Group for Experimental Methods in Humanistic Research
at Columbia University

Muslim World Manuscript Project

  • Manan Ahmed
  • Sadegh Ansari
  • Zeinab Azarbadegan
  • Olivia Clemens
  • Mahmood Gharavi
  • Janet Gertz
  • Matthew Gillman
  • Caitlin Goodman
  • Peter Magierski
  • Sean Quimby
  • Jane Siegel
updates ↓

01/01/18 Muslim World Manuscript Project receives $500,000 from the CLIR Hidden Collections Mellon Grant
02/01/18 Job ad placed for a Cataloging Librarian

XPMethod’s involvement with MWMP grows out of the work undertaken by us on Digital Repatriation and Dark Archives. For some of the ideas and conversation behind that broader impetus, see the first meeting in Mumbai on free archives and shadow libraries and the second meeting in Lahore on architectures of knowledge. The first event for this project is a 3-day conference. You can learn the details here.

Aims of the MWMP

  • To create a unified catalog for all of these collections, available via OPenn, CLIO, Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and Digital Public Library of America.
  • To digitize the approximately 150,000 manuscript pages and make them available for wider scholarly consumption. Under the CLIR Grant, we will have full digitization of 576 manuscripts and 827 paintings/disbound leaves.

Project Team:

  • Sadegh Ansari (PhD Candidate, MESAAS), Science in the medieval Islamicate world
  • Zeinab Azarbadegan (PhD Candidate, History), Iran-Ottoman socioeconomic relations
  • Olivia Clemens (PhD Candidate, Art History), Islamic manuscript collecting practices in the U.S.
  • Mahmood Gharavi (PhD Candidate, Religion), Shi’i intellectual thought in the early Islamic period
  • Matthew Gillman (PhD Candidate, Art History), Safavid illustrated manuscripts
  • Sean Quimby (Director), Rare Book & Manuscript Library
  • Maria Oldal (Head of Collections Management), Rare Book & Manuscript Library
  • Jane Siegel (Librarian for Rare Books & Bibliographic Services), Rare Book & Manuscript Library
  • Peter Magierski (Middle East & Islamic Studies Librarian), Columbia University Libraries
  • Manan Ahmed (Assistant Professor, History), Columbia University
  • Mitch Fraas (Curator), University of Pennsylvania Libraries
  • Janet Gertz (Project Director, RBML), Columbia University
  • Caitlin Goodman (Curator), Free Library of Philadelphia

Advisory Group:

  • Manan Ahmed, Columbia University
  • Paul Cobb, University of Pennsylvania
  • Jamal Elias, University of Pennsylvania
  • Evyn Kropf, University of Michigan
  • Yael Rice, Amherst College
  • Tunc Sen, Columbia University
  • Avinoam Shalem, Columbia University
  • Marianna Shreve Simpson, Independent Scholar
  • Sarah R. bin Tyeer, Columbia University

Collection Details

There is a substantial collection of Muslim-world manuscripts housed at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library (RBML), the Free Library of Philadelphia and University of Pennysylvania. These manuscripts are in Perso-Arabic or related scripts. Though part of various collections, these manuscripts constitute a “dark” archive, for they are either uncatalogued or only partially catalogued. We aim to catalog, digitize and make them openly available– in stages.

The collection can be subdivided into six groups:

At Columbia

  1. Smith & Plimpton Collection Some 600 boxes containing manuscripts. Around 1200 manuscripts deal with “mathematics”. David Eugene Smith was a professor of Mathematics at Teachers College, Columbia University (1901-1923). He collected mathematics manuscripts, and his whole collection is held at RBML. Plimpton was a manuscript collector mainly interested in educational manuscripts.
  2. Jeffery Collection A collection of Qur’anic manuscripts, roughly 50. Arthur Jeffery was a professor of Semitic Languages at Columbia University and the Union Theological Seminary.
  3. X Manuscript Collection Purchased by or gifted to RBML since the 1930s, most of which are bound books. There are roughly 179 manuscripts, most of which have been poorly catalogued with widely diverging systems of transliteration.
  4. Persian Lithograph Collection This includes (but is not limited to) Saeed Nafisi’s library, purchased in 1960s. The collection is dispersed throughout Butler’s shelves, offsite storage, or at RBML itself. Saeed Nafisi was a renowned poet, translator and professor of Persian literature in early-twentieth-century Iran.
  5. The Arabic Papyri Collection RBML is in possession of an undisclosed papyri collection, which requires investigation and cataloguing.
  6. The Burke Collection A set of 26 manuscripts in Arabic script. They were probably collected by the missionaries connected to the Union Theological Seminary.

At Free Library

  1. Anne Baker Lewis, the widow of prominent Philadelphia collector John Frederick Lewis, donated his collection to the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1936. At its heart is a fine selection of Arabic and Persian illuminated manuscripts, along with examples of Coptic, Indo­Persian, Samaritan, Syriac, and Turkish calligraphy, and more than 800 paintings on disbound leaves and cuttings. There are works of astronomy, history, philosophy, religion, law, and literature, including two dozen copies of the Qur’an and eleven of Firdawsi’s epic poem, the Shahnama.

At University of Pennsylvania Library

  1. The University of Pennsylvania’s holdings come from the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University, and date to early 20th century collectors like John Frederick Lewis and Mayer Sulzberger. The majority of these manuscripts are relatively unknown to scholars and include commentaries on the Qur’an, collections of Hadith, Islamic law texts, astrological and magical manuscripts, Persian poetry, and hybrid Arabic­Coptic Christian texts.


We have received a joint grant for $500,000 from CLIR Hidden Collections Mellon Grant for this project. Details here.

Faculty in support of the project at Columbia (alphabetically)

  • Manan Ahmed, Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Center for International History
  • Courtney Bender, Chair of the Department of Religion
  • Richard Bulliet, Emeritus Professor of Pre-Modern Islamic History
  • Elizabeth Blackmar, Professor of American Urban and Social History
  • Katherine Ewing, Professor of Religion
  • Najam Haider, Associate Professor of Religion
  • Wael Hallaq, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities, MESAAS
  • Katharina Ivanyi, Professor of Religion
  • Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Chair, Chair of Department of History
  • Mana Kia, Assistant Professor of Indo-Persian Studies, MESAAS
  • Sheldon Pollock, Arvind Raghunathan Professor of Sanskrit and South Asian Studies, Chair of MESAAS
  • Alexandre Roberts, Assistant Professor of Byzantine History
  • George Saliba, Professor of Islamic and Arabic Science, MESAAS
  • Avinoam Shalem, Riggio Professor of the History of the Arts of Islam
  • Pamela Smith, Seth Low Professor of History, Director of the Center for Science and Society

Department and Institutional Partners at Columbia (ongoing list)

  • Department of History, Columbia University
  • Department of Religion, Columbia University
  • Department of Art History, Columbia University
  • Department of Anthropolgy, Columbia University
  • Center for International History, Columbia University
  • History in Action
  • Office of the University Librarian, Columbia University
  • Office of the Provost, Columbia University
  • Center for Teaching and Learning, Columbia University