Notes: The Book in the Islamic World

Notes of some chapters in Atiyeh G. N. (1995) The Book in the Islamic World 

Introduction by George N. Atiyeh

1- From the Manuscript Age to the Age of Printed Books by Muhsin Mahdi

2. The Koranic Text: From Revelation to Compilation by Jacques Berque

3. “Of Making Many Books There Is No End”: The Classical Muslim View by Franz Rosenthal

4. Oral Transmission and the Book in Islamic Education by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

5. The Book of Life-Metaphors Connected with the Book in Islamic Literatures by Annemarie Schimmel

6. Biographical Dictionaries: Inner Structure and Cultural Significance by Wadad al-Qadi

7. The Book in the Grammatical Tradition: Development in Content and Methods by Rarnzi Baalbaki

8. Women’s Roles in the Art of Arabic Calligraphy by Salah al-Din al-Munajjid

9. Some Illustrations in Islamic Scientific Manuscripts and Their Secrets by David A. King

10. A Royal Manuscript and Its Transformation: The Life History of a Book by Priscilla P. Soucek and Filiz Cagman

11. Faris Al-Shidyiaq and the Transition from Scribal to Print Culture in the Middle East by Geoffrey Roper

12. The Book in the Modern Arab World: The Cases of Lebanon and Egypt by George N. Atiyeh

13. Mass Higher Education and the Religious Imagination in Contemporary Arab Societies by Dale F. Eickelman

14. The Book in the Islamic World: A Selective Bibliography by Michael W. Albin

Appendix: Ottoman Imperial Documents Relating to the History of Books and Printing


INTRODUCTION by George N. Atiyeh

Ramzi Baalbaki analyses three different stages in the history of Arabic grammar

Sala al-Din al-Munajjid discusses the role of women in copying of the Quran

David Kind analyses book illustrations and how this analysis can develop an understanding of Islamic science and civilization in general.

Geoffrey Roper analyses impact of the printing press for the intellectual, political, and social life in Muslim communities.

George Atiyeh surveys the history of publishing in the Arab world

Eickelman looks instead at the impact that the book has had in the field of education.


From the Manuscript Age to the Age of Printed Books by Muhsin Mahdi

Muhsin Mahdi begins his article by showing examples of how European printers had published books that were faulty (syntactical and grammatical mistakes, confusion between letters)  and not particularly appealing (“ugly”).  The problem with these books was not only their creation but their wide distribution. Mahdi argues that this is one of the main reasons why publishing of religious books was seen with suspicion by Muslims. Mahdi asks, “why were not ways found to overcome such problems before the nineteenth century?” He explains that the reasons might have been economic (not having the printing press at hand being possibly the number one reason), quality control (if those involved in the printing process were not familiar with the language and the text, there was little one could do to control the final results), and transference of skill and techniques from one medium (manuscript) to the other (printing)

Implications of printing:

  • Nationalization of languages – mass printing led to more and more people being proficient in the language of their own country losing the need to learn other languages from the Muslim world
  • State encouraged spread of secular culture – printed material ‘used as instruments of state policy’
  • Role of non-Muslim community in divulging books
  • Intellectuals made enormous contributions via the printing of books and pamphlets

An interesting observation:

In some respects, the book in electronic, machine-readable form will mean a return to one of the main features of the manuscript age: copies can be made and subjected to continuous change and improvement, free of the fixed form introduced by printing and movable type. P. 13

{See, for example, the critical commentary of Kitab al Waraqat fi usul ul fiqh of al-Juwayini is available on an online platform where everyone can add comments on any page, paragraph, or even a phrase that the reader highlights. Isn’t this similar to past commentaries where scholar upon scholar would add notes on the side of the text?}

The Koranic Text: From Revelation to Compilation by Jacques Berque


Though the author claims objectivity (need to assess on the hard facts), it is difficult to follow this text, in my opinion, because he seems to jump from one topic to another often without a clear connection and fails to offer a serious critique of traditional accounts:

One should take special note of this remarkable aspect, that the tradition has kept no record of any substantial disagreements over the text. We only know that the Caliph gave orders to burn the already existing codices, just to avert all debate. Was it to avert it or to close it, or both at the same time? In a community so prone to argument of a subject held close to heart by all, one wonders whether or not to attribute the silence of the sources, just as the latter themselves do, to the unanimous consensus of the multiple witnesses (tawutur) (except for slight phonic variations on a text so collated, and eventually on the details of the layout). Once more, we have no grounds to doubt that. But unanimity on such a scale as the believers claim is owing to divine grace rather than to sociological laws of transmission.

