The human tendency of preserving the records of their achievements in various fields of life is very primitive and dates back to the beginning of civilization. Before the invention of paper, such records were laid down on stone slabs, clay tablets, parchments, leather and pieces of wood. The temples and State archives of Assyria and Babylon contained clay tablet libraries. The first library in Greece owes its existence to Pesistratus, who established it in Athens in 600 B.C. The largest library, before the advent of Islam was founded by Ptolemy in 287–84 B.C. at Alexandria, which is alleged to contain about a quarter of million books.
The birth of Islam provided great impetus to human pursuits of knowledge. The necessity of preserving the Quran and the Traditions (Hadith) awakened the spirit of collecting such writings in various forms, which paved the way for the establishment of the earliest libraries in the world Of Islam. The mosques which, during the early decades of Islam formed the nerve centres of all political, religious and educational activities, housed valuable libraries comprising books on religion, philosophy and science.
Soon, however, Muslims who distinguished themselves as the greatest patrons of learning, established during the days of their glory some of the biggest libraries of mediaeval times. The great intellectuals of their age including Avicenna the encyclopaedist, Ibn Miskawayh the historian-philosopher, Al-Fadl-Ibn Naubakht and Humayun Ibn Ishaq the renowned translator were entrusted with the responsibility for the organisation and maintenance of libraries. The Caliphate Raashidah and that of the Omayyads were the periods of conquests, consolidation and organisation,
Under Mamun, the Muslims formed the vanguard of civilization. During the time of the early Abbasid caliphs, every part of the globe was ransacked by the agents of the caliphs for the hoarded wealth of antiquity. Mansur was the first Abbasid caliph who took an active interest in the pursuits and propagation of learning.
He founded a translation department in which classical and scientific works were translated from various languages into Arabic. The philosophical, mathematical and scientific works of Greek masters, which otherwise would have remained buried in the dark recess of the Greek Imperial Palaces, were brought within reach of the common man bv translating them into Arabic.
According to the celebrated Urdu historian Maulana Shibli Nomani, the Darul Hukama (House of Wisdom) founded by Harun-ar-Rashid which was divided into two sections one was concerned with the translation work and the other related to the collection of books and housed a big library. Yahya Barmeki, the famous grand vazier of Harun had summoned well-known scholars from ditsant lands, who adorned the literary gatherings of the great Caliph.
Harun-ar-Rashid who had founded a big library at Baghdad had appointed Al-Fadl Ibn Naubakht, a renowned scholar and translator, as head of his library, The library contained a large number of books, which were efficiently arranged and catalogued. Harun had a good taste for books and even carried large number of books on his military and other expeditions. Once, when he had gone to Riqqah, he took eight boxes of books with him. His pleasure resort built on the bank of the Qatul canal, had a library containing about 1,060 books.
The reign of Mamun-ar-Rashid, known as the Augustus of the Arabs. formed the most glorious period in the field of intellectual achievements of the Muslims. He was the moving spirit behind the House of Wisdom, which employed the best brains of the age and acquired astounding success is a short span of 20 years. The library attached to the House of Wisdom was immensely enlarged and was managed by Sahl bin Harun and Saeed bin Harun, the Persians. A large collection of books of the pre-Islamic- era were added to the library.
The well-known book binder Ibn Abi-ul-Huraish was employed in the library for binding work. Humayun Ibn Ishaq, the chief of the translation department was also made the librarian of this famous library. Among the rare manuscripts preserved in the library were a document written on parchment by Abdul Mutallib bin Hashim (grand-father of the Prophet) and a few writings of Hazrat Ali and Imam Hasan.
The interest taken by the Caliph in the accumulation of literary treasures created a taste for books not only in his associates but also among the common man. A number of ministers, officials and wealthy people established big libraries by spending large sums. Yahya Barmeki, grand vazier of Harun, owned a big library which contained a large collection of Persian and Greek manuscripts.
Three copies of each book were kept in his library, which after the downfall of Barmekids were added to the Imperial library of Mamun. Fateh bin Khakan, the vazier of Mutawakkil Billah founded a grand library which contained rare books on astronomy. Muhammad bin Abdul Malik Ziyat, Prime Minister of Caliph Wasiq Billah established a private library on which he spent ten thousand rupees.
