admin1 – March 6, 2007 – 2:41pm

The Koran, copied in Lerin in 1859
Marijana Kavcic

Arabic Manuscripts and their Significance

In the rich cultural treasury of Macedonia there is a specific heritage of great value that takes a special place, a heritage which is yet to be fully researched and presented to the professional and larger public: the Arabic manuscripts. Created with the spreading of Islam, in the various places and in the various periods of history, the Arabic manuscripts, with the richness of their contents, give evidence of the high achievements in the areas of spirituality, philosophy, culture, science, and in the other fields of life in the Arabo-Islamic civilization space. However, they also testify about the permanent intellectual exchange between the East and the West and the freedom of mutual influences even in the time that was mostly characterized with the constant conflicts between the Christianity and the Islam.

The Arabic manuscripts can be found in libraries, archives, museums and private collections throughout the world, even in those countries that have never had a direct contact with the Islamic culture. To the territory of the Republic of Macedonia the Arabic manuscripts arrived with the expansion of the authority of the Ottoman Empire in the region. Today, a large number of them make an integral part of the Collection of Oriental Manuscripts that is kept in the National and University Library “St. Clement of Ohrid” in Skopje. The collection consists of a rich fund of manuscripts written in the three oriental languages: Arabic, Ottoman-Turkish and Persian. As to their number, the Arabic manuscripts with about 2,600 books come in the first place, followed by the manuscripts written in Turkish, which amount to 1,050, while the number of Persian manuscripts is about 100. The presence of such a large number of Arabic manuscripts may seem a little unusual because the many-a-century Turkish presence in the region leads us to expect the much larger number of Turkish manuscripts. So, the logical question is: how come there are so many Arabic manuscripts in Macedonia?

In order to give an answer to this question, it is necessary to indicate briefly the role and the importance of the Arabic language during a long period of the Middle Ages. That role is of a key importance for understanding the Islamic civilization and it is also exclusively important for understanding the nature of intellectual movements in Europe, taking into account that a large number of the lost works from the European Antiquity have been preserved thanks to their translations in Arabic.

The real story of the Arabic manuscripts started fourteen centuries ago, on the territory of the present Saudi Arabia, when the Holy Book of the Muslims, the Koran, was revealed to a member of the Kuraysh tribe from Mecca by the name of Muhammad. The Arabic language, which up to that time had been respected as the language of poetry of the scattered Arabic tribes isolated from the rest of the civilized world of that time by the desert regions of the Arabic Peninsula, became the language of the Revelation and of the new religion. It spread together with the Arabic conquests that in a short time came over a large region stretching from central Asia via northern Africa up to Spain.

On this way, the first Arabic manuscripts appeared. During the reign of the first Arabic dynasty, the one of the Omayyads, who had taken Damascus for their capital, began the mass translation from Greek into Arabic. This rich translation activity that, in the period of European humanism, unveiled to Europe its classical heritage, reached its peak during the Abbasids’ dynasty, in the Baghdad Caliphate. In the beginning, the translation was made indirectly, via Syriac and Aramaic languages, and later on directly from Greek. At the court of the famous Haroun al Rashid and the other Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad reigned a great interest in Greek philosophy, medicine and mathematics and it was precisely thanks to the Arabic translations that a large number of works that had been lost in their Greek originals remained preserved, as is the case of Galen’s Anatomy[1].

Thanks to an Arabic translation of a mathematical treatise that an Indian traveler brought to Baghdad, the entire Islamic world adopted the numerals that today in Europe are called the Arabic numerals - to be differentiated from the more complicated Roman numerals - and for which the Arabs themselves use the term “Indian”.

So, the Arabic language, in rather a short time, transformed itself from the language of poetry of the pre-Islamic period into the language of science, culture and thought in general, capable of expressing the most complicated scientific terms and of transferring the philosophical ideas and concepts.

After the process of assimilation of the heritage of the civilizations found on the conquered territories through the translations into Arabic, came the time of the original Arabic or, more precisely, Islamic contribution to the development of the scientific thought.  At that time, the Arabs, in the ethnical sense, represented just a drop in the sea of various peoples living within the borders of their Empire. The Persians proved to be the most productive; to the Islamic world that, at that time, was under the political and military domination of the Arabs, they gave the best philologists, the most freethinking philosophers and the major actors of the cultural movements in general. All of them wrote their most important works in Arabic, the language of the learned people of the Islamic world, used for the communication from Spain all the way to India, in the similar way as Latin used to be the language of science and culture in the Christian Western Europe of the Middle Ages. The Persian Ibn Sina, known in Europe as Avicenna, wrote his scientific works in Arabic, while the poetry, in which he was also interested, he wrote in the Persian language. The same can be said for the next generations of scholars from the Persian speaking area. In that way, in the period between the 9th and the 11th century, there were more works on philosophy, medicine, history, religion, astronomy and geography written in Arabic that in any other language[2].

