Early Arabic Library

Ms arabe 774 de la BNF, transition entre deux cahiers, f. 308r et 309v.

History has largely retained the name of Antoine Galland, and to a smaller degree his contemporary Pétis de la Crois, as the first major French scholars of the Arab world. The practice of learning Arabic and studying Islam goes back much farther; Galland benefited in fact from a rich tradition developped by committed men of letters. It is impossible to understand the particular relationship of France to the Arabo-Muslim world without returning again to this earliest tradition in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. The evidence of this practice is given concrete form by collections of Arabic manuscripts put together carefully by several scholars of the Arab world. Their work was supported by the diplomatic, economic and scientific ventures at the origin of « Jeunes de Langues », the forerunner of the « l’Institut d’Apprentissage des Langues et Civilisations Orientales ».

The goal of this project is to begin giving access to these manuscripts in digital form. The different collections of political figures such as Mazarin, Seguier, or Colbert who donated the Oriental holdings of the Mazarine to the Royal Library, or those of private scholars such as Eusèbe Renaudot, Thévenot or Peiresc constitute the first collection of the BNF – the National Library of France. Digitizing these manuscripts will first of all make them available to a larger public. But it will also begin presenting what was the first ‘library’ that supported the work of Galland and his contemporaries.


« Costume d’intérieur des femmes et des filles morisques de Grenade », dessin de Christoph Weiditz (1540), Trachtenbuch (recueil de costumes) Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Hs. 22474.

The first choice for digitization involves the aljamiado manuscript in the National Library of France,774. Click here for the description from the BNF catalogue.

This is a manuscript from the late 16th century, a time that was particularly hard for the Moriscos after the Alpujarras Revolt (1568). During the period between Granada’s fall (1492) and their final expulsion (1609), they tried to preserve the identity of their community by copying prayers, tales and cultural materials in what we call aljamiado manuscripts. This one is particularly rich and important because of its contents and presence in the Arabic collections of the BNF.

What is "an Aljamiado manuscript"

Répartition des Morisques en Espagne, source Henri Lapeyre, Géographie de l’Espagne morisque, Paris, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, 1959

Aljamiado works were the specific writing practices of the crypto-Muslims of Spain during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries who had to hide their identities for their safekeeping. These transcriptions signal the ongoing circulation of literary and religious works characteristic of the Muslim world.

Having retained their practice of Islam, together with a certain level of Arabic, Moriscos mostly lived in Aragon, which explains why a large number of aljamiado manuscripts in our possession come from that region. Manuscript 774 is therefore written in Aragonese sprinkled with Arabic words.

Who are the "Moriscos"?

The Moriscos are the Christians and crypto-Muslims Spanish people from former Muslim families named "Moriscos" after the fall of the Muslim kingdom of Granada (1492).

Why the Arabic manuscript n°774 from La Bibliothéque Nationale de France is so important?

It brings together miscellaneous religious texts, prayers, narratives, prophecies, and a travel guide from Spain to Turkey. Mercedes Sanchez Alvarez published a study and a transcription of it in the Latin alphabet (El manuscrito miscelaneo 774 de la Biblioteca Nacional de Paris, Gredos, Madrid, 1982). This type of manuscript is of interest to historians because of the first- hand witness it offers of crypto-Islam in late 16th-17th-century Spain; to linguists for its « phonetic » transcription of a spoken dialect, but also to literary critics because it offers proof that Muslim-inspired accounts (such as the prophet's life) did indeed circulate in Western Europe in other forms.

What is the narrative content of this manuscript?

  • Mohammed's Death
  • Prayer to Fatima
  • Voyage from Spain
  • Profession of faith
  • Prayer for the month of Rajab
  • Questions from the Jews to the prophet Mohammed
  • Chapter of the five prayers
  • Declaration
  • Note on the monthsand festivals of the Muslim calender
  • Prayer
  • The story of Moses
  • The five angels sent by God to Muslims at their death
  • Traditions concerning the properties of certain prayers
  • Night prayer
  • The Last Judgement
  • The Omar hadith
  • About purification
  • Other prayers
  • The death of Moses
  • The scanals Spain is to suffer
  • Prophecy of the very wise Saint Isidor
  • The future of Spain
  • Mohammed's prophecy for Spain
  • Prayer for those who pass by a cemetery
  • Prayer for the moments of despair
  • When you feel lost, say this prayer
  • Prayer for the eating man

This list shows a great diversity of material, even if religious subjects predominate. The different sections are not from the same original quire nor were they all copied by the same scribe.

Can we read the manuscript as a literary text?

As a whole, the manuscript n°774 gathers together particularly valuable texts, particularly an « itinerary » that describes the necessary stages for a journey from Spain to Turkey; it shows the modes of expression of this type of material, and also details prophecies that hint at the type of texts available to the Moriscos. The quotation from the Secret of Secrets proves, for example, how wide the circulation of Alexander the Great stories was in these communities, that is also corroborated by other manuscripts.

