Friday, 19 September 2014

400 years of Arabic Studies in Holland

Arabic linguistics in the Netherlands

Kees Versteegh
When in 1620 the famous Orientalist Erpenius held his inaugural lecture as Professor of Arabic at Leiden University, he recommended the study of Arabic to students of many different disciplines. Knowledge of this language, he told his audience, was very useful because it gave access to a wealth of information. Even in those days, professors needed to attract students by advertising their lectures, because their salary depended on the number of students attending their classes. Yet, Erpenius himself may have been motivated by a more intrinsic reason: his Arabic grammar and text editions betray an interest in the language for its own sake.
The tradition of studying Arabic has never disappeared from Dutch universities. Classical Arabic in all its aspects remains the focus of many research projects concerning the language of the Qur'an, the language of the early papyri, Middle Arabic texts, the treatises of the Arabic grammarians, and the historical development of Arabic.
Since the 1980s, the exclusive focus on Classical Arabic has been replaced in all departments of Arabic in the Netherlands by a shift to Modern Standard Arabic and the Arabic dialects, especially Egyptian and Moroccan Arabic. This is also reflected in linguistic research, for instance in publications on the structure and classification of Egyptian dialects and the Sinai dialects. The interest in Moroccan Arabic is connected to the presence of an Arabic-speaking minority in the Netherlands. At first, research concentrated on Dutch-Moroccan bilingualism; over the last decades, attention has shifted toward the Dutch variety of Moroccan Arabic and the study of the Berber languages.
Since the days of Erpenius' grammar, the publication of teaching materials has always gone hand in hand with research. Arabists working at Dutch universities have published learners' grammars of Modern Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic and of Moroccan Arabic. The Dutch lexicographical tradition in Arabic is continued by the publication of the Modern Arabic/Dutch-Dutch/Modern Arabic dictionary, financed by the Nederlandse Taalunie, a dictionary of Egyptian Arabic and a dictionary of Moroccan Arabic.
Dutch research in Arabic linguistics does not take place in isolation. The importance of international cooperation in this field is shown by the Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics, which was published by Brill in Leiden. Two of the editors of this major reference work were affiliated with Dutch universities, and one of the editors of the online edition is now the director of the Netherlands- Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC). Most contributors, however, come from other countries, many of them from the Arab world.
The above, incomplete, survey may serve to give an idea of the rich variety of Arabic linguistics in the Netherlands. At a time when university boards tend to underestimate the need for language study, one cannot emphasize enough that without a thorough knowledge of Arabic, it will become difficult to train the next generation of specialists in Islamic and Middle-Eastern studies.

400 years of Arabic studies at Leiden University

Petra Sijpesteijn
The study of Oriental languages has a long and rich history in the Netherlands especially at Leiden University where the chair of Arabic, founded in 1613, is one of the oldest in Europe. This tradition continues in a dynamic department of Middle Eastern Studies with an international scholarly standing.  This year, the University and the City of Leiden celebrate the history and future of the study of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies in Leiden with a full program of activities: museum exhibitions, poetry readings, concerts, scholarly meetings and tours.
Founded in 1575 as the first university in the Northern Netherlands, Leiden University already started the instruction of Arabic some ten years later. In 1613, with the appointment of the remarkable Thomas van Erpen (Erpenius), a Leiden alumnus whose training had taken him to many of Europe’s leading centers of learning, the chair of Arabic at Leiden was established. The chair has been there ever since.
At a time when little was known about Arab culture and only few tools were available to learn the language (such as grammars and dictionaries), seventeenth-century scholars spent many years to master the Arabic language. They were driven by the desire to gain access to important works on Arabic science and medicine – in other words, out of a sincere academic interest in the Arabic language and civilization. Other motives included the prospect of developing commercial and diplomatic contacts with the Arab world. It was also at this time that the foundation was laid for the magnificent collection of Oriental manuscripts at the university library, which contains the oldest Arabic paper book and other priceless examples of Arabic’s immensely rich and varied literary production.
Leiden’s tradition in Arabic studies and its superlative resources have long attracted scholars from all over the world, and the university has maintained a strong international profile, with scholarly contacts and exchanges with universities and research institutes in the Middle East and the Muslim world, as well as Europe and North America. Arabic is studied at Leiden University in its contemporary Middle Eastern context in conjunction with strong traditions in Persian, Turkish, Indonesian and Eastern Christianity, but also in relation to Ancient Near Eastern civilizations. The current professor of Arabic language and culture, Petra Sijpesteijn, who was appointed in 2008, received her training at the universities of Leiden, Cairo, Damascus, Princeton, Oxford and Paris. She is specialized in early mediaeval history looking at the dynamic process of the formation of a ‘Muslim’ state and civilization in the areas conquered by the Arab armies in the mid-first/seventh century. Using papyri and paper documents written in Greek, Coptic and Arabic, she has emphasized that this process was characterized by continuities and changes, with the new religion, language and customs introduced by the Arabs shaped by the cultures they encountered outside Arabia.
In Leiden and the other strong and lively departments at other Dutch universities, the study of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies is flourishing in the Netherlands: ready to take on the next 400 years.
Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936)

