Abu Qasim ibn al-Zahrawi – Muslim Scientist and Thinker


Abu Qasim ibn al-Zahrawi, also known in West as Abulcasis, was born in the town of al-Zahra, close to Cordoba, Spain, in 993 CE. His ancestors were Ansar Arabs, who settled in Spain in the 8th century. He lived most of his life in Cordoba, where he received his education. As he finished his education, he started teaching and practicing medicine. With his surgical skills, he became the physician of Caliph al-Hakim II in Cordoba. He died there in 1064 CE. The street where he lived is named after him (Calle Abulcasis), and his house has been preserved by the Spanish government in his honour.

Al-Zahrawi is considered to be the father of modern surgery. As a physician and surgeon, he also had an interest in chemistry and cosmetology. His 30-volume encyclopaedia of medical practices (“Kitab al-Tasrif”) is considered to be his greatest contribution in the field of medicine and surgery. The encyclopaedia included a large section on surgery and covered also such medical topics as orthopaedics, pharmacology, ophthalmology, nutrition, dentistry and childbirth.

Al-Zahrawi emphasized the importance of a good doctor-patient relationship and took great care to ensure the safety of his patients and win their trust irrespective of their social status. His clinical methods showed foresight and promoted close observation of patients. He warned against dubious practices adopted by some physicians for purposes of material gain and warned against deviation from medical ethics. He also cautioned against quacks, who claimed surgical skills they did not possess. His treatise contains many original observations of great interest in the field of medicine. He has given great importance to the causes and symptoms of diseases.

There is no doubt that al-Zahrawi was a rare genius in the field of medicine. His treatise was translated into Latin in the 12th century and became the standard book in the universities of Europe for the next 500 years. His book was the primary source of surgical knowledge for the European physicians and, thus, had a huge influence on their practice of surgery. Pietro Argallata, a 15th century European surgeon, says about him: “Without doubt, he was the chief of all surgeons.” Jaques Delechamps, another 16th century French surgeon, made extensive use of his treatise in his elaborate commentary, confirming the tremendous contributions of al-Zahrawi in the field of surgery.

Writer’s email: Aslamsyed1@yahoo.com


Jabir ibn Hayyan – The Renowned Muslim Chemist


Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, known in Europe as Geber, was born in Tus, Iran, in 721 CE during the rule of the Umayyad Khaleefah. He went to Kufa, Iraq, after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty, where he lived and received his education. In Kufa, he became the student of Imam Jafar as-Sadiq. After completing his education, he started his career as a physician under the patronage of the Vizier of Khaleefah Haroon ar-Rasheed. His connection to the Vizier cost him dearly, when the Vizier fell from the grace of the Khaleefah. In 803 CE, Jabir ibn Hayyan was arrested and spent the rest of his life under house arrest, till he died in 815 CE.

Jabir’s interest in alchemy was probably inspired by his teacher Jafar as-Sadiq. He was a deeply religious man, and repeatedly emphasizes in his works that alchemy is possible only by subjugating oneself completely to the will of Allah (swt). In the “Book of Stones”, he prescribes long and elaborate sequences of specific prayers that must be performed without error, alone in the desert, before one can even consider alchemical experimentations.

Jabir ibn Hayyan is widely considered to be the father of chemistry, but he was also an astronomer, pharmacist, physician, philosopher and engineer. His works in the science of chemistry are as important as those of such 18th century scientists as Priestly and Lavoisier. He is credited for the discovery of nineteen different substances, which we call ‘elements’ in modern chemistry.

According to “The Cultural Atlas of Islam” by Ismail al-Faruqi, Jabir invented a kind of paper that resisted fire and an ink that could be read at night. He invented an additive which, when applied to a textile, would make it water repellent. He applied his knowledge of chemistry to improve the manufacturing processes of steel and other metals. Several instruments, which he designed a thousand years ago, are still being used in modern chemical laboratories – for example, a pipette and a test tube. Jabir also made important contributions to medicine, astronomy and other sciences that are too numerous to mention here.

The writings of Jabir ibn Hayyan can be divided into several categories. The Arabic version of the “Emerald Tablet”, an ancient work that is the foundation of the ‘spiritual’ alchemy, was translated into Latin and widely used among European alchemists in the Middle Ages. One of his books, “Chemical Composition”, remained the authoritative textbook in the European universities until the eighteenth century. Several technical terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, have become part of scientific vocabulary.

