The zeal to preserve the Qur’an and to record the traditions (Sunnah) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) motivated the early Muslims not only to write books but also to collect them. Mosques that played a significant role in the life of the Muslims had a collection of not only the Qur’an and other religious books but also books on philosophy, astronomy, geography, and science. Iranians quickly adopted paper making invented by China in the 8th century, and it spread across the Muslim world. This boosted the writing and publication of books and translation of all subjects, including sciences. What began as a private collection of books by the rulers quickly led to the establishment of libraries for the public.
Al-Qarawiyyan, Fez, Morocco
One of the oldest libraries globally, Al-Qarawiyyan, was established in 859 AD along with a madrasa and mosque in Fez, Morocco, by Fatima El-Fihriya. It is the oldest and the first higher education institution to be founded by a woman. It still exists as a University, and the historical Library is open to the public to this day. El-Fihriyadedicated all the wealth she inherited from her father to the advancement of religious and science education. UNESCO and Guinness World Records consider this the oldest continually operating higher learning institution in the world.
(House of Wisdom), Baghdad
Baytul Hikma, a library founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who ruled from 786-809, was further developed by his son Caliph Al-Mamun. Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian scholars studied, researched, and did translations in this Library which existed in Baghdad from the 9th to 13th centuries. Baytul Hikma even had observatories and living quarters for scientists.
Library of Shiraz
According to Stuart Murray, “Islamic libraries were rich in diversity and allowing scholars from other lands to share the facilities. These libraries were known for their attractiveness and comfort, many adorned with the classic Islamic dome, some surrounded by walkways and landscaped by ponds. Among the most legendary Library was that of the Persian city of Shiraz, where there were more than three hundred chambers furnished with plush carpets. The Library had complete catalogs to help locate texts kept in the storage chambers and organized according to every branch of learning”. There is no need for me to add to this lucid description.
Library Of Tipu Sultan
Tipu Sultan founded a school for liberal education with a library with books on various subjects bound in leather. The college in Srirangapatna named Jamee al-Umooralso had a good collection of books. His personal Library had two thousand books stamped with the seal of his Government: Sultanat-e-Khudadad (Government given by Allah). After Tipu’s defeat in 1799, two thousand books from his personal Library (some embellished with jewels) were taken possession of by the Britishers and later shipped to England.
Decline Of Muslim Libraries
The decline of the historic Muslim libraries is connected with internal factors like political conflicts, orthodoxy, and sectarian differences. The burning of books considered heretical by those in power was one of the factors. Many libraries were destroyed in the wars by the conquerors, the Mongols, the Crusaders burnt and destroyed many Muslim libraries. Natural disasters and poor preservation also contributed to the loss of many books. The neglect of scientific advancement and intellectual development led to a decline in political power, and this also was instrumental in the gradual decline of the glory of Muslim libraries.
Muslim Library, Bangalore
Muslim libraries have played a vital role in the intellectual development and erudition of Muslims and scholars of every faith. They reflected the glory of Islamic civilization, as can be made out from a few examples of the famous Islamic libraries described above. Drawing inspiration from such historical libraries, a group of motivated Muslims established -in a small way -the Muslim Library in Bangalore on May 5, 1912, which continues to uphold the legacy of its founding fathers. The eleven founders include Mahmood Khan Bengaluri (author of the book Sultanat-e-Khudadad ), Mir Abdul Haq, Abdul Rauf, Fareed Khan, Mohammed Saleh Ansari, and Abdul Aziz Siddiqui. They contributed from their own pockets to establish the Library and did not seek help from the Government or any other organization.
A Rare Collection
Tucked in the upstairs of a nondescript building in Veerapillai Street, a small lane in Shivajinagar of Bangalore, Muslim Library retains the old charm of a calm and quiet library. In contrast to the online reading currently in vogue, the Muslim Library offers the old life experience of touching, feeling, and smelling the books; reading this way establishes a direct communion with the book’s author. Senior citizens, young academicians, and researchers find this Library a treasure house of many rare and out-of-print books. The present President of the Library, Mr. Ayub Khan, an advocate, says: “Our USP is not about the number of books we have but the rarest of the rare books that will help researchers, authors, and students.” The rare books mentioned include Tipu Sultan’s letters to friends, books on Islamic medicine by MuyeddinFarooki, Dewan-e-Nazeeri by Nazeeri Nishanpuri (Persian), Jamaul Tazirajby Hafez Ahmed bin Mohd. Maghrabi (claimed to be written in 1235), a medical book by the name ‘Tib-e-Akbari,’ Urdu translations of Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Bible.
The Muslim Library has more than 25,000 books, of which English, Arabic, and Persian sections have 2,000books each. The Library is housed in a three-floor building, and the first floor has a Reading Room. During my visit to the Library, I was surprised to see a large number of persons reading newspapers and magazines here despite the fact that we are in an era of diminishing interest in newspapers and magazines. Dignitaries who have visited the Library and have written their comments in the Visit Book include Sir Mohammed Iqbal (1929), Moulana Shoukath Ali (of Ali brothers), Baba-e-Urdu Moulvi Abdul Haq, Josh Malihabadi, Saghar Nizami, Allama Seemab Akbar Aabadi and Jigar Muradabadi among others.
The Road Ahead
The previous Secretary of the Library, Mr. Afzal Baig, had made huge efforts in updating the Catalogue of books and giving much publicity about the Library, which led to an increase in the membership. Muslim Library has to adopt technological advances without losing its identity. They should have a website and make the Catalogue of books online to facilitate easy searching of books from anywhere. They should install Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC) software which enables librarians to catalog different genres of books and maintain its database online. It allows users to search books on parameters such as title, author’s name, volume, and keywords with mere clicks. Library Management System Software is another useful tool for modernizing the Library. Most importantly, the Muslim Library should digitize rare books to preserve them for posterity.