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Baghdad's House of Wisdom

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The Abassid Caliphs in Baghdad developed a liberal attitude towards science and philosophy under the form of the 'House of Wisdom,' a learning center. That culture was based upon science as tha Hanbalite school of though in Islam already asserted that sole the science of the Qur'an and Sunna was allowed. Due to the embassies exchanged between the Carolingians and the Abassids, or that Baghdad was a port for the Rhadanites large-scale traders, it is likely that knowledge journeyed into the Carolingin empire. The Islamic Caliphate was asserting itself like a more legitimate successor to the ancient Roman empire than the Byzantines, whose interest in science was low. Arab historians who later came did not refrain from asserting that Greek thought had to wait for Arab scholars to be revived, while the authorities of Byzantine Christianity were wary of the rationalism of ancient science, deemed incompatible with dogmas. Moreover, Sassanids had developed the idea that science, of Persian origin, had been plundered by the Greeks during Alexander's conquests. 800 Greek treatises covering all areas of knowledge were taken up, from the Elements of Greek mathematician Euclide (3rd century B.C.) to Ptolemy Almageste (2nd century A.D.), to the medicine of Galien (2nd century A.D.) It is said that the reasons for this intellectual effort were a dream of caliph Al-Ma'mun, in which the latter spoke with Aristotle:
'Who are you? He says, 'I am Aristotle.' I was delighted to be with him and I asked him:
O philosopher, can I question you?
Just question!
What is good?
It is which is good according to spirit.
What's next?
Which is good under the law.
What's next?
Which is good in people's opinion.
What's next?
There is no next!'
Arabic letters, generally, displayed two parts, a one with maths (Euclide, Archimede, Apollonius, Ptolemy), astronomy (Ptolemy), physics (Aristotle, Hippocrates as far as medicine was concerned), and philosophy were what Arabs had taken from the vainquished peoples, as the other one was all what belonged to them proper (history, geography, poetry, philology). Islamic scientists generally, were called polymaths, 'hakims,' or 'sages,' which clearly denotes their various skills, because they were at the same time physicians, scientists and artists. Albeit knowledgeable of Antique writers, rigidity of Islam towards any philosophical speculation during most of Islamic history did not allowing them to new achievements of their own, but just to new interpretations of ancient authorities only. It should also be remembered that the time was that of a strong development of alchemy, which was led by Jabir Ibn Hayyan and his pupil Yusuf Lukwa, who were sponsored by Caliph Al-Ma'mun. Although they were unsuccessful in their trials of gold transmutation, their methods heralded however pharmaceutical compounds. Especially from the 12th century A.D. on, works translated into Latin (and Hebrew) from Antiquity by the House of Wisdom or even the original works that were produced there, eventually came to feed the scientific thought of Latin West

