A PRINTING PRESS IS A MACHINE.1 IT HAS NO MORALITY. BUT ITS POTENTIAL power is awesome. The visionary poet (and working printer) William Blake imagined that he visited a “printing house in Hell.” There he “saw the method in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation” and “printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal … displaying the infinite which was hid.” And, as Blake observed, “if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.”2 He articulated, in an extreme form, his contemporaries’ general confidence in the power of the printing press as a moral agent. This had distant roots, but in the Enlightenment the magical agency of the press to transform society became a near-universal belief. Censorship was the negative recognition of this absolute credence, and the eighteenth-century relaxation of control over the printed word (in the Habsburg domains and in Russia) was a short-lived experiment. But what was the state of those who did not enjoy the benefit of the printed word? They lived in an unimaginable darkness, waiting and longing for the coming of the light. And what of a government that deliberately turned its back upon the printing press? It could only be considered as the epitome of barbarism.
That was precisely the position of the Ottoman Empire and the infidel East. The West believed that the Ottomans “prohibited” the printing press because of their obscurantist faith—Islam. The Turks’ refusal to accept this unique benison from the West was an indication of their deep and fundamental wickedness. By sustaining ignorance they perpetuated the despotism described by Asli Çirakman.3 I believe that the debate over printing was the final formulation of the Western malediction of the Eastern infidel; but it was a condemnation carefully adjusted and attuned to the mores of an Enlightened age. What had begun with the Muslim as “the Abomination of Desolation,” then continued with “the Antichrist,” “the malignant foe,” and all the other epithets, ended with a portrayal of debased ignorance. This is the stereotype that has come through to the present day, and still flourishes in the West, but I believe that the Ottoman “failure” to adopt the printing press was the first point at which this prejudice was systematically articulated.
If I am right, then this obscure issue—whether or not some piece of machinery was or was not used at the far end of the Mediterranean—acquires a much deeper symbolic resonance. The shock of Westerners about the “intellectual desert” in the East was a commonplace observation. The French traveler and savant C. F. Volney wrote a hugely popular account of his travels to Syria and Egypt between 1783 and 1785. He was especially appalled at the lack of books. He portrayed a stark contrast: in France reading was common, but “in the East, nothing is rarer.” Over the space of six months in the Levantine provinces of the empire he found a number of texts, but what books he discovered were mostly ancient works on grammar and eloquence, and interpretations of the Qur’an. As far as any other topic was concerned, virtually nothing existed: “very few histories, tales and novels. I only saw two copies of One Thousand and One Nights.” Finally he decided that it was not so much that there were few good books in the East, but more that there were hardly any books at all. The reason was clear: “In this country all books are written by hand.” Volney’s conclusion was that without more books there could not be any major change or advance in the Ottoman Empire.
He saw relatively little merit in Arabic, which simply rendered printing difficult.
The costs of printing are considerable, especially considering that paper has to be imported from Europe and the hand work is very slow. The former problem could be quite simply resolved, but the latter needs a more radical solution. Arabic characters have to be joined by hand, and to join and align them requires great care, and careful attention to each letter. Moreover, the way the letters join depends on where they come in the sentence, and there are even different varieties of letters at the beginning and end of a word. Finally there are many double letters. These cannot be made by simply doubling the existing letters. A compositor has to walk up and down a table eighteen feet long and find the letters which are contained in nine hundred type boxes. All these time-wasting operations mean that Arabic printers can never achieve the greater perfection of our own presses.4
Volney’s solution was a comprehensive reformation of the inconvenient script.5 He was shrewd enough to recognize that simply introducing the printing press alone was no answer to a much more fundamental problem: what was needed was a wholesale transformation of Eastern society, beginning with its language.
