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Book Publishing

Michael W. Albin, Nile Green
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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 presses of Cairo and North India. The latter, Islamic publishing, the subject of this article, developed in the mid- to late nineteenth century. From modest beginnings it has grown to assume an overwhelming presence in today's publishing for Muslims on a global level.

One of the reasons for the delay of Islamic printing was the religious establishment's traditional disdain for the printing press. The famous İbrahim Müteferrika (c.1674–1745), 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 1796 treatise on printing 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 widespread 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 Müteferrika 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 Qurʿān, ḥadīth, 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, unself-consciously Muslim, where new religious ideas such as those of Taqī al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Taymīyah (1263–1328) or Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Sanūsī (1787–1859) percolated slowly via influential preachers or Ṣūfī conclaves to a largely illiterate populace.

Beginnings of Islamic Printing.

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 middle of the nineteenth century. In Istanbul, Müteferrika and his immediate successors did not print any books on 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.

However, outside of the Middle East, British administrators associated with the East India Company and based in Calcutta were experimenting with printing in the Arabic script as early as the 1780s. Between 1800 and 1820 Calcutta's Fort William College printed almost eighty books in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, and while these were mostly aimed at educating British administrators, Muslim scholars were central to their production. Among them were several religious works, such as the Pandnāmah (Book of Counsel) of ʿAttār and the Mars-īyah (Dirge) of Miskīn. An Urdu translation of the Qurʿān seems to have been printed in Calcutta as early as 1803, though the Arabic text was not printed in India until 1829. By the 1820s lithographic printing had spread westward to cities like Kanpur, Lucknow, and Delhi, and by midcentury presses right across the subcontinent were issuing religious works of all kinds, from poetry and hagiography to ritual guides and prayer books.

The pace of development was slower in the Middle East. In Egypt Muḥammad ʿAlī Pasha (c.1770–1849) founded his famous Būlāq Press in 1822 with the help of the Arab Christian Niqūlā al-Masābikī (d. 1830), who in 1815 had been sent to study printing in Milan. Virtually independent of Istanbul and a man of practical rather than theological inclination, Muḥammad ʿAlī used the press to further the goal of building a modern state capable of holding both the European powers and the sultan at bay. The Būlāq print shop therefore concentrated on works of practical value during its heyday, 1822 to 1840. The press produced few books of Islamic content, and the early emphasis was on modern technical subjects, with history and belles-lettres also represented.

Iran presents similarities and differences to Egypt. Several printing presses were set up in the western Iranian city of Tabrīz under the aegis of Muḥammad ʿAlī Pasha’s contemporary, the modernizing Crown Prince ʿAbbās Mīrzā (1798–1833). As in the case of al-Masābikī in Cairo, apprenticeships in Europe laid the foundations for the development of Iranian printing, with two of the earliest printers—Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn and Mīrzā Sāliḥ Shīrāzī—having learned their craft in St. Petersburg and London's Fleet Street. When these pioneer printers carried their portable presses home from Europe, they were taking part in the larger communications revolution of the early nineteenth century of which the global spread of printing—reaching New Zealand at the same time as the Middle East—was only a part.

Although the initial impetus to printing in Iran was largely secular, religious publishing began earlier than it had in Istanbul or Cairo. In 1817 the first book printed in Iran was the Risālah-yi Jihādīyah (Treatise on Jihad), a collection of legal rulings by Shīʿī clerics on the legitimacy of a jihād against the incursions of the Russian empire. By the 1820s the Tabrīzī printer Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn was also printing religious works in Tehran, such as the Muhāriq al-qulūb (Polished Paper of the Hearts) of Mahdī ibn Abī Dhārr al-Naraqī (d. 1795), a work on the martyrdom of the Shīʿī imams, and the Hasanīyah (On Hasan) of Mullā Ibrāhīm, a ninth century work on Shīʿī martyrology, which were printed in 1823 and 1824 respectively. Some of these religious books enjoyed extensive print runs: Zād al-maʿād (Provisions for the Hereafter), a guide to prayer and ritual by the prolific seventeenth-century Shīʿī religious leader Muḥammad Bāqir al-Majlisī, was printed nearly twenty times during the nineteenth century in Tehran and Tabrīz in Iran and Lucknow in India.

