The power of press: why Islam lost to the West

printed_quran

It is seldom that you can take an invention and say categorically that it is directly responsible for given outcomes.  But we can do this with Printing.  The invention of the moveable type printing press in Europe set the west on a fast track to development of thinking, education, technology, representative government, free market economies and a rights based legal system.  The rejection of printing by the Ottoman Empire had the effect of stagnating the Islamic world.

In the mid 15th century the Ottoman Empire was the dominant power in world politics.  A rising star.  In 1453 the Ottomans conquered Constantinople.  The centers of learning in the world were Arabic; Baghdad, Damascus, Granada, Cairo.  People living in the Islamic world had better health, education, cleanliness, rule of law etc than those in the west.  In England at this time, for instance, the Wars of the Roses began, plunging the country into decades of turmoil.

Several things then happened that changed the dynamics of East and West.

Firstly Gutenberg perfected the printing press.  This technological breakthrough was rapidly copied all over Europe.  With widespread availability of bibles there was a rise in literacy and scholarship.  With access to the text of the Bible came a focus on the differences between church Dogma and the word of the Gospels.  This led directly to the reformation of the church in the West and the rise of Humanism.

Questioning the authority of the Church set in motion a rise in free thinking.  If the Pope can be questioned then why not the King?  Across Europe we see the rise of the third estate.

The Reconquista was completed in Spain in the latter half of the 15th century, defeating the Emirate of Granada.  With the fall of Islam in Spain a great wealth of knowledge was unlocked from the Arabic libraries.  Scholars found ancient Greek texts on philosophy and science.  The philosophical works by authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles etc, pre-dated Christian writings.  They approached religious matters through reason rather than faith.  The rediscovery of these works plunged the Christian world into a crisis which was exacerbated by the new literacy and widespread availability of the bible.

At the same time the scholars unlocked scientific texts by the Greeks such as Archimedes and Pythagoras, and mathematical developments by Arabic scholars such as Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi as well as learnings from the Kerala school of mathematics in India.

In the 13th and 14th centuries access to these texts was highly restricted.  A university could proudly boast a library numbering books in the dozens.  Monasteries restricted access to their hand copied texts.

With the invention of printing these works became available to a far wider audience.  Europe experienced the Renaissance.

At the same time, in 1483 to be precise, Sultan Bayezid II instituted a ban on printing in the Arabic Language.

By the time this ban was lifted, and widespread printing was made available to the Arabic world, the West had left the Arabic world behind.  By the 19th Century the Ottoman Empire was “The sick man of Europe”.

Spain, Portugal, Holland, England and France ruled empires that spanned the globe.

The Arabic world continues to suffer from the after effects of this 300 year ban on printing.  In the West we need to be patient with developments in the Islamic nations.  Europe did not grasp the concept of democracy in a few short decades.  The grip of blind dogma on religion was not an overnight change.  It took centuries of scholarship to resolve.  It is amusing how many westerners expect the Arab Spring revolutions to deliver Western Style economies in a couple of years.

Stop press!

Extra! Extra!

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23rd February 1455 is commonly held to be the publication date of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be produced on a moveable type printing press.

In our Euro-Centric Imperialist world view of history we were always told that Gutenberg invented the printing press.  The truth is a lot more murky.  The press was pioneered by the Chinese in the mid 11th Century, and they even invented a moveable type press.  However, due to the vagaries of the Chinese alphabet and difficulties in casting metal typefaces, it was never popularised.

China of the 11th century was a closed society.  While trade in silks, spices and teas found its way to Europe through the Islamic Caliphate, as it had previously done in Roman times through various Persian empires, the volumes were small, the prices high.  Technology did not transfer from place to place with any alacrity.

It was the turmoil of 12th Century Mongol conquest that paved the route for ideas to move between China and the West.  Travellers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta braved the Silk Road and brought back inventions and ideas from the east, such as Rice, Pasta, Gunpowder and Cast Iron.  Somewhere along the way the idea of the printing press made its way to Europe.

It was not until the mid 14th century that Gutenberg put all the pieces together.  His primary skill was with metal.  It was his ability to develop a quick and cheap casting process for the type that opened the door to printing.  Type metal is made of a combination of lead, antimony and tin.  It does not shrink and deform as it cools in the mold.  Gutenberg also developed inks that adhere to the metal type, and then cleanly imprint onto paper, and he developed paper of a quality to suit the pressing process.

The first thing printed was the Gutenberg Bible.  Making a bible that was accessible to a wide audience led to a reading of the bible by a large number of scholars.  Once they began to see what the bible contained they began to question church dogma.  The protestant reformation was born in a printing press.

Very soon after the bible the press was harnessed for other purposes, and became the first mass market mode of communications.  Media was born with the news sheet.  Political change by the people and for the people was made possible by literacy and was made reality by leaflets, pamphlets and manifestos from printing presses.  American independence and the French Revolution were a product of changes in society that began with a press, ink and a sheet of paper.

Sonnet XI; by Christopher Pearse Cranch

IN boyhood’s days we read with keen delight
How young Aladdin rubbed his lamp and raised
The towering Djin whose form his soul amazed,
Yet who was pledged to serve him day and night.
But Gutenberg evoked a giant sprite
Of vaster power, when Europe stood and gazed
To see him rub his types with ink. Then blazed
Across the lands a glorious shape of light,
Who stripped the cowl from priests, the crown from kings,
And hand in hand with Faith and Science wrought
To free the struggling spirit’s limèd wings,
And guard the ancestral throne of sovereign Thought.
The world was dumb. Then first it found its tongue
And spake — and heaven and earth in answer rung.