A new Arab House of Wisdom?
Good news from the Arab world is an increasingly rare commodity but there are exceptions. Take the United Arab Emirates, where a determined drive is under way to close the knowledge gap with the West and restore Arab learning to its past glory.
The aim is to re-establish the House of Wisdom, which flourished in Baghdad in the Arab world’s golden age. From 800 to 1500, the Arab world had no rivals in the study of science and philosophy and fostered discoveries from algebra to optics. Arabs established the world’s first universities and hospitals. It is an era largely forgotten and ignored in the West.
The Emirates’ lofty goal was articulated a decade ago by the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the second-largest and most flamboyant of the seven emirates that make up the country. In Abu Dhabi, UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan has launched a 10-year initiative to turn Emirati citizens into habitual book readers.
According to the national survey that preceded the programme, 70% of Emiratis do not read books, the average Emirati household owns just 20 books and half the country’s students are not in the habit of regular reading. A national reading law to be promulgated this year is meant to increase the reading rate to 80% among students and 50% among adults by 2026.
One of the ways to reach that aim is to establish public libraries and book cafés in shopping malls where Emirati families spend much of their leisure time. Another is to deliver “knowledge bags” to new parents with a selection of books to read to their children so they develop reading habits early.
While Abu Dhabi officials are putting the final touches on the reading law, construction is under way in Dubai on what will be the biggest library in the Arab world. In line with the Dubai government’s penchant for spectacular, attention-grabbing structures, the library will be in the shape of an enormous open book. It will eventually hold 4.5 million books, 2.5 million of them digital.
Municipality planners forecast that the library will attract 9 million visitors a year — more than the annual 2 million who pay to be lifted to the observation deck of the nearly 830-metre Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
A few days before Abu Dhabi went public with the reading initiative, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, launched the Dubai Future Foundation, a research institution backed by a $270 million endowment intended to hasten the return of the golden age.
“Arabs and Muslims established the House of Wisdom in the ninth century to serve as a global model, be a beacon for the sciences and a home for innovators from all over the world,” Maktoum said. “Today, we are in dire need of a House of Wisdom for the 21st century, to recapture the past glories, keep up with modern changes, shape the future and innovate to serve humanity.”
As ambitious goals go, this belongs very high on the list, more so because it is pursued by the leaders of a country as young as the UAE — at 44 years old, a mere toddler — whose founders had little formal education. In 1972, when Ras al-Khaimah joined six other emirates to form the United Arab Emirates, the new country had just 45 university graduates.
Progress has been swift. Today, there are 108 universities and colleges in the Emirates, which has been allocating between one-fifth and one-quarter of federal government spending on education over many years. The country’s literacy rate — 94% — ranks above that of the traditional seats of Arab learning — Iraq, Syria and Egypt. But lifelong readers they are not. Yet.
Here is a figure that shows there is a long road towards a new House of Wisdom: Between 1901 and last year, 26 organisations and 874 individuals won Nobel prizes; only ten have gone to Arabs not part of the diaspora, including the Tunisian Dialogue Quartet, which won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.