Their History and their Study

More than 50,000 manuscripts make up Yemen’s written heritage. Very few of them have been studied. The overwhelming majority still await (re)discovery, offering the possibility of rare and surprising insight into Islamic intellectual history. This exhibition tells the history of these manuscripts, from the scribes who created them to the modern-day scholars who study them. Learn more about the importance of Yemeni manuscripts and their variety, discover where they are preserved today, and trace the history of one representative manuscript, written in 1214, as it travels from Sanaa to Berlin and, via digitization, to virtually everywhere.

Today, experts sound the alarm because many manuscript collections are threatened either by poor storage conditions or by opponents of a multi-faceted history of ideas in Islamic scholarship. At the same time, researchers increasingly focus on analysing Yemeni manuscripts as unique original sources. These documents point back to times when manuscripts played a central role in knowledge transmission from teacher to student, not only in Yemen but all over the Islamic world. 

But first it is time to learn how our manuscript – let’s call it ‘Glaser 51’ – was copied by a Yemeni scribe...

Ḥusayn b.ʿAwāḍ b. ʿAlī, a Yemeni scholar, sits with one leg folded under him and a sheet of paper on his knee. Next to him sit other scholars, all of them gathered in one of Southern Arabia’s bigger cities, Sanaa, in 1214. Ḥusayn is prepared to listen to an audition, that is, the reading aloud of a text.

Title page of the manuscript that Ḥusayn copied. (Photo: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK).
The manuscript is titled al-Tafṣīl li-jumal al-taḥṣīl. (Detailed Explanation of the Entire ‘Treatise’). (Photo: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK).

In the ensuing hours, the scribe Ḥusayn will learn more about a book titled al-Tafṣīl li-jumal al-taḥṣīl (Detailed Explanation of the Entire Treatise), written by Sulaymān b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Khurāshī. This is a commentary on another work – the Treatise – which, in turn, was written by al-Ḥasan al-Raṣṣāṣ (d. 1188), one of the most important religious scholars in Yemen during the 12th century.

This Kitāb al-Taḥṣīl fi l-tawḥīd wa-l-taʿdīl (Treatise on the Doctrine of [divine] Unity and Justice) by al-Raṣṣāṣ was well known among Yemeni scholars of the time. It presents a comprehensive and systematic overview of theological issues, such as God and His attributes, as well as His relation to creation, and especially to man, the nature and meaning of the Quran, prophecy, and the imamate.

The first page contains an overview of the contents and names the different chapters. In this picture, the chapter numbers are rewritten with red ink. (Photo: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK).

While Ḥusayn listens to the teacher, who is reading out al-Khurāshī’s original commentary, he makes his own copy of the book, writing what he hears, word by word.

Throughout the first part of the manuscript, he writes several words, such as chapter numbers, names of earlier scholars, and keywords with red ink. Only the third volume of the originally four-volume copy survived the centuries.

Simultaneous learning and copying in audition was the common method of knowledge transmission among scholars all over the Islamic world.

Sessions were held either by the author of the given text or by an acknowledged teacher. Scholars would frequently discuss and comment on each other’s works. In this way, authors constantly received valuable feedback, which they would either include or refute in later works. In Yemen, this scholarly practice continued well into the 20th century – much longer than anywhere else.

Stairs to a village in northern Yemen. (Photo: Jan Thiele).

Even today, manuscripts are witness to this direct interchange of ideas between teacher and scholar. They tell us about topics and arguments current in their time. In the case of the commentary copied by Ḥusayn, one chapter elaborates on why ʿAlī and his sons Ḥasan and Ḥusayn should be recognized as righteous imams in the immediate succession to the Prophet Muḥammad – a widely discussed topic among Islamic scholars.

The concluding sentence of the text reaffirms the imamate of Ḥasan and Ḥusayn. (Photo: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK).

At the very end of the text, Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī adds some more personalised information to his manuscript (a colophon), that is, his name and the date of copying, as well as collation notes, which assure that the text is authentic and that Ḥusayn‘s copy is in fact an identical version of the original.

