Ahmed El Shamsy’s Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed An Intellectual Tradition takes us into the story of how seminal works of Islamic philosophy, theology, poetry, sciences and other disciplines from 700-1400 AD were revived, adapted and changed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The author points out that the premodern Islamic world had a rich, vibrant and diverse literature culture; vast libraries existed across the Abbasid world, yet only an estimated 600,000 manuscripts from this period still exist today. Nevertheless, “The extant classical Arabic corpus dwarfs the surviving body of classical Greek and Latin texts combined by several orders of magnitude.”
Impressive as the scale of scholarship is, and the quantity of what has survived is indicative of the intellectual vastness, most of the books have disappeared. For Muslims today this also means that much of traditional Islamic thought is inaccessible, even though the efforts of modern revivalists mean that more has survived than would otherwise have been the case.
The decline of literature in the Arab world from the 14th century until the 19th century is quite a complex issue. El Shamsy notes external events such as a decrease in the population due to plagues and famines, destructive wars and accidents, as well as the lack of preservation techniques and changes in social attitude towards learning, all of which led many manuscripts to be lost.
Moreover, starting with the Ottomans, classical Arabic texts were taken from Arab capitals and ended up in libraries and schools in Istanbul. However, the biggest physical loss of books occurred during the rise of European imperialism in the late 18th century. “Beginning with the Orientalists who accompanied Napoleon on his invasion of Egypt in 1798,” writes El Shamsy, “book collectors, often in collaboration with or in the role of colonial administrators and consuls, made careers and fortunes out of the systematic, large scale acquisition of Arabic manuscripts for the libraries of Europe, and, later, North America.” Booksellers, libraries and educational institutions from Cairo to Aleppo found their books were either being bought up, taken or looted by European officials, merchants and scholars.
Another important reason for the decline of books in the Arab world was a change in social attitudes towards book learning. Having a strong written culture opened up such learning to scrutiny from those who felt it distracted from the real purpose of faith, life and the pursuit of truth. Driven by platonic and neo-platonic ideas that books contained inauthentic or counterfeit knowledge and true knowledge could not be found in them, Sufi thinkers who imbibed such ideas began to shift the discourse away from books. Ibn Arabi was perhaps the most famous of these thinkers who advocated a move away from the written word. As El Shamsy points out, “Ibn Arabi’s ideas on the relationship between books and knowledge were diametrically opposed to classical scholarly conventions, and the success of his views appears to have undermined core principles of Islamic written culture established in the classical age… [Ibn Arabi authored a book and wrote this] At one point he proclaims, ‘I swear by God, not a single letter of this book have I written that was not in accordance with a divine dictation, a spiritual inbreathing, and a casting by God in my heart!’”
These were some of the challenges modern revivalists faced in order to restore classical learning, and they needed to create a bibliophile culture while hunting down old books. They had a powerful weapon on their side and that was the printing press. El Shamsy argues that the introduction of the printing press to the Arab world revolutionised their efforts. The printing press was the site, the means, of an intellectual transformation in the Arab world, but it wasn’t an intellectual transformation in or of itself, nor was it the cause of it. From Ahmad Zaki and Muhammad Abduh, as well as lesser known figures, revivalists were able to hunt down remaining manuscripts and republish them in numbers unthinkable in previous centuries. El Shamsy explains how they did this and what was selected, and why and how this had an impact on modern Islamic discourse.
Rediscovering the Islamic Classics… is not a light read, including as it does dense details and nuanced arguments. However, given how far reaching the scope of the book is, and the fact that it involves historical criticisms, it is surprisingly easy to read and contains fascinating insights, which anyone with even a vague interest in Islam’s intellectual history will enjoy.
The book does, though, require some familiarity with important figures in Muslim history from Ibn Arabi to Muhammad Abduh, so a layman might struggle with some of the details about who is who, but the book is intended for a wider audience beyond intellectual historians and Islamic studies scholars. Author Ahmed El Shamsy does not assume that readers will have deep scholarly knowledge of the topic, and so an educated layman should have no difficulty in accessing the text.
Containing useful insights into how we think not only about the impact of print, but also what we think should constitute a classical Islamic text, the author explains why a decline in book production occurred, but he does not fall into lazy tropes. This is a well-considered book that contributes to our understanding of history and the role of the written word in the Muslim world over the centuries.