This man was one of the greatest geniuses ever born. The Europeans translated his work into their languages and five hundred books, and essays can be found in the national libraries of France, Germany and the UK. There is no doubt that his writing and inventions strongly stimulated the development of modern chemistry in Europe. Sadly, he seems to have been ignored by the Muslims – I completed my Masters in Chemistry in India but knew nothing about Jabir, the father of chemistry.

Writer’s email: Aslamsyed1@yahoo.com

The Ancient City of Aleppo


Compiled by Umm Ibrahim

Aleppo, also known as Halab, is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. It is said to have been inhabited as early as the 2nd millennium BC. Its location at the end of the Silk Road ensured it to be a strategic trading point, midway between the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia. Hence, this Syrian city became known for its commercial and military proficiency.

Aleppo was ruled by a variety of rulers, including the Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mameluks and Ottomans. All the rulers left their own marks on the city. Aleppo became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516, when it had a population of around 50,000 inhabitants. Aleppo went on to become the Ottoman Empire’s third largest city after Constantinople and Cairo.

When the economy flourished as a result of trading activities, many European states rushed to open their consulates in the city during the 16th and the 17th centuries. This included the consulate of the Republic of Venice (1548), the consulate of France (1562), the consulate of England (1583) and the consulate of the Netherlands (1613).

However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the declining silk production in Iran directly affected the trading activities in Aleppo. By mid-century, caravans were no longer bringing silk from Iran to Aleppo, and local Syrian production was insufficient for European demand. Hence, the European merchants left Aleppo, and the city went into an economic decline that was reversed in the mid-19th century, when locally produced cotton and tobacco became the chief commodities of interest to the Europeans.

The economy of Aleppo was also hit by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Coupled with political instability, this contributed to Aleppo’s decline and the rise of Damascus as a serious economic and political competitor with Aleppo.

In spite of this, Aleppo can boast some unique architectural features. According to UNESCO’s website: “Aleppo has exceptional universal value because it represents medieval Arab architectural styles that are rare and authentic in traditional human habitats. It constitutes typical testimony of the city’s cultural, social and technological development, representing continuous and prosperous commercial activity from the Mameluke period. It contains vestiges of Arab resistance against the Crusaders, but there is also the imprint of Byzantine, Roman and Greek occupation in the streets and in the plan of the city.”

The largest covered Souq (open air) market in the world is in Aleppo, with an approximate length of 13 km. Souq Al-Madina is an active trade centre for imported luxury goods, such as raw silk from Iran, spices and dyes from India and coffee from Damascus. Souq Al-Madina is also home to such local products as wool, agricultural produce and soap.

Aleppo hosted 177 Hammams (public baths) during the medieval period, until the Mongol invasion, when many vital structures in the city were destroyed. Nowadays, roughly 18 Hammams are operating in the old city. Apart from these, there are many Masajid, Madrassahs and other religious historical buildings, like the National Library of Aleppo, functioning since 1945, and the Citadel, a large fortress atop a huge, partially artificial mound rising 50 m above the city. It dates back to the first millennium BC.

Aleppo is currently the largest city in Syria. It won the “Islamic Capital of Culture 2006” award, and in recent times, has also witnessed a wave of successful restorations of its historic landmarks. The ancient city of Aleppo also became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

The “Happening” City of Samarkand


Samarkand is better known today as the second largest city of Uzbekistan. It is also a centre for Islamic scholarly studies.

Founded in 700 BC, Samarkand was one of the main centres of Iranian civilization from its early days. Although it was a Persian-speaking region, it was not strictly a part of Iran.

It was at the start of the 8th century CE that Samarkand came under Arab control. Under the Abbasid rule, the first ever paper mill in the Islamic world was found in Samarkand. This invention then spread to the rest of the Islamic world, and from there to Europe.

The Travels of Marco Polo, where Polo records his journey along the Silk Road, describes Samarkand as, “a very large and splendid city.”

In 1220 CE, the Mongols arrived. Genghis Khan and his troops pillaged the city completely. The town took many decades to recover from this and similar disasters.

In 1370 CE, Tamerlane decided to make Samarkand the capital of his empire, which extended from India to Turkey. During the next 35 years he built a new city and populated it with artisans and craftsmen from all the other places he had conquered. Tamerlane enjoyed a reputation as a patron of the arts and Samarkand grew to become the centre of the region of Transoxiana.

