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LIBRARIES. Like Islamic civilization in general, Islamic libraries have a glorious past to which present-day Muslims are struggling to measure up. The Muslims’ love of learning naturally produced a culture of literacy and the preservation of books. The vastness of modern literature has brought different challenges as Muslim librarians seek adequate ways to manage it bibliographically.


The Qur’an first spread the written word widely in the previously oral literary culture of the Arabs. As Muslims made pious donations of Qur’an manuscripts to mosques, the practice of storing written materials developed. Literacy increased because of the religious necessity of reading the Qur’an, and professional scribes flourished. The Qur’an, with its command “Read!,” provided the groundwork for the production of learning and literature, leading to the growth of organized, wellmanaged book collections-libraries.

The first library collections appeared in the Umayyad era. Few books from that time survive, but there are accounts of literary activity and book collecting. The Umayyad prince Khalid ibn Yazid (d. 704) was a man of letters and a noted book collector. The earliest collections belonged to mosque libraries and private libraries; later came caliphal, academic, and public libraries. Mosques were often the chief suppliers of public library services.

The second `Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (r. 754-775) established a translation bureau at Baghdad, which led to a seminal achievement of classical Islamic librarianship, the Bayt al-Hikmah, founded in 83o by the caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833). In addition to being the leading library of its time, it continued the translation of texts from other civilizations and included an academy for scholars; thus it was a central clearinghouse for the learning of the Islamic world. Other rulers in that era founded similar centers, such as the Fatimid Dar al-`Ilm of al-Hakim at Cairo, and the great library of the Spanish Umayyads at Cordoba, which held some 400,000 volumes. The rise of the madrasah universities brought with it the important development of academic libraries.

The large-scale production of books and their acquisition by libraries in great numbers became possible only after paper replaced the more expensive parchment and vellum. The manufacture of paper was introduced to the Islamic world from China at Samarkand in the mideighth century. From there the technique spread west to Damascus, Cairo, and Spain. Once paper became widely available, the production and distribution of books had its nexus in the profession of the warraq, a paper dealer, copyist, and bookseller, and frequently a scholar and author in his own right.

The famous warraq Ibn al-Nadim produced in 987 a monumental, landmark bibliography entitled Al fihrist, a description of every book he had handled, seen, or otherwise learned of. It remains an invaluable source for the history of the literary culture of that era. A later bibliographic milestone was the work of Katib celebi (sometimes known as Hajji Khalifah) of Istanbul (1609-1657). Having visited all the great libraries of Istanbul, he wrote the Kashf al-zunun, an annotated bibliography of some 14,500 titles in alphabetical order; it also included a general survey of the arts and sciences.

Over time, the great library collections became dispersed, either from lack of care or by incorporation of their books into other collections. Books were always subject to destruction by the usual natural hazardsfire, flood, decay, and so on. There was also deliberate, massive destruction of books by the Mongols at Baghdad and by Spanish Inquisitors after the Reconquista. The age of European colonialism saw the removal of many thousands of manuscripts from the Islamic world to the libraries and private collections of the West, most notably those of the British Library, France’s Bibliotheque Nationale, and Princeton University.

Some notable manuscript collections in the Islamic world today include those of Topkapi Sarayl and Suley-maniye Kutuphanesi in Istanbul, the library of Ayatollah Mar’ashi in Qom, and the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library in Patna, India. Such collections are an important link between the glorious past and the troubled present.

The printing of books came late to the Islamic world, and the traditional custodianship and cataloging of manuscripts bear scant relationship to the practices of modern librarianship and bibliographic control (systems permitting users to identify, locate, and get access to desired publications). Bibliographic control involves cataloging, classification, and indexing, as well as the production of bibliographies and accession lists. All such activities are called “documentation” in countries outside the United States.

Islamic librarianship has been in a generally sorry state during the twentieth century. The publication of books and other items in the Islamic world is flourishing, but the ability of Muslim librarians to handle the material adequately has been deficient-although not for lack of sincere, conscientious thought and discussion among concerned librarians.

In the colonial period, modern libraries in Muslim countries were set up and run by Europeans; in the early postcolonial period as well, professional British librarians dominated librarianship in the former British colonies. By now, however, library education has progressed enough in Muslim countries to enable Muslim librarians to assume leadership. Pakistan and Egypt are especially noted for their library education, and those two countries are major exporters of professionally trained librarians, especially to the Gulf region.

Issues that the Anglo-American world long ago settled, such as cataloging, classification, national libraries, and public library legislation, still pose some serious challenges for Muslims. An Islam-centered approach to classification and subject headings remains a dream that seems far from practical realization. The Dewey Decimal Classification (unsuitable as it is) has been widely used by Muslim countries, often with local tinkering, but the Library of Congress Classification with its attendant subject headings is now gaining in popularity. Muslims continue to propose Islamic classification schemes, but none has proved suitable for general use.

Most Muslim countries have managed to establish some form of national library, and some, particularly Egypt and Tunisia, are making serious attempts at national bibliographies. Unfortunately, public libraries seem to be a low priority throughout most of the Islamic world, and they are altogether too scarce in many countries. Often it is the national library, by default, that provides public library service. Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, and Malaysia deserve mention for their establishment of public libraries; in Lahore and Kuala Lumpur there are even public libraries especially for children. The site of the Prophet’s birthplace in Mecca is now a public library. The quality of academic libraries is varied, but in general they are showing slow, steady improvement.