The study of Islamic law in the Netherlands

Ruud Peters
In 1903 a young scholar, Theodoor W. Juynboll (1866-1948) published a complete survey in Dutch of the whole field of the sharia.[1] It did not only cover the legal chapters, but also the ritual and religious parts, such as the salat, fasting, the hajj and the rules concerning food. The quality of the work was in the fact that Juynboll presented the sharia using primary Arabic sources, in this case the authoritative super commentary (hashiya) of the Egyptian scholar al-Bajuri (d. 1861) and the earlier texts which al-Bajuri annotated. The excellence of Juynboll’s work was broadly recognized: the book was translated into German (1910) and Italian (1916) and the Dutch version had four editions, the last one in 1930 and it was used in the Netherlands as a university text book until the 1970s.
Why was this book so popular? There were, I think, two main reasons. The most important was the high academic level of Juynboll’s work. The book was the product of nineteenth century Dutch Orientalism and was based on a thorough knowledge of Arabic and a deep familiarity with Islamic texts, especially those on fiqh. The second reason for its popularity was that the book filled a gap: thoroughly prepared surveys of Islamic law were needed for the colonial administration and the training of colonial officials in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia).
Juynboll’s expertise in Islamic law had already been demonstrated in his doctoral dissertation on the Islamic law of pledge[2] (1893) and his monograph on the bridal gift (mahr) (1894). He had studied Arabic and other Semitic languages and was a scion of a family of Orientalist scholars:  both his father and grandfather had won their spurs in Arabic and Islamic studies.[3]
Although he could benefit from the academic knowledge in the field of Islamic law that had been amassed in the Netherlands during the previous century, Juynboll notably raised the academic standards in the field. Islamic law had been studied at the academy for the training of colonial officials in Delft. Albert Meursinge (1812-1850) and Salomo Keyzer (1823-1868), both professors at the colonial academy, published manuals of Islamic law already in respectively 1844 and 1853 and the latter also published studies on Islamic criminal law and constitutional law. And in 1874, L.W.C van den Berg published a textbook on the sharia.  However, these scholars, most of them trained as lawyers, missed a thorough knowledge of Arabic and their publications were not above justified criticism.
Juynboll’s manual was dedicated to his teacher Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936),[4] who seems to have been his first and foremost academic role model. He was an internationally well respected specialist in Islam and Islamic law, known for his extensive knowledge of both the literature and the living practice and customs. His students dominated the field of Arabic and Islamic studies in the Netherlands until the 1960s. After the independence of Indonesia (1948) the study of Islamic law dwindled, since until that time its study was closely linked to the requirements of the colonial administration.
New interest for the study of Islamic law appeared in the 1980s and for two reasons. The first is the emergence of political Islam and the call for Islamist movements to re-Islamize the legal systems by introducing the sharia in other fields than the family law and the law of succession. As a result, some countries have introduced penal codes based on the sharia principles. The second reason is the emigration of large groups of Muslims into Western Europe and the U.S.A. and discussions on whether parts of the sharia could be applied within the existing western legal systems. Several universities now offer courses on Islamic law and since 1985 there has been a Dutch association for the study of Islamic law and the law of the Middle East (RIMO). Dutch studies of the sharia are flourishing and dissertations in the field are being defended regularly. The discipline has emancipated from the tutelage of the colonial situation.

