Damage and protection Lesson 7 - Dr. Dorrit van Dalen

Books are vulnerable. Most codices are made of paper, which is light and flexible, but also quite is easily damaged. In Middle Eastern libraries, the frequent page-turning of readers was a major cause of wear-and-tear to books, and another serious concern was insects - worms, silverfish and termites which ate holes through the paper. Another source of damage to paper was the iron-gall ink often used by copyists to write manuscripts: the properties of the ink gradually eat into the paper too, though this source of damage was not recognised in pre-modern times. Paper is also prone to damage from moisture and mould, and of course, by fire.

The first and last leaves of a codex are most susceptible and often the ones that are first affected or lost altogether.

Insects in Or 169
Damage by insects

Binding quires together helps to avoid dispersal of leaves, and covering the binding gives protection to the whole. The Muslim world has traditions of book-binding that are distinct from others. The envelope flap is one of their most eye-catching characteristics, together with blind-tooled medallions on the front and back of the cover. In North and West Africa, the most valuable codices, such as copies of the Qur’ān, were bound or assembled (in West Africa without binding) in a cover, and then placed in a leather satchel.

Unfortunately, binding a codex also had a downside: many of the glues used in covers (based on starch or gelatine) were rather palatable to insects. To repel them, the poisonous plant “buttercup” (Ranunculus), kabīkaj in Arabic - was used. And even the physical word kabīkaj (or kaykaj, kabkaj, kaykataj, the latter notably in African manuscripts) was believed to have a magical repellent effect. Throughout the Muslim world, copyists and book owners would inscribe the word or suppliations containing the word on the first or last leaf of a codex.

The practice was not universally condoned. According to some, the written word kabīkaj or kaykataj was a kind of talisman, others maintained that it was a jinn and that the invocation “yā kaykataj” or "yā kabīkaj" amounted to shirk, idolatry.

About this manuscript

Title: Al-mukhtaṣar fī’l-fiqh.

Classmark: Or. 14.078

Subject: jurisprudence (fiqh)

Author: Khalīl ibn Ishāq al-Jundi (d. 776/1374)

Format: codex

Extent: 143 ff, 105 x 75 mm.

Date of creation: 29 shaʿbān 1123/ 12 october 1711

Language(s): Arabic

Script: Maghribī

The Mukhtaṣar fī’l-fiqh has long been the most authoritative abridgement of Maliki law in Islamic Africa. It starts with six chapters on religious law and continues with fifty five chapters on civil law, such as marriage and divorce, war, defamation, partnership, evidence, legacies, to name but a few. It is very concise and therefore not always unambiguous. Nevertheless, the Mukhtaṣar has been the standard handbook for African judges since the 15th century.

This copy shows that it was both designed and used as a handbook. It is very small and easily fits in a pocket – the pocket of a qāḍī’s clothing. The index is given on the first leaves (f 1v and f 2r) in a tabular format, with each chapter written at oblique angle in each cell - a popular format for lists in manuscripts produced throughout the Islamic world. But since this book was so easy to use, and since this particular copy evidently was so frequently consulted, marks and wear and tear are evident.

Consider the first folia of the codex, the pages most prone to damage. We can see that the whole original first folium, containing the first part of the index table, was lost. It was replaced on the verso side of a new page (f 1v), written with a slightly broader pen. On the recto side of this inserted page we find a poem on the value of the content of the Mukhtaṣar. But this too is only a fragment, the beginning of the poem was written on another page which has also been lost.

Etui Or 14 078
The manuscript's leather satchel lined with cotton.

The cover of the codex is also heavily worn. To protect the volume from too much touching and from cockroaches or even rodents, it was kept in this satchel made of leather with a cotton lining. To protect it against smaller insects, an owner wrote the incantation yā kaykataj three times in red on the outer leaf of the book-block, f 143v. This page does not constitute the end of the book, but is seems that this was the last folium surviving when the note was written in the hope of stemming the damage.

Note also on ff 142-143, an owner has written large words in very diluted ink at the surviving last pages of the codex. On f 142v we read بسم الله الرحمن, the text on ff. 143v is less clear; these also appear to have been added for protective intentions.

Apart from black ink, red, green and some yellow are used. The first part of the text (until f 46a), is completely vowelled with red ink, in accordance with a Maghribi tradition. Green is used to highlight the beginning of new sections (fuṣūl). Yellow is used once in a while to highlight a word.

About yā kaykataj: Adam Gacek, Arabic Manuscripts. A Vademecum for Readers. Brill, 2009. 137-138.
About coloured inks in West Africa (Nigeria): Michaelle Biddle, ‘Inks in the Islamic Manuscripts of Northern Nigeria – Old Recipes, Modern Analysis and Medicine’ Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 2 (2011), 1-35.

More about this manuscript: Lesson 8, Lecture marks.


  1. From what sorts of damage has this codex suffered?