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Collection Selections of Prayer Materials from Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia

About this Collection

The African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) holds a sizable collection of prayer materials from Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Prayers commonly serve as a supplication, confession, or praise, among other functions. Prayer traditions are passed down through generations in various formats – such as oral, written, etc. – capturing the rich culture of belief systems. The Selections of Prayer Materials in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia contain 121 items in the formats of manuscripts, rare books, lithographs, and historical postcards, written in African languages, Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, Ge’ez, Georgian, Ladino, Persian, Turkish, or Turkic languages. The oldest materials date back to the 11th century.

These materials were acquired over the years by the division’s Recommending Officers for African, Hebraic and Middle Eastern studies. Based on this selection of materials, the division developed and published in July 2022 an online exhibition/Story Map, “Prayer Traditions in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.” This story map is part of the “Exploring Challenging Conversations” initiative generously funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc. The purpose of the initiative is to enhance public awareness of cross-regional and intercultural religious understanding in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and their global diasporas.

African indigenous religious traditions are rooted in robust, dynamic and highly diverse oral cultures that continue to permeate the daily lived experience of African people from all walks of life in the 21st century. They are fundamentally pluralistic and non-exclusive, and as such strongly shape the reception of Christian and Islamic traditions from foreign missionaries. The postcard selections included in this collection are intended to demonstrate this important religious tradition that continues to thrive today. Africa, however, is also the indigenous home of one of the very oldest Christian churches – the Tewahedo (Ethiopian Orthodox) tradition which dates back to the early 4th century CE. A number of prized manuscripts and rare materials in this collection speak to the long history of this longstanding religion.

The Hebraic Section prayer books in this collection provide a window into the section’s prayer book collection that numbers in the thousands. Most are cataloged; about 800 are not yet cataloged but can be discovered by using the prayer book Finding Aid link located on the Hebraic Section’s “Special Collections” page. The primary language of the prayer books is Hebrew, but the collection also includes many prayer volumes in Yiddish and Ladino. Shown here are a prayer book with the service for a ritual circumcision, two with penitential prayers recited during the period before the Jewish New Year through the day after the Day of Atonement, two prayer books for Jewish holidays that include liturgical poems from various traditions, and early printed prayer books from Germany and Venice. This collection also includes two miniature prayer books for use by travelers and one book of prayers – an illustrated manuscript - commissioned as a gift and featuring prayers before retiring at night and blessings recited over the enjoyment of various worldly delights such as drinking wine, seeing a rainbow, or observing the fruiting of a tree.

The Arabic prayer materials reflect the wide variety of the religious traditions in the Arab World, with a focus on Islam--the primary religion in the area. In the digitized collection is the work Kitāb Dalāʼil al-Khayrāt (Guide to Benevolent Deeds). Written by Muḥammad ibn Sulaymān al-Jazūlī (1404-1465), this is a compilation of prayers, devotions, and supplications focusing on the Prophet Muhammad, primarily in the form of litanies of peace and blessings.

By the 13th century, Sufism, a mystical, introspective interpretation of Islam, emerged in Persianate lands. Combining earlier Zoroastrian, Gnostic and Sunni Islamic religious elements, it gave rise to a significant canon of Persian Sufi writings, expressed primarily through poetry or anecdotal tales. This Safavid era illuminated Sufi Treatise, written in the highly prized Nasta‘liq calligraphy style and copied in Herat, demonstrates the importance given to Sufi writing in medieval Persia.

The Ottoman prayer materials reflect the role of the Sultan as the spiritual leader of Islam or Caliph. In the digitized collection is Meditations on the Prophet Mohammad, written in poetic verse with Sultan Ahmed III’s (1673-1736) Tughra, identifying him as the former owner.

Tenth century Armenian monk Gregory of Narek’s masterpiece Book of Lamentations (Matean Oghbergut’ean) is an example of how the mere possession of a prayer book conferred a sense of protection to believers. The Narek is a confessional, penitential masterpiece that Armenians treat as a sacred object endowed with healing powers. In the Armenian tradition, the Narek stands second only to the Bible.

The selection of materials is of high scholarly and educational values for those who are interested in doing research or learning more about the belief systems and prayer traditions in these regions. Additional relevant items may later be added to this corps of materials.