‘Read’ – the road to success
Among the signs of developed and successful societies are two practices that stand out prominently – their government’s higher investment in education and skills and the high level of reading habits from their citizens. These societies are dynamic and their people are disciplined. Even ordinary citizens generally keep themselves busy in reading or reflecting or listening to music without disturbing others in public transport. They try to avoid encroaching other’s personal space. That’s what we see in major developed cities – passengers browsing through newspapers, magazines and journals, fictions and non-fictions, text-books and work manuals – even in the crowded peak hour journey. Some who find seats try to do their work-related tasks. They cannot afford to waste their journey time by not doing anything. Reading is part of their life-style.
It would be hard to find any house in a developed country that does not have a private library, no matter how small the house is. With Kindle and iPad like electronic reading gadgets the number of paper books may go down in personal library, but people’s reading habits may be further enhanced. People in the rapidly developing countries are trying to catch up with this reading habit. Japan probably surpasses others in this.
Reading habits of people is the indicator of success of any nation and a hallmark of civilisation. Those who built mighty empires in the past did so by their muscle power, but those who built civilisation used both muscle power and their brains in tandem. For a civilisation to sustain and leave a permanent imprint on history, the reading habit of its people and hard work of its scholars remained two yardsticks for any age. Muslim civilisation was a shining example where their power was derived from knowledge and scholarship. On the other hand, the Mongol military might that shook the world and created terror among Muslims in the 13th century vanished within a few generations, because of their failure to ignite a reading habit among their people. The killing of scholars, destruction of cities and the burning of books was the trademark of Tatar savagery.
Modern Europe that has now given rise to the ‘West’ is the product of the Renaissance that took much of its intellectual food from the legacy of Muslim and other civilisations. During the Middle Ages when European history was frozen in thought and stagnation in public life was rigidly controlled by the Church establishments, Muslim universities in the Middle East and Iberian Peninsula remained the main source of knowledge for Europeans scholars. Equipped with knowledge and empowered with freedom of thought, the Europeans learnt how to challenge the power, authority and corruption of the Church during the 14th to 16th centuries. The Renaissance gave rise to the Protestant movement against the Catholic orthodoxy. The invention of a printing machine in 1451 was instrumental in passing the new-found knowledge from a few privileged elites to ordinary people. The contribution of creative Muslim scholars, along with the translation of the Greek texts by Arab academics into Latin, fuelled the flame of knowledge in European minds. This removed their fear of unknown and with the capacity for reasoning they were able to think ‘outside the box’. There arose an inner energy to explore the world that created an avalanche of self-investigation, discovery and empirical research. Ordinary Europeans enhanced their habit to read and their reading habit gave birth to new ideas and thoughts that expanded the frontiers of research on human, social and physical sciences. Europe was brimming with new ideas that produced philosophies and revolutions. The French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Communist Revolution were all the products of an intellectual regeneration of Europe.
However, in this drive, Europe somehow lost its balance; in its ambition to conquer the body it lost much of its soul. But that is another discussion.
‘Read’ – the key behind Muslim glory
What about Muslim Civilisation before the European one? At a time where there was no printing press and publishing facilities and books were too expensive for ordinary people, the affluent Muslims and scholars spent their wealth to establish libraries for others, so that they could read and acquire knowledge. Arabic was the richest of the languages and it remained the carrier of knowledge for a long period in history. Due to the serious importance given in Islam for knowledge and wisdom, Muslims became the lovers of books. Scholars grew a zealous attachment to reading, collecting books and building libraries. People would compete with each other in purchasing books. As soon as a book was about to be completed, people flocked to the author or the compiler for a copy. Rulers often spent huge sums of money to encourage scholars to write books or reward them for writing. Caliph Hakam, the ruler of Andalusia, on one occasion sent one thousand dinars (gold coin at that time) to Abul Faraj in Iraq for just one copy of his literary masterpiece, Al-Aghani.
Due to this thirst for knowledge among Muslims and their literary taste and spirit of learning, numerous libraries were established in every part of the vast Muslim world. Knowledge became the mass property of all, thanks to the spread of these libraries. In their heyday, Muslim cities like Baghdad, Cordoba and Damascus used to have libraries in most of their streets.
Libraries were of two types, private and public. Caliphs, rulers and rich people were instrumental in establishing public libraries, mostly adjacent to schools or mosques. They were so well organised with cataloguing, shelving of books, separate relaxation rooms, discussion rooms and other facilities that a new ‘Library Science’ emerged through this process. Sometimes great names were given to libraries, e.g., ‘Treasures of Wisdom’, ‘House of knowledge’. There was often highly qualified full-time staff in these libraries. Most libraries were run through endowments set up from contributions by generous people. Cities like Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus and some Andalusian cities were renowned for their massive public libraries. One library in Cairo established by the Fatimid Caliphs contained about two million books!
The story of private libraries was more fascinating. There were some scholars whose passion and love of books exceeded the limits of craziness. Many spent their fortunes towards establishing a library. There were many renowned private libraries in different parts of the Muslim world and although these libraries were private, they were open to ordinary people for use. On the whole, the public and private libraries in every part of the Muslim world helped create and sustain a civilisation which was greatest on earth in terms of human values, spiritual elevation and material progress. Muslim civilisation learnt to maintain a balance between material and spiritual progress of human beings. Books and libraries were the umbilical cords of the health of the Muslim nation.
What happened in the later period?
