In his criticisms of Islamist views, Sam Harris has repeatedly highlighted the intellectual isolation of the Arab world by repeating this claim:
Spain translates more books into Spanish each year than the entire Arab world has translated into Arabic since the ninth century.
A quick Google search suggests that Spain’s current population is about 47 million, while there are about 366 million Arabic speakers, so that would be an amazing statistic, if true. But is it true?
The source for this is the Arab Human Development Report 2003 – Building a Knowledge Society (2MB PDF), which was spearheaded by Dr. Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, director of the Arab regional office of the UN Development Program. According to that report,
Most Arab countries have not learned from the lessons of the past and the field of translation remains chaotic. In terms of quantity, and notwithstanding the increase in the number of translated books from 175 per year during 1970-1975 to 330, the number of books translated in the Arab world is one fifth of the number translated in Greece. The aggregate total of translated books from the Alma’moon era to the present day amounts to 10,000 books – equivalent to what Spain translates in a single year (Shawki Galal, in Arabic, 1999, 87)3 . This disparity was revealed in the first half of the 1980s when the average number of books translated per 1 million people in the Arab world during the 5-year period was 4.4 (less than one book for every million Arabs), while in Hungary it was 519, and in Spain 920. (Figure 2.9.)
The Alma’moon era refers to the seventh Abbasid caliph who reigned from 813-833 CE. So Harris appears to have good grounds for his claim.
In the United States, there are roughly 300,000 new and re-issued books published every year. Roughly 3 percent of those are translations or roughly 9,000 translated books per year for a country with roughly the same population as total Arabic speakers.
Part of the issue in the Arab world is that it isn’t just that there are relatively few translations published, but that there are few books published in general. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but the Arab Human Development Report 2003 and other sources estimate that only 7,000-8,000 books are published in the entire Arab world annually. This is due, in part, to high levels of illiteracy,
Literary production faces other major challenges. These include the small number of readers owing to high rates of illiteracy in some Arab countries and the weak purchasing power of the Arab reader. This limited readership is clearly reflected in the number of books published in the Arab world, which does not exceed 1.1% of world production, although Arabs constitute 5% of the world population. The production of literary and artistic books in Arab countries is lower than the general level. In 1996 it did not exceed 1,945 books, representing only 0.8% of world production, i.e., less than the production of a country such as Turkey, with a population one quarter of that of Arab countries. An abundance of religious books and a relative paucity of books in other fields characterize the Arab book market. Religious books account for 17% of the total number of books published in Arab countries, compared to 5% of the total number of books produced in other parts of the world.