The term "lithography" comes from two ancient Greek words: "lithos" (λιθος) meaning "stone" and "graph" (γράψ) meaning "write". Printing by lithography was invented in 1796, in Germany, by Aloys Senefelder (1771-1834), an actor and playwright who wanted to be able to print his own plays. The technique consists of applying, often by hand, an oil-based text or image on the surface of a smooth piece of limestone1. Then a solution of Arabic gum2 in water was applied to the non-oily surface, and finally, during printing, the water-based ink adhered to the Arabic gum surfaces avoiding the oily parts.

Lithography in the Islamic World

At the end of the eighteenth century, lithography was brought to France and England, where it always remained a subsidiary method for book printing. In contrast, printing by lithography quickly spread to the Islamic World where it was received with enthusiasm. Although scholars are not always in agreement when it comes to explaining Muslims' preference for lithography over other printing techniques, three main reasons3 are often invoked:

  • lithography was very versatile, offering a wide range of possibilities in the production of designs and maps, and an extremely precise reproduction of the outlines of Arabic calligraphy avoiding any rupture with the manuscript tradition
  • lithographed books were visually very similar to manuscripts, in the textual, graphic, and artistic layout, avoiding any disruption of reading habits
  • printing by lithography was not seen as a threat by the powerful guild of copyists since it required the skills of trained calligraphers.
Amongst other reasons sometimes noted, one finds the fact that lithography was portable and easy to operate. The size of a lithographic press depended on the size of the piece of limestone, but it was generally much lighter and easier to move than different types of printing presses. Last, lithography was also considered to be cost-effective, or at-least, much cheaper than movable type printing4. The author of "On the Question of lithography"5 situates Muslims' positive attitude towards lithography in a broader cultural and historical context pointing at regional differences. During the nineteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth century, lithography was the most common technique used for printing in South Asia, North Africa and Persia (Iran). However other techniques, such as movable type printing, were as popular as lithography in the Arabian Peninsula.

1Limestone is a sedimentary rock composed largely of skeletal fragments of marine organisms such as coral or foraminifera.
2Arabic gum, also known as Mastic, is a resin obtained from the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus)
3Shaw, G. W. (1989). "Maṭbaʿa". In P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel (eds.), Encyclopaedia of Islam, second Edition. Leiden : E. J. Brill. pp. 794-807
4The invention of printing by movable types of metal alloy is commonly attributed to Johann Gensfleisch, better known as Gutenberg (mid-fifteenth century). Although expensive and difficult to operate, this printing technique revolutionized the book production in Europe.
5Messick, Brinkley (2013). On the Question of Lithography. In Geoffrey Roper (ed.), The history of the book in the Middle East.Farnham, Surrey ; Burlington, VT : Ashgate. p.302

McGill Islamic Lithographed Books Collection

Although modest, McGill Islamic lithographs collection — consisting of approximately 750 volumes, dated from the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century — is interesting for several reasons. First, the books are in four different languages:

  • 264 in Arabic
  • 253 in Persian
  • 196 in Urdu
  • 36 in Ottoman Turkish (Turkish written in Arabic script)
Then, they are published in approximately eighty different publishing houses located in fifteen countries including Egypt, France, Germany, India and Pakistan, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Turkey. McGill holds books produced by some of the most important publishing houses using lithography in the Islamic World, such as:
  • Matba' al-Munshi Nawal Kishur (Lucknow, India)
  • Matba'a-I 'Uthmaniyah (al-Matba'ah al-'Uthmaniyah) (Istanbul, Turkey)
  • al-Matba'ah al-Jadidah (Fez, Morocco)
  • Dar Tiba'at Ibrahim al-Tabrizi (Tabriz, Iran)
  • Matba'-i Nizami (al-Matba' al-Nizami, al-Matba'ah al-Nizamiyah) (Cawnpore, India)
  • al-Matba'ah al-Baruniyah (Cairo, Egypt).
Last, the volumes generally contain more than one individual work which makes the McGill collection much richer than it appears at first. The 264 Arabic lithographed books alone contain over 410 individual works!6

  • thumb1
  • thumb2
  • thumb3
  • thumb4
  • thumb5
  • thumb6
Photo credit: Klaus Fiedler
McGill Islamic Lithographs digital collection

This digital collection aims to give full access to McGill Islamic lithographs collection: it is a continually updated resource. It can be browsed either by country of publication or language.

6Gacek, Adam (1996). Arabic lithographed books in the Islamic Studies Library, McGill University : descriptive catalogue. Montreal : McGill University Libraries. p. 2