In Praise of the Arab Editor

Nile Green discovers Ahmed El Shamsy’s “Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition.”

In Praise of the Arab Editor

Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition by Ahmed El Shamsy. Princeton University Press. 312 pages.

IN 1964, THE CANADIAN guru of communication theory Marshall McLuhan made his famous declaration that “the medium is the message.” Since then, scores of historians have wrestled with the question of how technology reshapes ideas, even to the point of changing entire cultures. The challenges we face with digital media are far from new. In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein argued that the media revolution begun by Gutenberg enabled such massive transformations as the Renaissance, the rise of science, and the Protestant Reformation. But what about other regions of the world beyond Europe, where printing was adopted either earlier or later?

With their prior indigenous traditions of printing, China, Korea, and Japan became the focus of numerous studies in the wake of McLuhan’s sermons and Eisenstein’s more careful scholarship. From the 1980s, the growing field of book history expanded its remit beyond Europe, while also looking at other media, whether clay tablets, manuscripts, or scrolls. In the meantime, for anyone interested in the Middle East, another seismic shift was transforming how we think about books — or at least texts — prompted by a publication which appeared a year before Eisenstein’s in 1978: Edward Said’s Orientalism. Rather than focusing on the technological and material aspects of knowledge, Said drew attention to its political and discursive dimensions: Michel Foucault’s knowledge/power nexus. The impact of Said’s ideas was perhaps itself counterevidence to McCluhan’s claims about the primacy of the medium over the message. But while Said’s adherents took the center stage in many studies of the modern Middle East, a quieter generation of scholars perused Persian manuscripts, Malay lithographs, and early Arabic imprints to launch the lesser-known discipline of Muslim book history. With Ahmed El Shamsy’s important study of the impact of printing on the Arabic language, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition, Islamic book history has reached its maturity, outgrowing the long shadows cast by McLuhan, Said, and Eisenstein.

Although Arab Christians adopted printing in the 1700s, the Muslim communities of the Middle East effectively didn’t take up printing till the early 19th century. Ironically, Arabic printing had developed much earlier in Europe and was first introduced to Egypt by the armies of Napoleon, who brought a font of Arabic type looted from the Vatican on their march south to the Mediterranean. After Egypt swiftly regained independence, the first Egyptian-owned press was founded in Cairo, beginning that city’s difficult ascent to become the center of Arabo-Islamic publishing. But that last sentence — blending as it does the distinct tasks of mechanically reproducing printing a text and placing legible correct copies before the reading public — hides the complex developments El Shamsy sets out to uncover, whether of accessing scarce surviving manuscripts by medieval Muslim authors, ensuring a reliable text was passed on to the printer, or a subtler range of editorial tasks. These were just part of the added intellectual value of a printed Arabic book over a manuscript.

The first major problem El Shamsy identifies is one that was plainly apparent to readers of Arabic two centuries ago, but which was resolved — then forgotten — as a result of the very transformations he subsequently brings to light. He begins by asking why so few early Arabic manuscripts were available in the Middle East just before the adoption of print in the 19th century? This leads to his corollary questions: Who, finally, overcame the massive philological, organizational, and financial obstacles to rediscovering these texts, then making them available to the public? How did these forgotten revolutionary editors and manuscript hunters achieve this? And what motivated them to tackle such challenges to printing medieval texts during a period we usually think of as obsessed with modernity?

It’s worth pausing to unpack the first problem El Shamsy identifies. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of works were written in Arabic between the first year of the Muslim calendar (622 CE) and the launch of Cairo’s pioneering Bulaq Press in 1819, the vicissitudes of war, fire, climate, insects, and censorship meant that for the first Muslim printers, manuscript copies of any given work might be either entirely lost or extremely hard to find — even supposing the text in question was known to have existed. As El Shamsy points out, even today it remains extremely difficult to navigate the approximately 600,000 Arabic manuscripts that did survive from the medieval classical period. Two centuries ago, when his story begins with the birth of Muslim printing, the challenges were almost unimaginably greater, because there were as yet few organized libraries, reliable catalogs, or other tools of bibliographical navigation that only arrived as part of the package of print.

It was not only the passive cruelty of passing time that produced this dearth of available manuscripts. There were two other sets of factors: the decline of traditional libraries in the Arab lands and the voracious appetites of Europe’s Orientalists. The crisis of Arab libraries was, El Shamsy argues, in considerable part caused by the Ottoman imperial conquests of Syria and Egypt in 1516–17. Not only were vast baggage trains of bibliographical booty transferred to the Ottoman capital (and remain in Istanbul’s libraries to this day); the Arabic language was itself replaced by Turkish and Persian as the primary languages of administration, prompting “plummeting institutional support for Arabo-Islamic scholarship.”

