Reviving Writing

This article is a follow-up to the previous week’s piece “The Lost Art of Writing”.

The Print Culture and Dar al Islam

A brief gloss on print culture would be instructive in understanding the historical relationship between oral cultures and the written word. The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s  (1911 – 1980) The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)—a study of “print culture” in pre-modern Europe through Gutenberg’s innovations— gives us a clue:

Print organizes reality into discrete, uniform, harmonious, causal relations. The visual arrangement of the printed page becomes a perceptual model by which all reality is organized. The mental set of print-the desire to break things down into elementary units (words), the tendency to see reality in discrete units, to find causal relations and linear serial order (left to right arrangement of the page), to find orderly structure in nature (the orderly geometry of the printed page)-is transferred to all other social activities. Thus, science and government, art and architecture, work and education become organized in terms of the implicit assumption built into the dominant medium of communication.

Moreover, print encourages individualism and specialization […] above all, print leads to nationalism, for it allows for the visual apprehension of the mother tongue and through maps a visual apprehension of the nation. Printing allows the vernacular to be standardized and the mother tongue to be universalized through education. While the book ushered in the age of print, developments such as newspapers and magazines have only intensified the implications of print: extreme visual nationalism, specialist technology and occupations, individualism and private points of view.”[1]

The Jesuit philosopher Walter Ong (1912 –2003)—long invested in this orality-literacy question—offered this observation of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s classic two-volume study The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979): 

Eisenstein spells out in detail how print made the Italian Renaissance a permanent European Renaissance, how it implemented the Protestant Reformation and reoriented Catholic religious practice, how it affected the development of modern capitalism, implemented western European exploration of the globe, changed family life and politics, diffused knowledge as never before, made universal literacy a serious objective, made possible the rise of modern sciences, and otherwise altered social and intellectual life.[2]


That makes the historical Islamic ordeal against Gutenberg’s printing press with movable type clearer: it was not only a “technological upgrade”, but a wider socio-cultural and cognitive revolution with direct implications on religion and religiosity, through modernist ills like rationalism, individualism, and capitalism. To take a practical example, the proliferation and accessibility of [cheap] books, accompanied by a growth in literacy and individualism, would make one “search for knowledge” without the traditional pillars of Islamic pedagogy, that is, to go to a shaykh and so on. In the same way, the book itself in Islamic civilization is an art, as attests the millions of manuscripts scattered around the world and that have summoned, apart from the authors, the craftsmen who, more than writing them down, often embellished them through calligraphy. The printing press would have dissolved this pedagogical as well as aesthetic dynamic. Of course, this does not mean that we should rebuke any printed book – it would be both risible and counter-productive – but to point out the spirit behind historic hesitance in Islamic civilization towards the printing press.

McLuhan announced the end of this print culture, due to the new technology (the radio gave supremacy to the audio over the video), and many have hailed him as an anticipator of the internet. As early as 1987, Michael Heim wrote an explicit book called Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing, where he studies the paradigmatic changes that the computerization of written communication has brought to human society. In there, he for instance shows how the e-mail has made interaction between individuals minimalistic, as an e-mail is, more often than not, by its nature, reduced and confrontational; or how our age of fluidity and [rapid] change has demoted the symbol of the book, which, in Platonic parlance, represented stability and permanence. All of this obviously has a consequence for Western philosophy and civilization:

Western philosophy could become a series of footnotes [of Plato] precisely because philosophic intelligence became identified with systematic, linear, and comprehensive intelligence – modelling its intelligence along the lines of a written book.[3]

The electronic media is thus, like the printing press, primarily a cognitive revolution, before being a technical or technological one. So what could be the consequences for Islam and its faithful adherents? The prophetic communication over the ages certainly wasn’t virtual like that of our IT era, and the book is definitely a center of Islamic intellectuality as much as of Islamic piety.

Let’s then see what could reconnect us to both writing and the respect of the book, and more eminently, the Qur’an itself.

