Eid Mubarak! Blessed Eid!

During June 2019 in the Sir George Grey Special Collections Reading Room two items from the Eastern Manuscript collection were on display. EASTMS S294 and EASTMS S297 were selected to celebrate Eid al-Fitr or Eid, as it is commonly known. Meaning the "festival of breaking the fast", this joyous celebration is held over a three-day period and marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. The exact date of Eid varies each year depending on the rising of the Shawwāl or new crescent moon during the tenth month of the Islamic or lunar calendar. Each Islamic country has its own traditions and ways of celebrating Eid, but generally Muslim communities come together to pray, spend time with relatives and friends, visit graveyards to pay their respects to loved ones who have passed, give gifts and share food.

Both manuscripts were collected by bibliophile Henry Shaw (1850-1928) whose interests included items displaying fine calligraphy and illustration. Shaw’s collection contains some of the library’s oldest Middle Eastern and Islamic manuscripts. One of the highlights from Shaw is the Golden Qu’rān (Koran) (EASTMS S300). Dated to 1817, it has text bordered in gold and blue, and a floral design painted on the cover. Dr Zain Ali, University of Auckland Teaching Fellow, covered this manuscript in a talk he gave at the library in 2015, providing insight about its dating, provenance and significance. Another significant portion of the library’s Eastern Manuscripts came from Sir George Grey. This includes an 1879 manuscript of poems for use at religious occasions, such as births, deaths and circumcisions (GMS 101).

During his Auckland Library Heritage Trust Scholarship, Dr Majid Daneshgar carried out research and compiled a catalogue about the Eastern Manuscripts collection. This resource gives access to and aids understanding of the manuscripts, as well as providing a springboard for further research.

The Eastern Manuscripts collection spans the 16th to 19th centuries and comprises, for example, poetry, holy scriptures (e.g. the Qu’rān), medicine, rituals and mysticism. The languages represented include Arabic, Ethiopic, Persian, Urdu and Ottoman Turkish. What is striking about all these manuscripts is the technical skill and accuracy, and beauty of the calligraphy and penmanship. As Sheila Blair notes in Islamic Calligraphy (2006), writing and words play key roles in the religion of Islam, with Arabic script being initially adapted for Persian and subsequently other languages. The written form is also considered to be as important as the content because it helps convey and enhance meaning. This focus on form is demonstrated by the sumptuously decorated manuscripts on display. They have flowing scripts and are embellished with geometric, floral and vegetal patterns and illuminated in glistening gold and brilliant colours, all of which create dramatic visual impact.

The script used in Yūsuf va Zulaykhā (EASTMS S297) is called nasta'liq or the hanging script. It has hook-like shaped letters, and broad sweeping horizontal strokes and short vertical ones. This gives the impression the letters are floating or hanging across the imagined horizontal lines of the page. Nasta'liq existed prior to the fourteenth century but was fully developed during this time period, and requires great knowledge and technical skill to execute. Due to its fluid and aesthetic form it is generally used for Persian calligraphy and is perceived to be one of the best script types for literature, especially poetical works, such as Yūsuf va Zulaykhā. This long poem is written in rhyming couplets in Persian. It is the fifth of seven long poems by Mawlavī Jāmī, which are titled Haft Awrang or Seven Thrones and were composed in 1483. The poem tells the medieval Islamic version of the well-known story of Prophet Yūsuf or Joseph who was sold into slavery and Zulaykhā, the wife of his master, an Egyptian official named Potiphar.

The naskh script, which is evident in EASTMS S294 is the common form used with Arabic and to write the Qu’rān and administrative documents. The term literally means to copy and reflects the careful process of transcribing texts. Also known as naskhi, it is a rounded, neat and aesthetically well-balanced script that lacks serifs. Accordingly, it is easy to read even for modern readers. It is this legibility and clarity of form that makes it particularly suitable as the standard script for the holy book. Naskh was one of the first scripts developed for Arabic during the tenth century and was subsequently adapted for printing. It is still widely used and features as the standard computer script.

Ref: Page showing the naskh script and gold borders around the columns of text. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, EASTMS S294.

The Qu’rān is central to Islam and is used in prayers during Eid. Like all Islamic texts, it is read from right to left. EASTMS S294 also features a fore-edge flap, which protects the edges of the pages from damage when stored horizontally (rather than vertically), as was the custom with Islamic manuscripts. In accordance with tradition, the Qu’rān is written in Arabic and not translated due to the language’s sacred nature. However, it has been interpreted into other languages, such as Te Reo Māori, which appear alongside the Arabic text thereby enabling parallel reading.

Ref: Detail of the fore-edge flap that protects the edges of the pages when not in use. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, EASTMS S294.

Traditionally the depiction of human and animal forms in Islam was avoided because figurative images were perceived to be offensive to Allah, who is seen to hold domain over creation. However, with the spread of Islam during the seventh century, the existing figurative artistic traditions of other countries influenced the development of Islamic art and writing, including through the inclusion of figurative representations in secular written works. Figurative images remained excluded (and continue to be) from religious books, most notably the Qu’rān, as well as religious art and architecture.

The inclusion of figurative imagery is evident in Yūsuf va Zulaykhā, which contains three jewel-like painted miniatures with intricate compositions. This includes the one shown earlier on in this post of the ascension night of Muhammad with a winged horse called Burāq and the one below, which depicts Zulaykhā and her servants wearing highly colourful and ornate clothes. During Eid, it is common practice for people to wear their best or newly purchased clothes as a way of signalling spiritual renewal. This references the Prophet Muhammad, who wore his best cloak for both Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The latter festival, which is generally known as Big Eid, occurs two months after Eid al-Fitr and marks the culmination of the hajj or pilgrimage rites at Minā, Saudi Arabia.

Ref: Page showing script and miniature of Zulaykhā and her servants in a walled city with views of buildings and lush vegetation. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, EASTMS S297.

In preparation for this display, which ran from the 7 June - 2 July 2019, both manuscripts were digitised and are available on Kura Heritage Collections Online.

Author: Dr Natasha Barrett, Senior Curator Archives and Manuscripts, Heritage Collections

Bibliography/further reading

Blair, Sheila S., (2006), Islamic calligraphy. Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press.

Daneshgar, Majid (2018), Middle Eastern and Islamic Manuscripts held at Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, New Zealand.

Lowry, Glenn D. and Nemazee, Susan (1988), A Jeweler’s Eye: Islamic Arts of the Book from the Vever Collection. USA: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Smithsonian Institution).

Kurānu tapu: te kuhinga Arapi me te whakamāoritanga. Pukapuka 1 (wāhanga 1-15) / The Holy Qur'an: Arabic text and Māori translation. Volume 1 (parts 1-15). (2008). Surrey: Islam International Publications. 


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