A Short History of Afghanistan’s Manuscripts and

Revival Of Their Texts


 By: Prof. Abdul Hai Habibi


The oldest manuscripts of the Islamic era in Afghanistan and the adjoining territories, available in Arabic and Dari, relate to the period when the Kufic script together with Arab culture and the Islamic faith were introduced into this part of the world in the first century A.H. (seventh century A.D.)

In the pre-Islamic age, too, the Arabs possessed a script which resembled that of the Nabateans, which later gave birth to the Kufic script, the oldest specimen of which was discovered at Zabd near the river Euphrates; it bears the date 511 A.D.           Another example of this script was discovered at Huran in the mountainous area of southern Syria over the entrance to a temple, which was written in this pre-Kufic script in 568 A.D. According to scholars this script originated in mid-6th century A.D., and later, during the diffusion of the Islamic faith, the Arabic script was developed and came to be known as Kufic. The oldest example of this script has been found on a gravestone in Egypt. It was written in the month of Jamudiul-Ukhra, in the year 31 A.H. (651 A.D.) The second oldest specimen is that of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which was inscribed in the year 72 A.H. (691 A.D).[1]

In Afghanistan during the pre-Islamic era different scripts, such as Kharoshti, Greek, Aramaic, Sarndanagiri, Pehlavi and Avesta existed, but the Arab conquest eliminated all these old styles and during the first-half of the first century A.H. the Kufic script with its ele­mentary and simple style and with the help of Islamic science and thought replaced them. We find that as far back as the 2nd century A.H.  the Kufic script had penetrated into eastern  Afghanistan, that is the Indus Valley as witnessed by the recent discovery of rock-inscriptions, dated 107 and 294 A.H. (725 and 906 A.D.), in comparatively more sophisticated Kufic script at Bumpore in Sind.  Another inscription, in two scripts, Kufic and Saradanagiri, has been found in Tochi Valley of Waziristan near the Afghan border; it is dated 243 A.H. (857 A.D). (This shows that the ancient culture co-existed with Arab culture in this area in the second century of the Hegira.

Kufic script in Arabic and Dari inscriptions came to be employed during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.H. and we can see that the oldest manuscripts in Dari in Khorasan were written in this script and by the people of this land. Here may be mentioned the book El-Abniya-Un­ Haqaiq-el-Adwiyya by Abu Mansour Heravi, said to be the oldest Dari manuscript in the world.  This volume may be seen in the library at Vienna. It was written by a Khorasani scholar named Asadi Tousi, in 447 A.H (1055 A.D).  Another manuscript in Dar i   also hails from northern Khorasan and was written on the 24th of Shawwal, 473 A.H. (1042 A.D) or 26 years after the book Al-Abniya. The second oldest manuscript is a Dari commentary on Al-Taarruf-fi-Mazhab-el-Tassawful by Abubakr (d. 380 A.H., 990 A.D.), which Imam Abu Ibrahim Ismail Mustamli Bokhari (d. 434 A.H., 1042 A.D.) wrote in the same fluent and sweet Dari of the later part of the Samanid era. The sole copy of this priceless manuscript existed in the library of Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, but, unfortunately, this second oldest manus­cript in Dari has now left the country and may be seen in the Karachi museum.

The third oldest manuscript in Dari is the Hidayat-el-Mutaallimeen by Abubakr Rabi ben Ahmad Bokhari, written in 478 A.H. (1085 A.D) and now available at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The handwriting in this script closely resembles that of the second. The assumption on the part of Iranian authors that this is second oldest Dari manuscript after the book Al-Abniya is incorrect as I pointed out in an article published in Armaghan-e Ilmi and published in Lahore (page 51 and onward) in 1955.

What I want to say is that the Kufic script has been employed in writing Dari texts since about one thousand years in Khorasan and the oldest works in Dari language also originated in Khorasan and nearby areas of which three volumes have survived.  This means that Afghanistan   served since a long time as a nursery of the art of writing Dari manuscripts in the Kufic script, which in the later centuries took on such forms as the Naskh, Suls, Taliq, Reqaa, Nastaliq and Shikast styles.

