Printing banned by Islam?

Was there a ban on printing in Islam? I saw the following claim online here:

Printing was banned by Islamic authorities because they believed the Koran would be dishonoured by appearing out of a machine. As a result, Arabs did not acquire printing presses until the 18th century.

UPDATE: Geoff Carter in the comments has been tracking it down.  There is some substance to this.  The urls given refer to an article by Muhsin Mahdi, From the manuscript age to the age of printed books, in The Book in the Islamic World, ed. G.N.Atiyeh, State University of New York Press (1995), pp.1-16.  This is not a study, as far as I can see, but rather a series of questions.  So we still haven’t reached bottom of this one.

UPDATE 2: Searching Google books, I found this link, J.G.Taylor, Indonesia, Yale (2004), p.68 in support:

Although the printing press reached Muslim lands from Europe in 1492, Muslim kings banned setting Arabic into type until the early nineteenth century.

No footnotes, tho.   A little light comes from the Quarterly Review, p.475:

An attempt of the same kind had been made by Achmet III., so early as the year 1727: the oulemas gave their consent, but it was rendered nugatory, by excepting the Koran, for a reason, as Mr. Walsh observes, ‘ characteristic of the people—they said it would be an act of impiety if the word of God should be squeezed and pressed together; but the true cause was, that great numbers of themselves earned a considerable income by transcribing those books, which would be at once destroyed, if suffered to be printed.’ As Turks read nothing else but the Koran, the printing-office was soon discontinued. Its renewal by Selim had no better success; it languished and declined on the death of its patron, ‘ who fell a victim to the rage of the Janissaries, for attempting to innovate upon their ancient and venerable ignorance.’

This tends to suggest that any ban originated with the Ottomans, and, as with so much in that miserable state, under a pretence of piety sought to financially benefit certain individuals.  Once the Koran began to be printed, Karpat remarks in The politicization of Islam, p. 231, entrepreneurs quickly issued defective Korans as fast as possible, for profit.

However I have just seen a reference to a specific ban on the Koran in 1727.

In Chambers Edinburgh Journal p. 44, (1848) I find the following:

The Sultan Bajazet II. issued a decree in 1483 forbidding the use of printed books by the Turks, under penalty of death. This decree was afterwards confirmed by his son Selim I. in 1515, and implicitly obeyed by the Mohammedans, with equal ignorance and fanaticism, until the eighteenth century, when, in the reign of Achmet III., Seid-Effendi, who had accompanied his father, the ambassador, to the court of Louis XV. in 1720, was so much struck with the advantages of printing, that he determined his own country should participate in them. For the attainment of this object he employed the services of a Hungarian renegade, who was subsequently surnamed Basmadjy—’ the Printer.’ A memorial was drawn up, by means of which the grand vizier, Ibrahim Pacha, an enlightened protector of literature, obtained a favourable edict from the sultan. But fearful of wounding the religious scruples of his subjects, and of alarming the numerous class of copyists, Achmet forbade the printing of the Koran, the oral laws of the Prophet, the commentaries on these works, and books on jurisprudence—leaving to the industry of the printers philosophical, medical, astronomical, geographical, historical, and other scientific works. The renegade was placed at the head of the new establishment, but the national character was against him ; and notwithstanding his activity, at the time of his death, which happened in 1746, he had not been able to print more than sixteen works. The first was a Turkish and Arabic dictionary, 2 vols. folio, of which the impression was completed in 1729; the price was fixed at thirty- five piastres, by order of the sultan. In the following year a Turkish grammar appeared, a copy of which, with each leaf of a different colour, is still in existence.

Again, no references. 

UPDATE: (12th May 2009)

A most interesting paper by John-Paul Ghobrial addresses the lack of proper references for this story. I have written to the author asking for some more details.

The sources given for the ban in this paper are two:

Nicolas de Nicolay, The navigations, peregrinations and voyages, made into Turkie by Nicholas Nicholay Daulphinois, Lord of Arfeuile. conteining sundry singularities which the author hath there seene and observed;devided into foure books, with threescore figures, naturally set forth as well of men as women, according to the diversitie of nations., T. Washington trans. (London, 1585). p.130.

…Maranes [Marranos] of late banished and driven out of Spaine & Portugale, who to the great detriment and damage of the Christianitie, have taught the Turkes diverse inventions, craftes and engines of warre, as to make artillerie, harquebuses, gunnepouder, shot, and other munitions: they have also there set up printing, not before seene in those countries, by the which in faire characters they put in light divers bookes in divers languages, as Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, and the Hebrewe toungue, being to them natural, but are not permitted to print the Turkie or Arabian tongue.’

The other is “Busbecq”in 1560.   This turns out to be The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq By Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, tr. Charles Thornton Forster, Francis Henry Blackburne Daniell. Published by C. K. Paul, 1881.  Volume 1  is online here, and on p. 255 we find this text:

No nation in the world has shown greater readiness than the Turks to avail themselves of the useful inventions of foreigners, as is proved by their employment of cannons and mortars, and many other things invented by Christians. They cannot, however, be induced as yet to use printing, or to establish public clocks, because they think that the Scriptures, that is, their sacred books – would no longer be scriptures if they were printed, and that, if public clocks were introduced, the authority of their muezzins and their ancient rites would be thereby impaired.

