Harvard Library Collects Islamic Titles

Early Harvard and Biblical Studies 1766

Harvard Library Collects Islamic Titles

As early as 1648, Harvard’s first president, Henry Dunster, sought out Arabic books from Europe for Harvard’s collection. However, the number and titles of works related to Islam and Muslims in Harvard’s library in this early period are unknown. After a catastrophic fire burned down the Harvard Library in 1764, donations to rebuild the collection included a work on Islamic theology, which the library acquired in 1766 (right). By 1830, the library catalog included over 50 Islamicate titles such as George Sale’s English translation of the Qur’an, Latin translations of the Arabic poetry of Imruʾ al-Qays and Kaʿb b. Zuhayr, Arabic dictionaries and grammars, works on Islamic history and the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and a Persian manuscript of Saadi’s Gulistan. In the early 20th century, Professors James R. Jewett and William Thomson acquired classical Arabic works from the Bulaq Press in Cairo as well as Western critical editions. While most Islamicate acquisitions in this period were in Arabic, titles in other languages increased in the mid-20th century thanks to the efforts of Professor Richard Frye, who acquired Persian materials, and Professor Stanford Shaw, who acquired Ottoman Turkish materials. The founding of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in 1954 and appointment of Professor Hamilton Gibb in 1955 led to a substantial growth in the number of Arabic works, particularly modern works, including periodicals. In 1956 the library hired its first full-time cataloger of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish materials, Flora Rizk, and in 1961 created the Middle Eastern Division. In 2005, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s gift to Harvard made possible the Islamic Heritage Project that cataloged, conserved, and digitized hundreds of Islamic manuscripts, maps, and published texts in Harvard’s library and museum collections and made them available to researchers worldwide.


Harvard Library's Early Islamicate Collections

András Riedlmayer

Disaster befell Harvard's library, just 10 years before the American Revolution, it burned down and the only books that survived were 400 books that happened to be checked out at the time. But as soon as that fire went out, there were campaigns to rebuild the library with donations and purchases. And one of the-- among the first things they bought, or were given, were things that documented the Islamic world. So for example, in the Fine Arts Library, one of our most precious and oldest books is the first illustrated book on Palmyra in the Syrian desert. An Englishman named Robert Wood traveled to Palmyra with an Italian engraver and did site drawings and then brought them back and published them at his own expense. And they turned into a bestseller of the period. And within six years of his publication, Harvard had a copy.

Islamic theology book
De religione Mohammedica libri duo by Adriaan Reelant