In 1420 CE, the great astronomer, Ulugh Beg, built a Madrasah in Samarkand, named the Ulugh Beg Madrasah. It became an important centre for astronomical study and only invited those scholars of whom he personally approved and whom he respected academically. At its peak, it had between 60 and 70 astronomers working there.

In 1424, Beg began building the observatory to support the astronomical study at the Madrasah. It was completed five years later in 1429. Beg assigned his assistant and scholar Ali Qushji to take charge of the Ulugh Beg Observatory which was called Samarkand Observatory at that time.

The observatory was destroyed in 1449 and was only re-discovered in 1908, by a Uzbek-Russian archaeologist from Samarkand named V. L. Vyatkin.

In 2001, UNESCO added the city to its World Heritage List.

The Legacy of Sicily

The Legacy of Sicily

By Saulat Pervez – Writer and editor

When we talk of Islam in Europe, we often mention the famous Muslim empire in Spain, also known as Andalus. Lesser known is the fact that Muslims also ruled southern Italy for about two hundred years between the ninth and eleventh centuries.

The Emirate of Sicily, an island off the coast of Italy, was part of the larger Islamic Empire and was governed by a variety of rulers. Sicily prospered during this period in its history. Its population doubled, agriculture and trade flourished, and a spirit of tolerance and harmony existed among its ethnically and religiously diverse population.

Muslims introduced many new crops, such as cotton, hemp, date palm, sugar cane, mulberries and citrus fruits. Related industries grew, such as textiles, sugar, rope-making, matting and paper (which was later introduced to Europe via Sicily). Sicilian silks also became well-known internationally for their fine quality.

Sicily was taken over by the Normans in the late eleventh century, but Muslims continued to live in the multicultural island peacefully. Muslim heritage was preserved by the Normans, so much so that Arabic continued to be the prime language for the next hundred years. Muslim scientists and architects were employed by the royal court. Palermo, the central city in Sicily during Muslim rule, continued to serve as the capital under the Normans.

Along with Spain, Sicily was a major point of contact between Muslims and the rest of Europe. European scholars were attracted by the intellectual culture in Spain and Sicily, and some chose to live there. They would then translate Arabic books into Latin, thereby transferring the rich scholarship of the Muslim world to other parts of Europe. Michael Scot (c. 1175-1232) was one such individual; after spending a considerable time in Spain, he became the librarian for King Frederick II’s vast collection of Arabic works in Sicily.

When Ibn Jubair was shipwrecked on his return from the Hajj in the late twelfth century, he found himself in Sicily. He was very surprised by how warmly the Normans received him. Of Palermo, Ibn Jubair later wrote: “The capital is endowed with two gifts, splendour and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish. Splendour and grace adorn the piazzas and the countryside; the streets and highways are wide, and the eye is dazzled by the beauty of its situation. It is a city full of marvels, with buildings similar to those of Cordoba, built of limestone. A permanent stream of water from four springs runs through the city. There are so many mosques that they are impossible to count. Most of them also serve as schools. The eye is dazzled by this splendour.”

Unfortunately, this spirit of tolerance and harmony did not last long for Sicilian Muslims; they met a fate similar to the Andalusian Muslims. By the end of the thirteenth century, all the Muslims were evicted from Sicily. However, they left traces of their history behind in the form of Islamic-style architecture, Arabized words in the now-Latinized language, and the Arab-style outdoor marketplace, among others; many of these continue to exist to date.

Above all, the Muslims of Sicily were conduits, who enabled the wider Muslim legacy of the sciences, philosophy, literature and astronomy to be disseminated to Europe as a whole.

The Intellectual Legacy of Timbuktu

The Intellectual Legacy of Timbuktu

By Saulat Pervez – Writer and Editor

When someone mentions ‘Timbuktu,’ our minds often invoke mythical images of a mysterious, otherworldly place. However, when we study a map of Africa, we realize that it is very much a physical city in the country of Mali. What’s more, Timbuktu actually gained legendary status because of its riches and scholarship after Muslims permanently settled there early in the twelfth century.

Originally, Timbuktu was only a seasonal encampment for residents from nearby towns and a temporary outpost for traders and travellers. Its proximity to the Niger River made it a natural meeting point for nearby settlers and visitors alike. The foundation for the Sankore Mosque of Timbuktu was laid late in the tenth century. It was financed by a wealthy lady, who supported a desire to see the town turn into a centre of learning. Over the centuries, it gradually solidified its position as an important trading stop and this vision became a reality. Merchants from around the world visited the mosque, bringing with them ideas and books. Books became the most circulated commodity in Timbuktu, and libraries flourished. Meanwhile, Muslims decided to inhabit the town.

