In A.D. 751, not quite thirty years after the Prophet Muhammad had made his epochal flight, or hijrah, from Mecca to Medina, and less than twenty years after his death, the conquering Muslim armies in the East defeated the Chinese governor Kao Sien-chih with his Turkish troops at Talas, in what is now Kazakhstan. The victory was momentous not only because it checked Chinese expansion in Central Asia but also because the spoils of war included Chinese paper-makers. As the great Islamicist and historian S. D. Goitein used to remark, “The Arabs learned how to make paper from the Chinese, and they haven’t stopped covering it since.” This jocular remark is an understatement; the profusion and variety of Arabic literature are mind-boggling. The standard history by the German scholar Carl Brockelmann (known to his colleagues as der Zettelpascha or “the index-card Pasha,” because of his brimming...


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