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The Mystery of Macedonia’s Islamic Manuscripts

Source : Balkananalysis | 08 Jan 2014
In this intriguing new interview, Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso gets the insights of Prof. Dr. Mesut Idriz, an expert on the subject who has done considerable research on the history, identity and preservation possibilities of Islamic manuscripts from Macedonia.
A native of Macedonia, Dr. Idriz received his graduate and doctoral degrees from the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM). Previously, he also studied in Syria. Currently he is Professor at the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the International University of Sarajevo. Dr Idriz has also served as Head of the Department of Political Science and International Relations and was Founding Director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Education at Hasan Kalyoncu University (then, Gazikent University). Dr Idriz has taught at both the International Islamic University of Malaysia and the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), and was Chief Editor (Academics) at MPH Group Publishing (Kuala Lumpur). He is also a regular Visiting Professor at the International Summer School (PISU) of Prishtina University, Kosovo, teaching a special course on “Public Diplomacy in the Balkans.”
In addition, Dr Idriz has published, edited and translated numerous academic books and articles concerning the Balkans, Ottoman and Muslim history, Islamic civilization, the history of Islamic education (particularly the tradition of ijazah, diploma). Among his books is The Ijazah of ‘Abdullah Fahim: A Unique Document from Islamic Education, analyzing and translating into English the Former Prime Minister of Malaysia Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s Grandfather’s ijazah. He is co-English translator of HE Ali Akbar Velayeti’s voluminous work, Mawsū‛ah al-Islām wa Irān (The Encyclopedia of Islam and Iran). Dr Idriz’s works have been published in English, Turkish, Albanian, Persian, French and Malay. He recently co-edited Turkish-Albanian Macedonian Relations: Past, Present and Future (2012), and is currently co-editing Islam in Europe: Past Reflections and Future Prospects for Oxford University Press (2014).
Overview
Chris Deliso: You provided a wealth of new information in a paper of last year entitled ‘An evaluation of the current state of Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia and future prospects.’ Can you tell us a little about your motivations for getting interested in the subject in the first place, and in taking the time to research it? What makes the Islamic manuscripts of your country significant to you?
Mesut Idriz: The manuscript literature of the Islamic world is a vast area of study; these manuscripts contain an as-yet almost untapped source for the rich Islamic heritage. [Islamic] manuscripts have been studied for quite a long time, and many are well-known. However, even more of them remain still unknown, or at least insufficiently appreciated. Nowadays, these manuscripts are not the exclusive preserve of Arab and Muslim countries, or even countries with large Muslim minorities, like the Balkan region. Islamic manuscripts are found extensively in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Japan. There is hardly a country in the world that does not possess some manuscripts produced under the aegis of Muslim civilization.
It is estimated that three million Islamic manuscripts survive today. These are normally held either in private collections or by public libraries. They are always highly valued by their holders. Some private holders may remain unaware of the value of what they have in their collections; yet they are often reluctant or unwilling to share information about them. Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia and those housed in the St Clement of Ohrid National and University Library in Skopje are highly significant and part of the Muslim heritage, endowed by scholars and government officials throughout the Ottoman rule.
CD: Your overview of the Islamic manuscripts in, and arriving in Macedonia during the Ottoman period was comprehensive, but can you give us any examples of specific highlights- either particularly valuable pieces, whether for aesthetic or artistic reasons, or rarity of content, or quality of writing, or other factors?
MI: A large number of manuscripts written in all the three Muslim languages (Arabic, Ottoman-Turkish and Persian) represent authentic small masterpieces of the Islamic calligraphers, illuminators and book binders. It is assumed that among the manuscripts written in Arabic language, Some of their authors probably originate from Macedonia. They are Muhammad Vahdetî ibn Muhammad el-Üskübî and Şeyh Sinani Mustafa ibn Mahmud el-Üskübî, both from Skopje, judging by their nisbe indicated at the end of their names, as well as Abdurrahman ibn Hasan ibn Abdurrahman el-Debrevî, originating from Debar. All these manuscripts are original works, which should be studied by academics and students pursuing their doctoral degrees.
CD: Similarly, about the languages used in the manuscripts- are they generally in Arabic, or in Turkish, Persian or other languages? Are there any written in Balkan languages?
MI: I have not been able to go through each book available in the National and University Library but we are informed that they are in the Arabic, Ottoman-Turkish and Persian languages. I have come across some manuscripts written in Albanian and Bosnian – using the Arabic alphabet – but these books can be found [only] in the private hands of individuals around Macedonia.
