For centuries, the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar mosque housed one of the world's largest collections of Islamic manuscripts. Contemporary Islamic scholars have had to travel to Cairo to view the works in person, and even then, negotiating access to the yellowing, hand-scripted treasures could be a tedious affair.
Now, citing a desire to demystify Islam and debunk myths that the religion advocates violence or acts akin the Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues, Al-Azhar, the cradle of Islamic learning, plans to make all 40,000 manuscripts available over the Internet.
"The West and the rest of the world will learn that Islam is not fanatical, but that it is a religion of tolerance, security, and peace," says Sheikh Mahmoud Ashoor, Al-Azhar's deputy sheikh.
Islamic scholars say publishing the manuscripts will also show the great contribution Islamic scholarship has made to Western civilization. Islamic thinkers helped develop the telescope and microscope, devices that fueled the scientific age. Their mathematical advances allowed people to navigate the stars, and their writings helped medieval Europe to rediscover classical antiquity, leading to the Western Renaissance.
With $5 million from Dubai's Crown Prince Mohamed bin Rashed al-Maktum and technical expertise from the US company IBM, the website will go live toward the end of 2002.
The website will include images of original pages from the rare manuscript collection, plus an index of the full collection, says Ahmed Khalifa, deputy minister of Al-Azhar's library. To see complete copies of these manuscripts, site visitors must pay.
An Al-Azhar committee is still deciding which rare manuscripts to post for free. Then IBM will scan the images and build the site.
Some of the manuscripts date from before AD 969, when Cairo's founding dynasty, the Fatimids, migrated from North Africa and invaded Egypt. In 972 the Fatimids built the mosque of Al-Azhar, whose name means "the most flourishing and resplendent." The mosque began teaching Islam courses three years later in what was to become Al-Azhar University. The Fatimids ruled Egypt until 1171.
Because Egypt didn't have printing presses until the early 1800s, many of these old manuscripts are handwritten, in beautiful, surprisingly uniform Arabic script.
Professional handwriters earned a living copying books, and students sometimes wrote out several copies of a sheikh's writings.
Copying guaranteed that each generation transmitted canonical texts to the next.
These manuscripts expound on dozens of subjects, including the sciences, medicine, literature, language, even cooking and fashion. They're written in Arabic and other languages -Turkish, Persian, Urdu, and English - since students came to Al-Azhar from across the Muslim world.
Some manuscripts have yellowing, torn pages with notes scrawled around the margins. One large copy of the Koran, with majestic Arabic writing and gold-leaf designs, resembles Ireland's Book of Kells. A smaller, older version is written in thick, neat handwriting on deer leather.
Word these priceless texts will be available on the Internet came as great news for Islamic scholars.
"I think it is a wonderful idea whose time has come," said Asma Afsaruddin, an Arabic and Islamic Studies professor at the University of Notre Dame. "As a scholar of Islam, who has used archival material in the Middle East before - and negotiated the intricacies of gaining access to these archives - I am especially thrilled."
Officials hope this project will help preserve the texts, which have been handled for centuries by scholars and researchers.
Scholars hope that opening the manuscripts to widespread study of Islam might lead to new discoveries.
"Who knows what's there," said Mohamed Serag, professor of Islamic studies at the American University of Cairo. "Perhaps you will find something completely new. What has been published so far on the manuscripts available in the Muslim world is very little."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor