When Standard Bearers (SB), Ile-Ife decided to launch The Iqraa Challenge, they had no doubts in their mind the importance of the project they had at hand.
The reason behind the stagnancy in today’s Muslim world is the fault of no one but Muslims themselves who have abandoned the true reading of the Qur’an, which strongly emphasises the importance of knowledge.
An imperative verb “read”, was the first word revealed in the Qur’an and is repeated twice in the initial few verses of Surah Alaq (Q. 96). Considering that the Qur’an is the last and final revelation to humankind, the first command points to the centrality of reading as a foundation and the path to approaching, connecting, knowing and understanding the divine and conquering the world.
Reading is the key to knowledge acquisition and expanding one’s own understanding of God and creation. It is not a coincidence that the word “Qur’an” is derived from the same root word that means “to read, repeat or recite.” Consequently, the act of reading is itself an act of worship within a correct Islamic understanding.
“The Book” is also one of the other names for the Qur’an, which, if understood in relations to the first revelation, the imperative verb “read” should produce the key epistemological base for Islam and Muslims – a divinely rooted command for the acquisition, preservation and transmission of all knowledge.
The book is the source, a primary locus for preservation of knowledge and a tool for constant expansion of human horizons that can materialize through engagement in the act of reading. Our main contention in SB, is that reading has become a lost art among the overwhelming majority of Muslims and companionship with books in all their varieties is a dying enterprise. Indeed, a very small number of readers remain engaged across the Muslim world.
Throughout the ages, Islamic civilization has honored and elevated books and reading to an extent that its ingenuity, maybe argued, to be found in the systematization of public access to education that was connected to text and book production.
In “Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam,” Franz Ronsenthal concluded, the “concept of knowledge achieved its unique triumph in Islam.”
Importantly, the triumph in the past was measured in and achieved its heights through, devouring books and attainment of understanding of diverse texts, including those materials that diametrically disagreed with it and contradicted Islamic beliefs and ideas.
INTERNET AGE, KILOBYTE GENERATION AND READING
The internet generation no doubt can’t appreciate our nostalgia for return to the books. They have a whole library stuck inside a microship! While these technologies opened new horizons in knowledge acquisition, it brought a commensurate decline in interest in reading for expansion of knowledge. There seems to be so much distraction accompanying this new approach to knowledge. Social media activities, games, entertainment and unfortunately negative use such as pornography engages the youths of today more on the internet than for core academic or religious knowledge acquisition that the internet affords.
However, we do not lay blame on the emergence of the internet and modern modes of communication and the focus on short and abbreviated language usage, which is valid to an extent, but the problem is much deeper and predates the internet age. The disconnect and leaving behind reading and books altogether, occurred at a much earlier period and can be traced to the middle of the 18th century, if not earlier and continues to the present. The causes for this are varied but include internal corruption, loss of focus of the scholars on polemics and secondary issues, heavy focus of rulers, if not exclusive interest in military and technical knowledge, reduction in funding, the collapse of “waqaf” (religious endowment) institutions that supported and were the backbones of the intellectual enterprise in Islamic societies and relegating scholars, educators and scholarship to the margins of the society. The issue of religious endowment is important since the central state confiscation of the assets and incorporating the endowment institutions into state apparatuses was initially carried out to regulate existing structures, but became an avenue to lay claim to vast surpluses so as to pilfer declining state revenues and fund the corruption of those in power. Reading is a prerequisite for society’s progress and development while not reading leads to the opposite. The critical point to make is that Muslims today have collectively abandoned reading as an enterprise. All types of knowledge have been reduced to sound bites recorded on DVDs, live streaming and YouTube lectures. It is as if our civilization has been relegated to a series of likes and shares online that are not tethered to books or systematic knowledge building blocks.
One can appreciate the value of such materials for raising awareness and drawing people’s attention to critical issues affecting society, but this is not a substitute to reading and having a book culture as the epistemological base of society. General reading outside of one’s own specialization is almost nonexistent. The lack of a contemporary book culture in the Muslim world points to the major crisis at hand and the setting in of structural ignorance, which must be reversed.
WE HAD A HERITAGE OF LIBRARIES AND BOOKS
Muslims who distinguished themselves as patrons of learning, established some of the biggest libraries of medieval times. The great intellectuals of their age including Ibn Rushid (Avicenna) the encyclopedist, Ibn Miskawayah, the historian-philosopher, Al-Fadl Ibn Naubakht and Humayun Ibn Ishaq, the renowned translators, who were entrusted with the responsibility of the organisation and maintenance of libraries.
