Scribal and Commentary Traditions at the Dawn of Print: The Manuscripts of the Near Eastern School of Theology as an Archive of the Early Nahḍa

In: Philological Encounters
Author: Salam Rassi1
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  • 1 Faculty of History, University of OxfordOxfordUnited Kingdom
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This article focuses on the Arabic manuscript collection of the Near Eastern School of Theology (NEST). The NEST library contains several manuscripts that were donated, copied, or read by important Christian-born intellectuals of the nahḍa. Given these men’s role in the emergence of modern publishing in the Middle East, I examine the intersections between their scribal and printing activities. I also discuss works of grammar, logic, and rhetoric in the NEST’s collection. Most of these are by late medieval and early modern authors and contain extensive commentaries and glosses. This commentary culture was a key site of learning throughout the early modern Ottoman Empire and endured among Christian as well as Muslim intellectuals of the nahḍa movement. The persistence of these scribal and intellectual traditions reveals a longue durée of Islamicate scholarly traditions that is only beginning to be understood by historians of Arab modernity.


This article focuses on the Arabic manuscript collection of the Near Eastern School of Theology (NEST). The NEST library contains several manuscripts that were donated, copied, or read by important Christian-born intellectuals of the nahḍa. Given these men’s role in the emergence of modern publishing in the Middle East, I examine the intersections between their scribal and printing activities. I also discuss works of grammar, logic, and rhetoric in the NEST’s collection. Most of these are by late medieval and early modern authors and contain extensive commentaries and glosses. This commentary culture was a key site of learning throughout the early modern Ottoman Empire and endured among Christian as well as Muslim intellectuals of the nahḍa movement. The persistence of these scribal and intellectual traditions reveals a longue durée of Islamicate scholarly traditions that is only beginning to be understood by historians of Arab modernity.


Historians of the Arab nahḍa have commonly understood the movement in terms of ruptures and discontinuities.1 On this scheme, an important feature of Arab modernity was a move away from scribal practice in favour of the printing press and a vogue for textual criticism that conformed to European standards of philological and editorial rigour.2 Alongside the growth of the printing press a “Standard Arabic” emerged which was shorn of regional vernacularisms and sectarian signifiers, cultivated by Christian-born intellectuals seeking to negotiate a shared cultural space within a predominantly Muslim Ottoman polity.3 I do not wish to deny or diminish the importance of new forms of knowledge production that emerged in the nineteenth century. Rather, my aim in this article is to understand these aspects of modernity—namely, the growth of print media and the standardisation of language—by considering their continuities and overlaps with earlier models of scholarly praxis. By moving away from paradigms of rupture, I show how recent scholarship in manuscript studies and Islamicate intellectual history can help us to better understand the thought-world of many of the writers who participated in the construction of Arab modernity. One important avenue for the study of these continuities is the history of Middle Eastern library collections, many of which are now beginning to be understood in terms of their owners and collectors and not simply as static repositories of knowledge.4

My case study is a collection of Arabic manuscripts housed in the Near East School of Theology (Kulliyat al-Lāhūt li-l-Sharq al-Awṣat, henceforth NEST)—all of which have been digitised and made available online by the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.5 The school began life as the seminary wing of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in Syria, headed by the American protestant missionaries and Arabists Eli Smith (1801–1857), Cornelius Van Alen Van Dyck (1818–1895), and others. Initially located in the village of ʿAbayh, the seminary later merged with the Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut, AUB), though the two have long since parted ways.6 Among the many manuscripts housed in this collection are drafts of the Arabic Bible translation overseen by Smith and later Van Dyck, and contributed to by Buṭrus al-Bustānī (1819–1883), Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī (1800–1871), and other well-known figures of the nahḍa.7 Begun in 1820, early additions to the collection tended to be outside gifts or commissions from professional scribes, namely members of the al-Shidyāq family and Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī.8 A further core of manuscripts comes from a sizeable acquisition made by the Syrian Society for Arts and Sciences (SSAS), founded by Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī, Buṭrus al-Bustānī, and Mīkhāʾīl Mishāqa (1800–1888) in 1847.9 Following the disbandment of the SSAC in 1852, 206 of these manuscripts passed into the care of Eli Smith and thereafter to the Syrian Protestant College, forming the nucleus of the current manuscript collection of AUB.10 Ever since the split between AUB and the seminary, the permanent collections of AUB and NEST remain separate though inextricably linked by a common Arab Protestant heritage.

Given that so many of the manuscripts in the NEST collection were copied, owned, and donated by the nahḍa’s leading lights, the collection represents a critical intersection between print and scribal cultures. In addition to the scribal practices surrounding their production, the actual contents of these manuscripts shed new light on the intellectual activities and strategies of key nahḍa figures. For these reasons, I have placed the NEST collection at the centre of my study.

Based on material from the NEST collection and elsewhere, I wish to make two points where the nahḍa is concerned. The first pertains to codicology and the history of the book. The rich material preserved in NEST suggests that manuscript production in the early nineteenth century reflected a critical preoccupation with accuracy and detail best understood in its scribal context. For Arab Christians living in Ottoman lands in the first half of the nineteenth century, clarity and editorial exactitude were not simply by-products of an emergent Arab nationalism or foreign missionary enterprise.11 Rather, such tendencies were already present in the scribal culture of the day. This was the case among Christian scribal families who had worked as notaries and bureaucrats for the Ottoman nobility prior to entering the service of American missionaries. To be sure, the exposure of nahḍa intellectuals to missionary presses contributed to their transitioning from local scribes to “cultural entrepreneurs who made a living out of writing original works in Arabic.”12 However, as I seek to demonstrate, scribal conventions were not immediately forgotten with the introduction of modern print media. As recent historians of print have observed, Arab intellectuals working as printers in the 1800s experimented with decorative styles and literary conventions that were strongly—and intentionally—reminiscent of scribal traditions.13 These traditions are readily discoverable in the NEST collection, which contains several manuscripts copied by figures who excelled as scribes as well as printers and litterateurs.