A big library was owned by Allama al-Waqidi, which was alleged to have contained 600 camel loads of books mainly on historical subjects. The libraries gained so much popularity that by the close of the 11th century A. D. there existed a network of libraries throughout the vast Abbasid Empire, and before the Mongol invasion, Baghdad alone had 36 big libraries.
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The first public library in Baghdad was opened by Sabur bin Ardeshair, the Prime Minister of the Buwayhid monarch Bahal al-Daulah. This was attached to the academy built by him in Baghdad in 991 A.D. Before the establishment of this library, all libraries were privately owned, and not open to the common man. This library of Sabur contained more than ten thousand books. This led to the opening of private libraries in the big cities of the Muslim countries including Baghdad, Cairo, Merv, Mosul and Tripolis.- The big colleges and universities of Baghdad, Neshapur, Merv, Cairo, Damascus, Isfahan and G-hazni including the world famous Nizamiyah and Mustansariya of Baghdad housed’ splendid libraries. The principal mosques of the big cities-of the world of Islam, which served as teaching institutions, also had sections of libraries attached to them.
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The Rise of Cairo under al-Muiz-li-dinillah added a spirit of rivalry in the patronage of learning between the caliphs of the Houses of Abbas and Fatimah. Al-Muiz has been acclaimed as the Mamun of the west and the Maecenas of Muslim Africa. The Fatimid caliphs Aziz and Hakim Billah were also great patrons of learning. Aziz has the distinction of adding an academy of higher education to the famous Al-Azhar mosque which housed a big library containing valuable books on Muslim theology, jurisprudence and philosophy. Caliph Aziz is also credited with founding an imperial library, one of the biggest libraries ever opened in the world of Islam. Allama Maqrizi has given its details in his well-known work Kitab Al-Khatat-wal-Aasar.
This library was housed in a part of the Imperial palace and comprised forty chambers. There has been difference of opinion among writers about the total number of books possessed by this library. According to the estimate of Ibn al-Tanvir it had 200,000 volumes, according to Ibn Ali Wasli it had 160,000 and according to Ibn Abi Tai it contained 600,000 volumes.
This famous library contained 18,000 books on ancient philosophy and 24,000 copies of Holy Quran. Once there was a reference of Kitabul Ain in the durbar of the Caliph Aziz, which was sent for from the library and the librarian presented 30 different copies of the required book. One of these copies was written in the hand of Khalil bin Ahmad Basri the author of the book, This library possessed a globe made by Ptolemy which was 2,250 years old and another globe made by Abul Hasan Sufi for Azud-al-Daulah which was purchased for 15 thousand rupees.
Among the rare manuscripts were specimens of the artistic writings of the renowned calligraphist Ibn Muqlah and an autographed copy of the history of Tabari. The Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim laid the foundation of Darul Ilum on the lines of Darul Hukama (House of Wisdom) of Mamun. It was rather a rival institution and was equipped with a splendid library on whose upkeep large sums were spent by its patron. Great scholars and scientists were attached to the library, which was open to the public. Students were encouraged in research work and special apartments were reserved for the purpose. They were supplied with stationery free of cost.
The Omayyad Caliphate of Spain attained a standard of civilization which was only rivalled by the Abbasids in the East. Their intellectual achievements reached its zenith in the reign of Al-Hakam, who himself being a renowned scholar patronised learning and granted munificent bounties to the scholars. He founded a library of first magnitude in his capital Cordova. According to Philip K, Hitti, “Al-Hakam was a bibliophile; his agents ransacked the book-shops of Alexandria, Damascus and Baghdad with a view to buying or copying manuscripts.
The books thus gathered are said to have numbered400,000, their titles filling a catalogue of 44 volumes, in each one of which 20 sheets were devoted to poetical works alone” Al-Hakam, himself being an outstanding scholar, personally used a large number of these books and wrote marginal notes on most of the manuscripts which made them very valuable to later scholars. The celebrated Caliph paid extraordinary prices for the rare manuscripts and according to Ibn Khaldun he purchased the first copy of Aghani, written by al-Isfahani for a thousand dinars (four thousand rupees).
