The Written Word vs. Transmitted Authority?

In his article Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print, Francis Robinson analyzes the relatively late use of the printing press by Muslims, who only utilized en masse about four hundred years after it had been well established in the Christian world.[1]

This is not because Muslims were unaware of the technology. Rather, Robinson states that the use of transmission, via person-to-person, has been understood by Muslims to be at the very essence of Islamic learning and held in greater esteem than the written word. Moreover, learning directly from a teacher gave the student the necessary tools and authority to transmit and interpret Islamic texts.

Printing Islamic scholarly works for general public consumption posed a threat to the authority of those who received their knowledge at the feet of scholars (i.e., transmitted person-to-person); as anyone who could afford the book may assume they can speak of it with the same authority as one who had studied it beneath a teacher.

However, this general hesitation to print Islamic scholarly works shifted during the period of Western colonization. At that time, the ᶜulama (particularly those in the subcontinent) feared that the Muslim community might slip into unbelief (kufr) due to the corroding Islamic religious infrastructure and the efforts of Christian missionaries. And, to address this challenge,they decided the risk of the community losing access to Islamic knowledge was greater than the risk of their authority being challenged.

The impact of the printing press has had both positive and negative effects. Islamic material was now being transmitted in large numbers to the masses, allowing the ᶜulama to publish works they considered critical in their time. Yet, by making material more widely available to the public the ᶜulama jeopardized their own role in the community. That is, if people could seek knowledge from a book, why did they need to turn to a scholar?

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