(p. 20)

This passage is discussing the compilation of the Quran, and the silence, from what I understand, over any disagreements that there may have been when all got together to assemble and order the different surahs (the Caliph who is referring to is Uthman). The author seems to accept at face-value the claim that there was no disagreement, and perhaps ambiguously claiming this must be due to the divine nature of the text? (it’s unclear to me)

  • Discussion of meaning of Iqra, not as “read” for its oral style, but “chant”
  • Or “assemble” which however conveys a second operation (collection and organization of verses)
  • Inscription of Quranic verses in segments on different materials (parchments, shoulder blades, palm leaves etc
  • Companions helped the prophet to collate the Quran
  • Suitability of writing over memory (memory/voice was never substituted by writing) P. 21
  • There were means at the time to write the Quran in a more advanced form of writing (to include periods and diacritical marks). The Prophet must have come across other scrolls of the Torah during his lifetime p. 21
  • Words used to describe material to write on: Al Riqq (animal parchment), Qit’ah (parchment or paper), Sahifah (surface), Mushaf (edited copy, an ‘assembly of sheets’ that makes up the Quran)
  • Features of the Quran unlike other monotheistic books:  disorganization and apparent arbitrariness (yet the author notes some can ‘discern a synchronal structure’), abundant alliterations, recurrence of themes seemingly for a didactical purpose. At about half of the Book (surah 52) the tone changes (Medinan legislative surahs / Meccan theological/apocalyptic surahs)
  • Writing as a major art form within Muslim societies

Another development, no less rich in cultural value, is the importance ascribed by Islamic tradition to the “science of letters”, ‘ilm al-huruf. Esoterism, Hermetism and smogony all combined with phonetics ad caligraphy in a manner little intelligible to moderns. p. 25

  • Quran printed in Italy by Tunisian publisher A. Ben Abdallah – a symmetry where certain words and clusters of words in red on the even page appear in the corresponding page also on the odd page.


“Of Making Many Books There Is No End:” The Classical Muslim View by  Franz Rosenthal

Discussing memory/oral transmission vs. the written text:

“Religious scholars would complain that once knowledge was committed to writing, there developed an unending process of writing “book after book after book,” the implication being that oral transmission was more restricted and thus less contaminated and more reliable than the endless array of written material. Even for secular scholars, the great increase in books (alkutub wa-al-tasanif) made it possible for ignoramuses to infiltrate the ranks of qualified intellectuals, and actually diminish the quality of books.” p. 36

Very interesting opinion about fiqh from Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyah (d. 1350) who wrote in a passage that there was no financial responsibility for the destruction of books (p. 39). He used a tradition to back up his claim from Abu Bakr al-Marrudhi (al-Marwazi) who related from Ibn Hanbal, in answer to a question related to the permissibility of burning books with ‘objectionable’ content. The tradition on which Ibn Hanbal based his opinion was the one in which Umar had written down passages from the Torah that agreed with the Quran. The Prophet got upset and asked it for the papers to be burnt down. Ibn Qayyim then wondered how upset the prophet would have been knowing about the distribution of books that contradicted the Quran. [This is interesting because this hadith is used in the most anti-intellectual discourse amongst those with (Salafi) leanings, even though there is to say that what constitutes objectionable material can be contested). Rosenthal says in this regard this is a good example of the ‘eternal problem of censorship’. (p. 40)]

Other scholars such as al-Tahwidi speak about burning his own books after his death (for the risk that people will disrespect him and note his mistakes), though Rosenthal believes they were referring to unpublished manuscripts and notebooks. Al Tawhidi also listed a number of early scholars who destroyed their own books. {it’s interesting because Rosenthal here mentions the reason for destroying books to be that of the risk of others looking into their mistakes, preventing knowledge-seeking elsewhere, and being branded weak transmitters, all reasons to do with maintaining one’s reputation – while in Salafi circles I was told that they destroyed the books in order to encourage learning from a scholar, i.e. not relying on books in case the students could misunderstand something.}

