Concise Collection History

by Evyn Kropf

The Islamic Manuscripts Collection at the University of Michigan consists of 1,095 volumes (and a small number of single leaves) [1] dating from the 8th to the 20th century CE and carrying roughly 1,791 texts chiefly in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish. 3 volumes carry texts in Chagatai Turkish (Isl. Mss. 415, 447, 450), 1 volume carries a text in Panjabi (Isl. Ms.853), and 1 volume carries a text in Maranao (Isl. Ms. 839).

For the most part the manuscripts were produced in the Islamicate lands of the Middle East and North Africa (along with areas of Europe, Central Asia, and India formerly included in the Arab, Ottoman, Persian and Mughal empires), though Egyptian Christian (Coptic) communities and Filipino Islamic communities are also represented (see Isl. Ms. 219, Isl. Ms. 656, and Isl. Ms. 839). Manuscript production of the lands of the Ottoman Empire is especially well-represented.

Subjects covered by the texts carried in the manuscripts include the Qur’an and sciences (exegesis, readings, recitation, etc.), collections and studies in the science of ḥadīth, and works of theology, jurisprudence, Sufism, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, philology, poetry, belles-lettres, history and geography.

Artistry in calligraphy, binding, illumination and illustration is also well-represented, calligraphy in particular. Among the exquisite calligraphic specimens (employing poetry, ḥadīth, prayers, etc.) are pieces by Ottoman masters Şeyh Hamdullah of Amasya (d.1519 or 20), Hafız Osman Efendi (d.1698), Seyyid Abdullah of Yedikule (d.1731), Yesari Mehmed Esad Efendi (d.1798), Mahmud Celâleddin Efendi (d.1829), and Hasan Rıza Efendi (d.1920). Four albums (Isl. Mss. 438, 439, 440, 441) likely assembled and bound for the Ottoman sultan Abdülhamit II (r.1876-1909) together carry another 158 calligraphic specimens exhibiting a range of illumination and decorative paper techniques.

Numerous manuscript notes document transmission, reading / study, borrowing, purchase, ownership and collecting as well as births, deaths, travel, etc. A number of transmission certificates (ijāzāt) appear. Several waqf collections are represented by waqf statements or waqf seals. Seal impressions often accompany the many ownership notes.

Overall, the collection offers a vast range of raw material for philologists and historians of various disciplines, including Islamic social history, knowledge transmission and acquisition, manuscript production and ownership, and the arts of the book.

The collection ranks among the largest and most significant Islamic manuscript collections in North America, after those at Princeton, UCLA, Yale, the Library of Congress, and Harvard.

The bulk of the manuscripts were acquired via purchase in the 1920s and 1930s, beginning with the Abdul Hamid and Tiflis manuscripts in 1924, the Yahuda manuscripts in 1926, and the Tracy W. McGregor manuscripts in 1933-34. The purchase of the Abdul Hamid, Tiflis, and Yahuda manuscripts was orchestrated by the University of Michigan’s Francis W. Kelsey (1858-1927) with funds provided (initially anonymously) by Horace H. Rackam (1858-1933). Acquired as having been once part of the personal collection of Sultan Abdülhamit II (1842-1918),[2] the Abdul Hamid manuscripts were first offered to Kelsey in 1923 by Cairo-based antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman.[3] In 1924 as the Abdul Hamid purchase was coming together, the Tiflis manuscripts were offered to Kelsey by the British Museum, upon which they'd apparently been pressed by the British Foreign Office "without adequate expert examination."[4] Kelsey also facilitated the subsequent Yahuda acquisition in 1926, when a colleague at the British Museum brought to his attention an offer brought by the famous Orientalist and manuscript collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda to purchase a number of manuscripts from his brother, the bookseller and scholar Isaac Benjamin S.E. Yahuda.[5] In 1933-34 the Tracy W. McGregor manuscripts were acquired by University of Michigan professor L. C. Karpinski (1878-1956) with funds from the McGregor fund of Detroit. A number of these manuscripts were formerly in the possession of Dr. Max Meyerhof, historian and ophthalmologist who resided in Cairo, Egypt until his death in 1945.

