You are here:

The History of the Arabic Book

Course tutorsDr Omar Anchassi and Dr Fozia Bora 

This course introduces students to the genealogy of the book in Arabic, charting the transition from an oral/aural culture with a very rudimentary written tradition (using various media), to a broad and multifaceted manuscript culture, through the transition to print, and to modern books in physical and digital formats. The course explores the many meanings of “book” in premodern Arabic contexts, focusing on key transitional moments: the development of the Arabic script, the earliest genres of writing (including poetry and the “Battle-days of the Arabs”), and the creation of the first Arabic book: the canonical Qurʾānic text. We explore how and why writerly practices developed from successful oral modes of recording and communication. Tracing early manuscripts and writing in various recognisable genres  belletristic, historical, administrative, devotional – we focus on the development of a sophisticated scribal culture. Further key developments covered include the popularity of compendia/collections and the phenomena of abridgment and commentary in the post-classical period (esp. thirteenth to nineteenth century). The embrace and impact of the printing press is another key transition, followed by the dramatic transformation of modes of publication and reading in the contemporary era of book making and book reading, particularly the rise of a reading public. Last but not least we explore the material history of writing media, from stones, animal bones, parchment and papyri to paper and, eventually, digital formats.  

Recommended Introductory Reading 

  • Doris Behrens-AbouseifThe Book in Mamluk Egypt and Syria (1250-1517): Scribes, Libraries and Market (Leiden: Brill, 2018). 
  • Jonathan M. Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). 
  • Beatrice GruendlerThe Rise of the Arabic Book (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020). 
  • Johannes Pedersen, The Arabic Book, trans. Geoffrey French (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984). 
  • Gregor SchoelerThe Genesis of Literature in Islam: From the Aural to the Readed. and trans. Shawkat M. Toorawa (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009). 
  • Ahmed El Shamsy, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020). 


Further Reading 

  • The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, 6 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983-2006). 
  • Nabia Abbott, Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri, 3 vols. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957-72). 
  • George N. Atiyeh ed., The Book in the Islamic World: The Written Word and Communication in the Middle East (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995). 
  • Ami Ayalon, The Arabic Print Revolution: Cultural Production and Mass Readership (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). 
  • --. The Press in the Arab Middle East: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). 
  • Joel BlecherSaid the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary Across a Millennium (Berkeley: California University Press, 2017). 
  • Richard Bulliet, “Medieval Arabic Ṭarsh: A Forgotten Chapter in the History of Printing,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 107 (1987), 427-38. 
  • Michael Cook, “The Opponents of the Writing of Tradition in Early Islam,” Arabica 44 (1997), 437-530. 
  • Francois Deroche, Islamic Codicology: An Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script (London: al-Furqan Heritage Foundation, 2005). 
  • Adam GacekArabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers (Leiden: Brill, 2009). 
  • --. The Arabic Manuscript Tradition: A Glossary of Technical Terms and Bibliography (Leiden: Brill, 2001). 
  • Nelly Hanna, In Praise of Books: A Cultural History of Cairo’s Middle Class, Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003). 
  • Konrad HirschlerA Monument to Medieval Syrian Book Culture: The Library of Ibn Abd al-Hādī (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019). 
  • --. The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands: A Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012). 
  • Matthew B. Ingalls, The Anonymity of a Commentator:  Zakariyyā al-Anṣārī and the Rhetoric of Muslim Commentaries (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2021). 
  • Adeeb Khalid, “Printing, Publishing, and Reform in Tsarist Central Asia,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 26 (1994), 187-200. 
  • Tarif KhalidiImages of Muhammad: The Evolution of Portrayals of the Prophet in Islam Across the Centuries (New York: Doubleday, 2009). 
  • --. Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). 
  • Ahmad Khan, “Islamic Tradition in an Age of Print: Editing, Printing and Publishing the Classical Tradition,” in Reclaiming Islamic Tradition: Modern Interpretations of the Classical Heritage, ed. Elisabeth Kendall and Ahmad Khan (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 52-99. 
  • Anya H. King, “Gilding Textiles and Printing Blocks in Tenth-Century Egypt,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 140 (2020), 455-65. 
  • Barbara D. Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982). 
  • Muhsin J. MusawiThe Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015). 
  • Francis Robinson, “Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print,” Modern Asian Studies 27 (1993), 229-51. 
  • Geoffrey Roper ed., The History of the Book in the Middle East (London: Routledge, 2013). 
  • Orlin SabevWaiting for Müteferrika: Glimpses of Ottoman Print Culture (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2018). 
  • Dana Sajdi, “Print and Its Discontents: A Case for Pre-Print Journalism and Other Sundry Print Matters,” The Translator 15 (2009), 105-38. 
  • Gregor SchoelerThe Oral and the Written in Early Islam, trans. Uwe Vagelpohl (Oxford: Routledge, 2006). 
  • Kathryn A. Schwartz, “The Political Economy of Private Printing in Cairo as Told from a Commissioning Deal Turned Sour, 1871,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 49 (2017), 25-45.  
  • Zoltan Szombathy, “The Concept of Intellectual Property in Mediaeval Muslim Literary Culture,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 45 (2018), 1-36. 
  • --. “Freedom of Expression and Censorship in Medieval Arabic Literature,” Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 7 (2007), 1-24. 
  • Shawkat M. Toorawa, Ibn Abī Ṭāhir Ṭayfūr and Arabic Writerly Culture: A Ninth-Century Bookman in Baghdad (Oxford: Routledge, 2010). 
  • Muhammad Qasim Zaman, “Commentaries, Print and Patronage: Ḥadīth and the Madrasas in Modern South Asian Islam,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 62 (1999), 60-81.