Other attitudes that may relate to the destruction of books

  • disapproval of all authorship (al tasnif wa al ta’lif) – attributed to Badr al-Din ibn Jama’ah (1241) who mentions this in his treatise on education Tadhkirat al sami’ wa al mutakallim.
  • Envy and competitiveness from generation to generation (Ibn Jama’ah)
  • Holding contemporary scholars in low esteem compared to earlier scholars (Hajji Khalifah)
  • Pietistic attitude and fear of their insight being desecrated (an indirect complaint against proliferation of books) p, 43

Debate on whether one should focus on the details/particulars (juz’ivat) on general issues:

“The theoretical approach of philosophers to the overwhelming mass and variety of knowledge put into writing was to suggest, as did al-Tawbidi and al-Miskawayh (d. 422/1030), that “since the particulars (juz’īvāt) are infinite, and whatever is infinite cannot achieve existence, it is the generalities of each discipline, which comprise all its particulars in potentia, that should be aimed” at.” p. 44

On the need for abridgments and handbooks, Rosenthal says about Al Biruni:

In writing his great chronological work, al-Biruni (d. 440/1048), for instance, claimed that the highly educated person who asked him to compose such a work did so in order to have a book that would make it superfluous for him to consult a large number of sources. p.46

[Concerning al-Biruni, I found conference recordings, one of which talks about al-Biruni’s Chronology of the Ancient Nations this conference recordings from UCL that sound interesting, will make a separate entry about it.]

Ibn Khaldun on the abundance of books and the tension between the need for textbooks and the need for detailed study of long and complex treatises:

“As Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1406) saw it, the great number of scholarly works, coupled with the refinement and sophistication reached in many fields, is an obstacle to scholarship, while the great number of brief handbooks is detrimental to the formation of a sound scholarly habit and thus of outstanding scholars.” (…) “He considered such abridgments as often awkward but did not object to them as such. He pointed out that on the one hand, they tended to be too succinct and complicated for beginners, while, on the other, they were likely to stultify genuine scholarly minds, for true scholarship, he argued, required the painstaking study of long and detailed works over a considerable extent of time.” p. 45-46

Hajji Khilafah used Ibn Khaldun in his introduction to a large catalogue of Arabic books known at the time, who in turn was influenced also by Tashkopruzadeh’s catalogue of the sciences entitled Miftah al-Sa’adah.


Oral Transmission and the Book in Islamic Education: The Spoken and the Written Word by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Nasr here explains the significance of oral transmission of knowledge in the field of Islamic philosophy (al-falsafah) and theoretical gnosis (al-ma’rifah or al-irfan).  He explains here that many philosophers would write in complicated language as a form of dissimulation in order to then explain orally to their students.

Nasr wonders about the “mysterious” dynamics which made certain books by certain authors become main widespread texts while others did not achieve such fame. He claims this might have to do, in some cases, with the preponderance of or oral transmission.

Nasr, in his article, juxtaposes frequently the learning methods common in the West with those that used to be used ‘traditionally’ in the Muslim world. For example, in order to explain the way in which oral transmission and the text went hand in hand in the world of the philosophers, Nasr describes that in the West, a student is generally expected to read all the texts by a certain author before being deemed an expert in that particular topic/author. In the past, philosophers in the Muslim world were more interested in a deep reading of (leading to a full immersion in) one text, “in which the written and spoken word were combined in a unity that transcended the simply literal, historical and grammatical understanding of the written text. p. 61

A passage that describes this point very well is the following about Ibn Arabi:

“The Ibn Arabi seen by centuries of Islamic metaphysicians and philosophers is not the same as the Ibn ‘Arabi who emerges from a scholarly study of all his Works put alongside each other and without recourse to the oral teachings received from a living master. The whole difference between the Ibn ‘Arabi seen by Kashani, Mulla Sadra, al-Nabulusi, or Isma’il Haqqi and the one seen by modern scholars, whether they be Westerners or Muslims, but basing themselves solely on the extant texts, is again the spoken word, the oral tradition as it has been transmitted over the centuries by generations of masters, some of whom have claimed direct contact with Ibn ‘Arabi in the “invisible World” (‘alam al-ghayb) besides being heirs to the historical oral tradition of his school.”

