Students Make Remarkable Discoveries in UCLA’s Encountering Arabic Manuscripts Course

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If there was any question that the vast array of handwritten medieval manuscripts in the UCLA Library’s Special Collections in Arabic, Persian, and Old Ottoman Turkish contained undiscovered historical gems and unique avenues for groundbreaking research, just ask PhD student Brooke Baker..

While studying an untitled text under UCLA “Meeting Arabic Manuscripts” Of course, Baker discovered that it contained a work by Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani, the 16th-century mystic and scholar who founded an Egyptian order of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. Thinking she might have stumbled upon something rare, she showed it to Associate Professor Luke Yarbrough, who teaches the course.

“On a hunch, Brooke and I shared this discovery with Adam Sabra, the King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud Chair in Islamic Studies at UC Santa Barbara, who has worked extensively on Sha’rani,” Yarbrough recalls. The verdict? “He knew of only three other such manuscripts in the world – two in Egypt and one in Saudi Arabia – and was unaware of those at UCLA.”

This remarkable discovery is just one of many that have been made in the course, an ongoing collaboration between UCLA Islamic Studies Program and UCLA Library. Library Special Collections, which houses an assortment of world-class archives, books, manuscripts, photographs, and other materials available to students, faculty, and the public, is an invaluable resource for such partnerships.

“The UCLA Library’s collection of Middle Eastern and Islamic manuscripts is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world, totaling at least 8,000 manuscripts,” said Ginny Steel, librarian of Norman and Armena Powell University at UCLA. “These collections include rare and beautiful illuminated manuscripts, poetry and literature, important medical and scientific treatises, and works of historical significance.”

The course itself began with a conversation between Yarbrough, who studies ancient and medieval Islamic history, and Jet Jacobs, public services, outreach and community engagement manager for the library’s special collections.

“Since 2018, Library Special Collections has taught or facilitated over 300 classes using our materials. This means over 10,000 students have interacted with over 25,000 rare and unique objects, leading to a number of discoveries and paths research,” Jacobs said. “The majority of these were undergraduate courses; it is important to integrate primary-source literacy into the undergraduate curriculum so that students feel empowered to conduct original research and see themselves as creators of knowledge.

Although Library Special Collections works with faculty across campus, supporting classes in history, English, science, dance, studio art and beyond, this particular collaboration was sparked in partly by the fact that the collection of manuscripts from the Middle East and Islam has not yet been widely catalogued. — a remarkable opportunity for students and teachers to plumb its unknown depths.

Beyond the wealth of knowledge available in each manuscript, many offer intriguing windows into the past. Marginal annotations, personal notes, and even library stamps through the centuries provide invaluable insight for those seeking to understand specific works in their full context. Using such clues, another Yarbrough course doctoral student, Hinesh Shah, was able to identify a manuscript as having belonged to specific officials of the 18th-century South Asian Mughal Empire.

Learn about the unique discoveries of Baker, Shah and other course students

In fact, this research is so promising that an anonymous donor recently donated $100,000 to UCLA to support the preservation, cataloging, and accessibility of the manuscript collection for anyone wishing to explore it. Specifically, the donation will allow graduate students to further expand their cataloging work.

“This collaboration benefits everyone – we rely entirely on the Library’s Special Collections for archival and preservation expertise, while the academic community can help make sense of the collections,” Yarbrough said. “Another important piece of the puzzle comes from members of the wider Los Angeles community who care about these manuscripts for what they represent religiously and culturally.”

After all, connecting the world with UCLA research and resources underpins the course, collaboration, and work of the Library’s Special Collections and Islamic Studies program.

“There is no end to the potential of materials from the library’s special collections to encourage new areas of research and stimulate curiosity,” Jacobs said. “Our collections include everything from stone tablets and medieval manuscripts to born-digital resources and books by contemporary artists, and we are always looking for opportunities to engage our communities with these important cultural heritage materials.”

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