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Al-Azhar’s online manuscript project delayed

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Business Monthly | May 2003

Uneasy with cyberspace, some Islamic scholars at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University were relieved last month when the launch of an online project to digitize one of the world’s largest Islamic manuscript collections was postponed. 


The portal, Al-Azhar Online (, was scheduled to launch in Cairo on April 14 and in Dubai on April 30. Subsequent launches in London and Washington, DC had been scheduled for May. 


According to Promoseven/Weber Shandwick, the public relations firm working with the project, the decision to delay was taken in light of the ongoing US-led war in Iraq. But as of late April, as the war wound to a close, no new launch date had been announced. 


Many Al-Azhar sheikhs are apparently apprehensive regarding the security of ancient texts in the digital realm, expressing worry that the manuscripts could be tampered with or abused if made accessible on line. 


Ahmed Khalifa Mahmoud, vice director for library affairs at Al-Azhar, said the chief concern was that religious texts could be altered, or used irresponsibly as propaganda. “We don’t want the manuscripts to be stolen from the site and posted on a site purporting to be affiliated to Al-Azhar,” Mahmoud said. 


And these fears are difficult to allay—especially when no Internet security firewall is 100-percent hack-proof. 


The effort, first mounted two years ago, sought to create a research tool for Islamic scholars and academics around the world, providing them with convenient access to some of the oldest and most important Islamic manuscripts in the Al-Azhar archives. 


The mosque was founded in 972 AD, during the Fatimid period, later evolving into a revered center of Sunni Islamic learning. In 1897, a central library for Al-Azhar was established, which served as a repository for the vast collection of Islamic references scattered throughout the university’s libraries. 


Some scholars argue that making this canon of ancient Islamic texts easily available to the public would serve to illustrate the vast contributions of Islamic scholarship to the sciences and humanities.

The website would also allow people to circumvent the bureaucratic, time-consuming procedures involved in gaining access to Al-Azhar’s rare manuscript collection, where security is extremely tight. 


A request by Business Monthly for information about the manuscript collection and the online project was answered with demands for the submission of a written request to Al-Azhar’s manager of security, a copy of a passport and a valid identification card. This was followed by a “security review.” 


When the website is complete in three to five years—God willing—scholars around the world will have access, for a fee, to 42,000 rare manuscripts and 37,000 documents dating back nearly 14 centuries. Ten thousand pages of digital manuscripts—including fatwas (religious opinions) and fiqh (jurisprudence)—have already been scanned, with a committee of Azhari scholars choosing which manuscripts are to be archived and indexed next. “The scanning of the entire library will take at least three years to complete from the start of the project in February 2003,” explained Moen Makki, Al-Azhar Online’s project manager, adding that it takes two to five minutes to scan one page of manuscript. 


Most of the project’s initial budget of $5 million went towards state-of-the-art scanning machines (provided by IBM), servers, software and scores of computers. With a staff of 100 working both in Cairo and Dubai, the project is one of the largest digitization undertakings of its kind. 


Makki noted that one of the most difficult aspects of starting the project was training Al-Azhar staff to use the cutting-edge machines that the effort requires. “They were completely unaware of how to use computer technology,” he said. 


The mammoth undertaking is being funded by Dubai crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is the visionary behind such projects as the Dubai Internet and media cities and the Palm Project, two man-made islands built in the shape of palm trees off Dubai’s coast. 


During Sheikh Mohammed’s visit to Cairo in April 2000, Al-Azhar’s grand imam Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi suggested the idea of preserving the rare manuscript collection, whereupon the crown prince volunteered to become the project’s patron. 


The idea is hardly a new one. For the past 15 years, the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation, a non-profit organization, has been working to gather all hadith literature—the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that address such varied subjects as worship, law, taxation and government—onto one online computer database. Advanced computer technology has now made it possible to quickly access and search the vast corpus of hadith literature, a chore that would have taken months by traditional methods.

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