Syriac words in the Koran

To what extent does the Koran contain Syriac words?  I’ve been reading a review of Christoph Luxenberg’s book about the Koran  by Martin F. J. Baasten in Aramaic Studies 2.2 (2004), pp. 268-272 (here), and finding it rather excellent.  It has been claimed — he cautiously states — that 80% of all loan-words in the Koran are from Syriac. 

Luxenberg has asked whether some passages in the Koran, which are difficult to understand, make more sense if you strip off the vowel-markings, thereby discarding the standard understanding of the text, and imagine that they contain Syriac loan words.

During the first century of the Arabic period, texts were written without all the marks above and below the line which indicate vowels, and indeed distinguish some consonants.  As Baasten rightly remarks, Arabic is a seriously defective script in this respect; worse than Syriac, where only two letters can be so affected.  Only seven Arabic letters — the rasm — are unique without some dotting.

Apparently some passages really do make much more sense if you do this.  Baasten gives a single example.

The implications of this for the transmission of the Koran are considerable.  If this can be proven, then it means that the Koran did not initially circulate orally, but passed through an early stage in written form, without vowel markings.  Only such a stage can account this symptom.

This would not be unreasonable.  There is no real reason to suppose that early followers of Mohammed memorised the new document, which was dribbling out chapter by chapter anyway.  It is likely that writing was used.  Thus we have the situation where early Korans differed, and a recension had to be created by the early Caliph Othman.  This situation also indicates that a good many people did NOT know the Koran orally, and relied on a written form of the text.

It seems that Luxenberg has overstated his thesis, however, and derived far more than this from Syriac sources, and much more tendentiously.  This is unfortunate, as it tends to undermine the credibility of his work.  But thus far, it would seem likely that he has indeed discovered something solid. 


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.

UPDATE: (31st October 2018): A kind commenter (below) has drawn my attention to a relevant article.  It is Kathryn A Schwartz, “Did Ottoman Sultans Ban Print?” in: Book History 20 (2017) p.1-39.  This article really consists of a literature search, trying to find the origins of the claim.  Few will have access to this, so I will summarise what she found.

1. The firmans of Bayezid II and Selim I, which created the ban on printing

She tells us that no such firmans have reached us.  Unfortunately it is unclear whether this lack is significant – do we have that many firmans from that period?  But she has found what she believes to be the source for the claim that these two Sultans banned printing:

It appears that the first person to publish this assertion was the French Franciscan priest and cosmographer Andre Thevet (1502–90).

Thevet wrote about the firmans in the second volume of his eight volume work entitled The True Portraits and Lives of Illustrious Greek, Latin, and Pagan Men. [88] Printed from Paris in 1584, the book comprised chapters on distinguished historical figures. In Thevet’s chapter on “Jean Guttemberg, Inventor of Printing,”[89] he compared the invention and adoption of printing in Europe to the absence of the technology in the East: What I know for sure is that the Greeks, Armenians, Mingrelians (Mingrelias), Abyssinians, Turks, Persians, Moors, Arabs & Tartars do not write their books except by hand. [And] that among the others, the Turks are constrained by the ordinance (ordinance) of Baiazeth, second in name, their Emperor [i.e., Bayezid II], published in the year fourteen hundred eighty-three, carrying the prohibitions (defenses), on the pain of death to not consume (de n’user) printed books, which was the ordinance confirmed by Selim, first of name [i.e., Selim I], his son, [in] the year one thousand five-hundred fifteen.

88. André Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres, Grecz, Latins, et payens, recueilliz de leurs tableaux, livres, medalles antiques, et modernes (Paris: Par la vefue I. Keruert et Guillaume Chaudiere, 1584), Vol. 2, 515 verso.  [Both vols are on Google Books: Vol.1; Vol.2]

Here it is:

Thevet, therefore, is writing in 1580.  Selim’s firman was in 1515, Bayezid II’s after 1492. Schwartz points out various problems with Thevet’s testimony, and attempts to suggest that in general he is not a reliable witness.

