Paper in the Islamic Empire

Paper (or in Arabic, waraqa), a material which is used for so many things in our lives, can trace back its origins to over 2000 years ago in China. However, the Islamic Empire was responsible for spreading the use of paper throughout the world and sparked the start of its use in Europe hundreds of years later after Muslims established paper mills in Spain. It was because of the Muslim discovery of paper that it would begin to have widespread use across Asia and Africa, and eventually reach and be used in Europe earlier than it would have otherwise.

Muslims most likely had their first encounter with paper in central Asia around the 8th century. Islamic civilization would spread the knowledge of paper and papermaking all over the Middle East, including to Greater Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and the North African countries, as well as Persia and eventually even Spain. It is easy to see the crucial role the Muslims played in the words we use until this day to count paper – reams. This word came into English from the French word, rayme, which came from the Spanish word, resma, which in turn originated from the Arabic word rizmah, meaning a bale or a bundle.

In the Islamic world, paper was first used mostly to keep governmental records, as it had been in China. The great philosopher Ibn Khaldun describes its use in Baghdad for this purpose, and how it soon became a significant business there. Before paper, traditional parchment had been used, which was made from animal skin and thus much more difficult to produce. It was also much less likely to crack or fray as was the tendency of papyrus, and because it absorbed ink paper was highly valued as a means to combat forgery of important documents, since the words couldn’t be easily erased or altered.

However, paper also became used in other ways in Islam. The preservation of the Qur’an and Sunnah was of the utmost importance to the Muslims, and with paper it became easier to make permanent records and copies of them. Islamic scholars began collecting and codifying the hadiths of the Prophet (SAW), preserving them on paper. The oldest surviving dated Qur’an written on paper is believed to have been copied by the calligrapher ‘Ali ibn Sadan al-Razi in 971-972. Handwritten paper copies of the Qur’an would come to be highly valued, and the beauty of Islamic calligraphy became very well-known, extending into the modern day.

The role of paper, however, soon expanded and spurred a burst of creativity in many areas in the Islamic world, including in literature, math, and the sciences. Paper was used in the following ways:

  • The copying and transmission of new literature, such as cookbooks and the tales we now know as The Thousand and One Nights, were put up for sale
  • Greater flexibility in the calculation of mathematical problems was achieved
  • Commercial transactions and trade records
  • Maps
  • Astronomical charts
  • Medical books
  • History books
  • Scientific notation
  • Musical documentation
  • Architectural plans

Lastly, paper would also spur an artistic revolution in the Islamic empire. Using paper, artists and architects could now easily work out their designs and perfect them before they were actually used, and trace their designs onto other things as well and thus transmit them elsewhere more easily. Potters, weavers, and metal-workers would now also be able to learn new designs from books and instructional manuals instead of relying on memory or creating it as they went along. Miniature paintings also became more widespread during this time, becoming more elaborate and available across the empire.

Interestingly enough, most accounts of the history of paper focus mainly on its origins in China, or its later development in Europe, and ignore the centuries of the knowledge of paper and its spread in the Islamic world in between. Nonetheless, it is obvious that Muslims helped bring paper to Europe, and thus indirectly aided in spurring the Cultural Revolution there, which would later take place with the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century. Therefore, it is clear that the spread of paper through Islamic lands between the 8th and 14th centuries brought about enormous and influential changes in many areas, including literature, mathematics, trade, and the arts, and had a far-reaching impact across the world.

Bloom, Jonathan M. Revolution by the Ream: A History of Paper (Aramco World: May/June 1999: vol. 50/No.3, pp: 26-39). .