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Arabic printing

Printing Culture in the Arabic and Islamic context

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Most general perceptions of the history of the Muslim book have, until quite recently, focused almost entirely on manuscripts. The role of printing has been largely ignored, or relegated to the margins. But to understand the role of the book in Muslim history, not as something static and unchanging, but as part of the development of Muslim society, varying between different times and places, and embodying elements of continuity and change, then it is necessary to study all its forms and methods of production, and their social and intellectual implications. This means paying attention to print as well as scribal production, because the displacement of the latter by the former had profound effects on Muslim societies, just as it did in early modern Europe.

 A Late Print Revolution

The chronology, however, was different. To find the origins of Muslim printing, we have to go backwards, not forwards, from the Early Modern period – about eight centuries, in fact, to the time of the Fatimids. As had happened earlier in China, it originated in a need for the mass production of religious texts, not simply nor even primarily to be read, but as objects with their own religious aura, giving benefit and protection to their owners. Such printing was practised in the Muslim world as early as the 10th century. Block-prints on paper, and at least two on parchment, found in Egypt, survived in several collections, and further pieces have emerged from excavations. One, in private hands, may originate in Afghanistan or Iran. However, no literary nor historical testimony to the craft seems to exist, except for two obscure references in Arabic poems of the 10th and 14th centuries to the use of ṭarsh to produce copies of amulets. It has been suggested that this non-classical Arabic term signified tin plates with engraved or repoussé lettering, used to produce multiple copies of Qur’anic and incantatory texts for sale to the illiterate poor. The style of the surviving pieces indicates that they were not intended to gratify any refined literary or artistic taste, since the script is generally far from calligraphic, and there are even errors in the Qur’anic texts. Some have head-pieces with designs incorporating bolder lettering and ornamental motifs, sometimes white on black, which may have been printed with separate wood-blocks. Some block-printed patterns have also been found on the end-papers of manuscript codices. The origin of the processes used is unknown: China or Central Asia have been suggested, but there are marked differences in the techniques applied there. A link with the printing of patterns on textiles, also practised in medieval Egypt, is also possible.

Some writers have speculated that this Muslim precedent may have played a part in the origins of European printing several centuries later. No evidence of any such link has yet emerged, and definitive answers to this and other outstanding questions concerning medieval Arabic printing must await further discoveries and research.

Muslim block-printing of texts seems to have died out in the 15th century, although this or a related technique was evidently employed later to make lattice patterns for use in the decorative arts. But there is nothing to suggest that it was ever used to produce books or substantial literary texts in any form. Among Muslims these remained the monopoly of scribes until the 18th century, and the origins of Arabic typography and printed book production must be sought not in the Muslim world itself, but in Europe.

Two questions, or clusters of questions, arise at this point, although, in the present state of our knowledge, it seems that they cannot yet be fully answered:

1. Why was the technique of block-printing texts in multiple copies not developed to produce printed books, as in China? Was it because of an aversion on the part of literate Muslims to any mechanical reproduction of texts containing the name of God, as nearly all of them did? In that case why were these block-printed amulets allowed at all, since they all contain invocations to God, and most of them also include passages from the Qur’ān itself? Or was it due to an instinctive reluctance on the part of the ‘ulamā’ and the scribal élite to sanction a method of book production that might undermine their control of knowledge and their exercise of spiritual and intellectual authority?

2. Why did Arabic printing apparently die out just at the moment when economic and social changes, and the increased availability of cheap paper, were about to usher in a new, broader book culture, both in the Muslim world and in Europe? Why, in other words, did Arabs and Muslims have printing before print culture, and then abandon it just when print culture was about to develop elsewhere?

The birth of book printing depended on the development of typography – the casting of letters as movable types. Arabic script, being cursive, presents problems quite unlike those of the Roman, Greek and Hebrew alphabets which preoccupied the first few generations of typographers (in Europe). Not only is a higher degree of punch-cutting skill required – especially if calligraphic norms are to be imitated – but matrices must be justified even more minutely if the breaks between adjacent sorts are to be disguised. The compositor likewise must constantly avoid using the wrong letter-form. Moreover, as well as different initial, medial, final and isolated sorts for each letter, an abundance of ligatures is also needed for pairs or groups of letters. If vowel-signs (ḥarakāt) are required – for Qur’anic and certain other texts – then even more sorts are needed. A full Arabic fount can therefore contain over 600 sorts. This makes it an expensive investment, and economic factors alone therefore impeded the development of Arabic typography, as compared with its European-language counterparts.