The story of Khorasan s manuscripts and their loss like the fate of its towns and cities is a very sad and frustrating one, because dur­ing the brilliant period of islamic culture in Khorasan, that is under the rule of the Samanids, the Ghaznavids and the Ghouris many a master­ piece of art and letters was produced in this land and the libraries at Merv, Herat, Balkh, Bamian and Bokhara, etc. were replete with price­-less manuscripts in Arabic and Dari. However, the destructive excur­sions by the nomadic hordes of the Ghaz and Seljouks and later by the Tartars of Genghiz Khan destroyed these treasures of science and arts so thoroughly that not a trace of these was left behind. It may be stated that not even a single copy of Ferdousis masterpiece of the pre-Mongol era can be found today and this, too, despite the fact that at least in Khorasan the number of those who appreciated this monumental work of literature must have been large.  Similarly a very small part of Bihaqis history has survived. The book on geography by Abdullah Jaihani, the Vizier of the Samanides, seven copies of which were seen by Mohammad bin Bashari, the author of Ahsan-el-Taqaseem during the reign of Amir Noah bin Mansour Samani prior to the year 375 A.H. (985 A.D.) in the library of Azad-ud-Dowla and also a short version of the book in Nishapur.       This manuscript is now non-existant and cannot be traced. The book "Muqamat" by Bu-Nasr-e-Mishkan,  the famous Vizier of Sultan Mahmoud and Sultan Masoud, which Mohammad Aufi in his Jawamey-el-Hi­-kayat describes as Muqamate-Bunasr and the scholars had some reservations about it[2] existed in more than ten thousand volumes as attested by Zajjajs history (manuscript in Peshawar).  This fine volume on history is also completely lost to us.

Yakut Hamavi who had seen Merv-Shahjan, the capital of Khorasan in the year 616 A.H. (1219 A.D), mentions ten large libraries in that town.  Among these was the Azizia Library in the grand mosque which contained twelve thousand volumes and was founded by Azizuddin Ateeq, a fruit-merchant of Merv.  Yakut says that the books in this library were within the reach of all and he (Yakut) always brought two hundred volumes to study at home without ever providing a surety.             "In this world of books",  he writes "I forgot even my hometown, family and progeny".[3]          Yakut has calculated the cost of each volume at one Dinar and since one Dinar equaled 15 Dirhams and each Dirham of pure silver is now equivalent of approximately five Afghanis, therefore the value of the fruit-merchants library will amount to about one million Afghanis at the present-day rate. In other words the ten libraries in Merv were worth at least ten million Afghanis.

The Tartar invasion under Genghiz destroyed all these treasures of culture and knowledge together with great cities of Khorasan so thoroughly that according to Minhaj-Seraj not a single wall was left standing in certain cities nor did any living being, man or beast, es­caped the bloodthirsty swords of the invaders. However, the creativeness of these people restored Herat, Samarkand, Bokhara and other parts of Khorasan as centers of the art of calligraphy and bookbinding before two centuries had elapsed since the upheaval. Under the Timurids Herat created masterpieces of handwriting, miniature-painting and embellish­ment of manuscripts as well as bookbinding. These are even now counted among the finest and best manuscripts in the world.  For example art connoisseurs are unanimously agreed upon the fact that Baesanqurys Shahnama, which was written by Jaffer Baosanqury in Herat in the year 823  H. (1492 A.D.), is one of the costliest volumes in the world; it is now in the Gulestan Museum of Tehran. This fine book has 22 miniatures of the Herat School together with an extraordinarily high quality of embellishments over the best quality of paper and cover. It is one of the topmost volumes written in the history of mankind up to date.[4]

With the fall of the Timurid dynasty and as a result of the Safavid and Shebani uprisings in thatBride of Cities of Asia”, the remaining princes, prominent personalities, devotees of art as well as poets, artists and scholars together with outstanding calligraphists and painters loaded with priceless treasures of fine manuscripts turned toward Sind and Hind and Bokhara and the Ottoman State in Turkey. The remnants of these works of art and manuscripts are now preserved in the libraries of India, the Soviet Union, Iran, Turkey, London, Cairo and other countries of the world with only a small trickle left behind in Afghanistan.  I am afraid that if care is not taken in collecting and preserving this heritage, it will filter out of the country and such an eventuality will constitute a grievous loss to our culture and art.  It is needless for me to point out that once these treasures have flown out of the country then nothing can bring them back because no one in his right mind will agree to part with such fine articles and instead, these will be protected and preserved at all costs.

