This blog will explore the history of Islamic books within the wider perspectives of the cultural and intellectual history of the transmission of knowledge between the Near East, Europe, and North America.
Books are the material evidence of cultural and intellectual history. As physical artifacts, whether written by hand or mechanically printed, they preserve not only written texts, but also information about production modes, reading habits, book ownership, and the book trade. An Islamic book can be made by and for Muslims or non-Muslims, because the adjective “Islamic” refers to Islamic civilization and is not limited to the faith itself. This definition is derived from Oleg Grabar’s The Formation of Islamic Art (rev. ed., New Haven, Conn. 1987, pp. 1-18), and reflects that after the emergence of Islam in the seventh century CE Muslim-ruled societies continued to have religiously, linguistically, and ethnically diverse populations.
Taking this art-historical definition as a starting point, I am interested in challenging modern nationalist claims about the uses of knowledge in premodern Muslim societies. Religious and ethnic diversity continues to characterize Asia Minor, the Near East, Central Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent where languages used to transcend ethnic identities, religious affiliations, and political borders: not every speaker of Arabic was an Arab, and not every admirer of Persian mystical poetry an Iranian Muslim. Within the context of Islamic history, both Arabic and Persian have served as lingua franca for religion and law, as well as for culture and trade. But the parallel and supplementary uses of Arabic and Persian will remain poorly understood as long as scholars tend to focus on one of the region’s modern national languages.
Manhattan, January 2012
Dagmar A. Riedel
Center for Iranian Studies