Nevertheless, the Iranian publishing industry developed very slowly, even after the founding in 1851 of the first school employing the European curriculum, the Dār al-Funūn, or Institut Polytechnique. 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. However, Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ were by no means the only Iranian Muslims printing books, and the nineteenth-century revival of Ṣūfī organizations in Iran also found voice in print. A leading example was Mīrzā Hasan Safī ʿAlī Shāh (1835–1899), who had several of his works of mystical poetry printed, including his Tafsīr-i Safī (The Interpretation of Safi) (1890), a mystical commentary on the Qurʿān in Persian verse. By the turn of the twentieth century religious works were the steadiest sellers in the country.

The writings of Safī ʿAlī Shāh further bring into focus the transnational characteristics that were so important to the development of Islamic printing, placing printing arm in arm with traveling. By using the new steamship networks to travel from Iran to Mumbai, Safī was able to tap into a Muslim printing industry far in advance of that of his homeland: in 1872 it was not in Iran but in Mumbai that his first work—the lengthy mystical poem on the Shīʿī passion Zubdat al-asrār (Essence of the Secrets)—was printed. Other Iranians also made use of Mumbai's highly developed printing scene. After the leader of the Ismāʿīlī Muslims, Aqa Khan I (Āqā Khān Maḥallātī, d. 1881), moved to Mumbai in 1861, he published his autobiographical ʿIbrat-afzā (By Way of Example) there. The same period saw other Iranian expatriates setting up as printers in the city, such as Mīrzā Muhammad Shīrāzī, who in 1868 opened a Persian-language bookstore and publishing house in Mumbai and over the following decades printed a series of secular and religious works, including Dawlatshāh Samarqandīʾs Āyāt al-wilāyah (Signs of Guardianship), a classic work upholding the foundational Shīʿī claim of ʿAlīʾs succession to Muhammad.

By the middle of the nineteenth century Mumbai's printers were already issuing books in Arabic and Persian as well as such Indo-Muslim vernaculars as Gujarati, Sindhi, and Urdu, a pace of development that was fuelled by the wider industrialization of the city. Mumbai also exported Indian-printed Muslim books for sale in Iran; others were exported to Muslim readers around the Indian Ocean, ranging from such old Muslim regions as the Arabian peninsular to new colonial Muslim communities in Africa. An example of the latter case is Riyāz̤-i Sūfī, (Travails of the Sufi) an Urdu biography of an Indian Muslim missionary to Natal that was printed in Mumbai in 1913 and promptly exported to South Africa. Mumbai was only one example of the wider role of port cities as both printing and distribution centers, and as early as 1830 the Muslims of Cape Town had attempted to print their own religious works through the port city's maritime connections with Calcutta and later Istanbul. Such ports of print therefore included cities as diverse as Beirut, Istanbul, Mumbai, Calcutta, Singapore, Cape Town, and Mombasa. Each supplied their different regional markets with the distinct products they required, ranging from Arabic and Persian books to religious works in such languages as Bengali, Malay, and Swahili.

Religious works were first printed in Kabul under the aegis of Amīr ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Khān (r. 1880–1901) as part of his mission to defend his country from imperial aggression. An example is Taqwīm al-dīn (The Correcting of Religion), a compilation of rulings by thirteen clerics on the legitimacy of the Amīrʾs rule, the merits of jihād, and the fallacies of Wahhābī doctrine. In Central Asia, after the introduction of a printing press in 1868 as part of the Russian conquest, religious works were at the heart of the development of a local trade in printed books, beginning in 1883 with the Sabāt al-ʿAjizīn (Perseverance for the Infirm) of the eighteenth-century conformist mystic Ṣūfī Allāh Yār. A few decades later printing became key to the proselytizing efforts of the Central Asian reformist Jadīd movement.

From Printing to Publishing.

