copyright absent in vibrant ancient Islamic book economy

Vigorous book production and circulation occurred in the ancient Islamic world without a legal regime of copyright.  When the Chief Physician of Baghdad’s ‘Abudi Hospital died in 1065, the books from his personal library were carried off on the backs of twelve camels.[1]  A reasonable load for a camel is 300 lbs, hence this personal library had a total weight of roughly 3600 lbs.  Another physician who lived in Kairouan, Tunisia, about a century earlier left an estate that included “25 hundredweight of medical and other books.”[2]  These two libraries thus had roughly similar book weights.  Given the different units of reporting, that similarity suggests that these figures aren’t wild exaggerations.

Personal libraries in the ancient Islamic world had value on the order of an agricultural estate.  A physician who was a high official in late-eleventh-century Baghdad purchased an agricultural estate for 2000 dinars, with a promise to pay 1000 dinars more when the proceeds of its crops were received. The harvest failed.  Pressed for payment, the physician pawned his personal book collection for 500 dinars.[3]  His personal book collection thus had collateral value equal to one-sixth the value of the agricultural estate.

Personal libraries contained as many as tens of thousand of books.  Abu ‘l-Musaffar, a scholar who lived in twelfth-century Cairo, possessed “many thousands of books.”  Writing about 1245, Ibn Abi Usaibia reported:

{Abu ‘l-Musaffar} was keenly interested in alchemy and was eager to meet its adepts.  With his own hand he copied an immense number of books on that subject, as well as numerous medical and philosophical books.  He was most ardent to acquire books and study them.  Shaikh Sadid al-Din al-Mantiqi told me that Balmuzaffar {Abu ‘l-Musaffar} had in his house a large room whose shelves were crammed with books.  In that room, he spent most of his time, writing, reading and copying.  …  I have seen a great number of medical and philosophical works that formerly belonged to Abu ‘l-Musaffar and had his name inscribed on them, each bearing on it some interesting notes and sundry remarks pertinent to its contents.[4]

Ifra’im ibn al-Zaffan, a Jewish physician who served caliphs in early twelfth-century Cairo, continually employed copyist to make books for his personal library.  Ifra’im’s book collection became a matter of national pride.  Ibn Abi Usaibia observed:

My father told me that a man from Iraq once came to Egypt in order to buy books and take them with him. He met Ifra’im, who sold him 10,000 volumes from among the books in his possession. At that time, al-Afdal, the son of the commander-in-chief of the army, was governor {of Cairo}. When he heard of the transaction, he wanted those books to remain in Egypt and so he sent to Ifra’im from his own treasury the amount of money which had been agreed upon, between Ifra’im and the Iraqi as the purchasing price. The books were transferred to al-Afdal’s library and his honorific names were inscribed in them. This is why I have come across a great number of medical and other books bearing the name of Ifra’im and also the honorific names of al-Afdal.  Ifra’im left {at his death} more than 20,000 books and a great deal of money and valuables.[5]

Muwaffaq al-Din ibn al-Mutran, a Christian who became the physician to Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty in late twelfth-century Damascus, also acquired a large personal library. Ibn Abi Usaibia stated:

Muwaffaq al-Din ibn al-Mutran was a great collector of books, so that, when he died, about ten thousand medical and other works were found in his library, besides those he had copied. He was much concerned with copying and correcting books, and there were three copyists in his permanent service. They received a salary and gifts from him.  One of them as Jamal al-Din, known as ibn al-Jamala, who wrote a neat well-proportioned hand.  Ibn al-Mutran copied many books himself; I have seen several such copies, and found them to be unsurpassable as to script, correctness and expressiveness. He read a great deal — in fact, most of the time.  The majority of the books in his possession contain his corrections and notes in his handwriting. Many small books and individual medical essays were found in his library combined into single volumes; they had been accurately and neatly copied, in half one-eighth of Baghdadi script, some of them in his own hand.  There were a great many of these small collections. [6]

In mid-twelfth century Damascus, the vizier Amin al-Dawlah stated that his personal library contained “more than twenty thousand volumes.”  Amin Al-Dawlah made this statement to Ibn Abi Usaibia’s father nearly contemporaneously with the completion of Ibn Abi Usaibia’s History of Physicians.[7]  Ibn Abi Usaibia and readers of his book could have verified the size of the Amin Al-Dawlah’s library, which was a significant matter in a culture that highly valued learning.  Ibn Abi Usaibia’s reports on the other large personal libraries describe his personal inspection of books from these libraries.  His statements concerning the sizes of personal libraries are credible.

A story of a distraught wife underscores the attraction of a personal library.  Al-Mubashshir ibn Fatik, an eleventh-century scholar in Cairo, acquired a huge number of books.  Books surviving from this scholar’s library were discolored.  A story explained the physical condition of those books:

On coming home, {ibn Fatik} spent most of his time with {his collection of books}, finding no better occupation than reading and writing and convinced that this was the most important pursuit. He had a wife of noble descent like him, of the family of one of the state dignitaries. After his death — may Allah have mercy upon him — she betook herself with her maids to his library. She bore a grudge against the books, since her husband had devoted himself to them and neglected her. While bewailing him, she, together with her maids, threw the books into a large water basin at the center of the building. Later the books were retrieved and this is why the many books of ibn Fatik which have been preserved are in such a state.[8]

While this story may be apocryphal, it indicates both that ibn Fatik acquired many books and that a large collection of books was understood to be alluring to scholars.

