Tracing the Paper Trail of Islam

Calderwood Professor explores little-known Islamic contribution

By Rosanne Pellegrini
Staff Writer

As it did for so many people, the world changed dramatically last Sept. 11 for Jonathan Bloom, the Calderwood University Professor of Islamic and Asian Art.

Jonathan Bloom
Bloom and his wife, Sheila Blair, with whom he shares the Calderwood Chair appointment, found a new urgency to their work studying the history of Islamic art and culture. He was now called on to clear up misconceptions and stereotypes about Islam, which many people had come to associate only with terror and hatred.

Blair and Bloom co-authored Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power to accompany last year's critically acclaimed PBS documentary "Islam: Empire of Faith," for which they also served as principal consultants and interviewees. The program was rebroadcast several times last fall in the wake of the terrorist attacks, while the book was reissued last month by Yale University Press.

Islamic civilization, according to Blair and Bloom, "has had a profound impact on the face of Western culture and the course of world history." The religion, culture and belief system, they say, has often been misunderstood in the West, even before the events of last fall.

Most recently, Bloom has authored another book, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World, which sheds new light on an unfamiliar Islamic contribution to Western culture.

Paper Before Print chronicles the history of a material now so common that it is taken for granted. Bloom presents an important new chapter in paper's history, by exploring how its use in the Islamic lands during the Middle Ages influenced almost every aspect of medieval life, and how it served as a crucial agent of cultural transmission in the era before the invention of printing.

Bloom's examination, which stretches from ancient China and Egypt to modern Europe and America, combines the histories of technology, ideas and art, and underscores the enduring impact of Islamic civilization on the West. The book follows the history of paper from its invention in China over 2,000 years ago to its entry into the Islamic lands of West Asia and North Africa, and its eventual spread to northern Europe.

Unlike most histories of paper, which concentrate on its invention and development in the West with the advent of printing, Bloom focuses on the impact of paper and papermaking in the Islamic lands. He explores the development of writing, books, and literacy, as well as mathematical and scientific notation, art and architecture and even cooking-and shows how the use of paper transformed Islamic society.

Despite the importance of Gutenberg's invention of printing with movable type in 15th-century Europe, Bloom says it would not have had such impact without the earlier introduction of paper and papermaking from the Islamic lands. He concludes by contrasting Europe's quick adoption of paper from the Islamic lands with Muslims' slow acceptance of European printing, because they had already developed extremely effective means of spreading knowledge.

The book, he says, shows "how Westerners tend to ignore Islam and its positive contributions to Western society."

Bloom and Blair, in the middle of their second year at Boston College, alternate semesters teaching and researching at home. This semester, Bloom is teaching courses on Islamic architecture and the Islamic arts of Spain.


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