My involvement in cataloging Syriac and Arabic manuscripts over the last few years has impressed upon me how often and actively Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean scribes (and presumably, readers) used Garšūnī: it is anything but an isolated occurrence in these collections. This brings to the fore questions of how these scribes and readers thought about Garšūnī. Did they consider it simply a writing system, a certain kind of Arabic, or something else? At least a few specific references to “Garšūnī” in colophons may help us answer them. Scribes sometimes make reference to their transcriptions from Arabic script into Syriac script, and elsewhere a scribe mentions translation “from Garšūnī into Syriac” (CFMM 256, p. 344; after another text in the same manuscript, p. 349, we have in Arabic script “…who transcribed and copied [naqala wa-kataba] from Arabic into Garšūnī”). Such statements show that scribes certainly considered Arabic and Garšūnī distinctly.
While cataloging Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, (SMMJ) № 167 recently, I found in the colophon a reference to Garšūnī unlike any that I’d seen before, in which the scribe refers, not to the Garšūnī “text” or “copy” (nusḫa, as in SMMJ 140, f. 132v), but rather to “the Garšūnī language” (lisān al-garšūnī). Here is an English translation of the relevant part of the colophon, with the images from the manuscript below.
SMMJ 167, ff. 322r-322v
…[God], in whose help this blessed book is finished and completed, the book of Mar Ephrem the Syrian. The means for copying it were not available with us at the monastery, so we found it with a Greek [rūmī] priest from Beit Jala, a friend of ours, and we took it on loan, so that we could read in it. We observed that it was a priceless jewel. It was written in Arabic, so we, the wretched, with his holiness, our revered lord, the honored Muṭrān, Ǧirǧis Mār Grigorios, were interested in transcribing it into the Garšūnī language, so that reading it might be easy for the novice monks, that they might obtain the salvation of their souls.
This was in the year 1882 AD, the 11th of the blessed month of June…
This is the second explicit reference I have found where a Garšūnī text is considered more readable to at least some section of the literate population. In this case, the audience in view is a group of beginning monks, and in the aforementioned manuscript SMMJ 140 the transcription from Arabic into Garšūnī was made “to facilitate the understanding of its contents for every reader.”
UPDATE (June 17, 2014): Thanks to Salam Rassi for help on the phrase ʕalá sabīl al-ʕīra.