Arabic printing with movable type originated in Italy in the early 16th century. The first book, containing Christian prayers, was printed in 1514. This was followed by the Arabic text of the Qur’ān, printed at Venice in 1537/38, probably as a commercial export venture. It was so remote from calligraphic norms as to make it quite unacceptable to the Muslims for whom it was intended, especially as its pointing and vocalisation were inaccurate and incomplete, and it also contained errors in the Qur’anic text. Italy remained the main home of Arabic printing for the rest of the 16th century, and the elegant Arabic types produced there from the 1580s onwards were the first to achieve calligraphic quality, with their liberal use of ligatures and letter-forms derived from the best scribal models. They were used principally in the lavish editions of the Tipografia Medicea Orientale in Rome between 1590 and 1610, some of which were Muslim texts and were exported to the Ottoman Empire. These seem to have met at first with some resistance, and were seized and confiscated; but the Ottoman Sultan in 1588 issued a decree forbidding any such interference. Nevertheless they achieved little commercial success, although some were used by Muslims, as is shown by owners’ inscriptions in some extant copies.

Other Arabic, Persian and Turkish books printed in Europe in the 16th-18th centuries were either intended for European scholars, or contained texts for the use of Arab Christians.

Printing in the Muslim world itself originated in the non-Muslim communities living there. Hebrew, Armenian, Syriac, Greek and roman types were used by them in the 15th-17th centuries. But typography in the Arabic script of the Muslim majority was not used in the Muslim world until the 18th century: before then the few such printed books in use were imported from Europe.

Why was book printing not adopted by Muslims for more than 1000 years after it was invented in China and 250 years after it became widespread in western Europe, and in spite of its use by non-Muslims in the Muslim world? The reasons for this lateness must be sought both in the nature of Muslim societies and in the supreme religious and aesthetic role accorded to the written word within them. Muslims were profoundly attached to manuscript books and scribal culture, and there can be little doubt that this was the main reason for their reluctance to embrace printing. But some more specific reasons can also be adduced.

Outside East Asia, the use of movable type seemed to be the only practical method of printed book production before the 19th century. This involved creating punches and matrices and casting individual types for all the letters and letter combinations of the Arabic alphabet, in their different forms; then reassembling these separate sorts to create lines of text and pages of a book. As far as Muslims could see, this was done without regard to the intrinsic subtleties of the processes of calligraphic composition, and its relation to underlying aesthetic and "spiritual" considerations. This segmentation and mechanisation of the sacred Arabic script seemed tantamount to sacrilege in the eyes of devout Muslims. The production of the Qur’ān by such means was unthinkable, but other texts bearing the name of God (as nearly all did) were also regarded by most scholars and readers as not to be violated by the methods of mass production. Rumours also spread of the use in printing of ink-brushes made from hogs’ hair, which would automatically defile sacred names, as well as impure inks which might also do so.

But apart from these considerations, the mass production of books by printing challenged the entrenched monopolies of intellectual authority enjoyed by the learned class (‘ulamā’), and threatened to upset the balance between that authority and the power of the state. This was indeed one important reason why printing was eventually sponsored, in the 18th and 19th centuries, by modernising rulers. They wanted to create a new broader military and administrative class, versed in modern sciences and knowledge, which could bolster the power of the state against both traditional hierarchies within and new threats from outside. The printing press was seen as an indispensable instrument for achieving this.

The late arrival of typography and the printing press in the Muslim world has perhaps been overemphasised. It has long intrigued European historians, looking at it from a Eurocentric point of view. Why and how, they wonder, did Muslim society manage for so long without Gutenberg’s invention, on which European modernity relied? The answer, of course, is that they managed as they had always done, throughout all the periods of their literate civilisation, by writing and producing their texts in ever increasing numbers of manuscript copies. The post-Gutenberg Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal states functioned and flourished for at least three centuries without printing. Not until the 18th and 19th centuries did European scientific and technical superiority, and the threat which it posed, cause them to reconsider the matter, and introduce presses. What really matters is what happened after that point, rather than what did not happen before.

