In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section On the History of the Book in Islamic Studies

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Codicology
  • Paleography
  • Illuminated Manuscripts and Illustrated Books
  • History of Manuscripts and Books
  • Qurʾan and Qurʾanic Manuscripts
  • Arabic Versions of the Bible
  • The Book in Islamic Culture
  • Public and Private Libraries
  • Medieval Arabic Block Printing and Early Printed Books in Europe
  • History of Printing in the Islamic Lands
  • Conservation and Digitization
  • Journals
  • Digital Resources

Islamic Studies On the History of the Book in Islamic Studies
Arianna D’Ottone Rambach
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0266


The book is a complex object. In addition to being a copy of a text (Ar. nuskha), a manuscript is a handcrafted object (Ar. maṣnū‘), and a printed book involves more or less sophisticated technical devices. The book has a central role in Islamic civilization, especially considering the special status of the Qurʾan, the first book in the Arabic language and Arabic script, as well as the sacred book of Islam. Moreover, this special status of the (sacred) book in Islamic culture is mirrored by the category of the ahl al-kitāb (People of the Book), referring to Muslim, Christians, and Jews, with their respective scriptures. In Islamic culture, seeking knowledge is a religious duty, and manuscripts, regardless of the subject, have always been treated with great respect—not only as sources of knowledge, but also as a means of fulfilling this religious duty. Moreover, Islamic manuscript production, especially in Arabic, is so vast that it has no comparison, from a quantitative point of view, with that of any other civilization. Therefore, a history of the book in the Islamic world encompasses different domains of research, such as paleography and codicology, which study the physical characteristics of the book, its script, and its life, as told through its manuscript notes (e.g., certificates of reading and audition, notes of possession and reading). This field of study also involves art history (given the importance of illustrated and decorated manuscripts and books), the history of religion (in connection with the Qurʾan), the history of ideas, the history of libraries and bibliography, and conservation and preservation. Despite their overwhelming number, manuscripts are not the only focus of this article. The history of printing in the Islamic lands represents, in itself, a wide field that deserves attention and further lines of research. Block printing—mainly used for specific kinds of texts, such as amulets and Hajj certificates—represents an early stage (9th–14th century) of printing within the Dar al-Islam territories (from Central Asia to al-Andalus) that only recently gained scholarly attention. Printing with movable type in Arabic dates back to 15th-century Italy, and it only developed later in the Islamic lands, starting from Lebanon (Quzhaya, 1610), Syria (Aleppo, 1706), and Turkey (Istanbul, 1729), and eventually gaining momentum in the first decade of the 20th century. The reasons for this delay were, for a long time, attributed to the imperial ban on printing (linked to two firmans/edicts, supposedly dated 1485 and 1515), together with the resistance of ulama and the guild of the copyists. However, the question of the slow spread of the printing press in the Islamic lands from the 18th century on has been recently addressed from different historical perspectives. This reassessment has led to the acknowledgement that social, cultural, and aesthetic factors together—yet with different effectiveness—explain both the cold reception of the printing press in the Islamic lands and the subsequent change that led to the introduction of mass printing in the Middle East. Stressing the persistence of manuscript book production within the Islamic lands, from the first centuries of Islam until the 21st century, helps us to understand the somewhat unbalanced number of studies (and sections in this bibliography) devoted to handwritten books compared to those dealing with printed material. Last, but not least, there are a number of specialized journals and resources on the web that are devoted to the study of manuscripts and books, ranging from introductory courses to paleography, databases, open-access volumes of studies, text repositories, and digitized manuscripts.

General Overviews

Already in the 4th/10th century, Ibn al-Nadim produced a bibliographical work devoted to book production in the Muslim lands: Ibn al-Nadīm 1970. Günther 2006 gives some insight into two other classical Arabic texts on books and book culture. One of the classic texts on Arabic books is Pedersen 1984, originally published in Danish in 1946, then translated in English, and now also in Turkish. Another is also Kratchkovsky 1953. Atiyeh 1995 collects contributions about the Islamic book from manuscript to print. Hirschler 2012 is an innovative work based on a wide range of documentary, literary, and iconographic material. Hitzel 1999 offers an ample and accurate collection of papers centered on different aspects of reading practices in the Ottoman Empire. Richard 2003 is an overview of Persian manuscript production.

  • Atiyeh, George N., ed. The Book in the Islamic World: The Written Word and Communication in the Middle East. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

    Fourteen papers dealings with various topics, from the illustrations of Arabic scientific manuscripts to the role of the book in the modern world. An overview that includes a list of selected bibliographical references (pp. 273–281).

  • Günther, Sebastian. “Praise the Book! Al-Jāḥiẓ and Ibn Qutayba on the Excellence of the Written Word in Medieval Islam.” In Franz Rosenthal Memorial Volume. Edited by Yohanan Friedmann, 125–143. Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 2006.

    Describes the different attitudes toward the books and readers of two classical authors of Arabic literature.

  • Hirschler, Konrad. The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands: A Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

    An incisive work exploiting documentary sources for the study of reading practices in the Arabic Middle Period, in Syria and Egypt. Special attention is given to popular culture and the literary production linked to the spread of reading skills within the society. An Italian translation is also available: Leggere e scrivere nell’Islam medievale (Rome: Carocci, 2017) with an Introduction by Arianna D’Ottone.

  • Hitzel, Frédéric, ed. Special Issue: Livres et lectures dans le monde ottoman. Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée 87–88 (1999).

    An inspiring collection of thirteen papers throwing light on various aspects of book production and consumption in the Ottoman territory.

  • Ibn al-Nadīm. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture. Edited and translated by Bayard Dodge. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

    An English translation of a classical Arabic text in which a precious list of book titles is given. Despite the fact that not every title listed corresponds to an actual book, the list informs us about the existence of works now lost.

  • Kratchkovsky, Ignatii Y. Among Arabic Manuscripts: Memories of Libraries and Men. Translated from the Russian by Tatiana Minorsky. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1953.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004321359

    A classic and somehow poetic mémoire-style text that is in fact an introduction to Arabic manuscripts and their study. A must-read.

  • Pedersen, Johannes. The Arabic Book. Translated by Geoffrey French. Edited with an Introduction by Robert Hillenbrand. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400856374

    The original edition is in Danish, Den Arabiske Bog (Copenhagen: Fisher, 1946), and a recent translation in Turkish is now available: Mustafa M. Karagözoğlu, trans., İslam dünyasinda kitabın tarihi (Istanbul: Klasik, 2013). A classical text giving a wide overview, now somewhat dated but still useful, on the role of the book and book production in Arabic lands.

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

    DOI: 10.4000/books.editionsbnf.2457

    Exploiting the rich manuscript holdings of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, this work outlines some of the characteristics of the Persian manuscript and deals with the history of the texts.

  • Roper, Geoffrey, ed. The History of the Book in the Middle East. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013.

    An ample selection of articles (568 pages plus index), chosen from a variety of publications (journals, conference proceedings, exhibition catalogues) about manuscripts, the history of printing, and printed books in different languages of the Islamic world.

  • Strauss, Johann. “Who Read What in the Ottoman Empire (19th–20th Centuries)?” Middle Eastern Literatures 6.1 (2003): 39–76.

    DOI: 10.1080/14752620306881

    A vivid overview on the complex multilingual and multireligious literary production and reading audience in the territories of the Ottoman Empire in modern times.

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