The Transformation of Islamic Manuscripts: Unveiling the Ascendancy of Paper

4 min readMay 7


In the earliest days of Islam, parchment was commonly employed for manuscript production. However, following the introduction of paper in the Arab world during the eighth century, it swiftly emerged as the dominant medium for writing.

It is commonly held that the presence of paper in a manuscript predates its inscription by only a brief period, as the notion of scribes utilizing significantly older stock of paper is conceivable but not highly plausible.

Henceforth, when the colophon unveils a date or a location, it concurrently discloses a glimpse into the provenance of the paper. Consequently, manuscripts inscribed upon akin paper may have conceivably emerged during a parallel era or from a shared milieu.

Regrettably, discerning the age and origin of Arab paper presents a formidable challenge due to its lack of watermarks. The study of watermarks in paper has long been the central focus of Western paper research, and the investigation of watermarks within undated manuscripts often unveils indispensable cues for determining their production date and geographical context. It became customary among Western papermakers, soon after the inception of papermaking in the southern regions of Europe, to incorporate watermarks into their papermaking process, a practice that endured in subsequent years. Other distinguishing attributes of paper, such as the irregularity or dimensions of the sieve, the count of chain lines, and the transparency or fiber density, have also held significance in appraising the quality of paper. However, it is the presence of watermarks that proves particularly advantageous in ascertaining the time and place of its creation.

Example of a paper watermark

The date of paper production serves as a preliminary benchmark for determining the potential inception date of a specific printed work or manuscript that bears the paper in question. However, in the realms where the art of papermaking first flourished, there existed no custom of imprinting distinguishing marks on the molds with the intent of leaving a discernible impression on the paper sheet. Neither did such a practice manifest itself in subsequent periods within the Islamic lands. Thus, the examination of Far-Eastern and Middle-Eastern paper production necessitates recourse to alternative attributes, such as the format of the paper, the fibers employed, and the discernible imprints of mold characteristics like the chain lines and laid lines. These distinct features offer valuable insights into the intricate world of paper production within these regions.

Indeed, reliance solely upon visual examination in such inquiries bears inherent limitations. Indeed, the pursuit of a more advanced inquiry to discern the true nature of papers, utilizing chemical and technical analysis, proves to be both costly and inaccessible to many. Thus, we must humbly acknowledge that the realm of Islamic paper research, as it pertains to the field of Islamic codicology, shall remain confined for a considerable period.

It is noteworthy that Islamic paper, in its essence, does not readily yield explicit indications for the dating or localization of manuscripts. It is pertinent to acknowledge that numerous Islamic manuscripts, however, have been transcribed upon paper originating from the lands of Europe. (It is worth mentioning that during the eleventh century, the noble Arabs bestowed the gift of papermaking technology upon the southern lands of Europe, wherein they established esteemed papermills in the blessed land of Spain. Subsequently, Islamic papers found their way into the Byzantine Empire and various regions of Europe through the channels of trade. However, a shift in the tides of the paper trade occurred in the fourteenth century and beyond. European papers, commencing with those from Italy and subsequently from France and other lands, were imported into the Islamic world. Alas, this change in dynamics gradually led to a decline in the once prosperous Islamic paper industry).

One may ponder upon the informative nature of these Western papers, identifiable by their distinctive watermarks and mold structure, in the realm of codicology. It is indeed true that, starting from the fourteenth century, watermarked paper originating from Europe began to find its place of utility, initially within the realm of the Maghreb and subsequently within the expanse of the illustrious Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, as these papers were undeniably imported from diverse European regions, determining the precise duration between the production of a particular paper in the Western lands and its arrival in the Islamic world poses a formidable challenge. These Western watermarked papers offer ambiguous indications to discern the origin of a written manuscript, yet they do establish a terminus post quem for the manuscripts that grace their surface. Furthermore, the scrutiny of these papers, adorned with distinctive watermarks, illuminates the intricate pathways of trade and the interconnectedness between the two realms. Thus, they bestow intriguing insights from a unique perspective, enriching our understanding of the historical interplay between these regions. (As a vivid illustration, the Centre Francais d’Archéologie et de Sciences Sociales embarked upon a endeavor in the blessed land of Yemen, wherein one of their objectives entailed a comprehensive exploration of the watermarks adorning the sacred manuscripts safeguarded within private collections).




“Whosoever writes a book, then he has put his mind on a tray and offered it to people.” - Al-Khateeb