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Qur’an Manuscripts from Mindanao
in U.S. Collections

Fig.1. Qur'an, incomplete; from Mindanao. Page showing the start of Surat al-Ankabut (Q.29), with a marginal ornament labelled thumn, indicating an eighth of a juz' or thirtieth part of the Qur'an. Library of Congress, Charles W. Hack Papers (A).

A few years ago I researched a group of illuminated Qur’an manuscripts which bore inscriptions stating that they had been written in the Philippines or north Borneo (Gallop 2008).  From their distinctive decorative styles, the manuscripts were eventually identified as the work of scribes from Daghistan, in the northern Caucasus region of Russia, even though they may have been produced in Southeast Asia.  At the time, I was severely hampered by the lack of comparative material in the form of ‘genuine’ Philippine Qur’an manuscripts, as almost none could be located, whether in the Philippines or elsewhere.

My thoughts turned once more to Philippine Qur’an manuscripts when I was recently invited by Prof. Midori Kawashima of Sophia University, Tokyo—an expert on Maranao history and Islamic culture—to collaborate in the writing of a note on the Qur’an of Bayang, near Lake Lanao in Mindanao.  The remarkable story of this manuscript is told by Kawashima (2011), but can be outlined here: the Qur’an was captured at the Battle of Bayang on 2 May 1902, in which the Sultan of Bayang and over 300 Maranao warriors were killed by American forces.  In 1904, the Qur’an was brought to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago by a U.S. army surgeon present at Bayang, Dr Ralph S. Porter.  It remained in Chicago until 1980 when, in a gesture of goodwill, it was returned to the Philippines and presented to the National Museum in Manila.  Before it could be delivered to the Aga Khan Museum in Marawi City, Mindanao, First Lady, Mrs. Imelda Marcos got to hear of the manuscript, and asked for it to be brought to Malacanang Palace, where it was placed on display.  During the People Power revolution of 1986, the Palace was overrun, and by the time the National Museum arrived to inventorise the contents, the Qur’an was nowhere to be found.

As an appendix to Prof. Kawashima’s article, I contributed a note on the Bayang Qur’an, based on colour photographs and photocopies of the manuscript which happily have survived in Chicago and Manila.  In the course of writing, I renewed my hunt for Qur’an manuscripts from the Philippines, and was delighted to find that ever more information is now available via the internet.  While it will be a long time before all manuscripts are themselves digitally accessible, enormous progress has been made in digitising sources of information such as manuscript catalogues and unpublished hand-lists, and search engines such as Google Books have made it possible to trawl through obscure annual reports which record accession data for museums.  Using a variety of search techniques, a number of Philippine Qur’ans were located in U.S. institutions.

Fig.2.  Qur’an, with interlinear Malay translation; found in the Taraca River forts,
Lake Lanao, Mindanao.  Pages showing Surat al-Humazah (Q.104)
to Surat al-Nasr (Q.110).  United States Military Academy Library, West Point. 

Already in 2010, correspondence with Remé Grefalda in her capacity as Philippine Specialist at the Library of Congress had led to the identification of three manuscripts from Mindanao, including two Qur’an fragments (Fig.1) and a copy of the Maranao literary epic, the Darangen, in the Charles W. Hack Papers in the Library of Congress.  Hack (b.1870) had been a surgeon with the U.S. Army in the Philippines from 1901 to 1903, and in 1902 had been based at Camp Vickers in the interior of Mindanao, under the command of Major John J. Pershing.

Further recent discoveries included a rare Qur’an held in the Library of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York state.  Thanks to photographs kindly made available by Susan Lintelmann, Manuscripts Curator at U.S.M.A. Library, I was able to study this manuscript, which, according to a contemporary label, was “Found in Taraca River Forts, Lake Lanao region, Mindanao, P.I. April 1904”.  Although not illuminated or in any way visually striking, this manuscript is particularly interesting because it contains part of the Qur’an with interlinear translation in Malay (Fig. 2), as well as a text in Malay on Islamic beliefs and ritual obligations.  For centuries Malay was the language of trade, diplomacy and Islam throughout maritime Southeast Asia, and through this medium, travelers from Sumatra to Sulawesi, and Patani to the Philippines could converse with equal ease.  Royal letters written in Malay from the sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao have survived from the 18th century which attest to fluency in this language, but no Philippine manuscript books in Malay had been located—until the discovery of this manuscript.

