An Arab Qur’an with a Persian Identity

The Persian language as we know it today emerged after the Arab conquests of the 8th century CE. One of the National Library of Israel’s treasured manuscripts contains the first known example of New Persian to appear on the world stage...

Not much is known about Ahmad Hikani. He lived in the 9th century CE, probably in the Khorasan region of eastern Iran, the birthplace of many Islamic scholars during the religion’s early period. What is certain is that his knowledge of Arabic was extensive enough that he was able to properly vowelize a text in that language—and not just any text, but the Qur’an itself.

Yet, despite our lack of information about him, Ahmad Hikani is a key figure in Iranian history: his name is tied to a revolution in the Persian language that occurred in the Middle Ages.

Our story begins with a manuscript of the Qur’an purchased by the famous collector Abraham Shalom Yehuda. This manuscript, which includes only part of the Qur’an, from Surah An-Nahl (The Palms, No. 17) to Surah Al-Khaf (The Cave, No. 18), was copied on parchment, with gold ornamental decoration signaling the beginning of each chapter, and dots marking the vocalization of each word. These markings, in addition to the square Arabic script, known as “Kufic script,” hint at this Qur’an’s antiquity.

How ancient, you may ask? A handwritten comment, called a colophon, placed at the end of the Qur’an by the scribe who emended the vocalization in the manuscript, reveals that this Qur’an was copied in the year 905. What is special about this comment is that it is written in Persian in Arabic letters. This is, in fact, the first known appearance of the language known as New Persian, written in Arabic letters, on the historical stage.

The first page of the partial Qur’an with the verse recalling the Prophet Muhammad’s “Night Journey”


The colophon reads:

این جزء سی پاره جمله درست بکرد بعجم ونقط وتشدید احمد خیقانی نصره الله فی الدین بمنه سنه اثنی وتسعین واثنی مایه

“Ahmad Hikani, may God in his grace preserve us in the bosom of the faith, emended this portion of the 30 portions [of the Qur’an] by adding marks [diacritics], vowel signs and the shaddah sign [= a doubling of a consonant], in  the year 292 [AH, 905 CE].”

The colophon

The uniqueness of New Persian, also known as Modern Persian, is on the one hand the preservation of characteristics of the “Middle” Persian language, the one that preceded the Islamic conquests, and on the other the conversion of the ancient Persian script into Arabic letters and the entry of new vocabulary into the Persian language. This move is indicative of an independent Persian identity, distinct from that of the Arabs who came to Iran with the conquests of the Muslim armies in the early years of Islam.

When Islam spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula in the first centuries after its emergence, it encountered the Persian and Greek cultures, the two pillars of the ancient world. Greek culture was by this point in its Byzantine incarnation, and was common in the eastern Mediterranean basin. Its language was Greek and Christianity was the dominant religion. Persian culture, on the other hand, was common in Central Asia, the language spoken was Persian, and Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion.

While the Greek language, once dominant in the Mediterranean basin, gradually disappeared as Arab-Muslim rule took root in the region, the inhabitants of the former Persian Empire, now under Arab-Muslim rule, tended in a different direction. Instead of adopting Arabic as their dominant language, they adopted Arabic script into the Persian language and created a new language: New Persian.

The change was not immediate: between the seventh and tenth centuries Middle Persian gradually disappeared, reappearing in the tenth century in its new form, New Persian. The changes that the language underwent, that is – what elements were abandoned, what elements were adopted from Arabic and what was preserved from Middle Persian, can be seen in the Judeo-Persian writings from the period. Judeo-Persian, or New Persian written in Hebrew letters, is important for the study of the development of the New Persian language, because some of the texts in early Judeo-Persian have preserved some of Middle Persian’s linguistic features.

Judeo-Persian Manuscript of a commentary to Leviticus 11 from the Afghan Geniza

The distinction between Persian and Arabic identities does not mean rejection of Islam or of the importance of the Arabic language. In the Middle Ages, Persian scholars traveled to centers of knowledge in the Arabic-speaking world in order to study and teach. They even wrote in Arabic on many and varied topics, from the study of Islamic law to history and geography.

The Qur’an we presented at the beginning of the article is an example of the combination of Persian identity and acceptance of Arabic as an important language. The Qur’an was copied in Arabic because that is the language of the Qur’an. The colophon, as a personal expression of the copyist, Ahmad Hikani, expresses his own Persian identity.

Over the years, Persian identity, which took shape alongside, in the shadow of and sometimes even in opposition to Arabic identity, has become more pronounced and emphasized. Today, this distinct identity is also expressed in national and religious aspects that set it apart from the identities of the Arab world.