A Icon of Islamic Liberalism

The great quarrel of free will began under the Umayyads as it originated from the Christian converts who helped developing Muslim theology. Arab philosophers then, at the beginning of the 9th century A.D., with the development of Islamic religious sciences and in particular of the 'Kalam,' -- the discussion, the dialectic -- first studied the Platonic tradition and its cosmology while their successors were passionate about the logic and physics of Aristotle as the 10th century would even see the emergence of a true 'Baghdad school' in philosophy. The House of Wisdom, or Bait al-Hikma, in Arabic, was the learning center in the Abbasid Empire as located in Baghdad. At a time when Charlemagne was developing the Carolingian Renaissance, the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma'mun (reigning 813–833) created that library, and a center of scholars in their empire. The Abbasid caliphs themselves, with a strong Persian bent, had adopted many practices from the previous Sassanid empire, among them that many foreign works were translated. Sassinid Persians were in a tight contact with China and they thus passed a part of that heritage to the Arabs. The Sassanian Empire, by Late Antiquity, is considered the peak of the ancient Iranian civilization as they considerably influenced Roman culture at that time and reached altogether to Africa, India and China. Much of Islamic culture also found its roots there. As since 529 A.D. Byzantine emperor Justinian had had Athens' philosophical schools closed, Neo-platonicist scholars of the time took refuge in Sassanid lands, in the city of Gundishapur, with a academy where they intensively developed astronomy, medicine, philosophy and other science as that attracted other scholars further. The Arabic world inherited of that as Al-Mansur thus founded a palace library, modeled after the Sassanid Imperial Library. That House of Wisdom was originally concerned with translating and preserving Persian works, a draw which extended to works in Syriac, Greek and India's Sanskrit. Other large libraries were constructed in the Abassid lands, as scholars persecuted by the Byzantine Empire were welcomed. Al-Ma'mun brought most of the well known scholars from around the globe to share information ideas and culture in the House of Wisdom as it lasted from the 9th to 13th centuries with many of the most learned Muslim scholars were part that research and educational institute. The earliest scientific manuscripts originated in the the Abbasid Era as observatories were set up. The House of Wisdom became a unrivalled center for the study of humanities and for Islamic science, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy or chemistry, zoology and geography. Scholars of the House draw on Persian, Indian and Greek texts—including those of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid, Plotinus, Galen, Sushruta, Charaka, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta. Arabs called the Greek and Hellenistic philosophy the 'philosophy of the ancients.' The Arabic scholars thus had a their disposal a great collection of world knowledge as they further built upon that with their own discoveries. Baghdad, generally, was the world's richest city and center of intellectual endeavour at the time, as merchants and scientists from as far as China and India traveled to this city. The House of Wisdom also benefited from the use of paper, instead of the fragile papyrus or the expensive parchment. That invention, taken from Chinese prisoners at the Battle of Talas by 751 A.D. in Central Asia -which had delineated the respective areas of influence between the Arabs and Chinese- allowed for the numerous works issued from the House. At that time, there was a vast amount of information in Greek language pertaining to philosophy, mathematics, natural science, and medicine as this valuable information was at that time accessible only to a very small minority of Middle Eastern scholars who knew the Greek language. Barely later, the Arabic world's cosmopolitism, with scholars with miscellaneous origins and religions (of those Sabeans or Zoroastrians, for example) made that, as soon as the Carolingien era, Arabic became the science language, or the equivalent that English became nowadays. Arabs thus are at the origin of the first concept of 'international' science community as scholars between them did not matter the origin of a colleague but appreciated -or criticized- his works! The House of Wisdom was also based upon patronage, that of the high dignitaries of the court and wealthy scholars as much as the one of the Caliphs. Banu Musa brothers, the son of a renowned astronomer, for example, were taken care of on the death of their father by caliph Al-Ma'mu, who gave them a solid education. Having become rich and influential, they were the authors of scientific works themselves and in turn they became patrons, bringing in Greek works from the Byzantine Empire, commanding translations, or materially supporting scholars

->Caliph Al-Ma'mun and The Exploration Of the Pyramid of Cheops
The pyramid of Cheops had been built as the presumed tomb of Pharaoh Cheops more than 4,500 years ago, during the Fourth Egyptian Dynasty. It represented the culmination of architectural techniques initiated by architect Imhotep at the pyramid of Saqqarah. It had become the first of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and Greek and Latin authors such as Herodotus, Didore of Sicily, Strabon and Pliny the Ancient told their exploration. Those focused on the historical and legendary aspect of the monument. In 832 A.D., during a trip to Egypt, Caliph Al-Ma'mun had research done inside the pyramid, which was recounted by many Arab authors. The Caliph intended to find material riches as much as texts of ancient wisdom. Otherwise that they discovered the main internal structures of the Great Pyramid (large gallery, queen's room, king's room), the search was unsuccessful. The Caliph had gained experience with the pyramids in Egypt and understood that the internal systems of the burial chambers were often the same. The entrance through which tourists enter the Great Pyramid nowadays, is the one that was opened by the Caliph. While Al-Ma'mun finally wanted to destroy the pyramid and the others of the Giza plateau, he finally decided to leave them in place, a sign of the Arab greatness that had been able to conquer Egypt, a civilization capable of building them. Then, in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the pyramids of Giza were considered the attics of Joseph, those reservations that Joseph, a Jew, one of Jacob's sons, sold in Egypt by his brothers and turned the pharaoh's advisor, had built to the occasion of an upcoming famine that would hit the country and neighbouring countries. After Al-Ma'mun, the 'Book of Buried Pearls and Precious Mystery,' a 10th-century text, still evoked hidden treasures, which led to the destruction and looting of the great monuments of the Memphis area. At the end of the 12th century, Saldin's son and successor, al-Malek al-Aziz Othman ben Yusuf, tried to destroy the pyramids, but the work proved too titanic and expensive, as much as the construction work had been

The other main aspect of that Arab intellectual movement under the Abassids, until 847 A.D., is that it represented one of the most liberal attitudes of Islam, in intellectual terms, throughout its history. The caliph Al-Ma'mun indeed was a supporter of the Mu'tazilism. Some members of the Shâfi'ite School (one of the four theological schools admitted to the Sunni, then in its development) tended towards the Mu'tazilism. The Mu'tazilism had been born in Basra, southern Iraq, by the 8th century A.D. The Mu'tazilism had been born from the revival by the Arabs of the Greek philosophy and the logos, developing logic and rationalism about the revealed Quran, highlighting free-will, love, asceticism and rejecting any religious dogmatism. The Mu'tazilism was close to Sufism on certain points. The Mu'tazilism had been born from the post-Muhammad struggles that saw the birth of the various currents of Shiism, for example. It came out of Sufism, around 750 A.D., in Basra and his founder, Wasil ibn Ata founded his own school of interpretation, that of those 'who separated from us.' The Mu'tazilists, through the 'Kalam,' the discussion, the dialectic -- a exegesis of the Quran turned a kind of religious philosophy -- and by the resumption of the 'idjtihad' for the interpretation of the obscure passages of the Quran, used an intellectual method which allowed the 'orthodox' scholars of Islam to interpret the founding texts and deduce the Muslim law (the 'mujtachi' was the scholar who produced this effort of reflection), founded their own theology and finally, in 827, the Mu'tazilism was to be recognized as the official theology of the Abasside Caliphate -- Caliph Ma'mun and then his two successors. The doctrine had its schools in Baghdad and Basra. The Mu'tazilists were to go so far as to accuse traditional Muslims, due to their attachment to the concept of the uncreated and eternal Quran, of not being monotheists, as that view further, which the Caliphs tried to impose, eventually distanced the opinion. Caliph Al-Ma'mun indeed, had created by 833 A.D. the 'mihna' (Arabic for 'investigation' or 'inquisition'), a kind of inquisition charged with the control of religious orthodoxy, leading persecution sprees against opponents of mutazilism, which has become the official religion; mihna was also to be used to consolidate the caliphate government. As for the Shiites at last, the divine character of the Quran makes the text infinite and thus having ae infinity of meaning and interpretation, the consequence was that that tendency of Islam was more inclined to be concerned with science and research on the world, a tendency not to be found in Sunni Orthodox Islam for which the Quran should be understood only in Arabic and was, for the most part, closed. That also likely explains why the House of Wisdom flourished under the first Abassid Caliphs, in Baghdad where the strong influence of Iran ruled. The Mu'tazilism was definitively discarded for the benefit of the Sunni towards 1050 A.D. and declined until the 13th century. The research on contradictions of the Qur'anic text ended up having the Mu'tazilists considered heretics. They both reinforced the unicity of Allah -by denying him any attribute- and they claimed man's free will -like a way to reconcile the idea of predestination and that of punishment and reward in a future. To build their reasoning, they used the philosophy of Greeks of Alexandria and gave a allegoric sense to the text. By reaction, the Mu'tazilists' views caused reactions from the orthodox Muslims. The Anthropomorphic School, for example, took the Quran literally as it deduced the physical aspect of Allah from some passages. Mu'tazilism went far, until to skepticism. Like Abou-l-Ala, a early 10th century poet, who asserted that Muslims, Jews and Christians were wrong because only two kinds of men exist, some who are intelligent but unbelieving and the others believing but lacking of intelligence. Caliph al-Mutawakkil, after 847 A.D., began to brake such efforts as he followed orthodox Islam. . The arrival, at the expense of the Arabs, of the Turks, in general, since the 10th century A.D., in the Islamic world then the Mongols and then the Crusades, gradually put a end to the ijtihâd to the benefit of the 'jihad,' the effort, combat, in general, in terms of society and international relations included. Mu'tazilism is today little represented in the Muslim world. It is said that during the taking of Baghdad by the Mongols, in 1258 A.D., the Tigris river, during six months, ran the ink of the books thrown into the waters as the House of Wisdom burnt. The first decline of the House of Wisdom, under caliph al-Mutawakkil, might have been due to his militant orthodoxy and violent persecution of unorthodox Muslims and non-Muslims as well, as scholarly rivalries at the House of Wisdom might have helped too


