Not a Good Fit: Islam and Book History

In February 2013 I submitted, within the deadline, a proposal for a conference about the scientific author and cultures of scientific publishing, organized by the Program about the History of the Book at Harvard University.  But my proposal for a presentation about scholarly authority in the Ottoman Empire after 1517 was neither reviewed nor rejected.  Harvard’s spam filter flagged my email, and that was that.  The conference program is now posted on the internet, and I am left with the question of what I will do next with the sequestered proposal about the Muslim reception of Euclid’s Elements between the tenth and the seventeenth centuries.  Even though in this instance it was Harvard’s spam filter that decided against a presentation about the changing perception of scholarly authority in the Ottoman Empire, similar proposals of mine have not fared any better.  Irrespective of the merits of my work, it seems that these rejections are not just about me.  Rather they also suggest that in North America and Europe fitting Islam into Book History remains a challenge.  Research on books in Arabic script is difficult to classify for scholars outside and inside Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, as well as well for scholars outside and inside Book History.

One reason for this challenge is practical.  Scholars, librarians, and curators without any prior background in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies have little opportunity to obtain additional training for manuscripts, printed books, archival documents, or ephemera in Arabic script.  At Princeton University and UCLA, where strong Near Eastern Studies departments have access to rich library collections of more than 10,000 manuscripts in Arabic script, there is no tradition whatsoever for using these Islamic holdings for teaching.  In North America only Adam Gacek of the Institute for Islamic Studies at McGill University does regularly teach an introduction to Islamic codicology, such as this 2013 course at Stanford University.  In 2006, Marianna Shreve Simpson offered an introduction to Islamic manuscripts at the Rare Book School, but this course has not been offered since.

Another reason for this challenge is conceptual.  In Europe and North America the study of Islam continues to be located in a geography-based curriculum that was derived from the nineteenth-century division into western and non-western subject matters.  The study of Islam remains strongly associated with research on the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, even though many Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies scholars are strongly opposed to the Cold War Area Studies paradigm according to which “the West” generated knowledge about “the East “in order to perpetuate its global economic and political power.  Undergraduate and graduate education concentrates on providing students with language skills and critical methodologies that allow for research on, and in, Muslim societies (see, for example, the mission statement of Columbia University’s Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies).  Specialists of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies usually have a methodological foundation in disciplines such as Anthropology, History, Linguistics, Literary Criticism, Political Science, or Religious Studies, so that source criticism is generally practiced as the historical evaluation of written texts.  Since regional expertise has remained more important than the focus on a particular period, specialists of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies do not relate themselves to Medievalists or Renaissance scholars, and so are not exposed to their expertise in codicology, paleography, and bibliography.  Conversely, the contemporary western discourse on Islam and Muslim societies has remained anchored to the premise that the intellectual decline of Islamic civilization from the thirteenth century onwards is one of the root causes for the undeniable socio-economic and political problems of twenty-first century Muslim societies in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  This negative view of Islamic civilization between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries has ensured that this middling period attracts fewer scholars and much less is known about it.

The most twisted reason for the seeming incompatibility of Book History and Islam is the comparatively late acceptance of printing technology in Muslim societies in the nineteenth century.  In its Anglo-American tradition, Book History is so closely linked to research on Gutenberg’s invention of letterpress printing that a contemporaneous book culture without the printing press is hard to stomach.  This hands-off attitude is further compounded by the fact that many Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies scholars shy away from research on the academic study of Islam in early modern Europe.  Since the history of Oriental Studies  appears as merely supplementary to the insights of Edward Said’s Orientalism, it is rarely noticed how little is known about the printing of books in Arabic script in early modern Europe.  Nor do we have a comprehensive history of the European and North American collections of Islamic manuscripts and printed books.  Despite the new Center for the History of Arabic Studies in Europe at the Warburg Institute, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies scholars who focus on Oriental Studies in early modern Europe tend to keep a low profile, often by adopting an antiquarian attitude.

Against this backdrop it is understandable, though nonetheless annoying, that the 1517 defeat of the Mamluk sultans is not yet perceived as a crucial event of the book history of the Ottoman Empire and its neighbors.  The loss of political independence condemned Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq to becoming a backwater of the Ottoman Empire, and the rich libraries of the central Arab lands provided the Ottoman elites in Istanbul with a hitherto inaccessible wealth of manuscript books.  In the course of the sixteenth century, the Ottoman armies pushed into Eastern Europe.  At the same time, Jewish and Muslim refugees from the Spanish Peninsula were settling in the Ottoman Empire, and West European powers―in particular the Italian city states, France, and Britain―began to establish diplomatic contacts with the High Porte in Istanbul in order to obtain trading privileges and to explore political alliances against their Christian rivals.  The mobility of people around and across the Mediterranean was accompanied by the circulation of printed books into the Ottoman Empire, as well as the diffusion of letterpress printing technology to Jewish and Christian communities within Muslim societies.  In 1493, Samuel and David Ibn Nahmias printed the Arba’ah Turim in Istanbul.  But when the first complete Arabic Quran was printed in Venice between 1537 and 1538, the intended export into the Ottoman Empire could not be realized, and the venture became an abject commercial failure.  In 1647, the Armenians in New Julfa, a suburb of Isfahan, printed the first typeset book in Safavid Iran when they published an almanac for their congregation.

In the proposal that was eaten by Harvard’s spam filter I had suggested an analysis of how the Arabic bibliographies of Taşköprüzade (Aḥmad b. Muṣṭafā Ṭāshkubrāzādah, 901-968/1495-1560) and Katip Ҫelebi (Muṣṭafā b. ʿAbd Allāh Ḥājjī Khalīfah, 1016-1067/1609-1657) classify Euclid’s Elements.  Although both bibliographies are still widely used as bio-bibliographical reference works, neither Taşköprüzade’s Kitāb miftāḥ al-saʿādah wa-miṣbāḥ al-siyādah fī mawḍūʿāt al-ʿulūm (The key of happiness and the light of command over the matters of knowledge) which is a comprehensive prospectus of an Islamic curriculum, nor Katip Ҫelebi’s alphabetical title catalog Kashf al-ẓunūn ʿan asāmī al-kutub wa’l-funūn (The disclosure of opinions about book titles and the branches of knowledge) has been studied as evidence for new strategies for information management.  I believe that these comprehensive bibliographies illustrate a seminal break in the intellectual history of Muslim societies, since their authors surveyed the known, though not necessarily accessible, literature in Arabic script, focusing on the classification of the contents and the titles of books.  But since the study of bibliographies falls into the purview of Book History, I will probably peddle this presentation to another Book History conference, curious as to whether at another institution the spam filter will have an equally voracious appetite for a proposal about the transformation of the concept of authorship in Muslim societies.

Revised because of broken hyperlink, 17 July 2014.