My second argument is a broader intellectual-historical one. The manuscripts from NEST with which I am chiefly concerned are grammatical and logical in content. The collection’s modern catalogue lists them alongside works of prosody, poetry, and lexicography.14 Much has been said about the lexicographical turn in the nineteenth century and the use of dictionaries by nahḍa writers as a civilisational index.15 As for other areas of learning, Marwa Elshakry has discussed the ways in which American missionaries promoted Enlightenment notions of natural science and philosophy in the Ottoman Levant as part of an Evangelical modernity.16 But when it came to Arabic grammar and lexicography, these same missionaries were invariably reliant on local knowledge and expertise. What, then, was the tradition of Arabic grammar that these missionaries first encountered? American and European missionaries tended to distinguish between “Western knowledge” and the linguistic sciences of the Arabs. Yet such a distinction overlooks the overlapping epistemologies underlying the discipline of Arabic grammar. For by the nineteenth century, the discipline of logic in Ottoman lands was often studied alongside (if not before) grammar.17 The site of this tradition was a post-classical genre of commentary and super-commentary, which from the post-Mongol period through to the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries constituted a major vehicle of learning in educated Ottoman circles, Muslim and Christian alike.18 This late medieval and early modern Ottoman commentary culture is amply reflected in the NEST manuscripts.

In the following sections, I argue that the endurance of both scribal and scholarly traditions among nahḍa intellectuals reveals the uneven and variegated nature of Arab modernity in the nineteenth century. This continuity is readily discoverable in the NEST collection. By focusing on this repository, I seek to show how Christian-born intellectuals in Mount Lebanon and Beirut remained committed to traditional modes of Ottoman intellectual production. This situation, I contend, rather complicates the idea of the nahḍa as a period of ruptures.

Situating the NEST Collection: Scribal, Commentary, and Print Cultures on the Eve of the Nahḍa

Before proceeding, it is important to acknowledge that Arabic printing began not in the Middle East but in Europe.19 The earliest Muslim-led printing enterprise in the Ottoman Empire was a moveable Arabic type press established in Istanbul by İbrāhīm Müteferriḳa and active between 1726 and 1742.20 However, to truly understand the beginnings of modern publishing in the Middle East, we must look to the Christian communities of the Ottoman levant. In particular, Mount Lebanon was home to Christian communities whose local agency as scribes, intellectuals, and publishers led to an efflorescence of print media in the region throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The earliest recorded instance of Arabic printing in the Middle East was at the Maronite Monastery of St. Anthony in Wādī Qadīshā, where a Karshūnī Psalter was produced in 1610.21 A further example was the Greek Catholic press of the Monastery of St. John (Maṭbaʿat Dayr Mār Yūḥannā) in Kinshāra, better known as al-Shuwayr.22 Established in 1734 and active until 1899, the Shuwayr press produced a number of works that set an important standard for Christian Arabic publishing in the following century.

As will become clearer throughout this article, the domains of scribal, commentary, and print culture in the nineteenth century were intimately connected. By considering the NEST collection as part of this entangled history, my approach departs considerably from that of earlier historians. Influenced by insights from Elizabeth Eisenstein’s history of moveable type print, Geoffrey Roper argued that Arabic scribal culture in the nineteenth century was marked by a certain “esotericism” and “obscure style of expression,” which tended to view knowledge as a “mystical and secret entity.” The adoption of print-based culture, he contends, broke the scribal monopoly on knowledge, contributing to the “demystification of language and literature” and “the revival of the classical heritage.”23 At the centre of both Eisenstein’s and Roper’s approach is the idea that print media catalysed the emergence of a new text-critical awareness among authors and publishers, which in turn facilitated a wider circulation of canonical works. The NEST material, however, rather undermines this technological determinism. Manuscripts from this collection evince not only a longue durée of scribal practice but also blurred boundaries between the roles of scribe, author, and printer.

In addition to scribal continuities, the NEST collection also exhibits points of contact with late medieval and early modern scholarly practices, namely in the areas of grammatical and philosophical commentary. Until relatively recently, much of this tradition was studied through the lens of decline. Carter Findley has viewed the institution of the Ottoman elementary school (kuttāb) in the early nineteenth century as having produced little more than “functional illiterates” prior to Western-inspired educational reforms. This stagnation, according to Findley, was due to “an encrustation of commentaries that had virtually obscured the seminal texts of Islamic learning.”24 Where grammar is concerned, Geoffrey Roper has described standards in Arabic style and composition just prior to the nahḍa as convoluted and obscure, particularly in Arab Christian circles, in which a certain stylistic laxity (rakāka) dominated. This situation, Roper contends, was markedly improved by the codification of “Standard Arabic” through print technology and the production of textbooks and grammars by missionary presses.25 However, a more recent generation of scholars has undermined the “theoretical and paradigmatic bases” of Ottoman decline.26 In the area of intellectual history, scholars have revealed the aforementioned commentary culture to have been an critical site of engagement with canonical texts.27

With the rise of print media in the Middle East, however, these commentaries and glosses were eventually eclipsed by a new canon of earlier, mostly Abbasid-era works that constituted the “Islamic Classics.”28 Yet it is this late medieval and early modern tradition of grammar and logic that is most represented in the NEST collection. A close examination of this repository reveals an entangled and interconfessional tradition of grammatical pedagogy during the early phase of the nahḍa. The presence of this corpus of post-classical works suggests that the emergence of new canons did not fully displace old ones. Rather, early nahḍa thinkers were well-acquainted with the legacy of late medieval and early modern Islamic thinkers, whose works they not only read but also copied and placed in the possession of American missionaries who sought key texts on Arabic grammar and logic.

Embedded Scribal Traditions: The Case of the Shidyāq Family and Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī

Historians have long acknowledged that the first generation of nahḍa thinkers were involved in scribal production.29 Perhaps the best-known figures in this regard were members of the Shidyāq family and Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī, whose scribal activities will now be discussed. This section will demonstrate the embeddedness of manuscript-based culture in the intellectual life of the early nahḍa, with special reference to the NEST collection.

To fully appreciate this embeddedness, we must first look to earlier printing traditions in the Middle East. As has already been mentioned, moveable type print was already in use at the Shuwayr press. Hala Auji has recently discussed this press’s frequent use of scribal elements such as ornamental boarders and catchwords, of which Eli Smith and the Syria Mission took note when deciding how to design the inaugural editions of the American Missionary Press’s (AMP) (on which more below).30 The monastery of al-Shuwayr also housed a manuscript workshop, and so it is little wonder to find such scribal entanglements in its print culture.31 In fact, scribal-print exchanges could also travel in the other direction: a manuscript of al-Qāsim ibn ʿAlī al-Ḥārīrī’s (d. 1122) metrical grammar contains a numbered table of contents (fihrisa) in its flyleaf—a feature commonly associated with European printing conventions intended to make a work more accessible.32 The table of contents and pagination were produced by the manuscript’s owner, one Jibrāʾīl ibn Niqūlā al-Ḥimṣī al-Dimashqī, when he purchased it in 1794 whilst in al-Shuwayr.33

However, the intersection between manuscript and print was not just visual or paratextual; scribal conventions were also applied to the editing of printed works. Islam Dayeh has recently revealed how the scribal practices of taṣḥīḥ (“correction”) and muqābala (“collation”) informed editorial activities in nineteenth-century Cairo. The early editions of the Būlāq Press (established in 1820) saw the combining of existing scribal methods with lithography. In effect, the correctors (muṣaḥḥiḥūn) at the press made use of manuscript-centred textual criticism to produce books derived from reliably transmitted exemplars.34

These practices had deep roots in medieval and early modern Islamic scribal and text-critical traditions.35 As a result of contact through bureaucratic and educational institutions in the Ottoman Levant, such methods gradually made inroads into Christian elite circles. Members of this elite included Yūsuf al-Shidyāq (d. 1820) and his sons Asʿad (d. 1830), Fāris (later Aḥmad Fāris upon his conversion to Islam), and Ṭannūs (1791–1861). The Shidyāqs had a history of service to the Muslim, Christian, and Druze nobility of Mount Lebanon and the Biqāʿ reaching back to the seventeenth century as scribes, notaries, tax collectors, property agents, and tutors.36 Manṣūr al-Shidyāq left his native Kisrwān to enter the service of the Shīʿī Ḥarfūsh emirs of Baʿalbak, then moved to Ḥazmiyya and later ʿAshqūt to serve the powerful Maronite Shihāb clan. His son, Yūsuf, would continue in the service of the Shihāb emirs, as would Yūsuf’s son, Ṭannūs, who worked as a clerk and tax collector before embarking on a career as a copyist and Arabic teacher in the service of American Protestant missionaries. Ṭannūs’s younger brothers, Asʿad (1797–1830) and Fāris (later Aḥmad Fāris upon his conversion to Islam), would also enter the service of American Protestants as copyists, correctors, and teachers.37

Yūsuf, Ṭannūs, Asʿad, and Fāris are all examples of Christian-born figures who inhabited both Christian and Muslim educated milieus. In their early years, Ṭannūs, Asʿad, and Fāris each attended the Maronite Seminary of ʿAyn Waraqa, an institution steeped in the ideals of post-Tridentine Catholicism, where the Shidyāq brothers would no doubt have been exposed to a Maronite scribal culture.38 Nevertheless, their father, having worked for years as a private secretary for Muslim and Christian nobility, was intimately familiar with Arabic scribal traditions that cut across confessional boundaries.

This tradition was one that privileged exactitude and diligence in the art of copying. For generations prior to the nineteenth century, Arabic scribes often copied manuscripts by perusing more than one exemplar to ensure that their copy had been completed on the best authorities. The practice is thought to have its origins in Islamic ḥadīth-writing, in which the scribe signals that the text was suitable for transmission, though it was quickly taken up in other genres.39 Arabic scribes often indicated whether their copies had been corrected or checked against others through a careful process of collation. In some cases, collation (muqābala, muʿāraḍa) and correction (taṣḥīḥ) were carried out by someone other than the scribe.40 Such conventions are detectable in one NEST manuscript containing a grammar by Abū Ḥayyān al-Gharnaṭī (d. 1344), copied by Yūsuf in 1814 (see Fig. 1).41 Using the customary صح mark (ṣaḥḥa), Yūsuf indicates that his copy had been corrected. At the end of the colophon, we encounter the collation statement balagha muqābalatan, in a different hand, possibly by one of his sons, Asʿad or Ṭannūs, based on script comparison.42

Figure 1
Figure 1

NEST AB 5: Colophon, with collation and correction notes, by Yūsuf al-Shidyāq, dated 1229/1814