Nasr explains also how in Sufi tradition, the concept of the heart is the idea of the inner book of knowledge which not all can penetrate. (From Rumi: “The book of the Sufi is not black lines and words, it is none other than the whitened heart which is like snow” p. 64). The significance of oral transmission in this context relates to the idea of memorizing (i.e. knowing by heart, embodying the knowledge).

In conclusion,

“The oral tradition has affected the manner of reading and interpreting the written text, its teaching and transmission, and the role of certain texts and commentaries in the educational circles of the Islamic World. It is even significant in the correct reading of a particular manuscript and in the selection of manuscripts for establishing the text of a particular work.” p. 65

Nasr concludes also by saying that as manuscripts are increasingly lost and destroyed as they are the “traditional methods of education and transmission” of knowledge, then paradoxically the important thing to do now is to write down that which was traditionally transmitted orally, without forgetting the importance of orality itself. (p. 67)


The Book of Life-Metaphors Connected with the Book Islamic Literatures by Annemarie Schimmel

This paper is completely outside my field of interest, however it is a fascinating account of how books were used in metaphors.

Schimmel describes various metaphors in which books are used:

  • Books as friend
  • Books and manuscripts like gardens/flowers/buds/roses (p. 78-80 and p. 85)
  • Books as beauty of people
  • The soul/heart/existence as a book
  • The world/universe as a book (p. 76)
  • Face like a Quran copy (p. 77)
  • Heart as a Quran copy / Book of love (p. 81-82)
  • Stitching together pages, compared to life, soul, love, actions

Furthermore, she highlights the religious importance of books:

  • Kitab used for the Quran or important books
  • For poetry they’d use word Safina (boat) “a small book stitched together at the narrow end)
  • Notebooks as daftar

A poem that I particularly liked is the following:


Before this copy, which is the pleasure ground of intellect and soul,

The eye of reason is bewildered.

It is a cheerful garden filled with roses and odoriferous herbs;

The pages are roses and the lines sweet basil, rihān*

by Nur Ad-Din Abd ar_Rahman Jami (Sufi Persian Poet)

*”The last line plays on the double meaning of rihan, rihani which is not only “sweet basil”, but also a calligraphic style”, Schimmel explains. (p. 72)


Biographical Dictionaries: Inner Structure and Cultural Significance by Wadad al-Qadi

After explaining the importance of the genre of biographical dictionaries in the Muslim world, al-Qadi explains that these studies are not only extremely important for the researcher, but also there have been a large number of studies on biographical dictionaries (surveys, analytical studies, studies that examine the motives for writing them,  their origin, organisations, criteria etc. He explains that fewer studies have looked at the development of the genre and in relation to the cultural and social changes in history.

What is a “biographical dictionary”.

There seems to be no equivalent in Arabic, though “kutub al Tabaqat” or “kutub al tarajim” are used. These encompass many genres of writing, including general books that would be deemed simply history books.

Al-Qadi divides between:

  • General biographical dictionaries: which are biographies of individuals from all walks of life (he gives examples al-Safadi’s al Wafi bi al wafayat and al Imad al Hanbali’s Shadharat al-dahab p. 95)
  • ‘Restricted biographical dictionaries” which are biographies of individuals who have something in common (e.g. Tabaqat al mufassirin – biographies of interpreters of the Quran, by al-Suyuti and Ibn al-Murtada’s Tabaqat al-mu’tazilah with biographies of Mutazili theologians) – he gives many other examples in this category).


The Book in the Grammatical Tradition: Development in Content and Methods by Ramzi Baalbaki

This is a fascinating account of the al Kitab book by Subawauhi, but it doesn’t go where I need to go at the moment so I’ll skip it.


Women’s Roles in the Art of Arabic Calligraphy by Salah al-Din al-Munajjid

This is a short piece that talks about the contributions of women to calligraphy and beyond: how they were given important jobs as scribes, often working alongside men who took them as the only qualified people for the job of transcribing poetry and other scholarly works, and praised for their work, how they were dedicated and highly skilled not only from an artistic point of view but also in checking for mistakes when comparing copies with the original. Furthermore many were also poets and authors in their own right. There’s not a hint of critique in this piece. Would be interesting to compare to other articles on the subject.