Thanks to Dr. Ofir Haim for translating the colophon

This Iranian Trailblazer Revolutionized Global Medicine and Thought

The works of Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna, served as core medical texts for some 500 years in Europe. His groundbreaking philosophical teachings also transcended borders...

“Medicine is not one of the difficult sciences, and therefore I excelled in it in a very short time” (A statue of Ibn Sina in Istanbul / Photo: باسم / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Abu Ali Hussein ibn Abdullah ibn Sina, (980-1037 C.E.) known in the Western world as Avicenna, is considered to be one of the most celebrated and influential philosophers and scientists of the Irano-Islamic world, authoring more than 450 books in various scientific and humanistic fields. Ibn Sina was educated in Bukhara, the capital of the Samanid Empire, a Persian dynasty in Central Asia. This was a period of reawakening of the Persian national sentiment, which had been glorified by Persian-speaking poets like Rudaki and Ferdowsi. Bukhara was, therefore, considered to be one of the artistic and intellectual centers of the East. Ibn Sina was influenced by the humanistic culture of his surroundings, and by the age of 10 he knew the Quran by heart and had mastered Arabic grammar.

While a teenager, he studied Aristotle and later the works of al-Farabi. He then turned to natural sciences and began studying books on medicine, recalling in his autobiography: “medicine is not one of the difficult sciences, and therefore I excelled in it in a very short time.” Ibn Sina developed a system of medical knowledge in his encyclopedic book Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb or The Canon of Medicine, which was divided into five sections: a general introduction, properties of therapeutic substances, localized diseases, systemic diseases and pharmacology. Translated into Latin by the late 12th century, the book was taught and discussed in European medical schools for some five centuries, greatly impacting medieval and early modern physicians and the medical field quite broadly.

A 16th century Latin edition of Avicenna’s Fourth Book on the Universal Nature of Medicine. From the Harry Friedenwald Collection at the National Library of Israel

In addition to Canon of Medicine, other medical works of  Ibn Sina were received by philosophers and scientists in the Western world. The Book of Healing (Kitāb al-shifā) was also considered to be one of the major works of medieval Muslim scholarship. If The Canon of Medicine was essentially devoted to prevention of disease and pharmacology, The Book of Healing, known in Latin as Liber Sufficientia, was written as an Aristotelian philosophical summa, consisting of four major parts dealings with logic, metaphysics, mathematics and natural philosophy.

A 14th century Hebrew translation of an Ibn Sina medical text, featuring an illustration of a physician tending to a patient. From the National Library of France, available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Following Aristotle, Ibn Sina saw the purpose or final cause as that for the sake of which something is done. As a matter of fact, Ibn Sina’s metaphysics of modality implies that all that actually exists is necessary because of its cause.  Though a Neoplatonist, Ibn Sina integrated Aristotelian concepts and ideas into his own corpus. He also ranked among the most influential metaphysicians in the history of Islamic philosophy. In his Treatise on the Soul (Kitab al-Nafs) translated in Latin under the title De Anima, Ibn Sina anticipated Descartes’ radical mind-body dualism. His philosophy was a something of a middle ground between Aristotle’s naturalism and ideas of monotheistic creationism, describing the Divine as the metaphysical “First Cause” of existence, rather than the physical “Unmoved Cause” of motion. For Ibn Sina, the essence of the human being was the soul; the body simply being a dress worn by the soul during its corporeal lifetime.

The mausoleum of Ibn Sina in Iran (Photo: AminiZaza / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ibn Sina insisted on the spiritual nature of human being. It followed that the human being, as a spiritual being, is in need of the intervention of a “Universal Active Intellect”. Indeed, when Ibn Sina discussed Aristotle’s theory of the soul, he also discussed the Greek philosopher’s theory of the imagination and underlined its role in the process of prophecy. Consequently, Ibn Sina held that some souls could attain the state of prophecy through a union with the Universal Active Intellect, as the source of the genesis of human knowledge. As such, Ibn Sina considered man, as a social and ethical being, to be the crown of divine creation, while also accepting that there is a series of heavenly beings between God and man.

He sought to incorporate Islamic themes into his philosophy, while believing that philosophers (rather than theologians) should have the final say on how to interpret the concept of “Being”. He clearly preferred the philosophical way of expressing the concept of “Truth” and considered Truth to be a fundamental philosophical principle that was not limited to theology but also had important ramifications in metaphysics and logic. In fact, when referring to God, Ibn Sina used the Arabic word Al-Haqq (Truth) – clearly demonstrating his mixture of Islamic theology and Neo-Platonism.

