Manuscript variations and scribal errors Lesson 14 - Dr. Peter Webb

From amongst the hundreds of thousands of Arabic manuscripts surviving today, only very few are written in their author’s hand or under their author’s supervision. The vast majority are copies produced in manifold different contexts, and their quality and accuracy vary accordingly.

Some manuscripts were copied by scholars, as the act of writing assisted the learning of the contents, and students made verbatim copies of books they were taught by teachers. (see also lesson 13) While scholar-made copies can be carefully-written and faithful to the original, most Arabic manuscripts were produced on demand by professional copyists (called warrāq or nassākh) who were neither necessarily well-educated nor understood everything in the books which they were paid to copy. These scribes constituted an ‘artisan knowledge economy’, and their rapidly-produced manuscripts contain many kinds of little variations and slips of the pen which form a ubiquitous background noise for any reader of pre-modern Arabic writing. Readers can expect virtually every manuscript to have a degree of scribal errors, and often a few per folio, and this lesson explores their nature and effects.

About this manuscript

Title: Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn bi-sharḥ Risālat Ibn Zaydūn (Pasturing at the Wellsprings of Knowledge: Ibn Zaydūn’s Letter Expounded)

Classmark: Or. 705/1

Subject: Arabic literature

Author: Jamāl al-Dīn Ibn Nubāta al-Miṣrī

Format: Codex

Date of creation: Monday, 6 Dhū al-Ḥijja 973 AH (24 June 1566 CE)

Language(s): Arabic

Script: Naskh

Ibn Nubāta’s Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn (Pasturing at the Wellsprings of Knowledge) is a commentary on an erudite love letter written by the Andalusian Ibn Zaydūn (d. 463/1070). Ibn Zaydūn’s letter was so complex and contained so many cultural references that readers needed explanations, and Ibn Nubāta (d. 768/1366) wrote Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn as an exhaustive commentary. The book proved to be a handy reference tool: by explaining everything mentioned by Ibn Zaydūn, Ibn Nubāta’s book covered manifold aspects of what were then considered the ‘classics’ in Muslim culture: Greek philosophy, Arabic poetry, pre-Islamic Persian kings and Arabian heroes from pre- and early Islam. Accordingly, Ibn Nubāta’s commentary became very popular as a reference text to train students on Arabic’s ‘classics’, and manuscripts proliferated.

The proliferation of manuscripts brought with it a proliferation of textual variations, and today there are more than 130 preserved copies of Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn. The standard printed edition today was prepared by the Egyptian scholar Muḥammad Abū al-Faḍl Ibrāhīm in 1963, but it is based on earlier printed editions of the book and only took recourse to two manuscripts preserved in Egypt. Like many modern editions of pre-modern Arabic literature, the 1963 edition does not reflect the breadth of the variations of the text, and our exercises will check a sample of the printed edition against earlier manuscripts, revealing the differences between today’s printed edition and the underlying manuscript tradition, and revealing the kinds of differences between the manuscripts themselves.

The nature of variations: scribal errors
Some variations have very little effect. For example, the particles wa and fa in Arabic both connote the meaning ‘and’: in some cases, they are basically interchangeable, and copyists sometimes mix them. Similarly, copyists sometimes interchange closely-synonymous nouns and verbs, suggestive that they read a chunk of the original, and when re-writing it, they inadvertently substituted a word in the original with a synonym. Such minor variations are widespread, but they make neither grammatical nor consequential difference to the text’s meaning.

The most common minor scribal errors are classified via the following technical terms:

Haplography: the inadvertent omission of a repeated letter or letters in writing. E.g. a scribe may write the word مستتر as مستر, with only one ت, whereas there should be two.

PW Omission b

Omissions: where a copyist leaves out a letter or word from the text. E.g. the copyist of Leiden Or. 705 left out the letter lām from al-mamlaka (kingdom), and wrote al-mamaka (p. 18).

PW Dittography b PW Dittography b

Dittography: adding extra letters into a word accidently. E.g. in the image below from our featured manuscript, the copyist has written two wāw letters at the beginning of the verb waqafa, whereas there should only be one. (p. 21)

PW memeaumeme b PW memeaumeme b
Saut du même au même

Saut du même au même: cases where a word or sequence of words are repeated accidently in copying. E.g. the copyist accidently copied the word wajh twice as the sequence of words in two clauses closely parallel each other, though he realized his error and crossed out the second wajh. (p. 19)

Cacography: cases where a word is written illegibly or ink smudges obscure the word.

Taṣḥīf: errors resulting from incorrect pointing of letters. Educated readers could guess the correct reading for an un-pointed letter or word, but there are sometimes several possibilities, and copyists working quickly could misread un-pointed letters or incorrectly add points to the wrong letters.

Taḥrīf: the transposition of letters because of their close similarity or shape.

PW taqdim takhir b
Al-taqdīm wa-l-taʾkhīr

al-Taqdīm wa-l-taʾkhīr: the transposition of words in a sentence. E.g. in the image below from our featured manuscript, instead of writing: inṣāf al-daʿīf min al-qawī (protecting the weak from the strong), the copyist wrote it reversed: inṣāf al-qawī min al-ḍaʿīf (protecting the strong from the weak[!]). (p. 19)

Textual variations
Other variations more significantly alter the text. Scholars sometimes made precis of texts they were studying, and thus left out words or whole phrases which they considered superfluous to the meaning. Some scribes may also have done the same, and did not always transmit every word of the texts verbatim, but instead conveyed the meaning with slightly different words. As a result, one story can appear across different texts and copies with numerous little variations.

