In the School of Wisdom: Persian Bookbinding, ca. 1575-1890


ʿIlm al-rijāl. Cover

Mustafa al-Tafrishi, Naqd al-rijāl
Text: Iran, 1703 or earlier
Binding: Iran, ca. 1800–25
Paint, gold, and varnish on papier-mâché boards

MS Or. 216

Click here for item information

Manuscripts are repositories not only of an authored text but also names: authors, calligraphers, painters, binders, patrons, collectors, readers. It is a commonplace in art history to understand a manuscript commission as a reflection of its patron. This is just as true of rebinding campaigns, even if many of the data-points are more elusive.

'Ilm al-rijal (more commonly known as Naqd al-rijāl) is a work on hadith transmission completed by Mustafa al-Tafrishi in 1015 AH/1606 CE. This copy, though undated, must have been produced no later than 1703, based on the earliest annotation. It was clearly prized, containing copious marginal notes, ownership seals, and inscriptions spanning the course of the 18th century. Indeed, the unusual format of the book—using an oblong 5:3 page ratio, rather than the conventional 3:2—would normally indicate that it was designed as a reference volume.

Perhaps as a result of extensive handling, the current binding is a replacement, most likely dating from the first quarter of the 19th century. Its central medallion features a compact interpretation of the S-curve rose, of the type already seen on the Anvar-i suhayli. The inhabited medallion and palmettes are then outlined in scarlet and set against a swath of goldstone ground, perhaps presaging the Gestalt effects deployed in many mid-19th century bindings, whether through the multistability of complex lozenges or the previously noted manipulation of figure-ground relationships.

Although later readers do not seem to have left annotations, wear along the spine-edge attests to continued interest. Tafrishi's text contains hundreds of names of individuals who recited hadith; a single such name may not be important in and of itself but could serve, upon scrutiny, as an important link to establish a chain with the past.

Global Studies / Lehman Library / 420 West 118th Street / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-3630 /