In the beginning of the eighth century, the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid inaugurated the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars from various parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds were mandated to gather and translate all of the world’s classical knowledge into the Arabic language. In the world of Islamic literature, science, culture and education, this age is considered to be the Golden Era. In 1998, Sharjah was declared the Cultural Capital of Arab World by the UNESCO. It was an acknowledgement and an appreciation of the glorious Arabian culture and legacy, carried forward to the next generations by Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah. Having an educationist and historian as its ruler, the Emirates of Sharjah reflects the personality of Sheikh Sultan. He has been their ruler since 1972. If results are the fruits of efforts, then Sharjah is an orchard of Arabian culture and education.
Sheikh Sultan was on a five-day visit to Kerala, on the invitation of state’s CM Mr. Pinarayi Vijayan, in the last week of September. A versatile personality with a deep interest in books, education and cultural life of Arabia, Sheikh Sultan’s personality has stamped a mark on the promotion of socio-cultural fabric of Arabia. In a span of forty-five years, as the ruler of Sharjah, he has turned the emirate into a charming tourist destination and an education hub. While running the administration, the Sultan does not miss out on attending the circles of educationalists, or theatrical activities and keeps announcing new support for projects that raise educational values in his citizens.
The seventy eight year old Ruler and his wife Sheikha Jawaher are still vibrantly active in many cultural projects. Sheikha Jawaher is the Chairperson of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs. She is also a prominent humanitarian and philanthropist whose many roles include the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Eminent Advocate for Refugee Children. She is also a leading advocate of numerous social causes such as cancer awareness, education, entrepreneurship, children’s and women’s empowerment and cultural heritage among others. Sheikha Jawaher contributed AED 3.65 million (USD 1 million) for health care for Somalian refugees. “I love to listen to poetry,” Sheikha Jawaher said in one of her interviews, “I especially love listening to the pieces composed by my husband, who is a poet, and writer; an artist in every possible way.”
The Sultan of Education: From teaching in schools to building universities
From February 1961 to September 1963, Dr. Sultan taught English and Mathematics at the Sharjah Industrial School. By 2015, there were ten universities in Sharjah; with the American University of Sharjah ranking among the top universities of the world, with more than 6000 students. In fact, there is a huge University City hosting a number of universities offering various streams of academic pursuits.
In Sharjah, the city and the emirate, not only in the advanced University City, a student finds whatever he aspires to, such as, an environment suitable for a life of research and science; security, safety, stability, and scientific and cultural activities throughout the year. Over 3000 different cultural activities, in poetry, theater, thought and heritage are on the cultural calendar.
Today, Sharjah is the capital of science and education not only in the Arab world, but in the whole world. Students from all over the world head here, as it provides a fertile environment for all, in accordance with international best practices and standards. The 2016 edition of the QS Best Student Cities ranked Sharjah as the 68th best city in the world to be a university student. From a land of fishermen and deep-sea divers, Sharjah has post graduated as a hub of education for students worldwide.
He doesn’t merely talk to the audience, he teaches them
In the Ramadan of 2016, Sheikh Sultan, gave a specialized documentary explaining about the early roots of the Arabs, Arab history and geography based on a great library in memory of His Highness. The learned Sultan can speak on any subject from Arab theatre to the role of Arabs in shaping the human civilization. He was named visiting professor at Exeter University in 1989 and became a Professor of Modern History of the Gulf at the University of Sharjah in 1999. In 2008, he became a visiting professor at Cairo University.
A research writer, now supports research writing
Sheikh Sultan was awarded an honorary PhD in Cultural Relations and Education, in the presence of Mr. Palanisamy Sathasivam, Governor of Kerala, and Mr. Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of Kerala. He has received many doctorates from various universities across the world. During his research days, Dr. Sultan visited the Indian Documents Library in Mumbai where he discovered significant documents that supported his research project at the time. This experience inspired him to establish his private library which contains thousands of important historical sources and references. Today, Dr. Sheikh Sultan’s private library supports several local and international research scientific institutions.
When the Institute of Egypt was damaged by a furious fire, it was Dr. Sultan’s collection of books on Egyptian history, especially those that were written during the French campaigns, that helped the Institute get back on its feet. His private library also supports the University of Sharjah and Al Qasimia University by providing them with various documents and books in the literary and scientific areas. H.H. Sheikh Sultan recently opened the Islamic Manuscripts House in Sharjah, which contains manuscripts from his own personal collection.
One of the results of his Sharjah Cultural Project, which began with his financial, moral, administrative and executive support, led to an organized and professional work on the ‘Historical Dictionary of the Arabic Language’, which covers the Arabic word and its transformations, flexibility, and usability to express the contemporary culture automatically in the era of globalization.
For the love of written word
After being honoured with the titles of ‘Capital of Arab Culture 1998’, ‘Capital of Islamic Culture 2014’ and ‘Capital of Arab Tourism 2015’ Sharjah has now been crowned the ‘World Book Capital, 2019’, by the International Committee of World Book Capital in the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO). This is in recognition of its prominent role in supporting books, promoting the reading culture and setting knowledge in the dialogue among human civilizations. The Sharjah International Book Fair, a signature identity of Sheikh Dr. Sultan, was marked by the presence of more than 1.3 million attendees celebrating 1417 activities in 2016.
The ‘Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival’ is an initiative that reflects his intention to establish a “founding” culture for Emirati and Arab children in order to achieve the knowledge concept as a lever for society. The focus here is on Sharjah’s treatment of culture as a crosscutting issue, as well as on culture financing as a real business investment. Dr. Sultan invests in people and he allocates generous budgets for cultural activities and all of its components such as the theater, diversification, poetry, narration, heritage and books.