In the House of Wisdom, astronomical observation pursued certain practical goals such as the determination of the 'qibla' or orientation to Mecca or the time of prayer, but it also helped with navigation, timing or geography. It could also be a matter of verifying and improving Indo-Iranian and Greek theories. In 829 A.D., in the highest district of Baghdad, close to Chammassiya Gate, the world's first permanent observatory, the 'Baghdad Observatory,' was created which, based on the Hipparchus Astronomy Treaty and its catalog of stars, allowed to monitor methodically the movement of planets. Al-Battani (850-929) -- also known like Albatenius -- wrote a catalogue of 489 stars and was the first to use trigonometry in the study of the sky. Ptolemy was criticized and new theories were produced while the predictive astrology of the Iranian tradition was criticized. Observation and theory led to the refinement of instruments and observation techniques of Greek origin like the astrolabe, sundial or quadrant! Caliph Al-Ma'mun also asked a group of scholars to engage into the experimental measurement of latitude, and thus Earth's circumference, a experiment that took place in the Mesopotamian plain. In the domain of medicine, Galen's didactic works became for several centuries the basis of the teaching of medicine in the Muslim world, and humorism the foundation of the Hippocratic medical tradition, was widely adopted. In terms of mapping, Caliph Al-Ma'mun sponsored a global map to a group of astronomers and geographers as that map represented the world known then in the Arab world, from Europe to Indonesia as well as the western and eastern coasts of Africa down to about the Tropics. Finally, well known is Al-Khwarizmi, who, during the reign of Caliph Al-Ma'mun, invented algebra. The House of Wisdom introduced also other, practical concepts. The concept of the library catalog was used along in other medieval Islamic libraries too as books were organized into specific genres and categories. The activities of the library was supported by a large number of stationery shops. These shops doubled as bookshops, the largest of which, al-Nakim, sold thousands of books every day. It's mainly under al-Ma'mun that the House of Wisdom turned to maths and astrology and that its focus also shifted from Persian to Greek texts. Although universities like institutional frame for teaching did not exist at the time, some institutes called 'maktabs' soon began to develop in the city from the 9th century with the first real university founded by the 11th century, the al-Nizamiyya, the largest of the medieval world

At that time of the Abbassids, the House of Wisdom was directed by the poet and astrologer Sahl ibn Haroun (d. 830) as Nestorian Christian scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809–873) had been placed in charge of the translation work. As the emphasis on translation work declined, the House of Wisdom kept flourishing under al-Ma'mun's successors until 847 A.D. Translations of the Abbassid era were superior to earlier ones. By the 8th and 9th centuries, Baghdad was incontestably the sole center of learning in the Arabic world, considered from Spain and Morocco to Central Asia. During the 10th century however, that unbalanced supremacy vanished, likely is the same time that the Abbassid rule was waning. Other centers of learning and scholars had surfaced then in the same area, like -from West to East- Cordoba (current Spain), Kairouan (current Tunisia), Cairo (current Egypt), Alep and Damas (current Syria), Mossul and Al Raqqa (current Iraq), Rayy and Chiraz (current Iran), Khwaazm and Bukhara (Central Asia), the Arabic world becoming multi-centered at the time with both most representative areas the Arabic Spain and North Africa, and the Middle East. In Bukhara, under the Samanids, Al-Kharezmi (787-850) was a notable mathematician, as Ibn Sina (980-1037), the founder to western medecine until in the 17th century A.D. or Al Biruni (973-1046), a astronomer who had assessed the distance between Moon and the Earth as he claimed that the Earth rotated about itself and about the Sun, were also luminaries of the city. Despite the ambassies tracted between the Carolingian empire and the caliphs, it is still ill-known what kind of influence such intellectual works might have had in the West. It looks likely that some Arabic knowledge in astronomy made their way until the Carolingian court. As far as that later point is concerned, one may see from the 'Book of Fixed Stars,' in the 10th century A.D. by Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (Azophi), that the Arabic constellations at the time had turned into shapes taken from the tradition of the desert's caravans, instead of the Greek ones.

Scholars Related to The House of Wisdom

Here are following some notices about scholars related to the House of Wisdom under the Abbassids

A Reason for The Desertion of Ijtihad?

For the first lawyers of Islam, and the first interpretators of tradition, concrete situations played a role. Despite a obvious tendency to artifice, and a intelligence apt to move inside a formalism -- albeit not being well apt to think about a accurate point -- they took into account the changes brought by the conquest which had made pass the Muslims orb from Arabia to a vaster world. Such a dynamism kept allowing adaptation and assimilation. Those scholars, on a other hand, did, through their works, by a instinct of protection or due to a custom deeply anchored in them, avoided to frankly state that they advocated their evolutions because they refered to reality, and they better evoked traditions or they refered to the verses of the Qur'an. The -- important -- consequence was that their successors, when they came to use those works, only saw that link to tradition and not the innovative spirit of their masters. Thus, to content themselves in turn with commenting previous works, looked like justified as they did not keep nor develop methods which would have allowed a development of tradition. There likely is the origine of how the ijtihad was so easily closed, without any protests nor misdemeanor. The successors to Muslim scholars eventually had fallen into giving up any initiative

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