Exactly when Islamic printing turned into publishing 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 1860 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 print shops were truly publishers. Publishing is above all 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 ʿAbbās and Ismāʿīl demonstrates one side of the picture. The climacteric between printing and true publishing seems to have occurred during the reigns of Khedive ʿAbbās I (r. 1848–1854) and Khedive Saʿīd (r. 1854–1863). This was a turbulent era in Egyptian publishing. The Būlāq press, moribund during the last years of Muḥammad ʿAlī'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 al-munī (The Shining Moon) along with other works by the tenth-century Shāfiʿī scholar ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Shaʿranī; fourteen of his works were printed between 1858 and 1861, some privately and some at Būlāq under private contract. It was in this period too that the first attempts were made to print the Qurʿān, but this complex venture was doomed.

Other books central to Islamic theology were printed: Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī ’s Ṣaḥīḥ (1863), a canonical collection of the Prophet 's sayings; Muḥyī al-Dīn ibn al-ʿArabī’s Futūḥāt al-Makkīyah (The Meccan Revelations) (1857); and Rūḥ al-bayān fī tafsīr al-Qurān (Spirit of Clarity in Explaining the Quran), a popular work by Ismāʿīl Ḥaqqī, 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 1850. 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.

Again, it is important to balance this Middle Eastern perspective by reference to the Indian scene, where Muslim commercial publishing developed earlier. The vast urbanized Muslim population of North India seems to have offered a larger market than the more restricted urban centers of Egypt, and many forms of Islamic “religious” writings—from the poetry of Jalāl al-dīn Rūmī (d. 1273) to tales of the Prophet's uncle Abū Hamzah and popular do-it-yourself treatises on Islamic occultism—were still consumed by Urdu- and Persian-reading Hindus until the early twentieth century. We have already noted the export of Indian Muslim books by sea, but overland trade routes were also important. Indiaʾs publishing entrepreneurs thus produced printed books in Pashto (the majority of them prayer books or other ritual texts) prior to the establishment of a printing press in Kabul under royal orders in the early 1870s, and Indian-printed Persian works also reached the Central Asian cities of Samarqand and Bukhara.

Turāth and Daʿwah.

This link of printing to the spread of Islamic reform has been observed in many parts of the world, not least with regard to the now globally operative Jamāʿat-i Islāmī and Tablīghī Jamāʿat movements that emerged in colonial India. 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 was reached, 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 turāth (heritage) and daʿāwah (piety or propaganda). Publishers began to specialize in one or the other. Yūsuf al-Bustānī, a leading Cairo bookseller, in his catalog for 1934 displays few if any of the latter but a decided interest in the former. Turāth works are most often reprints of classic works in the Islamic sciences. Sometimes hot topics broke into print, such as Muṣṭafā al-Karīmī 's polemical work of 1921 against the Wahhābīs, Risālat al-Sunnīyīn (Letter to the Sunnīs).

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 turāth reprinted at Beirut by publishers such as Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī and Dār al-Jīl. 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 Middle Eastern specialty stores in the United States and Europe.

Works of daʿāwah too have their specialist publishers and readership. This large category of works includes sophisticated intellectual commentary on the spiritual and cultural life of Islam, such as works by the Egyptians Muḥammad al-Ghazālī and Muḥammad ʿAmmārah published by Dār al-Shurūq. This prominent publishing firm was founded in Cairo in 1961 by Muḥammad al-Muʿallim, a graduate of Cairo University's prestigious Dār al-ʿUlūm. At the outset the company was called Dār 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-Muʿallim directed the state-owned company for a short time, after which he invested in a new, independent publishing house he named Dār al-Shurūq. 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 Quṭb, returning to Egypt after Nasser's death. In the 2000s, Dār al-Shurūq publishes in Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, bringing out books of daʿāwah as well as turāth.

In the early twenty-first century each Arab and Islamic country has its publishing houses for turāth and daʿāwah. 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, so Turkish Muslims have access to the writings of the Egyptian Islamic martyr Sayyid Quṭb, for example.

Statistics on the publication of religious books as a percentage of all publishing in Islamic countries are unavailable or inaccurate, but it is unanimously agreed by publishers in the region that religious subjects have dominated trade publishing since the 1990s. It is no exaggeration to say that it is the income from their religious books that pulls many a publisher and bookseller into profitability.

