Remembering Papyrologist Nabbia Abbot (1897-1981)

Remembering Papyrologist Nabbia Abbot (1897-1981)

Nabbia Abbot (Nabīha ʿAbūd) was born on January 31, 1897, in Mardin, Turkey.  While she was still a young child, she traveled using a horse-pulled covered wagon with a caravan together with her family to Mosul.  She then sailed along the river Tigris to Baghdad, then later across the Persian Gulf, and along with the Arabian Sea to Bombay town in India in 1907. While staying in India, she attended British schools, and in 1915 she did exemplary well in the Overseas Matriculation examination offered by the University of Cambridge.  She was awarded an A.B. degree along with many future women leaders of the time by the University of Allahabad, which had largely British faculty members. She then worked in nascent Iraq with Gertrude Bell in a program for future women leaders before joining her family in Boston.  She earned her M.A from the University of Boston in 1925 before working as a tutor in Asbury College in Wilmore.  She then joined the Oriental Institute in 1933 to work on early Islamic and Arabic documents, and this became her home from then onwards.  She diligently worked on and published many early Islamic documents and never left the institute except for one year (19446/47) when she went on sabbatical leave to the Middle East. 

From 1936 all the way to 1977, Abbot dedicated her life to scholarly work, publishing several works, some of which are treasured by contemporary scholars.  One of her most outstanding work, “OIP 75. Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri I: Historical Texts,” composed of eight documents form the main foundation of the current study. The documents embody nine fields and periods during pre-Islamic as well as early Islamic history spanning from the creation story to the military history of the tenth century of our time. The papyrus documents’ likely dates cover about two hundred years, approximately from the mid-eighth to around the mid-tenth century. Additionally, the documents characterize the earliest Islamic history scholars largely, although a number of them are not yet fully identified.  What makes her work interestingly unique is that each papyrus document is undoubtedly the oldest known prevailing manuscript of the work it signifies. Yet to be identified are the writers of the Documents 1, 2, and 3, which are about the creation story Adam, Eve, as well as the Jewish mythological history, respectively. Uncertainly identified documents include Oriental Institute No. 14046  Documents 5 and 8,  which most certainly, trace back to the missing works of Wahb ibn Munabbih’s renowned history, Ma’mar ibn Rashid’s The Expeditions of Muhammad, as well as  Abu Muhammad al-Faraghani’s extension of Tabari’s history respectively. Conversely, Document 4 is certainly the oldest extant fragment of the renowned Sirah of Ibn Hisham, although Documents 6 and 7 signify the illusive Tarikh al-khulafa’ of Ibn Ishaq as well as the hardly-known Dhikr al-Nabl of the Shi’ite Ibn ‘Uqdah respectively. Two of these works were previously believed missing. These papyrus pamphlets have a threefold impact. The group wholesomely has a bearing on the oriental history of literary writings as well as scribal practices. Also,  the group, although a number of documents, more than others, are noteworthy either for its real historical matters or for illuminating, directly or indirectly, on the traditional trends of the Umayyad and old ‘Abbasid times. Nonetheless, the group’s utmost importance is to study the range and method of old Islamic historiography, progressing in a manuscript era.

Abbot’s work has been a great success when it comes to the unveiling of some of the earliest Islamic scrips of all time.  Her work is the kind of investigator work needed for unveiling puzzling marks. All the years she dedicated to her work was just the foundation of the massive knowledge and expert treatment required to illuminate such documents and enable them, in turn, illuminate the wider questions of old  Islamic past and culture.  Abbot’s work stood out due to her single-mindedness and strength of character to fight the enticements that drove a number of Arabists as well as Islamists to vulgarize their arena at the cost of basic research. It is fulfilling to recall that Nabia Abbott’s magnificent achievement was not the result of central largess or luxurious group projects, the result of resolve and persistence. Her plain hard work also flourished in an institution that established the highest standards, and nurtured her while protecting its faculty members as they conducted their scholarly work. Her work was the type of work for which Oriental Institute established and for which it continues to exist. 


Wansbrough, J. (1975). Nabia Abbott: Studies in Arabic literary papyri, iii. Language and literature.(University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications, Vol. LXXVII.) xvi, 216 pp., 10 plates. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1972. $32.50,£ 16.75. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 38(3), 629-630.

Written by
Ahmed W. Shaker

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Ahmed W. Shaker

Researcher and Editor-in-Chief of Quran Manuscripts Studies Blog