The Israeli Library’s collection of Islamic books to help build a new cultural bridge in the Middle East


LONDON: Many are too fragile to be on permanent display, some are invaluable, and all are currently languishing in the vaults of the National Library of Israel (NLI) on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

But over the next three years, the library’s remarkable collection of over 2,500 rare Islamic books and manuscripts, some dating back to the 9th century, will be digitized and made available free online as part of an outreach program. aiming to build cultural bridges in one of the historically most divided regions of the world.

For Dr Raquel Ukeles, curator of the Islam and Middle East collection at the library, the initiative “reflects the library renewal program, as we move from this closed university library to becoming a true national library, among national libraries of the world. . We want to share our collections with the global community and make it free and easy to use.

This is “true for all of our collections,” she added. But there is a particular motive for opening access to Islamic treasures in the library.

“We have a world-class Islamic collection and, to me, it’s not that bizarre because the National Library in Jerusalem is at the cradle of great monotheistic traditions, including Islam.

In Israel today, Ukeles said, “there are almost a million and a half Muslim citizens and this is also their library. In addition, we are in the Middle East and so it should be quite natural that we focus on and invest in this material, to create space for Muslim culture in Israel and in intellectual life in general, that whether in the Middle East or in the world, to allow a better understanding.

The project was made possible with funding from Arcadia, a UK-based charity fund that helps charities and academic institutions preserve cultural heritage, and which has awarded more than $ 678 million in grants to projects around the world since 2002.

One of Arcadia’s main objectives is the promotion of open access to information.

Anthea Case, senior advisor to Arcadia’s board of directors whose members include Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and the UK’s National Gallery, said the fund “helps fulfill the internet’s great promise – knowledge without frontiers or barriers “.

She added, “By making materials that celebrate the diversity of human achievement available free of charge, libraries can play an important role in overcoming fear, division and simplistic narratives. “

This is a particularly pressing problem in Israel, where, according to Ukeles, “there is a huge ignorance of Islam, Palestinian culture and Arab culture in general, which has real repercussions on the political level. . I see the role of libraries and all institutions that are developers and protectors of culture to enter this space.

The library is “an apolitical institution, of course, and we have to be so that everyone feels comfortable. But you look around and you see what happens when people are not able to see themselves as human beings with histories, cultures and religions, ”she said.

This may seem like a bold stance for an institution at the heart of the Israeli establishment – and next year the library is due to move into an iconic new building located between the Israel Museum and the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

But the library has its roots in an earlier vision of Zionism, different from the one that found its final expression in the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948.

The first version of the library was founded in 1892 by a group of Jewish intellectuals, who Ukeles said were “humanists, philosophers, great scholars, and many of them were Arabists – not just students. Arabs, but were native Arabic speakers themselves. . “

They represent “a time which has unfortunately become difficult to imagine today – a time when Arabic-speaking Jewish scholars, even religious Jewish scholars, swam in the world of Arab-Islamic culture and civilization,” he said. she declared.

For them, it was “not at all a contradiction, but the most natural thing in the world that this library they were building would have a phenomenal Arab collection,” she added.

In fact, the library’s ambitious program to digitize and open up to the world the essentials of its Islam and the Middle East collection, recognized by academics as one of the best research collections of its kind in the Middle East. , honors the legacy of a Jewish Middle East that fought in vain to persuade the founders of modern Israel to create a state based on equal partnership between Jews and Arabs.

Abraham Shalom Yahuda was born in Jerusalem in 1877 to a wealthy Jewish family with roots in Europe and Iraq. His father, Benjamin, was from Baghdad. Her mother’s family, Rebecca Bergman, was from Frankfurt, Germany on her father’s side and Iraq on her mother’s side.

By the time they settled in Jerusalem, the family was buying and selling collectible books and manuscripts. Arabic was the language spoken at home and Yahuda, described as “a brilliant and precocious student”, immersed himself in the culture of his ancestors, studying literary Arabic alongside European languages ​​and traditional Jewish studies.

In 1893, at just 16, he wrote his first academic work, an article on pre-Islamic Arab history and culture, which was published in Hebrew.

It was followed in 1895 by a translation of classical Arabic poetry, the year Yahuda left for Europe to study Semitic languages ​​and Middle Eastern culture and history in Darmstadt, Frankfurt am Main. , Nuremberg, Heidelberg and Strasbourg. His doctorate, completed in 1904, focused on Bahya ibn Paquda, an 11th-century Jewish mystic in the Islamic world who wrote in Arabic.