Islamic Works in Non-Traditional Languages.

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 Qurʿān along with commentaries by leading figures such as the late Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī of Pakistan and the Egyptian preacher Muḥammad Mutawallī al-Shaʿrawī. Also available are selected works from the corpus of Islamic literature—the life of the Prophet, ḥadīth, 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 Quṭb and the Iranian teacher and writer ʿAlī Sharīʿatī, Muslim thinkers of the mid-twentieth century, once proscribed in their own countries and their authors martyred, are also available in English. In the last decades of the twentieth century, the globalization of the English language combined with patterns of postwar immigration to foster a vast new Islamic literature both composed and printed in English. Similar patterns can be observed to a lesser extent with regard to other European languages and nations, particularly France and Germany.



  • Albin, Michael W.“The Survival of the Bulaq Press under Abbas and Said (1848–63).”International Journal of Orientalist Librarians30–31 (1987): 11–17. On middle period of Egyptian printing.
  • Avery, Peter. “Printing, the Press, and Literature in Modern Iran.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, edited by Peter Avery, Gavin Hambly, and Charles Melville, vol. 7, pp. 815–869. Cambridge, U.K., 1991. Places printing in social and political contexts; strongest on 20th century.
  • Cole, Juan R. I.“Printing and Urban Islam in the Mediterranean World, 1890–1920.” In Modernity and Culture: From the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, edited by Leila Tarazi Fawaz and C. A. Bayly, with the collaboration of Robert Ilbert, pp. 344–364. New York, 2002. Short but wide-ranging examination of the impact of printing on the spread of Islamic reform.
  • Diehl, Katharine Smith. “Lucknow Printers, 1820–1850.” In Comparative Librarianship: Essays in Honour of Professor D. N. Marshall, edited by N. N. Gidwani, pp. 115–128. Delhi, India, 1973. Short survey of birth of Indiaʾs indigenous Persian/Urdu print industry.
  • Faruqui, Jalees A.Reading Habits in Pakistan: Report. Karachi, Pakistan, 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.
  • Khalid, Adeeb. “Printing, Publishing, and Reform in Tsarist Central Asia.”International Journal of Middle East Studies26, no. 2 (1994): 187–200. Overview of early Central Asian printing and use of printing by early twentieth century ‘Jadīd’ modernists.
  • Laffan, Michael Francis. Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma below the Winds. London and New York, 2003. Contains a useful chapter on Islamic printing in Southeast Asia.
  • Marzolph, Ulrich, ed.Das gedruckte Buch im Vorderen Orient. Dortmund, Germany, 2002. Essays comprising the most comprehensive survey of the development of Arabic and Persian printing in the Middle East.
  • Noor, Wasil. “Chronological Survey of the Dari Books Published in Afghanistan.”Central Asia: Journal of Area Study1, no. 5 (1980): 78–156. Overview of early Afghan Persian (“Dari”) printed books.
  • Robinson, Francis. “Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print.”Modern Asian Studies27, no. 1 (1993): 229–251. Argues that printing radically undermined traditional forms of Muslim religious authority in India.
  • Rochlin, S. A.“Early Arabic Printing at the Cape of Good Hope.”Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies7, no. 1 (1933): 49–54. Short overview of Qurʿān printing in nineteenth century South Africa, with large bibliography.
  • Roper, Geoffrey, ed. Historical Aspects of Printing and Publishing in Languages of the Middle East. Brill, 2013.
  • Scheglova, Olimpiada. “Lithograph Versions of Persian Manuscripts of Indian Manufacture in the Nineteenth Century.”Manuscripta Orientalia5, no. 1 (1999): 12–22. Useful study of types of Persian books traded between India and Iran.
  • Shaw, G. W.“Maṭbaʿa.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 6, pp. 794–807. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960–. Starting point for historical research on printing in India, Turkey, Iran, and the Arab countries.
  • Storey, C. A.“The Beginnings of Persian Printing in India.” In Oriental Studies in Honour of Cursetji Erachji Pavry, edited by Jal DasturCursetji Pavry, pp. 457–461.London, 1933. Survey of the early British promotion of Persian printing in Calcutta.
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