Books and reading in the Muslim world: A serious crisis

An imperative verb “Read”, it was the first word revealed in the Quran and is repeated twice in the initial few versus. Considering that the Quran, according to Muslims, is the last and final revelation to humankind, the first command points to the centrality of reading as a foundation and the path to approaching, connecting, knowing and understanding the divine. Reading is the key to knowledge acquisition and expanding one’s own understanding of God and creation. It is not a coincident that the word “Quran” is derived from the same root that means to read, repeat or recite. Consequently, the act of reading is itself an act of worship within a correct Islamic understanding.

“The Book” is also one of the other names for the Quran, which if understood in relations to the first revelation, the imperative verb “read” should produce the key epistemological base for Islam and Muslims – a divinely rooted command for the acquisition, preservation and transmission of all knowledge. The book is the source, a primary locus for preservation of knowledge and a tool for constant expanding of human horizons that can materialize through engagement in the act of reading.

My main contention is that reading has become a lost art among the overwhelming majority of Muslims, and companionship with books in all their varieties is a dying enterprise. Indeed, a very small number of readers remain engaged across the Muslim world. Throughout the ages Islamic civilizations have honored and elevated books and reading to an extent that its genius, maybe argued, to be found in the systematization of public access to education that was connected to text and book production. In “Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam,” Franz Ronsenthal concluded, the “concept of knowledge achieved its unique triumph in Islam.” Importantly, the triumph in the past was measured and achieved its heights through devouring books and attainment of understanding of diverse texts including those materials that diametrically disagreed with it and contradicted Islamic beliefs and ideas.

Some might lay blame on the emergence of the Internet and modern modes of communication and the focus on short and abbreviated language usage, which is valid to an extent, but the problem is much deeper and predates the Internet age. The disconnect and leaving behind the reading and books altogether occurred at a much earlier period and can be traced to the middle of 18th century, if not earlier and continues to the present.

The causes for this are varied but include internal corruption, heavy focus if not exclusive interest in military and technical knowledge, reduction in funding, the collapse of “waqaf” (religious endowment) institutions that supported and were the backbone of the intellectual enterprise in Islamic societies and relegating scholars, educators and scholarship to the margins of the society. The issue of the religious endowment is important since the central state confiscation of the assets and incorporating the endowment institutions into state apparatuses was initially carried out to regulate existing structures but became an avenue to lay claim to vast surpluses so as to pilfer declining state revenues and fund the corruption of those in power.

Reading is a prerequisite for society’s progress and development while not reading leads to the opposite. The critical point to make is that Muslims today have collectively abandoned reading as an enterprise. All types of knowledge have been reduced to sound bites recorded on DVDs, live streaming and YouTube lectures. It is as if our civilization has been relegated to a series of likes and shares online that are not tethered to books or systematic knowledge building blocks. One can appreciate the value of such materials for awareness raising and drawing people’s attention to critical issues affecting society, but this is not a substitute to reading and having a book culture as the epistemological base of society.

It should not come as a surprise that in the top 56 publishing houses in the world today none is located in the Muslim world. Also, the top selling and read books in the world – outside of the Quran, the Bible and other religions’ main books – are not in the Muslim world or written by Muslims. General reading outside of one’s own specialization is almost nonexistent. The lack of a contemporary book culture in the Muslim world points to the major crisis at hand and the setting in of structural ignorance, which must be reversed.

Remedying this problem requires enlightened leadership, multi-year and multi-prong plans and resources to reverse this trend. It can begin by launching reading clubs and reading competitions for the youth hosted and overseen by the highest levels of governments as well as investment in book publication and authors while creating a network of book festivals that can celebrate the human genius centered on the book. More critically, rethinking education institutions altogether so as to center on reading books and achieving understanding, rather than the current sole focus on degrees and grades for employment purposes. “Read” is a command for lifelong learning and establishing a book reading culture anew in the Muslim world.