Islamic Tradition of Books

The visitor to an Islamic bookstore is struck by the orderly rows of
Arabic sets, usually handsomely bound in rich colours with calligraphic
titles framed in arabesque and stamped in gold or silver. Nowadays, the
title commonly runs boldly across the spines of all the volumes.


A well run
bookstore will have these works sorted by discipline: commentaries
on the Qur’an; collections of the reported words and deeds of the Prophet
and his Companions, with their commentaries; Islamic law, both rulings
and studies of the principles to be followed in deducing law; theology;
large biographical dictionaries of individuals of various classes, most
commonly scholars; histories and geographies; and Arabic grammars
and dictionaries.

The casual visitor may be excused the suspicion that sometimes these
sets serve a decorative purpose. He may have visited a mosque and
noticed that the imam’s office walls were lined with such sets and that
they showed few signs of use.Watching visitors he may also observe that
it is the decorative Qur’ans and popular tracts that sell most briskly.
Nevertheless, he would be unwise to dismiss the imposing sets as
mere pretentious ornament. Scholars wrote these books for a purpose.
They are, moreover, mostly old books, written between five and twelve
centuries ago. The age of printing did not start in Islamic countries
until the nineteenth century, so that even the younger works survived
fifteen or more generations being copied and recopied by hand, defying
the threats of damp, fire, neglect, and white ants. Even this understates
the effort that went into their preservation, for a work written in the
fifteenth century most likely represents the synthesis of a succession of
earlier works written during the previous seven or eight hundred years.

A knowledgeable visitor would also understand that the sustained
effort of copying books that might take many weeks to read – let alone
write out by hand – was done with great care, with copied manuscripts
checked against oral transmission accompanied by oral commentary. The
precision with which this had to be done varied by discipline, but for the
core religious subjects, a student could not simply buy a copy of a book;
he had to copy it out under the supervision of a scholar who himself had
learned the work from a teacher. When a scholar copied a collection of
hadith, the recorded sayings of the Prophet and his Companions, under
the supervision of his teacher, he became the latest link in a chain of
teachers and students, generation from generation, back to the days of
the scholars who first collected these sayings soon after the deaths of the
last Companions of the Prophet. A scholar’s most precious possessions
were the books he had copied under the supervision of his teachers and
the licenses that his teachers had given him to teach these books.
If our casual visitor saw fit to leaf through the books, he would notice
that many include commentary in the margins or at the foot of the page.
Often the books themselves are commentaries, with the original texts
interspersed through the page. If he is lucky, he will stumble on a reprint
of one of the old lithographic editions, in which commentary, supercommentary,
and glosses by various authors snake around the page and
between the words of the text in elegant confusion, so that text ultimately
being commented on may be represented by only a few words on each
page. If his interest were piqued and he visited an Islamic manuscript
library, he could see this process at work in the dusty books: a humble
student’s manuscript in which the carefully written text is surrounded
by notes taken in class or a scholar’s manuscript with a carefully crafted
commentary and glosses and corrections and variant readings in the
margin. He would quickly realize that thousands of such commentaries
and supercommentaries exist explaining the works commonly studied,
and that few of them have been printed.

This is not, our visitor might reflect, the Islam that he sees in newspapers
or on television, a fanatical devotion to the arbitrary interpretation
of a single text, the Qur’an, preached shrilly and politically to excited
throngs at prayer. It is something else, a cooler, a thoughtful and earnest
intellectual world, a scholastic world much like the traditional study of
the Torah and Talmud in Jewish yeshivas or the study of Aristotle and
theology in medieval European universities. It is not modern – in the
sense that it is not secular and does not address the post-Enlightenment
intellectual world of the modern West – but it also is not modern in that
it is not the absolutist fundamentalism of much modern religion, Islamic
or otherwise.

And, he might think to himself, the popular tracts addressing current
issues are cheaply printed and carelessly bound, stacked in racks to be
sold to those without the training to understand the old, long, difficult
Arabic books. It is the dry works of Islamic scholasticism that are treated
with respect. Everything about them – the colour of their bindings, the
care of their editing and printing, the increasingly high quality of the
paper, the elegance of their design, their respectful placement – indicates
that these books, second only to the lavishly printed copies of the Qur’an,
are important.


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