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Subject guide

Islamic World Special Collections

The main focus of the Islamic World Special Collections is on the Middle East and North Africa, with smaller holdings from Indonesia, the Indian Subcontinent and Central Asia as far as Xinjiang, China.

For 1400 years the Islamic World and Europe have shared borders, not only in a geographical sense, but also in terms of religion and culture. The engagement between the two regions has not always been a happy one, but generally speaking they have exerted a lasting influence on one another which still continues to this very day. In the late 1500s Dutch scholars developed a lively interest in Classical Arabic as a means towards the understanding of its cognate Biblical Hebrew, and from the 1600s they studied the scientific legacy of the Islamic World. In the age of colonial expansion, knowledge of Arabic was necessary to understand the Muslim peoples of the Dutch dominions in Southeast Asia.

The Islamic World Special Collections of Leiden University Libraries, by far the largest in the Netherlands and internationally important by any standard, contain not only c. 6,000 manuscripts, but also rare printed books, photographs, archives, artworks and audio materials. Predominant is the written heritage in the main cultural languages of the region: Arabic, Persian and (Ottoman) Turkish, with smaller holdings in, for instance, Berber languages.

Naturally, the Islamic heritage is well represented, but the collections offer research opportunities from any given perspective to scholars or students who are interested in the history and culture of one of the most important areas in the world. The oldest Islamic manuscript, a set of Qur’an fragments on parchment, dates from the second half of the seventh century CE.

An early scholar such as the humanist Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609) left his Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish manuscripts and printed oriental books to the library. The true cornerstone of the collections, however, was laid by the German Levinus Warner (c. 1618-1665), a Leiden student of oriental languages and later in his career minister of the Dutch Republic to the Sublime Porte. At his death he left his private collection of 1,000 manuscripts, mainly in Arabic, Persian and Turkish, to Leiden University.

The eighteenth century saw little progress, but the collections started growing at a much quicker pace in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1883, for instance, the University Library purchased a collection of c. 650 Arabic manuscripts from the Medinese scholar Amin b. Hasan al-Madani (d. 1898). In 1935 the Library received the bequest of the Dutch businessman and diplomat A.P.H. Hotz (1855-1930), a bibliophile collection of exquisite travel books and early photographs. Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936), perhaps the Netherlands’ greatest Islam scholar, left his entire private library, early photographs and archive to Leiden University Library at his death in 1936. In the 1960s the Library bought a large Ottoman Turkish collection, presumably the property of Sultan Murad V (1840-1904) and his heirs.

The collections are still growing through purchase and donation. In 2009, for instance, the University Library acquired a small but important collection of 29 Islamic manuscripts from Xinjiang in the far west of the People’s Republic of China. In 2016 the Dutch ethnomusicologist Wouter Swets (1930-2016) left his collection of audio materials and books on the musical tradition of the Ottoman world to Leiden University Libraries.

  • Printed books, irrespective of language or date of publication, can be accessed through the online catalogue. Romanisation is used for non-Latin script records, but currently efforts are being undertaken to create records in vernacular script. It is possible to refine your search with criteria such as year of publication, material type or language. Manuscripts are always provided with a prefix ‘Or.’ and an accession number. They are gradually being added to the online catalogue, but a considerable number remain available only through printed scholarly catalogues, usually organised according to language.
  • Digitised materials can be searched through the online catalogue and are available in Digital Special Collections.

For a growing number of collections in individual languages, on selected topics or originating from specific individuals, so-called collection guides are available via the online catalogue, with further information on the contents, the available printed catalogues or other resources, and access.

Languages and Themes:
Arabic Manuscripts
Berber Manuscripts
KNAW Loan Collection of Oriental Manuscripts
Oosters Instituut Photographic Collection
Persian Manuscripts and Rare Books
Turkish Manuscripts and Rare Printed Books
Xinjiang Islamic Manuscripts

Individual Scholars and Collectors:
Anhegger, Robert Moritz Friedrich (1911-2001)
Basset, René (1855-1924)
Golius, Jacobus (1596-1667)
Hotz, Albertus Paulus Hermanus (1855-1930)
Juynboll, Gualtherus Hendrik Albert (1935-2010)
Madani, Amin ibn Hasan al- (d. 1898)
Naji, Mostapha (1951-2000)
Pijper, Guillaume Frédéric Pijper (1893-1988)
Scaliger, Joseph Justus (1540-1609)
Schultens Family (18th century)
Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan (1857-1930)
Smitskamp, Rijk/Het Oosters Antiquarium (1941-)
Tadema, Auke Anne Tadema (1913-1989)
Taeschner, Franz (1896-1967)
Warner, Levinus (c.1618-1665)
Weisweiler, Max (1902-1968)

The Special Collections Department of Leiden University Libraries organises regular exhibitions on the Islamic World for a general audience in the central University Library at Witte Singel 27, Leiden. Frequent loans are made to other exhibitions in the Netherlands or abroad.