Friday 9 June 2023 \


From libraries to madrasas

The lessons in madrasas began with the words “Praise be to Allah!” and glorifications in honor of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Prepared by N. Jafarov : Islam Magazine | Makhachkala / 2011

Muslim Renaissance

Swiss orientalist Adam Metz (1869 - 1917) is a recognized expert in the history of culture of the Caliphate in the III - IV centuries AH (IX - X centuries AD). He did not turn to oriental studies but in the mature age. Before that he had studied law and theology. Having started with learning of Semitic languages, and having mastered Hebrew and Arabic, Mets then focused on the medieval period of the Arab East. By limiting the scope of his research with nothing more than two centuries, he carefully examined a great number of sources.

Unfortunately, Metz was not able to complete his main work – the book “Muslim Renaissance”. It was published only in 1922 in London, while the Russian version appeared in 1966 in the publishing house “Nauka” (Science). The book of Metz was translated from German into many languages, with English translation being made by a famous Arab orientalist - Sallahudin.

The Swiss scholar explains his interest in these two centuries of the history of the Caliphate: “during this period, the empire returned to the situation that existed in pre-Islamic era, when separate and independent states were formed anew, in the same boundaries, in which they remained throughout the whole history of the East, except for brief periods”.

At that time, the apparent supreme authority still pertained to the Caliph of Baghdad. The sources of that period mention of an empire (amal) of the “Commander of the Faithful” which stretches from Ferghana to the far West, and from the Caspian Sea to Mecca. However, the same sources also tell us that in the middle of the III century AH (IX century AD), Western Iran “split off” from the Caliphate, and Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, Africa, Spain, South Arabia, Bahrain, Tabaristan became independent. The Caliphs were left with nothing but Baghdad and a part of Babylon. Yet, their names were still pronounced during religious services in all mosques just after the name of the Prophet (PBUH), and the rulers of the newly formed Islamic states used to purchase the titles from them and send them gifts. In 297 AH (909 AD), the Fatimids expressed their dissatisfaction with being the mere secular rulers, and craved for becoming the true heirs of the Prophet (PBUH). They appropriated the title of the “Commander of the Faithful”, and since then its sense and importance plummeted. In the middle of the IV century AH, even the owners of small principalities used to call themselves with this title.

Adam Metz studied the history of decline of the empire which “spread from one border to the other for a ten-months’ journey, and on this territory, a travelling Muslim was under the protection of his faith, he encountered the same God, the same prayers, similar laws and similar practices. This was the time when a Muslim was confident in his personal freedom in all regions of his country and nobody could enslave him”.

Metz was particularly impressed by the attitude to books and libraries in that period. He writes: “I can determine the level of culture and erudition of the inhabitants of a house by the number and selection of books in this house. So is the situaion with the countries”. Metz offers data on the availability of books in the libraries of the Medieval West. The cathedral library of Constance had 356 volumes, while Bamberg (in 1130 AD) had only 96. Meanwhile, a collection of a common oriental sovereign included over a hundred thousand books! The library of the Caliph of Baghdad Adud al-Daul, who saw the conquest of Derbent during the time of his rule, and who was the first to “restore” and confer upon himself the title of “shahenshah” (i.e. “king of kings”), was accomodated in a special building. The library was managed by an administrator (Vakil), librarian (Khazin), and inspector (Mushrif). The books on all branches of knowledge were collected here. The library consisted of a large vestibule and a long arched hall with side rooms. The rows of bookcases were stretched along every wall of the hall and the rooms. Each branch had its own bookcase and its catalogue.

At the end of the IV century AH, each one of the three great sovereigns of Islam residing in Cordoba, Cairo and Baghdad was an avid bibliophile. Al-Hakam in Spain employed special people who used to purchase for him the originals of books from all over the East. The catalogue of his library consisted of 44 20-sheet notebooks.

Thanks to Metz, the three most famous bibliophiles of the III century AH are known to the world. They are the noblemen of the Baghdad court: al-Jahiz and al-Fatah Ibn Hakan, and qadi of Baghdad Ismail ibn Ishaq. Al-Jahiz would not leave any book that fell into his hands until he had read it from cover to cover. He rented all the bookstores so that he would be able to visit them and read books there. Metz says that even the death approached the nobleman during his favorite work: as usually, he was laying out around himself piles of books, when one of them ... suddenly fell upon him and killed the old man...

Around the middle of the III (IX) century, a certain Ali Ibn Yahya built a book depository in his estate which he called “The Treasure of Wisdom”. People would often sit and read there, study sciences for long periods, and everyone lived there at the expense of the owner. Once, a famous astronomer Abu Mashar (Al-Balkhi) of Khorasan found himself in the Treasure, while going on pilgrimage to Mecca. Having been held up in the library, he got so captivated that he missed the time allocated for the Hajj.

In 355 AH (965 AD), the “Strugglers for the pure faith”  ransacked the house of vizier Abu al-Fadl Ibn al-Amid. Historian Ibn Miskavayhi, who was his librarian, argues that “the heart of the Vizier was troubled by the fate of his books, for there was nothing sweeter to him. And there were lots of them, on all branches of science, philosophy and literature, more than a hundred packs. Having learned from me, that the books are safe, the Master exclaimed: “I am lucky! Everything else can be reimbursed, everything but books!”