The Mosque grew into a University and by the end of the twelfth century, “student numbers were at twenty-five thousand, an enormous amount in a city of a hundred thousand people,” according to “1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World”. Students first studied Arabic and memorized the Quran, followed by a rigorous syllabus consisting of math, sciences, logic, astronomy, history, etc., culminating in philosophical and religious research work.

The nearby salt ranges and gold mines only spurred trade; Timbuktu’s devotion to scholarship also attracted scholars and thinkers who arrived to settle there in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This led to Timbuktu’s Golden Age in the next two centuries, turning the town into an intellectual and spiritual hub amidst its economic boom. Other mosque-universities, such as Jingaray Ber University and Sidi Yahya University, sprouted, all three together comprising the University of Timbuktu.

Subsequently, thousands of manuscripts were written, copied and passed on through generations. In this way, Timbuktu contributed a legacy of written scholarship in Africa, which has survived through the centuries. These documents are now being discovered from cellars, safes in mud-walls and treasure chests. Today, they are being collected and placed in various libraries in Timbuktu.

Timbuktu has endured a long decline in the years since its glorious past, after falling victim to Moroccan invasion, tribal rule and French colonization. As a result, Timbuktu’s vast scholarship can also be found in the museums of Morocco and France.

The Republic of Mali finally gained independence in 1960. Presently, Timbuktu is an impoverished city with only a few remaining landmarks of the city’s magnificent times. Yet, it remains a tourist attraction, complete with an international airport.

In recognition of its scholarly contributions and intellectual legacy, Timbuktu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

The Progressive Faith

Progressive Faith

At a time, when Western Europe was, quite literally, plunged in darkness, tenth century Muslim Spain had paved roads with street lighting and running water.

Disease in Christendom during the Middle Ages was viewed as a punishment from God. Muslims, on the other hand, believed in the inherent goodness of people and studied disease in a matter-of-fact manner, resulting in the early removal of cataracts, invention of surgical instruments and the differentiation between small pox and measles.

When the vast majority of Europe thought the earth was flat, Muslims were busy calculating the earth’s diameter and circumference and were venturing to show, how lunar and solar eclipses take place.

Reading such comparisons, a Muslim naturally feels awed and proud at the same time. However, one must wonder, what enabled Muslims to be so far ahead of their contemporaries? The answer lies in the most fundamental elements of Islam.

Islam has a long-standing tradition of scholarship. The very first verses revealed to Prophet Muhammad (sa) enjoined him to read and informed him that God taught man everything that he never knew before. At another place, Allah (swt) exhorts the believers to ask Him: “My Lord! Increase me in knowledge.” (Ta-Ha 20:114)

The Prophet (sa) himself is known to extol the benefits of knowledge and wisdom. For example, he once said: “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.” (Baihaqi) Additionally, he has stated: “He who goes forth in search of knowledge is in the way of Allah (swt) till he returns.” (At-Tirmidhi)

Along with the thirst for knowledge, the use of reasoning is another vital tool for any Muslim. Allah (swt) says in the Quran:

“Verily! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding. Those who remember Allah (always, in prayer) standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and think deeply about the creation of the heavens and the earth (saying): ‘Our Lord! You have not created (all) this without purpose, glory be to You! (Exalted be You above all that they associate with You as partners). Give us salvation from the torment of the Fire.” (Al-Imran 3:190-191)

Hence, the seeds for an intellectual tradition were sowed from the very beginning. The Quran specified with clarity that God’s universe was not random, a mere chance, but was created with wisdom and purpose. This led Muslims to look upon the entire world as a research field, which further spurred numerous mathematical, scientific and geographical discoveries.

Islam is more than just a religion. Being a ‘way of life’, our ancestors did not confine it to the mosque, making it apparent in everyday activities of people. Muslims refined astronomy as a science, in order to offer their five daily prayers at accurate times, to predict when the crescent moon will appear, to find the direction to Makkah for prayers; in the process, and to achieve these aims, they perfected the astrolabe.

