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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 11    Issue 04   01-15 July 2016

Muslims and the Global Transmission of Paper

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Civilization refers to an advanced type of society, marked by a large, heterogeneous and stratified population, urbanization, a centralized political authority, considerable technological progress, development of art and architecture, a system of writing and the development of literature.

Writing, or the commitment of the word to space, enlarges the potentiality of language beyond measure. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness. 1 The culture of literacy entails an emphasis on the accuracy of transmission and a sense of history. Writing has played a crucial role in the preservation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge, including scientific knowledge. Jack Goody points to the central role of the circulation and dissemination of ideas and knowledge and the modes of transmission – especially writing on parchment or paper – in the progress of civilization in general and of scientific knowledge in particular.2

The earliest system of writing emerged in Sumer in southern Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) around 3500 BCE. Another early form of writing was developed in ancient Egypt in 3200 BCE. The earliest writing mediums used for writing included sun-dried clay tablets, stone, papyrus, wood, bones, parchment, birch bark, metal, bamboo, dried palm leaves and cloth.

Limestone Kish tablets from southern Mesopotamia, which are dated to around 3500 BCE

In ancient Egypt, papyrus – from which the word paper was derived – was the predominant medium of writing. It was prepared from the pithy stem of a water plant, known as Cyperus papyrus, which grows abundantly in the marshes along the Nile river. Papyrus was extensively used in Egypt for state records and documents, trade and commerce, medicinal tracts, art, literature and religious rituals and prayers for nearly four millennia. The ancient Egyptians, who kept the method of making papyrus a closely guarded secret, exported papyrus to neighbouring regions as well as to distant lands such as Rome. The Assyrians wrote their war chronicles on papyrus while the Romans used papyrus for commercial transactions.

Parchment and Papyrus in the Muslim World

The scriptures of world religions were generally handed down from generation to generation through oral transmission. The history of the memorization and oral transmission of sacred texts testifies to the astonishing powers and range of man’s mnemonic ability. Memory, however, cannot be relied upon over long stretches of time. This is borne out by the history of religious scriptures. In some cases, the original texts have been lost without a trace. In many cases, the scriptures of world religions have been subjected to interpolation, tampering and distortion.

The Quran, which is believed by Muslims to be the last testament in a long series of divine revelations, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad incrementally over a period of 23 years. Since the Quran was destined to be the last and final message of God, its preservation in its original form and language was of utmost importance. The Prophet adopted, under divine instruction, two methods for the preservation of the text of the Quran: memorization and writing. As soon as the verses of the Quran were revealed, the Prophet would memorise them and recite them in his prayers and in the course of his conversations. He also encouraged his companions to invoke and memorise the verses of the Quran as often as possible. During his lifetime, scores of his companions, including some women, had memorised the entire text of the Quran. The tradition of memorising the entire text of the Quran has been a distinctive and uninterrupted feature of Muslim societies around the world since the inception of Islam.

It is significant to note that the first verses of the Quran which were revealed to the Prophet at the beginning of his prophetic mission mentioned writing.

Recite, in the name of thy Lord Who created
He created man out of a leech-like clot.
Recite, and thy Lord is Most Bountiful,
Who taught (man) through the pen.
He taught man what he knew not.
(Quran 96: 1-5)

The word kitab (book) is mentioned in 230 places in the Quran, which suggests that the Quran was meant to be committed to writing. The Quran also mentions a number of words associated with the mediums and culture of writing, such as parchment ( raqq: 52:3), scroll (sijil: 21:104), papyrus (qirtas: 6:7, 6:91), pen (qalam: 68:1, 96:4), tablet (alwah: 7:150), tomes (asfar: 62:5) and scriptures (zubur: 3:184). The second chapter of the Quran, which was revealed to the Prophet after his migration to Madinah, lays down that every transaction on credit should be committed to writing in the presence of at least two witnesses (Quran 2:282). Though the Prophet knew neither reading nor writing, he was well aware of the importance of writing. He declared that it was the duty of a father towards his son to teach him writing. He appointed Abdullah ibn Sai’d ibn al-‘As, who was a good calligrapher, to teach writing to those of his companions who spent most of their time in the Prophet’s mosque. The Prophet is reported to have said, “Should any Muslim possess property fit for testamentary will, it would not be proper for him to pass even three nights without having a written will with him.”

