By Ahmed Shaker
I am an independent researcher working on early Qurʾānic manuscripts and fragments written in māʼil and Kūfī styles, which dates back to the period from the 7th century to the 11 century CE. I blog at quranmss.com. I am fascinated, too, by illuminated and gilded Qurans from later periods such as those in naskhī, thuluth, rayḥānī, biharī, and ṣīnī scripts. I spend most of my time researching, writing, translating, collecting books and volumes, and following-up on recent conferences, symposia, and events associated with the codicological and paleographical studies of Qurʾānic manuscripts. In addition, I tend to make regular journeys to distinguished libraries, museums, and public exhibitions in the Middle East, Europe, and North America to keep myself updated with current literature, look for unexplored materials convenient for publication in my field of interest, not to mention locating out-of-print books and references. This is not always an easy task considering factors such as date of publication, how rare it is, and whether it is available in many libraries or not.
This year, I decided to visit the British Library (BL) in London to explore some of the non-digitized Qurʾānic materials, focusing my eyes on bindings, frontispieces, illustrations, scribal errors, marginalia, and other impressive features of handwritten documents. It was a productive journey as I anticipated it to be. As you may know, the BL has one of the largest and finest collections of Arabic manuscripts in both Europe and North America, with over 100,000 volumes of printed books, periodicals, and newspapers, in addition to more than 15,000 manuscripts works in 14,000 volumes, covering various subject matters. These include Quranic sciences and commentaries, hadīth, kalām, Islamic jurisprudence, mysticism and philosophy, Arabic grammar and philology, poetry, history, science, medicine, and many other subjects and themes. Moreover, the Arabic manuscripts at BL consist of two major collections: the Arabic manuscripts of the old British Museum Library and those of the India Office Library; formerly part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. These two historic collections, in addition to acquisitions made after 1973, were transferred to the newly-formed British Library in 1982.
In this blog post, I will be offering a detailed information guide—supplied by photographs and illustrations—to newcomers to the British Library, so they can thoroughly enjoy the experience and understand some of the requirements and regulations of the library before their arrival.
A large bronze sculpture of Sir Issac Newton displayed on a high plinth in the piazza outside the British Library in London. The work is based on William Blake’s 1795 portrayal of Newton, which depicts him sitting on a ledge while measuring with a pair of compasses (Photo Credit: Ahmed Shaker)
Register to get your Reader Pass
To be able to request items (i.e. manuscripts, books, maps, journals, periodicals, etc.), access readings rooms, and enjoy the full privileges of the British Library, you must register to get your Reader Pass. The library recommends registering online to start the process of becoming a Reader.
Getting to the British Library
A side view of the British Library’s campus in London (photo credit: Ahmed Shaker)
The British Library’s main campus is located on 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB. For me, I occupied a place nearby King’s Cross St. Pancras, which is a few steps away from the library. No matter where you reside in London, you can always get to the British Library by using one or more forms of public transport; train, underground, bus, or coaches. GoogleMaps tends to be reliable in London with predictions regarding traffic and transit.
Reader Registration Office
To complete your registration, you have to visit the Reader Registration office on the Upper Ground Floor. Take the stairs, and it will be to your right-hand side. There, the receptionist will ask you to provide identification and proof of address. The easiest way to do this is to login to your online banking, open your profile, and give your phone to the receptionist to verify it; a PDF of your paperless banking statement should work as well (FYI: this is the same exact protocol for becoming a reader at the Cambridge University Libraries).
Once documents have been verified and accepted, you will be directed to an adjacent computer desk to register as a new Reader (applies if you haven’t pre-registered online) or to complete your pre-registration. Don’t worry; the receptionist will tell you which option to choose as you get close to that step. Now, remember your queue number and wait to be called by the registrar to take your photo and give you your Reader Pass. Your Pass is free of charge and valid for one year. Congratulations!
My Reader Pass for “research, inspiration, and enjoyment.” (Photo Credit: Ahmed Shaker)
Asian & African Studies Reading Room, Floor 3. Poster on the left shows what you can and can’t bring into Reading Rooms (Photo Credit: Ahmed Shaker).
Accessing Reading Rooms
Now that you hold a Reader Pass, you can access Reading Rooms, which are located on the three floors of the building by showing your Pass to the inspector after passing through the door.