The choice of prayers, and the titles of all the works, give us a wealth of information about the mentality of the community, as well as its strategies for conserving their work in the face of conversion and the loss of spoken classical Arabic.


This manuscript raises various sets of questions about the cultural and religious life of the Moriscos.

  • How did they preserve their identities and, from their point of view? Why is this an important question?
  • What were the specificities of Spanish crypto-Islam in the late 16th century?
  • How did they make this cultural manual of sorts? For whom?
  • What was their narrative corpus?
  • How did this corpus reflect their political situation and self-representation?
  • How did this narrative material circulate from Christian spheres to Muslim ones?
  • What is the impact of social and political marginality on literary production?
  • How does a community build its own identity?

Translation of 1 text: Mohammed's prophecy on Spain.

The prophet Mohammad, may God bless Him and grant Him salvation, said:
- I will lead you unto an island of piety
They replied :
- Yes, O Prophet of God.
He said:
There is an island in the West they call Andalusia; it will be inhabited until the end of time by a group of people from my following of believers. Indeed, guarding the frontier one night and one day is, in the eyes of God, Praise the Lord, as if we adored Him forever. For he who sleeps with his flock, it is as if he had fasted for all time, and he remains in a state of grace even when he leaves the flock. A happy destiny awaits he who will reach it at the end of time and God, Praise the Lord, will raise a wind such that will take away the inhabitants to Jerusalem [in the text; the holy place]
They say that the Prophet, may God bless Him and grant Him salvation, said;
- A man of my religious following will rise up on the day of Judgment and launch the holy war, following the path of God.
We do not know when the Day of Judgment will be, but the mountains shall then become valleys.
They also say that the Prophet, may God bless Him and grant Him salvation, said:
Andalusia possesses four of the gates to Paradise, one called Faylonoata, the second Lorca, the third Tortosa and the last Guadalajara. At the Mecca, Mohammad Bnu Qatil said one day,
For those from Andalusia, by He who holds my person in His power! Guarding the frontier a single day and a single night is better than making twelve pilgrimages in the right month.
Abdu al-Malik Bnu Habib also said:
- I asked a question about the people who will live the first events announcing Judgment in Andalusia. And another asked me a question about the green mosque, I told him of its location and he said:
- O Abut Marwan! I will give you sure information on the Day of Judgment, the muezzin will commence the call to prayer, in the evening, he will preach in Andalusia and announce that Islam will never be chased from this place, and that the enemies will never conquer it.
God's Prophet, may God bless Him and grant Him salvation, said:
- We do not know the details of the holy war that will take place in the west but we know that it will commence on that island called Andalusia which, by He who holds my person in His power! As my brother Gabriel told me during my sleep, will be conquered after my death, the living ones will know happiness and the dead ones will die as martyrs. The Day of Judgment will be announced by seventy-two signs, and each sign will produce seventy-two thousand deaths that will be blessed by neither the sword nor the lance.
Omar Ibn al-Hattab, may God have pity on him, also said:
- Who shall these martyrs be?
The Prophet Mohammad, may God bless Him and grant Him salvation, replied:
- They are foreigners to my following, the inhabitants of land's end; and, by He who holds my person in His power ! Guarding the frontier a day and a night in the war of Muslims is more loved by me than the Night of Destiny.
God's messenger, may God bless Him and grant Him salvation, also said that Andalusia is made of the valleys that form Paradise, and a part of His followers said: - O Lord, let us participate in this beside them in the path to good.
God's messenger, may God bless Him and grand Him salvation, replied: - How may you profit from the good that escapes them since you share neither their pain nor their anguish? Gabriel told me, may God grant him salvation, that the people would die from unreason that will make them suffer their enemies and they shall buy rotten grain. Ikrima Ibn Abbas and God's messenger Mohammad said:
- But one day the troops of the pork-eating idol-worshippers will conquer the troops of truth and real faith in the island of Andalusia, which will be conquered after my death. Ibn Abbas, may God have pity on him, tells us that one day he prayed with God's messenger, may God bless Him and grant Him salvation, it was the sunset prayer and, when they had finished, he concentrated on the muezzin's voice, he looked west and began to cry with hot tears.
Ibu Abbas, may God have pity on him, said then:
- O messenger of God, why did you cry until you soaked the hairs of your beard with your tears?
The Prophet Mohammad, may God bless Him and grant Him salvation, replied:
- I cried because my Lord made me see an island, that is called Andalusia, and this island shall be most beautiful [?] island peopled with Muslims, and it shall be the first one they shall be chased from.
Abd Allah said then :
- O, messenger of God! How will the oneness of God be vanquished, Praise be the Lord?
The Prophet replied that God would send a guide to defend the true religion against other religions, at the expense of the infidels. The Prophet said:
- In truth, in certain conditions, only very few of them will convert the world to the true religion, and will spread the message of the Koran in all the world.