In the Battle of Badr about 70 prisoners of war were captured by Muslims. Abu Bakr suggested that they should be set free on payment of ransom. The Prophet agreed with the suggestion and a ransom of a hundred camels or four thousand dirhams was fixed as ransom. Some of the prisoners were too poor to pay the ransom, but they knew reading and writing. The Prophet suggested that a literate prisoner could secure his release by teaching ten Muslim children to write. It was from one of these prisoners that young Zayd ibn Thabit, who later served as the Prophet’s secretary, learnt writing.

It is estimated that 65 Companions of the Prophet served as his scribes. About 40 of them were selected to write down the verses of the Quran as and when they were revealed. These included Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Zayd ibn Thabit, Aban bin Sa’id, Abu Umama, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, Abu Hudhayfah, Ubbay ibn Ka’ab, Thabit ibn Qays, Abdullah ibn Umar, Amr ibn al-‘As, Muadh ibn Jabal and Muawiyah. After dictating the revealed verses, the Prophet used to ask the scribe to read out what he had written. The chapters and verses of the Quran were arranged according to his instructions, which were divinely mandated. During the time of the Prophet, the verses of the Quran were written on stone tablets, ribs of palm branches, camel ribs, shoulder blades, pieces of wooden board and parchment.

The earliest surviving Islamic documents written on parchment are five letters of the Prophet Muhammad, which were sent to the rulers of Abyssinia, Persia, Egypt, Bahrain and Byzantium.

Photo of the Prophet’s letter to Mundhir, governor of Bahrain

Until about the 10th century, the text of the Quran was written exclusively on parchment. Fortunately, a fairly large number of complete texts or fragments of the Quran written on parchment in the first and second century of the Islamic era are extant.

Two folios from an early Quran, now in Birmingham University, UK, which are estimated to date from between 568 and 645 CE.

A fragment from an ancient Quran manuscript at Sana’a, which was written 15 years after the Prophet’s death

A folio from an early Quran copy, which is dated to the first half of the first century of the Islamic era. The text, which has 65 folios, is now at the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris.

A folio from an early Quran ascribed to Caliph Uthman, now in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

A folio from a unique copy of the Quran written on vellum and coloured with indigo in the late 9th century. It is preserved at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.

One of the writing mediums mentioned in the Quran is qirtas (Quran 6:7, 91). The word qirtas is derived from the Greek chartes, which means papyrus. Papyrus is known as alcartaz in Spanish and cartoz in Portuguese. Another Arabic word for papyrus, to which references are found in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, is waraq al-bardi or waraq al-abradi, which is derived from the old Egyptian word for papyrus. One of the earliest surviving Islamic texts written on papyrus is a bilingual Greek-Arabic document, which bears the seal of Amr ibn al-‘As. The document is dated to 22 AH/643 CE. Perhaps the earliest surviving text of a book written on papyrus is Al-Jami’ fil-Hadith, authored by Muhammad Abdullah ibn Wahab ibn Muslim al-Misri (d. 197 AH). The text, now in the National Library, Cairo, was written at the end of the second century of the Islamic era.

An early Islamic text written on papyrus in Greek and Arabic in 22 AH/643 CE. It bears the seal of Amr ibn al-‘As.

Paper and its Worldwide Diffusion

Paper was invented in Southeast China between the first century BCE and the first century CE. It was made from the fibres of bamboo stalks, mulberry bark, rice straw and hemp waste, and was initially used as a wrapping material. The Chinese kept the technique of paper making a closely guarded secret for well over six centuries. In 751, a war took place between the Chinese and the Arabs in Talas in Samarqand. The Chinese lost the war and a number of Chinese soldiers were captured as prisoners-of-war by the Arabs. The Arab commander Ziyad ibn Salih set a condition that the Chinese prisoners could secure their release by teaching Muslim soldiers the technique of paper making, to which the latter agreed. The Arabic word for paper is kaghaz (plural: kawaghiz), which is derived from the Uighur word kokoz or koksi.

