What’s in a Seal?

Identification and Interpretation of ʿAbd al-Bāqī Ibn al-ʿArabī’s (d. 971/1564) Seal and Its Function

In: Journal of Islamic Manuscripts
Boris Liebrenz Saxon Academy of the Sciences and Humanities Germany Leipzig

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It was only during the Ottoman period, beginning in 1517, that seals gained popularity in the Arab world as a means to document people’s interactions with books. Some seals came alone while others accompanied handwritten notes. Some spelled out their purpose clearly through formulations such as “min kutub”, “hāḏā mā waqafa” or the like; others contained only pious formulae and a name. But even the latter are generally assumed to denote ownership or endowment. In this article, I present the example of a seal that belonged to a judge in early Ottoman Egypt. I will argue that the seal did not denote ownership of the books on which it is found, and I will attempt to show that it was used by its owner in the process of an inventory of Cairo’s endowed libraries. I will also discuss what this insight could mean for interpreting the history of books and collections through seals.

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