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BOOK PUBLISHING. A distinction must be maintained between printing and publishing in Islamic countries, and Islamic printing and publishing. The former comprises Christian printing from the seventeenth century to our own day, publication of books on secular subjects such as textbooks, belles-lettres, and popular magazines, all of which trace their roots to eighteenth century Istanbul and to the nineteenth-century press at Bulaq in Cairo. The latter, Islamic publishing, the subject of this article, developed in the middle to late nineteenth century. From modest beginnings it has grown to assume an overwhelming presence in today’s publishing in the Middle East.

One of the reasons for the delay of Islamic printing was the traditional disdain of the religious establishment for the printing press. The famous Ibrahim Muteferrika (c. 1674-1754), pioneer of printing in the Middle East, spent more than a decade trying to persuade the Ottoman sultan and his shaykhs that the printing press was not a danger to Islamic culture, but would instead lead to advances beneficial to the Ottoman state in confronting the European powers. In his treatise on printing of 1726 he argued that Muslims had been better at preserving their scripture than Christians or Jews, but books had been lost in political cataclysms such as the Mongol invasions and the expulsion from Spain. Printing had many advantages that would spread learning among Muslims: books would become cheaper and thus more widspread among the populace; they would be easier to read and more durable. The Ottoman sultan could take credit for introducing these benefits to Muslims, while eliminating from circulation the corrupt and ugly texts printed in Europe. The following year Muteferrika received permission to print on condition that he avoid works on religion, a stipulation he honored. This explicit restriction on the printing of religious works such as the Qur’an, hadith, and jurisprudence restrained Muslim printers and publishers for more than a hundred years.

Confident of their control of the infrastructure of traditional education, the shaykhs saw no reason to improve communication by means of the printing press. The Friday sermon, the madrasah, and the manuscript preserved the learned sciences and formed a vehicle for popular piety. It was a culture confident in itself, unselfconsciously Muslim, where new religious ideas such as those of Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328) or Muhammad ibn `Ali al-Sanusi (1787-1859) percolated slowly via influential preachers or Sufi conclaves to a largely illiterate populace.

In general, printing in the Islamic subjects did not appear in the core Muslim region (the Ottoman Empire and Iran) in the core languages of Islam (Arabic, Persian, and Turkish) until the latter half of the nineteenth century. In Istanbul, Muteferrika and his immediate sucessors did not print any books in Islamic subjects. During the nineteenth century publishing in Istanbul retained its secular character, although there is evidence of an underground reaction to europeanization in the form of lithographed tracts against Western innovations such as the telegraph and the steamship.

In Egypt the case was not much different, in that the emphasis was on modern technical subjects, with history and belles-lettres also represented. Muhammad `All Pasha (c. 1770-1849) founded his famous Bulaq Press in 1822. Virtually independent of Istanbul and a man of practical rather than theological inclination, Muhammad `All used the press to further the goal of building a modern state capable holding both the European powers and the sultan at bay. The Bulaq print shop therefore concentrated on works of practical value during its heyday, 1822 to 1840. The press produced few books of Islamic content.

Iran is quite a different case. There the printing press was introduced, according to some scholars, as early as 1812 in the western city of Tabriz. Although the impetus to printing was largely secular, religious publishing began earlier than it had in Istanbul or Cairo. There is evidence that one Manuchihr Khan printed religious books in Tehran in the 1820s. Zad al-ma’ad, a guide to prayer and ritual by the prolific seventeenth-century Shil’! religious leader Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi, was printed nearly twenty times during the nineteenth century in Tehran and Tabriz in Iran, and Lucknow in India. Nevertheless the publishing industry developed very slowly, even after the founding in 1851 of the first school employing the European curriculum, the Dar al-Funun, or Institute Poly technique. Textbooks, class notes and translations from European languages were required for this school, but the techniques and methods of printing afforded private persons the opportunity to produce books in a wide range of subjects, religious books among them. To be sure, the clergy constituted a large cadre of literate and influential persons. Slow to adopt the press as an instrument of propagating the faith, they had certainly become aware of its potentialities by the time of the Tobacco Rebellion of the 1890s. Although we understand little of what caused this transformation, we know that by the turn of the century religious works were the steadiest sellers in the country.