Floor 1: Humanities, Rare Books & Music, Social Sciences, Business & IP Centre.
Floor 2: Humanities, Manuscripts, Science.
Floor 3: Maps, Asian & African Studies, Science.
You must follow Room requirements. Violation of rules may result in the suspension of your Reader Pass. Note that if any of these prohibited items are found, they are held with the inspector until the Reader leaves for the day.
Reading Room Requirements:
– Pens, highlighters, and sharp implements are not allowed, but you can bring a pencil to make notes.
– Bringing food, drink, bottled water, sweets or gum is not permitted.
– Use Cloakroom or Locker Room in the Lower Ground Floor to keep your bags, coats, and umbrella as they are not allowed inside Reading Rooms.
– You can bring electronics devices (i.e. laptops, cellphones, etc.) into reading rooms but keep them in silent mode.
– Reading Rooms are not made for collaborative work, so you should not work in groups; share items with others; or request items on behalf of someone else.
The Asian & African Studies, Maps, and Manuscripts Reading Rooms close at 5 pm every day. It’s important that you differentiate between opening hours for the BL itself, Reader Registration Office, and Reading Rooms, as they all have dissimilar operating hours.
During my short visit, I recall Asian & African Studies Reading Room was packed with people, but you can still find some empty tables to work on if you come early to the library. This varies with time of year: summer might be busier than the winter, fall and spring because researchers come in because they might not have teaching responsibilities during this period.
Duʿāʾ (prayer of supplication) from a 17th-century Qurʾān in ṣinī script, accompanied by Chinese translation between the lines. IO ISL 3440, f.60v (Photo Credit: Ahmed Shaker)
Requesting and Delivering items
To request item(s), go to Explore the British Library page, search the main catalogue to get the shelfmark number of that particular manuscript (example: Or. 2155). Now, from the navigation bar, click on Request Other Items. You will be directed to My Reading Room Requests page. Log in with your BL online account username and password, put the shelfmark in the search box, and just hit Enter. Your order is now being processed.
Delivery of materials requires 70 minutes at most, but if your requested items are in offsite storage, that may take up to 48 hours. So, always make your requests ahead of your visit to save the day. To check the status of your request(s), on the same navigation bar, click on My Reading Room Requests, and it should hopefully say “ready for collection” and informs you which Reading Room it delivers to.
If you are like me and are interested in Arabic and Islamic manuscripts, you have to take the elevator (or lift) to the third floor where Asian & African Studies Reading Room is to collect requested items.
You are allowed to request up to 10 manuscripts per day but no more than two items at a time. However, all manuscripts must be returned to the Issue Desk by 4:30 pm. Yes, You can reserve your items to work on them later for three days at most.
Navigating through a 16th-century Quran written in Bihari script at Asian & African Studies Reading Room on the third floor (Photo Credit: Ahmed Shaker)
Slips and Restricted Materials
Manuscripts in the British Library generally come with two slips; yellow and green. Yellow slips are restricted materials, so photography is not allowed. However, you may notice some manuscripts are in good physical condition but still have a yellow slip attached to them. If that is the case, I suggest you speak to one of the curators, and they will change the slip for you.
Some materials are highly restricted (comes with red slips), and you won’t be able to request them yourself. Here, too, you should be able to contact one of the curators to see if they can release the item for you. Simply walk to the Information Desk and ask for any available curator, and someone shall meet you within 2-3 minutes.
To sum up:
– Green slips: photography is allowed.
– Yellow slips: photography is not permitted. Material may be delicate or in poor condition, but not necessarily.
– Red slips: highly restricted materials, photography is not allowed, should be returned within 30 minutes of use.
(Photo credit: Ahmed Shaker)
Treasures of the British Library
Here is the fun part. As someone who is visiting the British Library for the first time, you surely want to discover some of the BL’s most exciting manuscripts, books, and recordings. The British Library holds more than 150 million items exemplifying vast periods of world written civilization.
The Treasures of the British Library (TBL) exhibition at the John Ritblat Gallery (on UG Floor) will give you the chance to explore more than 3,000 years of human knowledge and experience in art, history, religion, music and much more.
Some highlighted works:
-The desk where Jane Austen penned her novels, originals from Charles Dickens, and William Shakespeare’s First Folio.
-Lindisfarne Gospels and the oldest surviving examples of printed text in Japan.