[1] Handleiding tot de kennis van de Mohammedaansche Wet volgens de leer van de sjafi`itische school. Leiden, Brill, 1903. Digital version
[2] De hoofdregelen der Sjafi'itische leer van het pandrecht: met een onderzoek naar haar ontstaan en naar haren invloed in Ned.-Indië, E.J. Brill, 1893. Digital version:
[3] His grandfather was T.W.J. Juynboll (1802-1861), his father A.W.Th. Juynboll (1833-1887). His daughter, Wilhelmina. M. C. Juynboll (1898-1982) continued the family tradition  with a thesis on Arabic studies in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Finally, his brother’s grandson, Gualthérie H.A. Juynboll (1935-2010) was a renowned student of hadith.
[4] He worked as an advisor of colonial administration in the East Indies, 1889-1906, and as a  professor of Arabic and  Islamic studies at Leiden University, 1907-1927 .

Koranic studies in the Netherlands

Fred Leemhuis
In the free Dutch republic that emerged at the end of the sixteenth century the study of the humanities began to flourish more and more. In the atmosphere of intellectual freedom of thought and expression the study of other cultures and religions became increasingly important. In this climate of scholarly and social curiosity Islam and its holy book, the Koran, became an object of interest and study as well.
At the end of the sixteenth century the energetic young republic of the Netherlands had noticed fairly early that it had a common enemy against Spain: the Ottoman Empire. In the beginning of the seventeenth century, trade with the Ottoman Empire started to flourish and Dutch consulates were established, especially in the Arab east, from Aleppo to Cairo and Alexandria. The need to know more about the culture and religion of the new allies and trading partners grew and it is not surprising that in 1641 the first Dutch translation of the entire Koran was published. It was based on a German translation and was superseded in 1658 by the more accurate translation of Glazemaker, which relied heavily on the French translation of Du Ryer. The book was reprinted many times. Only in the middle of the nineteenth century, two new translations were published, but both were also only indirectly translated from Arabic.
Meanwhile, the study of Islam and Arabic continued to grow in the Netherlands and after the Second World War Koranic studies really took off. In 1956 J.H. Kramers published the first Dutch translation of the Koran, which was directly translated from the original Arabic. In the introduction, it was recognized that the literality of this translation appeared somewhat clumsy in places, but that this was due to fact that the translator wanted to provide a translation that approached the meaning of the original text as much as possible. Thirty-three years later a new Dutch translation appeared.  This translation by Fred Leemhuis, corresponding member of Egypt's Arabic Academy, was also translated directly from the original Arabic. Leemhuis consciously chose to reflect the meaning of the Arabic text in a modern Dutch that is as accessible as possible. These two translations were reprinted many times. Finally, a third translation directly from Arabic was published in 1996 by Sofjan Siregar, which aimed more at an accurate representation of the meaning of the Koran than at the linguistic or literary quality of its Dutch.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the publication of the six volume Encyclopedia of the Qur’ân by Brill, the famous Dutch publisher of authoritative Arabic texts, gave a big boost to Koranic studies all over the world.