In 1791, he returned to the topic. In his much-translated observations on an apocalyptic “Clash of Civilizations,” which he called The Ruins, or, Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires and the Laws of Nature, he began his journey through the past “in the Ottoman dominions and through those provinces which were anciently the kingdoms of Egypt and Syria.” His dire prediction was based upon what he had seen of these lands under Ottoman rule; in chapter 12, “The Lessons of the Past Repeated on the Present,” he laid out the imminent doom of the Ottoman Empire. “Turkish” became an adjective evidencing contempt and condemnation: so China, where cruelty reigned, had “a truly Turkish government.” Moreover, he was sure that like the Muslim world “as long as the Chinese world shall in writing make use of their present characters, they can be expected to make no progress in civilisation.”6 What did Europe have that the Ottoman and the Chinese empires did not? Volney had no doubts, and expressed an idea that remains as potent in our day, a confident vision fulfilled even more successfully by our electronic media. They lacked “the gift of heavenly Genius, the holy art of printing, having furnished the means of communicating in an instant the same idea to millions of men and of fixing it in a durable manner, beyond the power of tyrants to arrest or annihilate.”7
Given the power that attached to the “holy art,” we need to disentangle the reasons that the infidel East apparently spurned it. The failure to adopt Gutenberg’s new art became a touchstone of the essential backwardness of Muslims. From the eighteenth century, it was a convenient explanation for the growing divergence of the Western and Eastern worlds, with the West looking forward and the East looking backward. It has become part of a historical paradigm, what the historian of science Thomas Kuhn called the “normal” state of understanding. To change or even question that norm is to enter a maelstrom. It is easier to pose the question as a counterfactual, a “what if.”8 What if Mehmed II “the Conqueror,” to cap his victory at Constantinople in 1453, had paid the debts of the floundering Mainz entrepreneur Johann Gutenberg, and shipped his printing press to the Old Palace above the Bosphorus? It is perhaps not such a foolish premise, knowing what we do of both Mehmed’s passions and Gutenberg’s financial circumstances. Nor is it entirely fanciful, because the Islamic world had already pioneered a development much more far reaching than Gutenberg’s trio of innovations—reusable metal type, the casting mold, and the printing press.
It was paper more than print that revolutionized the world. Take another counterfactual: what if Johann Gutenberg had had to print his great Bible on the only material available in 1455: sheep, cow, and goat skins? What would have happened to his great invention if there had been no paper in western Europe? The role of paper in the printing revolution has been strangely passed over.9 Yet without paper, transmitted from China to the Muslim world, and thence to Europe, the development of publishing in Europe is virtually unimaginable.
The production of paper in Europe began in Italy in the thirteenth century, at Amalfi, southeast of Naples, and at Fabriano, north of Assisi. It was said that here they had learned the secrets of papermaking from the Moors of Xativa, near Valencia. Both Italian towns managed to make a paper of high quality, which they then shipped back to the Islamic world, still the main market for this product. It was not until 1390 that papermaking moved north of the Alps, with a Nuremberg city official, Ulmann Stromeir, converting his flour mill outside the city into a paper mill, worked by skilled Italians.10 But Italian papers were superior to all others, both in the quality of the writing surface and in durability. Sultan Mehmed II bought paper from Italy for his scribes, but also set up his own paper mill beside the stream called the Kagithane at the head of the Golden Horn.11 Although papermaking rose and declined in the various centers of production in the Islamic lands, it never failed entirely, despite the competition from Italy and later from other parts of Europe. Muslim papermakers continued to experiment and develop new types of paper for different needs certainly until the nineteenth century and, I believe, up to the present.
Contrast this spirit of enterprise with the Islamic obscurantism that supposedly prevented the introduction of Gutenberg’s press. Or perhaps we should think of it as a double dose of conservatism, since the Islamic culture that had adopted Chinese paper evidently failed to adopt Chinese printing from the same source, centuries before Gutenberg. If this were true, it might constitute clear evidence of some innate fear of innovation. But it does not. The prohibition on printing and the printed book is a topic shrouded in mystery, oddly so given the importance that has been attached to it in the West.12 The same story is repeated by a number of visitors to the Ottoman Empire. A prime source was the sixteenth-century French traveler and historiographer to the court of Catherine de’ Medici, André Thevet. He was told that
Greeks, Armenians, Mingrelians, Abyssinians, Turks, Moors, Arabs and Tartars only write their books by hand. Among the Turks they follow the decree of Bajezid, the second of that name their Emperor, proclaimed in 1483, on pain of death, not to read printed books, which ordinance was confirmed by Selim the first of that name his son, in 1515.13
But Walid Gdoura, author of the major study on the slow development of printing in the Middle East, is rightly skeptical about these secondhand accounts. I suspect the ideas about an Islamic prohibition on printing emerged from an Islamic anathema on images.14
Here we might seem to be on more solid ground. The prohibition on images has been held to be a total, permanent, and unalterable distinction between East and West. It was commented upon from the first centuries of contact, and was confirmed by Muslim disgust at the use of religious images in the Crusader states. But it is not true in these absolute terms. There had been a long tradition of human and animal depiction in the Muslim East, which proliferated under the Ummayad caliphates in both the Levant and in Spain, and which can still be seen in the objects that have survived from their palaces.15 Visual and pictorial arts flourished in private under the Ottomans, and also, preeminently, in Persia and in Mughal India. But unlike the Christian realm, in the Muslim world recognizable human images (and those of animals) played no part in religious art.16 If, exceptionally, the Prophet Mohammed or one of his successors were depicted for any reason, their faces were almost always veiled and “invisible.”
