The Golden Islamic Age: When it was written on reeds and skins in Europe, the Arabs introduced paper there

In this episode of BBC Radio 3’s special series ‘Golden Islamic Era’, historian Jonathan Bloom talks about how Islamic intellectuals and thinkers popularized the use of paper long before their European contemporaries. The series covers the years 750 to 1258 and will cover important developments in the fields of architecture, medicine, inventions and philosophy. Abbas Pukhtun has translated this radio series for Pukhtun Nama.

Pukhtun Nama

Have you ever thought that every time when you take a piece of paper out of a rim and put it in a computer printer, So in the process, in one sense, you travel the history of calligraphy or writing spanning nearly two thousand years.

Paper was invented in China more than two thousand years ago. But the English word paper is derived from the Greek and Latin name papyrus, an aquatic plant or reed found in Egypt, like French, German and Spanish.

This aquatic plant was cut and attached in such a way that writing was possible on it and the ancient people used to write their writings on it.

The Italians, however, use the word ‘carta’ for paper, which is derived from the Greek word ‘carts’, which is used for writing purposes, and is derived from the Greek word for many other words, such as card, card board, Cartography drive etc.

In addition, ancient peoples, especially Hebrew speakers, used animal skins for writing. In the Middle Ages, something made of skins for writing, called parchment in English, replaced papyrus for writing books.

The English word for paper, paper, is derived from the Greek and Latin name for the aquatic plant or reed found in Egypt, papyrus (papyrus plant).


At the same time there was another change in which books were now written on separate pages instead of being compiled into a single roll which was added together which we call ‘Codex’. Codex is used in Latin for wooden blocks.

The word ‘rim’, which means a packet of 500 pages, takes us in a completely different direction as it is derived from the Arabic word ‘razma’ which means knot.

This is just a small part of the great debt owed to us by medieval Islamic civilization in which they passed on the idea of ​​making paper from China to the West.
Paper is made from cellulose fiber, which is often obtained from trees. The Chinese who invented paper lived in hot climates and made paper from the inner bark of various plants and shrubs.Shortly after its invention, the knowledge of papermaking through Buddhist monks and merchants spread to neighboring regions such as Japan, Korea, and Central Asia, where people learned to make paper using locally available materials.

In Central Asia, where the plants that existed in China were not available, People began to get cellulose fiber from local plants such as old clothes, ropes, cotton and flax.

Ancient Egyptians rip a papyrus plant and prepare it for writing (pictured)


In the seventh and eighth centuries, when Muslims, who until then knew only papyrus and parchment, Arriving in Central Asia and seeing the paper for the first time, they realized that it could be very useful.

Within two hundred years, the knowledge of papermaking through Islamic civilization had spread from Central Asia to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Marakish, and finally Sicily and Spain, covering 5,000 miles.

For centuries, the invention of paper was debated in Europe, and it was believed to be made of papyrus, invented by the ancient Egyptians but medieval Muslims have always known that paper is made in China.

The 11th-century Arab historian al-Ta’alabi wrote in his book, The Book of Enlightenment, based on the characteristics of people from different regions. That paper is one of the special things of Samarkand and it is softer and better than papyrus and parchment and it is easier to write on it.
According to al-Talibi, the method of making paper reached Samarkand by the Chinese who were taken prisoner in the battle of Talas with the Arabs in 751 AD, he wrote that then paper began to be made on a large scale and its general use began and it became one of the important exports of the people of Samarkand. Its importance was known to all and people everywhere started using it.
Although the story of these prisoners has been told many times, caution must be exercised in acknowledging al-Talabi’s statement. Very old samples of paper have been found from various places in Central Asia, proving that paper was made and used in the region long before the arrival of the Muslims or the Battle of Talas.

According to al-Talibi, the method of making paper reached Samarkand by the Chinese who were taken prisoner in the battle of Talas with the Arabs in 751 AD.


For example, in 1900, a Chinese Buddhist monk accidentally found more than 30,000 paper scrolls in an oasis cave on the Silk Road. The cave was first used in 366 AD and then closed in the 10th century. This means that the papers found in it, which contain the teachings of Buddhism and Daoism Confucius, official documents, business agreements, calendars and miscellaneous documents and are written in many languages, belong to the same period.

In 1907, the British expedition led by Sir Earl Stein found five letters and some documents between the fourth and sixth centuries from the ruins of a Watch Tower west of the cave.

One of the letters was wrapped in cloth and had the address of Samarkand, two thousand miles west of it. These letters, apparently part of a lost mail, prove that Silk Road traders were using paper in Central Asia centuries before the advent of Islam.
In 1933, a Soviet archaeologist found some documents in a mountain fortress in Tajikistan.
From where a local ruler tried to escape in 722 to escape the Arab invasions. The incident took place three decades before the Battle of Talas.
According to the medieval philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun, Wazir al-Fadl ibn Yahya introduced the method of making paper in Baghdad in the early ninth century, when parchment was in short supply and they needed writing materials to manage the vast Abbasid empire.