-Religious texts from across the globe, including the Library’s earliest Qur’an written on parchment, and a Hindu manuscript written on a palm leaf.
-science and innovation throughout the ages from Michelangelo’s anatomical illustrations to Anne McLaren’s early experiments.
-Historical figures who have inspired change such as Ghandi, the Suffragettes and others.
The exhibition is open from Monday to Sunday, and is free of admission. However, unlike my previous visit to TBL in 2017, I see that photography is now permitted. Notice the gallery room is darker and cooler than any other area in the library, as controlled environment is necessary for the protection of exhibited materials from bright lights and humidity condition. You may want to bring extra clothing for your comfort.
The British Library’s oldest Qurʾān exhibited today at the Sir John Ritblat Gallery. Written in the so-called mail script, it has 121 folios containing over two-thirds of the Qurʾānic text. It was presented to the British Museum on 29 April 1879 by Greville John Chester who likely brought it from Egypt. Or. 2165, ff.77v-78r (Photo credit: Ahmed Shaker)
Cafés & Bookshop & Prayer Room
How about some hot chocolate and banana cake with butter? (Photo Credit: Ahmed Shaker)
If you get tired of research, you can kick around at some cafés and restaurants available on Ground Floor. They accept cash and credit cards. There is also the British Library Bookshop on the Ground Floor if you are looking to buy some books and gifts. You may even get discounts with your Reader Pass; I purchased some magnets and leather bookmarks and saved 3 pounds!
These tend to be low to mid-priced for London prices, but perhaps rather pricey in comparison to North America, the Middle East, North Africa, and other parts of Europe.There are several places to eat around the British Library, not in the building itself that is. One could eat out or bring things back with them to eat in the cafe areas. One could also pack a lunch and leave it in the lockers. There is a Pizza Express across the street, as well as a Pret a Manger. The classic BL lunch spot is Roti King, which can get busy over lunchtime but is open from 12 p.m.-3 p.m.
British Library Bookshop (Photo Credit: Ahmed Shaker)
Sitting areas are distributed on all floors, but if you need quiet study areas, then take the lift to Floor 2, where the Business & IP Centre is.
Lastly, if you want to pray, there are inclusive prayer space on Floor 1 and 2; adjacent to Humanities Room, and on Floor 3; adjacent to Maps Room. One person can access the room at a time, and it can be locked from inside for personal privacy. The room is provided with a Muslim prayer rug, as well.
Note: I wish to thank Dan Lowe and Collin F. Baker of the British Library for their assistance and courtesy; Mariam Aboelezz for providing helpful information on prayer areas in BL. I express my gratitude to N. A. Mansour for her kind invitation to me to share the fruits of this journey with the respected readers of Hazine.
Useful links & References
How to get to the British Library
How to get Reader Pass
Explore the British Library, Search Catalogues, Request Other Items, and My Reading Room Items
Digitized Manuscripts at the British Library
The Arabic Manuscript Collection in the British Library – Colin F. Baker
Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library
British Library Treasures
Asian & African Studies Blog
Printed Catalogues of the Arabic Collection
Cureton, W. and C. Rieu, Catalogus codicum manuscriptorum orientalium qui in Museo Britannico asservantur. Pars secunda, codices arabicos amplectens (London, 1846-71).
Rieu, C., Supplement to the catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts in the British Museum. London, 1894.
Ellis, A. G. and E. Edwards, Descriptive list of the Arabic manuscripts acquired by the Trustees of the British Museum since 1894 (London, 1912).
Stocks, P., Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library, ed. by Colin F. Baker (London, 2001).
Ahmed Shaker is an independent scholar working on early Qur’anic manuscripts from the first two centuries of Islam, yearning to understand the preservation and transmission process of the Quranic text in the formative period. His articles shed light on early Quranic documents and their characteristics, Quranic collections and exhibitions, scribal practices, and the 19th/20th-century orientalists’ interaction with Quranic codices and how they shaped Quranic manuscript studies as we know it today.
He co-translated Sir Issac Newton’s An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture into Arabic (Nama Centre for Research and Studies, 2015) and, more recently, The Library of al-Masjid al-Nabawi: History and Rarities (forthcoming). You can follow him at @shakerr_Ahmed or visit his blog at http://quranmss.com.