Under the Abbasids, Muslims formed the vanguard of civilization. The Abbasids were influenced by the Qur’an and Hadith such as, “seeking of knowledge is compulsory for believers, stressing the value of knowledge. During this period, the Muslim world became the unrivalled intellectual centre for science, philosophy, medicine, and education as the Abbasids championed the cause of knowledge and established Darul Hukama (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad, founded by great Abbasid Caliph 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 housing a big library (Gregorian, 2003a). During this time every part of the globe was ransacked by the agents of the caliphs for the hoarded wealth of antiquity. Yahya Barmeki, the famous grand Minister of Harun, had summoned well-known scholars from distant lands, who adorned the literary gatherings of the Caliph. Harun-ar-Rashid appointed Al-Fadl Ibn Naubakht, a renowned scholar and translator, as head of the library in Darul Hukama. The library contained a large number of books which were efficiently arranged and catalogued (Gregorian, 2003b)
Mackensen and Pinto (1929) have written extensively on Islamic libraries of the middle ages, highlighting their place and role in the Islamic society. So widespread were public book collections that it was impossible to find a mosque or a learning institute of any sort, throughout the land of Islam, without a collection of books placed at the disposal of students or readers.
By the 10th century, Cordoba had 70 libraries, the largest of which had 600,000 books, while as many as 60,000 treatises, poems, polemics and compilations were published each year in Al-Andalus (Dato, 2005). The library of Cairo had more than 100,000 books, while the library of Tripoli is said to have had as many as three million books, before it was burnt during the crusades (Draper, 1878). The number of important and original Arabic works on science that have survived is much larger than the combined total of Greek and Latin works on science (Swerdlow, 1993)
THE FIRST UNIVERSITY IN THE WORLD IS OURS: SO WHAT WENT WRONG?
UNESCO and the Guinness World Records recognize Al-Qarawiyyin University (also written as Al-Karaouine) as the “oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world.”
Founded in 859 A.D. by Tunisian-born Fatima Al-Fihri in Morocco’s Fez, the university is not only the oldest higher education institution on earth but also the first to be founded by a woman, and a Muslim one at that. Fatima used her inheritance from her merchant father’s wealth to found the university which started as an associated school – known as a madrasa – and a mosque that eventually grew into a place of higher education. It also introduced the system of awarding degrees according to different levels of study in a range of fields, such as religious studies, grammar and rhetoric. Though the university first focused on religious instruction, its fields of study quickly expanded to include logic, medicine, mathematics and astronomy, among many others.
This led to Al-Qarawiyyin University having several libraries in its main and side buildings, housing countless influential works of its era. The historical library is open to the public to this day and shows Al-Fihri’s original diploma, which was chiseled onto a wooden board back in the day.
The library currently hosts more than 4,000 valuable manuscripts in a range of fields, including historic copies of Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an. Some of these precious texts include the 14th-century work of “Al-Muqaddimah” and an original copy of “Al-‘Ibar” by the famous Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, a pioneer in sociology. Other pieces such as the famous “Al-Muwatta” – the earliest collection of hadith texts (Prophet Muhammad’s sayings) gathered by Malik, considered to be one of the first legal texts to incorporate both hadiths and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).
So, where could we have gotten it wrong? A humongous heritage of reading and scholarship deserves to be revived. There is no better time than now and no better population that should be sensitized than the youths. We know how little this might be but we are encouraged that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a step. We have taken that step!
WHERE LIES THE SOLUTIONS?
Remedying this problem requires enlightened leadership, multi-year and multi-prong plans and resources to reverse this trend. It can begin by launching reading competitions like the Iqraa Challenge as championed by the Standard Bearers Islamic Organization for the youths. Reading clubs hosted and overseen by private individuals and Muslim Organizations. Investment in book publication and authors while creating a network of book festivals that can celebrate the human genius centered on books. More critically, rethinking education institutions altogether so as to center on reading books and achieving understanding, rather than the current sole focus on degrees and grades for employment purposes. “Iqraa”, “Read” is a command for lifelong learning and establishing a book-reading culture anew in the Muslim world.
YOU CAN SUPPORT US: WE DESIRE TO HAVE A LIBRARY
We desire to have a compact library where young minds can broaden their horizons and see the world beyond the click of a touch pad. We can be reached via email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will appreciate your kind donations to
Standard Bearers Project Account | 1014987008 | Zenith Bank.
Adapted from an original article: Books and reading in the Muslim world: A serious crisis, by Hatem Bazian
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