Library of Khalid Barmaki: Islamic culture’s love for liberal discourse

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Reading Corner
Khalid Barmaki

Personal Collection with a Professional Attitude

Yahya ibn Khalid Barmaki is known in history as a great administrator, but vizier Barmaki’s personal library truly distinguishes him from others. This personal collection of books at his home in Baghdad was extraordinary in many senses. First, it was vast and contained thousands of books, though the exact number is not known. Secondly, Resembling a modern professional public library, it had three copies of each title. This clearly indicates that the great vizier did not build it for personal use alone, but wanted it to be of use to scholars. He paid a whopping one thousand dirham for every title he chose for his collection. This, in turn, shows that Barmaki’s personal library contained the choicest of titles published in his times.

Life and Times of Vizier Yahya Khalid Barmaki

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica Yahya ibn Khalid al-Barmaki was the tutor of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Harun on assuming power appointed Yahya the Barmakid as the Wazir. He wielded huge financial and political power. The caliph virtually left the whole administration in Yahya’s hands. So much so that even his two sons were placed in charge of the caliph’s personal seal. Over the next 17 years, the Barmaki family controlled much of the affairs of the caliphate.

Barmaki’s personal library was built over these 17 years, and the vizier clearly used all his clout to make it one of the best libraries in the world. However, the family fell out of grace around 803. According to the Encyclopaedia of Islam and the Muslim World, edited by Richard C. Martin, “Barmakides soon became a state within the state”, and one of the sons, Jafar, was executed in 803. Yahya and his other son Fadl were imprisoned, and the former died in prison in 805.

The Liberal Collection in Khalid Barmaki’s Personal Library

Vizier Yahya Barmaki’s personal library was not only known for its huge number of titles but more for the kind of books it contained. He obtained titles from all major languages in his times, including Greek, Sanskrit, Farsi, and Coptic. This was indeed rare in his times. This means that his library was a hub of true liberal wisdom. We must also remember that vizier Yahya was, at one point in time, the tutor of Caliph Harun. He naturally had much influence on his master, and under his influence, the Caliph invited to Baghdad a number of Buddhist scholars from India. These scholars wrote the first Arabic biography of Gautama the Buddha.

Titled Kitab al-Budd, the biography of the Buddha, was one of the treasures of Yahya Barmaki’s personal library. Not only, scholars, but vizier Yahya also brought a number of Sanskrit books from India. And as we have already seen, his library had many Greek and Farsi books as well. Thus, it was not just a centre of Arabic knowledge, which might have been easily expected in those days. Yahya ibn Khalid Barmaki’s personal library was the meeting ground of scholars from the East, West, and the middle east.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)