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Printing Press and Knowledge Gatekeeping in the Islamic World

Note: The Islamicate world is the larger cultural sphere influenced by Islamic civilization, whereas the Islamic world consists of countries and cultures where Islam is the predominant religion. In this article, both terms are used.

The introduction of contemporary printing technology from Europe in the late 19th century marked the beginning of the printing press in the Islamicate world. Hovsep Pushman, an Armenian, founded the first printing press in the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul in 1827. However, the printing press did not substantially impact the Islamic world until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The invention of the printing press made it possible to produce books, newspapers, and other written materials in large quantities. This contributed significantly to the dissemination of information and the modernization of Muslim civilizations. But it took quite a while for the Islamicate world to embrace the printing press, three centuries after it was first invented in Europe in the mid-15th century.

There were several reasons why the Islamicate world took so long to adopt the printing press. One of the key causes was the Islamic educational system's traditional emphasis on memorization and oral transmission of knowledge. Due to this, the printing press was viewed as a danger to customary practices. In addition, the exorbitant cost and lack of printing press operating knowledge were significant barriers to their widespread adoption. Furthermore, religious leaders and intellectuals were worried about how printed texts would affect long-standing religious and cultural practices. They were concerned that the widespread distribution of heretical or false information could result from the mass production of books and other written materials, weakening the authority of established religious institutions and their monopoly over knowledge. Since they were the primary knowledge gatekeepers, traditional religious organizations, and academics retained significant authority and influence due to the printing press's tardy adoption. This inhibited the development of fresh viewpoints, technologies, and ideas inside the Islamicate world.

Because memorization and oral transfer of knowledge remained the main forms of education, one of the major positive outcomes of the delay was that it assisted in maintaining long-standing religious and cultural customs. On the other hand, the dissemination of knowledge and the modernization of Muslim civilizations were seriously hampered. The scarcity of written materials made it harder to spread new concepts and limited access to information for the masses.

The lag in adopting the printing press also hindered preserving working-class history in the region. The delay hindered researchers and historians from understanding the working class's experiences and contributions per se and cast them out of the history recording process altogether. In the current digital age, however, there's a mass acceptance of newer technologies by the working class in the global south and the Islamic world. Integrating digital technologies like the internet, cell phones, and social media into everyday life and society has revolutionized communication, information access, and commerce in ways the printing revolution never could. It has also allowed people to archive their histories through live videos, memes, photos, and text like never before. It has allowed them to access various kinds of news, educational materials, and information, which the religious gatekeepers had previously barred from them. Furthermore, social media and messaging applications like "Telegram" and "WhatsApp" are heavily used in the region to coordinate demonstrations and political movements and to disseminate political information across the Islamic world.

In conclusion, the Islamic world's delay in adopting the printing press helped preserve traditional ways of life. Still, it also slowed knowledge distribution and modernization, making it difficult to keep up with other civilizations. However, in the digital era, there is greater adoption of emerging technology, combining the old world with the new and establishing worldwide understandings that were previously only available to the gatekeepers of knowledge in the area.

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