Before the author al-Khurāshī composed his commentary, he was a student of al-Raṣṣāṣ. This is known because al-Khurāshī writes about the classes he took from al-Raṣṣāṣ in a small village near Sanaa. Like many Yemeni manuscripts, al-Khurāshī’s piece of scholarly work presents Zaydi ideas. This particular strand of Shiite Islam is prevalent among people in northern Yemen until today.

Yemeni Manuscripts in History

Landscape and village in northern Yemen. (Photo: Jan Thiele)

Yemeni manuscripts are the sole preserver not only of Zaydi scholarship over the centuries but also of a remarkable knowledge transfer that took place during the 12th century. 

Because of the political unification of two previously separate areas – located in Yemen and northern Iran – Yemeni scholars experienced the strong influence of so-called Mu’tazilite ideas via their colleagues from northern Iran. Mu’tazila refers to a school of thought that makes extensive use of reason and rationalist ideas. Over time Mu’tazilite concepts came to be viewed with ever less acceptance in Sunni Islam. Accordingly, Zaydi manuscripts from Yemen are especially important sources for learning more about this rationalist school of Islam.

Over the course of this knowledge transfer, many scholars copied books during audition sessions. Many of these manuscripts have been preserved up until today in libraries in Yemen, while most of the copies in the Iranian region have been destroyed, in an attempt to erase a record of pluralistic ideas in Islamic intellectual history.

Outside Yemen, Yemeni manuscripts went largely unnoticed, a result of the relative geographical and political isolation. But at the end of the 18th century, several European researchers and travelers took an interest in Yemeni history.

Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815).

The first major European scientific expedition to reach Yemen was the so-called ‘Arabic Journey’, financed by the king of Denmark. Five scholars travelled from Copenhagen via Istanbul and Cairo and arrived in Yemen in 1763. Expedition member Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815) was the only one to survive this trip; his colleagues died of malaria. He later on published a book called “Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern” (Description of a Journey to Arabia and Surrounding Countries), which is thought to be the first European account of Yemeni culture in modern times. Among other items, the team collected 108 manuscripts from different places along their way and sent them to Copenhagen, among them 6 Arabic documents acquired in Yemen.

Yemeni Manuscripts in Motion

At the end of the 19th century, a great demand for Arabic manuscripts had developed among European scholars. Institutes all over Europe, such as the Royal Library of Berlin (today Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin) and the British Museum in London (British Library), bought huge collections.

Eduard Glaser (1855-1908).

One of the most prominent collectors of Yemeni manuscripts was the Austrian archaeologist and Arabist Eduard Glaser (1855-1908). He brought Ḥusayn’s manuscript – our Glaser 51 – from Sanaa to Berlin. In preparation for his research on Southern Arabia, Glaser undertook a course of Arabic studies in Vienna. In October 1882 Glaser began the first of four long journeys around today’s Yemen. There, he copied more than thousand inscriptions from old ruined sites. Additionally, he collected information on the region’s geography and climate. Personal diary entries reveal that Glaser almost always seems to have been short of money. At the end of his first expedition, he couldn’t even afford the passage back to Europe – until the Turkish governor in Sanaa had the courtesy to donate the money. Glaser did not study the manuscripts himself; he wanted the revenue from selling the collection to fund his research.

Glaser used his extensive notes as the basis for several articles he published about ancient Yemen (South Arabia).

Eduard Glaser collected 23 manuscripts during his first stay in Yemen, and he sold them to the Royal Library of Berlin. Encouraged by this successful trade and facing an ever more desperate financial situation, he sold his next collection – this one containing 241 manuscripts, including Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī’s manuscript – again to Berlin, this time for 20,000 Reichsmark. Altogether he sold more than 800 manuscripts to European libraries.

On its arrival at the Berlin library, Ḥusayn’s manuscript was labelled ‘Glaser 51’ and got a standard library binding, which is displayed in the picture on the right.

Another noteworthy collector of Yemeni manuscripts at that time was the Italian merchant Giuseppe Caprotti (1869-1919), who lived in Sanaa for more than 30 years, gathering more than 2,000 manuscripts.

