It began with cuneiform characters on clay tablets, on to hieroglyphics on papyrus and then an array of characters on all manners of materials from wood to wax to parchment to paper1. Intended for the dissemination of knowledge, communication and recording history for posterity, mankind has relied on the written word since time immemorial.
In this article we explore the dedication of the Fatimi imams to the written word and the pursuit of knowledge, observing how their legacy of preservation and propagation has endured to the present day.
The imams were great patrons of learning in all its forms. History attests to the fact that their royal repositories were replete with books and manuscripts on a wide variety of subjects and disciplines obtained from various sources. Numbering well over a million by some estimates, these were books and manuscripts which they themselves spent great amounts of time perusing and studying without prejudice.
In the Epistles of Ikhwān al-Safāʾ, Imam Ahmed al-Mastur states: ‘It befits our brethren, may Allah give them strength, to not despise any field of knowledge, or shun a particular book, or bear prejudice towards a certain faith. Indeed our philosophy and our faith encompass all faiths and all knowledge.’ This philosophy pervaded every aspect of education, as well as every institute of learning during the Fatimi era.
Illustrating the extent to which Fatimi imams were enamoured with the relentless pursuit of knowledge, Syedna al-Qādi al-Nuʿman RA narrates that he was accompanying al-Imam al-Muʿizz AS one day as the Imam discussed a certain topic pertaining to a particular discipline when he said, ‘I remembered this very point a few nights ago and recalled that there was a book which discussed the point in great depth and so I requested that the book be presented to me. The one tending to the books could not locate it and as a result I went myself to the repository of books and began to open some chests in the section where I reckoned the book to be. That was early in the night. As I began to go through the books, each book that I came across made me want to peruse it to the end until I came to another which stirred in me the same passion. There I stood perusing each book, oblivious to everything else around me until at a point well into the middle of the night, a sharp pain in my legs alerted me to the realisation that I had been on my feet all that time, at which stage I retired.’
This passion for learning and for the written word found expression in the multitude of learning centres and institutions established by the Fatimi imams under their personal care and patronage. These effectively extended the very same yearning and passion to the masses, establishing a long standing culture of intellectual and academic pursuits that went on to inspire generations and civilisations.
After the successful conquest of Egypt, which was once home to the great Library of Alexandria and a nexus of learning, research and innovation in ancient times, al-Imam al-Muʿizz AS established the al-Azhar university in Cairo. Reputed as one of the oldest universities in the world still in existence, it is a symbol of the endurance of Fatimi intellectual legacy and its far reaching impact and influence.
Al-Imam al-ʿAzīz AS furthered his father’s heritage by establishing an extensive library known as Khazāʾin al-Qusūr which consisted of forty rooms and contained books on mathematics, chemistry, grammar, theology, astronomy and history among others. In addition to these, implements and instruments of learning, research and observation such as globes and astrolabes were also made available to all those who wished to learn.
Another such institution, the Dār al-ʿIlm founded by al-Imam al-Hākim AS in Cairo was supplied with books from his own palace treasury on a wide variety of subjects. As reported by the historian al-Musabbihī who was a contemporary observer, stipends were also allotted to scholars who taught there and annual allowances were fixed for support staff and furnishings.
The seclusion of the Fatimi imams did not however spell an end to this rich legacy of preservation and learning. Despite attempts by the likes of Salahuddīn al-Ayyūbī to efface their intellectual legacy, burning and plundering their invaluable treasures of knowledge, Fatimi institutions of learning continued to flourish first in Yemen under the guidance of the dūʿāt and then in India.
The dūʿāt expended great effort and toil in safeguarding original manuscripts that had been handed down from generation to generation. In Surat for instance during the time of the 46th Dāʿī Syedna Mohammed Badruddin RA, a great fire engulfed the entire city causing a significant loss of life and considerable damage to properties. During this period of turmoil, his heir-apparent, Syedna ʿAbdulqadir Najmuddin RA, braved many perils to make certain that the treasure trove of prized manuscripts and literary works was safely stowed away on wooden planks inside a well located within Darse Saifee.
Today Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, the Dawoodi Bohra community’s principal educational institute, continues to safeguard that very treasure trove within its walls. Preserved through advanced technological means, the age old manuscripts and texts are made available to students and faculty for research and study within contemporary academic frameworks.
The Antiquarian and Rare Books’ Section of Aljamea is a section of the library dedicated to the study and safekeeping of rare manuscripts and prized literary works endowed to it by His Holiness Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA and His successor Dr Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS, from the personal collections of past dāʿīs. Parallels can readily be drawn between this endowment and those by Fatimi imams, especially al-Imam al-Hakim’s AS endowment to Dār al-ʿIlm.
Home to hundreds of rare books and manuscripts, some centuries old and in various languages, others first copies by the authors themselves and all housed in state of the art facilities across four campuses, The Antiquarian and Rare Books’ Section is a testament to the Dawoodi Bohra community’s dedication to learning and its core ethos; preserving the old and embracing the new.
(To take a virtual 3D tour of The Antiquarian and Rare Books’ Section of the Aljamea Library in Surat, where you can sample some of the manuscripts on display, click here. For a more immersive experience, the tour is best viewed on a large screen)