Citation: Philological Encounters 2021; 10.1163/24519197-bja10023

It was this tradition of scribal labour that informed much of Fāris al-Shidyāq’s early activities. Like his brothers, he also began as a professional scribe, having produced a copy of Ḥaydar al-Shihābī’s family chronicle among his earliest commissions.43 Although no manuscripts copied by al-Shidyāq are held in the NEST collection, we do find one copy of a work by Muḥammad al-Fayyūmī (d. ca. 1368) containing a readership statement by him dated 1834, written in an elegant, calligraphic hand (see Fig. 2). It is interesting to note that al-Fayyūmī’s treatise, entitled al-Miṣbāḥ al-munīr (“The Luminous Lamp”), is a lexicon of legal definitions. Al-Shidyāq’s interest in this manuscript appears to be in line with his interest in lexicography—a subject that occupied the minds of so many Arab intellectuals throughout the nineteenth century.44

Figure 2
Figure 2

Readership statement by Fāris al-Shidyāq, dated 1250/1834

Citation: Philological Encounters 2021; 10.1163/24519197-bja10023

Al-Shidyāq was also known to have taken an active interest in the circulation and preservation of Arabic manuscripts in Europe, especially during his seven-year stay in England (1848–1855).45 Yet in addition to reading manuscripts, Aḥmad Fāris was also active in copying classical works of Arabic literature, having produced a copy of Zawzānī’s commentary on the Muʿallaqāt (“Suspended Odes”) during his stay in Egypt between 1825 and 1835 and a copy of Maʿarrī’s Saqṭ al-zand (“The Falling Spark of Tinder”) in 1844.46 Even in his earliest printed compositions, al-Shidyāq wrote about the importance of maintaining high aesthetic and technical standards when practicing the scribal craft. This is particularly evident in his Muḥāwara unsiyya fī al-lughatayn al-inklīziyya wa-l-ʿarabiyya (“A Familiar Dialogue concerning the Languages of English and Arabic”), a pedagogical dialogue on the Arabic language co-written by the English churchman and orientalist George Percy Badger and printed in Malta in 1836. Here, al-Shidyāq introduces several technical terms for manuscript-writing and bookmaking and discusses which types of pens and inks are best suited to writing the Arabic language.47 Furthermore, in his famous semi-biographical satire entitled al-Sāq ʿalā al-sāq (“Leg Over Leg”), published in 1855, al-Shidyāq describes how the people of the region of his protagonist, Fāryāq, “gave precedence to good writing over anything else the hand might make.” But despite this, the local authorities “employed as scribes only those whose writing was ugly to the eye and whose words were disgusting to good taste.”48

At first blush, Fāris al-Shidyāq’s admiration for manuscript culture appears little more than an antiquarian’s nostalgia for a tradition in decline. Indeed, for all his reverence of the scribal art, al-Shidyāq was a great champion of print culture who recognised its usefulness for producing classical Arabic texts, having conceived of the first edition of his al-Sāq ʿalā al-sāq as a printed book.49 Nowhere, however, does he explicitly state that print was the only means of establishing sound texts. Given his family background, it is likelier that al-Shidyāq was aware of the philological potential of scribal practices. As we have already observed from a manuscript copied by his father, the scribal tradition that had come down to him was one that valued precision, collation, and correction—skills also prized by the various European and American missionaries for whom the Shidyāqs worked as translators and correctors.50 These scribal conventions are discoverable in the scribal output of Fāris’s older brothers, Asʿad and Ṭannūs. We find such an example in NEST AB 66 (see Fig. 3), a manuscript copied by Asʿad with the help of Ṭannūs, containing two grammatical works by Jirmānūs Farḥāt (1670–1732) entitled Bāb al-iʿrāb ʿan lughat al-aʿrāb (“Introduction to the Eloquent Expression of the Arabic Language”) and al-Faṣl al-maʿqūd fī maʿānī ʿawāmil al-iʿrāb (“The Agreed Conclusion Concerning the Particles of Arabic Grammar”).

Figure 3
Figure 3

NEST AB 66: Colophon by Asʿad al-Shidyāq, dated 1813

Citation: Philological Encounters 2021; 10.1163/24519197-bja10023

Incidentally, Fāris al-Shidyāq’s first printed commission was also a work by Farḥāt: an editio princeps of his grammar, Baḥth al-maṭālib fī al-lugha al-ʿarabiyya, published in 1836 in Malta.51 But whereas Fāris provides no information about his editorial technique, his brother Asʿad tells us the following in his colophon to NEST AB 66:

‪علقه بيده الفانية العبد الضعيف اسعد بن يوسف الشدياق وذلك بتاريخ سنة الف وثمان ماية وثلث عشرة في اثنى عشر يوم من تشرين الاول وقد ساعده محرره اخوه طنوس بكتابة الفصل المعقود وبعض اوراق وقابله مقابلة صحيحة الضبت والامعان وذلك على نسخة جليلة محررة بقلم جبريل ابن لباد المذكور بها بلغ مقابلة بيد كاتبه على نسخة مؤلفه‫

It was copied (ʿallaqahu) by the perishable hand of the feeble servant Asʿad b. Yūsuf al-Shidyāq, in the year 1813, on the twelfth day of October. Its transcriber (muḥarriruhu), his brother, Ṭannūs, helped him in the writing of [Farḥāt’s] al-Faṣl al-maʿqūd and some folios, and collated it with sound precision and examination (qābalahu ṣaḥīḥat al-ḍabt wa-l-imʿān), according to an important, well-transcribed copy (nuskha jalīla wa-muḥarrara) by Jibrīl ibn Labbād, who is mentioned in it. It was completed by collation (balagha muqābalatan) by its scribe according to a copy by its author.52

These normative scribal conventions—collation, correction, assiduously checking against reliable exemplars—suggest more than a slavish conformity to authority, as the cliché about scribal culture on the eve of modernity would have it. Nor were these scribes indulging in any kind of esotericism or obscurantism.53 Instead, such notes are clear statements of the scribe’s own authority and agency, through which he plays an active and dynamic role in a text’s mediation.54 The comparing of Farḥāt’s text against an “important, well-transcribed copy” further attests to the embeddedness of tradi- tional Islamo-Arabic methods of textual criticism among Christian scribes. While nineteenth-century European philology would privilege the most ancient exemplars in the making of an edition, pre-existing Arabic practices tended to assess the reliability of copies based on the robustness of their transmission.55 As also mentioned in the above colophon, Asʿad completed his copy of Farḥāt’s grammatical works in 1813. This would have been some eight years before he entered the employ of the Protestant Syria Mission in 1825.56 That manuscripts copied by members of the Shidyāq family made their way into the mission’s archives suggests that the American “Biblemen” of the ABCFM were being brought into contact with an active and systematic scribal culture.

