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From Manuscript to Modern Media: Transmission of Texts and Knowledge in the Islamic World


Admission Requirements

This course is intended and accessible for (1) students able to use Arabic texts and (2) students with little or no knowledge of Arabic but with an interest in Islamic book culture and knowledge transfer. The assignments that students receive during the course will be adjusted to their level of Arabic. Students with sufficient knowledge of Arabic will use Arabic manuscript sources for their final assignment, while students without knowledge of Arabic get a different final assignment.
See also below under registration.


Using original examples from the University of Leiden’s own rich collections, the course explores techniques of knowledge transfer and the problems and solutions surrounding the adaptation of modern information technologies to traditional Islamic scholarly imperatives. Particular focuses include: (1) the internal history of texts: manuscripts and the methodology of accounting for variant readings in critical editions; (2) the history of reception: the ways in which older sources are quoted, paraphrased or otherwise incorporated into the works of later authors and the methods of studying such intertextual phenomena; (3) the function of written texts, issues of oral versus written transmission and textual authority; (4) the impact of modernity: the affects of technolgical innovations, as well as social changes, such as the democratisation of knowledge, the bureacratising demands of modern states, globalisation and the influence of English .

Overview of class topics:

  • Originality versus traditionalism in Islamic scholarship.

  • Writing materials: Papyrus, paper, stones and bones.

  • Bindings, ink and paper – the technical aspects of manuscripts.

  • Texts as pictures: Literacy and layout.

  • What is a critical edition?

  • Can Western editing techniques be applied to Arabic manuscripts?

  • Authorship and ownership.

  • Traditional education in a modern World: al-Azhar and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

  • Archives and archiving in the Middle East.

  • Travelling texts (through time and place).

  • The role of orality in the Islamic scholarly tradition.

  • Changing media for Arabic texts: printing, multi-media, mobile phones.

  • Scribes and secretaries, a professional class.

Course objectives

  • to develop the skills and insights that are necessary to evaluate existing research and to design and carry out empirical research projects;

  • to navigate all the issues involved in the transmission of pre-modern and modern Arabic texts;

  • to understand how critical editions are composed and to be aware of the different methodologies and theories involved in preparing editions;

  • to gain insights into the evolution of Islamic scholarship and changing attitudes towards authorship, textual ownership and criticism;

  • to become familiar with the main reference works used in the study of Islamic book culture and knowledge transfer;

  • to develop and carry out a small research project on a well-defined topic, based on primary source texts;

  • to report on research findings orally and in writing, in accordance with the basic standards of humanities scholarship.



Mode of instruction

For this seminar weekly attendance and participation is required. Classes missed for a good reason (to the discretion of the conveners and to be discussed BEFORE the class takes place) will have to be made up with an extra assignment. Students who miss more than two classes for whatever reason will fail the course. Students will have to prepare weekly assignments to be discussed in class.

Assessment method

  • Oral presentation (20%)

  • Participation and weekly assignments (20%) (these assignments will be adjusted according to the ECs to be obtained)

  • Final paper of ca. 7,000 words (for 10.0 EC) and 3,000 words (for 5.0 EC) (60%) to be completed before the end of the course. A draft version is to be presented and discussed during the course; the feedback given by the instructor and fellow students must be integrated into the final version.


Blackboard will be used for internal communication and the distribution of additional reading and/or source material.

Reading list

  • F. Déroche, Islamic Codicology. An Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script London: al-Furqan Foundation 2005.

  • Additional literature will be provided via Blackboard and a reserve plank in the University Library.


Students of the MA Middle Eastern Studies, specialisation Arabic Studies, and of the MA Middle Eastern Studies (research) with a good reading level of Arabic (minimum of three years BA or equal; level B2 European Common Framework) are automatically admitted to this class. Students from outside these programmes should contact Prof. P.M. Sijpesteijn before enrolling.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.