Exactly when printing turned into publishing in the region is difficult to say-first, because the distinction between the two activities is subtle, and second, because more research is needed on cultural life between 186o and the turn of the century. Government printers seemed to have had no knack for getting what they printed into the hands of readers. In this sense none of the early government printshops were truly publishers. Publishing is above all the commerce in books, and successful publishers require a steady supply of titles from authors or from the stock of available classics, a mastery of production machinery and methods (i.e., printing), marketing, and the development of readership where none existed before.

The case of Egypt under `Abbas and Isma’il may demonstrate the point. The climacteric between printing and true publishing seems to have occurred during the reigns of Khedive `Abbas (r. 1849-1854) and Khedive Sa’id (r. 1854-1863). This was a turbulent era in Egyptian publishing. The Bulaq press, moribund during the last years of Muhammad `All’s reign, began to rely heavily on contract work. Moreover, rival presses both governmental and private competed for business. Individuals contracted with these presses to produce Turkish and Arabic religious and literary classics. By this time the clergy had abandoned their former reservations about printing. Numerous examples attest to their enterprise in investing in book production for moral and financial uplift. A best-seller of the time was Badr almunir, along with other works by the tenth century Shafi’i scholar `Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani; fourteen of his works were printed between 1858 and 1861, some privately and some at Bulaq under private contract. It was in this period too that the first attempts were made to print the Qur’an, but this complex venture was doomed. Other books central to Islamic theology were printed: Bukharl’s Sahih (1863), a canonical collection of the Prophet’s sayings; Ibn al-`Arabi’s Futuhat al-Makkiyah (1857); and Ruh al-baydn ft tafsir al-Quran, a popular work by Isma`il Haqqi, an edition of which was published in 1859. The vitality of printing makes a comprehensive bibliography of what was printed very difficult. Adding to the problem was the introduction of the lithographic press around 185o. Because of this cheap printing technology, Egypt, Iran, and Turkey witnessed widespread popular religious publishing. These presses produced volumes on religious topics whose subject matter and crude format made them consumables, in contrast to the heftier tomes coming from the presses of the governments, which were sought after for permanent retention in libraries.

Modern publishing can be said to grow out of the desire of Muslims to propagate the faith where they saw the population was weak in its knowledge and practice of Islam. Regardless of when the turning point occurred, it resulted in an outpouring of books so broad in subject matter and so widespread geographically that it is impossible to review the phenomenon briefly. The distinction can be drawn between turath (heritage) and da’wah (piety or propaganda). Publishers began to specialize in one or the other. Yusuf al-Bustani, a leading Cairo bookseller, in his catalog for 1934 displays few if any of the latter but a decided interest in the former. Turdth works are most often reprints of classic works in the Islamic sciences. Sometimes hot topics broke into print, such as Mustafa al-Karimi’s polemical work of 1921 against the Wahhabis, Risalat al-Sunniyin.

In succeeding years private publishers in Cairo and Beirut began publishing both kinds of books for the mass market. As literacy increased, profits could be made from the two kinds of Islamic literature. Egyptian publishers also prospered from their proximity to al-Azhar and its associated academies, turning out cheap editions of classics for use by students. Works in all branches of Islamic learning are kept in print and make up the stock at kiosks and colorful book markets in the al-Azhar quarter of Cairo. These editions are eagerly sought after in all Islamic countries.

Government publishing houses continue to issue in this field. Some publishers, such as Egypt’s General Egyptian Book Organization, market their books through government bookshops or through private booksellers. Others, such as the ministries of culture or religious endowments in Oman, Morocco, and Iran, continue the time-honored practice of distributing their publications only to scholars and learned societies.

Of greater technological sophistication are the works of turath reprinted at Beirut by publishers such as Dar al-Gharb al-Islami and Dar al-Jil. The tragic war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1985 did little more than inconvenience these commercial publishers of Islamic reprints. A vast market in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula opened up for titles that had formerly been rare manuscript treasures or available only in long-out-of print editions. These titles, many in multiple volumes generally bound in imitation leather and adorned with gilt calligraphy-are familiar to anyone who has visited bookstores in any Muslim country, or Mideastern specialty stores in the United States and Europe.