Khorasani manuscripts, which from the viewpoint of history and culture are an important part of our cultural heritage can be divided into a number of parts based upon their historical, literary, cultural and scientific value.            These I hope to discuss in the following lines.


1 - From the viewpoint of art:

Certain manuscripts are valuable only from the viewpoint of art and craftsmanship.  In more lucid terms, the texts of such volumes may be available in a separate form and these may have been published several times, but the manuscript may be very valuable because of the floral designs, painted and decorated borders, gilding, miniatures, etchings, paper, handwriting, the use of colors and inks, and other embellishments etc. For example the text of the holy Koran is not rare, but each manuscript of the Gospel carries some special significance and importance on the above mentioned grounds because out of reverence these sacred volumes were always written carefully, with a fine handwriting, on fine paper, with floral and other beautiful designs by employing Indian ink and other attractive colors. The manuscripts of the Holy Koran written in the pre-Mongol eras carry great important from the viewpoint of the evolution of handwriting and painting. Sometimes these manuscripts and commentaries upon them were specially written for kings and rulers.      This factor, too, added to their importance and value. Here may be given an instance of the commentary in Dari, now in the Iran-e-Bastaan Museum, which was written in 584 A.H. (1188 A.D) for Ghyasuddin Mohammad Saam Ghouri, the King of Afghanistan, or the handwritten copies of the Gospel on which treaties have been penned. Among these may be included a copy of the Holy Koran in Kabul which carries the pledge given by Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk to Sayyed Khudadad Khan and that concluded between Mohammad Akram Khan and Huqdad Khan Barakzai. This copy is an outstanding work of art from the viewpoint of the handwriting and gild­ing.  These factors add to its importance from the point of view of Afghan history.  Valuable manuscripts of this nature are also availble in the Kabul Public Library.  These include Kulliyate-Bedil, written and embellished by Sardar Ghulam Mohammad Khan Tarzi Kandahari, a copy of Bostan in the handwriting of Mir Emad, the celebrated master of nastaliq script, collections of letters by Mir Abdur Rahman Heravi and Sayyed Ata Mohammad Shah Kandahari, copies of Dewan-i-Jami and Dewan­ i-Amir Alisher Nawai and of Sultan Hussain Baeqra written by masters of this art in Herat and decorated by prominent painters and artists of the Herat School.  Those may be found in the various museums in the world and even a few years ago a copy of the Mantiq-el-Tair of Attar with a number of miniature paintings of the Herat School, which had belonged to Amir Abdur Rahman Khan s library, were sold for          18,000 pounds in London.

2 - Manuscripts which have valuable texts:

There exist some manuscripts which, from the viewpoint of art and handwriting are not very attractive, but their texts can be studied and appreciated for two reasons. The first one concerns scientific and philosophical problems which are important from the viewpoint of the history of thought and culture of a people.            These include history, sociology, the progress of the sciences, the evolution of thought, scientific and intellectual discoveries, beliefs and ideas etc. In the second category may be included such subjects as the history of verse, prose and vocabulary, linguistic styles, grammatical points, oratory and fluency, specialistes of local dialects, interpretations and approaches particular to a people and etc.  As examples mention may be made of such volumes as manuscripts of Baihaqis history, the History of Herat, Zain­ al-Akhbaar Gardezi, Tabaqat-us-Soofia of Khwaja Ansari Heravi, Adaab-ul­ Hard-Wal-Shujaa of Fakhre Mudabbar and the priceless works of Al-Beruni and the Sufis and even works by such latter-day scholars like Mughtanim, Riad-el-Muhandisin, Lisan-al-Mizan and other works of Alama Habibullah Muhaqqiq of Kandahar and other learned persons, which carry manifold benefits and may be revived and published by research workers. These manuscripts, even though they may be available in a bad and unattractive handwriting and even if these are devoid of artistic qualities, their existence means unadulterated gold to the scholars.       It may be stated that the Tabaqat-us-Soofia  by Khwaja Ansari of Herat  in addition to its merits as a monumental work on intellectualism and mysticism, also carries immense value as a literary work and a treasure-trove of words, phrases, interpretations and styles employed in the Dari language of the 5th century Herat and Khorasan. Similarly, Baihaqis history throws light upon social conditions,  the position of the Court and the politics of the time; it is also  a fine example of the fluent Dari prose of the 5th century.            Another such manuscript, that of Khair-ul-Bayan by Bayazid Pir Roashan, now preserved in Germany and other copy in Pashto, but written in the same style and tone of Kandahar constitute  some of the outstanding works in old Pashto.