The first printing with Arabic types in the Middle East was at Aleppo in Syria in 1706, but Arabic printing remained in the hands of Syrian and Lebanese Christians for over 100 years. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Turks revived Muslim printing in Istanbul in the second decade of the 18th century, when İbrahim Müteferrika began printing engraved maps. This was part of a programme of modernisation in the Ottoman capital which also led, less than ten years later, to the establishment of Müteferrika’s famous book-printing establishment, complete with Arabic types cut and cast locally and modelled on the normal neat Ottoman naskhī book-hand of the period. The first book, an Arabic-Turkish dictionary, was printed in 1729 in 500 copies and was followed by 16 others in Ottoman Turkish, in editions ranging from 500 to 1200 copies, before the press was closed in 1742. They were all secular works – on history, geography, language, government (including one written by Müteferrika himself), navigation and chronology – since the printing of the Qur’ān and religious texts was still forbidden. Several were illustrated with maps or pictorial engravings. Apart from a reprint in 1756, the press was not restarted until 1784, after which Ottoman Turkish printing had a continuous history until the adoption of the roman alphabet in 1928.

It has been claimed that the 18th century Müteferrika press was a "failure", that its printed editions were only marginal phenomena in Turkish literary and scholarly culture, and that most of its limited output remained unsold. However, recent research by Orlin Sabev into the book inventories contained in Ottoman probate documents of the period has shown that these printed books did achieve a considerable penetration among the contemporary educated classes, especially among administrators and officials, and that 65-75% of the press’s output was sold or otherwise distributed before Müteferrika died in 1747. But it is true that 18th-century Turkish book printing and its impact were at a very modest level compared with earlier west European incunabula, and that scribal transmission remained prevalent. Print had not yet become an agent of change in the Muslim world, although the way was now open for it.

Arabic printing in Egypt began with the presses of the French occupation, 1798-1801, which used 17th-century Arabic types from Europe. However these produced only a relatively insignificant output, and all the material was removed when the occupation of Egypt came to an end. The continuous history of Arabic printing in that country, and among Arab Muslims in general, dates from 1822, when the first book emerged from the state press of Muḥammad ‘Alī (ruler of Egypt, 1805-48), known as the Būlāq Press, after the place near Cairo where it was situated. This was started by an Italian-trained typographer, Niqūlā Masābikī (d.1830), and the first presses and types were imported from Milan: they are perceptibly European in style. They were soon replaced, however, by a succession of locally cut and cast founts, which were based on indigenous naskhī hands – somewhat cramped and utilitarian, rather than calligraphic – and set the norm for Arabic typography, both in Egypt and at many other Muslim Arabic presses elsewhere, for the rest of the 19th century.

In the first twenty years (1822-42), about 250 titles were published, including some religious and literary works, but most were military and technical books, official decrees, grammars, manuals of epistolography and translations of European scientific and historical works. After some vicissitudes in the mid-19th century following the death of Muḥammad ‘Alī, the Būlāq Press again became, from the 1860s onwards, the spearhead of a publishing explosion in Egypt. Between 1866 and 1872 it was thoroughly modernised, with new type-founding equipment and mechanised presses imported from Paris, and greatly improved type-faces. By the end of the century it had published more than 1600 titles, representing about 20% of total Egyptian book production.

As the first press in the Arab world to produce Arabic (and Turkish) books for Muslims, the Būlāq Press occupies a crucial place in Arabic and Muslim book history. While some of its early output achieved only a very limited circulation, it nevertheless established printing for the first time as a normal method of producing and diffusing texts. First technical and educational, later historical, literary and religious works became available to educated people on an unprecedented scale, despite initial resistance. This in turn helped to create a new reading public and a new public sphere. The influence of the Būlāq Press was not confined to Egypt. Its books were exported to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and other Muslim countries, and stimulated the establishment or revival of printing far beyond the Nile valley.

In the first half of the 19th century, many Arabic books were imported into the Middle East by Christian missionaries. Most of these were printed at a British-run press in Malta between 1825 and 1842, and they included secular educational works as well as religious tracts. The types were at first brought from England, but in the 1830s a new fount was cut and cast locally from calligraphic models. These set new standards among the Arab (including Muslim, as well as Christian and Jewish) pupils who used them, and the activity was later continued by the American mission press in Beirut. This introduced a new type-face in the late 1840s, again based on calligraphic models: known as "American Arabic", it was also used by several other presses in the Arab world. A more orthodox, but clear and workmanlike face, based on Turkish models, was adopted by the press of the Jesuit mission in Beirut about 1870, and also became very popular throughout the Levant.

