A review of the Oriental Collection at Peshawar University
Working at Peshawar University libraries has been one of the most refreshing research experiences I have had in the region – in striking contrast to the typical nightmarish scenarios of waiting days for access and negotiating with disgruntled staff. Peshawar University’s strengths lie foremost in its superb regional collections, its accessibility, and, certainly, in the professionalism of the library staff.
Although today Peshawar unfortunately is perceived as a remote frontier town, through most of its history it was a vibrant cosmopolitan center linking Central and South Asia, hosting countless Buddhist sages and, later, Sufi luminaries. Consequently, the city has a rich literary heritage linking Kabul and the Indus Valley. Peshawar University is appropriately located only 15 minutes away from the entrance to the fabled Khyber Pass, the pathway into Afghanistan.
The Library and Collection
Peshawar University was established in 1950 as an extension of the older Islamiyya College, Peshawar. Islamiyya College was founded by the Pushtun educationist Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum Khan in 1913, and the campus was inaugurated by Haji Sahib Torangzai, a legendary anti-colonial freedom fighter. (Two years after the inauguration, the British government issued an arrest warrant for Torangzai.) The historic campus is truly charming, featuring red-brick ‘Indo-Saracenic Revival’ architecture, with extensive gardens. Be sure to explore the grounds, particularly the impressive turn of the century white mosque.
In 2008 Peshawar University and Islamiyya College became independent. Sharing the same campus, they remain closely linked.
The Peshawar University Central Library was established in 1951. The four story building houses over 220,000 books, plus over 45,000 bound volumes of journals, and manuscripts in Arabic, Urdu, Pushtu, Persian, Baluchi, and Turkic languages.
Within the Central Library is a two-room Oriental Section which hosts manuscripts, rare books, and special collections. This is the main attraction for visiting researchers. One room contains published books that can be issued to users; the other contains 1,300 rare books and 712 manuscripts, in addition to Middle Eastern publications.
The Oriental Collection is an amalgam of several well-known regional collections. The most famous of these is that of Fazl Samdani. Hailing from a prominent Peshawari merchant family, Samdani had acquired texts during his travels through Central Asia, British India, and Afghanistan. As a result of his efforts, researchers can expect surprises. For instance, I came across an unpublished Chaghatai history of the Khoqand and Bukhara khanates. Other collections include those of literary figures and educationalists including Mir Wali, Ghulam Jilani, Khatir Ghaznawi, and Hafiz Idris.
The Oriental Section is particularly recommended for those working on Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. The principal published histories of the region are well represented, as are biographies of historical and literary figures, and texts on theology and jurisprudence. The collection is organized by language (Urdu, Pushto, Farsi), and each language category is subdivided into nine classes (history, geography, arts, literature, etc.) The manuscripts include Quranic texts and commentaries, works of theology, jurisprudence, and philology, letters and epistles, poetry in Persian and Pushtu, geographies, histories, biographies of prophets, saints, and poets, and works on additional subjects ranging from mathematics and astronomy to medicine.
The library also hosts an extensive collection in English (in the general stacks beyond the entrance). One floor down is the periodicals section, which also houses newspapers and 16,000 theses from the University of Peshawar, from 1954 to date. The library is also in the process of setting up an Iranian Studies center, featuring books and journals published in Iran, pertaining to history, culture, and education. Adjacent to the Oriental Section is a comfortable reading room for researchers.
Catalogue and Digitization
The printed books (including rare books) within the Oriental Collection are searchable through a card catalogue. Manuscripts are listed in a hand-written register kept with the Oriental Collection librarian, as well as in the card catalogue system. The library is in the process of compiling a digital catalogue for manuscripts which will be accessible in-house. Ten percent of the manuscript collection has already been digitized, but is not yet accessible to researchers. The university is currently seeking funds to complete its comprehensive digitization project, which will include manuscripts, theses, university journals, and rare books. The digitized books will eventually be accessible through the university intranet.