Arabic manuscript collections at Leiden University Libraries

Arnoud Vrolijk
From its very foundation in 1575, Leiden University has been a prolific center of Oriental scholarship. The reasons for studying Arabic were manifold, from the need for religious dialogue (or rather dispute) to the fostering of economic ties. This tradition is, of course, reflected in the wealth of the library collections at Leiden.
Early acquisitions
Diplomatic relations of the Dutch Republic with Morocco (from 1610) and the Ottoman Empire (from 1612) enabled Dutch scholars to travel to the Middle East in search of source materials. In 1625-1629, for instance, the Leiden Arabist and mathematician Jacobus Golius (1596-1667) joined the Dutch legations at Aleppo (Syria) and Istanbul. During his stay, he collected more than 200 Middle Eastern manuscripts for the amount of 3,000 Dutch guilders, a huge sum in those days.
Warner collection
Yet in this, he was outdone by his student Levinus Warner (c. 1618-1665), who arrived in Leiden in 1638 to study Oriental languages. He travelled to Istanbul in 1644, to become the official Dutch representative to the Sublime Porte in 1655. Warner, who immersed himself in local culture, built up an impressive collection of about 1,000 Middle Eastern manuscripts with the help of local Muslim contacts and friends. Many of these manuscripts came from the Mamluk Empire. Warner left his entire collection to Leiden University at his death in 1665.
Later acquisitions
In the nineteenth century, an important collection of almost 700 Arabic manuscripts entered Leiden University Library. They were purchased from Amin b. Hasan al-Madani from Medina, who had travelled to the 1883 World Exhibition at Amsterdam.
A famous collection was donated by the Dutch Orientalist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936), together with his papers. As a young man, he travelled to the Arabian Peninsula in 1884. He officially embraced Islam and stayed in Mecca until August 1885. He was the first European photographer in Mecca, but he was assisted by a local doctor, ‘Abd al-Ghaffar b. ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Baghdadi.
The Leiden University Oriental collections contain many precious items, such as the unique manuscript of the Tawq al-hamama (‘the Ring of the Dove’), a deeply moving treatise on love by the Andalusian scholar Ibn Hazm (383-456 AH/966-1066 CE). Another absolute highlight is Kitab al-hasha’ish, an Arabic translation of the Materia Medica of the Hellenistic scholar Dioscorides. This manuscript, dated 475 AH/1083 CE, is the oldest extant illustrated Arabic manuscript on a scientific subject.
Modern developments
At present, Leiden University holds c. 4,000 Arabic manuscripts, besides 2,000 manuscripts in other languages of the Middle East (Persian, Ottoman Turkish). In addition, Leiden has a much larger collection of early printed books in Middle Eastern languages and the scholarly output of Western Orientalism up until 1950. The special collections are still growing at a modest pace through purchase and donation. Legislation in the modern Arab world no longer permits the export of valuable manuscripts or old printed books. The focus is now on the digitization of Oriental collections, for instance the Scaliger/Golius collection or the Snouck Hurgronje collection. Needless to say, the acquisition of modern Middle Eastern materials still actively continues.
Current curator is Dr Arnoud Vrolijk, who has published extensively on the history of the Leiden collections.

Middle Eastern Special Collections at Leiden University Libraries
Modern Middle Eastern Collections at Leiden University Libraries
Collection guide of Arabic manuscripts at Leiden University Libraries
Digital Special Collections at Leiden University Libraries


