Citation for Libraries

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"Libraries." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Jan 27, 2022. <>.


"Libraries." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Jan 27, 2022).


Islam has a rich literary tradition. Beginning with the command to “Read!” in the Qur'an, Muslims are encouraged to always strive for improvement, and Allah tells them that the best way to improve is through the acquisition of knowledge. During the Middle Ages, the Muslim world housed many of the world's largest collections and served as a storehouse of knowledge from ancient Greece and Rome. In modern times, however, Islamic libraries and library practices have fallen far behind those of the West.

Early Muslim Libraries.

The practice of storing written materials in the Islamic world began with donations by individuals of Qur'anic manuscripts to mosques. The first mosque collections appeared during the Umayyad dynasty ( 661 – 750 ).

The second Abbasid caliph, Abu Jafar al-Mansur , established a translation bureau in Baghdad (in the late 700s) that became the leading library of the day. In addition to translating texts from other cultures, it became a clearinghouse for the learning of the Islamic world. Other rulers of the period established similar centers. It is estimated that the caliph's library in Córdoba, Spain, held some 400,000 books. The rise of the madrasah (institute of higher learning) brought with it the development of academic libraries.

The large-scale production and acquisition of books by libraries became possible when paper became more widely available. Invented in China around 105 C.E. , paper eventually replaced parchment and reached the Muslim world in the mid-700s. The production and distribution of books led to the increased importance of the professional warraq—a paper dealer, copyist, and bookseller—who was sometimes a scholar and author in his own right.

Ibn al-Nadim , a famous warraq, produced a landmark work in 987 . Titled al-Fihrist, this monumental work contained a description of every book al-Nadim had ever handled, seen, or otherwise knew of. It remains a significant source for the history of the literary culture of that era.

Muslim Libraries Decline.

Over time, the great library collections of the Islamic world were dispersed through lack of care or by becoming part of another collection. Books were lost in fires and floods and by natural decay. There was also the deliberate destruction of volumes by the Mongol invaders (in the 1200s) and the Spanish Inquisitors (after the Reconquest of Spain, completed in 1492 ). Furthermore, during the period of European colonialism, thousands of Islamic manuscripts were removed to libraries and private collections in the West.

The books and manuscripts that remained in the Islamic world were generally poorly organized, making it difficult to find information. Traditional methods for the care and cataloging of books had become outdated. Colonial powers had set up and maintained modern libraries in Muslim countries. Even after independence, European professionals continued to dominate librarianship in the former colonies.

Modern Library Issues.

In recent years, library education has progressed in Islamic countries, enabling Muslim librarians to assume leadership. Pakistan and Egypt are notable for their library studies programs and for sending trained Muslim librarians to teach others in the Gulf region. There is, however, no single accepted classification or cataloging system to bring standardization to Muslim libraries. Some Muslim countries use a modified version of the Dewey Decimal Classification, while others use the Library of Congress Classification. Many Muslim librarians have proposed various Islamic classification schemes, but none has proved suitable for general use.

Despite the importance of literacy in the Islamic world, public libraries are not a high priority for many Muslim countries. While some countries have a national library in their capital, it often serves as the main public library, as well. Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, and Malaysia have founded public libraries, and Lahore and Kuala Lumpur opened public libraries especially for children.

Automation, networking, and freedom of access to information are some of the most significant issues currently facing public libraries in the Islamic world. Several groups have formed to address these issues, but progress has been slow. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states have created an online database, called GULFNET, to make information more widely available to Muslim libraries. See also Arabic Language and Literature.

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