So, the theoretical absolutes crumble and the supposedly immutable mutates. The deeper we dig into the issue of images and of printing, at every point we discover there are unexpected ambiguities. Where the long-established assumptions about the East are tested, anomalies, divergence from the rule, and exceptions immediately emerge. Daniel Goffman has written that the reality of the Ottoman lands was a “world governed by exceptions.”17 This is a striking revision to long-held attitudes. Most writing about the Eastern world has hitherto assumed that the ordering of life as written down in legislation, regulations, and codes of precedence and behavior corresponded precisely to the everyday reality. For this reason Busbecq, writing in the sixteenth century, was still a valued authority in the eighteenth. Many Easterners have also believed in the protective value of a settled order within their world. Those who visited the West often perceived this quality of orderliness to be the best feature of their own world by comparison with what they saw as the turmoil of the West.18
But their Eastern world was no more completely static than the West was rootless and in perpetual flux. An important distinction concerns the printing press. The reasons that the Eastern world did not adopt the printing press when it first became available in the fifteenth century were neither to do with willful obscurantism nor with a naïve fear of the printed word. There were other, more mundane reasons. Over many centuries, the Arabic script had proved extraordinarily successful in the East. It was used for writing Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Hebrew. It was not, however, necessarily very well adapted to transmuting the spoken form of any of these languages into printed form. There are twenty-eight phonemes in spoken Arabic, represented by eighteen written characters. Dots were marked over and under some letters, inflecting and altering their sounds, while vowels were often not written down at all. Even when speaking in Arabic, let alone in the other tongues for which the script was used, an oral source rather than a written text was often the more reliable, especially if the speaker had memorized the words which he (or she) had heard.
The development of the manuscript tradition in the West throughout the Middle Ages led to a certain codification of practices by scribes, but there were many variants and irregularities, and in certain areas, like the courtroom, the spoken record remained the true and accurate text. (Under some circumstances the written text is still considered to be secondary.)19 The superiority of the spoken form was acknowledged but its status was diminishing even before the age of print. With printing, conventions were gradually standardized, and variants were discarded. In fifteenth-century England, the leading printer William Caxton did much to fix the London dialect as the form for the printed book. Through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries printers progressively dropped the accidentals and variant letter forms when they could, because more letters just increased their costs, both in buying type characters and by slowing the work of the typesetters. The same processes of “refinement” took place in both French and German.
Typesetting in Arabic posed unique problems. As Volney first observed, printing was not easy in Arabic. Jonathan Bloom has analyzed why. Arabic is essentially a cursive written language, whereas all European languages are made up of individual letters that adapted readily to typesetting words letter by letter. Also the Arabic letter forms change, depending on where in the word they appear. The creation and use of Arabic fonts in the West was not something that most commercial printers would sensibly undertake: they would need a minimum of 500 different pieces of type. The font used by Napoleon to print documents in Arabic during his invasion of Egypt in 1798 had 700 different characters. As a rough comparison, a European “Roman” typeface might contain about 250 different variants of type (uppercase, lowercase, punctuation symbols, and so on). All the early Western ventures in Italy and elsewhere to create Arabic-type fonts usually needed the support by a patron with deep pockets (such as Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici in 1585) who supported the venture for ideological motives or for reasons of prestige.20 One of the immediate objectives was to provide liturgical material for Eastern Christians whose language was Arabic. Rome feared they might otherwise be won over to Protestantism through printed texts in Arabic or Ottoman Turkish supplied by heretics from the Netherlands, England, Sweden, or Germany.21
Not many books in Arabic script were produced in Europe and none could accommodate all the subtleties and flourishes of the calligraphic Arabic texts. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they compared unfavorably with the work of a skilled copyist in the Ottoman domains. There was no shortage of those willing to enter this profession. Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli suggested that there were more than 80,000 scribes working in Constantinople in the 1680s, although his figure must have included all the numerous letter writers as well as the book copyists. It was a common saying that “the Qur’an was revealed in Mecca, recited in Egypt, and written in Istanbul.” The manner of book production in the East was normally oral: a scholar would dictate from memory to a battery of scribes. In Christendom, St. Thomas Aquinas had been renowned for dictating four books in the same session to four different secretaries, switching back and forth from secretary to secretary to keep up the pace of work.
