Major NEH Grant to Support Zaydi Manuscript Tradition Project

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Kelly Devine Thomas
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The School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study has received a $315,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the Zaydi Manuscript Tradition initiative, led by Sabine Schmidtke, Professor in the School of Historical Studies.

The literary tradition of the Zaydi community, a branch of Shiʿi Islam that originated in Kufa and later developed in Northern Iran and Yemen, is among the richest and most variegated strands within Islamic civilization and at the same time one of the least studied due to issues of preservation and access. The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition (ZMT) aims to remedy this imbalance by digitizing and housing the Zaydi manuscript culture in its entirety in a single repository and by providing comprehensive and systematic open access for scholars worldwide.

“The breadth and reach of this visionary initiative exemplifies the Institute’s commitment to supporting scholarship worldwide by opening up the vast and rich literary tradition of the Zaydi community to scholars both in Yemen and around the globe,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director of the Institute and Leon Levy Professor. “The National Endowment for the Humanities grant provides critical support that will help to further expand this important project.”

“The NEH grant will not only allow for an upsurge in this important field of study, it will also democratize access to the Zaydi manuscript tradition,” Schmidtke added. “For the first time, scholars in Yemen will have unlimited access to their own intellectual, cultural, and religious heritage as reflected in the Zaydi manuscripts preserved in Europe, North America, and the Middle East. As such, the ZMT will bring about a digital repatriation of the Yemeni/Zaydi manuscript treasures that are otherwise dispersed all over the globe. Perhaps even more importantly, the protection and preservation of an important part of Yemen’s cultural legacy, namely its rich manuscript tradition, will be a key element to provide future generations of Yemenis with a firm sense of identity and belonging.”

Initiated in 2017 by the Institute in partnership with the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University, the ZMT currently comprises 1,450 of the 15,000 codices targeted for inclusion. The NEH grant will allow for the digitization and cataloguing of an additional 540 Zaydi manuscripts held in European libraries and the preparation of 143 microfilm images of manuscripts held at the University of Texas, as well as 1,000 codices from collections in Yemen, images of which are currently held by the Institute.

The grant will allow the ZMT project to further extend the preservation, dissemination, and study of the mostly unknown Zaydi doctrinal, legal, and historical literature, including the literary legacy of the Muʿtazila, one of the most important rational schools in the history of Muslim theology. The manuscript materials will thus not only have an immediate impact on several fields of scholarship in the humanities but also bring the rational heritage of Islam to the forefront and contribute to a more nuanced picture of the Islamic intellectual tradition and culture among Western observers.

For more information on Schmidtke’s ZMT project, visit The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition.