Monday, November 21, 2011

Al-Azhar Manuscripts Online

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

Two months ago, I noted a news item about Al-Azhar (Arabic website here, but English website here still “under construction”), the oldest and most renowned Islamic university (at least in the Sunni world), had inaugurated an ambitious project aiming at digitizing 50,000 old manuscripts (some dating back 1,000 years) and making them accessible online through a search engine, in addition to another 53,000 printed books, the most recent of which dating back to 60 years ago. In total, some 8 million pages would be put online for the benefit of researchers everywhere.
I only got around to checking the website recently, but before I get to that, let me give some more info about the goals of the project, its patron, its cost, etc.

The project aims at “conserving the rich Islamic scientific heritage and propagating it around the world” in order to help “inspire interest in the Islamic civilization and its scientific legacy”. In total, some 125,000 references are to become accessible electronically though a dedicated website, similar to two other great ventures, those of the Library of Congress and of the Vatican Archives. In fact, IBM was selected to set up the technical infrastructure, as it did the same for the other two projects.

So far, about one third of the digitization has been accomplished: more than 16,000 manuscripts have been copied in high-resolution scans, totaling over 3 million pages.

The project was funded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, at a cost of $ 5 million.
Now, checking out the Al-Azhar Library’s website, where the manuscripts are supposed to be accessible, I got a few bad surprises.

First, the website’s contents are very poor, both in Arabic and in English; in the latter language, very scarce information can be found: the whole news section is empty, except for a few items in the “Imam news” section (news relating to the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar); the “Vers’s [sic] of The  Day” section gives a java error; the “Sectors” section (whatever that is supposed to refer to) is empty; the Prayer Times section gives times only for Cairo (likewise in the Arabic section); and there are search sections for the Qur’an (also misspelled!) and the Hadith, though when I searched for “knowledge” (the word) in both of them, I (ironically) got “No search results found”! I did similar searches in the Arabic section and got no results. In short, the site is for the most part not functioning.

Then, the more important section is, of course, the manuscript search one (in Arabic here, and in English here). I searched for Biruni (in English) and got no results. So I switched to Arabic and searched again for Biruni – no luck. So I thought perhaps I should search for a religious figure, and I tried Ibn Taymiyyah – still nothing. So I tried “Astronomy”, with the two terms used during the Islamic civilization (hay’ah and falak), and still no results!

OK, so the project is still not running, almost at all, even though it was inaugurated more than two months ago. But what is worrisome is not just that the search system for manuscripts is not yet operational, it is the fact that the whole website for the Al-Azhar Library is so poor, in Arabic and even more so in English.

In fact, the website for the Al-Azhar University itself is also very poor, though not as blatantly as the Library’s. Indeed, the English website for the University is still “under construction”, quite stunning for an institution that often reminds us that it is the oldest university in the world, and that there are, according to its Grand Sheikh, “9,000 Al Azhar Institutes around the world with more than 70 faculties and 2.5 million students”.

Clearly, this important Islamic university still has much work to do to bring itself to par with the digital standards of the day. This is evidently one symptom of the many ills that plague Muslim institutions, especially in learning and research, and I hope these deficiencies will get addressed and remedied fast.


Anonymous said...

when the site first went up at least a couple of years back or so, it seemed to work fairly well and i remember downloading some material. then it suddenly went offline. the design of the site of course leaves a lot to be desired - even when excellent projects like this are conceived, they tend to be disseminated badly - a number of middle eastern and indian libraries are making content freely available in digital format and north american and european ones are following suite - except that is for the old large colonial collection such as the British Library who continue to charge premium rates.

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