Producing the books in large personal libraries required thousands of scribe-years of work.  In eleventh-century Cairo, a physician who cultivated ascetic habits and lived in a mosque subsisted on copying two or three books a year.[9]  Ten professional scribes in thirteenth-century Damascus copied in two years the eighty volumes of The History of Damascus.[10]  Their average copying rate was thus four books per year.  At a copying rate of four books per year, a library of 20,000 books would require 5,000 scribe-years to copy.  Many persons, both professional scribes and practicing scholars, surely were engaged in copying books.

Freedom to copy books existed in conjunction with vigorous interest in authoring books.  Patronage, personal scholarly motivation, and intellectual status competition seems to have supported authorship.  In addition, freedom to copy books brought into the present the past thousand years of authorial work.  While a common direction of authorship was to write a commentary on one of Galen’s works, authorship encompassed a wide range of subjects and styles. Ibn Sina (Avicenna), who flourished in early eleventh-century Persia, is thought to have authored more than 450 works.  Ibn al-Hazen (Alhazen), who worked mainly in eleventh-century Cairo, wrote more than 200 works.  Al-Razi (Rhazes) and Thabit ibn Qurra also authored more than 200 works.  In addition to these highly productive scholars, many others also authored books.  Ibn Abu Usaibia provided lists of authored books for about 120 scholars who interests related to medicine.  Among those authors, 31 authored 10 or more titles.[11]

In the ancient Islamic world, the book economy prospered in conjunction with widespread copying of books.  Persons acquired large personal libraries through both buying and copying texts.  Amin Al-Dawlah “purchased many magnificent editions of various scientific works and always kept copyists in his service.”[12] Because calligraphy was highly valued, the value of a copy could be higher than the value of the original.  Marginal comments, commentary, and dedications written into a manuscript also significantly affected its value.  Adding value in copying and augmenting the text supported both the copying business and the product-differentiated book-selling business.

Content businesses today are greatly concerned about uncompensated copying.  The ancient Islamic world shows that eliminating freedom to copy books isn’t necessary for a vibrant book economy. Suppressing copying probably also isn’t necessary for vigorous growth in other content forms.

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[1] HP p. 499, referring to Amin al-Dawlah ibn al-Tilmidh, a Christian who died in Baghdad in 1165.  Ibn Abi Usaibia described him as having “left great wealth, and property and books which had no equal in quality.”  Hence low-quality books did not create the mass of the books.  Note also that books were put in series with wealth (money) and property (land).

[2] HP p. 615, referring to Abu Ja’far Ahmad ibn al-Jazzar.  He left an estate valued at 24,000 dinars.  Comparing these and other currency values is difficult because dinars and dirhams varied significantly in metallic content and across places and times.

[3] HP p. 483, referring to Abu Sa’id ibn al-Mu’awwaj.  Abu Sa’id acquired the estate at the time when he was appointed head of the state council.  The connection between these two events is unclear.  The physician Ibn al-Wasiti redeemed Abu Sa’id’s pawned books and give him and his retinue lavish gifts, including an additional gift of 50 dinars.

[4] HP p. 723.

[5] HP p. 718.  At HP p. 717, Ibn Abi Usaibia noted:

In consequence of his eagerness to acquire books and have books copied, he eventually built up a large collection of medical and other works.  He constantly employed copyists, whose upkeep he undertook, among them Muhammad ibn Sa’id ibn Hisham al-Hagari, known as Ibn Malsaka.  I have seen a number of books in the latter’s handwriting, which he wrote for Ifra’im and which were signed by the latter himself.

[6] HP p. 824.  The collections of various works apparently amounted to 3,000 volumes.  HP p. 825.

[7] HP p. 899.  Amin al-Dawlah Kamal, whose full name was Amin al-Dawlah Kamal al-Din Sharaf al-Milla Abu al-Hasan ibn Ghazal ibn Abi Sai’id, described his library in the context of requesting a copy of Ibn Abi Usaibia’s History of Physicians.  Ibn Abi Usaibia dedicated that book to Amin al-Dawlah Kamal.  HP p. 3.

[8] HP p. 705. Ibn Fatik’s book, Choice Maxims and Sayings (written about 1053) was translated into Spanish, Latin, French, and English.  It was highly popular in Europe from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries.

[9] HP p. 703, referring to Ibn al-Haitham.  The books he copied every year were Euclid’s Elements, the al-Mutawassitat, and Ptolemy’s Almagest.  HP p. 701 indicates that he copied every year two books, Euclid and the Almagest.  Ibn al-Haitham also authored more than 200 books, so all his time wasn’t spent copying.

[10] HP p. 898. The History of Damascus was 80 volumes “in petite script.” The vizier Amin al-Dawlah Kamal ordered the scribes’ work and kept all the volumes that they produced.

[11] See spreadsheet of authored title counts for scholars included in Ibn Abi Usaibia’s History of Physicians (Excel version).

[12] HP p. 898.  A street in tenth-century Baghdad was known as the “Street of the Booksellers.”  HP. p. 451.  That indicates vigorous book-selling activity.


HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294.

2 thoughts on “copyright absent in vibrant ancient Islamic book economy”

  1. This is very interesting, except the point it is used to make in the title and at the end. It is true, of course, but it is not news. Only the opposite would be.

    There was no copyright regime operating anywhere before the establishment of a print-based book industry — the standard account is that copyright emerged much later. In England, copyright is an 18th-c development, with a form of protection of publisher’s rights form the 16th c. on.

    So the situation in the medieval Islamic world is not at all different from the situation in the Christian world at the same time — except the sheer volume of MS production was significantly larger than it was in Europe.

  2. Many important persons in business and government today think that copyright is vitally important. The history above suggests otherwise.

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