Some books were transmitted in more than one form across different manuscript copies, too. Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn is an example: both ‘long’ and ‘short’ versions were circulating under the same title with no indication of their different lengths. The ‘short’ version leaves out whole passages present in the ‘long’, and so is about two-thirds the length, but for the remainder, it does track the long version almost verbatim. It remains unclear, therefore, whether Ibn Nubāta wrote both versions, or whether an unnamed transmitter made a precis of the ‘long’ version, and that was subsequently copied by scribes who believed it was the original. Whatever the origin, any two readers in possession of different manuscripts bearing the title Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn could have actually been reading distinctly different texts.

Scribal interference
Some copyists made deliberate changes to the text they were copying. In the example illustrated here, Ibn Nubāta’s original contained a frankly strange anecdote in which the scholar al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 255/869) quipped to an opponent, ʿUbayd al-Kilābī, that the Prophets Ishmael and Muḥammad were both ‘sons of concubines’. Al-Jāḥiẓ was known for making incendiary remarks, and this anecdote is preserved in Al-Rāghib al-Aṣbahānī’s Muḥādarāt al-udabāʾ (Beirut, 1961, vol. 1, pp. 346-347), from which Ibn Nubāta copied it. But some will find the statement scandalous and even blasphemous, and from the examples here, we can see that different copyists of Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn manuscripts adopted several strategies to avoid mentioning Muḥammad as a ‘son of a concubine’.

The original statement reads:
قلت: "نبيا الله محمّد وإسماعيل كانا ابني أمة." قال: "لا يقول هذا إلّا قدريّ."

I [al-Jāḥiẓ] said: ‘Two prophets of God, Muḥammad and Ishmael, were sons of concubines.’ ʿUbayd responded: “Only a proponent of free will would say something like that.”

The Leiden manuscript Or. 705/1, (p. 120) renders the full line:

PW Mhd and Ismail 05 f 120 v
Or. 705/1 (p. 120)

The full text with reference to the Prophet Muhammad is also copied in a Manuscript held in Lebanon (Kasik 604), though the copyist changed his mind mid-way through writing this line: he crossed out the words which would have read 'two Prophets' and 'Muhammad', and started the sentence afresh, trimming it to "One Prophet of God, Ishmael..."

Kasik 604 f152r
Kasik 604 f.152r, with strike-through over the apparent blasphemy

Leiden Or. 817 (p. 141) omits ‘Muḥammad’ and changes the beginning of the sentence to refer to only one ‘prophet of God’, one 'son of a concubine’ and only writes the name of Ishmael.

PW al Jahiz 817 Ismail
Or. 817, p. 141

Istanbul Süleymaniye Raghibpasha 1136 (f 65) retains the dual ‘two prophets
of God’ at the beginning of the sentence, but only writes the name
Ishmael, omitting Muḥammad, and inserts a marginal note: “This statement
is questionable”.

PW two prophets
Two prophets of God (Istanbul SR 1136)

Berlin Glasser 37 (f 71) deftly changes the statement altogether by adding the name Ibrāhīm ibn Muḥammad (a son who was indeed born to Muḥammad by a concubine), and thus renders the statement: ‘The two prophets of God, Ibrahīm ibn Muḥammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and Ishmael were sons of concubines’. Muḥammad’s son Ibrāhim was of course not a prophet, but it is a clever correction to avert possible blasphemy.

PW two prophets Glasser PW two prophets Glasser
Two prophets, Ibrahīm and Ishmael (Berlin, Glasser 37)

Overall, roughly half of the Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn manuscripts contain pious-minded amendments to this anecdote.

More about this manuscript: lessons 2 and 21.

The excerpt for our study is drawn from a chapter in Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn on the biography of Alexander the Great and the history of the Greeks. For Question 1 and Assignment 1, we will compare the 1963 printed edition with the following manuscripts: Leiden Or. 705 pp. 13-15 (Manuscript A, in the viewer), British Library Or. 20 ff. 6v/7r (Manuscript B), Istanbul Süleymaniye Raghibpasha 1136 ff. 14r-15r (Manuscript C).
For Question 2 and Assignment 2, use the full copy of Leiden Or 705 in the viewer.

A. Gacek, 'Taxonomy of scribal errors and corrections in Arabic manuscripts' in J. Pfeiffer and M. Kropp (eds), Theoretical approaches to the Transmission and Edition of Oriental Manuscripts. Proceedings of a symposium held in Istanbul, March 2001. pp 221-240.
A. Gacek, Arabic Manuscripts, a Vademecum for Readers. Brill 2009, pp. 234-235, 238-240, 250-251.


  1. The 1963 printed edition reproduces a ‘long version’ of Sarḥ al-ʿuyūn; on the basis of the excerpt, can you determine which of the Manuscripts likely constitute ‘short’ versions?

  2. The copyist of Leiden Or. 705/1 made many errors in copying the manuscript, but he corrected some by inserting the correct text in the margins. For example, on page 27 of the manuscript, he inserted a word in the margin and drew a right-angle sign in the textblock where that insertion should be read. These marks indicating the location of the marginal correction are common in manuscripts and are known as ‘signes de renvoi’; ʿalamāt al-takhrīj or takhrīja in Arabic. In the case of our example on page 27, (a) what is the insertion, (b) after what word did he write the insertion mark, and (c) how should the corrected phrase read?


  1. Identify each variation and difference between the printed edition and the three manuscripts. Which differences do you consider to be significant, which are simple scribal errors, and what kinds of scribal variations can you find?
    Use the 1963 printed edition as a baseline and make a note of every location where there is a variation, identifying the manuscript and the nature of the variation.

  2. Find 5 more examples of corrections and ʿalamāt al-takhrīj in Leiden Or. 705: make a note of the page and line where they occur, and reproduce the correct phrase.