The origins of the present library were located in Tunis, where in 1926 the Society of Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) established a house for the formation of missionaries preparing to live among Muslims. From the outset an effort was made to provide the house with a specialized library. In 1931 this foundation took the name Institut des Belles Lettres Arabes (IBLA).
In 1949 it was decided to separate the teaching section from the other activities of IBLA. Thus was born at Manouba, near Tunis, a Study Centre where Islam and the Arabic language were taught.
In 1960, by decree of the Congregation of Seminaries and Universities, this Centre was erected as the Pontifical Institute for Higher Oriental Studies, better known in French as Institut Pontifical d’Etudes Orientales (IPEO).
In 1964 the Institute and its library were transferred to Rome, where they occupied a building at Viale XXX Aprile, 15, for three years. In 1967 the Institute obtained from Pope St. Paul VI larger premises inside the Palazzo Sant’Apollinare.
The move to Rome, where a Pontifical Oriental Institute already existed, made it necessary to change the Institute’s name to the Pontifical Institute for Arabic Studies. The Apostolic Constitution Sapientia christiana of 15 April 1979 gave the Institute its present name of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI). Finally, in 1990 the Institute moved to its current location at Viale di Trastevere, 89.