New discoveries in manuscript collections from India

The Royal Asiatic Society has an important collection of manuscripts from India, many of which can be explored through FIHRIST, an online catalogue of Islamic manuscripts in Britain.


FIHRIST does not, however, cover all British collections. The University of Edinburgh’s Persian manuscripts are not included, and the India Office Collections in the British Library are only partly represented. For the India Office, the printed catalogues remain the key.


While examining the Catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts in the Library of the India Office by Otto Loth, published more than a century ago in 1877, we came across a fascinating description of an early Qur’ān dating to the ninth century. Brought to India from the middle east in the Mughal period, the manuscript passed through different collections before being presented to the Library at East India House by Lord Dalhousie in 1853.


The manuscript brought many surprises—although we had to wait for the pandemic to pass and for the British Library to re-open. Aside from the specially made box and elaborate Victorian binding, the first folio presented an astonishing visual medley. The wonderfully austere Kufic writing—typical of most early Qu’rāns—was juxtaposed with elaborate borders decorated in gold, blue and red.



Qur’ān, showing text of the circa ninth century with borders added in India during the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. India Office Collections, British Library, IO Loth 4, folio 2r. Courtesy of the British Library Board.


It was clear that this Qur’ān was treasured, even though it is only a fragment of 20 folios. The reason was not hard to find. The last line on the last folio reads: ‘Alī, son of ‘Imrān wrote it.


In other words, the colophon attributes the writing to ‘Alī ibn ‘Abī Ṭālib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muḥammad. He was the fourth of the so-called rightly guided caliphs and is called the first Imām among the Shi’a. While ‘Ali is most frequently identified through this father ‘Abu Ṭalib, Shi’a sources sometimes give his name as ‘Imran, for example Muḥammad al-Majlīsī, an eminent scholar who lived in Iran during the seventeenth century.



Qur’ān, showing the colophon with the name of Imām ‘Alī in the last line. India Office Collections, British Library, IO Loth 4, folio 20r. Courtesy of the British Library Board.


That the attribution was accepted in India is evident from the seals and notations on the reverse side of the last folio. Among the seals is that of ‘Ināyat Khān, the librarian of emperor Shāh Jahān. This gives us a secure date, the number 21 referring to the regnal year of Shāh Jahān. The corresponding year in the current calendar is 1647-48.



Qur’ān, seals and notations on the last folio. India Office Collections, British Library, IO Loth 4, folio 20v. Courtesy of the British Library Board.


From the royal library the manuscript passed to Fāzl Khān, a high ranking officer under Shāh Jahān and Aurangzeb. After Fāzl Khān died in 1663, the Qur’ān came to I’timād ‘Alī Khān, a nobleman who flourished in Gujarat under Aurangzeb. The date on his seal shows the manuscript was in Gujarat in the 1690s.


By the nineteenth century, the manuscript was with the Talpurs, a Shi’a dynasty in Sindh. The Talpurs came into conflict with the British during the first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-42). As a result of this war, the manuscript became part of the properties seized by the British. While the properties in question were largely weapons, horses and draft animals, all sold at auction by agents to benefit the victorious side, some cultural items were sent to British India. It was there that the Qur’ān was given to James Andrew Broun-Ramsay (1812-60), generally known as Lord Dalhousie. He served as Governor-General of India from 1848 to 1856. He presented the manuscript to the Library at East India House, forerunner of the India Office Library, now held at the British Library.



James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.


The India Office Qur’ān belongs to a small group of early Qur’āns that are attributed to famous early figures in Islam. Among them is the fragment held at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin (Minutoli 296). Others are in Istanbul, Cairo as well as libraries in Iraq, Iran and India. The attributions are a subject of ongoing scholarly discussion, the historical problems exacerbated by some folios that appeared on the art market in the 1990s. While these folios are old, the seals, attributions and notations are modern, apparently based on a close study of the older examples, among them the manuscript discussed here.


What lies ahead is a comprehensive examination of all the Qur’āns with early colophons in order to determine their different dates, histories and ownership trails. The subject is essentially untouched. Such a study could be set within the context of other relics of early Islam, such as the swords and seals in the Topkapi in Istanbul and other items, such as the famous hair relic of the Prophet which came to Bijapur in India in seventeenth century and is now in Kashmir.


We recently published a detailed study of the India Office Qur’ān and the article is freely available online. This provides readings of all the seals and notations with translations and commentary.


Muntazir Ali, Marijn van Putten, Alison Ohta, Sebnem Koser Akcapar and Michael Willis, “The Oldest Manuscripts from India and Their Histories: A Re-Assessment of IO Loth 4 in the British Library,” Cracow Indological Studies 24 (2022):59-89.


Our article in Cracow Indological Studies was accompanied by the development of online resources at the Society for the study of this and other manuscripts from India. This can be found by following this link:


Dr Alison Ohta

Dr Michael Willis