3 - Sometimes one comes across manuscripts which possess not only intrinsic but also spiritual value and have apparent as well as spiritual merits.  Examples may be given of beautifully written and decorated manuscripts on such subjects as commentary upon the Holy Koran, medicine, botany, literature or history, copies of Shahnama containing paintings  and decorations of a high order, each one which serves a purpose and as a means of judging another masterpiece.  Similarly, manuscripts of commentaries upon the Holy Koran in Dari language, beautifully written and attractively embellished in diverse ways, also will be cherished by scholars because of their texts and the use of grammar, the literary style, fluency of language, special interpretations and wording etc. Among these may be counted the translation  of Tafsir-e-Tabri, Tafsir-e­ Surabadi, Tajul-Tarajum, a part of the old Tafsir in Cambridge and other commentaries in Dari which serve as some of the best sources for understanding  linguistic styles and other points.  To these could be added such other manuscripts as Tazkirat-ul-Kahalin, written in 575 A.H (1179 A.D) and a collection of important and rare texts on medicine such as Aamnr-ul­ Aqaqir-el-Mufreda-wal-Murakkaba by Zahrawi Undulusi and Taqwim-el­ Adwiyyatul-Mufreda by Abdul-Alai etc. which existed at the Balamari Library in Peshawar.

4 - Peerless Manuscripts  and their compilation:

Manuscripts  whose texts have not been discovered  elsewhere and therefore, are really peerless,  and demand close attention  because such texts even though worthless  from the viewpoint  of appearance, may carry great value for their texts and contents.

Duplicate copies of a manuscript are utilized in preparing a critical text and for the purpose of corrections. Quotations from the duplicate copies are given in footnotes,  the correct and substantiated form is incorporated  on a separate sheet in the text and the differences between the copies are described on the margin.  But in a text that is unique in character this procedure cannot be followed and the original text itself has to be scrutinized  and analyzed.

Since most of the manuscripts  were written either by scribes or calligraphists  who were not acquainted with the language and the subject-matter, therefore serious blunders have sometimes been made in the texts and even deletions and additions have been made. Sometimes the scribe has misread narm (soft) as buzm (party or assembly) and they appear to have been addicted to the habit of mis­placing dots over the words so that clerical errors and transposition of letters by the scribes, even though inadvertently made, have to be reckoned with.   I have seen manuscripts which have been written by persons who appear to have tried to reproduce the letters without knowing anything about the language. Such manuscripts are plentiful in India where Hindu calligraphists unacquainted  with the language under­took the task of writing these.  An example may be given of the manus­cript of Tabaqat-e-Nasiri in Punjab University the writer of which did not even know the word  khuda (God) and frequently  wrote it as juda (separate).

It has sometimes occurred that the scribe did deliberately interfere with the text and took it upon himself to remove a word and replace it with another.  Since the taste and capability of the scribe were not higher than that of the author, it cannot be admissible;  even if such an eventuality could be recognized, the ethics of the profession should nullify such an attempt.

Anyway, if a research worker engaged upon the task of preparing a correct text, has a number of copies of the same manuscript before him, then he can easily search out, through comparison,  the most reli­able text and put the rest in the footnotes,  but if a unique text has been tempered with by the scribe, then his job becomes moro difficult and he has to consult other volumes in order to seek the truth, and even then he has to describe his reasons for doing so in the footnotes. If this method does not work and he cannot find the correct meaning or solution of phrases and words by consulting other texts on the same subject, in that case he has to write his own views in a footnote or he copies the original text but leaves question marks in brackets against these to denote ambiguity.

In preparing the texts of unique manuscripts one has to be extreme­ly careful because each word has to be weighed in accordance with its usage and meaning together with and in the light of the literary style of the time when it was written.  If the critique discovers  a literary or historical reason for changing a word into another, he should give his explanations  in a footnote.