The manuscripts of the Walter Koelz, Nuttall, Stephen Spaulding, Horace Miner, Heyworth-Dunne, Sulaiman, and Frank Schulte Collections were acquired separately, by purchase or donation (even from other departments within the University), mainly during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Notable are the F.E. Nuttall manuscripts, which reached the library in 1965-68,[6] and were likely once in the personal collection of Frank E. Nuttall (1875-1943), a librarian who concluded his career at the University of Manitoba and was known for his collection of Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Hindi books and manuscripts.[7] Also notable are the Heyworth-Dunne manuscripts, purchased by the library in 1950 and formerly part of the personal collection of James Heyworth-Dunne (d.1974), a senior reader in Arabic at SOAS, University of London from 1928-1948, who thereafter became a member of the staff at the Middle East Institute Washington, D.C.[8] These manuscripts were left unaccessioned until 1992-93, when Roberta Dougherty prepared a handlist with detailed inventory cataloguing for each. Research into further details of their provenance is ongoing.

[1] A great number of the manuscripts are multiwork codices; thus, the number of manuscript titles far exceeds the number of volumes.

[2] Evidence for this provenance is somewhat murky, however. The manuscripts are certainly of exquisite quality and were supposedly obtained in Constantinople [Istanbul]  in 1912 by the dealer Tammaro De Marinis who went seeking "any valuable manuscripts that might be being sold out of the estates of the country's former rulers" on behalf of J. Pierpont Morgan. The mark of De Marinis appears in most of the manuscripts. The collection eventually ended up in the hands of Nahman who identified the former owner as one Halis Paşa and offered it as having belong to Sultan Abdülhamit II (1842-1918, r.1876-1909).

[3] For an account of the Abdul Hamid acquisition see Roberta Dougherty, "Islamic Manuscripts at the University of Michigan: Summary of collection history"

[4] See Kelsey's report of the matter on p.10 of "University of Michigan Near East Research Memorandum  no.4, May 16 to July 31, 1924, Constantinople, Turkey, July, 31, 1924" housed in Special Collections administrative files, drawer labeled "Kelsey Material | Sanders’ Papers," file box labeled "Kelsey Memoranda." Upon examination, the bulk of the manuscripts were deemed "so nearly duplicating manuscripts already in the Oriental Department that the Museum would be willing to dispose of them, and wished to give the University of Michigan the first opportunity," again see Memorandum no.4, p.10. For further details on the Tiflis acquisition see Evyn Kropf, "Historical Repair, Recycling and Recovering Phenomena in the Islamic Bindings of the University of Michigan Library: Exploring the Codicological Evidence," In Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding vol. 1, ed. Julia Miller (Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press, 2013): 31-32.

[5] For full details of the Yahuda acquisition see Evyn Kropf, "The Yemeni Manuscripts of the Yahuda Collection at the University of Michigan: Provenance and Acquisition," Chroniques du manuscrit au Yémen no 13 (2012)

[6] At least two volumes were brought from the attic by one Mr. Partington in 1965 (see slips in Isl. Ms. 860 v.2). The Nuttall manuscripts are likely at least partially represented by the “Persian MSS brought from attic by Mr. Partington – Total, May 1, 1968 – 51 v.” referred to in “Islamic and Oriental MSS Mostly Under Local Bibliographic Control” (Special Collections Administrative Files, folder Islamic Manuscripts Acquisitions & General), with the exclusion of the seven manuscripts in Turkish or Arabic.

[7] See the Manitoba Historical Society’s entry for Nuttall in their listing of “Memorable Manitobans” (

[8] University of Michigan. The President's report for 1950-1951. Ann Arbor, MI: The University, 1951, p.261; Behn, Wolfgang. Concise Biographical Companion to Index Islamicus.  Leiden, 2004-2006, p.75 ; Jajko, Edward. "Preliminary inventory to the James Heyworth-Dunne Papers, 1860-1949." Hoover Institution Archives, 1999.