Literary History and the History of the Book in Arabic Script

Sabine Schmidtke of the Freie Universität Berlin and Sarah Stroumsa of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem observe in their prospectus of a special volume of the journal Intellectual History of the Islamicate World that “[D]espite the constantly growing research regarding the literary history of the Islamicate World, our knowledge about what was available/popular/read in different periods and regions is still dismally patchy.”  While I share their dissatisfaction about the state of research on manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script, I do not see a contradiction between the flowering of scholarship on the literary history of the Islamicate world and the lack of interest in the material and social history of the book in Arabic script.  Research on literary history has benefited from the improved access to extant written sources thanks to the continually growing number of digital surrogates.  As there is little interest in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies in integrating manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script into the research programs of Critical Bibliography and Book History, there is less competition for funding and significant resources can be invested into the digitization of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script.

The dramatically increased availability of digital surrogates of Islamic books is not only a consequence of the wide range of digitization initiatives in Europe and North America.  Since the Islamic tradition combines the reverence for written texts, which originated with the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet, with strong oral traditions, the digitization of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script has been smoothly integrated into the pragmatic traditions of Islamic bookmaking that for centuries focused on facilitating the access to written texts by whatever means necessary.  The adaptation of digitization to bookmaking was not hampered by theoretical concerns for the ontological differences between nineteenth-century manuscript copies of much older manuscripts, lithographs, typeset books, microfilms, or digital surrogates: they are all texts.  Historicist awareness for the authentic material artefact and its facsimile or forgery is as irrelevant as legal concerns about copyright law and best practices within the Digital Humanities: as long as the text itself seemingly does not change, it does not matter in which medium a text is reproduced so that it can be studied.  Against this backdrop it is only sensible that source criticism in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies does usually not consider codicological and bibliographical evidence, and is, with the qualified exception of Quranic Studies, mostly practiced as an ahistorical evaluation of content.  Recent publications about editorial practice focus on matters such as transcription, while carefully sidestepping a critical examination of any underlying tacit editorial theory.

At the same time, research on the Islamicate world continues to be defined by the conceptual predicament that follows from placing Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies into a geography-based curriculum that was derived from the nineteenth-century division of subject matter into western and non-western topics.  Almost forty years after the publication of Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism, specialists of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies do not easily relate themselves to Classicists, Medievalists, or Renaissance scholars.  Regional expertise is more highly valued than interdisciplinary and transnational collaboration to conduct research on a particular historical period.  Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at large are committed to overcoming 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 training is focused on providing students with language skills and critical methodologies that allow for research on, and in, Muslim societies, but Critical Bibliography and Textual Studies in fields such as Classics or Medieval and Renaissance Studies seem too closely associated with philology and are thus rejected as Orientalist approaches to the literary heritage of the Islamicate world.  Moreover, it seems insensitive to study printed books and manuscripts in Arabic script as mere material objects and quotidian commercial commodities, since scholars of Muslim societies take enormous pride in the Islamic manuscript tradition as a major cultural achievement of the Islamicate world.

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.

Islamic Books in the American Research Library

Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: “gender studies,” “women’s studies,” “Asian-Pacific-American studies,” and dozens of others.  The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves—thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine.

Tony Judt, “Edge People,” in The Memory Chalet, 2010

The concept of Islamic books has the significant advantage that it allows for situating research on manuscripts, printed books, and ephemera in Arabic script within the larger fields of cultural and material history.  The concept is derived from a definition of Islamic civilization as a catch-all: comprising more than Islam as a faith and reaching beyond the borders of the central Arab lands which are commonly associated with the Middle East.  The emphasis on openness is important as a counterweight to any form of essentialism.  From the eighth to the fifteenth century CE, Muslim elites ruled over parts of the Spanish Peninsula and Southern Italy, and afterwards the Ottoman Empire expanded into Central Europe and included parts of the Balkans until its demise after World War I.  The import of slaves from East and West Africa led to the establishment of the first Muslim underground communities in seventeenth-century North America, even though the savage conditions of slavery ensured that little to nothing has been preserved about these Muslim congregations.  Significant Muslim minorities in all societies of Western Europe and North America make it today irresponsible to approach Islam as an exclusively non-Western phenomenon.

It is impossible to predict how in the Western world Muslim citizens will change our research in Middle Eastern, South Asian, Arab, Iranian, Turkish, or Islamic Studies over the next decades.  But it seems a reasonable guess that American research libraries will adapt their current collection policies to these continuous transformations since the reigning Area Studies paradigm continues to treat Islamic civilization as mostly Middle Eastern.  A map of the world is neatly divided into blocs of twenty-first-century nation states, thereby obfuscating diversity, mobility, and migration in societies past and present, whereas contemporary national languages, in particular Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu, determine whether manuscripts, printed books or ephemera in Arabic script are under the responsibility of an Area Studies specialist for Middle Eastern, African, or South Asian Studies.  For Islamic books that were produced before World War I such a language-based classification scheme is spectacularly unsuited.  Premodern Muslim societies were multilingual, and Islamic books in different languages circulated widely from India to the Balkans, from West Africa to Central Asia.

How long it will take until American research libraries adapt their collection policies is an entirely different matter.  As long as universities continue to organize research on Muslim societies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa within the Area Studies paradigm, research libraries will follow suit because libraries are strictly hierarchical institutions.  Their top-down structure is designed to build and protect collections whose content is determined by bibliographers or curators.  Librarians are usually open to their patrons’ input, as there are always more books on sale than there is money for purchases.  But the power of the purse makes librarians willy-nilly arbiters of each book’s merit and value.  Since the mission of a research library is the furthering of scholarship, not all patrons are equal before the librarians.  In the hushed reading rooms, patrons clamor for the librarians’ attention, while the librarians busy themselves with applying to a higher authority in order to stay above the fray.  Librarians are bound by both a professional ethos of service and their institution’s hierarchy.  When in doubt, librarians will ask professors for advice and consent, and the professors in turn decide the fate of their institution’s library collections ex officio.

The history of Jewish Studies collections in New York research libraries suggests, though, that extra-academic contingencies are more likely to determine whether an American research library will abandon the Area Studies paradigm to gather its diverse holdings in Arabic script as a comprehensively defined Islamic Studies collection.  In 1897 Jacob Schiff (1847-1920) initiated the establishment of an Oriental Division at the newly founded New York Public Library (NYPL) to ensure access to a Jewish Studies reference collection in Midtown Manhattan.  Since the division’s chief librarian Richard Gottheil (1862-1936) did not get along with his bibliographer Abraham Freidus (1867-1923), the Jewish holdings were separated from the Oriental Division, and in 1901 Freidus became chief librarian of an independent Jewish Division (Phyllis Dain, The New York Public Library: A History of its Founding and Early Years, New York: NYPL, 1972, pp. 116-117).  After the Second World War the Oriental Division was renamed Asian and Middle Eastern Division and dissolved, together with the Slavic and Baltic Division, in 2008.  In the Columbia University Libraries (CUL), the responsibilities of the Middle East bibliographer used to include Judaica.  But a few years ago, when a generous gift had made it possible to establish the Norman E. Alexander Library of Jewish Studies, CUL reorganized its Area Studies Library which continues to include Jewish Studies, and the Middle East bibliographer is now explicitly in charge of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

PS.  As of Fall 2012, Columbia University Libraries has renamed its Area Studies Library as Global Studies Library.  Yet Western Europe and North America, which were not included into the Area Studies Library, are still not aboard.

Updated, 12 September 2012.