The second factor — Orientalism — caused another “book drain,” this time to cities like London, Munich, and Leiden, in the Netherlands, through the rising European interest in Arabic. Looting played its part here too, along with more organized library thefts, which certain Orientalists, with their “grave-robber mentality,” arranged through their local agents in Egypt. Nonetheless, the comparative wealth of the Orientalists, and their ties to well-funded state libraries, ensured that “most of the manuscripts that flowed from the Middle East to Europe in this period were no doubt sold willingly (if not always legally) by their proprietors.”

The answers El Shamsy proposes to his question of why so few Arabic manuscripts were available to Muslim readers by the 1800s are not only economic and political, though. There were also intellectual causes, prompted by the changing character of Islamic scholarship. He argues that from the 1400s through 1700s, Muslim learning methods — oral, mystical, commentarial — had little need for individually owned manuscripts. This generated correspondingly little demand for the multiple copies of a given manuscript that might otherwise be made for a teacher’s circle of students. And so on to cumulative (or, in this case, diminishing) effect over time.

Moreover, teaching and intellectual methods more generally didn’t focus on the original texts of medieval luminaries like al-Ashʿarī and al-Ghazālī, whose ideas were studied through later commentaries, glosses, and metacommentaries rather than through copies of their original works themselves. El Shamsy also proposes that the rise of “esotericism” — especially the theories of the Andalusian Sufi, Ibn ʿArabī — undermined the prestige and authority of book-learning, and in turn the time-consuming work of finding and then copying old manuscripts.

Consequently, the “rediscovery” of the writings of al-Ashʿarī, al-Ghazālī, and sundry other medieval authors, and their recognition as “classics” in turn, would only take place from the mid-19th century through the intellectual rearrangements made possible — but not predetermined — by print. For El Shamsy is no determinist McLuhanite. Instead, after painting this background of how Egypt became bereft of its manuscripts, he turns to the more detailed depiction of how decisions made by individual Arab officials, teachers, editors, and plain booklovers ensured that the new opportunities of print would transform their intellectual tradition.

The early history of Arabic printing is now well documented. El Shamsy’s major contribution is to examine the subtler textual transformations that accompanied the adoption of iron presses and lead lettersets. He makes an important distinction between the role of the “corrector” (muṣaḥḥiḥ) and that of the “editor” (muḥaqqiq), showing how the more basic proofreading tasks of correctors preceded by almost a century the development of more textually invasive editors, who introduced such innovations as standard punctuation, paragraphs, footnotes, and bibliographies. This does not lead El Shamsy to an abstract theory-driven account of textual form dictating meaning, as often became the case with the poststructuralist flip of McLuhan’s adage into the discursive determinism of the “genre is the message.” Instead, the focus of Rediscovering the Islamic Classics remains on individuals whose varied agendas and interests, travels and training, shaped the formation of a new Arabic book culture that brought lost manuscripts to the far larger reading public of print.

One such figure is Naṣr al-Hūrīnī, a corrector at Cairo’s government press tasked with sourcing a reliable manuscript of Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddima (“Introduction to History”). Although the medieval Ibn Khaldūn was already on his way to becoming the most celebrated Arab historian of all time — not least through the enthusiasms of Parisian Orientalists who dubbed him “the Montesquieu of the East” — manuscripts of his masterpiece were extremely hard to find in Egypt. By al-Hūrīnī’s time, most copies of the Muqaddima were kept in Istanbul’s imperial libraries, including the oldest Egyptian manuscripts and Ibn Khaldūn’s own autograph copy. Still others had been acquired by European collectors. So El Shamsy guides us through al-Hūrīnī’s travails as he struggled to locate enough copies to enable a reasonably accurate reading. In a rapidly written Arabic manuscript, the misplacing of dots by mere millimetres can radically alter the meaning. So, a textual corrector had to compare as many manuscripts as possible before writing up an accurate version for the printer. Unfortunately, al-Hūrīnī seems to have found only two manuscripts of the Muqaddima. Still, he was undeterred, and the landmark imprint he saw through the government press in 1857 made Ibn Khaldūn widely available to Arab readers for the first time, four and a half centuries after his death.