Where have the Arabic Manuscripts come from to Macedonia and what do they contain?

Our region came in touch with the Islam and the Islamic civilization through the Ottoman Empire that, on the peak of its power, during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520 – 1566), controlled the area from Budapest to Crimea and from Baghdad to the Nile’s third cataract[3]. The Ottoman Empire was a mixture of different elements inherited from the Persians and the Byzantines, but in the first place, from the Arabs. The Turks adopted from the Arabs their religion – with its socio-economic principles and religious law – as well as their script, that remained in use up to 1928.

Although the official language of the Ottoman Empire was the Turkish language, during the Turkish conquests of the Balkans, the Arabic, as the language of the Koran, but also as the language of the works of scientific and philosophical character, was still considered superior to Turkish, continuing to play the role of a carrier and transmitter of the Islamic religion and of the Islamic civilization. This is absolutely comprehensible, taking into account the fact that the Arabic language had already had an elaborated terminology and had already counted with the numerous works, not only in the area of religious disciplines, but also in all the other fields of sciences.

So, it is quite understandable that a certain number of authors from the South Slavic geographical and linguistic area used to write in Arabic, not only the works from the fields of religious sciences, but also the poetry. Even the first famous poets from Macedonia after the arrival of the Ottomans, Haveri, Katib Hasan and Ayani from Bitola, used to write in Arabic, complaining that it was difficult for them to compose verses and to find poetical expressions in their own language[4].

Among the Arabic manuscripts of the fund of the National and University Library “ St. Clement of Ohrid”, three manuscripts have been found up to now whose authors probably originate from Macedonia. These are Muhammad Wahdati ibn Muhammad al-Uskubi and Shayh Sinani Mustafa ibn Mahmud al-Uskubi, the both from Skopje, judging by their nisba[5], as well as Abdurrahman ibn Hasan ibn Abdurrahman al-Dabrawi, originating from Debar. All of this demonstrates the importance that the Arabic language used to have in this region, where not only the Arabic works of the greatest Islamic scholars used to be read, but in that language some original works were also created by the authors living in or originating from Macedonia.

The Arabic manuscripts of the Collection of the National and University Library are written on the paper and most of them represent the works on theology, Islamic law and Islamic tradition, but there is also a large number of works from different fields of sciences that used to be the subject of studying in the Middle Ages such as philology, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy etc.

As to their contents, the manuscripts written in Turkish are close to the Arabic ones, while those written in the Persian language mostly consist of the works of literature, especially poetry, including the works of some of the greatest representatives of the classical Persian poetry such as Sa’di, Hafiz, Fariduddin Attar and Rumi A large number of manuscripts written in all the three oriental languages represent authentic small masterpieces of the Islamic calligraphers, illuminators and book binders.

The History of the Arabic Manuscripts in the National and University Library

“St. Clement of Ohrid”

The history of a manuscript implies the path it has passed from the time of its creation up to date. And that can be testified by all those details that might be found in the margins, on the covers, or in any other place in the manuscript, and which can indicate where and when a manuscript was written or copied, who its owners were, in which libraries it was kept, which persons have read it, etc.

As to the authors of the works whose copies, maybe even some autographs, can be found in the National and University Library “St. Clement of Ohrid”, we may say that they are a large number of authors who used to write in Arabic and whose texts were copied throughout the Islamic world. Among them there are some Bosnian authors who also used to write in Arabic such as Hasan Kafija Pruščak, Muhamed Musić Alamek, Mustafa Ejubović – Šejh Jujo and Ahmet Hatem Bjelopoljak. There are also some authors from the Macedonian region, as already mentioned.

