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Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies

Photo of Dr Nur Sobers-Khan

Dr Nur Sobers-Khan

Honorary Senior Research Fellows



Books, catalogues and special edition journals

o   Islam and Print in South Asia, a special edition double issue of the International Journal of Islam in Asia, Vol 2, Issue 1-2 (September, 2023) co-edited by Nur Sobers-Khan, Priyanka Basu and Layli Uddin.

o   Roots§Routes Research on Visual Cultures: Restitution, Healing, Redistribution May-August, 2022, co-edited by Domenico Sergi, Nur Sobers-Khan, Anna Chiara Cimoli and Giulia Grechi.

o   Qajar Women: Images of Women in 19th-century Iran, co-authored with Dr. Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya (Milan: Silvana Editoriale Museum, 2016).

o   Slaves without Shackles Forced Labour and Manumission in the Galata Court Registers, 1560-1572 (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 2014).

Articles, Book Chapters, Contributions to Exhibition Catalogues

o   'Mass-Producing the Cosmos: Urdu Lithographs and Muslim Devotion in 19th-century South Asia' Material Religion Double Issue Special Edition Journal (Forthcoming, 2024)

o   'Acts of Devotion in Late Ottoman Prayer Books: An Illustrated Manuscript in the Collection of the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha', co-authored with Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya, Muqarnas (Forthcoming, 2024)

o   'Beyond Colonial Rupture: Print Culture and the Emergence of Muslim Modernity in Nineteenth-Century South Asia' IJIA, Vol. 3, Issue 1-2 (Sept, 2023), co-authored with Layli Uddin and Priyanka Basu.

o   “Muslim Scribal Culture in India Around 1800: Towards a Disentangling of the Mughal Library and Delhi Collection,” Scribal Practice and the Global Cultures of Colophons, 1400-1800 New Transculturalisms, ed. C.D. Bahl and S. Hanß (Switzerland: Springer, 2022).

o   “The ‘Islam in Europe’ Exhibition and the ‘World of Islam’ Festival: Curatorial Aporia and Failure as Methodology” in Deconstructing the Myths of Islamic Art, ed. Xenia Gazi, Sam Bowker, Onur Ozturk. (London: Routledge, 2022).

o   ‘Slavery in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire’ in The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Vol II, ed. Craig Perry et al., (Cambridge: CUP, 2021): 406-428

o   ‘Re-claiming manuscripts: Divination, Social Justice and Islamic Codicology’ Critical Muslim 33.2 Relics (2020)

o   'Framing Islamic Art: Explorations in Speculative Museology' Critical Muslim: Futures 29 (Jan-Mar, 2019): 227-241

o   'Dreaming: An Exploration of Oneiric Logic and Radical Ontology Formation' Critical Muslim: Narratives 28 (Oct-Dec, 2018): 128-137

o   Entries on the Persian manuscripts in Marvellous Creatures: Animal Fables in Islamic Art, exhibition catalogue from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, with texts by Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya, Bill Greenwood, Thalia Kennedy, Leslee Michelsen, and Nur Sobers-Khan (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2015)

o   Building Our Collection: Safavid and Mughal Albums - Exhibition Highlights Catalogue (Doha: Museum of Islamic Art, 2014)

o   'Firasetle nazar edesin: Recreating the Gaze of the Ottoman Slave-Owner at the Confluence of Textual Genres' in Well-Connected Domains: Towards an Entangled Ottoman History, edited by Pascal W. Firges, Tobias P. Graf, Christian Roth and Gülay Tulasoğlu (Leiden: Brill, 2014): 93-109

o   'Slaves, Wealth, and Fear: An Episode from Late Mamluk-era Egypt,' in Oriens 37 (2009): 155-161.

