"I was afraid we have lost it forever until a team of young Mosulis preserved it. Court records of Ottoman and post-Ottoman Mosul." @MosulEye

Poetry (al-shiir) is the archive (al-diwan) of Arabs…

— Ibn Faris (d. 394)¹

Oriental nations are no longer able to take care of their own literary treasures. This is not owing to a want of veneration for them but to apathy and imbecility. If you describe to them the telegraph or a steamer, they may be heard saying: “we observed since many years that the Franks لعنهم الله purchase every old book they can find, and these are the fruits of their study of our literature. But الله اكبر عليهم (Anglice) God will d—n them all the same”. I once sent my servant at Damascus to return a book which had been lent to me. He was a Christian of mount Libanon [sic] and as he passed through the bazar, two zealous champions of the Islam assailed him and administered to him a sound thrashing for profaning the sacred volume (it was a history) by his touch. Yet they allow their books to rot, to be devoured by insects and destroyed by neglect, though a Moslim [sic] never willfully rears up a book. Even the best informed among the men of the old school take a very erroneous view of their own literature: they value only the latest and vilest productions of scholastic learning. As a general rule they place no value on old books and generally on works containing facts, and take little pains to preserve them, their destruction therefore proceeds with great rapidity. In some oriental towns you find bags and bags of odd leaves of the most valuable volumes, which if complete would give occupation to a learned society of Europe for a quarter of a century. Under these circumstances the duty of taking care of the patrimony of out eastern brethren devolves upon the enlightened public of Europe, and every man who finds an opportunity ought to secure as many good books as he can.

Aloys Sprenger (1857)²

Due to the stinginess of [book-collection] owners and superintendents, on one hand, and the unreliability of book borrowers, on the other, [books] remain locked behind iron doors, left at the mercy of moth and consumed by dust. What is the use of so many books if no one reads them?

Butrus al-Bustani (1859)³

Governments in both India and Pakistan have demanded the restitution of the Queen’s gaudy diamond—a claim needing to be publicly rejected as recently as February 2013 by a sitting British prime minister on a visit to India—but so far as I know there is no record of any state in the subcontinent showing any interest in the restitution of the Mughal library. 

— Aamir Mufti (2016)  

In her encyclopedic study of Urdu women’s writing in early twentieth century India, the historian Gail Minault registered an archival problem: “To find women’s newspapers and journals… requires assiduous detective work… [this study] represents not only the usual methods of historical and literary research, but also a personal odyssey of discovery.”⁵ In a great service to future historians, Minault noted the specific libraries and archives where she located each periodical she read. Besides the usual scholarly repositories, these places included private homes and second-hand bookshops across India and Pakistan. Consequently, very little of her research took place in that clearinghouse of South Asian historiography, London. As is now well known, Europe’s stockpiling of Oriental reading material was part and parcel of its imperial practice in India and elsewhere. These archives in Europe’s capitals are well-organized, relatively well-funded, and—for researchers in the Global North—easily accessible (though thanks to admirable if not ironic digitization efforts, like the British Library’s Endangered Archives Project, some of the same magazines Minault located are now available to be read in high resolution online). 

Far too often “imperial,” “global,” “international,” and “world” histories rest exclusively on these archives of empire. But what is left behind? Where do the reading practices and scholarly institutions of philologists and archivists outside of Europe fit into theories and critiques of “world literature” and “world history”? What, for example, do we make of Khuda Bakhsh’s library? In the late nineteenth century, Bakhsh, a barrister in the provincial northern Indian city of Patna had on his payroll an Arab by the name of Muhammad Maqi. Paid 50 rupees a month plus commission, Maqi traveled across West Asia collecting manuscripts for his patron. “The reminiscences of this Arab seeker after books,” one enchanted colonial observer suggested about Maqi, “had they been written with fidelity, might now be reckoned amongst the most lively and entertaining of personal memoirs.”⁷ Today, the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library is a treasure trove of rare manuscripts sought by researchers from around the world. The Bengali historian Jadunath Sarkar, whose own controversial accounts of the Mughal Empire relied largely on documents and manuscripts housed in India itself, wrote that the Bakhsh’s “was one of the greatest authorities on Islamic bibliography.”⁸ In our accounts of collection and preservation, room must be made for histories that depart from the purportedly scientific and the perennially white. "One night," Khuda Baksh, recounted: 

I dreamt that the lane near the Library was filled with a dense crowd of people. When I came out of my house they cried out, 'The Prophet is on a visit to your library, and you are not there to show him round.' I hastened to the manuscript room and found him gone. But there were two manuscripts of the Hadis, lying open upon the table. These, the people said, had been read by The Prophet.  