Such scribal practices were also brought to bear on the Arabic print culture established by European and American missionary organisations. As Hala Auji has observed, books printed in Beirut by American missionaries in the 1830s closely followed modes and conventions common to Arabic manuscripts. Thus, when the American Press was established in 1834, it “found itself at the nexus between age-old scribal traditions and emergent printing traditions.”57 This nod to manuscript-based culture in the AMP’s early editions was not only visual. As in Cairo’s Būlāq Press (discussed previously), AMP employees trained as manuscript copyists (nussākh) and correctors (muṣaḥḥiḥūn) applied their know-how to ensuring the textual quality of printed books.58

A central figure in the AMP’s editorial processes was Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī, a Greek Catholic. Like the Shidyāqs, al-Yāzijī hailed from an eminent family of notaries, having himself worked as a private secretary for local families in Mount Lebanon before entering the service of the ABCFM’s Syria Mission.59 An active copyist throughout his career, thirteen manuscripts in the NEST collection are known to have been produced by him (excluding drafts and corrections of what would later become known as the Van Dyck Bible). These contained works on subjects as diverse as Arabic grammar, logic, history, music, and even Islamic theology.60 Al-Yāzijī was also an author in his own right and was closely involved in the printing of his own works. Among these was his grammar entitled Faṣl al-khiṭāb fī uṣūl lughat al-aʿrāb (“Final Conclusion Concerning the Foundations of the Arabic Language”), first printed by the AMP in 1836 and several times thereafter. His first edition of this work contains several features reminiscent of contemporary manuscript production. These include an ornamental basmala in the form of an Ottoman ṭughrā and the invocation of Qurʾānic verses in the colophon, namely qul allāhu aḥad from Sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ, presumably to appeal to a wider readership.61 In a later edition of the Faṣl al-khiṭāb, prepared by al-Yāzijī himself in 1847 and printed in 1854, one finds further features comparable with those found in manuscripts. To facilitate the comparison, I have placed the printed colophon of al-Yāzijī’s 1854 edition alongside a colophon in one of his manuscripts from NEST (see also Fig. 4):

Figure 4
Figure 4

NEST AB 67: Colophon by Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī, dated 1263/1846–7

Citation: Philological Encounters 2021; 10.1163/24519197-bja10023

What is striking here is that the terms taʿlīq (lit. “joining”) and tabyīḍ (lit. “whitening”) are usually employed in Arabic manuscript colophons to mean both “composition” and “transcription,” along with many others such as kitāba (lit. “writing”), taḥrīr (lit. “editing”), and taswīd (lit. “blackening”).64 Of further note are formulae expressing humility on the part of the scribe (al-faqīr ilā ʿafw allāh and al-faqīr ilā rabbih) being used in reference to a printed work’s author.65 A more personal flourish is al-Yāzijī’s use of the expression “praise be to God, firstly and lastly” (al-ḥamd li-llāh awwalan wa-ākhiran), occurring in both his hand-written and printed colophons.66 That al-Yāzijī uses such scribal idioms in a work composed for print is noteworthy. It suggests, on the one hand, that the AMP’s inaugural editions were intended to meet the expectations of an audience more accustomed to reading manuscripts.67 On the other hand, the persistence of these conventions suggests that al-Yāzijī did not conceive of print as a radical departure from scribal production, especially where he himself was involved in the publication process. Colophons in printed editions were also used by intellectuals in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England who both authored and oversaw their own publications. Cathy Shrank has observed in these works an “active authorial input” and “rhetorical intimacy” that writers such as William Thomas (d. 1554) invested in the printed form, often by employing humility topoi more commonly found in manuscripts.68 Al-Yāzijī’s use of comparable methods likewise speaks of an active authorial input into the process of print. The occurrence of these features in printed works should prompt us to think of manuscript culture as an integral feature of the nahḍa, particularly among its first generation of intellectuals.

Entangled Grammatical Traditions: Arab Christians as Readers and Copyists of Ottoman Grammar

Having examined the ways in which traditional scribal practices informed the activities of early nahḍa thinkers, we now turn to a related area of intellectual production: the Arabic language sciences. We have already observed that many of the manuscripts copied by various men of the nahḍa dealt with grammatical subjects. The intersection between grammatical and scribal labour should not surprise us: “native” specialists were not only valued by foreign missions for their text-criticism but also for their extensive expertise in “Standard Arabic,” or al-fuṣḥā. As early as 1836, Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī, a man steeped in scribal culture, was also helping American missionaries to render colloquial Arabic translations of English works into the literary tongue.69 Al-Yāzijī continued in this role during his work on the Bible translation with Eli Smith and Buṭrus al-Bustānī. Initial drafts were produced by al-Bustānī, checked by Smith, and then revised by al-Yāzijī “to eliminate words and idioms inadmissible by classical standards.”70 Al-Yāzijī was also involved in the Majmaʿ al-tahdhīb (Refinement Council, est. 1846), a society of Christian Arab converts to Protestantism wishing to train itinerant preachers. Although al-Yāzijī never left the Greek Catholicism of his birth, his work with the Council helped acquaint its members with the Arabic eloquence needed to promote evangelism.71

Interest in maintaining high standards in Arabic is amply reflected in the NEST collection. Of the 283 distinguishable Arabic titles among NEST’s manuscripts, 69 belong to the genre of grammar, rhetoric, semantics, prosody, and lexicography. Noteworthy is that many of these grammatical manuscripts belong to an Ottoman commentary tradition that has hitherto been neglected in the context of the nahḍa.72 Even as new modes of intellectual production emerged over the course of the nineteenth century, this Ottoman tradition remained at the forefront of grammatical pedagogy during the nahḍa, both among Arab intellectuals and American missionaries. As such, manuscripts from the NEST collection that contain such texts present us with further points of continuity with earlier modes of scholarly praxis.

