Medieval Islam: A Kitāb-Centered Civilisation

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Irfan Shahid

The felicitous Qurʿānic phrase ʻahl al-kitābʼ, the ʻPeople of the Bookʼ, is applied in the Qurʿān to the Jews and Christians, but it is in fact even more applicable to the Muslims privileged place of the Qurʻān in Islam as a religion and in the life of the Muslims as a community. The distinctive characteristics of the Qurʾān may be summarized as follows.[1]

While the old and new Testaments were written by inspired human beings who, in addition to their own words, conveyed the word of God to an erring humanity, the Qurʾān is the actual word of God from beginning to end. The human involvement in it is limited solely to the fact that the Prophet Muḥammad was the one to whom the word of God was revealed through the archangel Gabriel. The Qurʾān is held to be qadīm, eternal: not created but in existence from the very beginning and God'd good time revealed to the Prophet Muḥammad. More important still are two doctrines concerning the Qurʾān is ʿarabī (Arabic), that is, revealed through the medium of the Arabic language. This doctrine was to have far-reaching consequences in early Islamic civilisation. The second doctrine concerns the concept of iʿjāz, that is, the inimitability of the Qurʾān. This term has been variously understood[2]and has most commonly been accepted in literary terms.[3]

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No wonder then that the life of the Muslim community has been, and still is, what might be termed Qurʾāno-centric. In this sense the Muslims are the ʻPeople of the Bookʼ, Ahl al-Kitāb par excellence, and the Qurʾān is the Book: al-Kitāb.[4]

It was only natural that a holy book of this description and with these unique and striking doctrines should affect the course of Arab and Islamic literature and culture. Religious and linguistic sciences developed rapidly in the early Islamic period, almost immediately after the authoritative edition of the Qurʾānic text was determined during the caliphate of ʻUthmān, 644-56. In the early period, and under the stimulus of Queʾānic analysis, the varius disciplines of philology, tafsīr, ḥadīth and others flourished. All such studies revolving round the Qurʾān in the first century of the Islamic era were pursued by the Arabs themselves, with only a few exceptions. Thus, quite early in Islamic times the first layer of what developed into the edifice of Arabic Islamic culture consisted of studies stimulated bythe Book- the Qurʾān or al-Kitāb- and in books written about it. These studies set the tone for the subsequent development of Islamic civilisation as one that might accurately be designated a ʻcivilisation of the bookʼ.

In more specialised sense, it was the Qurʾān that contributed to, even necessitated, the perfection of Arabic script[5]and Arabic calligraphy, both of which had not been well developed in prè-Islamic times. Writing materials are mentioned in the Qurʾān: qalam, reed pen; midād, ink; qirṭās, papyrus and raqq, parchment.[6] They are mentioned approvingly and indeed Godswears by the pen and by writing in the Sūra of the pen: ʻBy the pen and that which they writeʼ[7] Again, in another sūra, the first to be revealed[8], it is stated that God has chosen to teach mankind through the pen:

Recite in the Name of the Lord who created,

Created man from a clot;

Recite and thy Lord is the most bounteous;

Who taught by the pen;

Taught man that which he knew not.

In order to preserve the purity and accuracy of the Qurʾānic revelations it was imperative that Arabic script should develop quickly. This process started with the authoritative edition of the Qurʾān during the caliphat of ʿUthmān (mentioned above) and was to continue for some time.

As the desire to produce an accurate edition of the Qurʾān gave rise to a more precise Arabic Script, so the desire grew to a script that was also aesthetically attractive and worthy of the holy book: a script worthy of the voice of the deity. The doctrine of the Qurʾān, iʿjāz, further accelerated this process. The result was a flowering of Islamic calligraphy, an art from about which neither the Qurʾān nor later Islamic thought has had any reservations. Calligraphy, al-khaṭṭ, is the Islamic art par excellence.[9]It was natural that its finest specimens should be the Qurʾānic text itself; it became an act of piety not only to copy the Qurʾān but also to elevate the script artistically to a degree of excellence that reflected the incomparable word of God.[10]

Thus in addition to being the scripture of Muslims for devotional purposes, the Qurʾān became the names by which calligraphy found its fullest expression.[11]So, in this narrow, technical sense the Qurʾān can be said to be the book of the Islamic world, the one that has received the most attention from Muslim artists for centuries, a process which still continues today.

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It was not only the Arab-Muslim community which ʻa people of the bookʼ but also millions of non-Arab peoples of widely differing ethnic groups, who lived within the boundaries of what became a vast Muslim empire extending from India to Spain. These various Muslim communities were ʻpeoples of the bookʼ since, as Muslims, they quickly came to view the Qurʾān as central to their religious life in much the same way that Muslim Arabs had done. The doctrine of the Arabic Qurʾān involved them in the spoken word of the Arabic language as they had to learn Arabic to comprehend their scriptures and take part in the cultural life of the Muslim empire, which was for many centuries expressed through the medium of Arabic.[12]The Qurʾānic doctrine, that of iʿjāz, also contributed to the involvement of this non-Arab Muslim community in literature as it exalted literary excellence of the summit of artistic achievement. Both these doctrines, related to each other as they were, involved Muslims in language and literature, its artistic expression, the physical manifestation of which was the book. This partiality to literature, and with it the book, was enhanced for Muslims by the attitude of Islam to other forms of art.

Although the Qurʾān does not expressly forbid painting or sculpture, it is possible to conclude from the Ḥadīth and the practice of the conservative Muslim community that it did not smile on representational art, especially in the sphere of religion. While Christian churches are adorned with representational are, the Islamic mosque is singularly free of any specimens of this art, as it is devoid of music.[13]Islamic Persia presents an exception, since a brilliant tradition of painting flourished there, including religious painting such as that depicting the Prophet's night journer (al-Israʾ). But even in this part of the Islamic world the gravitational effect of literature and the book on representational art is striking. Persian Islamic painting was largely book painting: illustrations of books such as the Maqāmāt, the Shāhnāmah, the Miʿrājnāma and Rashīd al-Dīn'sJāmiʿ al-Tawārīkh.[14] This concentration on literature distinguished early Islamic civilisation from its Christian counterpart, which enlisted all the arts in its service. Thus, within the structure of early Islamic civilisation, literature become the main art from towards which were channelled the artistic talents of most Muslims.[15] The word- spoken and written- was and has remained the most important medium of Muslim artists. Even in modern times, literature has retained its privileged position in Muslim cultural life, in spite of the fact that other arts, such as painting and sculpture, have found their way into the Muslim artistic scene.

Literature and the art of the book received a further great impetus a flourishing industry in the early Islamic world: the manufacture of paper. Originally invented by the Chinese, paper became known to Muslims in Central Asia and was developed by them through the employment of new materials and the discovery of new methods. ʻIn so doing, they accomplished a feat of crucial significance not only to the history of the Islamic book but also to the whole world of booksʼ.[16] This was indeed a revolution in the fortunes of the book, which was completed centuries later by another revolution, that of the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. Neither parchment nor papyrus was able to bring about such a revolution as paper did; a revolution which benefited both men of letters and producers of books.

The cultural explosion in Islamic effected by the introduction of paper and the development of the paper industry was reflected in various ways. The flowering of that industry is testified to by the many types of paper that were in use: the firʿawnī, the sulymānī, the ṭalḥī,the ṭāhirī and the nūḥī.[17] The specialised craftsmen that were involved of books are also witness to the same phenomenon. These were organized in guilds with their own shaykhs. Warrāq is the most comprehensive term including many of the occupations connected with book production, though there were many more specialised terms. The proliferation of the various occupations and functions related to wirāqa (book making) is itself eloquent of the place of book production in medieval Islamic culture. They comprise the nassākh, the transcriber; the khaṭṭāṭ, the calligrapher; the muṣawwir, painter; the ṭarrāḥ, the sketcher; the mudhahhib, the gulder; the qāṭiʿ, the mujallid, the bookbinder.

Finally, the extraordinary efflorescence of the art of book production in ʻthe civilisation of the bookʼis reflected in the vast number of repositories where these books were assembled, namely the libraries, the maktabāt. The spread of libraries was a natural concomitant of the spread of Islam, science the mosque quickly developed into a centtr of learning, which eventually led to the foundation of the madrasa. Libraries spread over the entire Islamic world, the three most important being in ʿAbbāsid Baghdād, Fāṭimid Cairo and Umayyad Cordova.

These libraries have vanished, but trances of the books they contained may be seen in the vast numbers of manuscripts that survived, the best testimony to the paramount importance of the book in medieval Islam. Literally hundreds of thousands of Arabic and Islamic manuscripts[18] still exist. This paramountcy can ultimately be traced back to the Qurʾān itself and its unique centrality in the life of the billion Muslims on this planet.


[1] The following points are well known to Qurʾānic scholars for a siscussion the reader may be reffered to the article on the Qurʾān by A. Welch in the new Encyclopedia of Islam and its bibliography, vol. v, pp. 400-29.

[2] What the iʿjāz consists of has been variously interpreted and hotly debated throughout the ages. As recently as 1964 two nassive on this subject were published See, ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Khaṭīb, Iʾjāz al-Qurʾān, (Cairo, 1964).

[3] For the most recent treatment of the concept of iʿjāz, and its acceptance in literary terms, see, ʿIrfān Shahīd in ʻAnother Contribution to Koranic Exegesis: the Sūra Poets,ʼJournal of Arabic Literature, xiv, pp. 1-21.

[4] This concept of iniqueness, through the Arabic definite article al, is reflected in the following Islamic terms related to the Prophet: al-Rasūl (the Prophet Muḥammad); al-Dīra (the biography of the prophet); al-Ḥadīth (the Traditions of the Prophet); al-Bayt (the House of Prophet as in Ahl al-Bayt); Al-Kitāb (the Qurʾān) takes its place alongside these terms.

[5] The standard work on Arabic script is Adolf Grohmann's Arabische Pälaeographie, vols. i-ii, (Vienna, 1967 and 1971), to which must be added the article ʻKhaṭṭʼ in the Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. iv, pp. 1113-28.

[6] See, Sūrat al Qalam; 1, al-Kahf, 109; al-Anʿām, 7; al-Ṭūr, 2.

[7] Sūrat al-Qualam, 1.

[8] Sūrat al-ʿAlaq, 1-5.

[9] The most recent work on calligraphy with a full bibliography is Annemarie Schimmel's Calligraphy and Islamic Culture, (New York, 1984).

Professor Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Munajjid, whom this Festschrift salutes, contributed an article on Arabic-Islamic Calligraphy, ʻWomen's Role in the Art of Arabic Calligraphyʼ, to G. Atiyeh, (ed.) The Book in the Islamic World, (Albany, 1995), pp. 141-8.

[10] See, David James, Qurʾān of the Mamlūks, (London, 1988) for the latest on this subject. The volume contains a brief and lucid discussion of the devotion lavished on the Qurʾān by Muslims throughout the ages, especially in the area of calligraphy and illumination. The book also includes many beautiful colour illustrations.

[11] To which may be added the arts of bookbinding and decoration.

[12] This is in sharp with the practice of the early Christian Church, at least in the Byzantine Orient, which favoured the translation of the Bible into the languages of the people converted to Christianity, who thus did not have to read their holy book in Greek or Syriac.

[13] While the materials and instruments of writing and literature are mentioned approvingly in the Qurʾān, those of the other arts,- painting, sculpture, and muscc- are not mentioned, let alone honoured. The Qurʾān remains silent on the brush, the chisel and the string to the advantage of the pen and the written word. In the Qurʾān, God has revealed Himself in a book, not through any other medium, and He swears by it.

[14] See, the chapter titled ʻin J. Pedersen, The Arabic Book, G. French (trans.), (Princeton). University Press, 1984), pp. 89-100.

[15] For an elaboration of this point, see, ʻIrfān Shahīd, ʻMedieval Islam: the Literary-Cultural Dimensionʼ in Richard G. Hovannisian and Georges Sabbagh, (eds), Religion and Culture in Medieval Islam, (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 66-78.

[16] Pedersen, The Arabic Book, p. 59.

[17] Ibid., p. 67.

[18] The field in which Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Munajjid especially distinguished himself and for which he will be long remembered.

Source note:
This was published in:
Essays in Honour of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Munajjid, 2002, Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK., p 525-530.