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In Shadow of Jama Masjid: Creating Islands of Learning and Harmony through Libraries

Hazrat Shah Waliullah Library in Delhi

New Delhi— In the heart of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk and just a stone’s throw from Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque dating back to the Mughal era, there is a humble but rich Hazrat Shah Waliullah Library – a unique initiative of locals to foster learning in their community.

It was started in 1994 by Mohammad Naeem and seven of his friends in the old city as a way out of the communally-charged narrative the community was exposed to everyday.

A short documentary by Pluc TV/South Asia Monitor with support of Frank Islam Foundation has captured the history and contribution of the library.

They started small with only a few books but soon things started to change.

“We asked people to donate their books. Around 40% of the books we purchased ourselves and 60% books are donated by people,” says Co-Founder of the library Naeem.

Today this local landmark houses about 21,000 books, including rare works in Urdu, Persian and Arabic. These include translations of Hindu epics like Ramayana. This Ramayana is written in Persian and published in Iran. This is taught in colleges over there. The script is in Arabic and language is Persian.

Naeem says: “There are many subjects that one can’t find on the Internet. Like former Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poetry by the name of ‘Diwan-e-Zafar’ which his almost 150 years old. This can’t be found on the internet.”

The richness of the library has attracted scholars, researchers and students from far and wide.

The library has 20-25 visitors everyday – ranging from research scholars to curious students.

Sikander Mirza Changezi, Co-Founder of the library, says: “Students come to us. People from the government and top institutes come to us. Other professionals also visit us. Scholars from other countries come as well like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, US, France, Germany. They come here to do their research. They often say that we have never come across the books that are available in your library.”

“This library in inclusive and open to everyone irrespective of religion, caste or creed,” says Naeem.

Talking about the idea behind the library, Naeem says: “When we felt that awareness is the need of the hour, we thought of establishing a library.”

Changezi echoes him: “Reading books will help people to be more informed and clear their cobwebs of confusion. People just waste their time sitting on streets and footpaths. Instead, if they come to the library it will be good for them. They will gain some knowledge and do something productive.”

Named after 18th century Islamic scholar, reformer, historiographer, bibliographer, theologian, and philosopher Shah Waliullah Dehlavi, the library is enacting the idea of creating Islands of learning and harmony through libraries.

Challenges of a digital era have caught up with the founders of the library.

Naeem says: “We want all our books, especially the rare ones to get digitized so that it is available on the internet and many more people can benefit from them.”

Sikander Mirza Changezi (L) and Mohammed Naeem, co-founders of Hazrat Shah Walilullah Library in New Delhi

Mirza Changezi stresses the need to open more and more libraries.

“There must be more such libraries especially for the underprivileged so that everyone can read and are able to broaden their minds and outlook. This way India can become a more informed and empowered society,” he avers.

This unique library shows how small communities can create islands of learning and harmony through personal altruism.