House of Wisdom, Bayt al-Ḥikmah
The House of Wisdom was made possible by the consistent flow of Arab, Persian, and other scholars of the Islamicate world to Baghdad, owing to the city’s position as capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. This is evidenced by the large number of scholars known to have studied in Baghdad between the 8th and 13th centuries, such as Al-Jahiz, Al-Kindi, and Al-Ghazali among others, all of whom would have contributed to a vibrant academic community in Baghdad, producing a great number of notable works, regardless of the existence of a formal academy. The fields to which scholars associated with the House of Wisdom contributed include, but are not limited to philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and optics. The early name of the library, Khizanat al-Hikma (literally, “Storehouse of Wisdom”), derives from its function as a place for the preservation of rare books and poetry, a primary function of the House of Wisdom until its destruction. The House of Wisdom and its contents were destroyed in the Siege of Baghdad (1258), leaving very little in the way of archaeological evidence for the House of Wisdom, such that most knowledge about it is derived from the works of contemporary scholars of the era such as Al-Tabari and Ibn al-Nadim.
Foundation and origins
During the Umayyad era, Muawiyah I started to gather a collection of books in Damascus. He then formed a library that were referred to by the name of “Bayt al-Hikma”.Books written in Greek, Latin, and Persian in the fields of medicine, alchemy, physics, mathematics, astrology and other disciplines were also collected and translated by Muslim scholars at that time. Remarkably, the Umayyads also appropriated paper-making techniques from the Chinese and joined many ancient intellectual centers under their rule, and employed Christian and Persian scholars to both translate works into Arabic, and to develop new knowledge. These were fundamental elements that contributed directly to the flourishing of scholarship in the Arab world.
In 750, the Abbasid dynasty replaced the Umayyad as the ruling dynasty of the Islamic Empire, and, in 762, the caliph al-Mansur (r. 754 – 775) built Baghdad and made it his capital, instead of Damascus. Baghdad’s location and cosmopolitan population made the perfect location for a stable commercial and intellectual center. The Abbasid dynasty had a strong Persian bent, and adopted many practices from the Sassanian Empire – among those, that of translating foreign works, except that now texts were translated into Arabic. For this purpose, al-Mansur founded a palace library, modeled after the Sassanian Imperial Library, and provided economic and political support to the intellectuals working there. He also invited delegations of scholars from India and other places to share their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy with the new Abbasid court.
In the Abbasid Empire, many foreign works were translated into Arabic from Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian and Syriac. The Translation Movement gained great momentum during the reign of caliph al-Rashid, who, like his predecessor, was personally interested in scholarship and poetry. Originally the texts concerned mainly medicine, mathematics and astronomy; but, other disciplines, especially philosophy, soon followed. Al-Rashid’s library, direct predecessor to the House of Wisdom, was also known as Bayt al-Hikma or, as the historian Al-Qifti called it, Khizanat Kutub al-Hikma (Arabic for “Storehouse of the Books of Wisdom”).
The House of Wisdom was much more than an academic center removed from the broader society. Its experts served several functions in Baghdad. Scholars from the Bayt al-Hikma usually doubled as engineers and architects in major construction projects, kept accurate official calendars, and were public servants. They were also frequently medics and consultants.
Al-Ma’mun was personally involved in the daily life of the House of Wisdom, regularly visiting its scholars and inquiring about their activities. He would also participate in and arbitrate academic debates. Inspired by Aristotle, al-Mamun regularly initiated regular discussion sessions and seminars among experts in kalām. Kalām is the art of philosophical debate that al-Mamun carried on from his Persian tutor, Ja’far. During debate, scholars would discuss their fundamental Islamic beliefs and doctrines in an open intellectual atmosphere. Furthermore, he would often organize groups of sages from the Bayt al-Hikma into major research projects to satisfy his own intellectual needs. For example, he commissioned the mapping of the world, the confirmation of data from the Almagest and the deduction of the real size of the Earth (see section on the main activities of the House). He also promoted Egyptology and participated himself in excavations of the pyramids of Giza. Al-Ma’mun built the first astronomical observatories in Baghdad, and he was also the first ruler to fund and monitor the progress of major research projects involving a team of scholars and scientists. His greatest legacy to science is that he was the first ruler to fund “big science”.
