Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts: Book Review

Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. By Kinga Dévényi with Munif Abdul-Fattah and Katalin Fiedler. Islamic Manuscripts and Books, vol. 9. Leiden, Boston: Brill; Budapest: Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 2016. Pp. 554. $175.

The Ottoman Empire maintained a rather tenuous hegemony over what is now Hungary for about 150 years (1541–1699). During that time, the influence of Islam was extended throughout the region and a sizeable Muslim population remained even after the retreat of Ottoman power. Proof of this influence is evident in the number of manuscripts in Arabic found in various institutions in the modern state of Hungary. A large part of this legacy now has been made available in the recently published catalog of Arabic manuscripts held by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The authors have done a valuable service to the field by making these works accessible to students of Islamic history, Arabic literary history, and bibliography.

The Academy of Sciences was founded in 1830 by a group of Hungarian notables led by Count István Széchenyi (1791–1860). Shortly thereafter, Count Jószef Teleki (1790–1855) donated his 30,000 books and manuscripts to the academy, forming the basis of its present collection. While the academy’s library apparently contained books and manuscripts relating to the East (broadly defined) from at least the early nineteenth century, the decision to establish a distinct “Oriental Collection” dates only to the middle of the twentieth century. Although the number of Arabic manuscripts held by the academy’s library is relatively small (179 volumes containing a total of 306 works), it is the largest in Hungary. The earliest manuscript in the collection, on horsemanship and veterinary science, dates to 757/1356; the most recent two are from 1323/1905. One hundred forty-seven are dated works; some 46 date to the period of Ottoman occupation of Hungary and one (Arab O. 145/2) was actually composed in Buda.

The catalog opens with a brief history of the academy and its library, detailing the origins of the so-called “Oriental Collection” in particular. An account of the cataloguing efforts devoted to the Arabic manuscripts over the past century is also given here. The catalog proper is organized according to subject. Manuscripts focused on the “traditional” Islamic sciences—Qurʾān, ḥadīth, qurʾānic sciences, theology, and jurisprudence—are first, followed by sections devoted to mysticism, history, literature, the language sciences (syntax, morphology, lexicography, rhetoric), philosophy, logic, miscellanea (including encyclopediae, education, the classification of the sciences, horsemanship, and mathematics) and, finally, Christian books. Within each section, the works are arranged according to the death dates of the authors of the original works followed by the commentaries on those works also in chronological order. Anonymous works are located at the end of each section. There are eight useful indices: titles, authors, scribes, owners, dated manuscripts, place names, call numbers, and titles in collected works.

Descriptions of the individual works are extensive and detailed. They include the customary notes regarding extent and condition, page dimensions, paper characteristics, ink colors, script style and so forth. Incipits, explicits, and colophons are given in the original languages (some Ottoman Turkish and Persian works are found here as well). In addition, other very useful information is also presented. The dimensions of the written surface in each manuscript are given, as are the names of their various owners. Many of the manuscripts were bound or re-bound at some point and descriptions of the design and condition of these are offered. Mention is also made when marginal notes are present and the languages of such notations are indicated. When a work has received conservation treatment, that fact is also noted. While the people whose names are found on the owners’ stamps and in the inscriptions are often unidentifiable at present, the creation of such records may prove valuable in the future. References to the standard bio-bibliographical works in the field—Brockelmann, Ziriklī, Kaḥḥālah—are provided, giving information about where additional copies of the works are to be found. The catalogue is enhanced by 92 illustrations of high quality that provide an idea of the appearance of the manuscripts and bindings.

Most importantly perhaps, when it is known under what circumstances a specific manuscript entered the collection, that information is presented—important for establishing provenance. Some of the early acquisitions were the result of “surplus” volumes being offered to the Academy by other Hungarian libraries and educational institutions. Others were donated by people of varying degrees of notoriety, from anonymous donors, to Hungarian nobility, citizens, and public servants, to the Turkish-Hungarian Imam ʿAbd al-Laṭīf (d. 1946), to Hungarian scholars of Islam and the Middle East such as Ármin Vámbéry (1832–1913), among others. More than a quarter of the 306 manuscripts—78 in all—were obtained from Rafael Danglmajer, a Hungarian dealer in antiquities. According to Dévényi, he “seems to have acquired the Arabic manuscripts mainly from the members of the Muslim community in Hungary after the closure of their places of worship in 1949” (p. 7). In addition, there is a small number of manuscripts from North India and West Sumatra, donated by Gábor Korvin, a professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.

In view of the descriptions of the manuscripts, it is clear that the collection is comprised primarily of “working texts,” that is, manuscripts that were used frequently, if not daily, for study and teaching or as standard references for questions of language, points of law, or religion. A large number of the manuscripts are incomplete, either having been damaged in the course of their lives or having not been completed by their copyists. The number of undated manuscripts might also suggest that many of these works were copied by madrasa students for whom the date of completion was not a matter of importance. But this point is what makes the collection so interesting, for the works represented provide a sort of literary-historical map, not only of Islam and its practice in the region that is today Hungary, but also of Hungarian intellectual engagement with the study of Islam.

This being the first printed catalog of Arabic manuscripts to be published by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (an electronic catalog has been available since 2008), it is valuable for adding to the corpus of Arabic manuscripts recorded in other catalogs and bibliographical sources. The authors have done a thorough job of describing the manuscripts in the collection and putting them in their historical contexts. The level of detail in the descriptions of the marginalia is especially noteworthy. In terms of content, the catalog holds to a high standard of bibliographic description and scholarly evaluation.

Unfortunately, the publisher provided only an electronic version of the work for review so it has been impossible to fully evaluate the physical quality of the volume. The catalog would have benefited from more careful copyediting, but the errors found do not detract substantively from its overall value. The work should be seriously considered by librarians whose institutions own comprehensive collections of Arabic manuscript registries as well as those that focus on subjects such as Islamic art history. Overall, an admirable addition to the literature.

Karl R. Schaefer
Drake University