Book Reviews  

  • Double Book Review - Life After the Harem: Female Palace Slaves, Patronage, and the Imperial Ottoman Court by Betül İpşirli Argıt and The Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Harem: From African Slave to Power-Broker by Jane Hathaway, in Journal of Early Modern History Volume 26: Issue 4 (2022)

o   Shrine Journeys: A review of Annie Ali Khan's Sita Under the Crescent Moon: A Woman’s Search for Faith in Pakistan, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2019, in Critical Muslim 42.3 (2022)

  • Leslie Pierce, Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire (New York: Basic Books, 2017) for Renaissance Quarterly 72/2 (Summer, 2019)

o   Anand Vivek Taneja, Jinnealogy: Time, Islam and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018) for Global Intellectual History (2018)

o   Kaveh Yazdani, India, Modernity and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.) (Leiden: Brill, 2017) in Global Intellectual History (2018)

o   Madeline Zilfi, Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference in New Middle Eastern Studies 2 (2012)

o   Steven A. Epstein, Speaking of Slavery in the Journal of Early Modern History 13 (2009) 71-98


o   Houssem Eddine Chachia, translated by Nur Sobers-Khan, 'The Moment of Choice: The Moriscos on the Border of Christianity and Islam' in Conversion and Islam in the Early Modern Mediterranean: The Lure of the Other, ed. Claire Norton (London: Routledge, 2017): 129-154

o   Houssem Eddine Chachia, translated by Nur Sobers-Khan, 'The Morisco Aḥmad b. Qāsim al-Ḥajarī and his Egyptian Manuscript of Nāṣir al-Dīn ‘alà Qawm al-Kāfirīn,' in Book Studies and Islamic Studies in Conversation Kodex 8, edited by Marta Dominguez (Munich, 2018): 57-70

Contributions to On-line Academic Resources

·       Principal Investigator of Two Centuries of Indian Print Digitisation project (2016-2021), a large-scale project to research and digitise the British Library's early printed South Asian books, funded by the AHRC Newton-Babha fund and UK BEIS ministry.

·       Creation of 1,200 TEI catalogue records for the British Library's Persian manuscripts for the on-line union catalogue of Islamic manuscripts for the UK (September 2012-December, 2013):

·       Digitisation of the previously unpublished catalogue of the Delhi Persian Manuscript Collection (roughly 2,700 works contained in 2,300 manuscripts), authored by J.A. Arberry, C.A. Storey and R. Levy, with funding from the Barakat Trust.  (Sept-Dec, 2013) It is now available and searchable on the BL's website:

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My research interests focus on Islamic manuscripts and visual culture in the Ottoman Empire and South Asia from from the 16th to the 19th century. I work on manuscripts and lithographs in Arabic, Persian, Ottoman, and Urdu. 

Broadly speaking, I research and publish on following topics: 

Islamic codicology and art history, curating and museology

The history of art and manuscript collections from the Islamic world and South Asia in European and North American repositories; in particular, the Delhi Collection and its trajectory from the pre-1857 Muslim intellectual milieu of Delhi to the India Office Library.  

Continuity and rupture in Islamic knowledge production in the transition from manuscript production to print and lithography, with particular reference to South Asia and genres of knowledge such as divination, talisman-making, pictorial falnamas, cosmology and bibliomancy.

Ottoman devotional manuscript practices, including the pictorial programme in the Enam-i Serif and Dala'il al-Khayrat manuscript corpus. 

I am also working on the space of the shrine in South Asia and its relationship to visuality in the occult sciences and print culture. 

My PhD was on the social history of slavery in early modern Istanbul, and I continue to research and publish on this topic. 

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External impact and engagement