Faris al-Shidyaq and the Transition from Scribal to Print Culture in the Middle East by Geoffrey Roper

Roper analyzed the major transformation from scribal culture to print culture through the lens of the life of author Faris al-Shidyaq (a scribe and lover of scribal culture born in the 19th century into a Maronite literary family.

General points about the transition from scribal to print culture:

  • Block printing not practiced on books
  • Production of books remained the responsibility of scribes until 19th century despite the adopting of printing elsewhere – (Arabic printed books were imported in limited amounts from Europe since the 16th century.
  • The monopoly of scribal transmission reinforced patterns of the authority of traditional elites p. 209
  • Printing helped develop a new culture
  • Adoption of printing did not lead solely to Westernization but also to a cultural revival (nahdah)
  • Led to a standardization of books


General points about Faris al-Shidyaq’s life and work:

  • – He was passionate about the scribal culture, visited libraries in Europe to consult manuscripts
  • – He complained that many of the manuscripts were lost, destroyed or not being preserved and copied properly (subject to corruption – al-rahrif wa al tashif). p. 212

“So al-Shidyaq was well aware that the revival of Arabic literature and culture depended on bypassing the old scribal tradition, much as he revered it and was a part of it, and finding a new means of transmitting and preserving both classical texts and new writing. Fortunately, the development of his own life and work had shown him that just such a means was now available, that could and should be widely adopted in the service of Arabic learning and letters. From the time that he left his native land in 1826, his career was inextricably bound up with, and dependent on, the use of the printing press. At the beginning of that career, it was still a suspect novelty in the Arab and Muslim Middle East; by the time of his death sixty years later, it had become the normal and accepted method of producing and transmitting Arabic texts” p. 212


  • He was involved in preparing Christian religious texts or distribution in Lebanon and Egypt
  • In Egypt, he worked for al Waqa’i al Misriyah (“the first Arabic newspaper to be published anywhere” p. 212)
  • He checked and proofread publications
  • He also helped design and prepare punches for a new Arabic typeface
  • He translated the whole Bible into Arabic


 “Al-Shidyaq did not just passively accept and make use of the printing press in the furtherance of his own career and reputation: he was also an active protagonist and propagandist of the print revolution. “In truth,” he wrote, “all the crafts that have been invented in this world are inferior to the craft of printing”. p. 214

  • He launched a new Arabic newspaper called al-Jawa’ib in Turkey
  • Published a long series of books and secular textbooks for schools


“al-Shidyaq was aware that the Arabs and Muslims were backward in this matter, because he had studied the history of printing in China and the West, and devoted a substantial section of his book on Europe to it” p. 214… “what really impressed him was the sheer volume of book and newspaper publishing in contemporary Europe: in several of his books and articles, he treats the matter at length, giving detailed statistics.49 This, he considered, was an important cause of Europe’s ascendancy; and the lack of printing an equally important cause of ignorance and decline among the Arabs and Muslims.50 What were needed, he wrote, were presses “to print … books useful for men, women, and children, and for every single class of people, so that they know what their rights and obligations are (ma lahum wa-ma ‘alahim min al-huquq).” p. 215 (meaning that the printed publications could bring about social and political change).


The Book in the Modern Arab World: The Cases of Lebanon and Egypt by George N. Atiyeh

Atiyeh presents a survey of the development of book production and spread in Lebanon and Egypt. As it was pointed out elsewhere in the book that printing culture came later, “almost four centuries after the Gutenberg’s invention” p. 233

The Arabic printed book came first in Italy, then France, England, and Germany and only i 1706 in the Arab world (North Africa and the Arabian peninsula and the Fertile Crescent in Western Asia). p. 234

The book, together with the new attitudes encouraged by progressive intellectuals that favoured the pursual of truth (without strings attached to religion), “helped loosen the stranglehold of the ‘ulama’ over education” p. 235.

