From the Centre to the Margins

The Transfer of Books Across the Early Modern Western Indian Ocean        [DYNTRAN WORKING PAPER 24, May 2017]

by Christopher D. BAHL

The early modern Western Indian Ocean (1400-1700) represented a transregional space with various historical phenomena of circulation. Movements of people and goods linked the Red Sea in the West via the Persian Gulf and across the baḥr al-hind to the coasts of Western India in the East. A close reading of the fifteenth century biographical work al-Ḍawʾ al-lāmiʿ of the Egyptian scholar Muḥammad al-Sakhāwī (d. 902/1497) uncovers a recurring pathway which was traversed by numerous groups: from Egypt to the Hijaz, Yemen, Gujarat, the Deccan and back. In addition to trade and pilgrimage, these connections were just as much sustained through textual practices, for example the circulation and transmission of Islamicate texts in the form of manuscripts. Particularly prominent were Arabic canonical works from across the Islamicate disciplines such as grammar, lexicography and law. Therefore, apart from prosopographical works of the period, these cultural exchanges can also be studied based on surviving artefacts of manuscript cultures across the Western Indian Ocean.

Connections across the early modern Western Indian Ocean. Map Data copyright 2016 Google

These manuscript cultures changed over time which can partly be traced in the modifications of manuscript transfers between travelling scholars and courtly groups. These modifications in turn are evident in paratextual traces left by users on their manuscripts, such as prefaces, colophons, ownership notes etc. In this blog, I will focus on a sample of manuscript notes to argue for a multiplication of frameworks of manuscript transfers from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. This multiplication can be studied by comparing Islamicate works from an Egyptian scholar of the fifteenth century with manuscripts of the al-ʿAydarūs kinship group from the seventeenth century. Within the framework of the DYNTRAN project, this case study formulates an idea of how the transmission of books and the authority over them occurs in different societal contexts over time.

Textual compositions of travelling scholars

The travelling scholar who moves around in search of knowledge and to offer his skills is a prominent socio-cultural phenomenon not only for the early modern period. Yet, in the context of the fifteenth century Western Indian Ocean such transregional peregrinations multiply. This can be explained with the general aspirations of nascent Islamicate polities across the subcontinent after the disintegration of the Delhi sultanate at the beginning of the fifteenth century (Asher/Talbot 2006, pp. 84-97). Subsequent sultans from Gujarat, Bengal and the Deccan were eager to attract scholars, administrators and litterateurs to their courts. Although learned elites from Delhi found new employment at these courts, their masters also looked across the Arabian Sea for recruitment. How such transregional academic opportunities played out can be exemplified by the travels of the Egyptian scholar Muḥammad Abū Bakr al-Damāmīnī (d. 828/1424) (al-Sakhāwī 1934-37, Vol. VII/ pp. 184-185). At the beginning of the fifteenth century he travelled from the Red Sea region across Yemen, Gujarat and finally ended up in the Deccan. On the way, he stopped at different places to either serve as a teacher in a mosque such as in Zabīd in Yemen or to offer the skills he had honed back home in Egypt as a litterateur to the rulers of Gujarat and the Deccan. Three of his commentaries on earlier standard works in Arabic grammar rose to prominence during the following centuries, each composed by al-Damāmīnī as a literary offering to one of these sultans.

His latest known work, the grammar treatise al-Manhal al-ṣāfiy fī sharḥ al-wāfiy is a commentary on Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Balkhī’s versified treatise al-Wāfiy (d. 8th/14th century). In this case, the interplay of the paratexts preface and colophon, as well as the intertextual elements of main text and gloss signify the textual transactions of a circulating scholar. When al-Damāmīnī arrived in Gujarat he encountered many students who were fond of the Wāfiy, but complained about insurmountable difficulties while studying it. So, his composition became a direct response to this. However, the actual transcription and transmission of the work took place during his travels from Gujarat further on into the Bahmanī realm in the Deccan. The capital Ahsānābād, today Gulbarga, is described as a pillar of Islamic orthodoxy governed by the strong sultan, Aḥmad Shāh Bahmanī. He became the addressee of the work elaborated in a long eulogy praising his achievements and qualities. In the preface the transmission of the work is fully articulated as a literary offering to the sultan. This was a common method to receive patronage from royal courts across the Islamicate world and beyond. For scholars such as al-Damāmīnī this meant access to patronage and a successful continuation of his academic career.

al-Damāmīnī, al-Manhal al-ṣāfiy fī sharḥ al-wāfiy, MS IO Bijapur 4, British Library, London, fols. 3v-4

The form of transmission of al-Balkhī’s Wāfiy is explained in the preface of al-Damāmīnī’s commentary. But it also becomes clear visually: surviving manuscript versions exhibit an intertextual interplay of al-Balkhī’s treatise in bold black script (or often also in red ink) as a segmented verbatim quotation with each segment followed by a comment of al-Damāmīnī in a less bold script in black ink (MS IO Bijapur 4, British Library, London). Thereby he provides an overall explication including lexicographical details and grammatical phenomena. More specifics about his composition can be gained from the colophon of the manuscript on the last folio. Accordingly, al-Damāmīnī wrote this commentary on the island of Muhāʾim in al-Hind during a time frame that started at the end of Ramadan in 825/1422 until the 21st of Dhū l-Ḥijja of the same year. The transmission (naql) of the work into this fair copy (al-mubayyaḍa) was begun in the city Ahsanābād on the 23rd of Ṣafar in 826/1423 and the transcription was completed in the same year. What emerges from these paratextual elements of preface and colophon is a complex personalised form of book transmission that was instrumental in bringing about the transregional transfer of knowledge in the form of a grammar work from a scholar to a court.

