al-Hafeez | The Preserver

Arab Influence on the Book and Libraries

Just as Christian monks labored to copy key religious works in monasteries all over Western Europe, so too did numerous Arab scribes work to create books for the voracious Arab demand for them. As noted earlier, books were the primary means through which knowledge was acquired and transmitted in the Arab world and book publishing and collecting was a mark of the culture. Scribes must have made millions of copies of books.

Early in their expansion, the Arabs learned papermaking from the Chinese. When they took Samarkand (in present day Uzbekistan) in 712, they learned from the Chinese the technique of beating flax and other fibrous plants into a pulp, and drying the pulp in thin sheets. The first Arab papermaking plant opened at Baghdad in 794 during the rule of Harun ar-Rashid. Later, the Arabs took the craft to Sicily and Spain. Paper was in use in Egypt by 800, in Spain by 950, and in Sicily by 1102. [Durant, 1950]

While the leaders in Baghdad sponsored translation and publication of scholarly works, the scribes continued to make copies at what must have been a high rate because libraries early became a part of Arab civic life. According to Durant, “most mosques had libraries, and some cities had public libraries of considerable content and generous accessibility.” In Iraq, Mosul in the north and Basra in the south both had libraries in the 10th century and Basra’s library provided stipends to scholars who used it. The Arab geographer Yaqut collected the data for his geographical dictionary (which included the travels of Ahmad ibn Fadlan) during a three-year period of research through libraries in what is now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In Cairo, the caliphal library that grew from 100,000 to 200,000 volumes in the years 990 to 1094 lent out manuscripts without charge to students. There were about 70 libraries in Arab Spain, and al-Hakam’s library at Cordova alone was said to have housed 400,000 titles, filling a 44-volume catalog. Additionally, the fashion of the rich to have an ample collection of books led to an uncountable number of private libraries. [Durant, 1950; Hitti, 1971]

With the invention of movable type in Western Europe, the work of the Arab scribes moved into Western libraries. Latin translations of the works of the philosopher al-Kindi were early put in print. His works were published, among other places, in Venice in 1507, in Strasburg in 1531, and in Nuremberg in 1548. The first book printed in England, The Dictes and Sayengis of thePhilosophres by William Claxton in 1477 was based on a collection of aphorisms and sayings from several Arab philosophers. [Hitti, 1971]

But much of this came to an end in the 13th century. Mongol invaders laid waste to everything in their path as they moved eastwards. At the time of its destruction in 1258, Baghdad had 36 public libraries. The Mongol destroyers were too thorough in the East, but the Arabs had by then placed enough copies of their works in libraries in Egypt, Sicily, and Spain, that the work of the early translators and scribes were still available for the later translators, scribes, and, even later, printers.

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