competition to share knowledge through libraries

Competition to promote learning was intense in Baghdad about a millennium ago.  In 1065, Nizam al-Mulk founded the Baghdad Nizamiyah religious college. The famous theologian and philosopher al-Ghazzali was appointed a professor there in 1091.  The Baghdad Nizamiyah’s library acquired caliph al-Nasir‘s library, which was claimed to be better than even the 400,000 book library of al-Hakam in Cordoba.  By the end of the twelfth century, the Nizamiyah was the most splendid of more than thirty colleges in Baghdad.[1]

The thirteenth-century Abbasid caliph al-Mustansir sought to enhance his reputation through association with scholarship and education.  In 1233, al-Mustansir founded a new religious college in Baghdad, the Mustansiriyah.  This new college had magnificent buildings and lavish amenities for facility and students.  Its professors displayed great scholarly prestige.  For example, in a great hall, a professor of law, seated on a carpet-covered chair under a wooden cupola, lectured:

with much sedateness and gravity of mien, he being clothed in black and wearing a turban; and there were besides two assistants, one on either hand, who repeated in a loud voice the dictation of the teacher.[2]

The Mustansiriyah library included many books spanning all categories of knowledge.  The size of its book collection reportedly exceeded that of the Nizamiyah and all other colleges.[3]

Al-Mustansir’s drive to gain scholarly distinction through the Mustansiriyah enhanced public sharing of knowledge.  Vistors could freely access the college.  Students could freely display and share knowledge that they acquired from the college.  The Mustansiriyah library even provided students with free paper, pens, and lamps to make their own personal copies of rare books contained in the Mustansiriyah library collection.[4]

Knowledge competition doesn’t always promote knowledge sharing.  Today, rare book libraries in the European cultural sphere often place strict restrictions on quoting from rare books that they possessively hold.  Scholars today are often reluctant to share data that support their scholarly publications.  Much scholarly work is currently published in copyrighted journals that are expensive and not widely accessible.  Scholarly competition in the Islamic world a millennium ago produced more liberal knowledge sharing.

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[1] Mackensen (1932) pp. 295-7.

[2] Id., p. 299, quoting from Ibn Battuttah’s description of his visit to Baghdad in 1327.  The two assistants had jobs similar to those of today’s graduate students.

[3] Id. p. 299.

[4] Id.


Mackensen, Ruth Stellhorn. 1932. “Four Great Libraries of Medieval Baghdad”. The Library Quarterly. 2 (3): 279-299.

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