Other Catholic mission presses inaugurated Arabic printing in Jerusalem in 1847 and in Mosul in 1856: in both cases their first type-founts were brought from Europe. The first press in Iraq had, however, operated in Baghdad in 1830, using a fount similar to those of the first Persian ones in Iran, established at Tabriz ca.1817 and Tehran ca.1823: an elegant Persian-style naskh. Nasta`līq typography was not and has never been favoured in Iran, despite the prevalence of this style in the scribal tradition (including lithography). It was, however, adopted in India as early as 1778 and remained in use there, both for Persian and for Urdu, until the mid-19th century; it was later revived in Hyderabad.

In the Middle East, Arabic typography burgeoned from the mid-19th century onwards, with presses starting in Damascus in 1855, Tunis in 1860, Ṣan‘ā’ in 1877, Khartoum in 1881, Mecca in 1883 and Medina in 1885. Most of these used local types in the Istanbul and Būlāq traditions, and many of them produced newspapers as well as books.

Since the late 1820s, however, many books had been printed not from type but by a hybrid method of book production: lithography. This was favoured especially in Morocco, Iran, Central, South and Southeast Asia: in those areas it almost completely displaced typography for almost half a century. This phenomenon in Muslim printing history has no counterpart in earlier European experience. Whereas in Europe lithography was used almost entirely for pictorial and cartographic illustration, Muslims used it to reproduce entire texts written by hand. In this way they could retain most of the familiar features of Islamic manuscripts, and the calligraphic integrity of the Arabic script, including some styles difficult to reproduce typographically. At the same time, they could also avoid expensive investments in movable types. But this meant that some of the conscious and subliminal effects of the standardisation of text presentation, and the emergence of a new print-induced esprit de système, as elucidated by Elizabeth Eisenstein in relation to early modern Europe, did not really apply to those societies where this method was prevalent. On the other hand, the cheapness and ready acceptability of books printed by this method meant that these texts – mainly traditional and classical ones – achieved a much wider dissemination. In this way lithography did much to further the “print revolution”. At their best, lithographed texts could rival well executed manuscripts of the period in beauty and clarity, sometimes with pictorial miniatures; but at their worst they could degenerate into barely legible grey scrawls.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a revival of Arabic typography in the Middle East, with considerable improvements in type-faces, especially in Egypt, where the new type-faces of Dār al-Ma‘ārif, and of the Būlāq Press itself from 1902 onwards, set higher standards of clarity and elegance. Later, the introduction of Linotype "hot-metal" machines further simplified the setting of Arabic-script texts, while inevitably moving further away from traditional calligraphy and book-hands.

Apart from type-styles, other features of the early Muslim printed book should be noted. As with earlier European incunabula, the tendency at first was to imitate manuscript styles and layouts. Words and lines were set closely, paragraphs and punctuation were lacking, the main type-area was often surrounded by rules, and glosses or even complete commentaries appeared in the margins. Red ink was sometimes used for headings or key-words, following the scribal practice of rubrication. Traditional tapered colophons were common. Title-pages were often lacking, but the verso of the first leaf was commonly commenced by a decorative ‘unwān (head-piece), often containing the title and/or basmala. The earliest were engraved on wood, but later elaborate designs were constructed from fleurons and other single-type ornaments, following a European printing practice whose aesthetic origins themselves lay in the infinitely repeatable geometric and foliate patterns of Islamic art. In the late 19th century some elaborate pseudo-Oriental designs were used for head-pieces and borders, especially in Ottoman Turkey, perhaps reflecting a European rather than an indigenous taste; and later still other European artistic influences, such as Art Nouveau, can be detected in decoration and page-design. By this time European norms — title-pages, paragraphing, running heads, etc. — had begun to dominate Muslim book-production.

Punctuation was another such modern feature. In Muslim manuscripts it was rudimentary, and it remained so in printed texts until the end of the 19th century, in spite of an abortive attempt in the 1830s by the celebrated Arab writer Fāris al-Shidyāq (1805-1887) to introduce the full European system. That was not widely adopted in Arabic until the 20th century.

