The Bohra Manuscript Treasury as a Sacred Site of Philology: a Study in Social Codicology

In: Philological Encounters

Abstract

This article examines the social meaning of philology in Arabic from the perspective of a contemporary Indian Shīʿī Muslim community, known as the Alawi Bohras. Rather than approaching philology as a tradition of canonical texts, it considers philology as a social act: a set of practices that are imbedded socially in the community. We focus on the community’s khizāna, or manuscript treasury, and investigate its social role as a sacred site of philology, its Arabic manuscripts being only accessible to the highest clerics. Even though inaccessible to believers, the khizāna manuscripts have rich social lives as objects of concealment, agency, and healing. These social lives precisely lay bare the encounter between the philological and the community. As a study in social codicology that explores this encounter, the case of the Alawi Bohras is an invitation to rethink the social meaning of philology and manuscripts in Muslim societies.

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