2.  Statement by Marsigli that no ban existed as such

She continues:

Moreover, other early modern European reports contradicted Thevet’s claim. Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli (1658–1730), for example, challenged the notion that the sultans banned printing. Marsigli had first-hand dealings with the Ottomans for twenty years from the 1680s. He travelled in the empire, battled against it in service to the Habsburgs, and lived amongst Ottoman janissaries as a prisoner of war.96

In Marsigli’s book on the Ottoman military, he refuted the notion of the Ottoman printing ban: “The Turks, it is true, do not print their books at all. But this is not, as is commonly believed, because they are prohibited to print, or because their books are unworthy of printing.”97

Marsigli’s statement ought to carry significant credibility due to his fluency in the Ottoman language and his abiding bibliophila. He amassed more than six hundred oriental manuscripts during his travels.98 And beyond that, Marsigli was himself a printer who worked with Medici oriental typefaces at the press that he established in Bologna.99

The reference is: Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, L’Etat militaire de l’empire ottoman, ses progrès et sa décadence, 1732.  Vol. 1, p.40.  Italian with French translation.  This too is online here.  The full paragraph is:

Les Turc ne sont point à la verité imprimer leurs ouvrages mais ce n’est pas comme on le croit communement parceque l’Imprimerie leur est défendue ou que leurs ouvrages ne méritent pas l’impression. Ils ne veulent pas empêcher tant de Copistes au nombre de quatre-vingt dix mille lorsque j étais à Constantinople de gagne leur vie ; & c’est ce que les Turcs ont dit eux-mêmes aux Chrétien & aux juifs qui vouloient introduire l’imprimerie dans l’Empire pour en faire leur profit.

The Turks indeed never print their works, but this is not, as is believed commonly, because printing is banned or because their works are not worth printing.  They do not wish to prevent so many copyists, to the number of 86,000 when I was at Constantinople, from earning a living; and it is this that the Turks have said themselves to Christians and to Jews who wished to introduce printing into the empire to make a profit.

3.  The first extant firman – Murad III

She writes:

Murad (r. 1574–95) issued the earliest extant firman concerning print in 1588. It survives at the back of the 1594 Arabic edition of Euclid’s Elements published by the Medici Oriental Press in Rome.42 The firman asserted the rights of two European merchants to their trade of “valuable printed books and pamphlets in Arabic” within the empire.43 It ordered that the traders were to henceforth be left unmolested by those who “are opening up their shipments by force, and with little or no payment at all are taking their wares and interfering with their trade.”

  1. Euclid, Euclidis Elementorum geometricorum libri tredecim (Rome: In typographia Medicea, 1594), verso of last page.

43. Christopher M. Murphy, trans., “Appendix: Ottoman Imperial Documents Relating to the History of Books and Printing,” in The Book in the Islamic World: The Written Word and Communication in the Middle East, ed. George N. Atiyeh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 283.

Let’s have that firman, in Murphy’s translation.  It was issued in October 1588:


Be it hereby known to all governors, sea captains, judges, and other officials stationed in the Imperial domain that two European merchants by the name of Anton and Orasyu [Horatio] Bandini, being bearers of Imperial permission to conduct trade, are buying and selling and doing business by importing certain goods and valuable printed books and pamphlets in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Some persons are opening up their shipments by force, and with little or no payment at all are taking their wares and interfering with their trade. It is therefore directed that the said merchants and their agents and employees be allowed to carry on their business in safety and that their merchandise be not seized, and that whosoever disobeys this decree of mine be reported immediately. It is also ordered that their books and goods be purchased in return for the payment of the correct price and that there should no longer be any complaints in this matter. Written in Constantinople on the first of Zilhicce in the year of the Hijrah 996.

4.  The second extant firman – Ahmed III

This is the firman that allowed a Hungarian renegade who called himself Ibrahim Muteferrika – his original name is unknown – to print secular texts.  Schwartz writes:

Ahmed’s 1727 firman endowed a permit to print to the aforementioned Muteferrika, a Unitarian convert to Islam who reached prominence in the imperial court. As the Medici Press did with their firman from Murad, Muteferrika printed this firman in the first book that he reproduced, the 1729 Ottoman-Arabic dictionary Kitab-ı Lugat-ı Vankulu….

47. For the full English translations of “Vesiletu’t-Tiba‘a” and the Imperial firman granted to Muteferrika by Ahmed III, refer to Murphy, “Appendix,” 284–92. For their reproductions, along with the endorsements, or taqaz , of the text, refer to Gdoura, Debut de l’imprimerie Arabe, 276–80.

Apparently the book starts with a lengthy essay explaining why printing is a good idea; the firman drew upon it.  The firman, issued in 1727, is rather long: again let’s have Murphy’s translation of it.



This exalted royal order is given to that pinnacle of illustrious persons and notables, the official of the Grand Vezir, Sait, and to that educated select servant of the Palace, Ibrahim, may his nobility increase. It is known that upon the establishment of the rising sun of the religion of Muhammad and that with the brightness of the dawn of Ahmed’s religious community, may God bless him, and it is understood that since that time the enlightened and meritorious masters of religion, God bless them, wrote books and tracts of science and knowledge in order to protect and conserve the verses of the Koran, the traditions of the Prophet, and the entirety of knowledge. And these words served to maintain the good order of the people, and make known the laws of religion and state, and the organization of the state and community. Editing books and writings and collecting eloquent collections of poetry, they progressed and wrote histories and accounts and worked for the preservation and defense of knowledge and works of culture, facilitating and disseminating sciences and arts. People knowledgeable in Arabic and Persian profited from their explaining and teaching, and organizing the regulations for each of the particular sciences and disciplines. This being proper, in order that they would possess eternal happiness in this world and the next and gain a good reward, they did not cease writing valuable and knowledgeable books and tracts. However, with the passing of days and with the years going by as the Chingizids, created chaotic disturbances and Hulagu rose to power, and with resplendent Andalusia in the hands of the Europeans, and with the convulsions of wars, killing, and destruction, most literary works have disappeared with their authors. Therefore, today in the Muslim lands the dictionaries of Cevheri and Van Kulu in the Arabic language, and books of history and, copies of scientific works which were burned are rare. Also, people did not give proper care and attention, and lacked concern about copying, so works were not carefully copied. These rare books are an inspiration to students of the arts and sciences and to seekers of knowledge.

Among the technical processes, printing is like coining money and impressing paper with a signet ring. Books produced by printing cause several thousand volumes to be produced from a single volume, all of which are accurate copies. With little effort there is great return, making this a desirable activity to pursue. By virtue of your having composed a learned tract about, and having expertise in, the various above-mentioned activities, you will see to the necessities and expenditures without loss of time, so that on a fortunate day this Western technique will be unveiled like a bride and will not again be hidden. It will be a reason for Muslims to say prayers for you and praise you to the end of time. Excepting books of religious law, Koranic exegesis, the traditions of the Prophet, and theology, you asked the Padishah’s permission in the aforementioned tract to print dictionaries, history books, medical books, astronomy and geography books, travelogues, and books about logic. The aforementioned tract was referred to that very learned religious scholar, that most meritoriously pious mariner on the stormy sea of religious questions, that wellspring of the river of legal opinions, that wearer of the garment of piety, the Seyh-ul-Islam and learned jurisconsult, Mevlana Abdullah, may Almighty God increase his goodness. The question was asked: Zeyd claiming expertise in the science of printing, illuminating, and producing copies of the letters and words of dictionaries, logic, philosophy, and astronomy texts, and like works, thus being able to produce exact copies of these books, is there not permission in the Holy Law for this good work? The one who is an expert at printing seeks a legal opinion because producing an accurate edition of a work in a short time, with no errors and many copies, results in there being an increased number of books, which is a benefit to the community. The answer is: Being able to produce this great benefit, this person receives permission with the condition that several educated persons be appointed as proof readers. Great benefit will come from the order based on that legal opinion, allowing for the exception of the religious subjects mentioned in the tract written with the pearl pen of wisdom. This legal opinion is well prepared and it stands out in a vast ocean as exemplary in the Seyh’s career. What falls from his pen in the form of authoritative opinion is an overflowing garden, a basin of sweet water, a river which waters the desert with springs. The Imperial permission becomes proper on account of this well-explained authoritative declaration, this perfectly eloquent and noble opinion. Copies will be printed of dictionaries, and books about logic, astronomy and similar subjects, and so that the printed books will be free from printing mistakes, the wise, respected and meritorious religious scholar specializing in Islamic Law, the excellent Kazi of lstanbul, Mevlana Ishak, and Selaniki’s Kazi, Mevlana Sahib, and Ghalata’s Kazi, Mevlana Asad, may their merits be increased, and from the illustrious religious orders, the pillar of the righteous religious scholars, the Seyh of the Kasim Pasha Mevlevihane, Mevlana Musa, may his wisdom and knowledge increase, will oversee the proofreading. With the actual setting up of the press, the above-mentioned books in history, astronomy, geography, logic and so forth, after they pass the review of the learned scholars, shall become numerous. However, you will take special care to see that the copies remain free from error and depend on the noble learned men for this. Ordered in the middle of Zulka’de in the year 1139 in Istanbul the protected.

The remainder of the article is dedicated to the references to the ban in European writers; and ends with a curious statement that, whether or not there ever was a ban, the important thing is to remove from the question the opinions of contemporaneous westerners.

What do we make of this?  It comes down to a few statements.

  • We don’t have copies of the firmans of Beyazit II (1493?)and Selim I(1515), nor any real evidence for their existence.  But we don’t know whether our lack of knowledge is significant.
  • We have a statement by Thevet (1584) that such a ban was brought in.  But Thevet may not be reliable.
  • We have a firman by Murad (1588) allowing a foreign merchant to sell printed books.  But this doesn’t really bear upon the question.
  • We have the statement by Marsigli (1680) that no legal ban existed but that printing simply did not happen because there were thousands of people earning a living by copying books.
  • We have a firman by Ahmed in 1727, permitting the printing of books other than those connected to Islam.  The terms of the firman, and the long book before it, make clear that no printing had ever taken place, as far as the authors knew.

This is all useful data.  This data seems to make quite clear that printing was not allowed to take place before 1727, despite the repeated importunity of foreigners who could see the opportunity to make a fortune.

Whether the ban was effectuated by a firman by Beyazit II and Selim I – and a firman only lasted for the reign of the Sultan – or by some other extra-legal process – is perhaps a technical detail.  The point is that there was plainly a ban in practical effect.


Errors in the transmission of the Koran

The following article from Almasry Alyoum sheds an interesting light on claims that manuscripts of the Koran are without error.

Koran Copies Full of Mistakes on the Markets
By  Ahmed el-Beheiri    12/8/2008 

Several flawed copies of the Koran are put on sale from time to time and several of these copies have recently appeared on the markets. Some suras (chapters) are completely missing, while some have been completed with others.

This is described as a great negligence on the part of publishing and distribution houses in dealing with the act of pressing and collecting the verses of the Holy Koran.

Al-Masry al-Youm has obtained one of these copies full of mistakes. It was published by a publishing and distribution house (“Al-Misriya lil Nashr wa al-Tawzie”) that had been authorized by the Islamic Research Academy to print and distribute 40,000 copies.

The copies contain several mistakes in the collection and arrangement of the papers.

Speaking to al-Masry al-Youm, the director of the department in charge of research and composition, Abdel Zaher Abdel Razek, said that the house staff had made mistakes in collecting and arranging the papers of the Koran. As a result, he said, some suras had disappeared while others were completed with others.

He put the blame for the mistakes on the publishing house owner, as the copies were not reviewed once again before being launched on the markets.

“We will have no leniency on the publishing house owner and the others who made the same mistake” he added. “We will send him a strong letter to warn him and call on him to commit to precision and preserve the sacredness of the Holy Koran when printing it, otherwise he will lose his license to print it”.