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Printing Presses 24 September 2006

Posted by EDITOR in GUESTS, History.

Our guest contributor this week is Imam Suheil Laher, a Boston-based religious scholar and Muslim chaplain at MIT.

While it does seem that printing took longer to come to prominence in the Muslim world, I am not convinced that this was largely because of its suppression by Muslim scholars.

Indeed, it appears that Jews and Christians were operating printing presses in the Muslim world since the 15th century, and the `ulama’ would surely have more objection to the proliferation of non-Muslim religious texts (which these presses often produced) than to the printing of Muslim books. We are even told that “[i]n 1587 two Italian merchants actually received a firman – a royal permit-from the Ottoman Sultan Murad III authorizing them to export Arabic books to the Ottoman Empire.”

It seems that the craft of printing remained a monopoly of the minorities, for whatever cultural, historical or other reasons, until the 18th century, when `AbdAllah Zakhir set up his printing press in Istanbul. Ibrahim Muteferrika submitted a petition to Sultan Ahmed III, who passed it on to his Mufti AbdAllah for him to issue a fatwa. The Mufti endorsed the introduction of printing, albeit with some stipulations, and this fatwa was issued in 1726. Printing thus started its ascent in the Muslim world, and despite a lull with Muteferrika’s death in 1745, it resumed in 1783, “this time to stay.”

Printing’s advance was however slower in the Ottoman empire than elsewhere in the Muslim world. Robinson, in his article, notes that printing developed much faster among Muslims in Tsarist Russia and South Asia, for instance, in both of which areas Muslims were minorities, and found in printing a powerful ally for their own survival.

Was the momentum of printing in the Muslim-majority Ottoman Empire impeded by a scholarly monopoly on religious knowledge? I am wary of oversimplifying this issue. On the one hand, it is true that prior to the advent of the printing press, religious knowledge was transmitted in the traditional manner, of which the oral component was important, and that a proliferation of printed media threatened the survival of the latter. Yet, we should note that in many (if not all) other forms of (secular) knowledge had also hitherto been transmitted in a similar manner, and many of these fields had their own guilds and associations which would undoubtedly have exerted what pressure they could to sustain the traditional ways. It is quite possible that the `ulama’ did have some reservations on this count too, but if so, we should assume that they were motivated by a desire to protect the religion rather than by personal ambition. Indeed, a fatwa is not legally binding on anyone (unlike a court verdict), and Muslim traditional scholarship is arguably non-centralized. In fact, Robinson posits that printing also enabled the `ulama’ to extend their influence in public affairs. That is not to say, of course, that the entire corpus of traditional knowledge was (or is) flawless, but I think we’d all agree that there exists a core of important beliefs and practices that must be safeguarded.

It is telling that the proliferation of printing in South Asia in the 19th century spawned a crisis of sectarianism, in which “group after group sprung up,” including Bareilvis, Deobandis, modernists and even Qadianis / Ahmadis. In the words of Akbar Ahmed, as cited by Robinson once more: ‘Today, noone knows who speaks for Islam”. This observation might be seen as positive in some senses, negative in others. But in general, the proliferation of print must be seen as a double-edged sword. With it, knowledge becomes “less warm, less personal, less immediate and more cold,” even if, at the same time, it arguably becomes “more abstract and more intellectual.” (How positive these last two adjectives are is itself open to debate.)

1. Saudi Aramco World
2. Francis Robinson, Journal of Modern Asian Studies, Feb ’93
3. For more on the traditional, personal method of learning, check here



1. Irving - 24 September 2006

A fascinating article and very interesting testament to the power and fault of printing. With each invention, we lose some part of a personal realtionship with the seemingly simpler past.

Ya Haqq!

And Ramadan Mubarak!

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