For the Muslim world the process was more mechanical. Perhaps a dozen copyists would inscribe the same text from a single dictation. Once it was completed, each scribe would read back what he had written down to ensure accuracy, and the scholar would certify the copy as correct. Very quickly more than a hundred copies could be produced by systematic copying and verification.22 There was also a great number of libraries in the Muslim world, initially on a far larger scale than those in the West. Many were part of mosque complexes and most of their texts were religious in nature.23 But there was also a tradition of private book collections being open to the public. There were large public libraries in the capital, but in many smaller places as well. In Jerusalem, the Khalili collection had more than 7,000 manuscripts in Arabic, while the Ragib al-Khalidi collection contained more than 10,000 works in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian when it opened to the public as the Maktubat al-Halidja early in the twentieth century.24
In the first two centuries after Gutenberg, the benefits of print must have seemed questionable within an Eastern world that used the Arabic script. But by the end of the seventeenth century it was evident that for anything of a technical nature, the printed text had great advantages. However, the introduction of this Western innovation would trample on several powerful vested interests. The first was the scribes and clerks upon whom the entire Ottoman administration depended; and the second was the religious class, ulema, who controlled the mosques, where much of the book copying was carried out, and the majority of publicly accessible texts in their libraries. The advocates of printing were careful to take account of the objections of the ulema. The document submitted by a Transylvanian convert to Islam named Ibrahim Müteferrika in 1726 to the grand vizier stressed the many benefits of the new technique, but especially “the publication of dictionaries, histories, medical texts and science books, philosophy and astronomy books, and information about nature, geography and travelogues.” Just as telling, and despite an assertion that the “illustrious Ottoman state possesses thunderous cannons, fierce incendiaries and powerful muskets” and thus had nothing to learn from the West in the art of war, military technology was uppermost in the minds of the Ottoman government.25 For thirty years after the failure to take Vienna in 1683, the Ottomans had consistently been beaten by the Habsburg armies. They hoped to learn the military mysteries of the West out of books.
The sultan’s permission to introduce printing in Ottoman Turkish was carefully circumscribed. It excluded all books concerning religion and law (which was part of the religious domain). These remained firmly part of the manuscript tradition. The key figure in the introduction of the Western innovation was not the humble Ibrahim Müteferrika, but a much more prominent man of the Ottoman establishment. The order was granted to the printer and to Mehmed Said Pasha, who had accompanied his father, Mehmed Pasha, on an Ottoman embassy to France. The decree was formally endorsed by the religious authorities in Constantinople, in Galata (across the Golden Horn), and Salonika, as well as by the Shaikh ul-Islam, the senior religious figure in the empire. Said Pasha financed the whole operation, importing the press itself from France, paying the skilled printers from Vienna, and acting as the patron and protector for the fledgling venture. Appropriately, Said’s portrait, painted by Jacques Aved in 1742, shows him with his hand resting on a book, in European art traditionally signifying his commitment to literature and culture.26
Yet this first press, active for eighteen years, succeeded in printing only twenty-three books. Only one of these, the first, an Arabic dictionary translated into Ottoman Turkish, was ever reprinted. This failure was in part because the grand vizier Ibrahim, who had supported the press, was killed by the janissaries at the deposition of Sultan Ahmed III in 1730, ending the Tulip Era. A suspicion of European innovations reemerged. But the greater reality was that there was little demand.
The reasons become a little clearer if we consider the matter not so much in terms of prejudice against print as in terms of permissible topics. The Ottoman administration defined these very tightly. As Volney indicated, somewhat to his disgust, religion and law were already the subject matter of the majority of manuscript books. In fifteenth-century Europe, likewise, religion and law were the most popular and successful categories in early printing, covering more than 80 percent of all titles published.27 So the Turkish printing press, producing texts in Ottoman Turkish, was left with a small segment of the market, and an insufficient volume of publications to develop the necessary network of distribution and publicity. Add to that the fact that the first books were not very appealing by contrast with the finer handwritten products. Not only were the letters relatively crude, but they were often based on North African or Levantine styles of writing that looked odd to many Turkish readers, rather as the German Gothic script looked strange and was hard to read for Westerners used to the Roman fonts. Consider these factors and the reasons for the initial failure of printing acquire a far less ideological cast.