Furthermore, Islam is a universal religion – not for a few chosen people or tribes but for all people and for all times. With this collective and inclusive outlook, Muslims began to gather any and every scholarly work they could lay their hands on – be it Greek, Persian, or Indian – as the Islamic Empire grew. Then, they commenced the scrupulous task of translation and, afterwards, busied themselves in its study. With study came reformation of ideas, theories and methodologies. Hence, the Muslims enhanced scientific approaches, which enabled them to take the work of their predecessors to new heights – unlike the rest of Europe at the time, which was steeped in squalor and stagnation.

In the process, Muslims were able to achieve a magnificent balance between their worldly needs and spiritual beliefs. Indeed, today, we need to return to our basics, instead of loosing ourselves in religious nit-picking and divisiveness, which also plagued Christendom during the Medieval Ages. Once we truly internalize Islam into every aspect of our lives as a living, breathing phenomenon, then we can, perhaps, aspire towards faith-based progress again! Insha’Allah.

The Advent of Universities

July 11- The Advent of universitites

By Saulat Pervez

Muslims were the first civilization to institutionalize higher learning through models of systemized education. In fact, modern-day colleges are ‘descendants’ of Islamic universities, which were very common in various cities across the Muslim world. Two of them are the world’s oldest running operations since their inception: University of Al-Qarawiyin in Fez, Morocco, and Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt; they have been continuously operating since 841 AD and 988 AD respectively.

These, and many others like them, originated from mosques. The term for ‘university’ in Arabic is Jamiah, the feminine form of the word Jami, which is used for ‘mosque’. According to “1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World”, this derivation shows that “in Arabic the place of religion and the place of advanced learning are completely tied together.” Therefore, it is no surprise that “some of the mosques of Islam are the oldest universities”.

Al-Qarawiyin mosque and university was built by Fatima Al-Fihri during the Idrisid rule. The university was well-equipped with astronomical instruments and tools to calculate time. Additionally, it offered studies in Quran and theology, law, logic, geography and medicine along with courses on chemistry and mathematics among others. The University had a rigorous selection process which included conditions such as “learning the whole Quran and good knowledge of Arabic and general sciences,” as mentioned in “1001 Inventions”.

Royal families were so keen on furthering the cause of education that, unlike today, students of Al-Qarawiyin did not have to pay tuitions and were actually given stipends for food and accommodation. Many illustrious personalities are associated with this pioneering institution such as Ibn Al-Arabi, Al-Bitruji, and the Jewish figure Musa Ibn Mamun (aka Maimonides). As for Al-Azhar, Ibn Al-Haytham lived there for a long time and Ibn Khaldun taught there.

Universities were equipped with exceptional libraries. In 1050, the book collection of Al-Azhar library had “more than a hundred and twenty thousand volumes, recorded in a sixty volume catalogue totaling about three thousand five hundred pages,” as stated in “1001 Inventions”.

R.S. Mackensen, a contemporary European historian of Islamic librarianship, has remarked: “Books were presented and many a scholar bequeathed his library to the mosque of his city to ensure its preservation and to render the books accessible to the learned who frequented it. And so grew up the great universities of Cordoba and Toledo to which flocked Christians as well as [Muslims] from all over the world.”

During the later part of the 11th century, Baghdad introduced its precursor to the modern university in the form of a chain of Madrasahs, which housed students and a salaried faculty. They were known as the Nizamiyah, after their founder Nizam Al-Mulk, a Seljuk Vizier. The largest and most splendid of these was located in Baghdad; the great theologian Al-Ghazali and the celebrated historian of Saladin, Baha Eddin, were lecturers there.

Al-Mustansiriyah college was established in 1234 CE by Caliph Al-Mustansir. It was a large two-storied building, oblong in shape, with a courtyard in the center. Housing and food were provided for those students who required it. The curriculum included religious studies, mathematics, medicine, and history, among other subjects.

The Sankore university in Timbuktu, which also evolved out of the Sankore mosque, offered subjects such as Quran, Islamic studies, law, literature, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics, sciences, etc. Students were also trained in trades and business ethics, with classes in carpentry, tailoring, navigation, fishing and so on.

These are just a few of the many universities which existed during the Golden Age of Islam. While scholars and intellectuals flocked to them to teach, they also produced marvelous theologians, inventors and thinkers who had a lasting impact on the modern world as we know it today.

A World without Hospitals

Apr 11 - A world without Hospitals

By Saulat Pervez

Today, we often take hospitals for granted, but there actually was a time when these institutions did not exist. People considered illnesses as supernatural occurrences and cures were similarly deemed to be the result of spiritual interventions.