Muslims contributed to the craft of paper making in three important and ingenious ways. First, Chinese paper was made from mulberry and young bamboo shoots, as a result of which it was quite fragile and expensive. Muslims experimented with linen, cordage and rags, which made the paper sturdy and much less expensive. Secondly, they introduced certain ingenious techniques such as maceration of rags with a stamping mill. Thirdly, unlike the Chinese, Muslims did not keep the knowledge of paper making to themselves. Instead, they disseminated it far and wide. The first paper factory was set up in Baghdad in 793. During the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809 CE), paper was widely used for writing state records. One of the advantages of paper over papyrus is that it easily absorbs ink and therefore writing on paper could not be easily erased. In the 9th century, Baghdad was the centre of a flourishing trade in paper, which was carried out in the ‘Stationers’ Market’ (suq al-warraq), which was lined with over 100 shops that sold paper and stationery. Some of these shops also stocked books written on paper, which were hired to scholars and students. Abul Faraj Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 995 CE), generally known as Ibn al-Nadim, the author of the celebrated Al-Fihrist, was a ‘stationer’ (al-warraq). Almost all the major cities of the Muslim world, including Basrah, Kufah, Cairo, Wasit, Damascus, Bukhara, Balkh, Tripoli, Fez, Halab, Naishapur, Khurasan, Samarqand, Shatiba and Isfahan, had paper mills and stationers’ markets. There were 400 paper mills in the city of Fez in Tunisia at the end of the 12th century. The stationers’ markets also served as a meeting place for scholars, literatteur, poets and students.

The wide availability of paper in the early centuries of the Islamic era spurred a flurry of scientific and literary activities in the Muslim world. Royal patronage played a highly important role in the promotion of scientific and literary pursuits. Harun’s son and successor Mamun (reigned 813-833 CE) established a scientific academy called Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad. The academy had thousands of books on science, philosophy and literature. Scholars and copyists copied and translated Greek scientific and philosophical texts, written on parchment, into Arabic and transcribed them onto sheets of paper, which were then bound into books.

Silk Road merchants and traders carried paper through the oasis cities of Central Asia. In 1933 Soviet scholars found dozens of documents in Arabic and Chinese written on paper in Soghdian, Tajikistan, which dated to 722 CE.

A folio from an 8th century Arabic document on paper, found by Soviet scholars in Tajikistan in 1933.

The wide availability and use of paper in the Muslim world had a far-reaching impact on the development of science and medicine, arts and crafts, calligraphy, painting, metal work, ceramics and textiles. Artists drew designs on paper, which were later applied by craftsmen and artisans on glass, metal, ceramics and textiles. Paper was extensively used as a medium for writing scientific and medical manuscripts, astronomical charts, mathematical and musical notations and architectural plans. Paper thus became a distinctive feature of Islam’s visual culture. From the 10th to the 13th century, Muslim traders in Andalusia, Egypt and other parts of the Muslim world wrote bills of exchange, orders of payment and other documents on paper. By the late 10th century, papyrus was almost entirely supplanted by paper. The Persian traveller Nasir-e- Khusraw, who visited Cairo between 1035 and 1042, reports that traders and merchants in the bazaars of the old city wrapped glassware and ceramics in thick sheets of paper and gave them to customers.

The oldest surviving dated Arabic text written on paper is Gharib al-Hadith, authored by Abu Ubayd al-Qasim ibn Sallam. Fragments of the manuscript, written in 866 CE, are preserved at the Leiden University Library. The Thousand and One Nights (Alf Laylah wa Laylah), a masterpiece of Arabic literature, was copied on paper in the first quarter of the 9th century. Some fragments of the text written on paper in 879 CE, were discovered in Egypt in 1947 and were purchased by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

A folio from an 8th century Arabic document on paper, found by Soviet scholars in Tajikistan in 1933.

A folio from an 8th century Arabic document on paper, found by Soviet scholars in Tajikistan in 1933.

Though parchment continued to be used as the principal medium for copying the Quran, some scribes and calligraphers began copying the sacred text on paper in the second half of the 10th century. The oldest surviving dated manuscript of the Quran on paper was copied by Ali ibn Sadan al-Razi, in four volumes, in 971-72 CE. Fragments of this manuscript are preserved in Ardabil in Iran, Istanbul University Library, and the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

The oldest surviving copy of the Quran written on paper by Ali ibn Sadan al-Razi in 971-72

Towards the close of the 10th century, Ibn al-Bawwab, a leading calligrapher of Baghdad, copied the entire text of the Quran on paper. The copy is dated to 1000-1001 CE.

The oldest surviving copy of the Quran written on paper by Ali ibn Sadan al-Razi in 971-72

Ahmad ibn al-Suharwardi al-Bakri, a distinguished calligrapher, made a 30-volume copy of the Quran on paper in Baghdad in 1307 CE.

The oldest surviving copy of the Quran written on paper by Ali ibn Sadan al-Razi in 971-72

Nearly 280,000 documents, written on paper in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew characters) between the 10th and 13th century, were found at the geniza of the Palestine synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo) in 1864. These documents, known as the Cairo Geniza, throw considerable light on the social, economic and religious conditions among Jewish communities in Egypt and other parts of the world.