But was it for reasons of religious scruple that the administration prohibited the printing of religious books? I believe this too needs to be seen in a broader context. The Ottomans were not ignorant of the divisions in Europe caused by religious schism; indeed, they benefited from it in both political and economic terms. They were also aware that the printed word had been a powerful force in causing that fracture. Printing was allowed in the Christian and Jewish minorities, in their own languages, and also in Arabic script (but not in the Ottoman language). However, these were books that served the needs of their own communities and had almost no dissemination beyond them. Books in Arabic were imported from Italy, France, and the Habsburg lands, although there had been severe restraints on the trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The response to the printed word, even in Arabic script, was not uniform: sometimes printed books were allowed, at other times they were not permitted. The main political concern of the government seems to have been books printed in Ottoman Turkish, which was the lingua franca of the empire.
The essence of the Ottoman Empire was control, but policy on how best to exercise this was always in a state of flux. In theory the sultan’s government controlled everything; in practice, in distant provinces, that power might be completely illusory.28 Licensed printing, under strict conditions, with the chief religious authority of the empire as head of the editorial board, was an attempt to allow development and at the same time maintain control.29 Many European governments, notably those in Catholic countries, also constantly adapted and adjusted their systems to achieve the maximum level of protection against undesirable (heretical, politically sensitive, lewd, and pornographic) material. Not, however, with uniform success.30 Governments in the West would have preferred to keep a rein on the printed word rather than allow its headlong, unfettered development. The history of the post-Reformation period contains countless examples of their attempts to tame it through censorship, persecution, or the scaffold.31
Perhaps if printers had been allowed to produce religious and legal books in the Ottoman Empire, the industry there might have grown more rapidly. But that is not certain, given the fragility of any market for books and the lack of a system for distribution. It has been estimated that in the century between the foundation of Müteferrika’s press and the death of the great reforming sultan Mahmud II, in 1839, no more than 439 titles were published in Ottoman Turkish.32 Production increased dramatically during the nineteenth century, but ultimately no more than 20,000 titles were published before 1928, when a new, Roman alphabet was adopted by the Turkish Republic. The same tardy development of the market for books affected all areas of the Ottoman domain in Europe, and indeed the Slav and Hellenic communities on its fringes.33
Müteferrika’s first titles had been strange hybrids. They imitated the binding and appearance of the Islamic manuscript tradition, but unlike most Muslim books, some of them were illustrated. The second publication, an account translated from a Jesuit’s text about a bloody revolt in Afghanistan, had engravings, and the third, a history of the West Indies and a collection of fables, was fully illustrated. One of the stories had a picture of a tree that bore women as its fruit, who fell to the ground as they ripened, shouting “wak wak.” According to Abbé Giambattista Toderini, who published his huge history of Turkish literature and music in 1787, these figures became so popular that they were copied and displayed in official festivals, as the spectators shouted “wak wak.” Yet despite this suggestion of public interest, it is impossible to consider the venture successful. One thousand copies was an average print run and the volumes were expensive.
