Islamic Libraries of Baghdad drew scholars from abroad

Art Contributor
Islamic Libraries
Exterior of famous Al-Mustansiriya University and Madrasah, Baghdad, Iraq. © Sergey Mayorov |

Baghdad: City of Islamic Libraries

Ninth-century Baghdad was an exceptional centre of excellence, with at least four major Islamic libraries. In a previous column, I have already spoken about Yahya Ibn Khalid Barmaki’s personal library. Today we will learn about three more astonishing collections of books about the city. These were as follows: a library established by Fatah ibn Khaqan, the personal library of Ali ibn Yahya Munajjam and the famous library of Ishaq al-Mawsili. These Islamic libraries of Baghdad contained thousands of titles, and each was a hub of major scholastic pursuits. These libraries, although often personal, opened their welcoming doors to all bibliophiles, and were professionally managed. To ensure this only great scholars were put in charge of these libraries.

Fatah Ibn Khaqan Library

Born in 822, al-Mutawakkil succeeded al-Wathiq as the caliph in 847. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, he made the mistake of depending too much on Turkish soldiers, who murdered him in 1867. His companion Fatah ibn Khaqan built a major Islamic library in Baghdad. Following the tradition, Khaqan put one of the great astronomers of his times Ali ibn Yahya Manajjim in charge of the library. The astronomer came from a renowned family, which had been pursuing astronomical sciences for generations. His grandfather was an astrologer in the court of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur. Hugh Kennedy, in his book When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, informs us that, Khaqan himself was “the greatest bibliophiles of his day”.

One of the unique features of this important Islamic library of Baghdad was that books were not only purchased, but many great scholars wrote their tomes specifically for this library. Renowned children’s author Abu Usman ibn Jahiz was one such scholar. According to Oxford Islamic Studies Online, his book titled The Book of Misers, “is still a critical component of children’s literature in the contemporary Arab world”. This library was not only for scholars and academicians but was open to all bibliophiles.

Sadly, the army of the founder of the Seljuk dynasty Tughril Beg destroyed this fabulous library.

Khizanatul Kutub

Incidentally, the head of the Ibn Khaqan library, Ali ibn Yahya Munajjim, himself had a huge collection of books. The name of his personal Islamic library in Baghdad was Khizanatul Kutub. It is difficult to imagine such a personal library in today’s world. Scholars from foreign lands visited it for research, and Munajjim made arrangements so that they could stay at the library and continue their studies. Not only that, Ali ibn Yahya bore all expenses for such scholars during their stay at the library. According to traditional sources Abu Mashar al-Falki, the most renowned astrologer of the Abbasid caliphate visited this library and stayed there for research.

Ishaq Al Mawsili’s Library

Encyclopaedia Britannica calls Ishaq al-Mawsili, “a singer, composer, and virtuoso lutenist was the outstanding musician of his time. A man of wide culture, he wrote nearly 40 works on music, which were subsequently lost. According to the “Book of Songs,” he is the originator of the earliest Islamic theory of melodic modes.” He lived between 742 and 804.

However, beyond music Mawsili took keen interest in books. He was also a master of the Hadith and grammar. He built one of the major Islamic libraries of Baghdad, which was particularly famous for books on grammar.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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