Yahuda’s “greatest scholarly contribution,” Ukeles said, “was to open up this Islamic world that these Jewish scholars and thinkers wrote about and to put these great masterpieces in their Islamic context.”

But Yahuda had two other great contributions to make in preserving Islamic heritage.

In Europe, he had studied with Ignaz Goldziher, a Hungarian scholar of Jewish origin considered one of the founders of modern Islamic studies in Europe.

In 1924, after Goldziher’s death in 1921, his former pupil helped acquire the 6,000 volumes of the scholar’s private collection for what was then the Jewish National Library, laying the foundation stone for the Islamic collection of the NLI.

Yahuda’s vision, as he later wrote, was that “a library like this, which contains a magnificent and astonishing treasure of the best of Arabic literature and the finest works of Islam, can indeed become a meeting place for Arab and Jewish scholars. “

There, he imagined, “they can sit as brothers in wisdom and friends in learning, and the inspiration of enlightenment will communicate to our neighbors, those closest to us both genealogically and mentally, the same spirit of tolerance, munificence, kindness, and generosity in which the Arabs excelled in ancient times, during their domination of East and West and during the most sublime generations of their success intellectual and their culture.

During his lifetime, Yahuda became one of the most important collectors of early 20th century Islamic manuscripts and, before his own death in 1951, he bequeathed his entire collection to what had then become the National Library and Jewish scholar, which in 2007 was renamed the National Library of Israel.

Yahuda, Ukeles said, was a Zionist, but his view of Zionism differed greatly from that of the rulers.

At the first Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, Yahuda, 20, approached Theodor Herzl, the Austro-Hungarian founder of the movement considered by Israel today as “the spiritual father of the Jewish state” .

According to Yahuda’s memoir, Ukeles said, “he tried to explain to her that they had to take seriously the needs and goals of the indigenous Arab population in the Land of Israel, but Herzl sent him back.

Undeterred, “Yahuda tried again and again to convince Herzl and Chaim Weizmann (the future first president of Israel) that if they did not take this issue more seriously, it would lead to endless conflicts between Arabs and Jews. .

Almost 70 years after Yahuda’s death, the NLI’s plan to open a much owed Islamic collection is recognition of his dream of a more equitable future for Palestine.

“I can really hear Yahuda in the background,” Ukeles said. “The circle has come full circle and I think he would be very happy to know what happened to his collection.

“We are a library, so our interest is for people to use our material. But we also have a larger role to play as a central cultural institution to encourage people to go beyond their own culture and history to understand others.


Among the more than 2,500 books and manuscripts that will be put online over the next three years, there are a number of “magnificent” copies of the Qur’an dating back to the ninth century, Dr Ukeles said.
“It is very moving and exciting to sit down with a manuscript of the Quran from over a thousand years ago,” she said.
Thanks to Yahuda’s encyclopedic approach to collecting, “we can trace the development of how the Quran was written. It was, of course, the first fully written Arabic book in history and therefore the history of Arabic writing is reflected in the history of the Quran.
She added: “Coming into contact with this extraordinary historical material is a huge honor. Whenever I have the opportunity to share it with others, I do; and digitally, we will be able to share it with everyone.
Other treasures that will be uploaded include a miniature 10th century Quran, which measures 37mm by 68mm. Complete with a cloth holster and pewter box, it was brought into battle by an Ottoman warrior during the Siege of Vienna in 1529 and captured by the Austrians.
Another is a section of a well-preserved mid-10th-century Quran from North Africa that features gold filigree patterns and “is breathtaking and a remarkable piece of history,” according to Ukeles.
Yahuda specializes in collecting manuscripts of great scholars that have been copied during or near their lifetime. Among them are the “Three Epistles of Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya” – reflections on times of prayer, divine and human love and the creation of the world written by the 14th-century Muslim scholar and theologian who inspired the movement. Wahhabism.
This manuscript, a copy of the original made by the disciple of Taymiyya Ibn Muhibb Al-Samit after the death of its leader in prison in Damascus in 1328, is one of the few that can already be studied online in detail at www
Other manuscripts to be digitized include “The Niche of Lights” (Mishkat Al-Anwar) by Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, a mystical interpretation of the Quran’s chapter Al-Nur (The Light) dated 1115, four years after the death of the author. ; an 11th century copy of the philosophical treatise “The Book of Healing” (Kitab Al-Shifa) by Ibn Sina; and “The Complete Book of Islamic Jurisprudence” (Jam ‘Al-Jawami fe uÅŸul Al-Fiqh) completed by Taj Al-Din Al-Subki in 1359 and copied by his pupil Khalil b. Al-Safadi in 1360.



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