The beginning of July saw the reopening of one of the world’s oldest libraries – the al-Qarawiyyin university library, located in Fez, Morocco.
This famous university – founded in the 9th century – recently underwent refurbishment and has now once again opened its doors to the public. The renovation has brought to light the unique and distinctive achievements of the library, which has recently caught the attention of the public.
But the concept of grand libraries, filled with precious manuscripts, scrolls and the works of many famous theologians and scholars is one that has long been synonymous with Islam. Libraries in Muslim lands – particularly during the ‘Golden Age’ – were once the envy of the world, and to this day, are associated with the place of Islam in history.
However, despite this rich legacy, very little is really known about Muslim libraries in the present day.
Bearing this in mind, below we have compiled a list (not exhaustive!) of some sterling Islamic libraries, which deserve to be remembered for their luminous legacy around the world.
(In no particular order…)
- Al-Qarawiyyin library – Fez, Morocco
Al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859 AD, suggesting it has existed for over a millennium! This makes it one of the world’s oldest libraries.
The library was established by a woman by the name of Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant – and she actually attended the university herself.
Al-Qarawiyyin is part of one of the world’s oldest operating universities, and was the first degree-granting educational institute. It has approximately 4000 rare books and Arabic manuscripts, including Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah and a 9th century Qur’an written in Kufic calligraphy.
The revamp includes a new area in the library for members of the general public to visit, making it an unmissable stop on your next trip to Morocco!
- Alexandria library – Alexandria, Egypt
Possibly the most famous of them all, the library of Alexandria was popularly recognised as a centre for learning in the ancient world. It is believed to have contained a staggering 500,000 documents in its prime. Soaring at its highest when Egypt was under Muslim rule, the Alexandria university was a major centre for knowledge and was also part of a research institute.
Sadly, this ancient library no longer exists, with the exact cause for its destruction remaining a mystery.
- Library of al-Hakam – Cordoba, Spain
The grand library of al-Hakam was located in Cordoba, Spain. Cordoba was the capital of al-Andalus – a famous centre of Islam during the ‘Golden Age’ (7th-13th century). Understood to have housed over 400,000 books, the pursuit of knowledge was taken very seriously in al-Hakam library. The fields of medicine, mathematics, astronomy and botany were in particular focus, and knowledge was regularly exchanged and expanded through contact with other Muslim cities like Baghdad.
Cordoba was central to the success of Islam during the ‘Golden Era’. The spread of knowledge though al-Hakam library meant Cordoba led the way to enlightenment for the rest of Europe.
- Bait al-Hikmah, House of Wisdom – Baghdad, Iraq
Founded in 830 CE, Bait al-Hikmah consisted of a library, research institute and translation bureau. It was an institute famous for research and education, attracting various well-known scholars who came to share their culture and ideas. During this period, Baghdad was at its most successful financially and intellectually, and the House of Wisdom played a chief role in this.
Bait al-Hikmah contained thousands of Greek and Roman manuscripts, and scholars were specifically employed to translate foreign works into Arabic. The primary focus was on translating works from the Greek literary canon, including Aristotle, Ptolemy and Plato, into Arabic. Al-Kindi – the famous Muslim Arab philosopher – wrote a large number of books for the library.
Rumour has it that when the books of Bait al-Hikmah were destroyed in the Tigris River during the Mongol invasion, the water ran pitch black due to the excessive ink that had run from the scrolls.
- Sufiya mosque library – Aleppo, Syria
The Sufiya library, located in the Grand Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, was one of the oldest mosque libraries. Prince Sayf al-Daula – a local prince – bequeathed a magnificent 10,000 books to the library himself! Great pride was taken in maintaining the library, so much so that only the best scholars were employed as librarians.
From the Zaytuna in Tunis to the famous al-Azhar in Cairo, the number of libraries in the Muslim world has been – and is – widespread. Many a library that was once shining with the light of knowledge has been forgotten under the shadow of time, and for many libraries, there are not many reliable historical facts readily available.
One of the unique factors that allowed Muslim lands to soar to such an intellectual height was the use of paper. Paper was invented in China in the first century, but the western world did not access it until long after the Muslims. Muslim merchants were one of the first to gain access to paper, allowing them to record, copy and spread knowledge. This put them far in front of everybody else.
It is clear to see the central role that Islamic libraries played in the development and spread of knowledge around the world. At a time when the rest of the world was still taking baby steps, the knowledge spread in Muslim lands was increasing in leaps and bounds, light years ahead of everyone else.