On the whole, one has to conclude that lbn Sina was predominantly an astute metaphysician whose works were read and discussed not only by medieval Islamic philosophers such as Averroes and al-Ghazali, but also accommodated and disputed by Christian philosophers, including Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Undoubtedly, Ibn Sina was a modern thinker who lived in the Middle Ages, and though his obvious brilliance was fully appreciated by the contemporary Islamic world, his full impact only came to the fore after his works were translated into Latin and discovered by European scholars. His passionate defense of philosophy, and his writings on the human body and soul, found many readers who saw in him a great humanist.

Galenus, Avicenna and Hippocrates pictured in a 16th-century medical book (Public domain)

As a result, Ibn Sina can be considered a truly universal thinker, whose thought travelled beyond the Iranian and Islamic mental geographies. Like his teacher Aristotle, Ibn Sina believed that philosophy aims at the universal. And, in fact, he was the first philosopher in the Islamic world who tried to establish a dialogue between different disciplines of thought without being afraid of commenting on Quranic issues and incorporating them into his philosophy. This certainly did not endear him to everyone and many among Ibn Sina’s contemporaries criticized his reliance on non-Muslim philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

Yet today Ibn Sina’s legacy offers a chance to accomplish a goal that he had hoped to achieve in his lifetime: bridging the gap between the Islamic world and the founders of the fundamentals of Western philosophy. The world needs intercultural and interdisciplinary thinkers like Ibn Sina now, more than ever.

The Manuscripts of St. Catherine’s Monastery: Now on the National Library of Israel Website

One of the world's greatest collections of manuscripts is now available to view in the online catalog of the National Library of Israel

St. Catherine's Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

A meeting in the desert.

The young scholar waited somewhat anxiously, for his counterpart to arrive. A negotiation was to be expected, and he was not entirely optimistic regarding his chances of success. In the meantime, at least, he was free to examine his fairly impressive surroundings.

It was the late 1960s, and Malachi Beit-Arié was head of the Jewish National and University Library’s Manuscripts Department. He had been sent to the Sinai Peninsula to negotiate with the local Greek Orthodox Archbishop. The Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel) was seeking approval to microfilm the vast collection of manuscripts preserved at St. Catherine’s Monastery, where Malachi now waited in the midst of the Sinai Desert.  The monastery’s texts had survived for many centuries in this isolated location, but Beit-Arié’s aforementioned pessimism was rooted in the more recent history of the region.

After all, the Sinai Peninsula had just fallen under Israeli military occupation a year or so earlier during the Six-Day War. The monks of St. Catherine’s had grown accustomed to living under Egyptian rule and regarded the IDF soldiers who now roamed the surrounding desert peaks and valleys with suspicion. There was no guarantee they would agree to the Israeli library’s request.

Beit-Arié wandered through the monastery’s ancient grounds for some two days before Archbishop Porphyrios III of the Church of Mount Sinai and Raithu finally arrived from Cairo. Malachi was quickly summoned, and the two set out in the priest’s automobile for a nearby desert oasis. It turned out that Beit-Arié needn’t have been so concerned. The negotiations were held in good spirit, during that same drive. The Archbishop, Malachie soon learned, had studied Hebrew, and was surprisingly sympathetic to the idea of cooperation with Israeli academics, quickly agreeing to the Library’s proposal.

The two then boarded a flight to Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov airport, where Beit-Arié soon found himself loaded onto the Archbishop’s private limousine. During the drive to Jerusalem, the priest conveyed his price for the exchange: a full set of the Talmud in English. This was quickly procured, and the contract was duly signed.


St. Catherine’s Monastery contains the world’s oldest continually functioning library, hidden behind immense walls which tower over all who approach its secluded location.

The monks of St. Catherine’s take their vows seriously. Life in such an isolated place is not for those lacking in faith, of one kind or another. The monastery was built in the southern Sinai Peninsula, surrounded by dramatic mountainous desert landscapes. It sits at the foot of what is considered by Christian tradition to be Mt. Horeb, the place where Moses was given the Ten Commandments. The monastery even holds and nurtures what some believe to be the actual Burning Bush.

A view from inside the walls, St. Catherine’s Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great built St. Catherine’s, completing construction in the year 565 AD. Over a millennium and a half, the monastery’s library has accumulated one of the world’s most famous collections of early codices and manuscripts. It consists of some 3,400 manuscripts, among them a wide variety of Christian religious texts. These include early bibles, religious poetry and church music, writings by the various Church Fathers and different works of monastic literature. Also included are Greek classics, correspondence, writings on grammar, arithmetic exercises, rhetorical works, historiographical texts and other forms of secular literature.

