This article is about the prevalence of book and library culture in Muslim caliphates and during the “Islamic Golden Age” of medieval times.
Commencing with the Abbasid Caliphate in the middle of 8th century, social, medical and physical sciences flourished in the Muslim world. There were some amazing cases of literary accomplishments that astonish a modern researcher. Consider for instance, to give a few examples, that historian al-Tabari (9th-10th century) wrote a 40 volume history that includes reliable minor details about events and personalities. Wakidi wrote 28 volumes on history abd Ibn Qutaybah is credited with 60 volumes on as diverse subjects as theology, philosophy, law, jurisprudence, grammar, philology, history, astronomy, agriculture and botany. Abu Ḥanifah Dinawari wrote 16 known volumes on mathematics, geography, botany, metallurgy and history. Al-Baladhuri wrote a complete history of Islamic armies with such details and accuracy that a 20th century historian of the calibre of Philip Hitti translated it into English. In literature, the era produced such evergreen luminaries as Ferdowsi Tusi, Hafiz Shirazi, Saadi Sherazi, Umer Khayyam Nishapuri, Rumi Balkhi and a host of others. Tales like those in Alf Laila continue to enchant readers.
Then there were such prolific and influential scholars as al-Razi, Khawarzmi, Ibn-Sina, al-Kundi, Umar Khayyam and hundreds of other polymaths with names like Razi (from Ray), Balkhi, Khawarzmi, al-Birunei (from Beirun), Tabari (from Tabaristan), Tusi (from Tus), Nishapuri, Bokhari (from Bokhara), Shirazi (from Shiraz), Isphahani, Farghani, Al-Qurtubi (Spain), Al-Battani, Al-Khujandi, Al-Kashi (Kashan), etc.
Then there are some illustrious scholars considered to be major figures (even founders) of a special field such as Ibn Hayyan (early chemistry), al-Biruni (geodesy and Indology), Ibn Al-Nafis (circulatory and cardiovascular physiology), Ibn-Sina (medieval medicine), Al-Razi (pediatrics), Al-Zahrawai (surgery), Ibn Haytham (optics and early physics), Al-Khawarzmi (algebra and algorithms), Al-Kindi (cryptanalysis), Ibn-Khaldun (sociology, demography, early economics), Nasir Al-Tusi (trigonometry) and Ibn Hizm (comparative religion). There are 24 moon craters named by International Astronomical Union honouring medieval Muslim scholars. It is thus obvious that there was a conducive environment for research and experimentation especially in Khurasan and Andulsia during the Islamic Golden Age.
Anyone who has undertaken some meaningful research in any field can testify that it is simply impossible to do so without ready access to a relevant collection of books and written record, in other words, to a library. When we observe hundreds of scholars in the Islamic Golden Age, pursuing quality research in a myriad of fields over roughly six centuries, and that too before the invention of the printing press, it is easy to deduce the presence of a large number of well stocked official and private libraries in the region.
One important factor in the spread of the written word, first in Khurasan and then to Andalusia, was the knowledge of paper-making techniques that the Muslims leant from the Chinese
One important factor in the spread of the written word, first in Khurasan and then to Andalusia, was the knowledge of paper-making techniques that the Muslims leant from the Chinese after their victory under the leadership of the famed commander Abu Muslim Khurasani against the Tang Chinese Empire at the Battle of Talas in 751 AD for the control of Ferghana Valley. The River Talas originates in Kyrghyzstan north of the Syr Darya and flowing in a northerly direction, vanishes into Kazakhstan’s steppes. The battle ended the eastward expansion of the Chinese and ensured the cultivation of Islam in Central Asia that continues to this day. The enlightened 8th-century Abbasids were quick to learn the art of paper-making from the Chinese prisoners of battle and also, more importantly, grasp its significance.
As a marked contrast, the comparatively regressive 16th-century gunpowder Muslim empires of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals – strikingly all three of them – failed to embrace the printing press, that revolutionary Western invention, thus losing the chance of a renaissance of sciences and arts in the Muslim world.
A library culture was inherited by Islamic world from the Nestorian and Sassanid traditions from before Islam. Before the Muslims occupied Egypt, Syria and Persia, there were important centers of learning at school of Nisbis, the School of Edessa, the Medical Academy of Gondishapur, the Library of Alexandria, etc.
Ctesiphon, Merv, Salnika, Nishapur, Bokhara, Damascus, Herat, Isfahan etc also had libraries of their own.
Though they were initially not highly literate, the invading Muslims quickly realized the importance of knowledge in the efficient running of the state. Celeste Gianni notes in her excellent article History of Libraries in the Islamic World (with a rich bibliography) that in the Islamic world,
“A variety of appellatives have been used (for libraries) including bayt al-ḥikma (house ofwisdom); khizanāt al-ḥikma (repository/storehouse of wisdom); dār al-ḥikma (house/complex of wisdom); dār al-ʿilm (house of science); dār al-kutub (house/complex of books); khizanāt al-kutub (repository/storehouse of books); bayt al-kutub (house of books).”
She also writes that the main types of libraries were palace or royal libraries, private collections, independent libraries and libraries annexed to other institutions such as mosques, madrasas, caravanserais (ribāṭ), hospitals (bīmāristān), mausoleums (mashhad) and any other public building.
(to be continued)