Decline under Al-Mutawakkil
The House of Wisdom flourished under al-Ma’mun’s successors al-Mu’tasim (r. 833 – 842) and his son al-Wathiq (r. 842 – 847), but considerably declined under the reign of al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861). Although al-Ma’mun, al-Mu’tasim, and al-Wathiq followed the sect of Mu’tazili, which supported mind-broadness and scientific inquiry, al-Mutawakkil endorsed a more literal interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith. The caliph was not interested in science and moved away from rationalism, seeing the spread of Greek philosophy as anti-Islamic.
Destruction by the Mongols
On February 13, 1258, the Mongols entered the city of the caliphs, starting a full week of pillage and destruction.
With all other libraries in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom was destroyed by the army of Hulagu during the Siege of Baghdad. The books from Baghdad’s libraries were thrown into the Tigris River in such quantities that the river ran black with the ink from the books. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi rescued about 400,000 manuscripts which he took to Maragheh before the siege.
The House of Wisdom included a society of scientists and academics, a translation department and a library that preserved the knowledge acquired by the Abbasids over the centuries. They also researched and studied alchemy, which was later used to create the structure of modern chemistry. Furthermore, linked to it were also astronomical observatories and other major experimental endeavors. Institutionalized by Al-Ma’mun, the academy encouraged the transcription of Greek philosophical and scientific efforts. Additionally, he imported manuscripts of important texts that were not accessible to the Islamic countries from Byzantium to the library. The House of Wisdom was much more than a library, and a considerable amount of original scientific and philosophical work was produced by scholars and intellectuals related to it. This allowed Muslim scholars to verify astronomical information that was handed down from past scholars.
The Translation Movement started in this House of Wisdom and lasted for over two centuries. Over a century and a half, primarily Middle Eastern Oriental Syriac Christian scholars translated all scientific and philosophic Greek texts to Arabic language in the House of Wisdom. The translation movement at the House of Wisdom was inaugurated with the translation of Aristotle’s Topics. By the time of al-Ma’mun, translators had moved beyond Greek astrological texts, and Greek works were already in their third translations. Authors translated include: Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid, Plotinus, Galen, Sushruta, Charaka, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta. Many important texts were translated during this movement including a book about the composition of medicinal drugs, a book on this mixing and the properties of simple drugs, and a book on medical matters by Pedanius Dioscorides. These, plus many more translations, helped with the advancements in medicine, agriculture, finance, and engineering.
Furthermore, new discoveries motivated revised translations and commentary correcting or adding to the work of ancient authors. In many cases names and terminology were changed; a prime example of this is the title of Ptolemy’s Almagest, which is an Arabic modification of the original name of the work: Megale Syntaxis.
Besides their translations of earlier works and their commentaries on them, scholars at the Bayt al-Hikma produced important original research. For example, the noted mathematician al-Khwarizmi worked in al-Ma’mun’s House of Wisdom and is famous for his contributions to the development of algebra. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was born around 780 and died around 850. He was known as a mathematician and an astronomer in the House of Wisdom, and is also known for his book Kitab al-Jabr in which he develops a number of algorithms. The application of the word “algebra” to mathematics and the etymology of the word “algorithm” can be traced back to al-Khwarizmi — the actual concept of an algorithm dates back before the time of Euclid. The term ‘algorithm’ is derived from a Latin version of al-Khwarizmi’s name which is ‘Algorithmus’. He was instrumental in introducing the Arabs to Hindu numerals and algebra so he is known as “The Father of Algebra”. Additionally, al-Khwarizmi wrote about the astrolabe, sundial, and elaborated on Ptolemy’s geometric model. Al-Khwarizmi is also known as the first geographer of Islam with his famous Picture of the Earth treatise. In Picture of the Earth, he arranged the coordinates of hundreds of cities in the world at that time and gave instructions for drawing a new map of the world. George Sarton, one the most famous historians of science known for his book, Introduction to the History of Science, called the period between 800 and 850 AD “The Time of al-Khwarizmi”. Besides that, this mathematician is responsible for the introduction of the Hindu decimal system to the Arab world, and through it to Europe. Al-Kindi also made important breakthroughs in cryptanalysis. In al-Khwarizmi’s early career, he proposed ideas towards the Hindu astronomical tables known as Sindhind. As a result, Caliph Al-Ma’mun sought al-Khwarizmi out to work on the science of equations.
Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi was also another historical figure that worked at the House of Wisdom. He studied cryptanalysis but he was also a great mathematician. Al-Kindi is the most famous for being the first person to introduce Aristotle’s philosophy to the Arabic people. He fused Aristotle’s philosophy with Islamic theology which created an intellectual platform for philosophers and theologians to debate over 400 years. A fellow expert on Aristotle was an East African descent named Abu Uthman al-Jahith who was born in Basra around 776 but he spent most of his life in Baghdad. Al-Ma’mun employed al-Jahith as a personal tutor for his children, but he had to dismiss him because al-Jahith was “Goggled-Eyed”, i.e., he had wide, staring eyes which made him frightening to look at. Al-Jahith was one of the few Muslim scholars who was deeply concerned with biology. He wrote Book of Animals, which discusses the way animals adapt to their surroundings, similarly to Aristotle’s History of Animals. In his book, al-Jahith argued that animals like dogs, foxes, and wolves must have descended from a common ancestor because they shared similar characteristics and features such as four legs, fur, tail, and so on.
Mūsā ibn Shākir was an astrologer, and a friend of Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s son, al-Ma’mun. His sons, collectively known as the Banū Mūsā (Sons of Moses), also contributed with their extensive knowledge of mathematics and astrology. When their father died, al-Ma’mun became their guardian. Between 813 and 833, the three brothers were successful in their works in science, engineering, and patronage. Abū Jaʿfar, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir (before 803 – February 873), Abū al‐Qāsim, Aḥmad ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir (d. 9th century) and Al-Ḥasan ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir (d. 9th century) are widely known for their Book of Ingenious Devices, which describes about one hundred devices and how to use them. Among these was “The Instrument that Plays by Itself”, the earliest example of a programmable machine, as well as the Book on Measurement of Plane and Spherical Figures. Mohammad Musa and his brothers Ahmad and Hasan contributed to Baghdad’s astronomical observatories under the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun, in addition to the House of Wisdom research. Having shown much potential, the brothers were enrolled in the library and translation center of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. They began translating ancient Greek into Arabic after quickly mastering the language, as well as paying large sums to obtain manuscripts from the Byzantine Empire for translation. There also made many original contributions to astronomy and physics. Mohammad Musa might have been the first person in history to point to the universality of the laws of physics. In the 10th century, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) performed several physical experiments, mainly in optics, achievements still celebrated today.
In medicine, Hunayn wrote an important treatise on ophthalmology. Other scholars also wrote on smallpox, infections and surgery. Note that these works would later become standard textbooks of medicine during the Renaissance.
Under al-Mamun’s leadership science saw for the first time wide-ranging research projects involving large groups of scholars. In order to check Ptolemy’s observations, the caliph ordered the construction of the first astronomical observatory in Baghdad (see Observatories section below). The data provided by Ptolemy was meticulously checked and revised by a highly capable group of geographers, mathematicians and astronomers. Al-Mamun also organized research on the circumference of the Earth and commissioned a geographic project that would result in one of the most detailed world-maps of the time. Some consider these efforts the first examples of large state-funded research projects.
The creation of the first astronomical observatory in the Islamic world was ordered by caliph al-Mamun in 828 in Baghdad. The construction was directed by scholars from the House of Wisdom: senior astronomer Yahya ibn abi Mansur and the younger Sanad ibn Ali al-Alyahudi. It was located in al-Shammasiyya and was called Maumtahan Observatory. After the first round of observations of Sun, Moon and the planets, a second observatory on Mount Qasioun, near Damascus, was constructed. The results of this endeavor were compiled in a work known as al-Zij al-Mumtahan, which translates as “The Verified Tables”.