Fāris al-Shidyāq’s Istanbul press (the Jawā’ib Press) did introduce other significant improvements to Arabic book design in the 1870s and 1880s. It largely abandoned the marginal commentaries and glosses with which earlier books were often festooned. In some cases running heads were introduced, repeating the title or number of the chapter or section at the top of each page as an aid to those referring to the book. They nearly all have title-pages, setting out clearly and systematically not only the title itself, but also the name of the author, the name of the press, the place and date of publication and whether it is a first or later edition. This practice, as Eisenstein has pointed out, engendered "new habits of placing and dating", as well as helping the subsequent development of more precise cataloguing and enumerative bibliography. Another new feature of the print era to be found in most publications of this period is a table of contents, with page-numbers, likewise enabling the reader to make more systematic use of the book.

Page layouts at the Jawā’ib Press also set new standards, being generally more spacious and easier on the eye than most ordinary manuscripts or earlier printed books from the Muslim world. Margins were reasonably wide, and, as already mentioned, unencumbered by glosses or commentaries. The spacing between words tended also to be more generous, leaving a better overall ratio between black and white than on most pages of ordinary manuscripts or in Būlāq or early Turkish printed books. These features made them easier to read and therefore more accessible to a wider public. They eventually became normal in 20th-century Arabic book design.

The character of the Arabic script itself was remarkably unaffected by its use in printed books. Because it was regarded by Muslims as literally sacred, the self-imposed task of typographers was nearly always to reproduce its calligraphic qualities as faithfully as possible. This involved the creation of large founts containing all the letter forms and combinations. Confronted with the difficulties and expense which this imposed, Arab typographers towards the end of the 19th century began to introduce some simplifications, while for the most part successfully retaining full legibility and a degree of elegance. But the Arabic script, unlike the roman, never really acquired separate typographic norms, either aesthetic or practical, which could permit a decisive breach with its scribal past. Some radical innovators in the 19th and 20th centuries did produce schemes to reform the alphabet by creating entirely discrete "printed" letters, but there was never any serious prospect of their acceptance.

 The Image in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Illustrations in Muslim printed books, until the introduction of modern half-tone techniques at the end of the 19th century, can be divided into two categories. Firstly, woodcuts and engraved or lithographed plates were used in typographic books, mainly for maps, diagrams and didactic or technical illustrations. These were sometimes found in Arabic manuscripts; but, before the printing press, the transmission of technical data in the form of diagrams always depended upon the accuracy of scribes, who often regarded them as little more than exotic appendages, frequently misplaced them and sometimes omitted them altogether. With the introduction of standard, repeatable, engraved diagrams incorporated into printed books, the presentation of such information became transformed.

The second category of illustration consisted of pictures introduced into the texts of lithographed books. They are a notable feature of Persian lithographed books of the 19th century, where they usually accompany literary texts from an earlier period. Although they are broadly in the style of manuscript miniatures, it has been observed that they belong more in the domain of popular art than in that of the high court culture to which illustrated manuscripts belonged. They also sometimes feature modern subject matter. A notable example is a depiction, in a work of classical Persian poetry printed in Tehran in 1847, of the process of lithographic printing itself. In an Uzbek lithographed text of 1913 we find a miniature showing a gramophone of the period.

Both kinds of illustration, by reproducing pictorial elements in a standard, repeatable form for a much wider readership than that of illustrated manuscripts, helped to transform visual and artistic awareness among educated Muslims of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 1979 the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein published her seminal study of the effect of printing in early modern Europe, entitled The printing press as an agent of change. As her title suggests, she assigned a crucial role to print in the development of modernity. This has caused some other historians to accuse her of fallacious technological determinism – not least because of the different experience of non-European societies such as those of the Muslim world, where printing did not bring about such change in the same period.

This is, perhaps, a sterile argument. It is a question of causes versus consequences, the classic conundrum of the chicken and the egg. Did Gutenberg’s invention in the 15th century bring about the ensuing cultural and intellectual changes? Or did Europe’s cultural readiness for those changes lead to the invention, and its widespread adoption? Rather than endlessly debating such enigmas, it makes more sense to regard them as reciprocal effects, or as a continuum of cause and effect. The same applies in the Muslim world: the timing and circumstances of the arrival there of the printing press were of course contingent on the interrelationship of cultural patterns and outside stimuli. But once it had arrived, its effects came into operation, although not necessarily in quite the same way, or at the same rate, as they had previously done in Europe.