It was not Gutenberg’s type but Alois Senefelder’s invention of lithography in 1798 that made possible a mass market for the printed word in Arabic script.34 Letterpress had improved as new Arabic fonts were produced. A large printing works was set up by Mehmed Ali Pasha, the ruler of Egypt, at Bulaq in the suburbs of Cairo in 1815.35 Other printers were established in Constantinople, and on the Asian shore at Uskudar (Scutari). But the basic problems of Arabic typesetting had not altered. It was only with lithography that the limitations inherent in Gutenberg’s type vanished. With lithographic printing, instead of laboriously assembling type, a calligrapher’s handwritten text could be printed exactly as written. Illustrations could be drawn on transfer sheets or directly onto the surface of the carefully ground printing stones. The resulting quality was impressive, and even a selection of colors could be used. The first lithographic book in Ottoman Turkish was printed not in Istanbul but in Paris, by T. X. Bianchi in 1817. The first lithographic press in the Ottoman Empire arrived in Constantinople about 1830. It was set up in the grounds of the Ministry of War, under the patronage of Khusrev Pasha, by two well-known French printers from Marseilles, Henri and Jacques Cayol. Their patron’s own book, complete with seventy-nine images, was their first publication in 1831.36
By the mid–nineteenth century the lithographic process, which had in the early days required considerable skill to prepare the stones and to print accurately, was mechanized, and zinc plates rather than lithographic stones were increasingly used. An Ottoman magazine industry flourished from the late 1860s with a circulation throughout the empire. Thus, by the accession of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1876, the Ottoman world possessed newspapers, magazines, printing, and photography, different only in their extent from the Western world. These were the emblems of modernity and of the city, in a society that remained largely rural, illiterate, conservative, and resolutely resistant to change.37
so THE “BLACK ART”—LETTERPRESS PRINTING—CAME LATE TO THE Ottoman world. In the West it had gained this nickname because printing was a grimy business and printers were always spattered with ink. But the phrase means something else as well. In the West, with rare and precious exceptions, a printed book would be printed in black ink on white paper or on parchment. Images too would normally be printed in black. In certain books, such as Bibles or service books, some letters or sentences might be printed in red, “rubricated.” The English phrase “a red-letter day” comes from the practice of highlighting church feasts and holidays in red print in the Book of Common Prayer. But until the general use of color in printing late in the nineteenth century, even prestigious and costly printed books were more usually a monochrome experience. In the older manuscript tradition, of course, a book might include illuminations and decorations in a multitude of colors, but the domain of color after the “Gutenberg revolution” had been yielded to painters and miniaturists. In the East, by contrast, books continued to be embellished. Book decorators and illuminators were prized at the Ottoman, Persian, and Moghul courts, and it was almost unthinkable for a fine book not to be enriched with color. Many were enhanced with the depiction of human and animal forms, supposed by Westerners to be universally anathematized within the world of Mediterranean Islam.
But it is also true that nowhere in the Ottoman domains—not even in Mehmed Ali’s aggressively modernizing Cairo—was there anything similar to the slow percolation of the printed image into a largely preliterate society that took place in the West. In the “well-protected domain” of the Ottomans, until the mid–nineteenth century, in the cities and towns there were no religious pictures, few portraits or cartoons, and, in fact, a paucity of secular images of any sort. In the countryside, among the poor and illiterate, there were none at all.
For many Muslims, a visual image made by a human hand was something completely abstract and unknown. A picture was simply a category of evil like the devil himself. It was irreligious, an innovation, to be shunned and avoided. Culture formed around the spoken word, which translated the glories of nature not into an image but into poetry. The world of Islam did not share the iconic awareness common throughout the West, where images were part of the culture that developed in every European nation. Even those ascetic Protestants who defaced sculptures in churches, and ground the images of saints, martyrs, and the holy Virgin underfoot, usually accepted pictures in the secular domain. At the very least, they knew what images were. The situation in the Muslim East was quite different. Brinkley Messick has coined the redolent phrase “the calligraphic state” to describe a society (in Yemen) that existed without images and was ruled by the written word.38 His concept was founded on the power and importance of script in the Arabic tradition. But the written word in that tradition was itself but a shadow of the spoken word. The human voice was more potent than any form of writing, extended as it was by body language, vocal tone and inflection, and even by an audience’s energizing presence.39 The essence of Islam was a recitation (qur’an), carried over into a book (kitab). And that book might not even be a physical text, but a book that existed only in the mind.40 Texts written in Arabic were suffused with something of this divine book, but even a sacralized script could only imperfectly express its ineffable oral grandeur.
Printed images had no public place in this world. They were at most for private enjoyment by the sophisticated few. Esin Atil has described the evolution of the imperial studio (nakkashane) that produced illustrated books.41 In this studio some artists specialized in calligraphy, especially in the elaborate imperial signatures, or tughra. The portrait painters, because of their skill in depicting the human form, were an essential but more marginal and exclusive group within the studio and among its freelance workers. There were many artists working privately in the capital, but few who declared themselves as painters of portraits, in part certainly because of the opprobrium this activity might attract. What was appropriate for the sultan was more risky for the individual artist or collector. Some sultans from Mehmed the Conqueror onward both commissioned books full of images and amassed other illustrated books from a variety of sources. They were all stored with other treasures for the private use of the sultan in the Inner Treasury of the Topkapi Palace.