In 1909 Caprotti sold by far the biggest share of his collection, containing 1,792 manuscripts, to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. This still comprises the largest collection of Yemeni manuscripts in Europe.

Caprotti (left) with visitor at Caprotti's house in Sanaa. (Photo: The National Archives UK).

Manuscripts in European Libraries

Just like the manuscript copied by Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī, many Yemeni manuscripts have travelled the world and are today kept in scattered places. The most important holders in Europe are:

Bibliotheca Ambrosiana in Milan – 1,792 MSS

British Library in London – 328 MSS

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library) – ca. 300 MSS

Vatican Library – 278 MSS

Austrian National Library in Vienna – ca. 280 MSS

Bavarian State Library in Munich – 157 MSS

Entrance of the Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin). (Photo: Da Flow/Wikipedia).

Manuscripts in Yemen

Most of the manuscripts never left their region of origin. Especially numerous are the manuscripts that are still kept in private households all over the country. With an estimated number of 50,000 to 60,000 items, Yemeni private libraries rank among the world’s largest collections of Arabic manuscripts.

Some of these private collections result from the earlier mentioned 12th-century knowledge transfer from northern Iran to Yemen. Many of these private collections were established by scholars then, and these still exist, at least in part. Nowadays manuscripts in private holdings are threatened not only by poor storage conditions but also by attempts of extremist opponents intent on destroying Zaydi literature.

Manuscripts were brought to the Great Mosque of Sanaa at the beginning of the 20th century. (Photo: The National Archives UK).

Concern for preserving the country’s written heritage emerged in Yemen in the beginning of the 20th century. In an effort to gather manuscripts, the Imam al-Mutawakkil (1869-1948) founded a library, located on the second floor of the Great Mosque in Sanaa. Al-Mutawakkil’s library is today known as Maktabat al-Awqāf (Library of Religious Endowments). In the 1920s several manuscript collections were transferred to Sanaa’s Great Mosque for preservation, storage, and display.

Maktabat al-Awqāf (Library of Religious Endowments) in Sanaa. (Photo: Jan Thiele).

Today in Yemen all issues related to the country’s manuscripts are the responsibility of a special government agency, the Yemeni Manuscript Authority. The holdings in the several libraries at the Great Mosque of Sanaa also fall under this agency's supervision.

Courtyard view of the Great Mosque in Sanaa today. (Photo: Yazeed Kamaldien).

Manuscripts Rediscovered

A man reading the Qur’an in the Great Mosque. (Photo: Yazeed Kamaldien).

Excitement and curiosity arose among Muslims, religious scholars, and researchers alike, when in 1972 the renovation of parts of the roof of Sanaa’s Great Mosque led to the latest discovery of long-forgotten Yemeni manuscripts. When in the course of the renovation, the ceiling was removed, workers found more and more fragments, both paper and parchment, in a hidden chamber.

These fragments turned out to be more than 40,000 early Qur’an-fragments. After their recovery, the fragments were brought to the National Museum’s basement – at first stored in potato bags, because at this point nobody knew their value.

Qur'an fragment dating to 650 CE, one of the fragments that was rediscovered in 1972. (Photo: DATI/Ch.Robin & H.Gurtmann/ BBAW Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften).

Manuscripts in Scholarship

Scholars working in the 'Western Library' (Maktaba al-Gharbiya), Sanaa. (Photo: Sabine Schmidtke).

More recently, the examination of the Qur’an fragments from Sanaa continues. Of outstanding significance to scholars of Qur’anic history is a palimpsest, a leaf that was written upon, cleared of that script, and then used again, dating back to the time when the caliph Uthman (r. 644-656) sought to establish a unified version of the written Qur’an. After the death of Prophet Muhammad, this canonisation was an attempt to end discussion about the exact wording of the text and to disseminate the authentic Qur’an. This palimpsest from Sanaa’s was probably subject to revisions as a result of this canonisation process.

A graphical reconstruction reveals the underlying text and allows for further research.