For example the manuscript of Zain-el-Akhbar-Gardezi, whicb I prepared by consulting two handwritten texts in the Cambridge and Oxford libraries, I discovered that this manuscript  in reality is a uni­que one because the manuscript  at Oxford is only a copy of tho first one and, therefore, in order to solve the numerous difficulties  involving this volume, I had to resort to such texts as were quoted by Gardezi himself and only then did I succeed in correcting mistakes made delibe­rately or inadvertently by the scribes.

Unique manuscripts  are subject to several abuses; for example ignorance of the scribe, sectarian prejudices, unfavorable climatic conditions, attack by insects, the stupidity  of the owner, who in his ignorance takes up a penknife and scrapes away paintings, or because of a special obsession  or prejudice bestows upon one the titles of Peace Be Upon Him and Blessings be Upon Him and punishes another one with tho words God's curse be Upon Him  etc.  It is sometimes seen that the contents of the volume are deliberately  mutilated  and illegally modified. In such cases the research worker's  task becomes easier if he has more than copy available  to him because he can sift out the copy which has not been tampered with, but where a unique manuscript is concerned, his job becomes extremely difficult and the only thing he can do is to pinpoint the dubious parts in a footnote together with his own comments thereon.

At this point I would like to give a few examples from the manus­cript of Zain-al-Akhbar-Gardezi, which is now ready to go to the Press. Gardezi in describing  the Islamic days says that the 11th of Zilhejja is called Youm-el-Qar, but this name in both texts has been mentioned  as Youm-el-Fur.  I have corrected it into Youm-el-Qar because El-Berouni in his book Asaar-ol-Baqiya mentions  it as such (Page 334  of Asaar-ol­ B aqiya).

Describing the reign of Mansur Abbasi, he says that Mansur built a wall around Kufa and levied a tax upon the citizens. The original word is and should have been jabayet, as jabi-al-maal (assessment of tax) in Arabic, but in both texts this word has been written as janayet (crime) and even the publisher has on several occasions  published it as janayet.

Similarly,  Gardezi in describing  Mamoun Abbasi says that Hassan­ bin Sahl struck off the name of  Abu-Suraya  from the muster-rolls. He describes this action as maar-merd-angarish, but in both manuscripts this military term has been mentioned  as badaar-merd-angarish; the late Saeed Nafisi published it as badaar-khurd-angarish, none of which has any meaning.  I corrected this as  aamaar-merd-angarish because Al-Yakoubi in his history (Pages 1, 177) mentions the Vizier or minister as al-merd-e-maar and Khwarazmi, too, describes him as aamaar-debheer (Secretary of Finance) and kunz-aamaar-debheer (Secretary of the Treasury) etc. [5] On the authority of these authors. therefore, the description aamaar-merd-angarish" appears to be the most accurate form because this means "The Muster­ Roll" and I have also mentioned this term on the margin.

5- There also exist many a manuscript, which have been published several times, but the value of the original and old manuscript has remained intact because sometimes the Sufis and preachers have modified the language of such manuscripts to make them easily understood because the old Dari language and idioms, after a lapse of centuries, were difficult for the people to understand. Thus the old and original text was forsaken and as Jami said that which had been adapted intothe vocabulary of the day” became popular.

To the mystics (Sufis) it was permissible because their interest in a text was limited to its value as means of propagating an idea and exerting a spiritual influence and, therefore, they did not trouble themselves with its literary style. For example a volume entitled Sawad-e-Azam in Arabic, authored by Ishaq-bin-Mohammad, popularly known as Hakeem-e-Samarkandi, in about 290 A.H. (902 A.D), concerned the beliefs of the Sunnis. Under the direction of the Emir of Khorasan, Nooh-bin­ Mansur, this book was translated into the Dari language of the Samanids in about 370 A.H. (980 A.D). Together with Tabari’s tafseer and history, this volume is one of the most important and oldest texts in Dari language. However, Khwaja Mohammad Parsa, the mystic who lived in the 8th century A.H. and is now buried at Balkh, utilized this old text for compiling pamphlets on the beliefs of the Sunni sect and adapted the old text to the vocabulary and style of his day and now that I have found the extremely rare and perhaps unique manuscript of the Samanid era, it has been proven that as far as the literary style is concerned there exists a vast difference between  two old and new texts. In other words even though Khwaja Mohammad Parsa has carried away its contents, the value of the original and old manuscript remains untouched. The dis­covery of the original text is in itself a windfall of inestimable value.