 o    From 2015-2021, I was the Lead Curator for the South Asia collections at the British Library, a role which involved oversight of the entirety of the collection of printed books (roughly half a million volumes), periodicals, newspapers and manuscripts (which number 20,000 items) in South Asian languages and supervising a team of curatorial experts, each of whom have responsibility for a linguistic subset of the collection.   In addition to having administrative oversight of the South Asia collections, I was also responsible for the curating the sub-collection of Islamic South Asia, consisting of manuscripts and printed books in Indic languages written in Perso-Arabic script, primarily Urdu.  In this role, together with the Head of the Asia and Africa department, in 2015 I applied for a large grant from Newton-Babha fund, administered by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK, to lead a research and digitisation project to make the British Library’s collection of early printed South Asian books available on-line. Called the ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ project, as our aim was to research and digitise the earliest printed book in India, dating to 1713, and all other South Asian printed material up to 1914 held in our collections.  The BL’s collections hold unique South Asian printed material not found in repositories elsewhere, which should be made available to a global audience, rather than just to those who are able to come physically to the library. This initial grant, as well as further grants from the UK’s BEIS ministry, for a total £1.2 million, allowed me to hire a team of linguistic and technical experts to create a large project to digitise our early printed collections from South Asia for an initial two-year phase.  We received a further grant of £500,000 in 2018 that allowed us to extend the project into 2020, for a total of £1.7 million in funding for a four-year project employing between 6-8 team members, to create a digital humanities resource for the early printed South Asian collections in the BL.   One of the main aims of the digital humanities research strand of the project was to develop Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for Bengali script through a series of international contests; the team were successful in developing Bengali OCR to an accuracy rate of over 90%, and won a staff achievement award in 2018 for our accomplishment.  The team crafted further outputs for the digital humanities research strand of the project and generated a series of data visualizations generated from the metadata of the scanned items, mapping the location of printers in Calcutta and prices of the digitised books and other information pertinent to the social and cultural history of printing in 19th-century India.  In addition, the project team created a programme of skill-sharing and capacity-building workshops in digital humanities research methods, metadata standards, and digitisation workflows for partner institutions in India.  We created a very active calendar of academic events in the UK and India over four years, featuring workshops, research fellowships, conferences, and seminars on the history of manuscripts, printing and lithography in South Asia, which generated a podcast series that has reached thousands of listeners.  In addition to our academic work, we also have built a programme of community outreach events to engage South Asian diaspora communities in London whose cultural heritage may intersect with the collections. The Two Centuries of Indian Print project in its initial phase also achieved one of our primary goals, which was to create an on-line resource with examples of the collection items that we have digitised, featuring contextual articles on the history and significance of the items, information about the digital humanities outputs of the project, such as advances in OCR and data visualization, as well as updates on our academic events and podcast series. We made over 1,400 individual collection items available on-line with full cataloguing metadata, and are hard at work creating on-line catalogue records for a further 4,000 which have been digitised and are awaiting ingest into the on-line viewer. Our research activities continue, with planned scholarly publications from our last series of workshops in 2018, ‘Islam and Print in South Asia,’ co-organised with my colleagues on the project who are the curators and research specialists, and the special edition of conference proceedings was published in a double issue special edition of the Journal of Islam in Asia: entitled Islam and Print in South Asia, IJIA, Vol 2, Issue 1-2 (September, 2023) co-edited by Nur Sobers-Khan, Priyanka Basu and Layli Uddin.

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 Nur Sobers-Khan is a researcher and curator of Islamic manuscripts, art and archival collections. She served as director of the Aga Khan Documentation Center (2021-22), a research centre and archive dedicated to the study of visual culture, architecture and urbanism in Muslim societies. From 2015-2021, she was the Lead Curator for South Asian Collections at the British Library, London, where she was head of the South Asia section and responsible for curating the South Asian printed books and manuscript collections and also led a team of specialist curators. During this time, she was Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded research and digitisation project Two Centuries of Indian Print (2016-2021), and her research emerging from this project pivots around two questions: the role of the dispersal and removal of cultural heritage artefacts from South Asia under British colonialism as a contributing factor in shaping Islamic intellectual life in the second half of the 19th century, and the transition from manuscript to print in the same period and the circulation of lithographed texts on cosmology, dream interpretation and other divinatory literatures. She previously served as the Iran Heritage Fellowship Persian Manuscript Curator at the British Library (2012-13) and was Curator for Turkey and the Ottoman Empire at the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (2014-15).  Book-length publications include a monograph based on her PhD research, entitled Slaves Without Shackles: Forced Labour and Manumission in the Galata Court Registers, 1560–1572, published by Klaus Schwarz Verlag in 2014 (now by De Gruyter), a co-authored exhibition catalogue Qajar Women: Images of Women in 19th-century Iran (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2016), and co-edited double issue special edition of the International Journal of Islam in Asia, entitled Islam and Print (Vol 3, Issue 1-2, Sept 2023). Her reviews and articles have appeared in OriensJournal of Early Modern HistoryCritical Muslim, and Global Intellectual History and various edited volumes. She completed her graduate and undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Cambridge, with a PhD in Islamic History in 2012 and an undergraduate degree in Oriental Studies in 2006 (BA Hons MA), with a focus on Arabic and Persian philology and the literature and history of the Middle East.

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