This morning I found this interesting question from verified Twitter user Iyad el-Baghdadi.

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Question to experts (and good researchers). My impression is that parts of the classical Islamic world were highly literate (by the standards of their time): When did the Islamic world start to fall way behind in literacy rates, and why?

Note of course that I'm talking about literacy rates in the context of their own time, not in absolute terms. So "high/low" = within the context of their own time.

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    Possibly relevant: history.stackexchange.com/questions/41304/… – Denis de Bernardy Jan 17 '18 at 15:00
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    The bulk of any difference would've came from the expansion of literacy in Europe beyond ecclesiastical and scribal circles, especially to the emerging urban middle class. Islamic literacy didn't necessarily drop in absolute terms, it just didn't expand the way Europe's dead. Which is also why I think Chinese literacy rates were higher than both. – Semaphore Jan 17 '18 at 15:16
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    @T.E.D. - Without further qualification, this question will not get a reasonable answer imho. A quick look at Wiki on Literacy will show just how complicated this topic can be. An example:"... Cross-national comparisons of literacy rates are imperfect, given that different countries define literacy in different ways". Even more difficult for a group of people, not by national boundaries, but personal belief. – J Asia Jan 17 '18 at 15:48
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    @JAsia - That's one of the first things I noticed researching this. Perhaps its simpler in a culture where everyone's first language is Arabic, but in England for a while after the Norman conquest, there were three written languages in use, and people who could only read and write in English might be considered illiterate. (Whereas these days the term for that is "American". :-0 ) – T.E.D. Jan 17 '18 at 16:20
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    There's also the banning of printing press in the Ottoman empire, which its let Jews and Christians use the press but not Muslims. – user69715 Jan 17 '18 at 16:37

One cannot be literate without books to read, and regardless on one's religious beliefs The Bible is one of the great works of literature of Western civilization. The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, accompanied by the widespread printing of The Bible in the vulgar tongues of Europe, would put copies of The Bible in most [Northern] European middle class homes within a century. By 1610 German publishers are printing roughly 28,000 distinct titles per decade; English printers would start to catch up about thirty years later.

Contrariwise, the Ottoman Empire forbid the use of printing presses by Muslims in its domain until the 18 century, roughly 300 years after Gutenberg.

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    @JAsia: to read you need books. If you have printing press, books are a lot cheaper and less error prone than if they are copied by a scribe. If you don't believe this, try printing a 300-page pdf vs writing it down by hand :) Plus, TED's graph in the other answer shows that the spread of printing press is really correlated with when literacy in the Christian world took off. – user69715 Jan 18 '18 at 2:59
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    But, good point about discussing only the Ottomans. The Ottomans did control most of the traditional Islamic intellectual centres (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, ...), but at the same time there was also Safavid Persia, Morocco, and the Mughal Empire in India. Curious about the reception of printing press there, especially in Persia because it is one of the traditional intellectual centres. – user69715 Jan 18 '18 at 3:01
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    @jamesqf there's always a base of literate people. Printing press reduces the barrier to enter that club. – user69715 Jan 18 '18 at 19:37
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    A detail, but "The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg [,,,] would put copies of The Bible in most European middle class homes within a century" might be true in the Protestant world, certainly not in the Catholic domain. Even in the nineteenth century in France, the Catholic church and Catholic organizations were strongly battling against the dissemination of Bibles organized by Protestants, up to organizing burning of Bibles. – Joël Jan 19 '18 at 7:02
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    Coming back to this more than a year later, it sure looks like the content of my answer (and graph) is actually backing up this answer. I still think the last paragraph is more of an effect of the problem rather than a cause. The problem itself happened around 1550, but that timing is totally consistent with the cause being the printing press. – T.E.D. Apr 2 at 14:27

From what I've been able to dig up, it was about 1550.

Its tough to find good numbers on literacy going back that far. I found one set of numbers used in a couple of places that trace back to a paper from Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten van Zanden titled Charting the "Rise of the West", but sadly their methods only allowed for producing numbers in Medieval Christendom. Basically, they estimate it based on the production of manuscripts and some judicious application of economics and statistics.

The interesting thing though I think is the variance. They found a range of about 1-20% literacy, in general very slowly increasing, up until roughly the popularization of Printing Press (1550ish, to be specific). After that literacy shot up (although still at different rates in different countries, which they dive into in detail).

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The authors use their same techniques to try to estimate literacy in China and India after they got printing presses. However they explicitly state they couldn't really do that in the Islamic World specifically due to the Ottomans outlawing printing (or even the possession of printed material!). If they could get you numbers, it seems likely they would be in the same general ballpark as they were during the manuscript era (which they were effectively still in).

So based on the this paper, and the methods they used, it is pretty much idiomatic that the Ottoman prohibition of printing is where the Islamic World's literacy rate started to get left in the dust.

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    small note: It appears the Ottomans did not outlaw printing press outright. The ban only applied to Muslims, and according to Wikipedia, Christians & Jews in the empire had printing press within the century of Gutenberg's invention – user69715 Jan 18 '18 at 2:48

The key reason is the Ottoman empire and it's policies.

