Used in the trenches

Posted on 4th April 2013 by simonbeattie

Earlier in the year, I wrote about a couple of books relating to the First World War.  Here’s another with a WWI connection: a miniature Qur’an produced by the Glasgow publishers David Bryce & Sons between about 1900 and 1910.  (The coin, in case you’re wondering, is a nickel.)

In general, I’m not that taken with miniature books.  Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors sums them up as ‘books whose principal (usually only) interest lies in their very small size’.  But this Qur’an is different.  Louis Bondy calls it an ‘almost legendary title published by Bryce …  The bindings vary from richly gilt-stamped red or black morocco with gilt edges to plain stiff wrappers and yellow edges …  Lately it has become increasingly difficult to find copies of this book’ (Miniature Books, pp. 111–2).

The Gutenberg Museum in Mainz takes up the story.  ‘The production of miniature Korans in manuscript has a long tradition, but the printing of them in this form had to await the arrival of photolithographic techniques in the late 19th century.  Such Korans were published in Delhi in 1892 and Istanbul c. 1899, but the one which seems to have achieved the widest circulation is this Scottish edition.  It was one of a long series of miniature books produced by David Bryce and Sons.  All the copies were issued with metal lockets and magnifying glasses.  Many were supplied to Indian and other Muslim soldiers fighting for the British in the First World War, and served also as talismans’ (Middle Eastern Languages and the Print Revolution, exhibition catalogue, 2002, no. 79).

It was in this last context that the book was mentioned by T. E. Lawrence: ‘[Auda] told me later, in strict confidence, that thirteen years before he had bought an amulet Koran for one hundred and twenty pounds and had not since been wounded …  The book was a Glasgow reproduction, costing eighteen pence; but Auda’s deadliness did not let people laugh at his superstition’ (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Book 4, Ch. 53).

Given the condition of this copy, I don’t think it was ever actually taken into battle, but it is still a wonderful little book.

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