Sowing a Revolution

Have you ever noticed that there aren’t many public libraries in Dubai? Well, there are some, run by the Dubai Municipality. But they are not most popular with the Emirates and large expatriate population of the country. It’s the same state of affairs in other emirates that in any case boast fewer libraries than Dubai.…

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Have you ever noticed that there aren’t many public libraries in Dubai? Well, there are some, run by the Dubai Municipality. But they are not most popular with the Emirates and large expatriate population of the country. It’s the same state of affairs in other emirates that in any case boast fewer libraries than Dubai. And you don’t see a fraction of the crowd in there that you come across in the country’s world famous malls.
In our part of the world, you find more people obsessing about latest models of mobile phones, cars or that new tower of apartments coming up in the ever-expanding emirate rather than about new books or authors. On trips to Europe, one is always amazed by this spectacle of people, both young and old, immersed in paperbacks or in one of those ubiquitous tabloids. On the Tube, in hotels, waiting for the bus, they are always reading. Even the cabbies are busy with their copy of Sun or Daily Mail as they wait for customers. This is a far cry from life in the Middle East.
Some years ago, Ustaz Khaled Al Maeena, the veteran Arab journalist and editor-in-chief of Arab News, bemoaned the lack of reading culture and good libraries in Saudi Arabia.
This situation is not exclusive to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi example only reflects and represents the general reality of the Muslim world. Our lack of interest in reading is symptomatic of the larger malaise that afflicts us as a people: Our indifference to learning and disinterest in a culture of knowledge and scientific inquiry. The hunger of learning and zeal to explore new horizons of knowledge that once drove the Arabs and Muslims have given way to a crass and disturbing intellectual listlessness.
In the Arab world alone, as Arab League chief Amr Moussa points out, there are 71 million illiterates. So is it any wonder that the Muslim world is so underdeveloped and backward than 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 had been a real crunch of resources and we were not the masters of our destiny. Today, however, it’s a vastly different world. It’s not only a free world but Muslim countries are blessed with 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 Malaysia and Pakistan either. However, growing economic prosperity and development seem to have done little to whet the Muslim world’s appetite for knowledge and learning.
Watching Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum unveil the knowledge initiative for the Arab and Muslim world in Dubai this week, I wondered whatever happened to the Islamic world’s once legendary craving for knowledge. As always, the UAE Vice-President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai has responded to a pressing call of our times, taking up a project that is as grand and bold as his own vision. Like everything Dubai does, this initiative is extraordinarily ambitious in nature with far-reaching implications for the region and the world.
I only hope that the UAE leader, who has constantly surprised everyone in the neighbourhood and around the world by going for the unthinkable and achieving the impossible, succeeds with this ostensibly unimaginable goal too. God knows Shaikh Mohammed is right when he says: “The challenges we face in the Arab and Islamic world are challenges of survival – not only of reform and development. Our knowledge level will determine our ability to surmount these challenges.”
Besides, there’s no alternative. The Muslim world either pushes itself on this path to deal with the challenges ahead or commits a collective hara-kiri. And there are no magical solutions, or ready recipes, as Shaikh Mohammed points out. “Either we create miracles ourselves and find solutions, or the Arab and Muslim world ends up with millions of frustrated, angry young men and women. And you may imagine the consequences (of such a scenario).” This is almost like a mission impossible. But, as Sean Connery would put it, it’s doable. After all, it was the Islamic world that had once pioneered the knowledge revolution that changed the world. In Shaikh Mohammed’s words again: “We were the first who knew schools, houses of learning, laboratories, hospitals and endowments.”
These claims are not without basis. No history of Western progress and renaissance will be complete without crediting the critical role Arab scientists and philosophers played in it. As William Dalrymple, that ardent admirer of Islamic glory, put in a recent piece in UK’s Sunday Times: “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 countries 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 the Industrial Revolution of Europe and the phenomenal progress the West has made over the past several centuries. Terms like alchemy, algebra, cipher and countless others that are derived from Arabic are a tribute to the deep imprint the Muslims have left on the world at large.
 And the first House of Wisdom, or Dar al Hikmah in Arabic, established during the Abbasid era in Baghdad was at the heart of this great intellectual movement that transformed the greater Middle East and the world. The House of Wisdom, constructed by Caliph Al Mansour in AD762, was home to a great library and was the first of its kind centre that promoted scientific research, dialogue and publications. 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, River Tigris ran black for months and years. This was the ink of all those books and manuscripts dumped in Tigris in their thousands by the invaders. So there is great historical symbolism in the new House of Wisdom unveiled by Shaikh Mohammed.
The knowledge initiative by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, set up with an initial grant of $10 billion by the Dubai Ruler, is the boldest attempt yet to revive that golden era of Islam. Muslims have long taken pride in their past glory patting themselves all the time for the achievements of their ancestors. It is time to prove they are worthy of their great inheritance.
The 15 initiatives by the House of Wisdom, from setting up world class universities to investing in top-notch research and publication centres and from offering scholarships to setting up knowledge centres, seek to restore the glory of Islamic past by harnessing the culture of learning and scientific inquiry that once distinguished the Muslims. The Dubai initiative has sowed the seeds of a knowledge revolution in the heart of the Muslim world. However, given the immense nature of the challenge the Muslims face, this one initiative alone wouldn’t be enough. It needs to be emulated and replicated across the globe – in every corner of the Muslim world. Like always, Dubai is showing the way.
And as always, Shaikh Mohammed is leading by example on this front. Who and how many Muslim leaders are willing to follow him? It takes great vision and courage to show the way. It needs even greater courage to follow in someone else’s footsteps. Who is prepared to join the revolution?
[Aijaz Zaka Syed is a senior editor and columnist of Khaleej Times. Write to him at [email protected]]