John-Paul Ghobrial suggests that the first reference refers not to a general ban on printing, but to restrictions on dhimmis (=you and me) in an Islamic state doing so in the language of the ruling Moslems. But of course that may or may not be so.

15 thoughts on “Printing banned by Islam?

  1. It is quite possible; I recently covered a similar issue in my blog.

    In a world were only god is perfect, art and architecture are obliged to be imperfect, and craftsmen will deliberately put errors into their work.

    The beautiful geometric decoration typical of Arab art usually contains irregularity to avoid offending god.

  2. Maybe, but I’ve read enough anti-Christian hate-literature to know the sort of thing that gets passed around in that genre of writing, and this rings those bells. I doubt the story is this simple. Who precisely are these “authorities” referred to, one wonders? It seems wrong to me.

  3. From a historical perspective I do not have a problem with the article, it argues that a failure to create a strong ‘secular’ component in society stifles progress. It can be argued that pre-reformation Christianity had a similar effect in Europe, and while printing was not banned, – not for the want of trying, it was kept under strict control.

    It is ironic that in the ‘dark ages’ much pre-Christian learning suppressed by church was preserved by early Islam.

    Any religion, with the power to do so, will attempt suppress aspects of society that threaten its power and authority.

    “They suffer, and they know it, from their failure in most cases to create modern standards of society”.

    He is referring mainly to Arab states, unfortunately, (western) “standards of society” are often incompatible with traditional Islamic culture, in particular with regards to the status of women, and this poses a threat to traditional religious authority, and more broadly the status of men in Islamic society.

  4. Well done for persisting and getting towards the bottom of this, the Islamic world is not as well referenced as classical culture, at least from the western perspective, although language and general unfamiliarity is an obvious issue.

    I had trouble getting good references for the practice of creating deliberate imperfection in art and architecture, which, as noted above, seems consistent with the rejection of printing technology by the Ottomans.

    It can be difficult to appreciate the unconditional reverence for the Koran, and since the book is so absolutely central to the religion, control of it, and its reproduction, was vital for the authorities. The situation is analogous to the attempts to control reproduction and translation of Holy Scripture by the catholic authorities during the C15th 16th, although the different ‘religious’ reasons may be cited.

  5. Thank YOU for your efforts. I don’t think we have reached the bottom; merely obtained more references. But the story does start to become clearer, I think.

    We simply don’t have the handbooks to work on Islam. We need an English translation of Brockelmann’s massive tomes on Arabic literature; we need one of Graf’s volumes on Arabic Christian literature. I did try to get permission to make one of the latter, but got nowhere.

  6. BismillahirRahmanriRahim
    Salamu’alaykum,

    I would also suggest one consider the following information:

    http://www.yursil.com/blog/2008/01/ottoman-quranic-ink/

    Control was not really an issue when it came to the printing press, but rather it was quality, reverence and authenticity which were of upmost important to the Muslims when it came to the distribution of the Holy Quran.

    Understanding symbolism and reverence is necessary when dealing with this topic.

  7. An interesting observation; religious piety, superstition, and the practice of adding ’holiness’ to objects and situations, seems naturally tend to the extreme.

    Trying to determine motivation in terms of contemporary events is contentious and difficult enough, but a distance of half a millennium, it is going to be tough.

    Motivation is invariably multidimensional; Religion may be our only salvation and way to paradise – but it is also one ways that elites control and manipulates the rest of the population, – if Jesus had not said “render unto Caesar . . “ – someone would have had to said it for him.
    Incidentally, Caesar tells us that the Celtic priesthood were anti-literacy, as keepers of an oral cultural tradition; it is easy to see why they might be opposed to new methods of disseminating information.
    One of the key arguments deployed by authorities against ‘freedom of information’ are concerns about quality.

  8. Well, it’s bound to. After all, any opposition to superstition must be opposition to the True Faith! At least, that is what those peddling superstition will try to say; and it will be a brave man who risks being branded as a heretic, however religious he is.

    Think of modern anti-racism/anti-semitism/anti-homophobia ; suggest ever so mildly that the hate is not justified, and the first retort will be to question whether YOU are a “racist/etc.”

    This is why ideologies are so dangerous, particularly if they manage to shut down freedom of speech. (Not that this is all that relevant to this thread, but it’s on my mind because I wrote a post today objecting to a recent law here in the UK and realised that I risked 7 years in prison if I published it and some activist decided to accuse me of inciting hate).

  9. There are issues some related to faith and printing of the holy Quran that is a different issue and serious and lot of merit in it sure. It is s long story. Later.
    But printing in general was never banned.
    Again there are two issues – prepress and printing. Prepress is all about the content and making plates. That was there in The Muslim world all along.
    Prepress also included type setting, yes that was difficult to achieve in Arabic letters as one letter is joined by the next – technical issues.
    However Turkey was the first to solve this problem by converting their letters from Arabic Persian letters to Roman or Latin characters. To blame the Turks they stopped printing is absurd and malicious. Let’s set the record straight.
    There was never ever an edict from any where to block introduction of printing press. People who do not understand printing can only talk like this.

Leave a Reply