Transregional travels of manuscripts

Over the next centuries, the political map of the Deccan was redrawn. The Bahmanīs disappeared and the Deccani sultanates emerged. A survey of manuscript collections in the Deccan suggests that the transoceanic flow of manuscripts intensified by the seventeenth century. Among the groups responsible for this is the al-Aydarūs kinship group which rose to prominence during this period. In Tarīm in the Ḥaḍramawt these Sayyids created a locality of belonging through the place of burial of their eponymous ancestor (Ho 2006). However, as Engseng Ho argued, this also became a place of return during the following centuries when their social endeavours brought succeeding generations to India, East Africa and the Indonesian archipelago. While doing so they created a corpus of texts – travelling texts which mirrored all the things that mattered for such highly exclusive and mobile communities.

Ibn al-Ḥumām, Ṭaḥrīr, MS IO Bijapur 330A, British Library, London, fol. 1

The al-ʿAydarūs family network became crucial for the movement of other Islamicate texts as well. By the seventeenth century they represented a prominent circulating community and had established themselves as temporary courtiers at the Deccani sultanates, especially in Bijapur (Eaton 1978, pp. 125-129), where these texts survived in the royal library of the ʿĀdil Shāhī dynasty. One of the manuscripts that travelled with them was the Taḥrīr on the principles of Ḥanafī jurisprudence by Ibn al-Humām (d. 861/1457), an Egyptian scholar (MS IO Bijapur 330A, British Library, London, fol. 1re). As a Persian note on the first folio states, the book was bought out of the inherited property of a certain ʿAlam Allāh and was integrated into the royal library of Bijapur in 1023/1614. According to the colophon the scribe Ḥasan Muḥammad b. Aḥmad finished this transcription in the month Dhū l-Ḥijja, 988/1580 after the afternoon prayer in front of the Kaʿba (tujāha al-kaʿba) in Mecca. Finally, an ownership statement discloses the full name of the previous owner as the important learned figure and courtier ʿAlam Allāh b. ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Makkī al-Ḥanafī al-ʿAydarūsī (MS IO Bijapur 330A, British Library, London, fol. 342v). The technical term that is used in this case is fāza, meaning to achieve or obtain something, combined with the expression of ownership and the name of the owner. No other transmission notes relating to him can be found on the manuscript. His ownership note together with the Persian note from the royal library describe the transfer of this manuscript from a scholar figure to a courtly collection. This manuscript is among eight specimen from two different members of the al-ʿAydarūs kinship group which ended up in the royal library in this way (Loth 1881). Their paratextual elements provide the connective trajectory between the composers and the copyists across the Red Sea region while the court in Bijapur presents its own mark of acquisition completing the chain of transfers.

Ibn al-Ḥumām, Ṭaḥrīr, MS IO Bijapur 330A, British Library, London, fol. 342v


From the centre to the margins

Diachronic changes in the interplay of paratextual elements from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries point to modified frameworks in the transfer of books. The geographical connections and thus the route of movement remained the same and the intensified flow of manuscripts can be traced in the multiplication of circulating communities, among them the al-ʿAydarūs family. However, a qualitative change is foreshadowed in the emerging patterns of transfer. By the seventeenth century the textual transfer is conducted through the impression of an ownership seal of both parties. The code of exchange was externalised as it moved from colophons and prefaces to ownership notes and seals, from the central text to the marginalia. The paradigm of a highly, personalised transmission of a work is paralleled by acquisition and transfer through paratextual means. Thereby the practice of disseminating books became simplified. These changing cultural practices suggest that the transregional connections from the Red Sea region to Yemen, Gujarat and the Deccan condensed throughout the early modern period, sustained by multiple overlaid social networks. Their social actors expanded their strategies in the transmission of texts which ultimately mirrored an increase in the authority that names and their connotations played in the transregional transmission of books.

by Christopher D. Bahl (May 2017)
SOAS, University of London


  • Asher, C. B./Talbot, C. (2006): India before Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Al-Damāmīnī, Muḥammad. al-Manhal al-sāfiy fī sharḥ al-wāfiy, MS IO Bijapur 4, British Library, London.
  • Eaton, R. M. (1978): Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700. Social roles of Sufis in medieval India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.
  • Ho, E. (2006): The graves of Tarim. Genealogy and mobility across the Indian Ocean. Berkeley: University of California Press (The California world history library, 3).
  • Ibn al-Humām, al-Taḥrīr, MS IO B330A, British Library, London.
  • Loth, O. (1877): A Catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts in the library of the India Office. London.
  • Al-Sakhāwī, Muḥammad (1934-1937): Al-Ḍawʾ al-lāmiʿ li-ahl al-qarn al-tāsiʿ. 12 vols. Cairo: Maktabat al-Qudsī.

To quote this publication:

Christopher D. Bahl, “From the centre to the margins: The transfer of books across the early modern Western Indian Ocean”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, no. 24, online edition, May 2017, available at:

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