Founded in 1683 in Leiden, the Netherlands, Brill is a leading international academic publishing house in the fields of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. It has offices in Leiden (the Netherlands) and Boston (U.S.A.). From the time it was established, Brill has distinguished itself by printing Arabic in the Arabic script, rather than in Latin transliteration only. This tradition of high-quality Arabic printing has continued until today; any Arabic found in reference works, books or journal articles is now also included in online products and electronic versions of these works. Brill continues to publish specialized monographs and critical editions of key texts from the Islamic world in English, French and German. The publishing program covers a broad range of publications with diverse topics such as Koranic studies; Hadith studies; Islamic law and legal pluralism; philology and history; the history of art and material culture; Christians and Jews in the Islamic world; and language and linguistics.
The tradition of publishing balanced academic monographs, text editions and collected volumes about and from the Islamic world is fostered carefully and increasingly through online publishing. All the books automatically become e-books and the majority of the reference works are available online too. Brill also publishes primary sources to allow scholars to consult both the secondary literature and the actual sources quickly and easily. Through all the publications, both online and in print, it is Brill’s goal to provide reliable research tools to anyone interested in the rich history of the Islamic world in all its diversity.
Brill’s publications in Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies
Brill is especially well known for its major reference works, among which the authoritative Encyclopaedia of Islam, which is now in its third edition. A recent highlight in Brill’s primary sources program is the publication of Middle East Manuscripts Online, a project that digitizes Arabic and Islamic manuscripts from various collections. For bibliographic data in general, Index Islamicus remains unsurpassed in its depth and breadth.   Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, also published online, continues to be the leading bibliography for Arabic manuscripts and is still considered to be the highest authority on the spelling of Arabic proper names by the American Middle East Librarians Association (MELA).
Currently, Brill publishes in 30 book series and 25 journals about the Islamic world.  Among the most well-known book series is the Handbook of Oriental Studies. Among the most renowned journals is Oriens, which was founded in 1948; Arabica. Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, which was founded in 1954 and the new Journal of Islamic Manuscripts, the first Western journal with abstracts in Arabic for each article. Since its foundation in 1983 Muqarnas is Brill’s famous journal on Islamic art and visual culture. Brill now also publishes Oriente Moderno (established in 1921) and Studia Islamica (established in 1953).

A Dutch contribution to Arabic written culture

Thomas Milo
Typography is the mechanization of writing for the mass distribution of ideas. To be acceptable to the target audience, there is little room for deviation from what printing is supposed to replace: writing. Within half a century after the invention of printing in Europe in the 15th century, Europeans were printing Arabic, but in a form that was considerably different from what it was supposed to represent. Europeans could read Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish reasonably well, but they were unable to reproduce the Arabic writing system accurately. However, during the same period Muslim calligraphers excelled in the classic styles like nastaliq and naskh. Their work was so good that it set the standard for everyday texts and manuscripts. To them, the primitive European Arabic typography was no alternative.
In his book about the ruqaa script (1953), the British linguist T.F. Mitchell writes: “The infrequency with which one encounters European scholars having knowledge of the Arabic script has often been observed, but we may go further and say that the number of those who write Arabic in an acceptable manner is remarkably small.” With this wry comment Mitchell touches a sore spot. Four centuries later, Western scholars could still not provide the printing industry with the required knowledge.
From the end of the 16th century, the Netherlands has played a prominent role in Arabic printing, although printers and publishers had to make do with the limited means they had. In any case, the primary focus was on collecting knowledge of the Arab world, not on the precise form in which it was shaped. However, the introduction of information technology offers new prospects, providing new conditions to give the Arabic script a fair chance in the world of book production.
In this process, DecoType [linguistic experts and designers of computer typography], a small multi-disciplinary team of Dutch specialists, plays a trailblazing role. In the 1980s, it invented smart font technology to deal more accurately with Arabic typography, which led to a change of thinking in the industry. Until then, the Arabic script was considered to be the source of technical and cultural backwardness which one tried to resolve by redesigning it on the basis of Latin forms and principles. Nowadays, private businesses and individual designers all over the world are striving to improve the quality of Arabic script technology and typeface designs.
This year marks the fourth century of the Dutch contribution to Arabic printing and also the 330th anniversary of Royal Brill Publishing House, specialized in Arabic scholarly publications and one of the oldest in Europe.  DecoType has been collaborating with Royal Brill for over two decades in search of further innovation and improvement in support of the Arabic written culture. Elsewhere in the world, the number of key Arabic cultural texts printed with Dutch DecoType designs is on the increase as well.