Analyzing the time and the place in which the Arabic manuscripts from the National and University Library were created, from the notes found in the manuscripts processed so far, we can conclude they were being produced during a long period of eight centuries, from the 12th to the 20th century, while, geographically, they belong to nearly the entire Islamic world.  According to the notes found in the so-far processed Arabic manuscripts, they were copied in, or by the scribes originating from different places and towns, which today are in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, as well as in our closer neighborhood like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece etc. A certain number of manuscripts were copied in Macedonia or by the copyists originating from Macedonian towns such as Radoviš, Debar, Ohrid, Bitola, Skopje, Štip, Tetovo, etc. At first, the manuscripts were brought to Macedonia from the big Islamic centers and, later on, produced by copying on this soil. According to the notes found in the manuscripts processed so far, the oldest manuscripts copied on the territory of Macedonia date from the 16th century. As to their contents, they represent works on Islamic law and Islamic dogma.

Some of the manuscripts contain inscriptions indicating that they used to be a part of the funds of certain Islamic libraries created on the territory of Macedonia after the establishment of the Ottoman rule. Those libraries were founded for the needs of mosques, tekes (monasteries of Muslim orders) or madrasas (religious schools) by the system of waqf, i.e. by endowments made by individuals, and in the beginning their funds consisted of the manuscripts almost exclusively written in Arabic language, due to the already mentioned reasons.

According to the documents discovered so far, it is believed that the very first Islamic libraries in the Balkans were created precisely on the territory of Macedonia, at the beginning of the 15th century[6]. One of them was founded by the famous commander of the frontier area Isa Bey, son of Ishaq Bey,.

According to the Act of endowment made by Isa Bey and ratified in Skopje in 1469, we know that, for the needs of his religious school, besides his numerous lands and shops, he donated more than 330 bind volumes containing texts of the most famous Islamic scholars and authors of the time[7]. The books in the Act of endowment were listed according to their contents, for every title the number of volumes was mentioned and, in one case, the presence of decoration.

Out of the manuscripts mentioned in the Act of endowment, we knew so far that only one had been preserved: the 12th volume of the Razi`s Commentary of the Koran[8]. Its title is Mafatih al ghayb (“The Keys of the Unknown”) and it is also know as Al-Tafsir al-Kabir (“The Big Commentary”). The full name of its author is Fahruddin Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Omar ibn al-Husain ibn al-Hatib al-Razi. Recently, as a result of the current cataloguing of the Arabic manuscripts held by the National and University Library “St. Clement of Ohrid”, another two Arabic manuscripts have been discovered containing the inscription “endowed by Isa Bey, son of Ishaq Bey”.

The first is “Glosses on the Commentary of the Compendium on the Principles of the Islamic Law” by Sayfuddin Ahmad al-Abhari, representing a commentary of the commentary of the work on the Islamic Law (fiqh) entitled Muhtasar muntaha al-su’al wa al-amal fi ‘ilm al-usul wa al-jadal written by the famous scholar and first-class philologist Jamaluddin Abu Amr Othman ibn Omar ibn Abu Ibn al Hajib. The second manuscript is Kanz al-ma’ani by Burhanuddin Abu Muhammad (Abu al-Abbas) Ibrahim ibn Omar ibn Ibrahim al-Ja’bari. The work is a commentary of the significant poem Hirz al-amani wa wajh al-tahani, known also as Al-Shatibiyya by Abu Muhammad Qasim ibn Firruh al-Shatibi on the seven canonical ways of reading the Koran.


The Islamic manuscripts written in all the three oriental languages are, on the international scale, considered to be a precious part of the cultural heritage of the Islamic civilization. A large number of works of the Antiquity became known to the mankind thanks to the Arabic translations and copies, the fact that speaks of the universal value of these manuscripts. The preserved oriental manuscripts in Macedonia represent only a part of rich funds of numerous Islamic libraries that were formed on the territory of Macedonia from the establishment of the Ottoman rule in the 15th century up to the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, a large part of these funds has been irrevocably lost, particularly those belonging to the earliest Islamic libraries. The great importance of the Arabic manuscripts kept in the National and University Library “St. Clement of Ohrid” lies in the fact that they represent an extraordinary testimony of the Arabo-Islamic influences that permeated all the pores of the Ottoman state organization, the legal and the social system, the education, the school system, the religion, the language and the literature, and had their reflection on the entire material and spiritual life of the peoples living on the territory of Macedonia in the period of the Ottoman rule. In the Oriental collection of the National and University Library “St. Clement of Ohrid” there are manuscripts from almost all the fields of sciences that were subjects of studying in the Middle Ages, or in the time of their writing or copying. They also include the texts that are very rare, maybe even unique – the aspect from which they should be the subject of a special research.

The manuscripts written in all the three Oriental languages from the physical point of view represent a unique creation impossible to reproduce. Each and every one of them offers its part of testimony for the material history of the book, beginning with the writing materials, the types of script, the decoration and the bindings, up to the numerous notes that indicate the way that every single manuscript has passed through the time and the space. A large number of Arabic manuscripts, as well as those written in Turkish and Persian languages, are important because of their artistic value lying in the wonderful calligraphy and ornaments, as well as in the skill of the old oriental binders.

For the reasons of uniqueness of the manuscripts as such, for their antiquity, for the great artistic value of a large number of manuscripts written in all the three oriental languages, for their importance as a source for the material history of the book as well as a source for the cultural history of Macedonia, it has been proposed that every single collection, i.e. the Collection of Arabic manuscripts, the Collection of Ottoman-Turkish Manuscripts and the Collection of Persian Manuscripts, obtains the status of cultural heritage of exclusive importance. That would contribute to their successful preservation for the next generations, after their complete processing that includes cataloguing according to the international standards with the aim of making this hidden cultural wealth of the Republic of Macedonia fully accessible to the public.

Marijana Kavcic received her degree in Arabic Language and Literature and English Language and Literature from the University of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1989. She worked as translator for Arabic and English languages in Libya, Croatia and Egypt. She passed the Training Course for Handling and Cataloguing of Islamic Manuscripts organized by Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation (London, U.K.), held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2006. For the time being she works in the National and University Library "St. Clement of Ohrid" in Skopje, in the Collection of Oriental Manuscripts and Rare Publications, primarily on cataloguing of the Arabic manuscripts belonging to the Collection.



Dimitrovski D., Orientalnite rakopisi vo Makedonija (poteklo, sostojba, karakteristiki), Rakopisno nasledstvo na Makedonija – A Collection of contributions from the Rostrum held on 24 June 1988, Foundation for Culture of Macedonia, Skopje 1998, pp. 67-72;

Nametak, F., Dragocjena gradja – skopski rukopisi bosansko-hercegovačke književne tradicije na orijentalnim jezicima, Odjek, Sarajevo 10-15 January 1986, No. 1, p. 21;

Dimitrivski D., Turskite rakopisi vo Narodnata i univerzitetska biblioteka “Kliment Ohridski”- Skopje (opšt pregled), Bibliotekarska iskra, Magazine of the Union of Association of Librarians of SR Macedonia, Year XI, No. 24, Skopje 1980, pp. 142-147;

Janc, Z. Islamski rukopisi iz jugoslovenskih kolekcija, Muzej primenjene umetnosti, Beograd, 1956.


Author of the photo-documentation:
Mr. Denko Andonovski

[1] Hiti, Filip, Istorija Arapa, “Veselin Masleša”, Sarajevo, 1967, p. 289

[2]  Idem, p.22

[3]  Pitcher, Donald Edgar, An Historical Geography of the Ottoman Empire, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1972, Map XXI

[4]  Gjeorgjievski, Naume, Knigata i nejzinoto mesto vo kulturniot život na islamskiot svet vo Bitola, Bibliotekarstvo vo Bitola i Bitolsko, Matična i univerzitetska biblioteka “Sv. Kliment Ohridski”, Bitola, 1995, p. 99.

[5]  A part of name, i.e. an adjective indicating the origin of the author – geographical, genealogical or ethnical - or the affiliation to a certain order or law school.

[6]   Kaleši, Hasan, Prve orijentalne biblioteke u jugoslovenskim zemljama, Bibliotekar, XIII/1961, No. 4, pp. 279-282.

[7]   Elezović, Gliša, Turski spomenici u Skoplju, Vakufija Gazi Isa Begove zadužbine u Skoplju, preštampano iz Glasnika Skopskog naučnog društva, sv. 1 i 2, pp. 45-101.

[8]   Narodna i univerzitetska biblioteka “Sv. Kliment Ohridski”, “Sv. Kliment Ohridski”, Skopje, 1994, p. 28.


Marah al-arwah by Ahmad ibn Ali ibn Mas’ud




Turkish manuscript. Collection of poetry by the Bosnian poet Sabit from Uzice.



Multaqa al-abhur by Ibrahim al-Halabi. Copied in Bitola in 1815.















Multaqa al-abhur by Ibrahim al-Halabi. Copied in Bitola in 1815.