The Sharjah Book Authority also supports and offers translations of Arabic literature to other languages and vice versa. This has enriched the world of knowledge as more Arabic titles and masterpieces in literature smiles on the shelves of book-stores all across the world.
Among the landmarks in Sharjah, stands the Islamic Manuscripts House, in the Al Qasimiya University, which has the rarest and the most precious collections of Historical manuscripts. The House is designed in accordance with the best international specifications in areas of document preservation and restoration, archiving, and classification. Some of these manuscripts date back to the Fifth century and most of them are from the personal collections of Sheikh Sultan, which he gathered during his visits to various countries.
Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival
A colourful yearly event floated by Sheikh Sultan to promote Art and Literature among the students, Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (SCRF 2017) was attended by 306,000 with 990 school visits from across the country, with teachers and students alike keen to experience the excitement of the events, competitions and art at Sharjah Expo. As crowd keep on swelling at the SCRF year after year, Sharjah speeds up its race to lead even in non-curriculum learning like offbeat reading, storytelling, painting and playacting.
An author of history, poems and plays
Sheikh Sultan is an author and is a extraordinary wordsmith when it comes to expressing passion, concerns and emotions in his write-ups. His writing has a flair of humour, passion, compassion and excitement. He has authored a number of important scholarly texts as well as plays, which have been translated into English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Urdu, and Persian, among other languages.
In his autobiography, ‘My Early Life’, a very interesting incident reflecting Sheikh Sultan’s love of nature and history is illustrated by the tale of him rushing back from Cairo to stop his brother, the then Ruler, from destroying the Sharjah Fort, the oldest building in the Emirate, in an act of revenge against his cousin, the previous ruler. However, the “price of saving Sharjah Fort was Sheikh Sultan failing his exams” at Cairo University, and he was forced to sit for the exams the following year. The Fort, meanwhile, was fully renovated in the 1990s, retaining its original doors and windows. I would highly recommend those fond of reading should read, ‘My Early Life’. Sheikh Sultan would travel all the way to Mumbai to do research on his subjects and comes out with copies which can be useful for the future research scholars.
The Ruler of Sharjah has long enjoyed a reputation for his artistic leanings. He has been pivotal in turning his emirate into a cultural hub and a centre for art exhibitions, museums and the venue for an annual book fair. Having authored more than 30 titles, Dr. Sultan’s work includes historical works like The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf, The British Occupation of Aden and The Fragmentation of the Omani Empire. While academic texts on the Arabian Gulf are typically written by those from the West, such as Wilfred Thesiger, Sheikh Sultan’s works are primary sources providing rich information for those studying about the Gulf region.
Al Namrood, a play written by the Ruler of Sharjah and staged by the Sharjah National Theatre had garnered a following around the world including among the European audience. Sheikh Sultan first wrote, directed and performed in a play in 1963 in the newly opened Sharjah Cultural Club, nine years before becoming the Ruler. Mohamed Yousif – the director of the Sharjah National Theatre, says, “The Sultan writes not as a ruler, but from the point of view of an ordinary human being.”
Carrying on the legacy of generosity of the Arabs
Arabs are known for their secret as well as overt generosity. The announcement of settling the dues of 149 inmates and setting them free from jails came as a sudden joyful gift that Dr. Sultan presented to Kerala. The 149 inmates have debts of AED 20 million equivalent to Rupees thirty five crores, and Sheikh Sultan would settle it by paying on their behalf.
Mohammed Mustafa Shaukat, a 68-year-old taxi driver, who has been working in the UAE since 1970, spent 15 years in jail after being convicted. Mustafa may not have been able to participate in the burial of his parents but he will be now able to be with his wife and children. The 68 year old taxi driver would have never been able to settle the huge amount owed by him. He might have even given up the hope of seeing his family after being in jail for 15 years. Rashid Sulaiman Ashraf, 29, spent two years in prison for debts of AED 1,200,000. Sita M. Rivontan, 63, who has spent six years in prison, was very happy when he learnt about the decree, especially since he failed, since 2011, to repay his debts worth AED 10,570,000.
The generosity extends one step further as the freed inmates will also be allowed to continue staying in Sharjah and work. Generous gestures of pardoning and settling mountainous dues are unique in its own way, which sent waves of happiness to hundreds of families, who had lost hopes of seeing their jailed relatives.
Sheikh Sultan’s Economic, Educational and Cultural gifts to Kerala
About fifty percent of Indians in UAE are Keralites and they number around a million. A large chunk of them are stationed in Sharjah. The State Government of Kerala, with the co-operation and participation of Sharjah envisions future projects for infrastructure development.
Here are key specific areas of understandings between the State Government of Kerala and Sharjah:
1. Kerala envisages Rs 50,000 crore investment in infrastructure in the next four years.
2. A centre for learning and research in Arabic language in Kerala.
3. A network of skill development centres to equip Keralites seeking jobs abroad.
4. A facility for Malayali jobseekers to secure an international driving licence before leaving for Sharjah. Authorities from the Emirate would conduct the requisite tests in accordance with international laws.
5. A cultural centre in Sharjah, showcasing history, art and craft of Kerala, comprising of exhibition facilities. This cultural centre will also house the state’s Ayurveda hub. This would link Ayurveda and medical tourism packages to Kerala.
6. Kerala would like to set up excellent education hubs comprising of public schools, engineering college, medical college and skill-enhancement training centres of international quality in Sharjah.
7. Ten apartment towers in Sharjah, which would also have state-of-the-art healthcare facilities. It would be a joint venture between the Sharjah and Kerala governments. It would be a family city to provide affordable housing for Malayalis in Sharjah.
8. The State Government will provide land for the construction of a building for the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram.
The visit of Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad will be long remembered and talked about in the lanes of Kerala. His talks will be echoed in the galleries of Universities and his copious generosity will touch the souls of common Keralites.