Macedonia and the Balkans’ First Ottoman Library
CD: You mentioned that the first Islamic library in the Balkans was created in Macedonia, by Ottoman Commander Isa Beg in 1469. You add that he donated 330 rare manuscripts to it. Are any of these original texts still surviving? If so, are they in the country or in outside museums or private collections?
MI: [The 330] rare manuscripts donated by the Ottoman Commander Isa Beg during the 15th century may not all be available today, but it is believed that most of the original works are still surviving, and are housed in the National and University Library.
CD: You write that following the end of the Ottoman Empire Macedonia inherited over 20,000 Islamic manuscripts but that the vagaries of time, the two world wars and theft have affected this figure. So what is the known number that survived post-1945? And, as far as the issue of stolen manuscripts from this period goes, are there any unique stories about where they ended up and if any have been recovered?
MI: The exact number actually is not known. In various venues I have been suggesting that a small center employing a dynamic team should be established. This team should conduct a comprehensive survey around Macedonia and prepare a detailed list of Islamic manuscripts found in the individual libraries, tekkes, centers of learning, etc. As far as the issue of stolen manuscripts is concerned, nothing has been so far published about their whereabouts, or stories about them, except for certain information that we have been receiving through word-of-mouth, typically, from elderly people. But theft of manuscripts is not the only issue we have. For instance, the bell of the clock-tower in Skopje (Saat, in Sultan Murat Mosque) was stolen and still today no one has written or investigated the matter in depth.
CD: Of the maniscripts that were preserved, you write that the majority of local collectors were Sufi mystics. Is there any reason why these particular people had an interest in rare manuscripts, or were other factors involved too?
MI: No, there is no particular reason for that. However, we may assume that Sufi mystics are the lovers of God and they devote themselves in seeking His guidance at all time. After all, God’s first verse revealed to the Prophet Muhammad is iqra’, which means “read;” and here the word ‘read’ does not refer merely to the reading of the Holy Book only, but to any knowledge that is beneficial to mankind. Therefore, they paid attention to preserve these books containing knowledge and particularly beneficial ones for mankind. This act of preserving them is considered a noble one.
Knowns and Unknowns
CD: Like any other branch of cultural heritage, Islamic manuscripts might be prone to theft or ‘relocation.’ Are you aware of any attempts at ‘relocating’ any of Macedonia’s Islamic manuscripts in recent years? Where are they stored for safekeeping, and who and how many people have access to them?
MI: With reference to your question, we have to know that there are two groups of Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia, and I call them as “officially known” and “officially unknown” works.
Concerning the former, the majority of them are kept in the National and University Library. In the mid-1980s, the Isa Beg Medrese – not the one that was established by the Ottoman Commander Isa Beg mentioned earlier, though it bears the same name – was founded, and later the Faculty of Islamic Studies of Skopje, under the Islamic Community of Macedonia. The staff of the Library of Isa Beg then began to make a list by hand of the Islamic manuscripts available in their possession. However, a proper catalogue has yet to be produced for either the National and University Library’s or the Isa Beg Library’s collections.
As for “officially unknown” manuscripts, there is no single survey that has been done so far; therefore, how many manuscripts there are, and where, is yet to be established. We are not aware about whether there have been any attempts to ‘relocate’ any kind of manuscripts housed in the official institutions. Access-wise, the manuscripts kept in the National and University Library are open for researchers and students, but the problem is that the catalogues informing about the list and content of the book are not ready and published; therefore, this creates a big problem for researchers. I urge that the list of manuscript available in any library be published and made available for the public. If this happens, the details about the works will be known and hopefully none of them will ‘go missing’ in the future.
CD: While most of the manuscripts are in the capital, therefore, do you still believe that there may be cases of rare or unknown manuscripts perhaps existing in remote village mosques or the attic of some villager’s home, or other such places? Have you personally ever made discoveries of otherwise unknown manuscripts in this way?
MI: Oh yes. That is why it is presumed that the number of manuscripts outside of the official institutions might reach into the tens of thousands in total. And yes, I have come across many, many manuscripts kept in private hands, either inherited from their ancestors or just purchased at some point, or else received as a gift from others. Again, this is why I urge an institution supervised by the government(s) to be established and to employ a group of young researchers, in order to make a comprehensive survey all around Macedonia, and as a result, to produce a detailed list about the Islamic manuscripts available in Macedonia.