Today, according to Sarkar, these volumes contain a note that they are never to be removed from the library. Bakhsh also shared a close relationship to that vast network of Orientalists in Europe. Indeed many non-Europeans, as the proceedings of the many International Orientalist Congresses in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can attest, corresponded, assisted, and translated the work of Europe’s Arabists and Indologists. In Beirut, the Jesuit philologist Louis Cheikho, known best for his efforts to document the Christian presence in the history of the Arabic language, was another non-European whose impact on Orientalism as a discipline is undeniable if often unacknowledged. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Cheikho went to India in search of manuscripts for his own collection. On his final day in Bombay he connected with one Sheik Shirazi, “the biggest book-dealer in India… the King of Books,” from whom he purchased more than a hundred books and manuscripts.10 Many of these manuscripts were in Persian and today remain housed in Beirut’s Bibliothèque Orientale. Or what of the library of the American University of Beirut? Founded as Syrian Protestant College in 1866, the university’s library constitutes one of the most important collections of modern Arab thought. By virtue of its place and age, the library was a subscriber to many of the Arab world’s most important periodicals from their inception. None of the above-mentioned institutions emerged out of state-patronage and their collections—like those of London, Paris, and Washington D.C.—are clearly part of a global history of ideas. If we follow the making of these collections closely and survey their content, an intellectual history is revealed that is not readily encountered in Europe’s storehouses of conquest, plunder, and theft. For the West, the East—or South—was not a place of living ideas. Its intellectual history, if it had one at all, was confined to its ancient past. The printed matter of the modern Arab or Indian or Chinese mind was simply the bearer of sedition and rebellion or a vehicle for propaganda and profit, never an arena of theory or thinking. Therefore, to write a new history of these ideas, a new archive must be raised. How to raise this new archive, much of it now decaying in Third World libraries that are themselves crumbling under the conditions of structural readjustment or withering away thanks to a growing chauvinist disregard for particular pasts, is the task before us.


1 Cited in: Ignác Goldziher, “The Arabic Tribes and Islam,” in S.M. Stern, ed., Muslim Studies (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2006) 49.  

2 Aloys Sprenger, A Catalogue of the Bibliotheca Orientalis Sprengeriana (Giessen: Wilhem Keller, 1857) v.  

3 Cited in: Ami Ayalon, The Arabic Print Revolution: Cultural Production and Mass Readership (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) 115.  

4 Aamir Mufti, Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literitures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016) 46.

5 Gail Minault, Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998) 106.

6 Jadunath Sarkar, “Khuda Bakhsh, The Indian Bodley,” The Modern Review 4:3 (1908) 249. Reprinted in slightly expanded and edited form in, Sarkar, Studies in Mughal India (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1920) 270-281. For more on the making of the library, the origins of which lie in the book collection of Muhammad Bakhsh, Khuda’s father, see: S. Khuda Bakhsh, My Father: His Life and Reminiscences (Calcutta: The Baptist Mission Press, 1909) and chapter six of David Boyk’s carefully researched dissertation “Provincial Urbanity: Intellectuals and Public Life in Patna, 1880-1930” (Ph.D Dissertation, UC Berkeley, 2015).  

7 V.C. Scott O’Conner, An Eastern Library (Glasgow: Robert Maclehose & Co. Ltd., 1920) 7.

8 Ibid. 247, For more on Sarkar, particularly his own efforts to collect historical documents, see: Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Sarkar’s method was tied to his own cultural nationalism, exemplified by his comment that “India cannot afford to remain an intellectual pariah, beggar for crumbs at the doors of Oxford or Cambridge, Paris or Vienna,” quoted in Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012) 10.

9 Sarkar, “Khuda Bakhsh,”249.

10 Louis Cheikho, “Min Bayrut ila al-Hind,” al-Mashriq 16 (1913) 265.

Esmat Elhalaby
Rice University

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