On the other hand, Prophet Muhammad (sa) has reportedly said: “Seek medication, because Allah has created a medication for each disease except senility.” (Abu Dawood, At-Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah) Islam, furthermore, taught human beings that they were free from the original sin, leading Muslims to believe in the inherent goodness of humans; this modern outlook enabled scientists to study disease in a matter-of-fact manner. Therefore, as explained by Michael Hamilton Morgan in “Lost History, the Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists”: Muslims believed that “disease [had] specific, scientifically based physical causes. It [was] not a punishment visited on men from God.”

This empirical worldview led to the invention of the hospital, as we know it today. Indeed, the modern hospital has its roots in the Bimaristans, as established by the Abbasids in Baghdad. The first hospital was founded in 914 C.E. Another hospital was built in 918 C.E. at the behest of Caliph Muqtadir. Among the physicians here was the renowned ar-Razi (Rhazes).

“By the year 1000, five major hospitals [were] built in Abbasid Baghdad. These hospitals serve[d] multiple purposes, not unlike modern hospitals containing surgery centers, outpatient clinics, psychiatric wards, convalescent centers and even nursing homes. And quite often they [were] free to those in need,” writes Morgan. Soon, hospitals became common landmarks all across the Muslim world.

In fact, the very spirit behind the concept of hospitals was to provide ready care to anyone who seeks it, irrespective of gender, race, religion or status. Doctors treated and studied the patients, and documented their findings. This shows that the physicians were not only interested in curing their patients’ immediate ailments, but also in conducting important research which would then be published in the form of books. These texts, later translated into Latin, became the foundational tools for the rebirth of Europe and continued to be used for several centuries.

Such medical advances also led to the development of the field of pharmacology. As a result, the very first pharmacies were pioneered by Muslim doctors. According to Dr. Gustave le Bon: “Muslims invented the art of mixing chemical medicaments in pills and solutions, many of which are in use to this day, though some of them are claimed as wholly new inventions of our present century by chemists unaware of their distinguished history. Islam had dispensaries, which filled prescriptions for patients [free of charge], and in part of countries where no hospitals were reachable, physicians paid regular visits with all the tools of their trade to look after public health.”

In the end, the privileges we enjoy today have a rich history and a meaningful purpose –dating back to more than a millennium! Sadly, our current conditions belie our downhill spiral: our hospitals are either modern and expensive or unhygienic and cheap. It is high time that we re-instill our Islamic values not only in our practice of worship but also, by extension, in the social aspects of our lives – without discrimination.

The Art of Paper-Making

Jan 11 - The Art of paper-making

By Saulat Pervez

Muslims transformed the Chinese art of papermaking into a major industry as early as the eighth century!

Muslims learned the secret of papermaking from Chinese prisoners captured during the battle of Talas in 751 A.D. Before long, paper began to be manufactured in Samarkand, the very first Muslim hub of papermaking. By 793 A.D., there were many paper mills in Baghdad; as with all other major developments in the Muslim world, paper production soon spread to Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily and Spain. From a Chinese art, paper was thus transformed into a major industry by the Muslims.

This was a revolutionary development, because the existing alternatives to paper were papyrus, which was fragile, and parchment, which was expensive; paper, on the other hand, was relatively cheap because it was made out of cotton – and Muslims made its manufacturing more efficient through the use of water-powered mills. This mass availability of paper enabled Muslims to commit vast amounts of translations and original research to paper; as a result, libraries and bookstores thrived and became a common sight in Baghdad and other Muslim cities.

For example, by the thirteenth century, Baghdad had thirty-six libraries and a 100 book dealers, some of whom were also publishers. The concept of a library catalog dates back to this period – books in these libraries were organized under specific genres and categories. Besides these, many nobles and merchants had private collections of books.

“We hear of a private library in Baghdad, as early as the ninth century, which required a hundred and twenty camels to move it from one place to another. Another scholar of Baghdad refused to accept a position elsewhere, because it would take four hundred camels to transport his books; the catalogue of this private library filled ten volumes. This is the more astonishing, when it is realized that the library of the king of France in 1300 had only about four hundred titles,” writes Frederick Artz in his book “The Mind of the Middle Ages”.

Furthermore, James Burke notes of Cordoba in Muslim Spain: “Paper, a material still unknown to the west, was everywhere. There were bookshops and more than seventy libraries.”

In fact, this was the case because the very first paper mill in medieval Europe was established as late as 1268 A.D. in Italy and appeared in other major countries, such as Germany and France, centuries later.