In 365 (974), Al-Sahib from Cairo turned down a flattering offer of a Sasanid ruler to become his first minister. The refusal came only because Al-Sahib had 40 camel packs of books on theology, and he was not keen on disturbing them ... with the moving from Cairo.

Qadi of Cordoba Abu al-Mushrif was also a great book collector. He used to buy expensive volumes, but never let anyone read them. Instead, six of his scribes toiled day and night at making copies which the qadi would give to all comers for free.

At the beginning of the III century AH, books in the East were decorated with great luxury. When 114 bags of “heretical” (according to the caliph) books were burned in Baghdad in 311 AH, molten silver and gold was flowing from inside the fire. Manuscripts and books were written in gold on the finest Chinese paper and bound with expensive embossed leather, brocade and silk. The books that came out of the feathers of the famous eastern scribes (asl mansub) were notable for their exquisite beauty.

In that period, along with a passion for libraries, scientific institutions were established where storage of books was combined with teaching. Poet and scholar Ibn Hamdan founded the House of Science (Dar-ul-Ilm) in Mosul with a library which had books on all branches of science. It was open to anyone who strived for knowledge. Here, the poor were given paper and ink, while the founder himself was always dwelling in the house reading his own and others' poetry and prose, writing books on law and history of the world. He bequeathed the house and the library to the town and allocated scholarships for visiting scholars.

In 350 AH (960 AD), one of the noblemen of Adud al-Dawla built a library in Basra, where scribes and readers received remuneration. At the beginning of the IV (X) century, the vizier of Baghdad Abdurashid Ibn Sabur founded the House of Science (Dar-ul-Ilm) in the western part of the city where he used to keep 100 copies of Koran only written by the best calligraphers of the Arab East. He founded as well the House of Knowledge (Talabatul-Ilm) for students and supported them at his own expense.

Egypt, year 378 (988). A certain Al-Aziz bought a house next to al-Azhar mosque and established an Academy for 35 theologians, who used to gather there every Friday after the prayer and debate on scientific issues. Famous Cairo University was founded in 395 (1004) by caliph Al-Hakim. Here, he collected all the books from the palatial libraries. Scientists and students used to work at the university along with librarians and scribes, while inkstands, reeds for writing (kalam) and paper were given free of charge. Adam Metz provides as well the budget of expenditure of this institution. It included the salaries to teachers, cost of drinking water, maintenance, expenditure for mats, carpets, winter quilts, etc.

However, the most famous and popular institution in the caliphate was considered to be the oldest Cathedral mosque in Baghdad - Al-Mansur mosque. Metz writes that one of the most famous theologians and scholars in the empire Khatib al-Baghdadi took three sips from Zamzam source during the Hajj in Mecca and made a wish for every sip he took: to write the history of Baghdad, to read Ahadith in Al-Mansur mosque, and to be buried next to it. All his wishes came true.

Dictation (Imla') was considered to be the highest level of teaching in universities. Theologians and philologists used to dictate for hours, and students used to write down their speeches with due attention. At the top of the sheet, students noted: “Lecture. Dictated by our Shaykh so-and-so on such-and-such day”.

In the same period, Islamic schools – madrasas - were established. One of the most reliable sources - the author of the history of the caliphate Al-Hakim – tells us that the first madrasa was built in Nishapur, where teachers had assistants (mustamli) that used to pass the teachers’ words to those who was sitting in the back rows and could not hear the teacher. The assistant used to maintain discipline and silence in the classroom. The lessons in madrasas began with the words “Praise be to Allah!” and glorifications in honor of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Then a student with the most beautiful and sonorous voice used to read verses from the Quran, and after he finished, the teacher prayed for the prosperity of the city, its residents and his students. After the prayer, his assistant called for silence and attention, pronounced blessings upon the Prophet (PBUH), and thus the lesson began. During the lesson, students had the right to stand up and ask any questions, and the teacher had to answer patiently even the most ridiculous ones. Teachers were strongly recommended to perform ablution and comb the beard before the beginning of the lessons, sit in a straight and decent posture. Students could pass them notes, where they asked the teacher to pray for their sick relative, for the suffering and the needy. When the teacher finished the prayer, students uttered “Amen!” in unison, and then the lesson continued.

The sources of that period indicate that teaching was never profitable. A strong opinion existed among the scholars that it was even unacceptable at all to charge for the teaching of the Quran and ahadith, while for other sciences, only such fees were to be taken to keep the teacher from starving. Once, famous Al-Khatib Al-Baghdadi was handed over 300 dinars in the mosque of the city of Tyre for the education of the children. He shook the money off from his prayer rug and forever left the mosque.
School teachers (mu`allimul-kuttab) earned their living with copying of books and were seriously engaged in science. At the beginning of the  IV century AH, a certain Al-Jahiz from Baghdad wrote a book about them, which was replete with the praises, and funny stories from their lives. The book tells us that once a teacher boasted of his remarkable memory: “I have never forgotten anything, - and then shouted at once, Hey, student, help me on with my shoes!” The student replied meekly: “You have them on your feet, o the wisest of the wise ..”



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