Imam Dr Zijad’s Corner: Islam’s Gifts: The Foundation of Renaissance (Part 2)

The Gift of University and the Gift of Paper

Muslims founded universities as centers of high learning in the early ninth century; first in Baghdad and then in Cairo, Faz and Cordova. Cairo’s university – Al Azhar is the oldest existing university in the world – founded in the tenth century, it remains one of the leading Islamic centers.  Besides theology, Al Azhar added to the curriculum social and natural sciences.

Muslim universities of Cordova and Toledo in Spain were well known in Europe. The   hospitals associated with their campuses were frequented by princes of Christian Europe in need of medical care that Europe could not furnish.  Such universities in Muslim Spain became models on which European universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, were based. The new educational institutions in Europe gave European culture an impetus whose rapid development saved Europe many centuries of effort to get to the point that Muslim Spain had presented for free.

Gifts of Paper and Book

The original invention of paper is attributed to the Chinese who made the first kind of paper from dried fiber pulp at about 105 C.E. Around 600 years later, in the eighth century, paper was introduced to Muslims through Central Asia when Muslim armies conquered the region. Muslims instantly saw its practicality and thus Samarkand became the first centre of papermaking, and from there it spread throughout the Muslim Empire to centers such as Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo.

From such centers paper and papermaking flourished in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Spain.  Through the Muslim culture in Spain, paper and papermaking have finally arrived in medieval Europe, where such an industry was put to good use and enhanced the spread of knowledge, reading and learning especially in Germany. The paper on which this book is printed owes its existence in Canada today courtesy of Islamic civilization.

Unfortunately, most accounts of the history of paper focus either on its origins in China or its development in Europe, ignoring the centuries when paper and papermaking developed and spread in Muslim lands.

Islam and Muslims seldom get credit for their immense contribution to Western life, such as in the case of paper which is integral to advances in every facet of the sciences and humanities. Instead of giving Islam and Muslims the rightful place in the process of paper development, accounts of how it developed tend to jump from ancient China before the Christian Era to 15th century Germany and Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable-type printing, ignoring seven centuries in between.

The spread of paper and papermaking skill in the Muslim empire in the period between the eighth and the 14th centuries wrought enormous changes in literature, mathematics, commerce and the arts. The introduction of paper is as important as the invention of printing with moveable type in Germany in the 15th century that spurred a printing and book-making revolution whose effects are still being felt today.

By the end of the tenth century, paper had replaced papyrus and parchment in the Muslim world. Although papyrus was efficient, it was not durable. Parchment, on the other hand, was good material but was made from expensive animal skin. In comparison with both, paper, as an alternative, was easily produced from cotton, linen and other plants such as fiban or even old rags, at a considerably lower cost. Thus, paper was much more inexpensive, durable, absorbing ink and did not crack like papyrus. The absorption of ink was especially important at the time, as it meant that official documents could have more legitimacy.

Paper was ideal to record religious traditions, poetry, literature, and science and mathematical texts. Words, particularly the words of the Qur’an, were central to Islam and Muslims. While the highest value was always placed on oral literary tradition, one which is based on memorization and recitation, writing down sacred words of the Qur’an took on an increasingly important role when paper became available in Muslims lands. The hand-written copies of the Qur’an were scribed in beautiful calligraphy from an earlier period of paper development; such copies remain highly revered.

The primary and most progressive function of paper in the Muslim empire was secular. Paper was the medium for maps, astronomical charts, battle plans, as well as for books in a wide range of literary fields, spanning virtually all subjects from theology to natural sciences and literature. Paper was used for scientific, mathematical and musical notations as well as for architectural plan facilitating experimentation in each discipline.

Muslims refined paper making and designed machines for bulk papermaking such as water-powered mills used in the production process, as well as the trip-hummer. The first paper mill was established in the eighth century in Samarkand and then other paper mills followed throughout Muslim Empire. The trip-hummer (human and animal powered) replaced the traditional Chinese mortal and pestle method. In turn, Muslim methods were later employed by the Chinese themselves.

By the ninth century, Muslims were using paper regularly and thus book production and book binding were introduced in the Muslim Empire. Muslims made books lighter. By the twelfth century in Marrakech in Morocco a street was named Kutubiyyin or book sellers market which contained more than 100 book shops. The results of refinements in paper production allowed libraries in Muslim lands to accumulate thousands of volumes even though books were still copied by hand. Thus, familiarity with paper made for an easier possession of books which became associated with gracious living within the Muslim Empire.

The Muslim conquest of Spain brought paper-making into Spain. After the First Crusade in 1096 C.E., paper manufacturing in Damascus was interrupted by wars with the Crusader kingdoms of the Levant, splitting production into two centers. Thicker paper was produced in Egypt, while thinner paper was a specialty of Iran under Islam. Spain and Sicily eventually became centers for the making and marketing of paper throughout Europe.

The Ottoman Turks suspended the printing presses in Egypt and Syria in the 16th century, so printed materials had to be imported from Europe, for example from Italy or Malta. But printing  eventually resumed in Muslim countries as early as 1710 and then picked up speed by the 18th century,  Europe was already far ahead in science and technology which it used for world dominance; eventually the Europeans, victorious everywhere, dictated  the dominant accounts of world history, in which contributions of Islam and Muslims were all but ignored.

The first paper mills in Europe were set up in Fabriano, Italy, in 1276. Bestowed with paper, Europe  produced  voluminous books and literature in large quantities with the invention of the printing press about 1440 C.E. Paper-making and the printing press have largely contributed to the fast renaissance in other human activities in Europe. This is what Bloom suggests in his book: Without Muslim influence, Europe might have remained ignorant of paper until Marco Polo reached China in the 13th century.

(…to be continued in the next e-newsletter – part 3)