Ismāʿīlī Manuscripts from Yemen

in Journal of Islamic Manuscripts
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The Fāṭimid dynasty was founded in North Africa by the Ismāʿīlī movement in 297/909. Qāʾid Ǧawhar, the commander of the Fāṭimid forces conquered Egypt and built the new capital Cairo in 358/969 from where the Fāṭimid imām-caliphs ruled a vast empire until their fall in 567/1171. The Ayyūbids, who succeeded them, ruthlessly destroyed the Ismāʿīlī heritage to such an extent that not a single book dealing with their doctrines survived in Egypt. In fact, the Ismāʿīlī legacy experienced the same fate across North Africa. This paper, therefore, poses the question: How did the Ismāʿīlī works, composed by their duʿāt in North Africa, Egypt, Iran and other places come to be preserved in Yemen, having completely vanished from their countries of origin? In response to this intriguing question, this essay seeks to scrutinise the Ismāʿīlī history from the very beginning of its religio-political activities until the present times and its close connection with the history of Yemen. According to a modest estimate, about seventy works belonging to the pre-Fāṭimid and Fāṭimid periods are still preserved, in addition to an equal number of books produced in Yemen following the collapse of the Ṣulayḥid dynasty in 532/1138 and the ensuing Mustaʿlī-Ṭayyibī daʿwa before the entire legacy was transferred to India.




Al-Hamdānī, Al-Ṣulayḥiyyūn, pp. 27–61; W. Madelung, “Manṣur al-Yaman,” EI². These events are also summarised by Ayman Fuʾād Sayyid, Tārīḫ al-maḏāhib al-dīniyya fī bilād al-Yaman ḥattā nihāyat al-qarn al-sādis al-hiǧrī, Cairo, Dār al-miṣriyya al-lubnāniyya, 1988, pp. 91–96.


Ḥ.F. al-Hamdānī, “The Letters of Al-Mustanṣir biʾllāh,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 7 (1933–1935), pp. 307–324; Al-Siǧillāt al-mustanṣiriyya, ed. ʿAbd al-Munʿim Māǧid, Cairo, Dār al-fikr al-ʿarabī, 1954.


Al-Hamdānī, Al-Ṣulayḥiyyūn, pp. 182–193; Samuel Miklos Stern, “The succession to al-Āmir, the claims of the later Fatimids to the imamate, and the rise of Ṭayyibī Ismailism,” Oriens, vol. 4 (1951), pp. 193–255. The Ṣulayḥid queen Arwā had also received an official siǧill (decree) from al-Āmir giving her good tidings following the birth of his son, al-Ṭayyib.


Poonawala, Biobibliography, pp. 133–183.


Poonawala, Biobibliography, pp. 178–183; I.K. Poonawala, “Ḥasan b. Nūḥ al-Bharūchī al-Hindī,” EI3.


See Poonawala, Biobibliography, p. 323, no. 50.


Poonawala, Biobibliography, p. 323; Idrīs ʿImād al-Dīn, ʿUyūn al-aḫbār, vol. 7, ed. Ayman Fuʾād Sayyid, London, I.B. Tauris, 2002, pp. 102, 125, 134.


See also al-Hamdānī, Al-Ṣulayḥiyyūn, pp. 113–114.


Poonawala, Biobibliography, pp. 208–209.


Eugenio Griffini, “Die jüngste ambrosianische Sammlung arabischer Handscriften,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, vol. 69 (1915), pp. 63–88; review by Rudolf Strothmann in Der Islam, vol. 21 (1933), pp. 292–311. It is noteworthy that in 1919 the Ambrosiana Library acquired another collection of 1,610 Yemenī manuscripts, collected by an Italian merchant who lived in Ṣanʿāʾ. Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Munaǧǧid selected some important works from the latter group and published his listing in Fihris al-maḫṭūṭāt al-ʿarabiyya fiʾl-Ambroziyānā bi-Mīlānū, Cairo, Maʿhad al-maḫṭūṭāt, 1960. Al-Munaǧǧid, the director of the Institute of Manuscripts, The Arab League in Cairo, noted that the Ambrosiana Library possesses the largest number of Yemenī manuscripts in Europe. These have been the object of an extensive cataloguing project by Otto Löfgren (vols. 2, 3) and Renato Traini (vols, 2, 3, 4), which was completed in 2011 (Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, vol. 2 (1981), vol. 3 (1995), vol. 4 (2011), all published on behalf of the Ambrosiana Library).