In Section 1, I surveyed past approaches that have assessed pre-nahḍa intellectual traditions through the rubric of decline. Such narratives were also prominent among many nineteenth-century Arab intellectuals who tended to glorify a classical, Abbasid age while rejecting an immediate Ottoman past.73 In his Khuṭba fī ādāb al-ʿarab (“Lecture on the Literature of the Arabs”), delivered in 1859, Buṭrus al-Bustānī maintained that Arab learning—including the linguistic sciences (al-ʿulūm al-lughawiyya)—had been in a total state of decline since the fourteenth century.74 Reflecting favourably on the European and American presence in the Middle East, al-Bustānī expresses the hope that the example set by Catholic and Protestant missionaries might help the Arabs to recapture the achievements of Islamic Spain and Abbasid Baghdad.75

However, the manuscripts of the NEST collection tell a very different story. While the achievements of post-Abbasid Arabic scholars are entirely absent from al-Bustānī’s survey of Arabic literature, they are found in considerable abundance among the manuscripts acquired by the Syria Mission. Indeed, few of the Arab grammarians and rhetoricians of al-Bustānī’s vaunted Abbasid age appear in this repository. Instead, many of the works contained in these manuscripts belong to a later textual tradition characterised by a bipartite or tripartite scheme, consisting of the base text (matn, pl. mutūn); commentary (sharḥ, pl. shurūḥ); and marginal gloss or supercommentary (ḥāshiya, pl. ḥawāshī). Among them in the NEST collection are copies of:

  • The Miftāḥ al-ʿulūm (“Key to Sciences”), a manual on rhetoric by Yūsuf b. Abī Bakr al-Sakkākī (d. 1229). This work is often—if not always—accompanied by an abridgment entitled Talkhīṣ al-miftāḥ (“Abridgement of the Key”) by Jalāl al-Dīn al-Qazwīnī (d. 1338); Qazwīnī’s al-Īḍāḥ fī al-maʿānī wa-l-bayān (“Explanation of Semantics and Rhetoric”), an expanded version of his Talkhīṣ; a short and long commentary on al-Qazwīnī’s abridgement (al-Sharḥ al-mukhtaṣar [“The Short Commentary”] and al-Muṭawwal [“The Long Commentary”] respectively) by Saʿd al-Dīn al-Taftāzānī (d. 1390); glosses on al-Qazwīnī’s al-Muṭawwal by al-Sayyid al-Sharīf al-Jurjānī (d. 1413); and a treatise by ʿAbd al-Raḥīm b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-ʿAbbāsī (d. 1555/6) on literary examples (shawāhid) given in the Talkhīṣ;76

  • The Alfiyya, a famous pedagogical poem on grammar by Ibn Mālik (d. 1274), with commentaries and glosses by Badr al-Dīn Ibn Mālik (d. 1287), Khālid b. ʿAbdallāh al-Azharī (d. 1499), ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿĀqil (fl. ca. 1294–1367), Badr al-Dīn al-ʿAynī (d. 1451), ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Ushmūnī (d. 1494/5), and Zakariyāʾ b. Muḥmammad al-Anṣārī (fl. ca. 1423–1520);77

  • The Miṣbāḥ fī al-naḥw (“The Lamp concerning Grammar”) of Nāṣir b. al-Sayyid al-Muṭarrizī (d. 1213), with commentaries and glosses by Tāj al-Dīn al-Isfarāyinī (d. 1285), the aforementioned al-Taftāzānī, and Yaʿqūb Sayyid ʿAlīzādeh (fl. 16th century).78

The presence of these works in the library of the Syria Mission is far from incidental, since they were highly popular in Ottoman colleges.79 Many of the names associated with this textual tradition flourished between the Mongol, Timurid, and Mamluk eras. Several eastern-Islamic authors such as Isfarāyinī were first brought to Ottoman Arab and Turkish lands in the seventeenth century by Kurdish and Azeri scholars fleeing Safavid incursions into the eastern frontiers of the Ottoman Empire. These late medieval and early modern scholars were regarded in Ottoman medreses as leading authorities on grammar and rhetoric (among other subjects), such that their commentaries became subject to numerous glosses.80 These commentators and glossators were also regarded as representatives of the school of taḥqīq (“verification”) and contributed to the emergence of ādāb al-baḥth wa-l-munāẓara (“disciplines of investigation and disputation”)—a distinct feature of the early modern Ottoman intellectual landscape.81 Moreover, the text-centred method of teaching embodied in these commentaries and glosses facilitated the emergence of what Khaled El-Rouayheb has termed “deep reading,” the transmission of knowledge centered on the careful perusal (muṭālaʿa) of key texts.82 Far from limiting intellectual development, this method of layered and discursive learning served as a vehicle for rigorous enquiry.83 Alongside grammar and rhetoric, Aristotelian logic functioned as another means of analysing seminal texts. A key primer to logic was the Īsāghūjī (Isogoge) of another Mongol-era writer, Athīr al-Dīn al-Abharī (d. 1262 or 1265).84 This work drew attention from several generations of commentators and glossators during the post-Mongol, Timurid, Mamluk, and Ottoman eras. Among them were Ḥusām al-Dīn al-Kātī (d. 1359), Shams al-Dīn al-Fanārī (d. 1453), Zakariyyāʾ al-Anṣārī (d. 1519), and Qūl Aḥmad b. Khidr (d. ca. 1543).85 Such texts enjoyed a special esteem among many Ottoman Islamic jurists who regarded logic as not only commendable but also as a religious obligation, particularly for those embarking on the study of law and theology.86