The Arabic-Dutch dictionary project

Jan Hoogland
During the nineties of the past century, the Dutch and Flemish governments provided a budget to finance the production of a number of dictionaries for a specific set of languages and Dutch. Arabic was among the top priorities in this project, as there was an urgent existing need for a reliable set of dictionaries Arabic-Dutch and Dutch-Arabic
The Arabic dictionary project was commissioned to the Radboud University of Nijmegen, which hosted a team of Arabists led by Kees Versteegh.  An editorial committee was created which consisted of three Arabists: Kees Versteegh, Manfred Woidich and Jan Hoogland.
In 1997, the execution of the project started with the creation of a team of editors and translators:  native speakers of both Arabic and Dutch, on junior and senior level, all with an academic background.
The basis of the project consisted of a database programme specifically created for the preparation of bilingual dictionaries (OMBI), the Dutch language part of the dictionary (RBN), different word lists and vocabularies (either Dutch-Arabic or Arabic-Dutch) and a text corpus created by processing texts with OCR software (since Arabic on the internet was very scarce in those days).
The editors started the process by translating the Dutch part of the database into Arabic. From the very first day of the translation process, this started creating the Arabic-Dutch part of the database as well, since the programme OMBI enabled the team to switch from Arabic as target language to Arabic as source language at any time. Thus, it was possible to produce two volumes covering both directions from one database (for details on the whole process of translation, editing, converting etc., see:
In 2003, the first edition of the Nijmegen Arabic dictionaries was published at Bulaaq publishing house in Amsterdam ( The first edition contained 1200 pages with 35.000 entries in Dutch-Arabic and 900 pages with 25.000 entries in Arabic-Dutch. In 2009, a second edition was published which contained some corrections, and the Arabic-Dutch part was expanded with almost 100 pages.
In 2010, Oxford University Press obtained the rights to use the Arabic-Dutch part of the dictionary to produce a new Arabic-English dictionary and since then a team of Dutch Arabists, supported by Arabists with English as their mother tongue and native speakers of Arabic, have started the process of converting the Arabic-Dutch into Arabic-English. Some of them also worked on the Arabic-Dutch project.
Project website:

The Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC)

Rudolf de Jong
In 1971, the Netherlands Institute for Archaeology and Arabic Studies in Cairo was established to cater to the ever increasing interest in the Middle East of scholars of Dutch universities. Over the past more than 40 years, a wide array of academic activities has been deployed: studies in Archaeology and Egyptology, Arabic (the Classical language, its dialects, in papyri, etc.), Islam and Cultural Studies in their widest sense, and Coptic Studies.
The Institute is supported by six universities in the Netherlands, and when two universities from Flanders (Belgium) joined in 1999, the Institute changed its name to “The Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo” (abbreviated in Dutch as NVIC). It is housed in one of Cairo’s magnificent old villas, centrally located on the island of Zamalek.
The Institute boasts a modest but well maintained library with a fine collection of works on the various academic fields of its focus. The library of the Institute is open for all visitors with an academic interest. It also functions as a meeting ground for academics of all nationalities, especially so on Thursday evenings, when the Institute organises its weekly lectures, during which  a wide variety of topics are covered. Titles and short abstracts of these Thursday presentations are announced in the Institute’s monthly newsletter ( ) and on its Facebook page ( ).
Every year, as part of their curriculum in their own universities, dozens of students from Dutch and Flemish universities spend a semester studying at the Institute to be immersed in the fascinating culture of Egypt, learn its language, and travel around the country and visit its archaeological sites.
Additionally, the Institute provides information about the culture of the Netherlands and Flanders, offers Dutch language courses, and acts as a liaison for students who desire to study in the Netherlands or Flanders.
Among its many cultural activities, there is a weekly film programme. Such activities (films screened, etc.) are announced on the Facebook page of the Institute.
For decades, the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo has successfully served as the meeting point for Dutch and Flemish scholars and students visiting Egypt, as well as for Egyptian scholars and students with an interest in the Low Countries. NVIC aims to expand its activities in the future, and looks forward to further academic exchanges in their various forms of cooperation.

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