Because the Quran’s nature as God’s eternal word, the ulama and other figures used to oppose the use of metal objects from another religious people (Christians) to “reproduce the honoured language of revelation”. p. 235

Atiyeh uses this language of “progress”, “modernization” and “being left behind” to talk about the late introduction of printing. In this sense, he explains, for example, that early introduction of the printing press did little to “raise the level of culture on a large scale”, thus hinting to the ‘symbiotic relationship between books and education”. {though in part I question the interchangeable use of ‘culture’ and ‘education’ as if somehow the masses who were illiterate had no culture or knowledge of their own, with all the knowledge of the natural world, heritage etc, for example, it is problematic to make this assumption without specifying what kind of knowledge, education and literacy we’re talking about. Without specifying, the language ends up sounding extremely Euro-centric and colonial}


  • During the 17th century, learning was alive mainly by the Maronite clergy while outside the Maronite community, there remained also signs of a “weak but persistent manuscript tradition”.
  • During the 18th century, new schools were established in Lebanon (French Jesuits, Maronite colleges).
  • The first printing press “was the one set up by Abdallah Zakhir” (1684-1748), a Greek Catholic.
  • In the 19th century, missionaries set up a printing press, many schools were set up as well etc.
  • The major change occurred when institutions of higher education were created that had a printing press (Catholic St, Joseph University, and Syrian Protestant College), which created some competition
  • Also, new independent presses appeared that catered to the growing secular readership p. 239
  • This cultural awakening was not limited to the Christian community but was shared also by Muslims e.g. al-Maqiisid Benevolent Society, which sponsored the establishment of schools in Beirut and the surrounding areas.
  • By the end of the 19th century, Beirut and the rest of Lebanon had more than twenty presses, in addition to the American and Catholic presses.
  • Unlike other Arab countries such as Egypt, the development of printing was carried out by private individuals and institutions, not by the government.
  • To publish books, newspapers, and periodicals, one needed to get a permit from the government, especially in Beirut. The first Ottoman printing law was decreed on 6 January 1857. It was guided by two principles: licensing to publish and prior censorship of all publications.
  • The Ottoman authorities did not see a great need to censor their publications because they did not present any challenge to the authorities.
  • Intellectual debates invigorated this new print culture, for example Farah Antun’s Ibn Rush wa falsafatuh in which Atun advocated rationalism and secularism to enter a modern, rational era and Muhammad Abduh’s al-Islam wa al Nasraniyah ma’a al-‘ilm wa al madaniyah (Islam and Christianity on Science and Civilisation) in which Abduh made the case that Europe had become civilised only when they abandoned Christianity.
  • As a result of the Turk Revolution of 1908: All kinds of associations and political clubs were formed and the number of presses increased.The 1940s saw the rise of individually owned and run publishing houses (the Dār)


In Egypt

  • Napoleon brought the printing presses from Europe
  • Muhammed Ali established al Buraq Press, sent students to Europe to study typography and opened several schools, such as the school of languages in 1936 whose director was Al Tahtawi (1801-73)
  • Presses initially were owned and run by the government (so no private publishing like in Lebanon) and therefore publishing followed the line of Muhammad Ali concerning the revival of Egypt.
  • Bulaq press represents the change from the Middle Ages to the modern era. It had a focus on military sciences and textbooks (thus working alongside education) but also encouraged the wider population to read.
  • As newspapers and periodicals grew more popular so did the printing press also improve. Under British occupation, there was in a way greater freedom, as long as it did not oppose the imperial policy. p. 247
  • “By the end of the 19th century, Egyptian book production had increased tenfold” especially between the 1020s and 1953 (“the liberal age of Egypt”) p. 247
  • The 1952 revolution suddenly changed the printing culture: there was a drive to nationalize the publishing industry… and most Dars became part of the government with a semi autonomous status. The objective of this re-organization was to sustain the cultural, scientific needs etc of Egypt
  • In 1972 there was a further re-organization, and the government led “Genral Authority for Writing and publishing” became a non-profit enterprise called General Egyptian Book Organization

Atiyeh explains that the Arabic book to this day is well behind the quality standards present elsewhere:

“Notwithstanding the sophistication of many Arab writers and their concerns for scholarly research methods and presentation, many are the books that still lack precision in the texts, and suffer from typographical errors, and many are the publishers who seek the least expensive printing and paper, are negligent in placing footnotes, making indexes, ensuring correct and exact citations, and including all the bibliographic information needed on the title page.”


Mass Higher Education and the Religious Imagination in Contemporary Arab Societies by Dale F. Eickelman

In this article, Eickelman discusses the phenomenon of the “objectification” of knowledge, the process “by which religion is objectified in people’s consciousness” which in turn necessitates asking ‘objective’ questions about religion and discussing religion. p. 255 This process involves also awareness of Muslim and non-Muslim religions.

He draws from both Bourdieu who “explores correspondences and affinities among status, authorities and the “ways of knowing” inculcated by various educational institutions and Gramsci “suggests intellectuals and their discourse, although constrained by the established social order, never just reproduce it but create, even inadvertently, the seeds of resistance and contestation”.

Moroccan context:

  • The popular understanding of Islam tied to Islamic knowledge…
  • Memorization of Quran important symbol of cultural capital
  • Moroccan elites frequented French schools – decline of traditional education

Eickelman identifies the following elements in the “objectification of religion”


Higher education in the Middle East began only after the 1950s, which affected religious authority:

“Religious authority in earlier generations derived from the mastery of authoritative texts studied under recognized scholars. Mass education fosters a direct, albeit selective, access to the printed word and a break with earlier traditions of authority” (…) “Muslim fundamentalist discourse” (….) ” assumes a familiarity with the language of Marxist and other “Western” discourses, against which it confiidently reacts” p. 259 Sayyid Qutb’s Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (Signposts)  (…) would never have had the impact it did without the spread of mass education and the access to analytical and exegetical texts that such education provides.”

Religion as Object

Qutb, for example, called the religion a “system” (minhaj).

“yet thinking of religion in this way makes it possible to borrow from other systems and to incorporate changes (…) When fundamentalists declare that they are engaged in the “Islamization” of their society, they make explicit their sense of religious beliefs as an objective system” p. 261

Language and Community

The diffusion of print culture meant that people increasingly spoke a similar language which facilitated a feeling of belonging in a larger community than was previously possible. Similarly, with mass education where Islamic studies are a subject in the curriculum, “students are taught about the unity of Muslim thought and practice” (p. 260).

About the example of Oman, Eickelman says:

“The overall trend has been one of turning away from ritual and symbolic contexts in which-to cite an account of a contemporary Mayan community in Guatemala- ‘meaning comes to rest more on usage than on referentiality; learning consists of improvisation rather than rationalization; and mastery of form ultimately takes precedence over understanding of context'” p. 261

He gives the example, furthermore, of Shaykh Khalili whose lectures, fatawa etc. meant mainly that 1) he engaged with the public through 2) his discourses were transmitted and recorded orally through radio, cassettes etc 3) his opinions were transcribed and edited by others than himself. This Eicklement explains is a drastic change from how scholars used to engage in the past:

“Shaykh al-Khaīlī’s articulation of Islamic issues contrasts sharply with the pattern that prevailed in Oman until the 1970s. For the Ibādīya, the older pattern was sustained by an interlocking universe of religious notables whose literary output centered on poetry and tribal histories that were circulated largely in manuscript form among the educated elite.36 Alternative constructions of Islam and of Muslim identity were marginal concerns. Textual references were primarily to Omani scholars and did not reflect debate or confrontation with the wider Muslim community.” P 263

This had an effect on relations between different denominations and religious communities:

Members of each community were aware of the religious practices of the others, but this awareness did not engender a systematic formulation of sectarian distinctions. This awareness came to the forefront with the introduction of modern education. p. 263

Perhaps this is where the comparison between European nation-building upon language and nation-building in the Middle East becomes clearer:

“The prescribed curriculum has made Islamic studies a nonsectarian subject. (…) As a consequence, the curriculum includes no discussion of the development of Ibadism or of major doctrinal divisions within the Muslim community. The same “generic” Islam is propagated in Omani newspapers and periodicals and in the Friday sermons carried on Oman radio and television.”  p. 265

As a result, young educated Omanis would often observe that, for example, in the interior “People here do not know Islam; they pray and sacrifice, but they do not know why” (this is from an interview). Eickelman explains about this specific statement, which in essence represents the concept of “objectification of Islam”:

“Before the mid-1970s, statements such as this would have been almost incomprehensible in most towns and villages, but by the late 1980s they had become so common that older persons, who disagreed with the notion that “being Muslim” entailed an ability to articulate a credo, could “interpret” such comments for me and could identify the characteristics of those most likely to share them.” p. 265


Eickelman concludes that though such new ways of understanding religion are “pervasive” they do not, however, replace altogether traditional religious understandings and educational practices. He provides the example of Morocco, Algeria, and Iran,






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