Muslim Printing Before Gutenberg
By Geoffrey Roper*
Dr Geoffrey Roper is an international bibliographical and library consultant, working with the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations in London and other scholarly bodies. Educated at the University of Durham and the American University in Cairo, he was from 1982 to 2003 head of the Islamic Bibliography Unit at the University of Cambridge and editor of Index Islamicus, the major current comprehensive bibliography and search tool for publications on all aspects of Islam and the Muslim world. He has also been editor of Al-Furqan Foundation's World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts, Chairman of the Middle East Libraries Committee (MELCOM-UK) and contributor to various reference works. He has researched, written and lectured extensively on bibliography and the history of printing and publishing in the Muslim world, and has curated exhibitions on the subject at Cambridge University Library and the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. He is currently an Associate Editor of the forthcoming Oxford Companion to the Book. For a comprehensive list of his publications, see below at the end of this article.
Figure 2: Document T-S Ar 20.1. Copyright of Cambridge University Library (Source).
The 15th-century German craftsman Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz is often credited with inventing the art and craft of printing. There is no doubt that this brought about a tremendous revolution in human communication and accumulation of knowledge, but was it really "invented" in 15th-century Europe?
Gutenberg does seem to have been the first to devise a printing press, but printing itself, that is, making multiple copies of a text by transferring it from one raised surface to other portable surfaces (especially paper) is much older. The Chinese were doing it as early as the 4th century, and the oldest dated printed text known to us is from 868: the Diamond Sutra, a Chinese translation of a Buddhist text now preserved in the British Library .
Figure 3: Front cover of the catalogue of the exhibition From manuscript to printed book in the Islamic world (Toronto: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, 1989).
What is much less well known is that, little more than 100 years later, Arab Muslims were also printing texts, including passages from the Qur'an. They had already embraced the Chinese craft of paper making, developed it and adopted it widely in the Muslim lands . This led to a major growth in the production of manuscript texts. But there was one kind of text which lent itself particularly to mass distribution: this was the private devotional collection of prayers, incantations, Qur'anic extracts and the "beautiful names" of God, for which there was a huge demand among Muslims, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. They were used especially as amulets, to be worn on the person, often rolled up and enclosed in a locket.
So in Fatimid Egypt, the technique was adopted of printing these texts on paper strips, and supplying them in multiple copies to meet the mass demand. Several have been found by archaeologists in the course of excavations at Fustat (old Cairo), and the archaeological context has made it possible to date them to the 10th century. Other examples have come from various sites in Egypt, where the dry climate has helped to preserve them. The style of Arabic script used varies between late Kufic and different cursive naskh and other styles used in the Mamluk period (13th-16th centuries). One good late example is printed on Italian watermarked paper of the 15th century. So Muslim printing continued for about 500 years. We do not know whether it may have influenced the eventual adoption of printing in Europe: there is no evidence, but the possibility cannot be ruled out, especially as the earliest European examples were block-prints. It has even been suggested that the Italian word tarocchi, meaning tarot cards (which were among the earliest block-printed artefacts in Europe), may have derived from the Arabic tarsh (see below). But this is a highly speculative theory, and more evidence will be needed before it can be accepted.
Figure 4: Arabic blockprint in the Madina Collection. Document M.2002.1.370. Los Angeles Museum of Art, The Madina Collection of Islamic Art, gift of Camilla Chandler Frost. Copyright of Los Angeles County Museum of Arts. Reproduced from Richard W. Bulliet, "Medieval Arabic tarsh: a forgotten chapter in the history of Arabic printing", Journal of the American Oriental Society 107 (1987), p. 437.
Some of these printed documents display quite sophisticated designs involving calligraphic headpieces, transverse lettering, geometric panels, roundels, and the use of colour. There is also a great variety of script styles.
Nearly 60 examples of these Arabic printed pieces survive in European and American libraries and museums, and an unknown number in Egypt itself. One example, in private hands, may have been produced in Afghanistan, or Iran, where it is known from historical sources that paper money was also printed in the Mongol period. There are very few historical or literary references, however, to the production of printed texts: only two allusions in Arabic poems of the 10th and 14th centuries to the use of tarsh to produce copies of amulets. It has been suggested that this non-classical Arabic term signified tin plates with engraved or repoussé lettering, from which printed impressions were made. But it is also possible that Chinese-style wood-blocks were used. The exact techniques are still in doubt.
What is not in doubt is that Muslims were practising the craft of printing for some five centuries before Gutenberg.
Figure 5: Front cover of Middle Eastern languages and the print revolution: a cross-cultural encounter (Sprachen des Nahen Ostens und die Druckrevolution: eine interkulturelle Begegnung.) Gutenberg Museum Mainz, Internationale Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. Westhofen 2002.