A centuries-old recipe for “making medicine from honey” with the help of colors and ink on paper


Whether or not this minister was personally responsible for introducing the paper is important because his family was from Balkh, which is now in northern Afghanistan and where paper has been made and used for centuries.
Ibn Khaldun writes that this is how paper began to be used for government documents and certificates, People began to use it for scholarly work and the ability to make paper also increased significantly.
Ibn Khaldun did not mention an important feature of paper for bureaucracy and that was its ability to absorb ink, which made it difficult to erase writing on it, unlike papyrus and parchment.
Writing on paper was more secure and less likely to be forged.
The new availability of paper in the ninth century gave rise to creative work in virtually all disciplines, from literature to natural sciences to religion. The scholars collected the hadiths of the Prophet of Islam on paper.

Scholars and writers began translating Greek documents written on papyrus and parchment into Arabic on paper and then reprinted in book form (early printing press).

Cooking techniques and popular stories adorn the paper and are offered to readers for sale. In the early ninth century, the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun expanded the royal library, known as the Bayt al-Hikma. Scholars and writers began translating Greek documents written on papyrus and parchment into Arabic on paper, and they were quickly compiled into books.Paper and stationery soon became important businesses in Baghdad.
Ahmad Ibn Abi Tahir, a ninth-century teacher, writer and paper merchant, had a shop in the stationery bazaar with more than a hundred shops selling paper and books.
A stationery shop in Abbasi-era Baghdad would be like a private research library. There was a scholar in Baghdad who rented a shop for a whole day to read books.Another well-known stationer and writer in Baghdad in the 10th century was Ibn Abi Yaqub, who compiled a “list” based on his professional knowledge, an encyclopedia and a treasure trove of medieval books and writings.
With the new availability of paper, the tradition of understanding old topics in a new way also gained momentum.
At a time when the paper was rapidly spreading in the Islamic world, the Hindu system of numbers (Hindu stem of reckoning with decimal place value numericals) which we call Arabic numerals was spreading from India to the west. Like the rest of the world before the Hindu system, in the Islamic world, people used to do calculations in the brain and the temporary results were written on a ‘clay board’ which could be erased repeatedly or helped by the position of the fingers. Also known as ‘finger reconstitution’.


The first manual on Hindu reconnaissance in Arabic was written by Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi around 825 AD, from which we get the term ‘algorithm’.

According to al-Khwarizmi, under this system, the calculation process starts from the left and the numbers are placed on top of each other and they are also erased and changed, which shows that all the calculations were on the clay board.
However, a century later, the mathematician Abu al-Hasan Ahmad ibn Ibrahim Euclid came to Damascus in 952 with a change in the Indian scheme. This change was made with the use of paper and ink in mind.
The Euclidean scheme did not make it possible to erase or remove numbers because of the paper, but it made the calculations much easier and more flexible.
The oldest document in Greek, based on the teachings of the Christian clergy in the Vatican Library, was written on Arabic paper. This document, written in Damascus, probably around 800 AD, proves that it was not only the Muslim bureaucrats of Baghdad who used paper, even Christians living under Muslim rule in Syria were using it. This community of Christians in Syria was instrumental in the translation of this period.

In Cairo, Jews used paper for books, bills, records, and business documents, most of which were stored for centuries in the Synagogue’s storeroom, called Guinness.

The oldest surviving book on paper in Arabic that has survived is the work of Abu Ubayd al-Qasim Ibn Salam, in which he collected unusual terms in the hadiths of the Prophet of Islam (file photo).


Another old piece of paper proves that the advent of paper encouraged the copying and promotion of new genres of literature. The piece, now in the Oriental Institute in Chicago after being found in Egypt, bears the title and beginning of the oldest copy of “Alif Laila”.
Its copy was almost lost by the end of 879, when an Egyptian, Ahmad Ibn Mahfouz, was practicing writing legal points in the margins of its pages.The oldest surviving book of paper transcribed in Arabic is the work of Abu Ubayd al-Qasim Ibn Salam, in which he collected unusual terms in the hadiths of the Prophet of Islam.
This manuscript, preserved in the library of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, dated November or December 866, proves that in the Islamic world, paper was used in the ninth century not only for Islamic but also for Jewish and Christian religious and secular writings.

By the end of the tenth century, paper had completely replaced the papyrus in Egypt, which had been used there for four thousand years.
Documents reaching us and Arabic sources show that papyrus was still being made in Egypt in the early days of Islam, but the importance of paper increased from the beginning of the ninth century.

Historian al-Masudi states that it was not until 956 that papyrus was completely eradicated in Egypt. But a geographer who traveled to Egypt forty years later wrote nothing about the use of papyri for writing. According to the Palestinian geographer Al-Maqdisi, by the year 985, paper had been included in Egyptian products. Nasser Khesro, an Iranian tourist who traveled to Cairo in the 1030s and 1040s, says that in old Cairo, vegetable sellers and shopkeepers wrap goods in paper. This suggests that paper was now much cheaper. Used paper was used to make new paper.
The Europeans first started using paper around 1000 AD and after the Muslims established the first paper mill in Spain, the Europeans started making it in Italy.
At the end of the 14th century, the German Olmann Schtomer, those who had seen the Italian paper mills set up the first paper mill in Nuremberg, north of the Alps. The cultural revolution that began with Johann Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century would not have been possible without mills like the Stuart Mill, because these printing presses used paper rims, and perhaps few people realized that they Where did Rim come from?

Since then, our demand for paper has never diminished, and as we learn new uses and new ways to make it, we must not forget the central role of the golden age of Islam in transporting paper rim from China to the West.