Why Did Muslims Ban the Printing Press

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Published on
July 1, 2023

In the mid-15th century, a significant event occurred that would forever alter the course of human history. Johannes Gutenberg, a German blacksmith, goldsmith, and inventor, introduced the movable type printing press to the world. This invention, designed specifically for the Latin alphabet, revolutionized the way knowledge was stored and disseminated. Gutenberg's first major project was the printing of the Bible in Latin, which sparked a surge in the use of the printing press throughout Europe. By the dawn of the 16th century, Europe was home to approximately 1,000 operational printing presses. This innovation made the replication of books more efficient, quicker, and less costly. By 1800, over a billion copies of books and manuscripts had been printed in Europe.

However, the Islamic world did not fully embrace the printing press until the end of the 18th century, a full four centuries after its invention. This delay was not due to a rejection of technology or a disdain for European products. In fact, Muslims were quick to adopt other Western innovations such as tobacco and European paper.

The first printing press in the Islamic world was established in Constantinople in 1493 by Jewish refugees from Spain. Armenian and Syrian Christians also began printing in large numbers. However, Sultan Bayezid II of the Ottoman Empire issued a decree in 1485 that restricted the printing of Arabic and other languages that used the Arabic script by both Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslim communities, on the other hand, were granted complete freedom to print in their languages. Importation of printed Arabic books from outside the Ottoman Empire was permitted.

The Sultan's decision was not due to intolerance or resistance to progress. Instead, he and his advisers likely recognized the disruptive potential of this new technology. Indeed, a few decades after the Sultan's decree, the Protestant Reformation rocked Europe and the Catholic Church, with the printing press playing a pivotal role.

One of the challenges with printing in the Islamic world was the complexity of the Arabic script. For instance, a single character can have up to four different shapes depending on its position in a word. This would require a much higher count of typefaces. However, this wasn't a significant problem in reality. The first Quran printed in Arabic was produced around 1537 in Venice by Alessandro Paganini. Despite this achievement, the printed Quran was riddled with errors, leading to commercial failure and angering Muslims who saw it.

If Muslims were to accept printing, it would naturally start with religious texts, beginning with the Quran. However, the Quran is not the same as the Bible. Muslims believe the Quran to be the literal word of God as revealed to Prophet Muhammad. It is not merely meant to be read but to be heard and recited aloud. The written word was primarily a tool for experts to aid their memory rather than a resource for novices to learn from. This is why renowned scholars such as Ibn Arabi and al-Bukhari traveled extensively. Books were typically copied by wealthy patrons who maintained libraries accessible to the scholars they patronized. Consequently, the demand for books was not very high.

Moreover, the overall output of the Islamic world in terms of research was much lower at this time than it had been during the Golden Age. It was also much lower than Europe, which was experiencing its Renaissance. Furthermore, calligraphy was a major industry, and at one point, calligraphers even marched to the royal palace in Constantinople, carrying a coffin with their pens and ink inside, to protest against printing. Therefore, there was no demand for a large number of books.

When printing was on the rise in Europe in the second half of the 15th century, there was concern that withthe widespread usage of printing, publishing books would become easier, and hence, heretical ideas could spread more readily. This debate existed in both Islamic and Christian parts of the world. So, the religious establishment wanted to preserve their version of legitimate Islam. Another thing they wanted to preserve was their own status. Of course, books being printed and made affordable for the common folk would have broken the monopoly of the religious elites on the interpretation of religion for the public as the public would have direct access to religious books. Similarly, it could also threaten the political establishment as any anti-state propaganda could spread more easily. So, the printed word had the potential to shake everything up, from religion to government. This was probably the reason why Sultan Bayezid II banned printing in 1485.

The first Muslim to operate a printing press in the Islamic World was a Hungarian convert named Ibrahim Müteferrika in Constantinople. He had previously been a diplomat and had traveled across Europe. In 1726, he wrote a treatise called "The Usefulness of Printing" and presented it to the Ottoman government. He argued that books were a tool for perfecting the nation and the state, a method of increasing the majesty of the empire, and of becoming the protector and preserver, until the last day, of arts and sciences and recorded events from the miscalculations of man.

By this time, the Islamic World did have a problem that printing could help in solving. That problem was European dominance. The Ottoman Empire was starting to decline and was looking to Europe to understand how they were rising up above them. So, the Sultan, in 1727, issued an edict allowing Muslims to operate the printing press as long as they don’t print religious texts. It was probably because of calligraphers and the clergy that religious texts were excluded from the edict. It would be another century before a religious text is published in Constantinople in 1818.

In 1803, the first complete and widely accepted Quran was printed by the Tsarist Russian city of Kazan for Russia’s Muslim population. The next chapter in the story of Arabic printing came when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798. He brought with him a French printing press and an Arabic printing press. The French one was obviously to communicate with his troops while the Arabic ones was to communicate with the locals. After Napoleon left in 1801, Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Ottoman Governor (and de facto ruler) of Egypt started using it for his own purposes. The people in his government who operated the printing press were actually sent to Italy to be trained. That’s how serious Muhammad Ali Pasha was.

The invention of lithographic printing by Alois Senefelder in 1796 really simplified the process of printing Arabic. Not only did it not need typefaces, but it was also able to preserve calligraphy and illustrations the way the author had intended. The first lithograph press in the Islamic World, as far as I can tell, was in Morocco where a private citizen had bought it, but religious scholars saw its usage and argued in the royal court in favor of using it.

On the opposite side of the Islamic World, India had seen the printing press pretty much since it established direct contact with Europe. Jesuits had operated a press there since 1556. The British East India Company had its own presses. However, the first press owned by a Muslim came around in 1819 when Nawab Ghazi-ud-Din Haidar Shah of Awadh sponsored one. Unlike the Ottoman Empire, the Nawab immediately started printing religious books. Five years later, the British East India Company gifted a few lithographic presses to the Bombay School Book and School Society which started printing books in local languages. Lithographic Printing boomed in the Indian Subcontinent. The print capital of India, Lucknow had over a dozen presses by 1848, all operated by Muslims. The most printed language in India, after English, was Urdu, the language primarily spoken by Muslims.

The reason that Muslims became pioneers of printing in India has a similar theme to the rise of printing in Europe that happened almost 400 years earlier. It happened in the context of religious reformation. By the 19th century, a significant portion of the Islamic World was living under European rule. The religious elite saw the need for reformation to unite the Muslims and resist the colonizers. We saw many Revivalist and Reformist movements being born in the Islamic World during the 19th century. All of them used printing to spread their message. Also, the Quran was being translated into local languages throughout the Islamic World. In the 19th century, there were 12 attempts to translate the Quran into Urdu alone. None of them were widely accepted. Along with books, pamphlets and newspapers were being published in large quantities to spread propaganda against the colonizers.

So, in conclusion, the Islamic World simply didn’t think that printing could be useful. There was simply no problem that the Muslims thought could be solved by the Printing Press. Much like cryptocurrency and bitcoin.


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