Original version of the Qur'an palimpsest. (Photo: DATI/Ch.Robin & H.Gurtmann/ BBAW Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften).
Graphical reconstruction of the lower text layer. (Photo: DATI/Ch.Robin & H.Gurtmann/ BBAW Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften).

From the 1950s on, Egyptian scholars have been doing important work on Yemeni manuscripts. A first Egyptian expedition travelled to Yemen in 1952, sponsored by the well-known intellectual and then minister of education Ṭāḥā Ḥusayn.

These scholars catalogued and filmed manuscripts in public and private libraries in Yemen, including many important works on Mu’tazilite ideas. Based upon this research, Egyptian scholars published many editions and still vividly engage in research on Yemeni manuscripts.

Ṭāḥā Ḥusayn, Egyptian intellectual and minister of education (1950-1952). (Photo: Courtesy of Maha Aon/Taha Hussein Estate).

The fact that Yemeni manuscripts are widely scattered and preserved in many different locales is one reason why so many have survived up until today. Recent scholarly efforts try to bridge the distances and provide access to everyone everywhere, with the hope that these manuscripts might contribute to ongoing debate and challenge ideas once again. 

For several years now, European libraries have been scanning their holdings. Among these institutions is the State Library in Berlin, which has already digitized considerable parts of its Glaser collection. Because of efforts like these, the manuscript Glaser 51, copied by Ḥusayn, which we got to know earlier, is now digitally available.

Digitization of a manuscript in Sanaa. (Photo: Sabine Schmidtke).

Ḥusayn’s manuscript, copied in 1214, has gotten careful attention, further enhancing scholarship. It was published as a facsimile edition in 2013, with an introduction and commentary by the editors.

Facsimile of Glaser 51.
Arabic version of facsimile cover.

Apart from insights gained through content analysis, a closer examination of the manuscript reveals that the author, al-Khurāshī, included almost the entire text of the book that he commented on in his work, although without explicitly identifying the quoted passages. Furthermore, from al-Khurāshī’s use of additional sources, it can be deduced that certain other books were known among Yemeni scholars in the 12th century and that they had a certain impact on Zaydi-Mu’tazilite scholarship.

Ḥusayn’s manuscript and the Sanaa palimpsest mentioned earlier are just two examples of potential contributions to scholarship Yemeni manuscripts may yield— two manuscripts out of tens of thousands, which are valuable sources to scholars of Zaydi studies and the history of rationalist thought in Islam. They are equally interesting sources today for Islamic scholars engaged in current discussions.

Library of the Great Mosque in Sanaa. (Photo: Sabine Schmidtke).

The Digital Bab al-Yemen

This exhibition is part of ‘The Digital Bab al-Yemen’, a project currently hosted at Freie Universität Berlin. In 2013/14 it was funded by the European Research Council (project “Human Web”). The project’s main goal is to provide a universal online digital library assembling all manuscripts of Yemeni provenance from around the world.

For digitized Yemeni manuscripts, see our online library ‘The Glaser Collections. Bringing Together Islamic Heritage from Yemen’ at the Google Cultural Institute.

We would like to give special thanks to Christoph Rauch, of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, and Dr. Jan Thiele and Dr. Hassan Ansari for valuable information, as well as for their contribution of images.


Preserving Yemen’s Cultural Heritage. The Yemen Manuscript Digitization Project. By Sabine Schmidtke and Jan Thiele. Sanaa 2011. Botschaft der Bundesrepublik Deutschland/ Deutsches Archäologisches Institut.

Sulaymān b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Khurāshī (alive 610/1214), Kitāb al-Tafṣīl li-jumal al-Taḥṣīl. Facsimile Edition of MS Glaser no. 51. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. With Introduction and Indices by Hassan Ansari and Jan Thiele. Teheran 2013. Mīrāth-e maktūb.

Eduard Glaser – Forschungen im Yemen. Eine quellenkritische Untersuchung in ethnologischer Sicht. By Walter Dostal. Vienna 1990. Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Credits: Story

Curator — Kea Johannsen
Project Coordinator — Daniel Kinitz
Principal Investigator — Prof. Sabine Schmidtke

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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