Not only did the Muslims in this era build observatories but soon after in Central Asia, they built a paper mill, which then led to the production of dyes, inks, glues, and even book bindings.
The existence of the House of Wisdom is presently disputed, as is its form and function. Arabist Dimitri Gutas posits in his 1998 book that “House of Wisdom” is a translation error from Khizanat al-Hikma, which he asserts simply means a storehouse, and that there are few sources from the era during the Abbasid Era that mention the House of Wisdom by the name Bayt al-Hikma. This theory is debatable, owing to the destruction of the Round city of Baghdad and conflicting sources in both academic texts and poetry. It is likely, given the Abbasid Caliphs’ patronage of the arts and sciences, that an extensive library existed in Baghdad, and that scholars could have access to such texts, judging by the volume of work produced by scholars centered in Baghdad. Without consistent naming conventions, a physical ruin, or corroborating texts, the phrase “House of Wisdom” may just as well have been a metaphor for the larger Academic community in Baghdad rather than a physical academy specializing in translation work.
This is a list of notable people related to the House of Wisdom and the rise of Arab science.
- Abu Maʿshar (786–886) – Leading Persian astrologist in the Abbasid court who translated the works of Aristotle
- Averroes (1126–1198) – Born in Islamic Iberia (modern day Spain), he was a Muslim philosopher who was famous for his commentary on Aristotle
- Avicenna (980–1037) – Persian philosopher and physician famous for writing The Canon of Medicine, the prevailing medical text in the Islamic World and Europe until the 19th century
- Al-Ghazali (1058–1111) – Persian theologian who was the author of The Incoherence of the Philosophers. His work challenged the philosophers who favored Aristotelianism
- Muhammad al-Idrisi (1099–1169) – Arab geographer who worked under Roger II of Sicily and contributed to the Map of the World
- Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (d. 850) – Persian Polymath head of the House of Wisdom
- Al-Kindi (d. 873) – Considered to be the among the first Arab philosophers, he combined the ideology of Aristotle and Plato
- Maslama al-Majriti (950–1007) – Spanish mathematician and astronomer who translated Greek texts
- Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809–873) – Mesopotamian scholar and philosopher who was placed in charge of the House of Wisdom. (Assyrian-Nestorian) In his lifetime he translated over 116 writings by many of the most significant scholars in history.
- The Banu Musa brothers – Remarkable engineers and mathematicians
- Sahl ibn Harun (d. 830) – philosopher and polymath
- Al-Ḥajjāj ibn Yūsuf ibn Maṭar (786–833) – mathematician and a translator who was known for his translation of Euclid’s works
- Thābit ibn Qurra (826–901) – mathematician and astronomer who reformed Ptolemaic system. Considered as the founding father of statics.
- Yusuf Al-Khuri (d. 912) – Christian mathematician and astronomer who was hired as a translator by Banu Musa brothers
- Qusta Ibn Luqa (820–912) – mathematician and physician who translated Greek texts into Arabic.
- Abu Bishr Matta ibn Yunus (870–940) – physician and scientist
- Yahya Ibn al-Batriq (796–806) – Astronomer
- Yahya ibn Adi (893–974) -Syriac Jacobe Christian philosopher, theologian and translator
- Sind ibn Ali (d. 864) – astronomer who translated and reworked Zij al-Sindhind
- Al-Jahiz (781–861) – Author and Biologist known for Kitāb al-Hayawān and numerous literary works
- Ismail al-Jazari (1136–1206) – Physicist and engineer who is best known for his work in writing The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices in 1206
- Abu Yūsuf Yaʻqūb ibn ʼIsḥāq aṣ-Ṣabbāḥ al-Kindī (800–870) – mathematician, and the first self-identified philosopher in the Arabic tradition
- Jabir Ibn Hayyan – known for his work with practical metallurgy, his work was translated into Latin During the 12th century
- Omar Khayyam (1048–1131) – Persian poet, mathematician, and astronomer most famous for his solution of cubic equations