This post-classical tradition of logic represents yet another site of encounter between Muslims and Christians in the Ottoman Empire. An adjacent tradition of Arabic logic was derived from early modern Latin models and had percolated into Catholic institutions throughout the Middle East, its chief representatives being Buṭrūs al-Tūlāwī (1657/8–1746) and Joseph Assemani (1687–1768).87 Yet Christians were also familiar with foundational texts on logic by Muslim writers, not least al-Abharī’s Īsāghūjī and its commentary tradition, which can be found throughout several ecclesiastical and monastic collections in the Middle East.88 Arab Christians not only read this text; they also actively engaged with its contents. The Greek Catholic typographer, ʿAbdallāh Zākhir (1684–1748), studied logic in Aleppo under the Muslim grammarian and logician Sulaymān al-Naḥawī (d. 1728), and wrote his own unfinished commentary on al-Abharī’s Īsāghūjī, later completed by a junior contemporary, Yuwākīm Muṭrān (d. 1766).89 The legacy of Abharī’s Īsāghūjī is likewise present in the NEST collection, which contains a copy of Fanārī’s commentary with glosses by Qūl Aḥmad (NEST AB 21), dated 1078 AH/1667 AD, and another copy of Fanārī’s commentary produced by Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī (NEST AO 54) between 1840–50, based on an ownership mark by Eli Smith.

It is clear that foreign missionaries such as Smith were encountering a current tradition of logic within learned Ottoman circles. Fanārī’s commentary on the Īsāghūjī, together with Qūl Aḥmad’s glosses, was published as a lithograph in Istanbul in 1861, while an earlier lithograph of Fanārī’s commentary, this time containing Qara Khalīl Tīrevī’s (1711) glosses, was printed in 1873/4.90 It was precisely because of the popularity of al-Abharī’s Īsāghūjī and its exegetical layers that it would later be printed. It is also noteworthy that this tradition of logic was in line with pedagogical methods approved by the Muslim ʿulamāʾ of the Ottoman Empire (as mentioned above). The endurance of this tradition suggests that “Islamic” modes of knowledge production were not wholly eclipsed by “secular” models. For not only were manuscripts from this tradition held in ecclesiastical libraries throughout the empire; they were also of interest to Christian intellectuals such as al-Yāzijī and his missionary associates.

We have so far seen how a late medieval and early modern tradition of Ottoman grammar, rhetoric, and logic had percolated into learned Christian Arab circles by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We should also note that such texts were actively sought by intellectuals whom the historiography of the nahḍa remembers as key figures in the emergence of Arab modernity. As we learn from the statutes of the SSAS, a major acquisition of some 756 Arabic and Turkish manuscripts and printed books was conducted by Niʿmat Allāh al-Thābit with the help of the British diplomat Charles Henry Churchill (1807–1869). As mentioned in the introduction to this study, these manuscripts would later pass into the care of Eli Smith. Of interest here is that many of these items seem to have been acquired from Muslim owners, since a large number are listed as books on Islamic jurisprudence, Sufism, and ḥadīth.91 After Islamic jurisprudence, however, the most represented genres are grammar (73 manuscripts), logic (31 manuscripts), and rhetoric (12 manuscripts). Although the statutes of the SSAS do not list these manuscripts by name, it is likely that they contained several of the post-classical works discussed previously in this section. Moreover, after the SSAS library passed to the newly founded Syrian Protestant College, they were immediately put to use in the curriculum. For example, among the manuscripts studied in the SPC’s philosophy and sciences elective was a copy of the Sharḥ al-hidāya of Shams al-Dīn b. Mubārak-Shāh (d. ca. 1334), a commentary on al-Abharī’s Hidāyat al-ḥikma.92 It is likely that such post-classical works held at NEST were similarly acquired for their pedagogical value.

In addition to being of interest to the Christian Arab intellectuals mentioned thus far, such works also came to the attention of American Arabists at the Syria Mission. The colophon of one NEST manuscript of the Dīwān of Ibn al-Fāriḍ (d. 1234), which contains the commentary by the Damascene prosodist and grammarian Ḥasan al-Būrīnī (d. 1615), informs us that it was commissioned by Cornelius van Dyck in Sidon in 1851 (see Fig. 5).93

Figure 5
Figure 5

NEST AB 32: Colophon mentioning commission by Cornelius van Dyck, dated 1851

Citation: Philological Encounters 2021; 10.1163/24519197-bja10023

We should note here that Van Dyck was accessing classical Arabic poetry through an early modern tradition of Arabic pedagogy. For al-Būrīnī exemplifies many of the intellectual currents discussed so far, having studied the semantic works of al-Taftāzānī and taught the commentaries on al-Sakkākī’s Miftāḥ al-ʿulūm and al-Kātī’s commentary on al-Abharī’s Īsāghūjī.94 Such works also informed the linguistic activities of the Syria Mission more generally. Although Eli Smith and Cornelius Van Dyck are often credited with the famous Arabic Bible translation carried out between 1848 and 1865, the project was in fact a collaborative effort between Smith, Van Dyck, al-Yāzijī, al-Bustānī, and even Muslim intellectuals such as Yūsuf al-Asīr (1815–1889).95 Yet in addition to employing local knowhow, Smith and Eli were also indebted to an early modern current of language science that was still very much alive in the Ottoman Empire by the mid-nineteenth century. In his survey of lexicographical and grammatical sources employed in the translation, Smith recalls a number of “helps to a full understanding and proper use of the Arabic language”—many of which now reside in the NEST collection.96 These include a number of post-classical sources and their commentaries, some of which should now be familiar to us:97