Cataloguing Attempts
CD: You have written that ‘some private holders may remain unaware of the value of what they have in their collections.’ So in this light, there are two questions: one, are you aware of any attempts to systematically catalogue the value of Macedonia’s Islamic manuscripts? If so, is there an authorized body or internationally recognized expert or group of experts behind this process?
MI: With regard to the National and University Library’s collection of Islamic manuscripts, certain cataloguing attempts have been made since the 1950s. With the great assistances of Muderris Abdulfettah Rauf, known as Fettah Efendi (1910-1963), who was an expert in all three major Muslim languages, Arabic, Ottoman-Turkish and Persian as well as a famous scholar, this initiative took off. The catalogue began to be prepared in the Macedonian language. However with his sudden death in 1963, this work was somehow put off. After almost four decades, after being appointed to the position of caretaker of these manuscripts, English and Arabic expert Marijana Kavčič began to work on this unaccomplished mission of cataloguing. Marijana should be credited for her marvelous job and acknowledged for her positive contribution as she, in addition to Macedonian, began to prepare the catalogue in the English language, which we consider will have a greater global effect. Unfortunately the fate of cataloguing Arabic Islamic manuscripts did not last long as Marijana began to work in the library in 2005 and left the position in 2008.
In the meantime, with the sponsorship of [Turkish International Development Agency] TIKA, a work on the cataloguing of “officially known” Ottoman-Turkish manuscripts available in Macedonia began in 2003, and was completed and published in 2007 under the title Makedonya Kütüphaneleri Türkçe Yazma Eserler Kataloğu by two academics, Yaşar Aydemir and Abdulkadir Hayber. This important catalogue was produced in the Turkish language. But this work does not have any inventory survey on what we call “officially unknown” manuscripts, and as a result it does not include those manuscripts available in the country’s private collections. To my knowledge, there is a lack of inventory survey, comprehensive cataloguing and digital processing of the Islamic manuscripts available in Macedonia. Further, there is no authorized body or internationally recognized expert or group of experts behind this process.
Manuscript Collectors and Factoring Prices
CD: Following on from that, do you know any private collectors of Macedonian Islamic manuscripts- either inside or outside of the country? If yes, do you have any knowledge of what kind of works may remain ‘hidden’ in their private collections?
MI: Yes, there are a few private collectors of Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia, as well as Islamic manuscripts of the Balkans in general in various parts of the world. I know a few Middle Eastern scholars who possess works that originated from the Balkan region. I have also met a few Europeans who are lovers of Islamic manuscripts who posses original copies from this region. One of the collectors I visited in the United Arab Emirates recently had about 10 Islamic manuscripts that he had acquired from the Balkan region.
CD: To give us some sense of scale, what are some of the highest auction prices or agreed values for other Islamic manuscripts from elsewhere in the world? What is the profile of the kind of persons or groups who purchase such texts?
MI: Very interesting question. I visited a collector who is himself a scholar, who divided his library into two parts: the first for handwritten manuscripts, and the second for published books. Interestingly, his handwritten manuscripts were locked in a vault protected by electronic sensors, which contained almost eleven thousand works. The oldest manuscript he had dated back to the 10th century- something that is really priceless.
In our casual discussion, he mentioned that all of these handwritten manuscripts may be worth over $50 million if he were to sell them.
Some of these collectors are either people who are financially wealthy, and their hobbies include collecting old manuscripts; others are scholars; and some others are just pure businessmen who buy and sell Islamic manuscripts. To my knowledge, the highest price ever paid for an Islamic manuscript was paid for the oldest surviving Holy Book of the Qur’an. Among the well-known personages who collects handwritten Qur’ans is HRH Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei.
CD: In your professional opinion, are there subjective factors involved with the perception of value (i.e., devout Muslims who will buy these objects simply because of the religious or sentimental value) that affects the global market view of their value? How difficult is it to assign or find an objective consensus on the value to these objects compared to other historical items or works of art, given that some collectors will have different motivations for acquiring them? And is this any different than how the market works for other (non-Islamic) historical objects?
MI: To begin with the last question: it is not that different from how the market works for other historical objects, when we look at it in terms of the object’s value at the auction level. Only the sentimental issue adds value to the item for certain people, or sellers try to include the sentimental and/or religious values in order to ‘manipulate’ the market price.