Edgar Alexander Mearns
Col. Edgar Alexander Mearns

The most impressive cache of hidden treasures was tracked down to the National Museum of Natural History, in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.  A digitised copy of the United States National Museum Bulletin of 1929 contained a substantial paper entitled ‘Collections of objects of religious ceremonial in the United States National Museum’ by Immanuel Moses Casanowicz, Assistant Curator, Division of Old World Archeology at the Museum (Casanowicz  1929), which included the following items:

56. Manuscript of the Koran. — Written in Arabic on paper. The margins are decorated with red circles, with zigzag lines in black inside of them. Defective at both ends. Masibay, Mindanao, Philippine Islands. (Cat. No. 253691, U.S.N.M.) Transferred from the War Department.

58-61. Four manuscript copies of the Koran. — Written in Arabic on paper. Defective at both ends. Moros, Philippine Islands. (Cat. No. 232248, U.S.N.M.) Gift of Col. Edgar A. Mearns, United States Army.

62-64. Three copies of the Koran. — Printed in Arabic. Defective at both ends. Moros, Philippine Islands. (Cat. No. 232849, U.S.N.M.) Gift of Col. Edgar A. Mearns, United States Army.

72. Folded Koran stand. — Wood, carved. Moros, Philippine Islands. (Cat. No. 232850, U.S.N.M.) Gift of Col. Edgar A. Mearns, United States Army.

Fig. 3.  Qur’an, incomplete; from Mindanao.  Illuminated frame marking the start of Surat al-Isra’ (Q.17).  Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, E232848A-0. 

The final item—the Qur’an stand—had in fact been displayed in The people and art of the Philippines, a major exhibition which travelled to Honolulu, Los Angeles, Oakland and Chicago in 1981-82, and was reproduced in the exhibition catalogue (Casal & Jose 1981: 173), but none of the manuscripts had ever been reproduced or published before.  Thanks to the heroic efforts of Remé Grefalda and Felicia Pickering of the Department of Anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History, on 22 March 2011 all these items were examined and photographed.  This was by no means an easy task, for all the Qur’ans were incomplete and lacking either beginning or end, or both, and many were in very poor condition, comprising bundles of loose leaves detached from their bindings.  But from the point of view of a codicologist or a social historian, it was wonderful to see manuscripts in their original form, and which had not been ‘tidied up’ or forced into modern bindings.  In many of the volumes the original binding threads can be seen, and some are wrapped in loose leather covers of goatskin with the hairs still visible.  On the basis of the available photographs, more accurate descriptions of the manuscripts have been compiled (see the listing in the Bibliography).

From an artistic point of view, a number of the manuscripts are of interest.  E253691-0 is described in the Annual Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1909 as ‘An illuminated Arabic manuscript of the Koran, captured in the Philippines by Capt. Charles F. Bates, U.S. Army. … It shows the effect of hard usage by the Mohammedan natives of Mindanao’, and further notes that it was ‘taken from a hostile Moro cotta near Masibay, Mindanao’ (cotta means a fortification).  The manuscript has a variety of attractive marginal ornaments decorated in red and black, which function to indicate portions of the text, ranging from a juz’ (a thirtieth part of the Qur’an), to parts of a juz’.  

Although badly damaged, E232848A-0, which was given by Edgar A. Mearns on 25 November 1904, has one illuminated folio, containing the start of the 17th chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Isra’, surrounded by a decorated rectangular frame with triangular arches, with foliate scroll patterns in pale yellow, pink, blue and reserved white (Fig. 3).  Probably the finest illuminated manuscript is E232838B-0, also donated by Mearns.  As is quite common in Southeast Asian Qur’ans, this manuscript has decorated frames around the two final surahs, with S. al-Falaq on the right-hand page and S. al-Nas on the left-hand page (Fig. 4).  What is unusual is that despite using the same palette of red, black and reserved white, and certain common motifs such as trefoiled finials, the composition of each of the frames is quite different.  On the right-hand page, triangular arches protrude from each of the four sides of the rectangular frames around the text block, while on the left-hand page, the major structural feature in addition to the multi-layered rectangular frames is a large demi-circle flanked by two smaller semi-circles on each of the four outer sides.  Normally, in all Islamic cultures, a major aesthetic principle is the symmetrical treatment of illuminated frames over two facing pages.  Exceptions are certainly known, but they remain just that: exceptional.

Fig. 4.  Qur’an, from Mindanao.  Illuminated frames marking the end of the text,
enclosing Surat al-Falaq on the right-hand page and the last surah, Surat al-Nas,
on the left-hand page.  Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History,

Another exciting discovery by Grefalda and Pickering in the Smithsonian repository was of three writing boards brought back from Mindanao (Fig. 5), two by Dr Jesse R. Harris, a U.S. Army surgeon stationed in the Philippines, and one by Joseph Clemens, a U.S. Army chaplain who was in the Philippines from 1905 to 1909.  Writing boards, used for teaching children the Arabic script and to read the Qur’an, are well-attested from some Islamic cultures, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (for examples from Mali, see Hunwick & Boye 2008: 14-15, 98), but no verifiable writing boards have been recorded from Southeast Asia before.  And yet when two American missionaries visited Brunei in 1837, one of them noted the use of writing boards to record verse, because of the scarcity of paper (Lay 1839: 202).