Figure 6: Front cover of Enigmatic charms: medieval Arabic block printed amulets in American and European libraries and museums by Karl Schaefer (Leiden: Brill, 2006).
ReferencesBloom, Jonathan M., Paper before print: the history and impact of paper in the Islamic world. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001; see especially pp. 218-219.Bulliet, Richard W., "Medieval Arabic tarsh: a forgotten chapter in the history of Arabic printing", Journal of the American Oriental Society 107 (1987), pp. 427-438.Carter, Thomas F., The invention of printing in China and its spread westward. Revised by L. Carrington Goodrich. New York: Ronald Press, 1955; see especially chapter 18.Depaulis, Thierry, "Documents imprimés de l'Egypte fatimide: un chapitre méconnu de l'histoire de l'imprimerie", Bulletin de la Société Archéologique, Historique et Artistique le Vieux Papier 35 / 349 (1998), pp. 133-136Fenton, Paul B., "Une xylographie arabe médiévale à la Bibliothéque Nationale et Universitaire de Strasbourg", Arabica 50 i (2003), pp. 114-117.Jahn, Karl, "Paper currency in Iran: a contribution to the cultural and economic history of Iran in the Mongol period", Journal of Asian History 4 (1970), pp. 101-135.Krek, Miroslav, "Arabic block printing as the precursor of printing in Europe: preliminary report", American Research Center in Egypt Newsletter
129 (1985), pp. 12-16.Levi Della Vida, Giorgio, "An Arabic block print", Scientific Monthly
59 (1944), pp. 473-474.Lunde, Paul, "A missing link", Aramco World Magazine 32 ii (1981), pp.26-27 (on block printed Arabic texts.)Schaefer, Karl, "Arabic printing before Gutenberg - block-printed Arabic amulets", Middle Eastern languages and the print revolution: a cross-cultural encounter. A catalogue and companion to the exhibition. Ed. Eva Hanebutt-Benz - Dagmar Glass - Geoffrey Roper in collaboration with Theo Smets / Gutenberg Museum Mainz, Internationale Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. Westhofen: WVA-Verlag Skulima, 2002, pp.123-128.Schaefer, Karl, "Eleven medieval Arabic block prints in the Cambridge University Library",Arabica 48 ii (2001), pp.210-239. Schaefer, Karl, "The Scheide tarsh. Princeton University Library Chronicle 56 iii (1995), pp.400-430.Schaefer, Karl, Enigmatic charms: medieval Arabic block printed amulets in American and European libraries and museums. Leiden: Brill, 2006 (Handbook of Oriental Studies, I/82).
Select list of publications by Dr Geoffrey Roper(With E.Hanebutt-Benz & D.Glaß, in collaboration with T.Smets): Middle Eastern languages and the print revolution: a cross-cultural encounter = Sprachen des Nahen Ostens und die Druckrevolution: eine interkulturelle Begegnung. Gutenberg Museum Mainz, Internationale Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. Westhofen 2002."Arabic printing: its history and significance". Ur, 1982 i, pp.23-30.
Arabic incunabula. L'Arabisant, 21 (1982), pp. 18-28."George Percy Badger (1815-1888)". British Society for Middle Eastern Studies Bulletin, 11 (1984), pp. 140-145."Bibliography of George Percy Badger (1815-88)". British Society for Middle Eastern Studies Bulletin, 11 (1984), pp. 145-155."Arabic printing and publishing in England before 1820". British Society for Middle Eastern Studies Bulletin, 12 (1985), pp. 12-32."The export of Arabic books from Europe to the Middle East in the 18th century". BRISMES: British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (in association with AFEMAM): Proceedings of the 1989 International Conference on Europe and the Middle East ... Durham ... 1989. Oxford 1989, pp. 226-233."National awareness, civic rights and the rôle of the printing press in the 19th century: the careers and opinions of Faris al-Shidyaq, his colleagues and patrons". Democracy in the Middle East: proceedings of the annual conference of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies ... 1992. St Andrews 1992, pp.180-188."Faris al-Shidyaq and the transition from scribal to print culture in the Middle East". The book in the Islamic world: the written word and communicationin the Middle East. Ed. G.N.Atiyeh. Albany (USA) 1995, pp. 283-292."Reference books". The Oxford Encyclopedia of the modern Islamic world. J.L.Esposito (ed.). Volume 3. New York 1995, pp. 415-420."Islamic art. III,8: Printing". The Dictionary of Art, vol. 16. London & New York 1996, pp. 359-363."Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (d. 1887) in Cambridge". Cambridge Bibliographical Society Newsletter, Summer 1996, pp.5-8."Turkish printing and publishing in Malta in the 1830s. (Imprimerie et publications turques à Malte dans les années 1830)". Turcica, 29 (1997) pp. 413-421."Printing and publishing". Encyclopedia of Arabic literature. Ed. J.S.Meisami & P.Starkey. London 1998, pp. 613-615."Persian printing and publishing in England in the 17th century". Iran and Iranian studies: essays in honor of Iraj Afshar. Ed. Kambiz Eslami. Princeton 1998, pp. 316-328."Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq and the libraries of Europe and the Ottoman Empire". Libraries & Culture, 33 iii (1998), pp. 233-248."Ahmad Fâris al-Shidyaq (ö.1887) ve Avrupa ve Osmanli imparatorlugu kütüphaneleri". Kütüphanecilik Dergisi, 5 (1998), pp. 111-130."Texts from nineteenth-century Egypt: the role of E.W. Lane". Travellers in Egypt. Ed. P.Starkey & J.Starkey. London 1998, pp. 244-254."The beginnings of Arabic printing by the ABCFM, 1822-1841". Harvard Library Bulletin, N.S.9 i / 1998 (1999), pp.50-68. (With J.Tait): "Coptic typography: a brief sketch = Koptische Typographie: eine kurze Skizze". Middle Eastern languages and the print revolution: a cross-cultural encounter = Sprachen des Nahen Ostens und die Druckrevolution: eine interkulturelle Begegnung. Ed. E.Hanebutt-Benz, D.Glaß, G.Roper / Gutenberg Museum Mainz, Internationale Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. Westhofen: Skulima, 2002, pp. 117-121."Early Arabic printing in Europe = Arabische Frühdruck in Europa". Middle Eastern languages and the print revolution: a cross-cultural encounter = Sprachen des Nahen Ostens und die Druckrevolution: eine interkulturelle Begegnung. Ed. E.Hanebutt-Benz, D.Glaß, G.Roper / Gutenberg Museum Mainz, Internationale Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. Westhofen: Skulima, 2002, pp. 129-150. (With D.Glaß): "Arabische Buchdruck in der arabischen Welt = The printing of Arabic books in the Arab world". Middle Eastern languages and the print revolution: a cross-cultural encounter = Sprachen des Nahen Ostens und die Druckrevolution: eine interkulturelle Begegnung. Ed. E.Hanebutt-Benz, D.Glaß, G.Roper / Gutenberg Museum Mainz, Internationale Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. Westhofen: Skulima, 2002, pp. 177-205."Faris al-Shidyaq wa-'l-intiqal min thaqafat al-naskh ila thaqafat al-tiba‘a fi al-sharq al-awsat". (Translated into Arabic by ‘Abd al-Sattar al-Halwaji) Al-Kitab fi al- ‘alam al-islami: al-kalima al-maktuba ka-wasila li‘l-ittisal fi mintaqat al-sharq al-awsat. Edited by George ‘Atiya, Kuwait: The National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature. (Series ‘Alam al-ma‘rifa, 297), pp. 189-209. ["Arabic translation of "Faris al-Shidyaq and the transition from scribal to print culture in the Middle East", 1995]."Christian Rassam (1808-72): translator, interpreter, diplomat and liar". Travellers in the Near East. Ed. Charles Foster. London: Stacey International, 2004, pp. 183-200."Badger, George Percy (1815-1888)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Vol.3, p.201. Online at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1021 [Subscription only]."Faris, Ahmad (Ahmad Faris; formerly Faris ibn Yusuf al-Shidyaq) (1805/6-1887)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Vol.19, pp.47-48. Online at: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/60819 [Subscription only]."Wright, William (1830-1889)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Vol.60, pp.506-507. Online at: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/30069 [Subscription only]."Arabic books printed in Malta 1826-42: some physical characteristics". History of printing and publishing in the languages and countries of the Middle East, ed. Philip Sadgrove. Oxford: Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of Manchester, 2004 (2005) (Journal of Semitic Studies, Supplement 15), pp. 111-129."Al-Jawa'ib Press and the edition and transmission of Arabic manuscript texts in the 19th century". Theoretical approaches to the transmission of Oriental manuscripts: proceedings of a symposium held in Istanbul, March 28-30, 2001, ed. Judith Pfeiffer, Manfred Kropp. Beirut: Orient-Institut; Würzburg: Ergon-Verlag, in Kommission, 2007 (Beiruter Texte und Studien, 111), pp. 237-247"The printing press and change in the Arab world". Agent of change: print cultural studies after Elizabeth Eisenstein. Ed. Sabrina Alcorn Baron, Eric N. Lindquist & Eleanor F. Shevlin. Amherst & Boston: University of Massachussetts Press, in association with the Center for the Book, Library of Congress, 2007, pp. 250-267.
 See "Diamond Sutra (868)".
 See FSTC (10 January, 2003), "The Beginning of the Paper Industry".
* Dr Geoffrey Roper is an international bibliographical and library consultant, working with the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations in London and other scholarly bodies. He is currently an Associate Editor of the forthcoming Oxford Companion to the Book.
by: FSTC, Wed 28 May, 2008