El Shamsy also tells us about the new generation of booklovers who created demand for such printed texts, founding the Egyptian Scholarly Society in 1868. Rather than belonging to the ʿulamāʾ, the traditional religious clerics who had long dominated Arabic learning, many of the Society’s members comprised a new elite of government employees educated in modern state schools. One such figure was Aḥmad Taymūr, who pushed the new fashion for collecting rare manuscripts into government policy. As a result, Egypt’s ruler, Khedive Ismāʿīl, dispatched him on an official tour of European libraries. Taymūr made copies of their collections of Arabic manuscripts, which in turn enabled more accurately corrected copies to be printed in Cairo.

Here El Shamsy shows he is no more a disciple of Said than of McLuhan. For he scrupulously documents the complexities of the engagement with Europe, which not only worsened the slow-building catastrophe of book loss, but also provided models for solutions. In the first instance, this came through the founding of the first modern libraries in the Middle East, “institutions that were inspired by and often modeled directly on European research libraries.” One of the key figures here was Rifāʿa al-Ṭahṭāwī, an imam sent to Paris in the 1820s as moral guardian to the first large party of Arab students studying in France. After his return to Cairo, he played a major role in the reform of Egyptian education, for which printed books were of central importance. By 1870, the efforts of Ṭahṭāwī and his many acolytes saw the opening of Cairo’s Dār al-Kutub, the Middle East’s first national library. Modeled on the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, the Dār al-Kutub in turn inspired the founding of other modern libraries across the Arab lands.

By the early 1900s, the new Arab connoisseurs of printed books prompted the emergence of editors as distinct from correctors. Here, too, Europe had a part to play, since the positive engagement with Orientalism was ultimately more about intellectual methods than libraries. We follow the pioneer editor Aḥmad Zakī as he worked as a French translator for the Egyptian government (he later also learned English, Spanish, and Italian), affording him access to both the writings and conferences of the Orientalists. He “was keenly interested in and impressed by the work of Orientalist scholars and sought to connect his work with theirs.” Zakī also toured Europe’s libraries, before exploring those of Istanbul. These too were official missions, leading him to write a highly critical report on conditions in Ottoman libraries during the empire’s final decade.

Seeing how hard it was to access rare manuscripts languishing under the lock and key of Ottoman librarians — even for well-funded scholars, armed with official letters — made Zakī even more determined to make such works available in print. In doing so, he adapted methods that had been developed for European Arabic imprints, such as editorial introductions, descriptions of source manuscripts, standardized punctuation, and the use of footnotes to alert readers to variant readings in different manuscripts. El Shamsy summarizes Zakī’s studious editorial revolution as being shaped by

a keen awareness of the institutions of book collection and production […] familiarity with Orientalist literature and with Arabic manuscript holdings in Europe as well as the Muslim world, the ambition to produce reference works as a foundation for subsequent scholarship on the Orient and its history, and a desire to bring Orientalist and Muslim scholarship into conversation.

The ensuing development of Arabic book culture didn’t immediately distinguish Zakī from the previous generation of “correctors,” at least not to readers of the texts he made available. For such was the novelty of his innovations that there was no Arabic word to label his role. But by 1911, the word muḥaqqiq began appearing under his name on the title pages (another innovation) of the books he published.

Although usually now translated as “editor,” muḥaqqiq literally means “verifier.” This was a deliberate choice of term, because the responsibility assumed by Zakī and his heirs was not merely the mundane assignment of checking sentences for spelling errors. It was the weightier epistemological task of ensuring that modern Arabs could access the precise meanings intended by the words of their medieval forebears. It was Zakī’s new methods of editing-as-verifying that made this possible. By these means, it seemed, great truths could be accessed by painstakingly removing the centuries of solecisms that enshrouded the teachings of classical Muslim thinkers in miscopied manuscripts.

These larger concerns form the focus of El Shamsy’s final chapters, which explain how religious reformists “recognized the powerful potential of print to serve their objective of broad, indigenously rooted sociocultural change.” By way of example, he provides case studies of key influential figures, including Muḥammad ʿAbduh — a Muslim Martin Luther, if ever there was one — for whom the revival of lucid Arabic prose and the publishing of classical texts were tools for religious reform. By stripping away centuries of popular superstitions and Sufi deviations — exacerbated by the Ottoman promotion of Persian and Turkish — ʿAbduh and his followers hoped not only to purify Islam, but also to render it compatible with modern science.

All this saw Cairo become the publishing capital of the Arab world. The consequences reached far beyond the borders of Egypt, not least through the enterprises of ʿAbduh’s Syrian protégé, Rashīd Riḍā, whose magazine al-Manār exported their reformist ideas far and wide. By around 1920, their movement was being called “Salafism.” And aptly so. The term salaf referred to the pious forebears of the early centuries of Islam. And across the gaping distance of a millennium or more, the most reliable means of accessing their pure, untainted faith were the restored medieval texts that recorded their words. Among the neglected authors who now found vast readerships through print was Ibn Taymiyya, perhaps the sternest medieval critic of Sufi Islam, who found an eager audience in the new post-Ottoman state that neighbored Egypt: Saudi Arabia.

