Monday, August 9, 2010

Islamic Civilization: The Pursuit, Collection and Distribution of Knowledge

Roldah Adams

Sardar (1999) refers to at least five Islamic concepts that have a direct bearing on the distribution of knowledge:

“adl (justice),
ilm (knowledge),
ibadah (worship),
khilafa (trusteeship),
waqf (pious endowment; charitable trust).”

An examination of the early history of Islam reveals how these concepts were given practical shape and generated a sophisticated infrastructure for the distribution of information and knowledge.

Islam made the pursuit of knowledge a religious obligation. Thus a Muslim should at all times be engaged in the generation, production, processing and dissemination of knowledge.

Imamuddin (1983b : 21) and Sibai (1987 : 3) refer to the beginning of Muslim libraries. Like those of the Jews and Christians, they go back to the collection of religious books. The mosque library of the early Muslim period developed into the madrassah (school) and university libraries of the Middle Ages, just as the synagogue, church and monastic libraries changed into public, college and university libraries of today.

A great deal of literature was accumulated during the early period of Islamic civilization. This resulted in the establishment of new institutions to collect, arrange and preserve this literature, which led to the growth of the mosque library, as well as private, public and academic libraries during the Middle Ages (Elayyan, 1990 : 120).

The Qur’an with its command “read” provide the groundwork for the production of learning and literature. 

Muslims were also motivated by this sacred text to ponder, read, study and investigate (Monastra, 1995 : 2; Haron, 2001 : 56). The first libraries in Islamic civilization were at the mosques and the first book to enter the mosque was the Qur’an (Taher, 2000).

Arab-Muslims who emerged from the Arabian Peninsula had no libraries and no library or book tradition, but their interest in books and libraries developed as they conquered the centres of old civilization. They adopted Persian literature and Greek science and also developed their own book industry by the seventh century and libraries by the ninth century (Aman, 1975 : 105).

Islamic libraries played a major role in the shift from oral to written culture. The concept of learning was a firmly established principle in classical Islamic civilization (Wilkins, 1994 : 297).

Muslims built various types of institutions, especially the establishment of personal and public libraries, which flourished throughout the ages in creating an Islamic civilization.

The existence of libraries in the Islamic society indicated the growth and development of Islamic civilization. 

These libraries consisted of public libraries at the central mosques, schools and hospitals as well as state libraries, which were established by the caliphs and private libraries which are owned by religious scholars, jurists and others.
(Dohaish, 1987 : 217).

Muslim history bears testimony to the numerous libraries which were established and flourished throughout the ages (Haron, 2001 : 57). The written word played a powerful role in shaping intellectual, philosophical and religious ideas throughout the Muslim world. This led to Islamic collections which developed in Western Europe and North America, which were therefore a fundamental bridge in communication between the East and the West (Roman, 1990 : x).

BenAicha (1986 : 253) refers to mosques as libraries when he states: “With the establishment of Islam as the cultural and political foundation of the Arab world, mosques flourished beyond being mere places of worship. Used as schools and informal gathering places for the exchange of ideas and impromptu poetry readings, mosques were a natural choice for establishing libraries in the Arab world. The focus of his paper deals with mosque libraries in the Islamic civilization in the period 700-1400 A.D., how these libraries developed and their role in nurturing the germ of the European Renaissance.

The scheme for shelving of books varied from library to library, with the exception of the location of the Qur’an, which was always placed on the highest shelf, a practice that is still in the mosques (BenAicha, 1986 : 256). One of the earliest known library catalogues is known as the al-Fihrist, written by Al-Nadim (987 A.D.) using the dominant method of cataloguing of his time, which ranges from the Qur’anic studies and exegeses to literature, philosophy and the sciences.

The ten main classes listed by Al-Nadim were :
1. Qur’an
2. Grammar
3. History
4. Poetry
5. Dogmatics
6. Jurisprudence
7. Philosophy
8. Light literature
9. Religion
     10. Alchemy

The first six classes dealt with literature of Islam and the last four with non-Islamic literature (Aman, 1975 : 107-108).

Read full paper: Historical development of Islamic libraries internationally and in South Africa : a case study of the Islamic Library in Gatesville.

Roldah Adams, Magister Bibliothecologiae, Department of Library and Information Science, University of the Western Cape.

Photos of Al-Azhar, Cairo:

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