A folio from Geniza documents that were written on paper between the 10th and 13th century

Paper in Europe

Before the 13th century, paper was brought to Europe from Andalusia and Morocco. The oldest known paper document in Europe is the Missal of Silos, a text on Christian liturgy, which was written in the 11th century. The paper on which the text was written was imported from Muslim Spain. The first paper factory in Europe was established in the Spanish city of Shatiba (Jativa) in 1056, whence the technology of papermaking passed into Italy and other parts of Europe. In Sicily, the Norman rulers, who were great admirers of Arab culture, imported paper from Morocco and Shatiba. Interestingly, one of the earliest extant European documents written on paper is a deed of King Roger of Sicily, inscribed in Greek and Arabic in 1102.

A folio from the Quran copied on pink paper (which was produced in Jativa, Spain) in the early 13h century

The German traveller Ulman Stromer, who had seen paper mills in Italy, built Germany’s first paper mill in Nuremberg in 1390. If not for this paper mill, Johann Gutenberg would not have established his printing press in Mainz in 1450. The first paper mill in France was established in 1190, in Fabriano, Italy in 1276, in Holland in 1340, in Switzerland in 1432, in England in 1490, in Poland in 1491, in Austria in 1498, in Denmark in 1596, in Russia in 1576 and in Sweden in 1612. Jonathan M. Bloom, in his masterly work The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (2001), writes that without Muslim influence Europe would have remained ignorant of paper until the 13th century, when Marco Polo reached China and saw paper mills there. 3

During the Middle Ages, Muslims acted as carriers and transmitters of knowledge. They transmitted the wisdom of the ancients, including the scientific and philosophical ideas of the Greeks, Egyptians and Indians, to Europe through translations and commentaries. Paper served as a crucial medium for this cultural transmission, which played a central role in the flowering of the Renaissance. Between the 14th and 17th century, the ideas of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) had a profound influence on Europe’s intellectual firmament. Averroes’s famous and influential commentaries on Aristotle were avidly read and discussed in universities and academic circles in Venice, Padua, Bologna and Paris. Long before the invention of the printing press, the works of Muslim scientists, physicians and philosophers were copied and disseminated in large numbers. Hugo Grotius’ book De Jure Belli ac Pacis, which reflects the influence of Muslim scholars and jurists, was written in Paris, where libraries were filled with books on Islamic sciences.

E. L. Eisenstein has shown that print culture, which developed in Europe in the 15th century, had a profound and far-reaching impact on European societies. It goes without saying that print culture would not have come into existence without paper. Print culture fostered literacy and stimulated the production of books and their circulation on an unprecedented scale and thereby acted as a catalyst for the rapid spread of knowledge, ideas and technology. 4 After printing presses were established in Venice in 1469, Latin translations of Averroes’s works, including his Aristotlean commentaries as well as his original works such as Destructio Destructionis (Tahafatut-tahafah) were printed in large numbers between 1472 and 1560. 5 A copy of the Quran was printed on paper in Venice in 1537-38.

A folio from a manuscript of the Quran written on paper made in Venice in the early 1340s.

Paper and print culture had a remarkable influence on the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The wide dissemination of classical learning during the Renaissance, in which Muslims played a central role, would not have been possible without paper and print culture. Paper and print culture played a central role in the ushering in of the scientific revolution. Atlases and cartography, which were greatly stimulated by paper and print culture, revolutionised navigation and explorations. The ideas of the Enlightenment, which paved the way for the French Revolution, spread rapidly across Europe through print culture. The Encyclopedie, a monumental work of learning and scholarship produced by Dennis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, with the help of a team of 150 scientists and philosophers, helped spread the ideas of the Enlightenment across Europe. The Encyclopedie was published in 35 volumes between 1751 and 1772.

The Wight Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, made their first aircraft in 1900, which was a large kite, made from bamboo and paper and had two wings.

Despite the worldwide spread of digitization and digital media, paper continues to be used as the most important and widespread medium of writing across the world. And this bears testimony to the enduring legacy of Islamic civilization.


1. Walter J. Ong: Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 7-8. 4.

2. Goody, Jack (2006) The Theft of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3. Jonathan M. Bloom (2001) Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. New Haven and London: Yale University Press; Alexander Monro: The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of the World’s Greatest Invention. London: George Allen, 2014.

4. E. L. Eisenstein (1979) The printing press as an agent of change: Communication and cultural translation in early modern Europe. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5. Stefano Carboni, ed. (2007) Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 151-52.

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