The Lister List

Islamic Arab and Moorish Folding?

A subscriber to the Origami Internet List, Origami-L wrote on 25th May, 2003 to say that he had to give a presentation on Moroccan culture and wondered if there was any Moroccan origami, whether of Moroccan origin or representing Moroccan items or culture.

I wrote a reply in two parts. This is the first part of which discusses whether there are any Islamic folding and if the Arabs and Moors were paperfolders. The second part was about the twisted Moroccan Purses themselves. I have separated the two articles. The present article which is specifically about whether there was such a thing as Islamic paperfolding, practiced by the Arabs of the Middle East and the Moors of North Africa.. My separate article on twisted leather purses, often known as Moroccan purses, may be read in conjunction with this article.

I have to say at once that this is a question which I find is very interesting..

One of the really big questions in the history of paperfolding in the West is whether knowledge of paper folding travelled westwards from Asia with the knowledge of paper making. And ancillary to this question: Was paperfolding brought to Spain, with paper making by the Moors? There is no question whatsoever that paper making was brought to the Middle East and Europe by the Arabs and the Moors. Everything is well-documented. A book on the subject of Islamic paper making has recently appeared in the United States. It is "Paper before Print" by Jonathan M. Bloom, an art historian. (Yale University Press, 2001)

This book is scholarly, but at the same time enjoyable to read and gives a new account not only of the "capture" of the knowledge of paper making by the Arabs from prisoners of war at Samarkand, in 751 AD, but it also goes back to the origins of paper-making in China, somewhat earlier than the traditional accounts of it discovery by Tsai Lun around 100 AD. So anyone really interested in the Arabs and Moors and paper, should read this book which is beautifully produced. (ISBN 0-300-08955-4)

Yet sadly, although we know plenty about Islamic paper making, we know nothing whatsoever about Arab and Moorish paper folding. Now it may be that more information may come to light in the future, but until it does, we are not entitled to say that the Arabs or the Moors practised paper folding or that they brought it with them to Spain. Any statement to the contrary is mere conjecture and not fact. Unfortunately, many accounts of the history of paperfolding, especially on the Web, make this unjustified assertion, apparently because they all copy from one another. Sadly they include the historical account by Peter Engel in his otherwise excellent "Folding the Universe (1989), (also known as "Origami from Angelfish to Zen). Peter Engel does list his sources, so we can see from where he may have derived his errors.

Another related assumption that is widely held is that Islamic tiling patterns resemble the crease patterns of paperfolding. I have made a particular study of Islamic patterns and the wonderful tessellations that among the more complex of the designs. In the 1970s, there was a vogue for studying them and I obtained several specialist books about them. I can assert, however, that Islamic patters have a wholly different structure from the crease patterns of origami and that any resemblance is only superficial. Chris Palmer stayed in Granada for six months, studying the incomparable Islamic patterns there. They did, indeed, inspire him to develop his own system of Origami Tessellations (similar in may ways to those of Shuzo Fujimoto in Japan, whose work he also studied) But origami tessellations of this kind (which, incidentally use the twist technique, especially developed by Fujimoto) are something very different from Islamic tessellations. The Arabs and Moors built up their intricate patterns in a quite different way.

On page 26 of "Folding the Universe" Peter Engel illustrates a drawing from a 17th Century Persian manuscript, which shows drawings for a fairly simple kind of tiling. The lines of the manuscript give the impression that they could have been generated by folding. But it is more reminiscent of Koryo Miura’s map folding than of recreational origami. Although Persia is an Islamic country, and has many examples of superb patterned tiling, that country is a very long way from Arabia or North Africa and Spain. Moreover the 17th Century is quite late and many centuries after the Moors introduced paper making into Spain.

For these reasons it is difficult to show that this particular manuscript is any evidence at all about paperfolding in the middle ages in Morocco or Spain. But, as always, if further evidence becomes available, I shall be happy to be contradicted. For the present, I have to share and support the opinion of Vicente Palacios, the Spanish paperfolding historian, that paperfolding in Spain was not brought to Spain by the Moors and owes nothing to them, despite the many assumptions to the contrary.

Having, as a preliminary discussed the possibility of Islamic paperfolding, I have partially answered the question which was asked : There does not appear to be any native Moroccan paperfolding. Nor do Moorish patterns of tiling, either of the simple kinds made by fitting elementary shapes together, or the more highly intricate interlaced patterns, have any relationship to paperfolding. It may be suggested that simple crease patterns (such as the crease pattern of the windmill base can be seen in some of the simper kinds of Moorish tiling, but this appears to be mere coincidence. The completed interwoven Islamic patterns do not resemble the patterns of paperfolding in any way at all.

It is said that the Islamic people used pattern rather than visual images of people and animals Islam forbade them to depict creature, human or animal living This is not a fundamental article of Islamic religious belief, but it is strongly rooted in Islamic tradition. Its origin is in a literal interpretation of the second of the Ten commandments which are observed by in Islam, as they are in Judaism and Christianity. The second commandment forbids the making of images for the purpose of worshipping them. A strict interpretation of this commandment led to the forbidding on images in Mosques. In strictness, the rule did not apply in secular society and was not applied throughout the whole of Islam, as can be seen in the extensive depiction of both humans and animals in the art of Persia. Nevertheless, the Islamic peoples as a whole did tend to avoid pictures whether in mosques or elsewhere. Because of this they substituted abstract patterns and elaborate calligraphy for pictures. The complexity of Islamic interlaced decorative patterns is utterly fascinating. Coincidentally, they closely resemble the interlaced knot work of the Celtic and Viking peoples, although, so far as I know the two art forms were wholly distinct.

Only one isolated instance of paperfolding in an Islamic country has come to my notice. The waterbomb or balloon is known in both east and west and was also used as a trap in which to keep flies. The enclosure of the flies in an enclosed space makes a loud buzzing sound which fascinates small boys. The paper fly trap is known from England as far ago as 1614., when it was mentioned in “The Duchess of Malfi”, the play by John Webster, a contemporary of Shakespeare. It is also known in modern China and inone of their recent books, the Momotanis give and example of a traditional Japanese version. Significantly, however, Thoki Yenn of Denmark reported that a friend had told him that he had come across the same fold used for imprisoning flies in modern Egypt.

Over the centuries, the popular children’s folds (which seem to be known universally in east and west) have spread t many counties, including Islamic counties including the Middle East and Morocco. Unfortunately, the spread of modern origami throughout the world and it has absorbed or overlaid any genuine native traditions. It is impossible to use the occurrence of the waterbomb fly trp as evidence that paperfolding was known in Islamic countries in the Middle ages or that the arambs and Moors brought paperfolding to Europe.

My regret after all these words is that I can still not say whether there is any actual paper folding in Morocco nor even that the so-called Moroccan Purse is really Moroccan. Maybe someone else can add information that will help to fill in another gap in our knowledge of the history of origami.


David Lister.

Grimsby, England.

28th May, 2003
Revised 19th March, 2005.

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