Built in the 8th century, as a library and translation institute, Bayt al Hikmah, or House of Wisdom in English, was one of the crowning feature of the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. Baghdad’s initial development can largely be credited to the caliph Harun al Rashid (Aaron the Upright). Under his stewardship, Baghdad began a course that would lead it to reigning supreme as the intellectual and cultural center of world. For 500 years Baghdad was the host of various academic pursuits, drawing in scholars from all over the world. So strong was Harun’s impact on the collective consciousness that he has been mentioned by many great writers. Irishman James Joyce’s groundbreaking novel, Ulysses, features a dream of the caliph, while another Irishman, W.B. Yeat’s, wrote a poem entitled, The Gift of Harun Rashid. Another famous poet, Alfred Tennyson’s, wrote a poem titled “Recollections of Arabian Nights”, in which nearly every stanza ends with the phrase, “of good Haroun Alraschid”. His name even appears in one of Charles Dickens’ novels, as well as Roald Dahl’s the BFG.
The House’s Development
Harun’s son, Al-Ma’mun, extended the house both physically and intellectually, overseeing it’s development into a center for the study of different branches of knowledge. Housed in the great center were intellectuals of different traditions, including, but not limited to, scientists, translators, philosophers, writers and scribes. It was within the House that Muslims gifted the world with accessibility to works of great philosophers such as Aristotle and Hippocrates. Without the work of the Muslim world at that time, much of the great Greek tradition might have been lost forever. Greek was not the only language that was spoken in the House other than Arabic. Farsi, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Indian and Latin were all featured too. Christians and Jews from around the world flocked to the house where they were welcomed in their pursuit of knowledge.
Different Branches of Knowledge
The House’s focus on knowledge went well beyond philosophy and theology. Studies in metaphysics, religious sciences, algebra, medicine, physics, biology, chemistry, trigonometry and astronomy are but some of the areas of focus that thrived in this intellectual hub. Having learned the art of making paper through the expeditions of Muslims to China, Baghdad became one of the centers of the production and reproduction of books, systemizing this process so that books were much more accessible.
The astronomy observatory, founded as part of the House, allowed astronomers to observe the universe and assess the accuracy of the conflicting astronomy focused texts of the Indians, Greeks and Persians. This project went beyond astronomy, as some historians have claimed that this represents the first state-sponsored large-scale science endeavor; a precursor to projects such as the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.
Great Scholars and their Great Works
Naturally, the House became the academic residence of many great scholars. Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa ibn Shakir is said to be the first scholar to explore the idea that the celestial bodies surrounding us, such as the moon and the planets, were subject to similar laws of physics as we are on earth. His book, Astral Motion and the Force of Attractions, contained within it ponderings of a physical force that would later be more fully developed by Newton and his universal law of gravity.
The “Philosopher of the Arabs”, the great Al-Kindi, was another notable resident of the House. Translating the works of Aristotle, and developing them with Islamic theology, Al Kindi began debates on matters of philosophy and theology that would continue centuries after his death. Al-Khwarizimi, the distinguished mathematician, was another of the House’s greats. Together with Al Kindi, he introduced the Arabs, and the rest of the world, to the Hindu decimal numbers that we use today (1,2,3,4…). His book, Kitab al-Jebr (The Book of Completion) gave the world the term algebra (from al-Jebr), as well laying out for the first time some of the rules on solving equations.
Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Syriac Christian, also played a central role in the translation of important texts. His translations of Greek works is said to have helped spawn the development of the field of Islamic medicine. As well as translating, he is believed to have authored 36 books of his own, 21 of which focused on the field of medicine. His book, Ten Treatises on Ophthalmology, described in great detail the anatomy of the eye, as well diseases of this organ, symptoms of these diseases and their remedies. The medical texts translated and authored in this period of Islamic history went on to influence medical practice in Europe for centuries, with some texts maintaining their status as references on issues well into the 17th century.
The End of a Beautiful Era
The beautiful testament to the power of intellectual endeavor came crashing down, both physically and metaphorically, with the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. Some scholars estimate that as many as 90,000 men, women and children were murdered as the city was sacked. Nothing remained of the House and legend has it that the river Tigris turned black from the ink of the books that were trashed in it’s waters, and red from the blood of those slaughtered.
Lessons from the House
758 years on, there are some lessons that can be drawn from this shining light in our history. At a time when it can almost seem like Islam is at odds with science, the reality of the flourishing House is a timely reminder that this could not be further from the truth. When our religion is properly applied, and we are free from the burdens of conflict, intellectual pursuits flourish. Our religion is synonymous with intellectual thought and has been since our revelation began with that most beautiful of commandments, “Read!”. It is also worth remembering that as bright as the 500 years in Baghdad were, it was by no means an exception. Muslims oversaw the flourishing of knowledge in Andalucía for 7 centuries too, the fruits of which have also become the stuff of legends. Even today, in the midst of all the turmoil, Muslim thinkers are rigorously engaged in scientific endeavors of all kinds, be it in the “Muslim world” or outside it.
It is also worth remembering that when we were at our best, be it in Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba or Granada, we operated with both a sense of security and openness. Security allowed us to engage with ideas without deeming them to be deviant, judging them solely on their academic merit rather than based on who was espousing them. Our pursuit of knowledge was not limited to only theology or philosophy; we engaged with all the branches of science of that time. Our openness allowed thinkers and scholars from all corners of the world, Christian, Jewish and otherwise, to find a home within our centers of learning. This proved to be beneficial to all parties; the fruits of this harmony allowed for the development of knowledge that made the world a greater, more hospitable, more illuminated, place.