It was the deprivation of knowledge that disjointed Muslims from knowledge and spirituality. The killings of numerous Muslim scholars and destruction of major cities of knowledge in Islamic Persia, like Balkh and Bukhara, in the 13th century by the Mongol army weakened the basis of Muslim civilisation. The disaster that befell Baghdad due to Hulagu Khan’s carnage in 1258 brought Muslims to their knees. It is recorded in history that the river water in Baghdad turned reddish-black for many days due to the blood of people and ink from the pages of the books in the aftermath of. The Crusaders also struck a serious blow to Muslim knowledge; in Tripoli alone they destroyed 3 million books. After the fall of Granada in 1492, one million books were burnt in a single day by the fanatical Christian zealots. What we see in the Muslim world today is the effect of ummah’s long dark night of intellectual stagnation and social disntegration. We have become disconnected from our sources of knowledge and, as a result, our knowledge of the contemporary world is dismal.
‘Read’ – what does it mean?
Reading is empowering. It empowers an ordinary person, enriches a scholar and gives confidence to all. Reading empowers our brain by giving it food for thought. It empowers us internally to take on the challenges of life. Reading gives us humility, excellence and inner strength, the pride and confidence to move ahead. It develops our mental faculty, increases our knowledge, enhances our thinking power and bestows us with the gift of understanding and wisdom. As a balanced diet keeps us physically active, good books keep us mentally and emotionally healthy.
Books motivate, make life challenging, adventurous, enterprising and enjoyable. They motivate us to work harder, inspire us to become determined to succeed and achieve high. They create ambition and aspiration within us, lift us from our comfortable life and push us into a life of continuously moving reality. They liberate us from our whims and desires and throw us into a world of wisdom. They elevate us to an unparalleled intellectual and spiritual height. They educate us, train us, mentor us and guide us to follow the footsteps of our successful predecessors and keep us away from those who have fallen into the trap of deviation. When we read, we are ever-conscious, because we are with the sharpest of minds and mostly with people of exemplary qualities. We are often with the best people, not only of the present but also of the past. Books not only tell us what to do in life, but how to do them.
Books are our companion that never lets us down. They protect us from error, guide us, teach us, discipline us, tell us how to express ourselves, tell us how to be motivated and tell us how to become good human beings. Books are the pillars of success. They encourage us, give us pride and help us to reclaim our past glory. They build us step by step and make us self-reflective. They are the source of silent and deep power.
A book is a true lover; it gives us company when we are alone. It gives us respite when we are restless. A book is always in conversation with us; it does not hurt us. It takes away agony and sorrow from us. A book remains in our mind even when we are not reading. It gives us pleasure when we are despondent. A book helps us in managing our anger, temptation, frustration, stress and dejection. It works inside us and catapults our potential.
What sort of reading should we do, and what should be avoided?
Like other habits in life, reading has to be a choice. It has to be a determined endeavour, in the beginning at least. Reading has to be for a purpose, for life, to fill our heart and soul; we should read materials that nourish them. In our limited span of life, we should not waste our time in reading junk; eating junk food weakens our body, so reading trash materials weakens us morally.
In our ever busy life, we need to find time for deep reading, which is essential for increasing our curiosity and enhancement of critical autonomy. Obviously, reading that keeps us aware of what is happening around us is also important. However, in these days of information overload we should learn how to prioritise our reading. Learning the art of skim reading is also necessary.
‘Read’ and Succeed!
Allah made knowledge the criterion for the superiority of human beings over other creatures, including angels, and imparted knowledge to the first human being who was also made the first Prophet (upon them be peace). The first word Allah revealed to His last Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) through archangel Jibaril was ‘Iqra’ (Read in the name of your Lord!).,
The Qur’anic verses are called ‘ayat’ in Arabic. Things that we see around us in nature are also called ‘ayat’. Both are signs of Allah. Intelligent people are reminded to ‘read’ ‘ayat’ of the Qur’an and as well as ‘ayat’ of the nature.
But mere reading the Qur’an is not enough. One should ‘study’ it and try to understand the meanings as well, so that we can act on its teachings. Knowledge and understanding lead us to the truth, nearer to our Lord Allah. We are asked by Allah to seek knowledge, so that we find truth and live a life chosen by Allah.
“Say: Are those who know equal with those who know not?” (Al-Qur’an 39:9)
“O my Lord! Advance me in knowledge” (Al-Qur’an 20:114)
In Islam, reading is intimately linked with thinking, reflection and introspection. There are numerous verses in the Qur’an that urge human beings to think or reflect. Many Muslims today unfortunately have not grown the habit of thinking or are reluctant to think; the habit is to work on impulse. We must once again become a reading community and a thinking people. During the height of Muslim civilisation, Muslims were known to be great philosophers, thinkers and innovators – that was because they used to read!
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) put immense emphasis on knowledge for Muslims, through many of his sayings; two of the most relevant are mentioned here:
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.” (Al-Tirmidhi)
The superiority of the learned man over the worshipper is like that of the moon, on the night when it is full, over the rest of the stars. The learned are the heirs of the Prophets, and the Prophets leave neither dinar nor dirham, leaving only knowledge, and he who takes it takes a big fortune.” (Abu Dawud)
In the midst of a growing gloominess within people and increasing division amongst nations, reading is the most powerful endeavour that can bring realistic optimism and positive action. We must develop a lifelong habit of good reading and engage in constructive thinking so that our thoughts are translated into the service of all in the society.
The success and failure of a nation depend on the quality of its individuals and the commitment, fellow feeling and unity of its people. Individual and group quality comes from reading; from education and training. Surely, it is enhanced if there is a national direction from the political and intellectual leaders, but reading should be spontaneous from individuals irrespective of what others around us do. When individuals grow a habit of reading, it can be infectious; it is transmitted to their family and community. It then changes the society.
Let us all fall in love with books.