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mt961013

Learning made possible via papermaking

A STUDY conducted by the National Library (PNM) found that Malaysians now read an average of 14 books a year.

This is delightful news, as about 14 years ago, it was only two-and-a-half pages a year on the average.

Let’s evoke a historic battle that happened a hundred years after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad.

In the year 751, there was a territorial conflict between the Abbasid Caliphate and the Tang Dynasty.

Both troops met in the valley of Talas River, on the border of present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Tang forces were defeated, and great changes transformed the geopolitics and economics of the region, the Middle East, and eventually the European West.

Moreover, the Battle of Talas was a key event in the dissemination of sciences in general and the papermaking process in particular. Prior to that battle, paper production was a sort of state secret, exclusively known to Buddhist monks in some districts.

Knowledgeable Chinese prisoners who were captured in that battle were ordered to produce paper in Samarkand, currently in Uzbekistan.

The art of papermaking was hence transmitted to the Muslim world, and later revolutionised northern Europe.

Soon, it was advanced by the Muslim world, which refined and transformed it into more technology-based mass production. Papermaking mills were established in Baghdad, Damascus, Tiberias, Syria and Egypt, as well as Andalusia.

The refined technique rendered the material for the dissemination of information ‘cheaper’ and ‘of better quality’. ‘Cheaper’, as the amount of labour decreased. ‘Better’, as the raw materials used were linen as well as hemp, whose fibre is longer and stronger than the bark of the mulberry formerly used by the Chinese.

The mills of Damascus became the major points of supply to Europe, before those of Andalusia furnished Jativa, Valencia and Northern Europe.

Through the mass production of paper, Muslims made learning accessible to all and introduced a new era of civilisation, “the one we live in now,” as concluded by Joseph von Karabacek’s work, Arab Paper.

In the terminology of the Quran, reading is reflected by the term qira’ah.

It does not mean reciting only – in the sense of oral delivery even if with no understanding. Rather, it involves “a perusal and thorough study” leading to “an in-depth investigation, examination and exploration.”

The paramount element in man’s system of thought, the philosophical and logical induction, is hence referred to as istiqra’ (from the same root-word Q-R-’).

No wonder the name of the cave where the Prophet received the first revelation is Ghar Hira’, which literally means “the cavern of research”.

This conception of reading coupled with understanding is reflected in the very first revelation to the Prophet Muhammad, wherein, as mentioned by commentators, there is a complete orchestral harmony of the terms used to indicate read, teach, stylus, knowledge and proclaim.

To escape from pagan Meccan idolatry, prior to his prophecy the Prophet passionately devoted himself to contemplation (tahannuth) of the lessons the universe had to teach him. Nevertheless, being illiterate in worldly letters, he was filled with perplexity when the very first revelation commanded him to read, oriqra’.

What was the object for the Prophet to read? He said in a narration that it referred to a certain text in the hands of the Archangel Gabriel; hence, it may be said that the object to read was the Divine Message, the Book of God, which is a sublime Book as it is Divine Words on exalted themes.

By exalted themes, we are referring to the issues surrounding who God is, the reality of creation, the relation between them and the right way of life to salvation.

Against those who feel that they need not listen to divine revelation, the Quran throws this challenge: “Do they think that the hidden reality of all that exists (al-Ghayb) is within their grasp, so that they can write it down?” (al-Tur, 52:41; al-Qalam, 68:47).

As the Source of Islam, the guidance offered by the Quran has been taught unfailingly, interpreted and clarified in various great and enduring voluminous works throughout the history of the Islamic civilisation.

But books alone are not education; books are good only as far as the reader is ready or has the aptitude for them.

Therefore, the first Divine Order to the Prophet to “Read!” was indeed a regnant command to be acutely intelligent, inclusive of perusal and thorough study on the most significant human issues preserved in Revelation.

It is also quite significant that in Muslim lexicography, readers (qurra’) are given the status of those who devote themselves to Divine worship (tanassuk); that reading (qira’ah, iqra’ and taqarru’) is identified with religious integrated learning (tafaqquh); and that the name of the Sacred Book of Islam comes from the same root-word, the Quran.

Alas, present-day Muslim nations are far lagging behind regarding the culture that benefits by knowledge, sciences, research, technological development, and societal and governmental innovations.

It is the United States of America and Japan that are blazing the trail in terms of technologies like Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, electronic books, audio books applications, and electronic and digital papers.

Dr Mohd Sani Badron is Principal Fellow/Director of Ikim’s Centre for Economics and Social Studies. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own. The STAR Home News Opinion Columnists IKIM Views Tuesday December 16, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM

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