By Aijaz Zaka Syed
2 June, 2016
Nothing beats the simple pleasure that a pile of good books promises. A Pakistani friend, who spent some years in the Middle East before happily settling down in the great, green expanses of Canada, shares my weakness for books.
We often exchange notes about our latest acquisitions and what we are currently reading. Middle Eastern history, with all its intricacies, high-stake power games and fascinating civilisational encounters, remains our chief area of interest.
Having explored nearly all popular libraries in his adopted country and having tempted me with some of its tantalising treasures, my friend has concluded that the Gulf is not the best place for a book lover: “There are no good libraries!”
“Tell me about it!” I said with feeling.
However, I hastened to add; of late efforts are being made to improve the situation. The UAE, for instance, has declared 2016 the Year of Reading. Sharjah, celebrated as a cultural capital of the Arab world, has for years been quietly trying to inculcate reading and a love of books among Emirati residents from an early age.
Led by its benign scholar ruler, a double PhD-holder from the UK, the emirate has come up with initiatives like Knowledge Without Borders, which includes gifting a small library of 50 books to each family in the emirate, and setting up libraries and reading clubs in every neighbourhood.
Home to the region’s oldest and largest annual book fair, Sharjah is also planning to publish 1,001 Arabic books over the next two years as part of the UAE’s celebration of 2016 as the Year of Reading.
These are of course baby steps in the history of a young nation that is just 44 years old. But as the Chinese would say, journey of a thousand miles begins with one bold step.
“Yes, it will be another thousand years before the Arab world catches up with North America or the rest of the West,” said my friend.
“Don’t be so sure! Don’t forget your hosts reached this exalted state of being not long ago. Where was America or Europe, for that matter, a thousand years ago?”
At the height of the Islamic civilisation, when Baghdad and Muslim Spain were attracting seekers of knowledge from far corners of the world, the Europeans were still living in the Dark Ages.
The Western Renaissance owes a great deal to the Islamic civilisation and its scientific and medical discoveries, not to mention the whole new world that opened before them in the form of ancient Greek philosophy thanks to the translations done by Muslim scholars. Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the European Renaissance, Muslim civilisation led the world in knowledge and virtually everything else.
Beit Al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad was perhaps the world’s first laboratory of ideas. Founded by Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, it reached its heights under his son, Al-Mamun. Beit Al-Hikma brought together well-known scholars, scientists and intellectuals and encouraged them to debate and exchange ideas, and to share their knowledge by writing it down.
For nearly 500 years, from the 9th to 13th century, Beit Al-Hikma led the movement of knowledge and scientific inquiry in the known world, with top scholars from around the world, including Jews and Christians, rubbing shoulders here. Besides translating eminent texts and books from around the world into Arabic, scholars associated with the House of Wisdom also made original contributions to diverse fields.
During Al-Mamun’s reign, astronomical observatories were set up, and Baghdad was an unrivalled centre for the study of the humanities and science, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, zoology, and geography and cartography.
Drawing on ancient Greek, Indian and Persian texts, the scholars accumulated a great collection of world knowledge, and built on it with their own discoveries. By the mid-9th century, Beit Al-Hikma had the largest selection of books in the world.
All this was destroyed in 1258 when the Mongols sacked Baghdad. It’s said that when the invading hordes ransacked the great city — the fabled centre of learning and epitome of the Islamic civilisation — the city’s rivers turned dark. The heaps of smouldering books, thrown into the river by the marauding hordes, turned the waters of the Tigris black. The Mongols saw civilisation and all its gifts as an abomination.
Another legendary library that the region once hosted was in Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great after his conquest of Egypt in 332 BC. The great Library of Alexandria, founded by the emperor himself, was lost in similarly tragic circumstances.
For centuries, the Library of Alexandria remained one of the largest and most influential ever in the world, attracting great thinkers, scientists, mathematicians, poets and philosophers of the age. It had as many as 700,000 rare scrolls on its shelves. The library was forever lost to history in a mysterious tragedy. Scholars are still not sure how.
According to Roman writers, the great library was accidentally destroyed in a massive fire during the siege of Alexandria by Julius Caesar in 48 BC. Other accounts blame the early Christians and even Muslims armies for the destruction of the library. However, the Muslims did not have a history of burning books or destroying libraries, at least not until the whackos of the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) group came along.
Knowledge, said the Prophet of Islam, is the lost heritage of Muslims and they should acquire it wherever they see it. Indeed, contrary to the reigning perceptions and received wisdom, Muslim scholars travelled long distances in search of knowledge and cherished it wherever they found it.
How do we compare this proud legacy and historical love of knowledge with our current predicament and hopeless state of indifference? Why do so few of us in this part of the world buy books and fewer still read them? Why is knowledge such a cheap commodity? Everyone appears to be either lost in his or her Smartphone or is preoccupied with other equally rewarding pleasures.
Travelling inside Europe, it’s endlessly fascinating to see everyone, both young and old, armed with books. Even cabbies are seen whiling away their time with their favourite paperback or newspaper.
Why are we different? What went wrong? When exactly did we stop reading? Whatever happened to our basic human curiosity to learn about new things and discover the new worlds of ideas that all good books promise? This is all the more bewildering considering the importance that the pursuit of knowledge enjoys in our faith and culture. The very first revealed word of the Qur’an ordained: “Read!”
In a piece published nearly a decade ago, I asked why there are so few libraries in the Gulf, lamenting how few people in the region read or spent time and money on books. For someone coming from India, where even small towns are endowed with good libraries, this was intriguing.
Little has changed since. Indeed, it’s even worse now, what with the latest Smartphones and tablets providing us with greater avenues for doing nothing. Newspapers in this part of the world have to bribe their readers with expensive gifts worth more than their annual subscriptions to encourage people to read them.
Will this ever change? It must, unless we want to see our future generations turn into unthinking automatons. Governments, media and civil society have to put their collective minds together to see what can be done to change this state of affairs.
People who do not read lose the capacity to think for themselves. Knowledge is power.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based analyst.