The original text of the Khalila wa Dimna was composed in Sanskrit in around 300 AD in Kashmir, by an unknown author who has come to be known in European sources as Bidpai. It has since however become one of the most important secular works of Islamic literature and has inspired some of the most important and impressive of illustrated Islamic manuscripts. The text is an Indian mirror for princes to advise on moral and ethical themes through animal fables. It was translated into Pahlavi by the order of the Sassanian King Khusraw Anushirwan (r. 531-579) who sent his physician Burzoe to India for this purpose. It was later translated into Arabic by 'Abd Allah ibn al-Muqaffa' in around 750 and the work as it is known is principally his creation. It was subsequently translated into many other languages, including Persian, as the present example, and Turkish. Nasrallah's translation, made for his patron, the Ghaznavid Bahramshah (r. 1099-1115), was the Persian text that is most frequently illustrated (until it was superseded by a work by Husayn Va'iz Kashifi entitled Anvar-i Suhaili at the end of the fifteenth century).
The oldest surviving copy of the work is in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (3465), and was copied in Syria between 1200 and 1220. The miniatures are simple in design with a horizontal plane containing the main characters of the tale sometimes divided by a flowering plant or seated beneath a simple arched or flat-roofed building. The paintings in that work appear to have become the prototypes for later versions. Whilst there are no other known copies which date from the 13th century, the text experienced a revival in the 14th century, and was copied and illustrated in both Arabic and Persian. The most important Arabic examples are one in the Bodleian Library in Oxford dated 1354 AD (MS Pococke 400) and an undated one in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (3467). The remainder date to the second half of the 14th or the early 15th centuries.
In the canon of Islamic painting, the Kalila wa Dimna had become by the 13th and 14th centuries one of the most popular texts for illustration because of its lively stories involving a wealth of picturesque subjects. The tendency to copy and illustrate the text has left a plethora of manuscripts in its wake. In 1991, Ernst Grube recorded 90 illustrated manuscripts with more than 4000 paintings (Ernst J. Grube, Prolegomena for a corpus publication of illustrated Khalila wa Dimnah manuscripts, Islamic Art, IV, New York, 1992, p. 301).
Important to note is the probability that the miniatures of the present manuscript were completed by a number of different artists. The bold depictions of animals are far removed from the more cautious and delicate figural miniatures. Even within the figural group there are stylistic variations, with some miniatures executed on a larger, bolder scale and others, as mentioned above, appearing small within the relatively sparse spaces left for them. The fact that some of the miniatures have frames whilst others lack them supports the suggestion that there are at least two distinct groups and periods of work within the miniatures. Loosely speaking it would appear that the majority of the group of framed miniatures appear somewhat later in production than those that are unframed.
A number of the miniatures can be placed into the 14th century. For example, that of the hare and lion at the well, illustrated here, appears to evolve from the Syriac tradition (Leroy, J., Les Manuscrits Syriaques a Peintures Conservés dans les Bibliothèques d'Europe et d'Orient, 2 Vols, Text and Album, Paris, 1964, Album pl. 79, no. 4 (Baptism of Christ) and others in the same manuscript in the Monastery of Mar Mattai near Mosul). The date of that manuscript has now been re-read as equivalent to 1260 suggesting a relatively early date for the comparable miniatures in our manuscript. The bold paintings of the lion and white leopard, with its use of oversized blossoms set against coloured grounds, recalls Mamluk painting and the Bodleian's Khalila wa Dimna (Pococke 400), which is attributed either to Egypt or Syria and dated AH 755/1354 AD. Furthermore the rendering of the figures in a number of the miniatures, such as those in the bed scene, recall those of the Süleymaniye Khalila wa Dimna manuscript of the mid-fourteenth century which is attributed to Syria (Ettinghausen, Arab Painting, 1977, p.159).
Other miniatures, however, such as that of a figure seated on an elephant, appear to relate to early 15th century Byzantine painting. See for example a miniature from a manuscript now in Venice that depicts a bride of Mehmet II seated on an elephant, which is very similar in its treatment (Helen C. Evans (ed.), Byzantium, Faith and Power, New York, 2004, figs 12.1 and 12.8, pp.389 and 394).
On the basis of the above it seems that there is obviously more than one period of production for the miniatures of the present manuscript. One period is probably contemporary with the date of the manuscript and emerges from the Arab tradition (perhaps being produced in Iraq or Syria) whilst the second, generally confined within frames, most probably dates from around the early 15th century and appears to be influenced by the Byzantine tradition. This group was perhaps executed in the same location as the manuscript itself or in eastern Turkey.