Library: A Neglected Islamic Heritage
1. A Brief History of the World’s Libraries:
The oldest library was first established in Babylon in the year 1700 BC, when archaeologists in the previous century discovered a library among the ruins of Babylon whose books were made of baked bricks on which were inscribed certain themes in sign writings. After the Babylonians, it was the Egyptians who set-up the first libraries.
According to David Ross, “I saw a library in the tomb of the Egyptian King Osie Mendiyas.” After the Egyptians, the Greeks were the first people to organize libraries for all people to use. The Greek scholar Setrabos, established the first public library in Greece around 650 BC. Plutarch, (the ancient Greek historian), writes about a library in Bergamos which had 200,000 volumes. The Bartholomews set-up an important library in Alexandria (Egypt). After the Greeks, the Romans brought the Macedonian books to Rome in the year 167 BC and in the year 133 BC, transferred the library of Yervamos to Rome and in the year 86 BC the same fate befell the library of Athens.
In the year 335 AD, the Emperor Constantin established the great library in Constantinople. And it seems that in Persia (ancient Iran) libraries were set-up for the first time underground, and thereafter for a brief period the setting up of libraries was halted until the Muslims had consolidated their civilization and were knowledgeable enough to establish some of the important libraries that were established in that period.
So from the time that mankind decided to organize knowledge and apply it systematically, he was hard pressed to safeguard it, and if he hadn’t been interested in safeguarding it, he wouldn’t have organized it in the first place. So in order to systemize information and to organize and safeguard it, he would need the services of a book; and a place where books were kept in an organized manner was called a book-treasury or library which it is known till today.
2. A Brief History of Books and Libraries in the Islamic World:
With the advent of Islam, the Muslim invaders went on military campaigns in order to spread Islam and expand their territories; and being basically ignorant, they would burn and destroy books wherever they would see them. However, soon after consolidating their civilization, they started to develop a taste for knowledge and learning, and were then more enthusiastic than others in their efforts to collect and maintain books as well as to buy and arrange them in an orderly manner. Much has been written about love and interest of the Muslim invaders for books some of which may be more fabrications than historical truths.
Ahmad Chalby at the beginning of his book, “The History of Education in Islam” points to the spiritual value that was attached to books, and the extent to which they were held in high esteem among the Muslim invaders, noting however that: “In reality this respect and love was inclined more towards books on poetry and literature rather than on any other subject.”
On ‘Jahez’ whose works, Dr. Chalby considers to be at the epic-center of the Arab world’s profound interest in books, many tales have been narrated, some of which may be true. It is narrated that ultimately ‘Jahez’ had literally gave up his life for the ‘love of his books’.
It is said that even in his old-age, his love for books hadn’t diminished so much so that it was his habit to pile them up one on top of the other and arrange them around himself; and it was one of these piles which fell on top of him and killed him when he absent-mindedly knocked down one of the piles with his legs while lying down.
These traditions from the early Islamic period reveal the love and devotion of the Arab invaders for books, and the great importance which they attached, was the basic reason for establishing the huge libraries of that period.
In the first and parts of the 2nd century, the Arabs had no books to their credit, while in the latter part of the 2nd century AH, only books on Islam were compiled. The books of those days were mainly on poetry and narrations and similar topics written on hides and skins or cloth and other such materials. With the speed of an infectious disease, comparable only to the voracious appetite of consumers for cars, refrigerators and television sets at the end of World War II, the love for books began to spread and everyone would indulge in it according to their capacity. Among the Islamic nations, the speed with which it spread is only matched by our 20th century appetite for books. Likewise, in terms of quantity and priority, books held more or less the same position among Arabs of the 9th and 13 th centuries AD.
Dr. Siegrid Hoencke, in the 2nd volume of her book, “Islamic Culture in Europe” in the Chapter entitled “Love of Books” has this to say about the Muslims of the 9 th to 13 th centuries AD.:
“Although the love for books caused many huge Islamic libraries to be set-up in the initial Islamic period, a series of historical events such as the establishment of the paper-making industry was also crucial in their expansion. Paper-making, which was pioneered in the Islamic countries and was considered a local product, resulted in a number of people to compile books. This industry reached Europe from the East via Sicily and Spain.”
On the above subject, Dr. Zarrinkoob (An Iranian Scholar) in his book, “The Islamic Report Card” writes as follows:
“The establishment of the paper industry was instrumental in the development of science and knowledge. The 1st century AH hadn’t yet ended when the Muslims brought paper from Trans-oxiana to the Arab world. In the 2nd century, both Baghdad and Egypt has paper-making factories, and during the reign of Ma’moon, when in Europe people didn’t even know how to write, paper was so plentiful in Baghdad that they used to narrate a tale about one of the elders of Tabarestan who on his return to Baghdad from the pilgrimage (Haj) was hard pressed to invite people because Ma’moon had ordered that firewood shouldn’t be sold to him and so he ended up buying paper and using it instead of firewood.” (Note: Paper-making was initially discovered by the Chinese in Samarkand and from there the Muslims learnt it from the Chinese.)
Ibn-e Nadeem recounts the different types of paper in use in those days which reveal that the paper industry was a thriving one at that time. The flourishing of this industry caused books to be written and therefore libraries to be set-up, and because of the presence of the paper industry, researchers had no major problems in compiling and publishing their works.
In addition to these factors that were instrumental in causing the glorious concept of ‘Library’ to take shape in the Islamic world, the contemporary Iranian researcher, Dr. Abbas Saidi, presents some more important aspects in his book, “Islamic Insight and Physical Concepts” in which he writes as follows:
“The characteristic of Islamic ideology helped to shape the basic elements of a progressive culture - the establishment of libraries - in an Islamic society. At the beginning, the Muslims started to collect copies of the Holy Qur’an and then later on they undertook to record the events and happenings of the advent of Islam. We see the seeds for the germination of libraries sown from the sayings of the Muslims themselves, such as: ‘one should harness knowledge by writing and then by memorizing ‘. Or in admonitions such as: ‘take good care of your books because sooner you will be in need of them’, which by themselves motivated them to write and later on to collect books.”
From his above statements, it is evident that Dr. Abbas Saidi is convinced that the main reason for establishing libraries stemmed from the Islamic ideology, and the library as a physical concept by itself was an offshoot of this ideology.
This section summarizes the brief history of books and libraries in the Islamic world and from it we can conclude that the compilation of books and the setting-up of libraries among the Islamic nations belonged to the 1st century AH period. But at that time libraries were neither public nor had any formal sanctioning of the royal courts; rather, they were private collections of scholars and learned men of each clan or sect.
In any case, the earliest collection of books was registered in the name of Khaled ibn Yazid (85 AH). In his lifetime, Khaled was involved in the study of Greek sciences especially chemistry (Alchemy) and medicine, and according to Ibn-e Nadeem, he employed a translator named Stephen to translate books on the above subjects and only for him in order to full-up his library.
Most Islamic libraries of the Middle Ages, while functioning as independent units, were the backbone of the educational and cultural establishments. Apparently, the first Islamic cultural center “Bait-ul-Hikmah” was also established in connection with the collection of books, although historians are still not sure whether to call such cultural centers as ‘libraries’ or ‘seminaries’. Based on historical evidences, the accumulated works in the Islamic libraries was not limited to a few branches of science only.
In fact, Muslims were the real pioneers of the great public libraries of the world and the philanthropists among them competed continuously with one another to establish public libraries and place them in the care of charitable trusts.
We can say with certainty, that among the factors responsible for the incredible success of the Muslims in the first centuries of Islam in the scientific and cultural fields, was to an extent specifically due to the importance they placed on books and libraries.
Types of Libraries:
In the early centuries of Islam, there were three types of libraries: Public, semi public, and private. Public libraries were usually associated with schools, colleges and mosques, but were open to the public as well. The semi-public libraries, on the other hand, were open to a selected group. Private libraries belonged to scholars only. The number of private libraries actually existed in the heyday of Islam will never be known. Anyhow, they existed in abundance all over the Islamic world.
According to M. Khuda Baksh, the first Academy of science in the Middle Ages was set up by Saracens at Toledo in Spain. The free University of Cairo and the House of Wisdom in the 11th century anticipated Bacon’s ideal. The Brothers of Purity established the most remarkable institution for the cultivation of science. Hammer Purgstall enumerates 5,218 writers down to the 11th century, when Western Europe was still struggling to wriggle out of the darkness of ignorance.
As already stated, the Arabs had a very limited literature till the demise of the Holy Prophet (SAW). However, with the conquests, they entered upon a new stage. No doubt the intellectual activity reached its zenith during the glorious days of Abbasids.
As to the intellectual activities of Muslims under the Umayyads, we know of Khalid ibn Yazid. He was the first Muslim scholar who eagerly collected books. He was also fond of alchemy and scientific experimentation.
In Cairo (Egypt), one of three intellectual centers of Islam, there were a number of famous libraries including the three named below:
1. The library of the House of Learning (Bait-ul-Hikmah) established by the Fatemid Caliph, Al-Aziz in 988 AD contained not less than 100,000 volumes and perhaps as many as 600,000 bound books, including 2,400 copies of the Qur’an illuminated in gold and silver and kept in a separate room. Again according to Cyril Elgood, states:
“The rest of the books on jurisprudence, grammar, rhetoric, history, biography, astronomy and chemistry were kept in large presses around the walls, which were divided into shelves, each of them having a door with a lock. Over the door of each section was nailed a list of all the books contained therein as well as a notice of the lacunae in each branch of knowledge.”
2. Despite the misfortunes which repeatedly spread anarchy and disorder in Cairo, a large number of books existed in Cairo even down to the time of Salahuddin.
3. Salahuddin Ayyubi, it is said, lacked the passion for books which generally characterized Muslim rulers and conquerors. It is reported that he auctioned the collection of books which he found in the palace and Qazi Al-Fazil purchased a lot of books to form his own private library. But one sale couldn’t exhaust the immense collection.
In 572 AH a fresh sale was ordered of the library which formed part of Fatemid Caliphs palace. Imaduddin Isfahani who was present at this sale has left us a picturesque account of it. He picked out for himself 200 volumes. Salahuddin would not let him pay for them, but gave him as a present. The shrewd Imaduddin adds that soon after this Salahuddin showed another act of kindness. He went to Salahuddin when a number of books were lying before him. He said that the books which lay before Salahuddin were equally useful to him. The Sultan presented him all of them too. Qazi Al-Fazil placed a part of these books in the library of the college which he had founded at Cairo.
The Mamluks of Egypt maintained the library traditions of their predecessors, and the passion for collection of books remained unabated.
By A. R. Newshervi from Dawah Highlights