Islamic Studies Papyrus, Parchment, and Paper in Islamic Studies
Jonathan Bloom
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0265


Islamic civilization has had an intimate relationship with writing from its very origins. Although Muslim tradition holds that the angel Jibra’il (Gabriel) orally revealed the Qurʾan to Muhammad in the early 7th century, and orality and oral transmission remained central features of Islamic civilization, the first verses revealed to the Prophet are said to have been “Recite, recite in the name of thy Lord, Who . . . taught man by the pen what he knew not” (Q. 96). Within the Prophet’s lifetime, individual verses or groups of verses were transcribed onto whatever media were available—ranging from flat bones to sheets of leather and papyrus—and soon after Muhammad’s death in 632, Muslim tradition records that his successors had all the revelations transcribed onto parchment sheets for preservation—the first manuscripts of the Qurʾan. By the 10th century, Muslim libraries from Iran to Spain contained thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of books, made possible by the ready availability and relative affordability of paper, which Muslims had encountered in Central Asia. The use of paper encouraged the development of new styles of calligraphy as well as new types of bookbindings. Christians in Spain and Italy eventually learned about paper from Muslims, and they began making it themselves in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the availability of paper in 15th-century Germany was undoubtedly one of the factors in the ultimate success of Gutenberg’s print revolution.

General Works

The study of the history of the book in general (codicology) is a relatively new field, but several recent works, particularly in French, deal with general questions of the Islamic/Arabic/Persian book, including its origins, development, materials, techniques, scripts, decoration, and so on.

  • Arabic Papyrology Database.

    An online tool giving access to over 11,000 Arabic documents written on papyrus, parchment, and paper, from the 7th century to the 16th. Meant not only for papyrologists, but also for linguists and historians interested in primary documents.

  • Bartlett, John, David Wasserstein, and David James, eds. The Role of the Book in the Civilisations of the Near East: Proceedings of the Conference Held at the Royal Irish Academy and the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, 29 June–1 July 1988. Manuscripts of the Middle East 5. Leiden, The Netherlands: Ter Lugt Press, 1990–1991.

    The proceedings of a conference held at the Royal Irish Academy and the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin in 1988.

  • Blair, Sheila, and Jonathan Bloom, eds. By the Pen and What They Write: Writing in Islamic Art and Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.

    The proceedings of a 2015 symposium devoted to writing in Islamic art and culture, with chapters by noted experts on a variety of subjects, ranging from the origins of the Arabic script to contemporary calligraphy.

  • Déroche, François, and Francis Richard, eds. Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 1997.

    The state of research in the 1990s through a score of chapters covering the materials of the book, copyists and scripts, the transmission of texts, and libraries and their history, by noted experts in the field.

  • Déroche, François. Le livre manuscrit arabe: Préludes à une historie. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 2004.

    Four lectures on the Arabic book, including the Qurʾan, the development of other types of books, the Maghribi script, and the illumination of manuscripts.

  • Déroche, François, Annie Berthier, Marie-Geneviève Guesdon, et al. Islamic Codicology, an Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script. Edited by Muhammad Isa Waley. Translated by Duke Dusinberre and David Radzinowicz. London: Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 2005.

    A fundamental handbook with important chapters by a range of scholars on many aspects of the Islamic book.

  • Dutton, Yasin, ed. The Codicology of Islamic Manuscripts, Proceedings of the Second Conference of al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 4–5 December 1993. London: Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 1995.

    Partial proceedings of an international gathering to discuss the codicology, or the physical nature, of the book in the Islamic lands.

  • Gacek, Adam. The Arabic Manuscript Tradition: A Glossary of Technical Terms and Bibliography—Supplement. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 1: The Near and Middle East 95. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004165403.i-304

    An expanded version of Gacek’s 2001 book, The Arabic Manuscript Tradition, listing Arabic terms concerning manuscripts in Arabic script and definitions, along with a bibliography of relevant books and articles.

  • Gacek, Adam. Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 1: The Near and Middle East 98. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004170360.i-350

    An extremely useful handbook designed for researchers and students mystified or intimidated by the arcane aspects of studying handwritten books in Arabic scripts. Generously illustrated with examples.

  • Guesdon, Marie-Geneviève, and Annie Vernay-Nouri, eds. L’art du livre arabe: Du manuscrit au livre d’artiste. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 2001.

    Beautifully illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of all aspects of the Arabic book.

  • Pedersen, Johannes. The Arabic Book. Introduction by Robert Hillenbrand; translated by Geoffrey French. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400856374

    A readable translation of a classic work on the subject, originally written in Danish.

  • Richard, Francis. Le livre persan. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 2003.

    DOI: 10.4000/books.editionsbnf.2457

    Four lectures on various aspects of the collection of Persian books in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

  • University of Michigan Libraries Islamic Manuscript Studies Research Guide.

    A comprehensive guide to the literature on all facets of the study of Islamic manuscripts.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.