Griffini, “Die jüngste ambrosianische Sammlung arabischer Handscriften,” p. 84. The translation reads: “This book is among the books of al-Bāṭiniyya [lit. means esotericists, one of the designations used derogatorily by the detractors of the Ismāʿīlīs] numbering more than four hundred volumes, seized from them at Lahāb—God is to be praised. Indeed their books inform us a lot about their infidelity. [Transcribed] in the month of Rabīʿ I, 1323[/May 1905]. Amīr al-muʾminīn al-Mutawakkil ʿalāʾl-llāh Yaḥyā wrote that those infidels [i.e. the Ismāʿīlīs] must be fought against as God states: O Prophet, strive against the unbelievers and the hypocrites. [Q 9:73].”


Al-Rāzī, Kitāb al-Zīna, pp. 35–36. The first is incomplete at both ends and the editor thinks that it was copied either in the tenth or the eleventh century of the Islamic era. The colophon of the second states that it was collated with the master copy on the 8th of Raǧab 924[/1518]. See also Cornelius Berthold, ‘The Leipzig manuscript of the Kitāb al Zīna by the Ismaili author Abū Ḥātim al Rāzī (d. 322/933–934)’, in Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 5/1 (Spring 2014), pp. 19–42.


Sayyid, Maṣādir tārīḫ al-Yaman, pp. 427–429.


Ibid., p. 281.


In 1764, the Makārima had invaded Najd and inflicted a crushing defeat on the rising power of the Wahhābīs. Since then, there were frequent encounters between them for the control of Naǧrān and the adjacent region. In 1805 Saʿūd b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz tried but failed to conquer Naǧrān. Given the situation in Yemen in the 1930s the Saudis seized the opportunity and took control of Naǧrān. W. Madelung, “Makramids,” EI².


See de Blois, Arabic, Persian and Gujarati Manuscripts, p. 129.


De Blois, Arabic, Persian and Gujarati Manuscripts, pp. 22–23. The daʿwa collection contains a manuscript of al-Majālis al-Muʾayyadiyya, vol. 1, transcribed in 886/1481 in Yemen. See Muʾayyad, al-Majālis al-Muʾayyadiyya, vol. 1, ed. Ḥātim Ḥamīd al-Dīn, Bombay, 1975, Arabic introduction (pages are numbered with abjad numerals).


  • Figure 1

    Daʿāʾim al-islām by al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān. Hamdani Collection, MS 1413, vol. 2, p. 43. It was transcribed by ʿAlī b. Saʿīd al-Ḥarāzī al-Hamdānī in 1161/1749 in Ḥarāz. Courtesy of the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London.

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  • Figure 2

    Dīwān of al-Ḫaṭṭāb. Hamdani Collection, MS 1492, ff. 1a–1b. Transcribed in Ḥarāz in 1162/1749. Courtesy of the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London.

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  • Figure 3

    Kitāb al-Riyāḍ by Ḥamīd al-Dīn al-Kirmānī. Hamdani Collection, Ms. 1458, p. 1. The manuscript is in two hands: the larger part was transcribed before 760/1359. Courtesy of the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London.

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  • Figure 4

    An opening in the manuscript of al-Qādī al-Nuʿmān’s Kitāb al-manāqib li-ahl bayt Rasūl Allāh al-nuǧabāʾ waʾl-maṯālib li-banī Umayya al-luʿanāʾ (generally known as Kitāb al-manāqib waʾl-maṯālib) in the collection of Mullā Qurbān Ḥusayn Poonawala, transcribed by Muḥammad Bāqir b. Malīkbhāʾī b. Muḥammad ʿAlī. No date is given, but the manuscript could be over three centuries old. Many Ismāʿīlī manuscripts are divided into aǧzāʾ, each ǧuzʾ about eight folios and the ‘quire marks’ are indicated in red ink on the top left corner of the recto side. In this image the quire mark reads: ‮الجزء الثالث عشر من كتاب المناقب والمثالب‬. In the collection of my father Mulla Qurban Husayn Poonawala.

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  • Map A

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  • Map B

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