The Conference of Books, The First Admission, Chapter 1, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

By Khaled Abou El Fadl


In a small town outside Princeton, New Jersey, in a small crowded apartment, blessed by its immeasurable powers and burdened by its keeper, you will find the Islamic Civilization. The glories, the infamies, the victories, the ecstasies, the soft supplications, the tearful entreats, the dreams, the endless lessons of human follies and the exacting record of the divine covenant are all here, present every night.


The impregnable resilient volumes stand side-by-side in a solemn procession testifying to our deeds.  Hasn't the Lord commanded us to recite and to bear witness?  Here, in this small crowded space, is the endless recitation and the eternal murmurings of the Conference of Books.  Who was ever foolish enough to believe that there is a past and present?  There is only the read and unread, otherwise all times are ever present in this library.


If you listen carefully enough, in the dead of night, you will hear the whispers, the arguments, the debates.  You will hear the constant search for the divine and the aching sublimation.  When was this conference first held?  "At first, God created the intellect," the Prophet said.  With creation, the library was born and with the library, the numerous books testifying to the glory of the divine.


Has any civilization honored the book more than we have?  And, has any civilization betrayed the book more than we have?  In the beginning, we memorized from our Prophet, "An hour's reflection is better than a year's worship."  Puzzled, we asked, "Even better than reading the Qur’an?"  And he, may he be blessed, said, "And, can the Qur’an be useful without knowledge?"  ‘Ali (d. 40/661), his student and companion, then declared, "God did not distribute to His servants anything more to be esteemed than intelligence."  Ever since, the Conference of Books re-convened in Islam and for Islam, and what a miraculous conference it was!  In a frenzied celebration, the books of the world gathered around the lands of the Ka‘ba.  The discussions, the debates produced a stream of books glittering with the luminous substance that is Divinity.


When was the Conference adjourned, and when did it re-convene in the crowded apartment outside of Princeton, New Jersey?  When the meretricious exaltations heaped on books mingled with the weapons of dust and neglect.  When the reading stopped and the eloquent eulogization began.  Then the Conference convened here, and has been here ever since. 


I sit here, irrelevant to its majesty, inebriated by its presence.  I can only listen in on its conversations and I humbly await my transformation-- my transformation into a book.  All of you, present in this Conference, were intellects once but without the form.  Eventually, the intellect transformed into a book and buried its writer. 


I look at you and I can glimpse the spirit of the writer that once wrote you.  The thoughts and the arguments are overwhelming except for the fact that once a fallible human being stood behind them.  Why is it that in a book the personal legacies, the moments of triumph, the moments of despair, the pain and the sorrows are all lost?  Or, are they?  My own idiosyncrasies, my own legacy, finds in you companionship and repose.  One day only those who love you, as I love you, will glean my remains in the pages and hear my laughter between the words.


I search for myself in you.  I open the books of al-Jahiz (d. 255/869), his arguments vindicating and defending the women of his age mesmerize me.  What happened to his school, al-Jahiziyya and where are its books?  In a state of ecstasy, I feel the enormous impact of the books that crushed him to death.  At that moment was he as ecstatic as me!  My eyes roll to the books of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), no less controversial in his age and probably more contentious but, otherwise, so different.   Today everyone cites him and very few understand him.  Even in his day he bewildered friend and foe.  His detractors accused him of insanity, and he was left to die in prison.  I shiver at the thought of the numerous times he was beaten for his beliefs and how he rejoiced in his suffering!  But isn't torture always a certificate of sincerity issued to the brightest and bravest!    


I feel a sharp pain in the chest and my eyes burn.  I look around the Conference of Books and despite myself notice all the books whose authors were tortured.  Al-Nisa’i (d. 303/915), the collector of hadith, was beaten for refusing to praise Mu‘awiya (d. 60/680) and died shortly thereafter.  Abu Bakr al-Sarakhsi (d. 483/1090), one of the main Hanafi jurists, wrote his al-Mabsut in prison.  Al-Shaykh ‘Ulaysh (d. 1299/1882) was beaten while ill, and was thrown in prison where he died sick and deserted.  Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751/1350), Ibn Taymiyya's (d. 728/1328) student, was beaten and imprisoned.  Drenched in his blood, he was placed on a donkey and taken around the city.  But what did it matter, Ibn al-Qayyim loved his books.  His endless quest to acquire books became legendary.  God, how many book lovers and collectors existed in the Islamic Civilization and how many book conferences were held!  Despite any oppression the book always managed to save its writer.


The pain in my chest is too much now, I hear my father's screams of pain exactly forty years ago.  I quickly glance towards al-Amidi (d. 631/1233), the jurist, and Taj al-Din al-Subki (d. 771/1370), the Chief Justice of Egypt.  Both were brilliant and unrestrained but persecuted by intellectual parasites.  But this stream of memories is too painful.  In any case, what recourse do petty minds have but to attempt to degrade those whose voices start to rise and reign in the perpetual Conference of Books!  


For comfort, as always, I turn to Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (d. 414/1023) whose writings have transformed many nights, like this one, into a carnival of intoxicating thoughts.  How ironic that the one whose books have kept me company so many nights got along with no one.  He lived and died a social pariah, and he sought revenge.  Thinking that people did not deserve his insights, right before his death he burned his books.  How foolish could he have been!  How could he think that he had a choice in the matter; his books transformed and preserved him nonetheless.  I smile despite of myself for ironically his books are next to the writings of Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id (d. 702/1302) who, despite his extensive knowledge, was famous for his good nature and humor.  Al-‘Id got along with everyone, but he did not write as much. 


A Conference of Books is always full of ironies, for here an irony begets an irony.  I nearly chuckle when I notice that the famous and wealthy Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1210), the author of the commentary on the Qur’an, has been placed next to the famously impoverished Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi (d. 476/1083).  The former enjoyed his wealth as much as the latter enjoyed his poverty.   Al-Shirazi was endowed a school, al-Razi was endowed bodyguards, and I was endowed the two of them. 


Fajr prayer now becomes due, and dawn breaks in through the windows calling the Conference to an end.  As always, I turn to take the last glance at Ibn al-Kutub (the son of books) Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505) who acquired his name after being born on top of a pile of books.  His fate was sealed from that moment on, and he lived to produce some of the most profound writings.  He used to turn down all positions or gifts offered to him, for what possible use could they serve!  At forty he isolated himself from all people and spent the rest of his life with his books.  Every day he was born and reborn on that same pile of books.  "Ibn al-Kutub," what a fitting name for a scholar from the civilization of the Book, the one civilization founded to fulfill the exhortations of a single majestic and divine Book.


Daylight threatens to invade every corner and shelf.  The arguments and debates reduce themselves to a never-ending murmur.  I must now go and remind some people that, "At first, God created the intellect."  I apologize to the books that I did not visit this night.  It does not really matter because the supplications go on anyway.  I clean the room and prepare it for the next session.  But why is it that I always find a tear somewhere?  I ask myself, "will I be able to attend the Conference tomorrow and who will attend with me?"  I pray and supplicate but then, as always, I wonder, "until when will the Conference be held at night?  Until when will the Islamic Civilization be present, here, every night?  Until when will the Islamic Civilization exist in a small, crowded apartment, in a small town, outside Princeton, New Jersey?"