The most important issues for librarians today-automation, freedom of access to information, and above all, library cooperation and networking-are especially challenging in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have led the way in regional cooperation. Their GULFNET online database is the model for other Muslim countries. Malaysian libraries have also been automating and forming themselves into a network.

International cooperation, coordination of activities, and networking throughout the entire Islamic world constitute the biggest challenge, one that still seems far from solution, although it has seen plenty of discussion. The Congress of Muslim Librarians and Information Scientists (COMLIS), previously headquartered in Malaysia, was formed to address this issue. It has met three times but has been inactive much of the time. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has established the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) in Yildiz Sarayi at Besiktas, Istanbul; it has been doing some important work in international Islamic bibliography. There is still no international scholarly journal devoted to Islamic library science, though one is badly needed.

In Alexandria, Egypt, work is under way on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, scheduled to open in 1998 and inspired by the memory of the great ancient library there (no one who wants to be taken seriously can any longer blame the Muslims for its destruction, because it was gone long before the Muslims arrived). Although there seems to be nothing specifically Islamic about it, it is intended to be one of the world’s biggest repository libraries, with all the latest information technology; one may therefore hope that Islamic librarianship will benefit from it.

meet these challenges, the knowledge exists, the technology is readily available, and the funding could be found. What bedevils Muslim librarians is a lack of organization and cooperation, and of initiative toward these goals. It is as if the political disunity of the Islamic world is reflected in its uncoordinated librarianship. There is progress, but it is slow.

[See also Book Publishing; Periodical Literature; Reference Books.]


Aman, Muhammad M., and Sha’ban Khalifah. “Library and Information Services in the Arab Countries.” In Librarianship in the Muslim World 1984, edited by Anis Khurshid and Malahat K. Sherwani, vol. 2, pp. 3-45. Karachi, 1985.

Anees, Munawar A. “Information Technology and Global Control System for Islamic Literature.” Pakistan Library Bulletin 20 (June 1989): 21-36.

Anwar, Mumtaz Ali. “Towards a Universal Bibliographic System for Islamic Literature.” International Library Review 15.3 (1983): 257261.

COMLIS III: The Third Congress of Muslim Librarians and Information Scientists. Istanbul, 1989. Papers from the conference held at Istanbul in May 1989.

Hamadah, Muhammad Mahir. Al-maktabat ft al-Islam: Nash’atuhawa-Tatawwuruha wa-Masd’iruhd (Libraries in Islam: Their Origin, Development, and Destiny). Beirut, 1970. Includes history as well as philosophy of librarianship.

Ibn al-Nadim, Muhammad ibn Ishaq. The Fihrist of al-Nadim: A Tenth Century Survey of Muslim Culture. Edited and translated by Bayard Dodge. 2 vols. New York, 1970.

`Ishsh, Yusuf al-Les bibliotheques arabes publiques et semi publiques en Mesopotamie, en Syrie et en Egypte au Moyen Age (Arabic public and semipublic libraries in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt in the Middle Ages. Damascus, 1967. Translated into Arabic by Nizar Abazah and Muhammad Sabbagh as Dur al-kutub al-`Arabiyah al-`ammah wa-shibh al-`ammah li-bildd al-`Iraq wa-al-Sham wa-Misr ft al-`Asr al-Wasit (Beirut and Damascus, 1991). Probably the best history of classical Islamic libraries. Unfortunately, there is no English translation.

Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Bibliotheques et Centres de Documentation =Libraries and Documentation Centers. Rabat, Morocco, 1988. A directory of modern institutions. Incomplete but useful.

Katib celebi. Kitab Kashf al-zunun `an asdmi al-kutub wa-al funun. Edited by Mehmet serefeddin Yaltkaya. 2 vols. Istanbul, 19411943.

Mutahhari, Murtaza. The Burning of Libraries in Iran and Alexandria. Translated by N. P. Nazareno and M. Nekodast. Tehran, 1983. A conclusive refutation of the myth of Muslims’ culpability.

Newson, Jo, and Larry Luxner. “Rebuilding an Ancient Glory.” Aramco World 45.2 (March-April 1994): 24-29. On the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Pearson, J. D. “Maktaba.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 6, pp. 197-200. Leiden, 1960-.

Roman, Stephen. The Development of Islamic Library Collections in Western Europe and North America. London and New York, 1990. An interestingly written and detailed account of how so many Islamic manuscripts were removed from Muslim countries.

Sajjad ur-Rahman. “Information Resource Sharing and Network Projects.” In Building Information Systems in the Islamic World (Papers presented at the Second Congress of Muslim Librarians and Information Scientists, held in Kedah, Malaysia, 20-22 October 1986), pp. 125-141. London and New York, 1988.

Sibai, Mohamed Makki. Mosque Libraries: An Historical Study. London and New York, 1987.

Siddiqi, Rashid. “The Intellectual Challenge of Islamizing Librarianship.” The American journal of Islamic Social Sciences 5.2 (December 1988): 275-278.

Sliney, Marjory. “Arabia Deserta: The Development of Libraries in the Middle East.” Library Association Record 92 (December 1990): 912-914.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/libraries/

  • writerPosted On: July 28, 2014
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