The following is a guest post by Alexander Salopek, a collection development specialist in the Collection Services Division of the Law Library of Congress. He previously wrote posts on Fred Korematsu’s Drive for Justice, Fred Korematsu Winning Justice, What a Difference 17 Years Made, and Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
This spring, I was able to visit the Galata Mevlevi Lodge, which is now a museum in Istanbul. It used to be a meeting hall for the Mevlevi dervishes, which are a Sufi order known for their whirling – but now houses exhibits about the Mevlevi Order, their practices, and beliefs. I suggest a visit if you are ever able to travel to Turkey (Türkiye). One fascinating aspect of the lodge is the graves and tombs of members of the order on the lodge’s grounds. While walking around following a very cute cat, I found myself at the grave of Ibrahim Müteferrika, the first Muslim printer of the Ottoman Empire. I qualified that, and I wanted to tell you why and tell you more about him and the period in which he was active.
Ibrahim Müteferrika was likely born in Hungary and at some point, settled in Constantinople and converted to Islam (Green, 204). He rose in the ranks of the diplomatic corps, due to his language ability (Swanick, 272). When Müteferrika was well established in his career, he asked the Grand Vizier, similar to a prime minister, the Grand Mufti, the Sultan’s chief advisor on religious matters, and the religious authorities, if he could create a printing press for exclusively non-religious topics, such as dictionaries and maps (Swanick, 280-281). After consideration, all three gave their approval and the Sultan gave him permission to proceed. Thus in 1729, Müteferrika printed his first work, a two-volume dictionary of the Arabic language (Watson, 437). By contrast, the first printed book in Germany, the Gutenberg Bible in the Great Hall of The Library of Congress, was in fact a religious work.
It is very curious that printing developed so much later for Muslims in the Ottoman empire than in Europe. Gutenberg was printing his bible in the 1450s, whereas Müteferrika started in the 1720s. Juma argues in his book Innovation and its Enemies, that the printed word developed later because of the particular circumstances of the Ottoman Empire and Islam, where oral transmission of the faith was much more important than it was in Christianity and Judaism, as well as the Islamic culture around religious books and calligraphy manuscripts, which gave the scribes a strong veto on publishing (Juma, 72-75). Within the Ottoman Empire, Jewish populations had been printing since 1493, and the first item printed in Arabic script was produced in Aleppo by Christian Syrians in ca. 1706 (Erginbas, 67 & Juma, 82). Sadly after 17 volumes, Müteferrika’s press produced no more works before his death in 1745 (Watson, 436). The Library of Congress holds some of these titles; here is a selection of them: Tarih-i Raşit, Takvim üt-tevarih li-Kâtip Çelebi, Gülşen-i hülefa, Kitab-ı cihannüma.
- Erginbas, Vefa. (2014) Enlightenment in the Ottoman Context : Ibrahim Müteferrika and his intellectual landscape. Historical Aspects of Printing and Publishing in the Languages of the Middle East : Papers from the Third Symposium on the History of Printing and Publishing in the Languages and Countries of the Middle East, University of Leipzig, September 2008. 53-100.
- Green, Nile. (2009). Journeymen, Middlemen: Travel, Transculture, and Technology in the Origins of Muslim Printing. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 41, 203-224.
- Juma, Calestous. (2016) Innovation and Its Enemies : why people resist new technologies. Oxford University Press.
- Swanick, Sean E. (2014). Ibrahim Muteferrika and the Printing Press : A Delayed Renaissance. Papers of the Bibliographic Society of Canada, 52(1), 269–292.
- Warson, William. (1968). Ibrahim Muteferrika and Turkish Incunabula. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 88(3), 435-441.
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