In central Cairo, not far from the Al-Azhar Mosque and the Islamic Mission City, is one of the most important libraries for the study of Islamic and Arab civilization, founded by Christian monks.
The Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies, set up in 1953 by Jacques Jomier, a Frenchman, and Georges Anawati, an Egyptian philosopher and convert to Catholicism, attracts dozens of students from around the world daily.
“The library has played a remarkable role in Arab culture, thanks to its association with two great names,” Magdy Azab, the library’s deputy director, said.
Jomier, a scholar of Islam and of the Arabic language, also wrote the first study by a foreign researcher of the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 for works such as his Cairo Trilogy (“Palace Walk,” “Palace of Desire,” and “Sugar Street”). (See a related article, “New Cairo Museum Honors Naguib Mahfouz but Doesn’t Inspire.”)
Anawati held doctorates in philosophy and in theology. Director of the Institute until 1984, he left many books, including: “The Works of Ibn Sina,” “The Works of Ibn Rushd,” “The History of Pharmacology and Drugs for the Arabs,” “Christians in Egypt,” and “Christianity and Arab Civilization.”
Azab says the founders regarded Cairo as the ideal place to establish their institute, thanks to the presence of Al-Azhar University, one of the world’s oldest educational institutions. Their motive was to enable researchers to better understand Islam as a civilization and to appreciate its religious and spiritual dimensions.
A Public, Not a Religious, Library
“Like every monastery, it was natural to include a library,” he said, “but from the first it was a public library and not a religious library—as some believe—and it is specialized in the first ten centuries of the history of Islam.”
“Like every monastery, it was natural to include a library, but from the first it was a public library and not a religious library … and it is specialized in the first ten centuries of the history of Islam.“Magdy Azab
Deputy director of the library
The library includes more than 150,000 books, about 1,800 specialized scientific periodicals or concerned with cultural affairs, and more than 20,000 texts from the Arab and Islamic heritage.
“The library contains studies in Arabic and foreign languages and allows readers to view contemporary research in Islamic sciences and many doctoral theses,” Azab said.
It is linked to the digital platforms JSTOR and Cairn, which provide access to academic journals and books online. Its database is available through the electronic catalog and an Al Kindi program specially developed by the staff. Any researcher in the world can review its index, which applies FRBR standards, via the institute’s website.
But the library is not able to provide digital books, partly due to its commitment to the standards of protection of intellectual property rights, and also because “we need significant financial support to be able to provide technical devices that allow copying old books and make them digitally available,” Azab said.
Funds are also needed for a book restoration unit that includes specialists in paper analysis and chemical treatment.
Contemplation and Clarity of Mind
Most users are graduate students, with some undergraduates, Azab says. Younger readers are not encouraged, “so that there is no commotion in the reading halls attached to the monastery, to ensure the greatest degree of contemplation and clarity of mind.”
The architectural qualities of the reading hall include high ceilings and glass facades to ensure that it is flooded with the bright Cairo sunlight.
The library is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Books may be read inside only. Borrowing is not allowed but the staff of ten people, will copy pages for a small fee.
Azab said the library is able to attract more users thanks to its administration’s keenness to constantly provide it with new Arabic publications. “The great priority is for Arabic books in the fields of religious thought, language, philosophy, belief, mysticism, history, geography and science,” he said.
“We strive to acquire all the old books printed in Egypt or throughout the Islamic world, from Morocco to India, without neglecting those published by Orientalist organizations.”Magdy Azab
“We strive to acquire all the old books printed in Egypt or throughout the Islamic world, from Morocco to India, without neglecting those published by Orientalist organizations.”
Conferences Curtailed by Covid-19
In addition to research and viewing activities, the library hosts scientific conferences and seminars to review the efforts of new researchers, but “this activity was greatly affected by the coronavirus pandemic,” Azab said.
Funding is assured by the Friends of the Dominican Institute, a civil-society association set up in the public interest under French law and headquartered in Paris. The president of the association is Bruno Racine, director of the French National Library from 2007 to 2016. Donations by members are tax-deductible in France.
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“We do not need promotion, because we are not an investment or advertising agency, and all the tasks that we perform are of a scientific nature,” Azab said. “What matters to us is to communicate with the real beneficiary, who are specialized researchers, as we do not address the ordinary public.”