  • Ibn Mālik’s Alfiyya, with the commentary by ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Ushmūnī (d. 1494/5);98

  • Ibn Mālik’s Tashīl al-fawāʾid wa-takmīl al-maqāṣid (an abridgement of the now lost al-Fawāʾid fī al-naḥw, “The Utilities concerning Grammar”), with commentary by Muḥammad b. Abī Bakr al-Damāmīnī (d. 1424);99

  • Al-Taftāzānī’s longer (Muṭawwal) and shorter (Mukhtaṣar) commentaries on Qazwīnī’s abridgement of al-Sakkākī’s Miftāḥ al-ʿulūm.100

Thus, despite al-Bustānī’s protestations that the light of the Arabic language sciences had long grown dim, it was in fact a thoroughly post-Abbasid intellectual tradition that informed the translation activities of his colleagues in the Syria Mission. While modern historians once maintained that Ottoman scholarship was needlessly complicated by a profusion of commentaries, it was in fact this very commentary culture that helped produce an up-to-date version of the Bible. For many, this Bible version served as a hallmark of Arab modernity as well as Arab Protestant identity.101 Prior to the emergence of this new translation, Protestant missionaries in Syria relied on an edition published by the Propaganda Fide in 1671.102 The Arabic of this version was intentionally written in what some modern scholars have called “Middle Arabic.”103 This mix of spoken and formal registers was common throughout Arabic Bible translations until the nineteenth century.104 Finding the 1671 Roman edition “in bad taste, or absolutely unintelligible,” Eli Smith wished to see the Bible rendered into a language that conformed to the Arabic of the Qurʾān and the literary standards of educated Muslims more generally.105 To do so, it was necessary to make use of a grammatical tradition that was common across educated Ottoman circles, Muslim and Christian alike. The Arab intellectuals of the nahḍa and their American “Biblemen” colleagues were certainly not the first to do so. As Hilary Kilpatrick has observed, Jirmānūs Farḥāt was among the first Christian Arab intellectuals of the modern period to explicitly work within the Islamic grammatical tradition.106 For Protestant Arabists a century later, this grammatical tradition had become all but impossible to ignore.


Based on the foregoing analysis, I hope to have shown that the material from the NEST collection rather complicates the idea of the nahḍa as a seismic shift from earlier forms of knowledge production. One important aspect of continuity was the copying and circulation of manuscripts. While it is impossible to deny the impact of print media on the literary output of this period, nahḍa intellectuals continued to value scribal culture. Far from viewing manuscripts as incommensurable with modern publishing, Arab literati were keen to bring scribal practices with them into the age of print, rather than transition from them. Authors such as Fāris al-Shidyāq, who were entirely at home in the world of print, also saw great value in the scribal art—not only for its aesthetic value but also for its ability to produce reliable texts. While there were no doubt poor scribes (as indeed there were poor printers), the scribal tradition inherited by Fāris al-Shidyāq was one that valued accuracy and meticulousness. We have encountered such concerns in various NEST manuscripts produced by his father, Yūsuf, and his brothers, Asʿad and Ṭannūs. It comes as little surprise, then, that Christian Arab copyists for the Syria Mission of the ABCFM later became correctors and printers, not only of their own works but also of their own Arabic-language heritage.

A further point of continuity was the reading and teaching of the Arabic language through a multi-layered textual tradition of commentaries and glosses. Long thought to be signs of post-classical decline, such texts were in fact highly popular throughout Ottoman schools, and so their presence in Christian collections is hardly surprising. While contacts with Rome and Western missionaries would certainly have an impact on the intellectual landscape, Ottoman trends in grammar, rhetoric, semantics, and logic were equally prevalent among the Empire’s Arab Christians. Like their Muslim neighbours, these intellectuals drew on such seminal texts as al-Abharī’s Īsāghūjī and al-Sakkākī’s Miftāḥ al-ʿulūm, together with commentaries and glosses on these works. While such names as al-Taftāzānī and Fanārī may not loom large in the Arab nationalist imaginary, they were nevertheless invaluable authorities on grammar and logic whom scholars could scarcely afford to ignore. Such was the case in the Protestant missionary milieu of modern-day Lebanon, where the likes of Eli Smith and Cornelius van Dyck were confronted by a living tradition of Ottoman commentary culture. As such, the manuscripts of the NEST collection were not simply objects of antiquarian interest to those who acquired them. Rather, they contained texts that were of immediate interest and use to the Syria Mission, the SPC, and learned societies like the SSAS. For the historian, therefore, the NEST collection serves as a reminder of the nahḍa’s early modern beginnings and a bridge to its immediate Ottoman past.


I should like to thank Hala Auji and Feras Krimsti for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this article. I am also grateful to Anthony Edwards for clarifications about the history of various Middle Eastern libraries. Further thanks are owed to the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library for kindly allowing me to reproduce images from the NEST collection. All remaining errors are my own.


Cambridge, University Library, Or. 2215.

NEST AB 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 21, 25, 26, 32, 39, 40, 41, 45, 48, 50, 55, 58, 59, 60, 62, 63, 66, 67, 69.

NEST AH, 2, 3, 4, 5, 15.

NEST AO 47, 54.



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