Alisha and Linus looked at some amazing rare manuscripts (and you can, too!).

The Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library is hosting an exhibit, “Science, History, and Beauty: Harmony and Cosmological Perspectives in Islamic Sciences,” through March 3 in their space on the sixth floor of Butler. Over 90 manuscripts and artifacts from the Muslim World Manuscript collection are on display as part of the exhibition. It provides viewers with a historical perspective on Islamic populations and societies that were influenced by science in some way.

The selection, study, and mounting of the exhibit’s artifacts were all done collaboratively over the course of fourteen months by a number of students, faculty members, librarians, and library employees. The curatorial team consisted of library staff, MA and PhD students, and professors: Kaubab Chebaro from the Columbia University Libraries; Olivia Clemens and Prof. Shalem from the Art History Department;  Aneka Kazylna and Navid Zarrinnal from MESAAS; Area Palanpurwala and Yusuf Umrethwala from the Middle East Institute; and Julia Tomasson, Prof. Elshankry, and Prof. Şen from the History Department.

The curators recognized that the Islamic manuscripts in the Muslim World Manuscript Collection were diverse, intricate, and remarkable, yet had not been put in conversation with one another. The collection’s artifacts were just waiting to be observed, interacted with, understood, and acknowledged; a display highlighting Islamic science was undoubtedly a wonderful prospect for academic research and involvement from a non-Western point of view.

The exhibit is split into ten separate sections, each having its own window. It begins with manuscripts and treatises that contain ways of understanding the heavens and then continues by describing how science was taught and how older texts such as those by Euclid were transmitted. The exhibit then moves into describing how these teachings coalesced into Islamic astronomy, astrology, and mathematical sciences. The final windows of the exhibit focus on occult sciences and move beyond the artifacts themselves.

Each of these sections was closely connected with each other, and even though I had very little experience with the subject, I could see how different ideas came together in Islamic understanding of science. For example, the astrolabes and astronomical instruments in early windows formed a narrative with the astronomy textbooks in later ones.

The illuminated manuscripts were striking and the scientific instruments were beautiful, even though I had no clue how they worked—the craftsmanship and detail on the face plate specifically were incredible to see. The icosahedron (20-sided die), for example, engaged students with interest in the geometric harmony of the universe as they played with it. Some manuscripts even seemed to be perfectly suited for this library setting. The sixteenth-century manuscript of Ibn al­-Ḥājib’s Al-Kāfiyah on the rules of Arabic grammar, for example, certainly inspired its students to write, as evidenced by the number of annotations that run across every direction of it.

There is much to see in addition to this exhibit in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In a secondary, octagonal room sits a smaller exhibit on Persian bookbinding from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. While it is smaller than the main exhibit, it nevertheless contains beautifully illustrated manuscripts that highlight different developments from this period. This exhibit is on display through February 10 and is well worth a visit.

The Columbia libraries are an amazing resource for every student. While we all (hopefully) are aware of their study spaces and text resources, don’t forget that there are museum-quality exhibits just waiting for you to visit as well. It’s rare that your favorite study spot will have such fascinating places to explore at your fingertips—most coffee shops don’t even have one manuscript about Islamic science, or really any science for that matter—and it is open for all students to see. All you have to do is leave the stacks and visit.

In addition to providing fascinating insights into a setting not always covered by Columbia classes, the location of this exhibit makes it possible to visit almost any time during the week. The manuscripts are beautiful to see, and the entire exhibit can be visited in a relatively short period of time. It makes the perfect study break for those already hit with their first essay of the semester to see that there’s more to life than the next problem set.

Science, Nature, and Beauty: Harmony And Cosmological Perspectives In Islamic Science will be on display in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library until March 3. In the School of Wisdom: Persian Bookbinding ca. 1575-1890 is on display until February 10. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library is open every weekday from 10 am to 4 pm.

Book via Elias Reville