On Monday, I discussed the gaining of knowledge and how Islam advocates us to continuously be learning. There is a book I am reading called Civilization of Faith that is absolutely fascinating and I thought I would share something awesome I recently read about libraries.
It turns out, the whole concept of libraries being public lending systems and being organized by card catalogs was started by the Muslims, about 200 years after Hijra, during the heights of the Abbasid and Ottoman Empires.
Books were considered extremely sacred and the Muslims took very seriously the verses in the Quran about the importance of gaining knowledge. Poetry was written about the love people had for their books.
There was a story about a litterateur who was once called by the Caliph. When the servant came to tell him his presence was requested he was reading, and he replied, “ I have wise men with me, with who I am discussing things. When I am finished with them, I will come.” The Caliph did not like that answer and asked his servant who the wise men were. The servant replied that there were no men in the room. So the Caliph once again called the litterateur and asked him, “Who are the wise men that surround you?” The man replied:
“They are companions whose speech does not bore,
They are honest and trustworthy whether you are absent or present,
When we sit with them, their speech will be the best help in eliminating worry and anxiety,
They teach us the knowledge of those who passed away before us and they teach us the wisdom, discipline, and advice and the way of leadership,
We do not fear betrayal or bad manners from them,
And we are not trying to protect ourselves from their tongues or their hands,
If you say that they are dead, you will not be lying,
And if you say they are alive, you will not be exaggerating.”
Thus the Caliph realized that he meant the scholars who have written books in which he was reading and was no longer upset with him, but understood completely. That was the love and respect the Muslims had for books. Books were held in such high regard that they were considered treasures to the hearts of the Muslims. One time, a man named Ibn Al Amid found that enemy soldiers had attacked his house and all the stores he owned. But he was not worried about his business or his residence but went running to the place where he stored his books. He had an extensive library that would take over 100 camels to transport. He saw the servant that took care of his library and ran to him. “They are safe, no one has touched them,” said the servant. The man was relieved and said, “I bear witness that you are a real man, for the rest of the stores can be replaced, but this treasure (the library) cannot be replaced.”
At the height of the Islamic civilization, Europe was in the Dark Ages and important works of literature by the likes of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers and other sacred works were being destroyed. The Muslims used to acquire these works and translate them to Arabic in order to preserve them. In fact, there are many works of literature that we would not have today were it not for the Muslims. Collecting and translating books were so important that the Caliphs would pay anyone their weight in gold for translating a book. Some people who had private libraries would pay their translators the weight of the book in gold and others would give them a salary of 2,000 dinars a month, which in our time would be a six figure salary, if not more.
Because there was no printing press at the time, books were translated and copied by hand by scribes. This made books too expensive for poor people to afford, so public lending libraries were set up. Soon, there was not a school or a mosque that did not have a library attached to it. The government funded these public libraries and every city and every capital had a wealth of libraries in a way that had never before been seen in medieval history. The public libraries had employees and usually the librarian would be the most famous scholar of his time. There were assistant librarians that would retrieve books for readers, translators, scribes who made copies of books, binders who would bind the books in leather, cleaning crews and many other employees that helped make the libraries comfortable for people. All libraries were furnished lavishly with furniture that was comfortable to sit on for long periods of time.
Even the privately own libraries were open to the public. They were extremely large buildings that had many different libraries within. Within one library, you would find a Fikh library, a medicine library, a literature library, sometimes up to forty different rooms each with a different category. Then there were rooms for readers, rooms for the scribes (the printing room), music rooms, rooms for study circles and academic discussions, rooms for eating, and rooms for sleeping for people who came from out of town to read and gain knowledge. People who owned these private libraries, which also had a large number of employees, would fund everything from their own pockets, including the food and accommodations for the strangers who would come from all over.
One such example was Abdul Qasim Jafar bin Mohammed ibn Hamdan Al Mosali and his library which he called Dar Al Ilm, House of Knowledge. He never turned any stranger away from coming to his library. In fact, he would give money and free books to anyone who came to seek knowledge and his library was open 24/7. That system doesn’t even exist in our time!
The Islamic libraries were the first to incorporate an index system that classified the books in a way that is easy to find. In addition to a main card catalog system, there was also a list written on each shelf with the books that were on that shelf. This made the process of lending books out to readers easier to keep tabs of. To check out a book, people would put a small deposit, whatever they could, that they would get back when they returned the book.
Now lets take a look at some of the renowned libraries:
The Library of Fatimid Caliphs in Cairo:
This library had a large collection of rare Mushafs (Qurans). It was said that in total, it contained more than 2 million books.
Dar Al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) Library in Cairo:
It was founded by Al Hakim bi Amrillah and was completed in 395 Hijri (about 9th or 10th century). It was completely staffed with supervisors, librarians and cleaners and was beautifully furnished and decorated. It consisted of forty compartments, each with more than 18,000 books. It was open to the public and contained in addition to books, ink, pens, paper, and inkpots for anyone who wanted to copy a book.
Bayt Al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad:
It was founded by Caliph Harun Al Rashid (Zubayda’s husband) and it became more like a university that contained books because it was a place where people would debate about educational topics in addition to reading and copying books. It was said that the books in this library were collected from all over the world and many from the conquests of Ankara, Amorium and Cyprus. During the time of the Caliph Al Mamun, the Romans were defeated by the Muslims in one of the battles and Al Mamun only asked that they turn over all their books and be given permission to translate them. What a great example of a victorious leader who saw that the greatest reward he can give to his nation was books.
Al Hakam Library in Adalusia:
This library had one of the most detailed indexes, with the index for the poetry section alone having forty-four sections. It had four hundred thousand volumes and professional scribes and book binders.
Bani Ammar Library in Tripoli:
This library was so huge that the number of scribes that worked there were 180 alone. This library had their own team of specialists and traders who used to travel and bring back books from different countries. It contained about one million books.
These libraries that I listed above were just the publically funded libraries. There were many privately funded libraries that were just as large and extravagant. In fact, it was very hard to find a scholar who didn’t have his own collection of thousands of books in his house.
So what happened to these great libraries and all these books? I hate to end this amazing post with anything negative but unfortunately they were destroyed. When the Tartars attacked Baghdad, they threw all the books they found in the Tigris River. The river overflowed and there were so many books in it that it ran black for months from the ink and riders could ride their horses on the books to get from one side of the river to the other.
The Crusaders burned books in Tripoli, Al Maarrah, Al Quds (Jerusalem), Gaza, Asqalan, and many other cities. The books destroyed in Tripoli alone were about 3 million. The library of the Fatimid caliphs was destroyed by the Mamluks and the Turks. The libraries in Islamic Spain were destroyed by religious fanatics.
However, what we can get out of it is that now the Islamic system of booking lending and cataloguing is being practiced all over the world. At the time of these libraries, the Islamic civilization was one of the most prominent civilizations, all because they put such a large priority on reading and gaining of knowledge. IQRA. The first word ever to come down from the Quran. Do not take it lightly. Great things can be achieved if you make reading a priority in your life. You can start by starting a small library in your own house. Gather books that you read and create a library that you can pass on to your children. Share books between each other. Work together to increase your knowledge. No matter how much technology we have, nothing can ever take the place of reading a book.
Sibāʻī, Muṣṭafá. Civilization of Faith: Solidarity , Tolerance and Equality in a Nation Built on Shari’ah : A Journey through Islamic History. Riyadh: International Islamic House, 2005. Print.
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24 Sep 2012