The production of these works in the sixteenth century, notably the histories, was an act of state, dramatizing the course of Ottoman history and the successes of Ottoman arms under the sultans. They therefore depicted both Muslims and non-Muslims, but there appears much less of the hostility that dominates many Western images of the infidel. In, for example, Lokman’s Hunername, the Westerners are shown as ordinary human figures. On one page they appear very bored, some playing dice, a few firing their cannon at the Ottoman armies, and one man (improbably) asleep against an artillery piece. None of them are especially vicious images.42 This does not, of course, say anything about popular attitudes, since these images would be seen only by the privileged few.43 But such a presentation in a state document was obviously both appropriate and acceptable to the imperial patron. The Westerners might be ritually reviled in word or in writing, but they were depicted merely as objects of curiosity.
Magnificently decorated Qur’ans are common but it is impossible to conceive of a Qur’an with images in the way that there were numerous pictorial Bibles.44 Images with a human face or an animal form played, at most, a marginal part in the formation of Muslim culture. To the majority of Muslims, beyond the small groups of urban sophisticates, images were incomprehensible. The closest I can come to understanding this experience is the situation described by the writer Albert Manguel in his enticing book A History of Reading. Manguel relates how in 1978 he was working for a publisher in Milan. One day a package arrived.
It contained, instead of a manuscript, a large collection of illustrated pages, depicting a number of strange objects and detailed but bizarre operations each captioned in a script none of the editors recognized … Made entirely of invented words and pictures, the Codex Seraphianus [after its author, Luigi Serafini] must be read without the help of a common language, through signs for which there are no meanings except those furnished by a willing and inventive reader.45
Intrigued, I went to the British Library to see for myself a copy of this odd work. It is in a handsome black cloth binding, and its pages are illuminated like a medieval manuscript. I quickly realized that its meaning to me would be only what I brought to it. The script was indecipherable, but to a degree I could make contact with the images—some of them had bits and pieces within them that I recognized. But there was no way of knowing what the pages really meant, and after half an hour, I gave up. This collision with the incomprehensible is how people living in a world without images respond when first confronted with pictures. It is a new language that has to be learned.
There is a never-ending debate among scholars about the language and meaning of images. Some perceive them as one element in some vast structure of signs, others as a map of “multimodal texts, vectors and forces.” At the other extremity, images become discrete and powerful entities with a life of their own, “icontexts.”46 Relating the theories to the real world is not easy, especially since images printed in books and other publications are often ignored. Unlike works of art or even artists’ prints, they do not stand alone. They are bound in with the words around them. And just as the words that make up the written text have to be learned or deciphered, so too the images have to be understood.47 But as with the Codex Seraphianus, understanding what an image means is virtually impossible if nothing about it is recognizable. Images remained an unfamiliar, alien presence in the Muslim world before (at the earliest) the eighteenth century. In practice it was not until the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries that they became more commonplace, even in the major cities. For this reason most of the theories produced in the West concerning the nature of images do not seem to have much obvious relevance to the Islamic condition.
Over many centuries Western (and Eastern) Christians had become adept at understanding figurative images made by a human hand. They were instructed that a statue of a saint had special qualities relating to the saint’s life and story, that a golden reliquary enclosing a withered hand or a bejeweled skull was a holy relic and had meaning. They were taught how to read the image or object by seeing it. Those same visual skills of interpretation were later employed in literacy, in learning to read the written texts.48 The Protestant iconoclasts of the sixteenth century rarely abominated images in an absolute sense: the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” meant for them the ungodly worship of images.49 Nowhere in the world of Islam were painted or printed images as common as they were in the Christian world. Muslims, the literate and the nonliterate alike, lived among voices. They learned by hearing, recitation, and repetition. Knowledge was transmitted through the spoken voice, which was more resonant and truthful than mute words printed on a page.50 It was a culture in which the printed image (of animals and human beings) had none of the educational role that it did in the Christian world. Children were not taught to read using visual images, but through recitation and through deciphering a written text.51
However, the contrast between the two worlds—the West with images and the East without—was not truly absolute: a range of public depictions did exist in the Islamic world and were widely used. As d’Ohsson observed, while Muslims themselves made no coins that bore human images, they were happy to use Western money that did. The silver thaler of Maria Theresa and later the British gold sovereign with the head of Queen Victoria became the trusted common currencies throughout the Arabian peninsula. But nonetheless they belonged to the distant, alien, and infidel outside world.
It was not until after the development of photography in the nineteenth century that human and animal images entered the Muslim domain more generally. Thereafter, while purists might still anathematize any image that showed a human or animal figure, photography cut away many religious objections. It was argued that creating a photograph was not a human act, but God’s light acting upon an emulsion to make the image. This also opened the way to the acceptance of printed but non-photographic images, for from the mid–nineteenth century photography began to be used for making lithographic plates. By the same logic, etching, aquatint, and mezzotint, all processes that used chemical action to make an image, could also be treated more permissively. Engraving could also be explained away in the same fashion, because blocks were increasingly produced mechanically or chemically.
