Magazine article History Today

The Koran on 'Christian' Paper: Paper Was Used in the Islamic World Long before It Appeared in the Christian West. but When Renaissance Europe Mastered Its Manufacture, Writes Matt Salusbury, It Presented Muslim Scholars with Some Theological Conundrums

Magazine article History Today

The Koran on 'Christian' Paper: Paper Was Used in the Islamic World Long before It Appeared in the Christian West. but When Renaissance Europe Mastered Its Manufacture, Writes Matt Salusbury, It Presented Muslim Scholars with Some Theological Conundrums

Article excerpt

The Muslim world adopted paper centuries before Christian Europe. Knowledge of its production spread from Moorish Andalusia across Europe in the 13th century. But, as cheaper western technology took the Mediterranean paper industry away from the traditional Muslim centres and 'Christian' paper with potential 'impurities' started circulating in the Muslim world, an Islamic scholar came up with an unexpected ruling on whether the faithful could accept the use of such material. Extensive research on the topic has been carried out by Leor Halevi, Associate Professor in the History of Islam at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, who published his latest findings in the journal Speculum.

Tradition has it that Arab paper manufacture began after Chinese papermakers were taken prisoner in battle near Samarkand in AD 751. Henceforth, paper was for many years known as Charta Damascena (from Damascus) before entering Muslim Spain via Morocco. There is archaeological evidence for paper in use in Xativa, near Valencia, from as far back as 1056, long before it turned up in the rest of Europe. Peter the Venerable, Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, said in the description of his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in 1144 that he was intrigued by a curious local practice--the Jews of Spain were writing books on a novel material made from 'scraps of old rags' (paper was made from rags until wood-pulp took over in the mid-19th century). As parts of Andalusia began to come under Christian rule from the 13th century, paper made by Muslim craftsmen began to circulate in Christian Europe. Andalusian 'Jativa' paper quickly became popular throughout the West.

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While parchment, which is made from animal skins, is very durable, paper has always been cheaper. Changes in humidity cause parchment to buckle and it reacts to the water in paint. Renaissance artists became early adopters of the more absorbent paper.

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The lawyers of Christian Europe also contributed to the rise of paper, fuelling demand as written records of contracts and other legal transactions became more numerous and complex. At first, lawyers in Genoa and other Italian cities began to use Jativa paper to record deeds. By the mid-14th century, in response to demand from notaries, Italian paper manufacturing centres like Amalfi and Fabriano flourished (the latter is still a major centre for the production of watercolour paper) and Italy began to export paper to the Muslim world via Catalan, Genoese and Venetian merchants.

By the beginning of the 15th century these developments were putting North African paper-producing centres like Fez, Tunis and the Algerian city of Tlemcen out of business. Muslim copyists began to produce handwritten copies of the Koran on 'Christian' paper that often bore the symbol of the cross as part of its watermark. This led to concerns that infidel 'impurities' had entered such paper (known in the Muslim world as 'Rumi paper', or 'Greek paper') during its manufacture by people whose hands may have handled pork and other unclean substances that could easily find their way into a process that involved the recycling of rags. …

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