THE CALLIGRAPHER VS. THE MACHINE: TOWARDS DE-ORIENTALIZING THE LATE-ARRIVAL OF THE PRINTING PRESS TO THE ISLAMIC WORLD

Abstract

Author(s): Beyaz?t H. AKMAN, Filiz BARIN-AKMAN

Much has been written on the issue of the late-arrival of the printing press to the Islamic World. A vast majority of these writings conclude that the major reasons for this late arrival were the ignorance of the Ottoman Turks to this kind of technological developments (the so-called “Eastern/Islamic ignorance”) and the selfishness of the Ottoman learned class, the ulema. However, in this study, although the role of the hubris of the Ottoman cultural elite cannot be completely denied, it is emphasized that this discourse is mostly fueled by Orientalist undertones. Therefore we argue that the printing press was resisted by the Ottoman cultural elite not because they were ignorant, but because they were too sophisticated and elegant to accept to put this machine to use. To be able to understand this argument, one must first understand why and how significant the act of writing was in the Islamic tradition, the education of a calligrapher and the role of these calligraphers in the society. Therefore, we first summarize the emergence of calligraphy in the Islamic tradition, its theological background and significance, then look at the calligrapher and the society, and finally focus on the confrontation with the printing press. Without understanding the true nature and meaning of Islamic calligraphy, we believe, it is a futile task to persuade the reader why the Muslim cultural elite might have reacted reluctantly to the machine. We conclude this paper with a look at the future, by drawing attention to how computers complicates this process even further.

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