Towards a Book History of the Indian Ocean World

The circulation of texts across borders before the printing press remains largely unexplored. The Indian Ocean world is a case in point: it reveals many fascinating life stories of Islamic books.

Manuscripts were an important commodity sought after across the oceanic highway from Southeast Africa to Southeast Asia. Not only were they objects of learning, but also of diplomacy, rituals, treatment, plunder, gifts, and social status. Studies on the circulation of books across Asia and Africa – and the Indian Ocean littoral that bound them – mainly focus on the mobility of printed books and related technologies. The circulation of texts before the printing press, however, remains largely unstudied.

During the archival and ethnographic research I conducted for my doctoral dissertation on the transmission of Islamic legal texts across the Eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean world between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries, I observed a great depth and breadth of unpreserved and unstudied private and official collections of thousands of Islamic manuscripts in South Asia alone. While the collections in Southeast Asia have been considerably catalogued and preserved, their South Asian counterparts continue to be neglected and poorly maintained.

Leiden Islam Blog, February 2017

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