Prior to the Ottoman empire, the Suljuk Sultanate (Sultanate of Rum) put tremendous stress on education. The Ince Minare Madrasa (source at bottom) was one of 24 Colleges built in the Sultanate of Rums capital of Konya and well over 50 of such structures were built Anatolia. The Sultanate of Rum was directly responsible for the height of Islamic literacy and their literacy rates far exceeding medieval Europe and quite likely even the Chinese.

However the Sultanate of Rum collapsed in the face of the Mongol invasion, becoming vassals of the Mongol empire. From these ashes rose the Ottoman empire who put almost the exact opposite stress on literacy and education.

There are a few reasons here:

1) The Supression of the Oghuz. Early Ottoman history is a long and violent struggle with the Oghuz tribes. To keep them subdued, education and literacy was withheld (and likely part of the reason of the ban of the printing press).

2) Nature of the Ottoman empire. The empire was somewhat a conglomeration of a variety of peoples and languages...Greek, Lydian, Phrygian, Cilician all fit into this empire (IE you could be a subject of this empire without really speaking the tongue of the empire). Many of these peoples were nomadic and education/literacy was an expensive prospect for little gain. I have seen the proposal floated that the Ottoman empire was actually more literate than given credit for, but these people were literate in their mother tongue and not the Turkish language.

3) Scripting (though this point is somewhat debated) wasn't easy. To make proper use of 'Ottomanish/Turkish' script, one needed to learn 2 languages to really be effective (correction in progress). The Elite would learn both Arabic and Persian, allowing them to effectively make use of their scripting, however most subjects of the Ottoman empire would only speak their mother tongue.

Edit from comments: sourcing on that can be found here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman_Turkish_language "It borrows, in all aspects, extensively from Arabic and Persian, and it was written in the Ottoman Turkish alphabet. During the peak of Ottoman power, Persian and Arabic vocabulary accounted for up to 88% of its vocabulary,[3] while words of Arabic origins heavily outnumbered native Turkish words". Apparently if you didn't speak Arabic and Persian, the Turkish written language was pretty much unintelligible and a good segment of the Ottoman empire used kaba Türkçe ("raw/vulgar Turkish")

4) No specific mission to educate youth. Somewhere in Christian Europe, the mandate to educate youth came about. Mosques and Imam's had no such explicit mission to educate youth in this manner. As an odd side note, education was usually around the Quoran (believed to hold the key to all knowledge, not simply Theological), which was written in Arabic and does not help that much with Turkish literacy.

5) No stress on Education by the Ottoman empire. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%9Eevket_S%C3%BCreyya_Aydemir wrote in a few of his books that educational facilities in the Ottoman empire were exceedingly rare. Erdine (a major city close to Istanbul) only had one middle school and one high school to serve the entire city, and this wasn't uncommon throughout the empire.

By the time the Ottoman empire began to address this lack of education, it was already the 18th century and the majority of the world had long surpassed the Islamic world.

Madrasa information from Google books: (https://books.google.ca/books?id=qGb4pyoseH4C&pg=PT363&lpg=PT363&dq=sultanate+of+rum+literacy&source=bl&ots=Uf7p9JhSZR&sig=p_r7Ocu-dqGZkR1H2u06pVlEhY4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjWqqLSx9_YAhVNaq0KHdz_CmAQ6AEIUTAK#v=onepage&q=sultanate%20of%20rum%20literacy&f=false)

  • I take issues with point (4), as Jewish literacy in the Middle and Dark Ages revolved around study of the Torah, and was consistently very high right up to the modern day. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 17 '18 at 18:32
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    @PieterGeerkens - your issue with point 4 confuses me. I am simply pointing out that early Christianity (Charlemagne leading the way) mandated the constructions of schools and churches so that "the bright young boys of the realm could read and write" and launched legislation encouraging monks and clergy to "teach children who were not members of their religious community", which heavily helped early Christian Europes literacy rates. The Islamic world and Imams never promoted this. I fail to see your objection – Twelfth Jan 17 '18 at 18:43
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    Source for previous comment. books.google.ca/… – Twelfth Jan 17 '18 at 18:44
  • The side-note about the Quran is contra-evidenced by the Jewish experience. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 17 '18 at 18:45
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    3's an interesting point. However, not only are Semitic and Indo-European unrelated and Persian and Altaic unrelated, but Persian is Indo-European. – T.E.D. Jan 17 '18 at 18:54

The key words in the question are "by the standard of the time". Indeed during the early middle age Islamic society was more literate than Western European one. Since then the literacy rates did not decline anywhere. They simply grew in the West at faster rate. It is the "standard of the time" which changed. And it changed in the West faster than it did in the Islamic countries. And the reason of this is book printing. And the wise spread of books was possible because the society was more secular.

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    This answer lacks references, dates, and explanations beside "book printing" already pointed out in other answers. – Evargalo Jan 19 '18 at 13:37

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