The same principles of exception later extended to both film and television. By the last decade of the twentieth century the Muslim realm had adapted to a world where depiction and the image of human forms were normal. Only the most purblind, austere, and narrow-minded continued to abominate all visual images, whether made by human art or God’s divine light. In the 1920s King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia had shocked his ikhwan (brotherhood of warriors) by having his photograph taken. This defender of the holy places of Islam, king of the Hijaz and future king of Saudi Arabia, paid no attention to their protestations, any more than to their fevered objections about cars and airplanes. It was relatively easy for a king to follow his own inclinations, but millions of ordinary Muslims did the same.
I HAVE INCREASINGLY COME TO THE CONCLUSION THAT ATTEMPTING codification of the differences between East and West (while they might have the solid sanction of holy writ) cannot correspond to the quotidian realities of life. Very few, in the East or in the West, in the past as in the present, voluntarily lived or live their lives wholly according to the holy books and the laws. Most people spent their days in conformity to the mores of their own group and community.52 At the interface, where the two worlds collide, problems occur. In one particular context, international commerce, you may observe eminent Western visitors to the East becoming frustrated at the different pace at which business is done. But equally, senior figures from the East can feel discomforted by the pell-mell of meetings in some Western countries: that characteristic phrase “cut to the chase,” taken from Western movie culture, dramatizes the difference. For some, what comes before the main event is only an insignificant prelude; for others, the main event is only part of the whole complex of customs and courtesies. This temporal shift, between an event that can be “cut” and one that cannot, I think, begins to get to the heart of difference.
There is clock time and there is human time. Gerhard Dohrn–van Rossum has shown how the West became progressively dominated by clock time. By the nineteenth century, one French minister of education could boast that he knew precisely what any school pupil in France would be studying at any hour of the school day.53 In the East, clock time was more controversial. Sultan Murad III, like his ancestor Mehmed the Conqueror, was curious about Western mechanical clocks. Murad’s astronomer and chief astrologer set up an observatory in the capital and wrote the first handbook on mechanical clocks in the empire. In 1561, he made a clock that showed the times of prayer, an instrument eventually destroyed because it was considered to be an infidel device seeking to replace the muezzin and the power of the human voice. Like the printing press, clock time has had a checkered and complex history in the East.
My great-uncle Otto Veit once had a watch that he had bought in the grand bazaar of Constantinople when he traveled there from Vienna in the years before the First World War. I remember it showed the different times that were used under the Ottoman Empire. One dial showed mosque time (hijri), one dial had time used in government and business offices (mali), and a third showed Western time (alafranga). He told me that he had bought it after he had missed appointments because those he was supposed to meet were using one time and he was using another. I subsequently read of an earlier traveler who had the same problem:
The time will be given in Turkish fashion, which begins to count at sundown, and goes on for the whole twenty-four hours, so in the middle of the afternoon one may be told it is exactly 17 o’clock. Then as the sun does not have the politeness to set every day at the same time, it is necessary to carry an almanack in one’s head to reduce the Turkish time to English.54
The issues discussed in this chapter all come down to timing. In the twenty-first century, the West and the East now share many of the same goods and commodities, and especially radio, television, movies, and the Internet, as well as books, magazines, and newspapers. But these did not come into use at the same time. There was a lag, with the West developing new modes of communication, and the East adopting them later. It was four centuries before images and the printed word became as common in the Muslim East as they were in the West. With film, radio, and television it was a matter of decades; with the Internet, less than five years. But that long delay in accepting the printing revolution had profound consequences. It meant that Eastern time scales and Western time scales were not identical, and like my great-uncle in need of the watch, we need a means to relate the two.
The argument of this book is that both the Christian infidels and the Muslim infidels have regarded each other with suspicion throughout their long connection. Each routinely cursed and abominated the other, which is only to be expected. But the malediction has not been of quite the same kind. Certainly from the invention of printing, and through the proliferation of images, the West’s maledicta have been infinitely more potent and widespread. But now, as the clock moves on, the East has learned the lesson. “Islam” uses the printing press and visual and electronic media with the same skill and sophistication as the West. And it has also learned how these new techniques can now carry the East’s maledicta, farther and more potently than the scribe’s pen.