One significant consideration to arise from this study is that all the Qur’an manuscripts presented here derive from U.S. military personnel, emphasizing the fact that within Philippine Islamic society these manuscripts were regarded as precious heirlooms and sacred treasures, which could not have been acquired by any means other than through forced capture.  Also notable is the prominent role played by U.S. army surgeons—including Hack, Mearns and Harris—in the collection of manuscripts.  This should probably be seen in the context of both the higher educational achievements of the surgeons compared to other military personnel, but also to the 19th-century scientific view of the world—and hence attitude to collecting—in which everything, whether a quadruped or a Qur’an manuscript, could be classified in its appropriate place.  Edgar Alexander Mearns (1856-1916), responsible for the largest number of Qur’ans and associated items in the Smithsonian, was in fact best known as a naturalist and was a founder member of the American Ornithologists Union.  His obituary, published in The Auk, does indeed view his acquisition of Philippine Qur’ans as no more than an extension of his scientific collecting: “In his official capacity he accompanied eight punitive expeditions against hostile Moros, but even under these circumstances his collections continued to grow, through the cooperation of his associates. Ethnological material, such as bolos and other native implements and weapons, together with various editions of the Koran, were secured on these forays and utilized as specimens” (Richmond 1918: 11).

Another interesting point that arises from a consideration of the manuscripts described above is that all the Qur’ans collected come from Mindanao.  Is this merely a reflection of the nature and location of U.S. military operations in the southern Philippines in the early 20th century?  The upshot is that we are still unable to say anything about Qur’an manuscripts from other regions of the Philippines, notably from Sulu, as none have so far been identified.

The final thought is an appreciation of the amazing way in which the internet has facilitated the ability to search, all over the world, for manuscripts long unseen.  At this point it should, however, be stressed that there is no substitute for studying a manuscript directly.  Only by handling a manuscript, and by personally examining the paper, ink, binding, decorative elements and the physical composition of the whole, can we be really certain of understanding a manuscript book to the best of our ability.  Nonetheless, given all the limitations of space, time and resources, digital technology enables studies which would otherwise never have been possible, such as this one: written in London, based on images of Qur’ans from the Philippines now held in the U.S., and published on the internet and thereby accessible worldwide.

Fig. 5. Writing board, with Qur'anic verses; from Mindanao. Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, E283011-0.


I would like to thank Remé Grefalda , Felicia Pickering, Susan Lintelmann and Midori Kawashima for all their assistance, in various forms, which contributed towards the writing of this article.


Casal, Father Gabriel and Jose, Regalado Trota.  1981.  The people and art of the Philippines.  Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California.

Casanowicz, Immanuel Moses.  1929.  Collections of objects of religious ceremonial in the United States National Museum.  Smithsonian Institution, United States National Museum, Bulletin, 148.

Gallop, Annabel Teh.  2008.  From Caucasia to Southeast Asia: Daghistani Qur’ans and the Islamic manuscript tradition in Brunei and the southern Philippines. I-II.  Manuscripta Orientalia, 14 (1-2): 32-56; 3-20.

Hunwick, John O. and Boye, Alida Jay.  2008.  The hidden treasures of Timbuktu: historic city of Islamic Africa.  London: Thames & Hudson.

Kawashima Midori.  2011 (forthcoming).  Conservation of the Islamic manuscripts of Mindanao: a case of the Qur’an of Bayang. With notes by Annabel Teh Gallop. Nashionarizumu Fukko no Naka no Bunka Isan: Ajia-Afurika no Aidenteitei Saikochiku no Hikaku (Cultural Heritage in the Resurgence of Nationalism: A Comparison of the Re-structuring of Identity in Asian and Africa), edited by Kisaichi Masatoshi.  Tokyo: Institute of Asian Cultures of Sophia University.

Lay, G. Tradescant.  1839.  The claims of Japan and Malaysia upon Christendom, exhibited in notes of voyages made in 1837, from Canton, in the ship Morrison and brig Himmaleh, under direction of the owners.  New York: E. French.

Richmond, Charles W.  1918.  In memoriam: Edgar Alexander Mearns.  The Auk: a quarterly journal of ornithology.  35 (1): 1-18.

© Annabel Teh Gallop

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