A second example of such an alteration involves Sharhe-Taaruf-e­ Mustamli-Bokhari already mentioned in this essay. Another instance is that of Mowlana Jami, who created the book Nafhat-al-Ans by tampering with the text of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari's Tabaqat-us-Soofia and since I succeeded in publishing, with the help of a number of other manuscripts, this volume in the same old Heravi form and style in 1962 in Kabul. I am sure that research scholars and bibliographers can see for themselves the vast difference between the two   texts by Ansari and Jami.  Even Jami himself    who lived in the same Herat four centuries after Ansari and was certainly a person of great accomplishment and polished tastes and the last of the creative poets of Dari language, has failed in many instances to understand Ansari’s text with the result that many a deli­berate transposition, born of the author's inability to understand the old text, has occurred.  I have mentioned these facts in the margin and annexes of Tabaqat.         An instance in this regard may be given of the Arabic word kazalik (like this), which in Heravi dialect had chunaan hunna and chunin hunna as equivalents, but which Jami has read as chunaan-mahin (so thin) while in Tafsee-e-Kashf-el-Israr by Maibazi, a contemporary of Ansari, it becomes quite clear that the correct form was chunin hunna because in this volume this phrase has been used repeatedly to denote kazalik. The book Ferdous-al-Murshidiyya also shows that the same phrase was also employed in Shirazi dialect.

In Heravi dialect the phrase loch-o-posh meaning "the external and the internal" and "naked and covered" has been changed by Jami in the Nafhaat into lowh-shatha the meaning of which cannot be understood.

It can, therefore, be seen that manuscripts lead us to get ac­quainted with and understand the way of thinking of the ancients and their knowledge together with the ideas, arts, social and intellectual conditions, literary trends, dialect peculiarities and many words and phrases employed in the now defunct style as also with many historical facts and scientific, literary and social problems of the time. Since knowledge is the common property of mankind, therefore arrangements on an international scale are required to collect, protect and preserve every kind of manuscript and reproductions of such volumes should be made possible on easier terms.  At the end of this essay, I would like to place a number suggestions  before this assembly of distinguished scholars.  These are:

I - An international society of bibliographers of Dari, Arabic and Pashto manuscripts including those countries which use these languages should be established on an international level. An international center capable of preparing, analyzing, seeking, collecting, publishing, preserving and discovering should be founded.

2 -             In order to accomplish this task local agencies of this international body should be established in the countries concerned and funds must be provided for the task of furthering and coordinating the programm of work. Scholars who have experience of research work con­cerning manuscripts, speak the language and belong to the country involv­ed should be entrusted with the task and facilities for printing and publishing such works must be provided.

3 - Ways and means should be sought to enable all scholars to have all manuscripts within easy reach, and lists and catalogues of manuscripts should be compiled in every country.

4 - Reproductions and rotographs of unique manuscripts should be exchanged by all these international centers.

5 - An international publication or journal devoted to the dissemination of information on the discovery of manuscripts and the task of research and publication etc.  of manuscripts should be created so that bibliographers all over the world may be enabled to keep in touch with developments in this field and also with one another's activities and duplication of work may be avoided. Preparation of critical texts of manuscripts should be entrusted to those who are competent enough to do this job.

6  -  In view of the fact that certain manuscripts remain undis­covered up to the present and these lie unnoticed in every corner with a definite possibility of getting lost altogether. In order to save these invaluable works a campaign on international scale must be launched and organizations such as UNESCO should come forward and lend a helping hand in this      regard.


[1]Tarikh-al-Lughat-al-Samia by Dr. Israel Wilfinson, Cairo, 1929, p. 191 and onwards.

[2]. Please see Subk Shinasi Bahar, p. 2-67.

[3]Moajjam-ul-Baldan, p. 5-114.

[4]. Rahnumai-e Sanaye Islami, p. 83 and Meeras-e Iran, p. 245.