There are definitely subjective factors from the point of view of value perception, as when the historical objects in question are concerned with religion. This is especially the case when it is related to the Holy Book(s), where the global market view might not even be considered when valuing the item(s). Imagine if you tried to put a value on the Holy Qur’an kept in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It dates to the period of the Third Caliph ‘Uthman b. ‘Afwan; this item is ‘impossible’ to value, no money can buy it nor be offered for it. There are many similar examples, and not only from the Muslim world. In fact examples from the non-Muslim world exceed those from the Muslim world by many times.
A Turkish-Macedonian Initiative?
CD: The goal you presented in last year’s paper was ‘the cataloging and ultimately digitalizing’ of the Macedonian Islamic manuscripts. Until now, have you managed to attract the attention of any sponsors whether from the government, corporations, universities or other foundations? If so, what is the result?
MI: There are some discussions going on. I have managed to raise this matter with the local Macedonian government officials, with some NGOs, foreign institutions and donors. It is not a difficult process, but still not an easy task. The only thing I can say is “let’s hope” a joint effort takes place between the Turkish and Macedonian governments on this highly significant aspect of Islamic heritage inherited from the Ottoman era.
CD: Among the interested parties in your work you have specified the London-based al-Furqan Foundation and the Institute of Arabic Manuscripts, a project of the Arab League. Both have the goal of collecting and publishing Islamic manuscripts from around the world. Are these groups actively involved in supporting any current or future project in Macedonia related to your idea? If so, what benefit can they, and the Islamic interests of Macedonia, get from this?
MI: I have not been involved with either institution in my personal capacity, except for with the former (Al-Furqan Foundation) which jointly with my former workplace organized a training course on the cataloguing and digitizing process in 2006 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As for benefits and interests, this is a vast subject. It is not only in the interest of Macedonia only, but of the whole world, higher learning institutions, think-tanks, research centers, and the students and academics.
CD: The Turkish International Cooperation and Coordination Agency, TIKA, has been involved with some research on this field. What is the goal and what is the assistance of the Turkish government in the area of Islamic manuscripts from Macedonia, in terms of their own legacy in the region and their goals for the future?
MI: TIKA has been offering assistance internationally in order to forge better Turkish relations and cooperation with various regions, to create the Turkish-friendly awareness in societies outside of Turkey by reviving, renovating and establishing monumental buildings, houses, centers, and so on. In terms of Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia, particularly the Ottoman-Turkish ones, as mentioned earlier, TIKA in 2003 managed to sponsor two academics, Yaşar Aydemir and Abdulkadir Hayber, to catalogue the “officially known” manuscripts, and subsequently published it in 2007 under the title Makedonya Kütüphaneleri Türkçe Yazma Eserler Kataloğu. This catalogue was prepared in Turkish. We wish it had included English, too. And this catalogue did not include the Arabic and Persian manuscripts. To my knowledge, there is no other financial assistance from TIKA regarding cataloguing and digitizing the rest of the Islamic manuscripts of Macedonia.
Financial Benefits of Digitization
CD: You have told me that digitizing original manuscripts and then selling facsimiles to university libraries could bring in a quite substantial sum- if I remember correctly, you said up to $500 million. If such a windfall were to occur, where would the money go? The investors, or the countries, the Islamic community, individuals, etc?
MI: First of all, the figure of $500 million might sound imaginative, but when you study the matter from all the angles and in the long-term, then the stated figure could actually be small. Let’s assume that an inventory survey, comprehensive cataloguing and digital processing of the Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia at large were conducted. And let’s assume that the total number of handwritten manuscripts, including the one housed in the National and University Library, reached 10,000.
The comprehensive catalogue of all available manuscripts would be published in a few volumes. These volumes would then be purchased by half of the educational institutions and various centers around the world, as well as by certain individual and scholars. These volumes then would probably be published and reprinted several times, where their publication could be over 10,000 copies. We should not forget this, as we have a similar example from Gazi Husrev Beg Library in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the catalogue of Islamic manuscripts was prepared and published in Bosnian by Kasim Dobraca in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Kasim Dobraca’s work was reprinted several times and is available in most of the libraries around the world.
Up to that stage, the cataloguing of Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia would generate millions of dollars. Then after the preparation of the comprehensive catalogue followed by the digitization of the manuscripts, and again, similar to the volumes of catalogue, thousands if not tens of thousands of institutes of higher learning and private individuals would buy either the whole collection of the digitized copies, or would purchase ad hoc copies from the collections. When multiplying the revenue from this digitized form of copies in the long-term, it might then exceed the amount stated above. Again, an example can be given from Bosnia’s Gazi Husrev Beg Library, where the Islamic manuscripts available were recently digitized by the Bosnian Institute (Bosnacki Institut) in Sarajevo, with initial financial assistance from the Gulf region.
