Library culture in the Islamic Golden Age - II

Parvez Mahmood on the storage and transfer of knowledge in medieval Muslim societies

Library culture in the Islamic Golden Age - II
Zakaria Virk mentions in his Libraries of the Muslim World (859-2000) that Caliph Muawiya b. Abu Sufyan had gathered a large collection of books in Damascus and called the place Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom). Books written in Greek, Latin and Persian in the fields of medicine, alchemy, astrology etc were collected and translated at that time.

Later, during the Abbasid Caliphate, the most important library of the Muslim world was established in Baghdad and, of course, called the House of Wisdom. It was turned into an Academy by Caliph Mamun when it became a centre of the ‘translation movement’ – where Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit and Syriac books were rendered into the Arabic language. The place was also called ‘Khizanat Kutub al-Hikma’ – in essence a library. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1258.

The Fatimid Caliphs who ruled Egypt and large swathes of North Africa (10th to 12th centuries) wanted to rival the Abbasids in elegance. They built a colossal palace and a mosque in Cairo. This mosque became the second most important centre of learning, known as al-Azhar. It was fitted out as a large library and called Dar-al-Ilm (House of Knowledge). Al-Musabbihi (d. 1030), a contemporary writer, wrote that Caliph Al-Hikm endowed the library with books on a large range of subjects, and paid for the teaching scholars, support staff and furnishings. The institution was open to all. A catalogue prepared in 1045 listed 6,500 volumes on astronomy, architecture and philosophy. The royal palace had a separate library. Unfortunately, the libraries were looted during the civil wars in 1068 and were closed in 1171 when Salah al-Din sold the palace treasures. Later, al-Baysani (d. 1200) collected many thousands of books for his madrassah al-Fadiliyya in Cairo. Another theologian al-Qazwini (d. 1095) had a collection of 40,000 books, some of which were purchased from people who had plundered the Cairo palace during periods of civil unrest and warfare.

From an Arabic manuscript of 'De materia medica' by Dioscorides, 1229 AD

The third great public library was created at Cordoba on the model of the Abbasid libraries of Baghdad. It was a huge library, purportedly with some 400,000 volumes and a catalogue in 44 registers of 20 sheets each. This number could have included separate installments or chapters of the compiled books – all hand written of course. The library was destroyed in the civil wars of the early 11th century.

The enlightened functions of Baghdad’s library eroded during Caliph al-Mutawakkil’s obscurantist reign to appease the puritan Hanbali clergy. Cordoba’s library, too, was closed to placate the Maliki clergy.

Clergy, unfortunately, has been, and continues to be, a constant impediment in the path of scholarship in the Muslim world.

Omar Khayyám's 'Cubic equations and intersections of conic sections' - from a manuscript kept at Tehran University, Iran

Apart from these great libraries, there were other smaller libraries in many towns of the Caliphates. One of the surviving catalogues, according to J.W. Meri, in his Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopedia belonged to the personal library of Ibn Tawus (d. 1266) in Baghdad and lists 1,500 books. The earliest recorded catalogue of a public library, dated 1294, is of the library of Qayrawan mosque in Tunis. Another manuscript entitled The Selection of Books in the Libraries of Aleppo indicates a rich educational heritage in the town.

Historian al-Ni’ma b. Hilala of the scholarly al-Sabi family collected a small library of 1,000 volumes and granted access to some students. Meri also notes that the scholars travelling in quest of knowledge had the opportunity of visiting many libraries as Avicenna (d. 1037) did. Having seeing the library of Samanid King Nuh b. Mansur in Bokhara, Avicenna wrote, “I found many rooms filled with books with [...] one room allotted to each science.” He found some rare books including a few of Greek origin. He visited libraries in Khwarizm, Hamadan and Isfahan.

The Buyids (945-1055) were a relatively progressive Persian dynasty who took a great interest in books. Rukn al-Dawla of Rayy (modern Tehran) had a large library. Al-Sahib ibn Abbad (d.995) also had a library in Rayy that reportedly, perhaps in exaggeration, had over 200,000 books. When Mahmud of Ghazni, a staunch Sunni, invaded Rayy in 1029, he had some of these books burnt, and some scholars killed, for being “heretical” Shi’ite, and sent the rest to Ghazni. A Buyid vizier founded an Abode of Knowledge in Baghdad with 10,000 books. The library was destroyed during Tughral Beg’s march on Baghdad in 1059. It is no wonder then that Rayy and Baghdad produced a large number of scholars. Bahram b. Mafanna, a vizier of the Buyids, established a library at Firuzabad in Fars with 7,000 books of which 4,000 were in the handwriting of two Ibn Muqla brothers. A son of a Buyid caliph had a library of 15,000 books in Basra.

According to Meri, almost every madrassah in Baghdad had a library of its own. The ones attached to the renowned Nizamiyya and Mustansiriyya colleges were remarkable for their size. When al-Waqidi the historian died in 822, he left behind six hundred book cases and that explains his remarkably detailed history of the Muslim conquest of Syria. Two contemporary theologians, Imam ibn-Hanbal (d.855) and Yahya b. Ma’in (d.847), each had thousands of books on religion. A Zaydi scholar is supposed to have paid 100 dinars, a fortune in the mid-10th century, to have his books moved. The mosque of Imam Abu Hanifa, too, had a large library in Baghdad.

During the Golden Age of Islamic intellect, there was a rich culture of books and libraries, which nourished research and scholarship, producing a large number of scientists, medics, philosophers and historians. There are now large collections of Arabic manuscripts at Berlin, Dublin, Leiden, Escorial, London, Oxford, Paris and in various museums and institutes in the US.

It is, therefore, tragic that the Muslim world has largely lost interest in reading and writing. The current centers of learning are in the Western and the Far Eastern nations. Even India now produces a prodigious number of writers and copious amount of books; a fact that is reflected in its economic and technological power.

If the Muslim world has to regain its lost glory, it has to develop a culture of reading and writing.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: