).

Gacek’s humble description is misleading, however.  This book is no mere primer, but a highly informative overview of Arabic/Islamic manuscript practices that is broad in scope and rich in detail.

The bulk of this volume (pp. 1-298) is presented in encyclopedic format, with topical entries arranged alphabetically according to English terminology.  Each entry serves to introduce and briefly discuss the major points of the specific topics, with cross-references to other entries and additional works if the reader desires to explore the topic further.  Among the bibliographic references, two of Gacek’s earlier works are positioned to serve as companions to this book: The Arabic Manuscript Tradition: A Glossary of Terms and Bibliography (Brill, 2001) and its supplement volume (Brill, 2008).  Where Arabic Manuscripts excels in comparison with the two glossary works is in the topical arrangement of the material (which, by comparison, is spread across multiple glossary entries in the companion volumes), the expanded discussion of each topic, and the images embedded in the text.  Regarding the latter, this book is generously equipped with hand-drawn illustrations and both black and white and color photographs throughout (most are in color), providing the reader with immediate examples of the topic being studied.  Throughout this section of the book, Arabic words are largely transcribed using Latin characters, though some Arabic characters are used as well.  While the greatest benefits may be reaped by researchers who are adept with the Arabic language, a reader with minimal to no knowledge of Arabic can still navigate this book with relative ease.

Entries in the main section of this book cover a wide range of manuscript phenomena, and some examples follow to provide an idea of the nature of these contents.  Regarding the physical construction of an Arabic manuscript or codex, a few of the relevant entries include: “Bookbinding,” “Bookcovers,” “Codex,” “Collational notations (formulae),” “Folium (folio),” “Quire (gathering),” “Quire signatures (numbering),” “Sewing of quires,” and “Textblock.”  Regarding paratextual features present in Arabic manuscripts, a small sampling of relevant entries includes: “Book titles,” “Certificates of transmission,” “Colophon,” “Marginalia,” “Ownership statements,” “Page layout (mise-en-page),” “Textual corrections,” and “Textual dividers and paragraph marks.”  Other entries include valuable information on writing surfaces such as paper and parchment; inks and illustrations; textual criticism, scribal errors and conjectures; palaeographic features such as the different Arabic scripts used; and much more.  Entries range in length from a paragraph or two to several pages.

Following the alphabetical entries and works cited are five appendices and three charts.  The first appendix (313-317) contains a very helpful list of abbreviations found in Arabic manuscripts.  The second appendix has a chart of the “major Arabic letterforms based on Mamluk and Ottoman Texts on Calligraphy” (318-320).  The third appendix has an alphabetical table of the Qur’anic Sūras (321-323).  The fourth appendix has a bibliographic guide listing reference works for Arabic manuscript studies, arranged according to topic.  Finally, the fifth appendix contains an introductory guide for students and researchers who are describing Arabic manuscripts; the reader is walked through the process of gathering details about a manuscript, from recording the location and name of the library and collection to listing paratextual features of the manuscript itself (such as ink, quire structure, binding).  The three charts at the end of the volume include: (1) a comparison of the Muslim and Christian calendars; (2) a chart of the major Western and Islamic historical periods from the 7th c. BC to the 19th c. AD; and (3) a complex chart of the major Muslim dynasties.

While this work represents a wonderful resource for those in the field of manuscript studies, a future edition of the text would greatly benefit from the hand of a copyeditor.  There are a number of typographical errors in the text, particularly in the figures and tables.  Table 16 (59), for example, has replaced two plus signs (+) with equal signs (=), making for some untenable math.  Additionally, several of the figures and tables have indicated specific manuscript features with red ovals but then make no mention of the feature in the description text.  In some cases the indicated feature can be determined easily from the entry text (e.g., the right-sloping serif identified in Figure 108), but in other cases the indicated feature is less obvious (e.g., Figure 98).  In the Works Cited and Abbreviations (299-312), there are a few bibliographic entries that are placed out of order.

As an aside, researchers of the physical aspects of biblical manuscripts may be somewhat surprised at how little overlap there is between the Works Cited in this work and those commonly used in biblical studies.  Much of what is encountered is familiar from other reference works on papyrology, palaeography, and the like, but occasional differences arise.  For example: Greek papyrology has determined that papyrus was a sturdy and flexible writing surface, but Gacek comments that papyrus is a “brittle and fragile material” (194).  Given the much larger body of works available for Greek texts, it seems that some of that research may complement Arabic codicology.

In the world of biblical studies there has been a growing interest in analyzing not only the texts that have been transmitted in Christian manuscripts, but also in the manuscripts themselves as physical artifacts of the Christian tradition.  In light of this scholarly momentum, it is exciting to encounter a resource such as this for another manuscript tradition.  While researchers working on Arabic translations of the Bible will greatly benefit from this book, scholars investigating Arabic influence and interventions in other biblical manuscripts will no doubt enjoy the fruit of this labor as well.

– W. Andrew Smith

(This book review originally appeared here at the Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies website.)

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