According to Ibn al-Aabar, the poetical works of the library were catalogued in 880 pages. There were employed more than 5,000 calligraphists in the Royal library for copying the manuscripts. The books were most systematically arranged in the library. There were more than seventy libraries and one thousand institutions of higher education in Andalusia alone. Besides the Imperial and academic libraries there were libraries owned by scholars and nobles.
It had become fashionable to own a library and the celebrated historian al-Maqqari has related a humorous story from Allama Hizri who was in search of a book. He found the book at a shop, but he could not purchase it as the price offered by another bidder was exhorbitant and was much above the actual price. The Allama questioned the rival bidder if he was much interested in the book. The reply given will sound strange these days. He said that he was not literate, but he wanted to buy the book for his library which he had established.
In the beginning of the 17th century A.D. Sharif Zaidan, Sultan of Morocco, who had to leave his capital,sent his library on a ship which was not delivered at the proper place, and on its way to Marseilles, fell into the hands of Spanish pirates. The booty comprising about four thousand volumes were placed by the order of Philip III, the Spanish Monarch, in the Escurial library which made this library the richest in Arabic manuscripts in the West.
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The love for preserving and arranging books in the form of libraries had become universal in the vast Islamic domains. The possession of a good library was taken to be a great honour in those days.
Abu Masr Sahl bin Murzaban had spent his entire wealth on his library and had undertaken several trips to Baghdad to purchase books. One of the best libraries of the period was one owned by Muhammad bin Husain of Baghdad. Allama Ibn Nadim Baghdadi pays high tribute to the taste of its founder.
The library contained a copy of the Quran written by Khalid bin Ali Alhayaj, a companion of Hazrat Ali, besides the letters written by the Prophet and his family members. Aziz-al-Daulah (977–82 A.D.) a great monarch of Iran founded a splendid library named Khazinat-al-Kutub at Shiraz in which he endeavoured to place all books written since the birth of Islam till his own time. The library was specially known for its fine building and artistic equipments.
There were 360 rooms in the building and each subject was alloted a separate room with its own catalogue. The books were neatly arranged in almarahs and the library employed a large supervisory staff. Another library known as the Home of books was founded by Minister Fazl bin Amir at Rayy, near modern Teheran. It was supervised by the famous writer Ibn Miskawayh.
It contained 400 camel loads of books listed in a 10 volume catalogue and was frequently visited by the celebrated geographer Ibn Yaqut, who received great help from this library in compiling his world famous geographical enclyclopaedia. According toYaqut, Merv had ten big libraries, one which called Azizia had more than 12,000 books. Books were liberally issued to the readers and once Yaqut himself got 200 books issued in his name.
Mosques also functioned as repositories for books, says Philip K Hitti, Through gifts and bequests mosque libraries became specially rich in religious literature. The famous historian al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (1002-71A.D.) had willed his books as a waqf for Muslims, but those were placed in his friends home. Al-Mausil, before the middle of the 10th century had a library built by citizens in which paper was supplied to the student, who wanted to take notes from the books.
The Samanid King of Bukhara, Nub bin Mansur owned a magnificent library, which according to Ibn Khalikan possessed rare books on almost all subjects specially on philosophy. Ibn Sina(Avicenna), the re-known intellectual luminary of Islam was given access to this library as he had cured the king of a fatal disease. Later on, Avicenna was appointed its librarian and he was much indebted to this library for his encyclopaedic knowledge. The library was housed in a big building in which a room was allotted to each subject. The books were systematically arranged in boxes and shelves.
Saif-al-Daulah of Alleppo, the Hamadanid ruler had equal hold over the sword and the pen. He was a great patron of learning and had collected round him such intellectual giants as Abu Nasr Farabi, al Isfahani and Al-Mutanabbi. He ruled from 944 to 967 A.D. and founded a splendid library containing rare books on literature. The famous poet Muhammad bin Hashim and his brother were in charge of his library.
The great library of Tripolis (Syria) contained more than three million volumes, including 50,000 copies of the Holy Qur’an.
A number of special libraries had sprung up dealing with particular subjects. Cairo has the distinction of establishing the first hospital library containing a large number of books on medicine, which was attached to the hospital founded by Ibn Tulun. The Bimaristan, founded by the celebrated physician Zakariya.
According to Nasir-ud-din Toosi, Hulagu Khan established a big library at Maragha with the books looted from Islamic countries. The library contained more than 400,000 books.
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