When considering these effects, Eisenstein’s analytical framework is valuable and useful. She identified three principal changes, or clusters of changes, associated with the use of printing. The first is the increased dissemination of texts. This is a fairly obvious point, but it is surprisingly often overlooked. Already in the 18th century, Müteferrika’s press in Istanbul, in the twenty or so years of its existence, produced ten or eleven thousand books, and, contrary to what is sometimes asserted, the great majority of them were sold and reached local readers. After the print revolution reached the Arab world in the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of copies of old and new texts came into the hands of readers on a scale well beyond what had ever been achieved in the manuscript era. This both stimulated, and was stimulated by, the growth of education and literacy in that period.

The proliferation of printed books also enabled them to cross borders to an unprecedented extent. Not only was there an international trade in Arabic books, for example, both within the Ottoman sphere and beyond, but printing greatly increased the viability of translations and the demand for them. There was therefore a new spread of ideas from outside the Muslim world, and an increased possibility of "cognitive contamination" of the ideas and belief systems of what had been previously a relatively enclosed and inward-looking intellectual arena. This in turn gave rise to the idea of knowledge as a boundless and infinitely extendable, rather than a circumscribed, domain.

The trajectory of all this, however, was not only in the direction of humanism and liberalism. Printing was also used to increase the circulation of traditional texts and old ideas, including narrow doctrinal and dogmatic ones, which were also brought to a new mass readership. This tended towards a new fundamentalism, partly in reaction against the modernising tendencies already mentioned.

 Printing the Qur’ān

Apart from short extracts used in medieval block-printed amulets, the Arabic text of the Qur’ān was not printed until the 1530s, when a somewhat inaccurate and defective version was published by Christians in Venice. Subsequent complete editions appeared in Hamburg (1694), Padua (1698) and St Petersburg (1787). In the Muslim world itself, however, printing the sacred text remained firmly off the agenda until the 1820s or -30s, when the first editions came out in Iran. The earliest of these may have been typeset (reliable bibliographical information is not readily available), but it was the advent of lithography that gave the impetus to Qur’ān printing, since it enabled the all-important manuscript conventions and ethos to be maintained.

A further incentive was also provided by another European non-Muslim edition, greatly superior to its predecessors, edited by the German Orientalist Gustav Flügel and first published by Tauchnitz in Leipzig in 1834. This for the first time provided a convenient and affordable text that was reasonably authentic. It was stereotyped and issued in several subsequent editions, and achieved a considerable circulation, even reaching the Muslim world. However, the verse numbering and some other aspects of this version were not in accordance with orthodox Islamic practice, so there remained a clear need for further Muslim editions. This was partly met by more lithographed versions in Iran, India and Turkey.

In Egypt there was tension between conservatives who abhorred the idea of profaning God’s words with movable types and more progressive religious educators who wanted to place a copy of the Qur’ān, if not in the hands of every Muslim, then at least of every college pupil. Some attempts were made to publish the text in the 1830s but the distribution of copies was successfully blocked by the religious authorities. Later, in the 1850s, some were distributed, but only after each individual copy had been read by a Qur’anic scholar and checked for errors, at great expense. From the 1860s onwards the Būlāq and other Egyptian presses did print more Qur’āns, but generally embedded in the texts of well-known commentaries.

In Istanbul the Ottoman calligrapher and court chamberlain Osman Zeki Bey (d.1888) started printing Qur’āns, using new lithographic equipment, capable of unprecedentedly high-quality output, to reproduce classic calligraphy. For this he had the express permission of the Sultan-Caliph. These editions gained a wide popularity in Turkey and elsewhere. This press also used photolithography, which enabled them to print miniature Qur’āns, small enough to be carried in a locket – no other technique could do this. The Glasgow firm of David Bryce, which specialised in miniature books, produced a rival version around 1900, and Muslim troops on both sides in the First World War carried these amuletic miniatures into battle.

By the early 20th century, now that reluctance to accept printed Qur’āns had largely been overcome, the need was felt for a new authoritative version, which would do full justice to the demands of traditional Islamic scholarship. This was eventually produced by scholars at Al-Azhar in Cairo, and published in 1924. It was meticulously executed in conformity with orthographic and calligraphic norms. This Cairo Qur’ān quickly established its authority, and was followed by a host of further printed editions reproducing it or based upon it.

The ready availability of cheap copies of a standard authorised version of the Qur’ān transformed the attitude of many Muslims to the sacred text, and the uses to which they put it. Its function ceased to be primarily ritual and liturgical, and it came to be regarded as a direct source, not necessarily mediated by scholarly interpretation and authority, of guidance in human affairs. Some of its new readers adopted fundamentalist attitudes to Qur’anic doctrine, with considerable consequences in the social and political spheres; whereas others progressively abandoned traditional interpretations in favour of their own reconciliations of Qur’anic ethics with modern life and politics.

The second of Eisenstein’s clusters of changes is the standardisation of texts and their presentation through typography. Although the use of lithography in some areas bypassed the process, typographic standardisation did affect most texts published in Turkey and the Arab world.

This affected the content of the texts themselves. Although many early editions were not based on thorough editing processes, eventually the practice grew of collating different manuscripts and establishing authoritative editions of classical texts in a manner quite different from the copying which took place in the scribal era. In new texts, there was also a re-standardisation of the Arabic language. The development of written vernacular texts which had taken place in the preceding centuries was largely halted. What was regarded as rakāka – feeble and insipid style – was also rejected and classical norms were reimposed in response to the challenge of creating printed texts aimed at a large educated readership. At the same time, in original writing, a new simplicity and directness was adopted, and there was a decline in what has been called the "magic garden" mentality of obscure literary verbiage.

After an initial period when, as with Gutenberg, printed books imitated the appearance of manuscripts, texts were also eventually made clearer and more readable by more spacious book designs and page layouts, the use of title and contents pages, and the elimination of marginal glosses and commentaries. This created a new "esprit de système", as Eisenstein calls it, which undoubtedly changed reading habits and catered for new classes of readers, as well as engendering different approaches to accessing knowledge.

Eisenstein’s third "cluster of changes" concerns printing’s rôle in the preservation of texts. Large numbers of Islamic manuscripts, and the texts which they contained, have perished down the ages, through both neglect and malicious destruction. But once texts were printed in thousands of copies, the likelihood of their loss was, if not eliminated, then at at least greatly reduced. Even texts which were not lost, but survived in only one or a few copies, could thereby be restored to a wide readership which had no access to them previously.

This also meant that the time and energies of the literate and scholarly classes could be redirected to new avenues of thought, research and creative writing, instead of copying the old texts which could now be consulted in printed editions. Such new literature and thought could also be made widely available, and preserved for posterity.

The new availability of classical Arabic literature in printed editions in the nineteenth century, together with the diffusion of new writing, almost certainly helped to create the new self-awareness and perhaps even national consciousness which gave rise to the Arab renaissance of that period, which is called the Nahḍa. This was also promoted by a new form of textuality which had not existed, or had appeared only in a rudimentary form, in the manuscript era: periodicals and newspapers. Similar changes occurred in Turkey, Iran and other areas of the Muslim world.


 Select bibliography

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‘Affāṣ (Bihnām Faḍīl) Tārīkh al-ṭibā‘a wa-’l-maṭbū‘āt al-‘Irāqīya [History of Iraqi printing and printed publications], Baghdad, 1985.
Albin (M.W.), “An essay on early printing in the Islamic lands with special relation to Egypt”, in Mélanges de l’Institut Dominicain d’Études Orientales du Caire (MIDEO), 18, 1988, p. 335-344.
Avakian (H.A.), “Islam and the art of printing”, in Uit bibliotheektuin en informatieveld, Utrecht, 1978, p. 256-269.
‘Azab (Khālid) & Manṣūr (Aḥmad), Al-kitāb al-‘Arabī al-maṭbū‘, min al-judhūr ilá Maṭba‘at Būlāq [The Arabic printed book, from its roots to the Būlāq Press], Cairo, 2008.
Bābāzādah (Shahlā), Tārīkh-i chāp dar Īrān [History of printing in Iran], Tehran, 1999.
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How to cite:
Geoffrey Roper, «Arabic printing : printing Culture in the Islamic context », in Houari Touati (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Humanism, Spring 2014, URL =