No better evidence of the passion of Islam for the spread of erudition, from its very inception, can be given than the words of the Prophet himself who said, after the battle of Badr and the Muslims’ victory, to the huge crowds whom they had taken prisoner, that any of them who wished to buy their freedom but had no cash for a ransom could employ their literacy as their resources; and any polytheist who trained ten Muslims to read and write should win freedom. His pronouncement was put into practice; and it was thus that a large number of his original adherents were started on the road of education.
His nephew and successor, the Imam Ali, on whom be blessing, declared that the spreading of science and knowledge and culture and intellectual ability was one of the merits to be coveted and achieved by every Muslim government. In the record of his words it is reported that he said: “O people! I have rights over you and you have rights over me. Your right over me is to insist that I shall always give you guidance and counsel. and seek your welfare, and improve the public funds and all your livelihoods, and help raise you from ignorance and illiteracy to heights of knowledge, learning, culture, social manners and good conduct.”
215 years after the Hejra the Abbasid Caliph Ma’amoun founded a “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad to be a centre of science, and furnished it with an astronomical observatory and a public library for which he set aside 200,000 dinars (the equivalent of some 7 million dollars). He gathered together a large number of learned men who were acquainted with foreign languages and different disciplines, like Honain and Bakht-eeshoo’ and Ibn Tariq and lbn Muqafa’ and Hajaj bin Matar and Sirgis Ra’asi, and others too numerous to mention, and set aside a large sum for them, dispatching many of them to all the different countries of the world to collect books on science, medicine, philosophy, mathematics, and fine literature, in Hindi, Pahlevi, Chaldean, Syriac, Greek, Latin and Farsi. It is said that the vast collections they sent to Baghdad exceeded 100 camel loads!
Europe had not one university or cultural centre to show for itself in those centuries when Islamic lands had large numbers staffed by experts and specialists in all branches of knowledge. These Islamic centres were beginning to radiate waves of brilliant new thinking to the world at the very moment when the Crusades were launched. In fact it might be said that it was the new learning fostered by Islam which itself furnished the Europeans with some of their new thinking that made possible whatever prowess they achieved in those disastrous wars and fired the passion of jealousy and cupidity which made the West wish to seize for itself the treasures which they saw Islam bringing to the nations under its sway.
Dr. Gustave Le Bon writes on page 329 of volume III of his “History of Islamic and Arab Civilisation”. “In those days when books and libraries meant nothing to Europeans, many Islamic lands had books and libraries in plenty. Indeed, in Baghdad’s ‘House of Wisdom’ there were four million volumes ; and in Cairo’s Sultanic Library one million; and in the library of Syrian Tripoli three million volumes; while in Spain alone under Muslim rule there was an annual publication of between 70 and 80 thousand volumes.”
G. l’Estrange in his “Legacy of Islam” page 230 writes: “The Mustansariyya University was furnished with equipment and built in a huge campus with college edifices of such splendour that its peer exists neither in the Muslim world nor elsewhere. Its four law-colleges, each with 75 students and a professor who taught the pupils gratis, paid its professor a monthly salary, while each of the 300 students was given a gold dinar a month. A college kitchen provided the daily meals. Ibn-el-Farat says that the library contained priceless and unique volumes, on many branches of science, for any student to borrow. Pens and paper were provided for the notes anyone might wish to take. The university had hammams (baths) and infirmaries. Its doctors conducted a daily inspection of the colleges, and wrote prescriptions for any who were ill. The college stores were able to dispense drugs prescribed, immediately. All this at the beginning of the 13th century AD!”
Dr. Max Meyerhof writes: “In Istambul the mosques possess between them more than 80 libraries, with tens of thousands of books and ancient manuscripts. In Cairo, Damascus, Mosul, Baghdad, and in cities of Iran and of India there are other great libraries full of treasures. A proper catalogue of the precious volumes in all these has not yet been published complete in print. Moreover the Escorial library in the Iberian Peninsula contains a huge section filled with books and manuscripts produced by the Islamic scholars of the West, which also awaits completion of its cataloguing.”
Dr. Gustave Le Bon writes on pages 55778 of his “Islamic and Arab Civilisation”. “The Muslims pursued the sciences with profound application. In any town they took, their first act was to build a mosque and thereafter a college. This led to the production of majestic institutions of learning in a vast number of cities. Benjamin Toole (ob. 1173 AD) said that in Alexandria he found more than 20 colleges at work. Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova, and other places all had great universities with laboratories, observatories, huge libraries and all the other requirements for tackling intellectual problems. In Andalusia alone there were 70 public libraries. The library of Al-Hakem II in Cordova contained 600,000 volumes and it took 44 volumes to catalogue the library’ s contents. When Charles the Just, four centuries later, founded the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris he was only able to assemble a total of 900 volumes, and that after great labours, while one-third of that 900 were books on religion.”
The same author on page 562 adds: “The Muslims launched science on the road of exactitude, experiment and forward-looking discovery by hypothesis, with a particular enthusiasm, while producing books and treatises and high schools that spread their intellectual prowess to all corners of the world. They thereby opened for Europe the road to its renaissance. So it is with justification that the title of “Europe’s Professor’ is given to the newly-arisen Islamic power, since it was through them that the treasures of ancient Greek and Roman science were rediscovered and enhanced and given back to Europe as she began to emerge from the Dark Ages.”
Josef Marc Kapp writes, concerning the first centuries of Islam’s progress in culture, in his book ‘”Muslim Splendour in Spain” (p.170). “Even the lowest classes in society were athirst to learn to read; and humble workers limited their expenditure on food and clothing and spent their last sou on buying books. One wo
rker collected such a library that men of learning flocked to him. Freed slaves and the children of slaves entered the ranks of the learned; and men like V afyat-ul- A’iyan lbn Khalkan laid the foundations for great progress”.
Nehru wrote concerning the benefits conferred on social progress and the cultural revolution of the Muslims in Andalusia in his book “A Glimpse at World History” (p.413): “Cordova had over a million inhabitants, a magnificent public park of about 20 kilometres and suburbs stretching40 kilometres, with 6,000 palaces, mansions and great houses, 200,000 smaller houses of beauty, 70,000 stores and small shops, 300 mosques, 700 hammams with hot and cold baths for public use. There were innumerable libraries of which the most comprehensive and important was the Royal Library, which contained 400,000 volumes. Cordova University was famous throughout Europe and in western Asia. At the same time education was provided for the poor. Indeed one of their contemporary historians writes that nearly everyone in Spain in those days could read and write, while in the rest of Christian Europe, apart from the monks and clearly persons who were educated through religious houses, no one, including the highest members of the nobility, thought it worth his while even to attempt to master basic arts of reading.” To illustrate these claims I append eight extremely brief chapters, each on a different branch of science or culture; my debt I gladly acknowledge to Arnold and Guillaume’s .”Legacy of Islam” (publ. O U.P. 1931) to which I refer any reader who wishes to extend his information.