A university student in Egypt seeks reference books and journal articles for his thesis on Islam and economics. A U.S. news organization developing a series on the Hajj wants historical information about the Two Holy Mosques. A Canadian Islamic organization wonders if there is virtual reality software to teach young children how to pray. A Muslim academic in Russia searches for an obscure, 100-year-old manuscript about women and Islam that is kept at the Holy Mosque Library in Makkah.
Such are the requests for information about Islam that pour into Saudi Arabia daily from all over the world. Historically rooted in the Kingdom's holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, Islam has spread to all regions of the world. Yet researchers and educators continue to turn to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, for information
and insight into the faith. With cutting-edge technology, several Saudi public and private entities provide information about Islam to almost anywhere on earth. The King Faisal Foundation's Islamic Studies Research Center in Riyadh, the Holy Mosque Library in Makkah and the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, are all using state-of-the-art technology to inform and educate people around the world about Islam.
The King Faisal Foundation, which was created in 1976, operates a Center for Research and Islamic Studies with an Information Department that includes a library, database, manuscript collection, audiovisual section, children's library and computer center. This comprehensive department constitutes a rich and vast resource for lay people as well as students and scholars. Most of its services are free.
The King Faisal Foundation also maintains an extensive website at (www.kff.com). The library houses a large collection of works on Islam and alone receives hundreds of inquiries a day via telephone, fax and e-mail. Typically, a librarian enters the request into the Center's computer system, which searches in-house databases encompassing around 140,000 book titles and 3,500 periodicals. The information retrieved can, in a short space of time, be communicated to the researcher, wherever he may be.
Research can, of course, also be carried out in person at the library's main reading room, which contains the most widely-used reference books in English as well as Arabic. In addition, there is a separate periodicals section containing magazines, journals and newspapers, many of them rare and historic, with more than ten languages represented.
One of the Information Department's computerized systems, called ''Compactus," provides easy, quick access to books requested. A clerk in the Library Reading Room enters a book's code number into the computer, which sends an electronic message to the conveyor belt system located beneath seven rows of huge, metal stacks that can hold one million volumes.
Silently, the stacks move, and a digital sign indicates the location of the book requested, which can then be manually retrieved by the librarian. When it was installed, this system was only the fifth of its kind in the world.
The Audio-Visual section holds a collection of some 12,000 audio and video tapes and films about Islam and Arab culture. There is also a central register of more than 70,000 Arab writers and related information about their works, as well as an index of bibliographical data that contains some 21,000 records.
Specialized databases assist scholars and students interested in the fields of Islamic science and civilization. Bibliographical databases cover Saudi History, Islamic Economics, Islamic Media, Islamic Education, Women in Islam, the Islamic World, Semitic Studies, Islamic Manuscripts, Classical Literature and University Dissertations, including those submitted to universities in Saudi Arabia, plus a rich assortment from universities throughout the Arab world.
Yet another substantial archive on Islam is to be found in the manuscript collection which contains about 20,000 microfilm copies of manuscripts held by major institutions such as the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, the Library of the British Museum in London and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. In addition, the library maintains its own collection of almost 24,000 original handwritten documents, including many rare, distinctive works, some of them over twelve hundred years old.
Recently, the center's resources were considerably expanded via computer link with the Holy Mosque Library in Makkah. Electronic transmissions are now available regarding an impressive array of source material. These include almost 7,000 original illustrations and manuscripts, more than 7,000 books, 700 periodical titles, 4,000 microfilms of important manuscripts and 40,000 cassette tapes of speeches and lectures delivered at the Holy Mosque.
While libraries in the Kingdom continue to implement new technology to provide information about Islam, several Saudi companies have created innovative products and systems that take learning about Islam to a new level.
Sakhr, one of the leading software companies, has achieved international recognition for its electronic educational programs and was recently named by Windows User Magazine as the "Company of the Year." The company's clients include ministries and universities in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait. GISCO (Global Islamic Software Company), a Sakhr subsidiary, produces software and CD-ROMs using "virtual reality" techniques to present Islam.
Such software includes the Holy Qur'an, an Islamic Dictionary and information on the Two Holy Mosques in Arabic and English, the Hajj (the pilgrimage to the Holy Mosque in Makkah) in Arabic, English, Malay, Indonesian and Turkish and the history of Islam in Arabic, English and French. Another program on the Hadith (sayings and teachings of the Prophet Mohammad) is available in Arabic only.
In the Holy Qur'an program, displays of the graceful beauty of Arabic calligraphy opposite pages of English verses are enhanced by rhythmic recitation of the Holy Qur'an. While displaying the on-line text, the program delivers an audio demonstration of articulation and pronunciation of each sound. The program's recording feature enables the user to listen to his own voice recite the verses and compare it to the program's recitation. Three levels of practice enable the user to evaluate his memorization and comprehension. The program's search capability includes a word search and a Holy Qur'an Subject Tree with 14 main topics, 6 levels of sub-topics and a total of 2,000 juristic topics. It also gives hints on memorizing verses from the Holy Qur'an. Scholars can view the Arabic calligraphy along with the vowel marks according to the Sura index.
GISCO's Hadith Encyclopedia program in Arabic is equally impressive. It includes the Nine Books of Hadith and more than 25,000 pages of Hadith and explanations. Students can read commentaries on Hadith by well known scholars. Again, searches can be done by word, phrase, topic, category and narrator.
Another effective educational tool, GISCO's Islamic History program, is available in English, French and Arabic. Rich in information, maps and illustrations, the program sheds light on Islamic art and architecture as well as Islamic civilization, major events and the different stages of Islamic history.
Those interested in understanding the Hajj can enjoy the interactive Hajj and pilgrimage to Makkah programs in Arabic and English. Accounts of the rituals for both men and women, maps and demonstrations guide the web visitor through sacred sites.
On another level, the company's "Learn to Pray" program is being used in schools throughout the Muslim world. Incorporating text, sound and animation, the program teaches children aged 5 to 12 how to perform ablution and prayer in the methods used by the Prophet. Available in English, Arabic and Malay, the program includes step- by-step instructions and successive questions that help the child learn about Islam.
Websurfers can sample GISCO software by visiting the company's website at (www.al-islam.com), which is available in English, Arabic, Malay, Indonesian, Turkish, French and German. Its selection of high resolution, color graphics accompanies descriptions of the software.
The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, is on the cutting edge of presenting information in English about Islam, with an overview available on its home page at (www.saudiemb.org). This site also provides a link to live audio and video coverage of the regular weekly Friday prayer at the Holy Mosque in Makkah and, during the time of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, presents extensive coverage of events at the Holy Sites. More detailed information on Islam, for example, precise instructions for those who wish to embark on the Hajj pilgrimage, is available on the website of the Islamic Affairs Department, at (www.iad.org).
When the Kingdom introduces the Internet later this year, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call and Guidance plans to host a website that will also bring Islam to cyber visitors. Though the message of Islam has remained unchanged for nearly 15 centuries, Saudi entities use many of today's innovative, technological tools to make it more easily accessible and understandable to people everywhere.