Arabic manuscripts to print (and back again) | من المخطوط إلى المطبوع…والعودة

For many people, the transition from a world of Arabic manuscript books to print books may seem straight forward: manuscripts came first and then came printed materials. So when a text had appeared in print there was no reason to copy it by hand anymore, right?

Not quite. The reality is way messier and far more interesting.

في النظرة الأولى يبدو الانتقال من المخطوط العربي إلى المطبوع العربي واضحا : يظهر المخطوط أولا ويأتي المطبوع فيما بعد ويعنى هذا أنّ المخطوط لا حاجة إليه بعد ظهور المطبوع. ولكن الواقع أكثر تعقيدا من ذلك

Figure 1: A copy of al-Risāla al-shāfiyya by Amḥammad Aṭfayyish, in which the copyist has reproduced the colophon of the printed book. The manuscript is today held in a private library in Djerba, Tunisia. (Photo courtesy of G.B.Y., 2018)

Recent work by historians has emphasized that Arabic print technology developed alongside–rather than replaced–manuscript traditions in the 19th and 20th centuries [1]. It was neither a technological transition in which one replaced the other nor was it simply a question of technology. There were political, religious, and economic factors that determined what was printed when and where. [2]

تدلّ البحوث الحديثة حول تاريخ ثقافة المخطوط العربي إلى أنّ تكنولوجيا الطباعة تطوّرت جنبا لجنب بثقافة المخطوط وأنّ المطبوعات لم تحلّ محلّ المخطوطات في القرنين التاسع عشر والعشرين [1] . فوق ذلك، لم تكن مسألة تكنولوجية فحسب بل كانت توجد عوامل سياسية ودينية واقتصادية ساهمت في تحديد متى طُبع كتاب وأين [2]

An additional fascinating reason why the idea of a linear transition is so misleading is that sometimes books moved in the opposite direction, from print to manuscripts. As an example, I offer a manuscript copy of a 19th century work by a prominent Algerian Ibadi Muslim scholar, Amhammad b. Yusuf Atfayyish (d.1914) entitled al-Risala al-shafiyya. The Risala was first a manuscript and then a lithograph printed in 1897 (I wrote about a copy of this book in the McGill library in an earlier post here).

تمثّل فكرة الانتقال الخطي من المخطوط إلى المطبوع إشكالية من ناحية أخرى أيضا: في بعض الأحيان، انتقلت الكتب في الاتجاه المعاكس. أي، أحيانا نُسخ مخطوط من نموذج مطبوع. على سبيل المثال، أقدّم هنا نسخة من “الرسالة الشافية” لأمحمد بن يوسف أطفيّش (ت1914م). كانت الرسالة مخطوطا أولا وطبعة حجرية ثانيا (طُبعت سنة 1897م). كتبتُ مقالا صغيرا هنا حول نسخة من هذا العنوان موجود اليوم في جامعة ماكيل في كندا

في اخر هذه النسخة من الرسالة (موجودة اليوم في مكتبة خاصة في جزيرة جربة في تونس)، نسخ الناسخ العبارة “قد تم طبع هذه الرسالة على يدي…” وذلك بمعنى أنّه نسخ المخطوط من الطبعة الحجرية [انظر صورة 1 في الأعلى]

A manuscript copy of the same Risala, today held in a private library in Djerba, Tunisia concludes with the following lines (top of Figure 1):

The printing of this epistle was completed by al-Ḥājj Bakīr b. al-Ḥājj Qāsim b. al-Shaykh Balḥājj al-Qarārī…merchant at no.39 [sic] Rue de la Lyre, Algiers. Whoever wishes to purchase a copy of it…should order it in the aforementioned place...

Figure 2: Screenshot from the PDF of the lithograph copy of Risala shāfiyya, held at the McGill University Rare Books library. Available online here.

The copyist transcribed this colophon from the lithograph (Figure 2), before then adding his own colophon for the new manuscript copy (bottom of Figure 1):

This copy was transcribed by the pen [i.e. by hand] on the date of the month of Shawwāl on the 27th day of it, in the year 1319 [6 February 1902]…

What this means is that the manuscript was copied from the printed book. Manuscript copyists often transcribed the details of the original manuscript’s copy history by transcribing the name of the earlier copyist or the date of transcription from the manuscript being copied (found at the end of the text in the colophon). The copyist of this manuscript of the Risala did exactly that with the printed book, including recording the details of who printed the book and where it could be purchased.

مرارا ما كتب النساخ تفاصيل نسخة الأم (المخطوط الذي نُسخ منه المخطوط الجديد) من “ذيل المخطوط” (أو الدباجية) مثل اسم الناسخ وتاريخ النسخ وكذلك فعل ناسخ هذه المخطوط من آخر الطبعة الحجرية. غيّرانتشار تكنولوجيا الطباعة في البلدان العربية تاريخ تلك المناطق من ناحية فكرية ومن ناحية تكنولوجية ولكن الطباعة لم تحل محل ثقافة المخطوط. بل ساهمت في تكوين طيف من الإنتاج النصي حيث تراوحت المواد بين المخطوط والمطبوع بطرق متداخلة وأكثر تعقيدا من الانتقال من الأول إلى الثاني

The spread of print technologies in Arabic-speaking lands did alter their intellectual and technological histories in important ways, but it did not do so by replacing manuscript traditions. Instead, it introduced a spectrum of textual production in which written materials oscillated between manuscript and print, overlapping and intersecting in ways far messier than a linear progression from one to the next.

NOTES

[1] Remarkable examples of the continuation of manuscript traditions well into the 20th and 21st centuries include the Zaydi manuscript tradition, which thanks to several international research and conservation initiatives has a considerable bibliography, on which see: “The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition,” Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (2017): https://www.ias.edu/digital-scholarship/zaydi_manuscript_tradition. Another fascinating example includes Saharan manuscript cultures like those of Touat, Algeria where manuscripts continue to play a prominent role in intellectual live into the 21st century. See: Elise Voguet, « Travailler sur les manuscrits du Touat : Expérience de recherche dans les bibliothèques privées (khizānāt) du Sahara algérien », in Claude Laroque (dir.), La peinture et l’écrit au Moyen-Orient, supports et tracés, Paris, site de l’HiCSA, mis en ligne en décembre 2018, p. 55-65. [Online here]

[2] For example, see the work of Kathryn A. Schwartz, “The political economy of private printing in Cairo as told form a commissioning deal turned sour, 1871.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 49:1 (2017): 25–45. doi:10.1017/S0020743816001124; Idem, “Book history, print, and the Middle East.” History Compass (2017) https://doi.org/10.1111/hic3.12434. On the intellectual currents that helped determine what was printed and by whom, see: Ahmed El Shamsy, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2020).

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