The Greatest Islamic Library Nobody Knows About

Travel Guide to Muslim Europe with travel writer and European Muslim heritage specialist Tharik Hussain

There are many reasons people come to Dublin – admiring beautifully decorated ancient Qur’ans is not one of them.Unbeknown to the vast majority of Muslims around the globe – even those living in Dublin – Ireland’s capital city is home to quite possibly the finest collection of Islamic manuscripts in the western hemisphere, if not the entire world. “What? … Inside Dublin Castle there are ancient Qur’ans and Islamic manuscripts?”

Muhammad, a part-time employee at the Dublin Mosque, run by the Islamic Foundation of Ireland, seems uncertain about what I have just told him.

He has spent the last hour showing me around the quaint 19th century Donore Presbyterian Church building – now his local mosque – detailing the building’s history and architectural merits.

He also showed me their new extension, which integrated the remains of a wall of the former Donore school – dating from 1891.

This was the mosque’s new education facility.

“Inside there are new classrooms for teaching Arabic, Qur’an and English,” he proudly stated, pointing out the building is also home to the mosque’s library.

That was when I mentioned my visit to Dublin Castle’s Chester Beatty Library, catching him off guard.

Muhammad confessed he knew nothing about the Islamic literary gem that sat a mere 25 minutes’ walk from where we stood.

The Chester Beatty Library was first opened in a large building in a wealthy suburb of Dublin in 1957, and moved to its current location inside the 18th century Clock Tower of Dublin Castle in February 2000.

The opening of the new, light, airy and modern public building coincided with the 125th year birthday of its main benefactor and founder Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, an American-Irish mining magnate with a taste for exotic and rare literary items.

Amongst the 20,000 books, manuscripts and scrolls, the multi-millionaire businessman amassed 6,000 items of the rarest and most beautiful Islamic artefacts on earth.

This includes 270 complete or fragmentary Qur’ans dating as far back as the eight century – within a hundred years of the Prophet Muhammad’s(s) life. Sir Beatty was collecting Islamic artefacts long before it became fashionable.

His collection of Islam’s holiest book includes one of the finest Illuminated Qur’ans ever produced – the Ibn Al-Bawwab Qur’an – copied in Baghdad in the year 391 AH (1000 – 1001) by Abu’l Hasan Ali ibn Hilal, the medieval Muslim calligrapher and illuminator par excellence.

The Persian master who is better known as Ibn al-Bawwab, a name that literally means ‘son of the doorkeeper’, because of his father’s humble profession, is said to have only produced 64 copies in his lifetime. There are six manuscripts around the world that bear Ibn al-Bawwab’s name, but it is believed the Qur’an in the Chester Beatty Library, inscribed in a naskh-rayhan combination style of script, is his only genuine piece of work to have survived.

Another Quranic gem is the explosion of deep blues, reds and greens wrapped in gold lace that make up the decorative frames for the chapters inside the Ruzbihan Qur’an. Produced in the Iranian city of Shiraz in the mid-16th century, it is named after its copier, the master illuminator and calligrapher, Ruzbihan Muhammad al-Tab’i al-Shiraz.

Non Qur’an treasures in the collection include nearly 1,000 individual Mughal-era paintings, an Ottoman Illustrated volume of The Life of the Prophet Muhammad, copies of works by the great Persian poets Firdawsi and Hafiz, and some of the earliest Arabic translations of Hellenic work.

The library’s Islamic items are mostly from the Arab world, Iran, Turkey and India.

A selection of these are always on display in the library’s two permanent exhibits; The Arts of the Book and The Sacred Traditions.

The Chester Beatty Library, which was named European Museum of the Year in 2002, is entirely free for visiting members of the public, and has facilities to accommodate researchers.

Where in the world: The Chester Beatty Library is in the Clock Tower of Dublin Castle, which sits on the south bank of the River Liffey in the heart of Dublin city, the capital of Ireland.

In and out: The easiest way to get to the library is to fly into Dublin International Airport, and catch the 747 bus that takes you to the Dublin City South Carnegie Centre – from there the castle is a five minute walk.

Top tips: Take the 150 bus south towards the city’s South Circular road and get off at Warrenmount Donore Avenue so you can walk around the corner to the handsome 19th century Donore Presbyterian Church that is now the Dublin Mosque. This is a great place to meet local Irish Muslims and grab a halal bite to eat in their delicious on-site restaurant serving Middle Eastern and North African fare.


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