As alluded to above, one of the institution’s core assets is the highly professional library staff. The chief administrator as well as the manuscript librarian both have doctorates in history and religious studies, while the chief technician is a PhD candidate in library sciences. All three have conducted research at the library and are intimately familiar with Peshawar University’s multiple collections. They were remarkably helpful in locating books, and introducing me to other resources within the city. In one case, a librarian even helped me track down the publisher of an out-of-print series published 20 years ago in the Swat Valley. It was such a pleasant surprise when he even provided me with the home address of the publisher, and encouraged me to make an unannounced visit. In the local tradition of hospitality, upon our first meeting the publisher presented me with his complete collection as a gift!
Access and Accommodation
Access is fairly straightforward, and free of unnecessary bureaucratic hassles. The University requires that a letter be presented to the Vice Chancellor, identifying the research topic and the type of sources that are required. The Vice Chancellor in turn contacts the Chief Librarian, who arranges the necessary support staff.
With regard to manuscripts, non-flash photography is allowed, and with printed books, photography is generally permitted. The staff can also arrange for printed books to be photocopied. Various members of the staff are conversant in English, Urdu, and Pushto.
If you intend to staying in Peshawar for more than one or two days, it is advisable to contact the Vice Chancellor in advance and request living arrangements. There are hostels located on campus specifically for visiting scholars, with dining and other services included, for a minimal fee.
Prior to coming to the city, it would be worthwhile to contact Tahir Jan Umarzai (co-author of this review) who can help facilitate day today requirements and access.
Islamiyya College and the Pushto Academy
Peshawar University’s sister institution, Islamiyya College, also houses a significant library and manuscript collection, more oriented towards the religious sciences (covering works on literature, theology, jurisprudence, Quranic commentaries, grammar, medicine, logic, and morphology). A catalogue is available in the form of an early 20th century lithograph, entitled Lubub al-Ma’arif al-Islamiyya fi’l Maktaba Dar al-Ulum Islamiyya by Abdul Rahim Kulachvi.
The library staff at Peshawar University can help researchers in accessing Islamiyya College, and securing permission to examine manuscripts. However, Islamiyya College has a far more stringent policy than the University, and does not allow the reproduction of manuscripts in any form. Researchers wishing to work at Islamiyya College, should make preparations well in advance to ensure unfettered access and support.
Also on campus is the Pushto Academy, a full-fledged research department dedicated to the study of Pushtun literature, history, and culture. The Academy has an impressive collection of over 1,000 manuscripts (mainly Pushto, Persian, Arabic, and Urdu). A detailed published catalogue can be purchased at bookstores, entitled Fehrist-e Makhtutat, Pushto Academy Peshawar University, by Prof. Dr. Salma Shahin (2011). To access the Pushtu Academy, researchers can make a request through the Central Library of Peshawar University, or go directly to the Academy library which is open to visitors.
Within the two sister universities are several additional resources which will be useful to researchers. I would recommend visiting the campus bookstores including the Islamiyya Book Shop, as well as the Pushtu Academy bookshop (primarily for Pushtu literature and university publications). The University also publishes several journals (e.g., the Peshawar University Teachers Association Journal, the Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, etc.) which can be purchased on campus.
In old Peshawer, the extensive book market at Khyber Bazaar in the walled city is certainly worth a visit. I would recommend the University Book Depot, which has a comprehensive collection of recent publications in Urdu and Pushtu. Other well-known bookstores include Islamiyya Book Agency, the Royal Book Agency (Urdu, Pushtu), and the National Book Foundation (English). There are also scores of private libraries around the city, and the archives adjacent to Peshawar Museum also host a manuscript collection.
Safety and Access
The campus is in a secure part of the city, and can reached by taxi. Otherwise, foreign researchers often rent cars while in the city, for the sake of convenience and greater security. The city has gone through rough patches, so visitors should exercise due diligence when traveling to unfamiliar parts of town.
Habib ur-Rahman, Deputy Librarian
+92 91 9216483
Dr. Mian Ataullah, Oriental Collection
Research Scholar in Law, Yale Law School
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, Yale University
Tahir Jan Umarzai
Assistant Librarian, Digital library coordinator, Peshawar University
PhD Candidate, Sargodha University
Image: Historic mosque at the Islamiya College Peshawar / Peshawar University campus, built in 1912, and inaugurated by Haji Sahib Turangzai. Photograph by author.