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The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands

A Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices

Konrad Hirschler

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Winner of the 2012 BRISMES book prize

How the written text became accessible to wider audiences in medieval Egypt and Syria

Medieval Islamic societies belonged to the most bookish cultures of their period. Using a wide variety of documentary, narrative and normative sources, Konrad Hirschler explores the growth of reading audiences in a pre-print culture.

The uses of the written word grew significantly in Egypt and Syria between the 11th and the 15th centuries, and more groups within society started to participate in individual and communal reading acts. New audiences in reading sessions, school curricula, increasing numbers of endowed libraries and the appearance of popular written literature all bear witness to the profound transformation of cultural practices and their social contexts.

Key Features

  • A detailed and wide-ranging analysis of reading in the period
  • Explores the key themes of literacy, orality and aurality
  • Examines the accessibility and profile of libraries
  • Looks at popular reading practices, often associated with the notion of the illicit


List of Illustrations
List of Tables
1. Reading and Writerly Culture
2. A City is Reading: Popular and Scholarly Reading Sessions
3. Learning to Read: Popularisation and the Written Word in Children’s Schools
4. Local Endowed Libraries and their Readers
5. Popular Reading Practices

About the Author

Konrad Hirschler is Professor of Middle Eastern History at Freie Universität Berlin. He is the author of Medieval Damascus (EUP, 2016), The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands (EUP, 2012) and Medieval Arabic Historiography: Authors as Actors (Routledge, 2006).


This is a clever book looking at the writing practices amongst Arab intellectual classes during the Middle Ages ... The research is meticulous, the arguments and evidence are beautifully presented, and comparative references to Europe as well as further east are interesting and mean that this book should have an audience far beyond Islamic Studies.

- BRISMES Book Prize 2012

[Konrad Hirschler's] book is a model of meticulous scholarship and should be in the library of all readers interested in the premodern cultural history of the Arabo-Islamic world.

- Roger Allen, Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania, American Historical Review

This is a dense and rich book in which the author explores the transformation of reading practices and the spread of the written word in the so called Islamic middle period (10th-early 16th centuries)... The extensive array of sources researched by Hirschler for this study is one of the aspects of this book to be praised... Next to this, the effort of the author to take into consideration also the secondary literature dealing with similar topics in Europe, in the same period, is equally commendable... Ultimately, The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands: A Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices belongs to a promising trend which is blossoming in Mamluk Studies that explores the life and cultural practices of walks of life other than the scholarly elite. In this regard, the book by Hirschler is a well-founded and useful contribution to the history of non-elite culture and will be a must read for all readers interested in the subject.

- Caterina Bori, Università di Bologna, Quaderni di Studi Arabi

'This is an impressive book. It deals with an important and somewhat under-studied topic: reading practices in the medieval Arab world...It is clearly written and argued and is well-grounded in the primary sources and secondary literature. It will be of particular interest to scholars of textual practices elsewhere in the medieval world, both Arab and beyond.'

- Jamie Wood, University of Lincoln, Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean

‘The book is a rare combination of an elegant read and meticulous scholarship. It is both a competent digest of research in different fields and a sound analysis of hitherto untapped sources, at the same time immensely rich and remarkably brief. Hirschler is able to dissolve the chronological and regional imbalances of the available sources into a coherent, well written narrative, without glossing over the lacunae those sources confront him with.’

- Boris Liebrenz, Universität Leipzig, Review of Middle East Studies

'The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands is a welcome addition to the still quite limited scholarship on literary culture of what is understood as the middle period of Arabic literature…This is a fascinating book with a wealth of insights into the complexity of changing "writerly" activities in Egypt and Syria in the eleventh through fifteenth centuries. It challenges the overemphasis on modern technologies by showing that the changing use of more basic, premodern technologies and social practices for safeguarding and circulating information was central to the consumption of textual culture. Students and scholars of Eurasia and Africa will benefit from reading this book.'

- Jocelyn Sharlet, University of California, Davis, Speculum 90/3

'Konrad Hirschler’s book is a first-rate synchronic analysis of popular practices and institutions related to books in medieval society.'

- Ahmed El Shamsy, Journal of the American Oriental Society 135.2

'This is an important book, a landmark in the study of literacy and its implications in the medieval Middle East. Hirschler has important things to tell us about the way in which medieval Muslims approached literacy and the interrelations between textual and aural modes of transmission and reception. His focus on the reading practices of people who did not belong to the learned elite broadens the scope of inquiry into reading and writing in the medieval Islamic world and raises questions that will need to be addressed in future research.'

- Adam Sabra, Journal of Islamic Studies