Towards an Institute
Now to continue to the last part of your question, it could be proposed that an ‘institute of Islamic manuscripts of Macedonia’ be jointly established by the Turkish and Macedonian governments, and that this institute be in the form of an endowment, as was originally done by the Ottoman Commander Isa Beg in the 15th century. All the revenues received directly or indirectly from the Islamic manuscripts of Macedonia would be re-invested for further research, translations, and other related areas of studies. The trustees of the institute and its operation would be the governments of Turkey and Macedonia. This is one of the proposals. Of course I believe that there might be much better proposals by others. Revenues should not go to the investors, the countries, the Islamic Community, or the individuals whatsoever.
CD: If in fact there is a lot of profitability in the proliferation of these manuscripts, do you foresee any potential disputes over ownership between the state library and the Islamic Community, or even other bodies? After all, you note that you and others have sought clarification from the state authorities about why the manuscripts are legally housed in the National Library’s Collection of Oriental Manuscripts.
MI: There should not be any potential disputes over ownership between the National and University Library and the Islamic Community, or even other bodies. Because these valuable manuscripts are not belonging to the state or any other body; they either belong to deceased individuals from the past or were endowed by certain wealthy personalities and scholars of the past.
CD: The individual curator in Skopje who you refer to most, Marijana Kavçiç, was according to your paper funded by George Soros’ Open Society Institute to attend a training course on Islamic Cataloguing in Kuala Lumpur in 2006 at the International Islamic University Malaysia. We all know George Soros is a businessman, but does he have any reason to be interested in Islamic manuscripts? Or else what reason does his institute have for financially supporting this initiative?
MI: I do not know exactly the motives behind the sponsorship of Open Society Institute in Skopje; this information which was published in OSI’s Annual Report in 2007 says that it covered the expenses of Marijana’s trip to Kuala Lumpur, and nothing else. However, we can assume that OSI knows the value of Islamic manuscripts in general and those housed in the University Library in Skopje, as the worth of the handwritten books is priceless; perhaps if we had to put it into figures it could reach into the millions of dollars. I recall certain government-linked institution in Japan offered over $10 million to buy some Islamic manuscripts found in Aceh, Indonesia.
CD: You mention an anecdote about the work of the above-mentioned TIKA academics Yaşar Aydemir and Abdulkadir Hayber. However, you relate that they were asked to pay an ‘astronomical’ sum for the right to copy the first and last page of each manuscript, and that the authorities said it would be ‘impossible’ to digitize the entire collection.
MI: Yes, this statement occurs in the preface of the book catalogued by Yaşar Aydemir and Abdulkadir Hayber published in 2007. This part should be questioned as to why those authorities in the National and University Library and elsewhere asked to pay an ‘astronomical’ sum for the right to copy the first and last page of each Ottoman-Turkish manuscript. The same thing goes for the issue of why it should be ‘impossible’ to digitize the entire collection, since this act could lessen future burdens [of the library]… libraries housing manuscripts around the world benefit tremendously from doing so. In addition, this would have brought a higher profile and higher degree of financial assistance to the Macedonian libraries.
CD: If the digitizing, reselling and promoting of Islamic manuscripts is something that can be not only profitable but also an ideological and cultural tool in this long-disputed region, should there not be an agreed mechanism before anything begins in regards to profit-sharing, and how this whole process might be most responsibly managed and used in any future attempts to market the country and its diverse culture patrimony, to avoid any unnecessary disputes or bad feelings? After all, as we have seen with the recent complaining from Bulgarian about Macedonian Orthodox Christian manuscripts, disputes can easily arise in this region over historic items.
MI: Of course, this is a very significant point- in fact, the most crucial point. As I explained earlier in my proposal, although it should not be restricted to one proposal, the issue should be studied well to come up with the most suitable framework, whereby it will not cause any further problems or misunderstandings in the future.
CD: Finally, going into the year 2013, do you expect any developments on your project? Is there any new source of funding, sponsorship or support from bodies internal or external towards achieving your goals?
MI: I have tried to make this highly significant task [known] to various institutions, foundations and government agencies both locally and internationally but I have yet to receive their proper and official feedback, and hopefully positive results.
CD:  Thank you very much for talking with us, and good luck.
MI: I would like to thank Balkanalysis.com for highlighting this important and long-neglected task by conducting this interview. Best wishes.