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The impact of printing on religion: the printing of the Quran

This is the third column in a series that explores the impact of the invention of the printing press on religion. The first part is about the beginnings of printing technology in China and how it supported the spread of Buddhism. The second part shows how the introduction of the printing press in Europe made possible the Reformation and changed the way European Christians relate to the Bible. This column will look at the history of the printing of the Quran.

The Quran (also spelled Koran or Qu’ran), is, of course, Islam’s most sacred book. In Islam, the Quran is the word of God that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE). The revelations were written by several of the Prophet’s companions, who compiled the work after his death. Caliph Uthman ibn Affan (c. 573-656), also one of the Prophet’s companions, is credited with finalizing what would be the standard version of the Quran forever.

As with other great scriptures of the world, for a long time the only way to reproduce the Quran was by hand copying. The calligraphers who made copies of the Quran were highly skilled professional craftsmen who ensured that their work was not only precise, but also beautiful.

Early Printing Technologies and the Quran

Qurans were printed using relief carved blocks, such as the Diamond Sutra was printed in 868, as early as the 10th century. However, this process was not thought to do justice to the beauty of the Arabic script. And the movable type revolution was slow to reach the Muslim world. Movable type, so useful for composing the Latin alphabet, was simply less adaptable to the flowing curves and numerous diacritics of Arabic.

In 1485, Sultan Bayezid II of the Ottoman Empire decreed that no Muslim books, especially the Quran, should be typed and printed. He trusted master calligraphers for Arabic, not just any yahoo with a printing press. And the Ottoman Turkish script of the time was based on the Arabic script, and this was also not entrusted to printers. A long line of successors to the sultan kept the ban in place. (The ban did not apply to dhimmi, Christians and Jews living in the Empire. In the 16th century, a large Jewish community in Constantinople became prolific publishers of Hebrew books. That’s a story for another column, though.)

The Ottoman Empire penetrated deep into southeastern Europe and was an important trading partner with Italy. In the 16th century, an Italian printer named Paganino Paganini may have decided that banning Arabic printing in the Empire opened up a marketing opportunity. Paganini produced what is believed to be the first Quran printed in movable type, in Arabic, in 1538. We know this because a copy of Paganini’s long-forgotten Quran was found in a monastery in Venice in 1987. However, scholars who studied the Paganini Quran found many errors. It is suspected that the rest of the copies may have been destroyed by the Ottomans. Sultan Bayezid II may have been right not to trust any yahoo with a Quran printing press.

Advances in printing technology

By the 17th century, movable type technology had improved enough to do more credible work with Arabic, and a few Qurans were published for European scholars. An edition was produced in Hamburg in 1694 and another, with a Latin translation, in Rome in 1698.

The first Quran known to have been composed and printed under the supervision of Muslim scholars was published in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1787. And it was done with the encouragement of Tsarina Catherine II, better known as of Catherine the Great, as a gesture of religious tolerance. Relations between the government of Russia and its Muslim citizens before Catherine were, shall we say, disorderly and not harmonious. Catherine saw the benefit of building support for her rule within Muslim communities. The publication of a Koran in Russia was part of this effort.

Typesetting technology continued to improve, and by the 18th century several editions of the Quran had been published. A few of them were acceptable even to calligraphers. The 19th century saw the end of movable type (although I doubt they ever completely disappeared). It was replaced by “hot” machines, such as the widely used Linotype which cast entire lines of fixed type in lead. In the 20th century, the hot type gave way to the cold type, or the shift process this eliminated the need for the raised metal type entirely. Offset printing made it possible to print hand-drawn and illuminated (in color!) Arabic on a large scale. Technical issues with typesetting and printing beautiful Qurans have been resolved.

This folio of a hand-copied Quran, late 14th century, may serve to illustrate why rudimentary printing technology was unsatisfactory for printing Qurans. Source: Wikimedia Commons, gift of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Louis E. and Theresa S. Seley Purchase Fund for Islamic Art, 1992. CC0 1.0 Dedication to Universal Public Domain.