Psalms and Cantica, 1504, Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

While the vast majority of manuscripts were written in Greek (the monastery is part of the Greek Orthodox Church), there are also texts in Arabic, Syriac, Georgian and even languages that are no longer in use, such as Christian Palestinian Aramaic and Caucasian Albanian. The monastery’s oldest manuscripts date to the third century AD. All these works have been preserved thanks in large part to the aforementioned isolation, the impressive fortifications (Justinian’s walls are 36 feet / 11 meters high) as well as the dry desert climate.

Lately, however, there has been reason for concern. Though history has left St. Catherine’s largely untouched, the past few years have seen new unrest come to the Sinai Peninsula, with ISIS terrorists fighting an insurgency against the Egyptian military in the region’s northern areas. In 2017, an ISIS attack on a checkpoint near the monastery left one policeman dead and three others injured.


Skulls of long-dead monks from St. Catherine’s past, 1975, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

This is one of the reasons behind a recent push to document and digitize the historic treasures of St. Catherine’s Monastery, guaranteeing the survival of the priceless information and cultural heritage contained within. The National Library of Israel is part of this multinational effort.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, a territory it would control for well over a decade. Shortly after the war, Dr. Batya Bayer, at the time the director of the Music Department at the National Library of Israel, took note of the manuscript collection at St. Catherine’s. Bayer was interested in the study of early musical instruments and realized that the monastery’s manuscripts contained valuable information in this respect. She soon formulated an official proposal to microfilm approximately half of the texts preserved at St. Catherine’s. “The team should be as small as possible,” she wrote in her proposal, “preferably one microfilm machine and one photographer, to be augmented whenever conditions permit.”

Lives of the Saints, Canons to St. Catherine, by Ioannikios, 17th century, Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

By this point, around half of the monastery collection had already been microfilmed by a team from the Library of Congress in 1950. Following Beit-Arié’s successful negotiation, an Israeli team set out in 1968 to complete the earlier project and microfilm the rest of the monastery’s collection– meaning manuscripts which were written from the 12th century onwards.

The dramatic landscape surrounding the monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Israel Weiser, a former employee of the National Library of Israel who worked on the project and who has since passed away, recalled that the team worked for four hours a day, five days a week (excluding Saturdays and Sundays) for around three months, only to be replaced by another team. Beit-Arié noted that this process continued for some two years.  According to Weiser, the many hours of free time were spent in relative boredom in the isolated desert outpost (“They were eating rocks!” said Weiser). The project was a difficult one and those taking part had to make do without a regular supply of electricity. IDF generators were brought in to facilitate the work, and these were later left to the monastery’s monks.


Footage of the manuscript collection at St. Catherine’s Monastery, filmed in the early 1970s:


While researching this article, we discovered that another former employee of the Jewish National and University Library, cinematographer and photographer Jacques Soussana, had filmed rare color footage at the monastery in the early 1970s (see the Youtube clip above to view an excerpt of this footage). Jacques Soussana unfortunately passed away in 2019, but his widow Betty was kind enough to donate the 16 millimeter films he shot in Sinai to the National Library of Israel. They have since been digitized with the help of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive and the Jerusalem Cinematheque. These films include footage of the famous manuscript collection, as well as scenes of monastic life in the desert. You can view this footage in the clip seen above.

Horologion, 1375 Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

Over the past two years, the microfilm material collected by the National Library of Israel team in the late 1960s has been scanned and uploaded to the Library’s catalog, where the general public can now freely view some 1,700 manuscripts in digital form. This was necessary because the microfilm material itself had begun to disintegrate, representing a real threat to the survival of the information contained within. There is also a separate project underway, being led by the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) in collaboration with the UCLA library, to produce new high quality color photographs of St. Catherine’s manuscripts.

These initiatives will ensure that future generations will be able to access these cultural treasures that were once the reserved privilege of those who trekked across the barren desert sands.


Read more about the manuscripts of St. Catherine’s Monastery, and browse through thousands of digitized manuscripts on the National Library of Israel website, here.

The Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture Comes to the National Library of Israel

Irreplaceable documentation of ancient nomadic culture to be saved and made freely available online

Clinton Bailey interviewing a Bedouin elder, 1972 (Photo: Boris Carmi). From the Meitar Collection, National Library of Israel archives

  • 100s of hours of singular audio recordings, photos and slides from fifty years of research
  • Materials document a lost ancient culture; do not exist elsewhere and will not be found in the future
  • The collection will be made freely accessible online by the National Library of Israel

Over the course of more than five decades, Dr. Clinton Bailey has conducted research throughout the deserts of Sinai and the Negev, establishing himself as a world-renowned expert on the Bedouin, Arabic-speaking nomads whose ancient culture survived largely unchanged for thousands of years.

