There aren’t many public libraries in Dubai. Well, there are some, run by the Dubai government, but they aren’t most popular with the residents. You don’t see a fraction of the crowd that you come across in the emirate’s fabled malls. In our part of the world, you find more people obsessing about latest models of mobile phones, laptops, cameras, cars or that new tower of apartments coming up in the neighbourhood, rather than about books and authors.
On trips to Europe, one is endlessly amazed by this spectacle of people–young and old–immersed in their paperbacks or in those ubiquitous tabloids. Wherever you go you find people reading. Always. Even cabbies are lost in their copy of Sun or the Daily Mail as they wait for customers. This is a far cry from life in much of Muslim world today where the culture of reading is fast dying.
Our lack of interest in reading is symptomatic of the larger malaise that afflicts us as a people–our apathy to learning and a culture of knowledge and scientific inquiry. Our hunger of learning and zeal to explore new ideas and new frontiers of knowledge that once drove our ancestors has given way to a crass, disturbing intellectual listlessness.
Is it any wonder then we are so way behind the rest of the world? Not a single university from the Muslim world — home to 1.6 billion people, a quarter of the world’s total population — figures in the top 500 centres of learning. Even as the world progresses and conquers new frontiers of knowledge and ideas by the hour, the Muslims are yet to stir out of their slumber of centuries. This would have been understandable when most of the Muslim world had been under colonial occupation.
There was a real crunch of resources too. Today, however, it’s a vastly different world. Most Muslim countries are doing well economically thanks to their rich natural and financial resources. If petrodollars have transformed the once desolate landscape of the Middle East into the world’s most happening region, things haven’t been too bad for other Muslim countries like Turkey, Malaysia and even Pakistan. However, growing economic prosperity and development seem to have done little to whet the Muslim world’s appetite for knowledge and learning.
The Muslim world either pushes itself on this path to deal with the challenges ahead or commits a collective hara-kiri. After all, it was the Arabs and Muslims who had pioneered the knowledge revolution that changed the world. No history of Western progress will be complete without crediting the critical role Arab scientists and philosophers played in it. As William Dalrymple says: “So much that we today value — universities, paper, the book, printing — were transmitted from East to West via the Islamic world, in most cases entering western Europe in the Middle Ages via Islamic Spain. And where was the first law code drawn up? In Athens or London? Actually, no — it was the invention of Hammurabi, in ancient Iraq.”
There was a time when a burning hunger for knowledge and new ideas consumed the Muslim lands. Governments actively encouraged and supported the quest of knowledge and spirit of scientific inquiry. Muslim lands were home to scores of great universities and centres of learning long before Oxford and Cambridge came into being.
The Arabs made great strides in sciences like medicine, physics, chemistry, geography, astronomy and navigation which the Europeans later used to chart their own progress. The Arab contribution played a crucial role in Europe’s Industrial Revolution and the phenomenal progress the West has made since. Terms like alchemy, algebra, cipher and countless others derived from Arabic are a tribute to the imprint Muslims left on the world.
The House of Wisdom, or Dar al Hikmah, founded in Baghdad in AD 762 was at the heart of this great intellectual movement that transformed the Middle East and the world. It was home to a great library and was the first of its kind centre that promoted scientific research, dialogue and published books. Thousands of books were translated from Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and other languages. The House of Wisdom heralded the golden era of Islam with Muslim scientists making great breakthroughs in all areas. When the Mongol armies ran over the Middle East and destroyed the House of Wisdom at Baghdad in 1258, rivers ran black for weeks. This was the ink of all those books and manuscripts dumped in the rivers in their thousands by the invaders. Whatever happened to our love for the written word?