This is the point where El Shamsy might have found common cause with Elizabeth Eisenstein’s famous interpretation of the impact of printing in Europe by pointing to a Muslim “Reformation” to parallel its Christian predecessor. But El Shamsy prefers to stay closer to the pages of his source books than make larger sweeping claims of the kind for which Eisenstein was criticized. And so, at the point where less scrupulous scholars might have been tempted to zoom out onto “the bigger picture,” he devotes a final chapter to philology. Not that this is a dry topic in his hands, as he describes the curious rise to prominence of the technical study of language amid the Arab political turmoil of the 1920s that saw France and Britain take charge of large sections of the disbanded Ottoman Empire and new nationalist movements spread across the entire Middle East. Showing the burning stakes of the “fierce debates” that followed, he explains that “philology is not simply a critical way of treating texts; it also functions as a gatekeeper, determining which texts are released into the world, in what form they enter it, and what degree of authenticity — historical and textual — they are granted.”

El Shamsy concludes by reminding us of the key intellectual, moral, and spiritual concern that drove the many players in his story: the need for verification. It was this demand for reliable knowledge based on reliable texts that gave rise to both the Arab editor and his professional label as the muḥaqqiq, or “verifier.”


In a book brimming with so many ideas, some of its arguments will inevitably be questioned by specialists. The claim that the teachings of Sufis, and especially Ibn ʿArabī, caused an “antiliterary tendency” is perhaps not only overstated, but also misconceived. After all, the intimidatingly prolific Ibn ʿArabī was notorious for filling a notebook every day of his adult life. During the centuries when El Shamsy shows manuscript production was shrinking, many other Sufis were also producing lengthily excursive works of their own. But if, by writing countless new texts, many such Sufis failed to follow their own advice to turn away from books and towards the lessons of the inner light, then this didn’t necessarily lead to their writings being widely copied and reproduced. In this respect, Sufis might have been fellow victims rather than causal villains of the deficiencies of manuscript production that El Shamsy identifies.

Perhaps the true causes were less esoteric and metaphysical than economic, relating to the cost and availability of paper, particularly produced locally rather than imported from the booming paper mills of Renaissance Italy. But those are possibilities for other historians to pursue. The value and originality of El Shamsy’s approach is precisely that it tries to identify intellectual causes for historical changes in the modern Middle East rather than rely on more familiar economic or political approaches.

Despite dealing with quite technical topics, El Shamsy writes with readable clarity. He also breaks his book into digestible “bio-bibliographical” servings: biographies of books via the people who rediscovered rare manuscripts — the lost “Islamic classics” — then made them available to a larger public through corrected and edited print. In telling their stories, he manages to convey a sense of the intellectual excitements, even adventure, of his bookish protagonists, without once resorting to cliché.

His decision to include photographs of these little-known figures helps further humanize his tale of “the purposeful actions of agents who selected, located, edited, circulated, and published classical works that met what they saw as the pressing needs of the age.” This finally serves to highlight his central concern with the role of the human individual who has been long confined by both McLuhan’s technological determinism and Said’s prison of discourse. And so,

Although European political and cultural dominance was a constant backdrop to the lives and activities of the editors described in this book, their stories cannot be reduced to a reaction to colonialism, nor was Orientalism something they simply experienced passively. Instead, they excavated their own intellectual heritage for their own reasons, sometimes in dialogue with, informed by, or even in opposition to Western scholarship.

The decisions made by these forgotten Arab editors led to a recovery of many lost works, which were amplified through the medium of print into what both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars now consider as the “Islamic classics.”

Ahmed El Shamsy has written a major work of intellectual history that, like all first-rate scholarship, renews the foundations of his field of study. Over the past 30 years, the history of the Islamic book has been reconstructed by researchers working on regions from the Middle East and Africa to India and Indonesia. But in its sheer scope, originality, and readability, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics is the field’s long-awaited bumper crop. Anyone with an interest in the medieval Middle East now has good reason to praise the modern Arab editor.


Nile Green holds the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA. He is the author of Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction and host of the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam.

LARB Contributor

As Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, Nile Green brings global history into conversation with Islamic history. He has researched and traveled in around 20 Muslim countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. His many books include The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London, Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction, and How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding. Green also hosts the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam, which is available on all major platforms.


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