Works of da’wah too have their specialist publishers and readership. This large category of works includes sophisticated intellectual commentary on spiritual and cultural life of Islam, such as works by the Egyptians Muhammad al-Ghazali and Muhammad `Ammarah published by Dar al-Shuruq. This prominent publishing firm was founded in Cairo in 1961 by Muhammad alMu’allim, a graduate of Cairo University’s prestigious Dar al-`Ulum. At the outset the company was called Dar al-Qalam and was immediately profitable; its success caught the attention of authorities in the socialist administration of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who nationalized the firm. Al-Mu’allim directed the state-owned company for a short time, after which he invested in a new, independent publishing house which he named Dar al-Shuruq. He was imprisoned for a short period for his audacity. Upon his release he left Egypt for Beirut, where he continued to publish provocative Muslim writers such as Sayyid Qutb, returning to Egypt after Nasser’s death. Dar al-Shuruq now publishes in Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, bringing out books of da’wah as well as turath.

Today each Arab and Islamic country has its publishing houses for turath and da’wah. Each also has a selection of popular religious magazines and incorporates religious topics into general-interest periodicals. Examples range from Majallat al-Azhar (Journal of al-Azhar) in Egypt to political comment from an Islamic viewpoint in all the major Egyptian dailies. In Turkey religion once again is a popular subject, and a profitable one for publishers and booksellers. Works translated into modern Turkish from Arabic fill bookshops in Istanbul. Turkish Muslims now have access to the writings of the Egyptian Islamic martyr Sayyid Qutb, while they are still waiting for translation of the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

Statistics on publication of religious books as a percentage of all publishing in Islamic countries are not available or usefully accurate, but it is unanimously agreed by publishers in the region that religious subjects have dominated trade publishing for the past fifteen years. It is no exaggeration to say that it is the income from their religious books that pulls many a publisher and bookseller into profitability.

Translation of classical books of the Islamic faith into English, as well as translation of didactic and pietistic works, has been a common recent development. Classics currently available in English include several translations of the Qur’an along with commentaries by leading figures such as the late Abu al-A’la Mawdudi of Pakistan and the Egyptian preacher Muhammad Mutawalli al-Sha’rawi. Also available are selected works from the corpus of Islamic literature-the life of the Prophet, hadith, principles of jurisprudence, and books to guide prayer, pilgrimage, and other rituals. These works are available thanks to the effort of Western Orientalists and Muslim scholars, principally from the Indian subcontinent. Works by Sayyid Qutb and the Iranian teacher and writer `All Shari’ati, Muslim thinkers of the mid-twentieth century, once proscribed in their own countries and their authors martyred, are also available in English.

Finally, a review of Islamic publishing today must take account of video and audio publications. Muslim religious practice is documented in these relatively new formats. Documentary filmmakers have sought to portray the richness and variety of Muslim spiritual and cultural life from Southeast Asia to West Africa to English speaking audiences. There is no doubt that these media can be highly effective; their role in transmitting Ayatollah Khomeini’s message to his countrymen from exile has been widely noted. Similarly, Muslims are making use of cable television and small commercial and public-service channels in the United States. All this must be recognized as the newest form of what began modestly 15o years ago in small print shops.

[See also Children’s Books and Cartoons; Communications Media; Newspapers and Magazines; Pamphlets and Tracts.]


Aboussouan, Camille, ed. Le livre et le Liban jusqu’a 1900. Paris, 1982. Contains several essays on printing and publishing in Lebanon. Albin, Michael W. “The Iranian Publishing Industry: A Preliminary Appraisal.” Libri 36.1 (1986): 1-z3.

Albin, Michael W. “The Survival of the Bulaq Press under Abbas and Said (1848-63).” International Journal of Orientalist Librarians 3031 (1987): 11-1’7.

Berkes, Niyazi. The Development of Secularism in Turkey. Montreal, 1964. Treatment of Muteferrika and early Ottoman printing. Faruqui, Jalees A. Reading Habits in Pakistan. Karachi, 1974. Unique empirical study in English on reading preferences. Heyworth-Dunne, James. An Introduction to the History of Education in Modern Egypt. London, 1939. Covers the early years of modern education and printing; never superseded in English.

Peters, Rudolph. “Religious Attitudes towards Modernization in the Ottoman Empire: A Nineteenth-Century Pious Text on Steamships, Factories, and the Telegraph.” Die Welt des Islams 26 (1986): 76-105.

Rypka, Jan. History of Iranian Literature. Dordrecht, 1968. Comprehensive history of Persian literature, with important coverage of printing and publishing.

“Matba’a” (Printing Press). In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. vol. 6, pp. 794-807. Leiden, 1960-. Starting point for historical research on printing in Turkey, Iran, and the Arab countries.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/book-publishing/

  • writerPosted On: November 3, 2012
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