Ancient Islamic Texts to See Light of Net ; Egyptian University Said Last Week It Plans to Publish Its Tightly Guarded Islamic Manuscripts on the Web

Article excerpt

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. …