Bedouin men riding camels by the Gulf of Eilat (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

The Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture is now coming to the National Library of Israel. The archive includes one-of-a-kind treasures, including approximately 350 hours of interviews and recordings from Dr. Bailey’s research, as well as hundreds of images, slides and video clips documenting Bedouin tribal culture over the past half century.

Dr. Bailey collected these materials immediately before his elderly Bedouin interlocutors passed away, taking their knowledge and memories with them. The archive therefore presents invaluable authentic primary-source materials from the last generation of elderly Bedouin who grew to maturity in the pre-modern period of Bedouin culture.

These materials will not be found in the future. They are a treasure of orally transmitted ancient culture now irreplaceable, and not available via the younger generations of Bedouin who grew up exposed to modernity.

Traditional Bedouin milk churning (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

According to Dr. Raquel Ukeles, Head of Collections at the National Library of Israel, “The irreplaceable materials in the archive will serve members of the Bedouin community interested in learning about their past, as well as scholars in Israel and abroad for generations to come. Safeguarding and opening access to these materials is central to the mission and mandate of the National Library of Israel, as we work diligently to preserve the treasures of all of Israel’s communities and share them with diverse audiences locally and internationally.”

The materials cover a range of facets of ancient Bedouin tribal cultures, making their preservation that much more significant. Subjects recorded include: traditional poems; legal trials; oral traditions and histories; information about economic life, social organization, values, laws, religious practices, poetic creativity, knowledge of the environment, and more.

Bedouin panel of judges in court (Photo: Clinton Bailey)
Unmarried Bedouin women (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

The archive presents a remarkable asset reflecting the singular mission of the National Library, an open and inclusive institution dedicated to preserving diverse expressions of cultural heritage and encouraging engagement with them by audiences in Israel and around the world.

The materials will be made freely accessible online through a comprehensive process that will include:

  • Transcribing all audio materials in order to make them searchable and easily accessible
  • Comprehensively describing and cataloguing their contents in Arabic and English, including explanations of specific vocabulary and customs encountered in the recordings, many of which are not familiar to modern scholars
  • Converting audio materials from analog to digital, optimizing sound quality and undertaking quality assurance measures
  • Opening full digital access to the materials via a dedicated online portal in three languages (English, Arabic, Hebrew) and the National Library of Israel’s catalogue

Preserving and opening access to the Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Marcie Polier Swartz/Grantors Foundation and other donors.


About Dr. Clinton Bailey

Dr. Clinton Bailey has studied Bedouin culture firsthand for more than fifty years. Originally from the United States, Dr. Bailey holds a BA in Middle Eastern and Islamic History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a PhD in Political Science with a focus on the Middle East from Columbia University. In 1994, he was awarded the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award for his life’s work in studying and preserving the history of the Bedouin in Israel and promoting their civil rights. He has received numerous research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and private foundations throughout the world.

His many works on Bedouin culture, poetry and law include four highly-acclaimed books: Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev: Mirror of a Culture (Oxford University Press); A Culture of Desert Survival: Bedouin Proverbs from Sinai and the Negev (Yale University Press); Bedouin Law from Sinai and the Negev: Justice without Government (Yale University Press); and the recently published Bedouin Culture in the Bible (Yale University Press).


About the National Library of Israel

Founded in Jerusalem in 1892, the National Library of Israel (NLI) serves as the dynamic institution of national memory of the Jewish people worldwide and Israelis of all backgrounds and faiths. While continuing to serve as Israel’s pre-eminent research library, NLI has recently embarked upon an ambitious journey of renewal to open access to its treasures and encourage diverse audiences in Israel and around the globe to engage with them in new and meaningful ways. This is taking place through a range of innovative educational, cultural, and digital initiatives, as well as through a new landmark complex designed by Herzog and de Meuron. The new home of the NLI, currently under construction adjacent to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem, is on schedule to open its doors in 2022.

Simulated night image of the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem, on schedule to open in 2022 © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect

The Library’s treasures include the largest collection of written Judaica ever assembled, significant handwritten works by luminaries such as Maimonides and Sir Isaac Newton, exquisite Islamic manuscripts dating back to the ninth century, and archival collections of leading cultural and intellectual figures including Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Natan Sharansky and Naomi Shemer. The National Library holds the largest collection of Jewish and Israeli music, as well as world-class collections of manuscripts, ancient maps, rare books, photographs, communal and personal archival materials, and more.

For English press inquiries and interview requests: [email protected]