Arabic Calligraphy and Islamic Praxis as Remedies

Allah (subhanaHu wa ta’ala) has chosen the Arabic language as the privileged medium for His last revelation. For many it appears to be innocuous, while it should be a matter of reflection, and, naturally, the Arabic script itself has been honored. The metaphysician and scholar of art Titus Burckhardt (1908 – 1984), better-known as Ibrahim Izz al-Din after his conversion, said of Arabic calligraphy that it’s “the art most widely shared by all Muslims, since anyone who can write is in a position to appreciate the merits of a good calligrapher, and it can be said without fear of exaggeration that nothing has typified the aesthetic sense of the Muslim peoples as much as the Arabic script.” Contrasting it with the Chinese characters, which “unfold vertically, from the top to the bottom”, the Arabic script “proceeds horizontally, on the plane of becoming, but starts from the right, which is the field of action, and moves to the left, which is the region of the heart; it therefore describes a progression from the outward to the inward.”[4]

Writing in Arabic then becomes a corporeal metaphysics that is an odyssey from the world of the manifestation towards the inner galaxy of the heart, and the pen is transformed into a spiritual weapon. Aida Shahlar Gasimova, a professor of Arabic literature, indeed says that:

In medieval Muslim society, the pen was an instrument of pre-eternal and divine character. It is not surprising that medieval scribes did not throw away the shavings produced by sharpening their pens but, rather, buried them in a pure place. They were treated as shards of a sacred instrument. In his Fihrist, Ibn al-Nadim said that ”The Pen is a messenger of the mind, its envoy and tongue. The intelligence of people is dripping from the tip of their pen… While the people are crying the pens are laughing’’.[5]

The Islamic art historian Hala Auji showcases the organic interactions between Islam and Arabic calligraphy (which seems too obvious) but also genealogy-authority (the whole master-student dialectic) and manuscript-production in the foregone Islamicate world :

Arabic calligraphy had its roots in the process of reproducing the Qurʾan in writing. From its early emergence in the seventh century, the tradition of bookmaking in the Islamic world underwent many changes. By the nineteenth century, a system (amongst a certain group of established scholars and ʿulamaʾ) that included the preservation of past customs and a master-student training process remained intact. Inherent to this system was the regulation of authenticity and authority within the realm of calligraphic and manuscript production. Apprentices would undergo years of intensive training with a master who himself was trained in a similar manner and belonged to a lineage of scribal authorities that spanned several centuries. Once their training was completed to the satisfaction of the master, they would be granted a license (thus, authority) to practice the art and sign their names to their works […] the genealogy of scribal masters was thus well documented, with “authentic” and “legitimate” copies of manuscripts that included the signatures and/or seals of calligraphers differentiated from other productions.[6]

The distance from the pen brought by the current age thus takes a theological significance: it’s not only a loss of our individuality – as the handwriting is one’s identity, no two handwritings are totally similar, while in the virtual universe we’re all the same commodity –, but it’s also  more crucially the loss of something that pushes us into transcendence by attaching ourselves to a tradition.

What could be done to wrestle the on-going sinking, which will just keep getting more radical? Perhaps trying to write more often on paper might appear redundant and even obsolete, but why not – for instance – transcribe adhkar (logoi of remembrance) or ʾadʿiyah (supplications), in the original Arabic? That is, to forge with them a performative as well aesthetic relation apart from the religious one, making a sword out of the pen again and being premodern to [modestly try to] defuse our postmodern times.  

Works Cited:

[1] James W. Carey, “Harold Adams Innis and Marshall McLuhan” in The Antioch Review, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring, 1967), pp. 19-20
[2] Walter J. Ong, “Orality and Literacy”, Routledge, 2003, pp. 115-116
[3] Michael Heim, “Electric Language : A Philosophical Study of Word Processing”, Yale University Press, 1987, p. 183
[4] Titus Burckhardt, “Art of Islam : Language and Meaning”, World Wisdom, 2009, p. 52
[5] Aida Shahlar Gasimova, “Eyebrows” in John Andrew Morrow (ed.), “Islamic Images and Ideas : Essays on Sacred Symbolism, McFarland, 2013, p. 176
[6] Hala Auji, “Printing Arab Modernity : Book Culture and The American Press in Nineteenth-Century Beirut”, BRILL, 2016, p. 27


About the author: Arslan Akhtar is a librarian by occupation. He was born and is based in Brussels, and has an interest in religion, metaphysics, and the social sciences, and in the intertwining of these subjects. He is currently pursuing traditional Islamic studies.

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