May 4, 2007

Manuscripts in the Zahid ‘Ali Collection

Manuscripts in the Zahid ‘Ali Collection

Kanz al-walad al-Masa'il al-sab'un Buniyad-i ta'wil Qasida Jaljalwiyya Tanbih al-ghafilin Diwan of Ibn Hani' Kanz al-walad
Kitab al-Azhar Kitab al-Bustan fi tahdhib nafs al-insan Kitab al-Maqalid Iftitah al-da'wa Kitab al-Masabih fi ithbat al-imama Lubb al-lubab wa-nur al-albab Da'a'im al-Islam

A prominent Ismaili scholar of the 20th century, Dr Zahid ‘Ali passed away in 1958, leaving behind a small number of widely acclaimed studies on the history and doctrines of the Ismailis. Nearly forty years later, in the autumn of 1997, the only surviving son of Dr Zahid ‘Ali, Professor ‘Abid ‘Ali, generously donated to the Library of The Institute of Ismaili Studies an exceptional collection of Arabic manuscripts inherited from his father’s collection.

from Kitab al-Masabih
fi ithbat al-imama
Dr Zahid ‘Ali

Zahid ‘Ali was born in June 1888 into a Musta‘li Ismaili family. His father, Fadl ‘Ali, was a prominent leader in the Musta‘li Ismaili community and a scholar in his own right. Zahid ‘Ali, after receiving his early education in Hyderabad and Surat, went to the University of Oxford, where he obtained a doctorate in Arabic Literature. Returning to India in 1926, he took up the position of Professor of Arabic at the Nizam College, Hyderabad, eventually becoming its Vice-Principal. He retired in 1945, and passed away shortly after his 70th birthday.

Fluent in English, as well as Arabic, Persian and Urdu, Dr Zahid ‘Ali showed a rare ability in effectively combining traditional and modern research methods. His main publications include a critical Arabic edition, with commentary, of the Diwan of the Fatimid poet Ibn Hani’, an outcome of his doctoral research at Oxford. His second major work was a history of the Fatimids, written in Urdu and published in two volumes. Perhaps his most important and significant contribution to Ismaili studies was entitled Hamare Isma‘ili madhhab ki haqiqat awr us ka nizam, a compendium in Urdu of Ismaili doctrines and teachings as professed among the Musta‘li Ismailis, which was published in 1954.

Dr Zahid ‘Ali had access to an extensive range of Ismaili primary sources, many of which were copied by his father. After Zahid ‘Ali’s death in 1958, this collection of manuscripts was inherited by his son, ‘Abid ‘Ali. In 1994, Professor ‘Abid ‘Ali visited the Institute and, impressed by its collections of Ismaili materials as well as its commitment to promote research on Ismaili studies, identified the Institute’s Library as the most suitable venue for the preservation of such a valuable literary heritage. Although ‘Abid ‘Ali was not able to fulfill this wish in his lifetime, he instructed in his will that the manuscripts be bequeathed to the Institute’s Library. The manuscript collection, comprising 226 volumes and located in California, was transferred, with the assistance of Professor ‘Abid ‘Ali’s wife and children, to the Library in 1997.

Over the past years, the task of collating, identifying, preserving and microfiching these manuscripts has been undertaken. A catalogue entirely devoted to the Zahid ‘Ali corpus, entitled Arabic Ismaili Manuscripts: The Zahid ‘Ali Collection, is being published this year. This illustrated catalogue, prepared by Delia Cortese, includes details of the content of each manuscript and other relevant information of a literary and doctrinal nature, as well as a comprehensive introduction that will enable the user to place the featured works in their wider historical contexts.

Dr Zahid ‘Ali’s collection represents an outstanding record of transmission of Ismaili learning and scholarship through many generations. The 221 Arabic Ismaili volumes in the collection (there are four Arabic non-Ismaili manuscripts) belong to the tradition of legal, theological, philosophical and historical Ismaili literature produced over a period of nearly ten centuries, from pre-Fatimid to modern times. They feature a substantial number of previously unrecorded works, as well as titles that are already represented in the Library’s collection. Although most of the manuscripts are relatively recent, dating mainly from the middle of the 19th to the first half of the 20th centuries, there are some manuscripts from the 18th century. The oldest dated Ismaili codex in the collection is a copy of the legal treatise Kitab al-Hawashi by Aminji b. Jalal, dated 1733. Another text of particular importance is a Persian translation (this being the only Persian manuscript in the collection) by al-Mu’ayyad fi al-Din al-Shirazi of al-Qadi al-Nu‘man’s Asas al-ta’wil.

The Zahid ‘Ali Collection will occupy a prominent place in the Library’s efforts to develop the finest and largest corpus of Ismaili codices in the world. The collection reflects a rare example of the exemplary dedication of Dr Zahid Ali’s family members to the preservation and study of Ismaili literature.

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