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The House of Wisdom

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The following is taken from “1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World” by Salim T S Al-Hassani pg. 46-50:

House of Wisdom

THE HEYDAY OF BAGHDAD was twelve hundred years ago when it was
the thriving capital of the Islamic world. For about five hundred years
the city boasted the cream of intellectuals and culture, a reputation
gained during the reigns of Caliphs al-Rashid, al-Ma’mun, al-Mu’tadhid
and al-Muktafi, It was the world’s richest city and a centre for intellectual
development, being second in size only to Constantinople, with over one
million inhabitants.

People on the cutting edge of development
and discovery group together and so it was in
Baghdad under the four generations of these
caliphs. The reason that Baghdad had reached,
and maintained, such a pinnacle was that
these caliphs had taken a personal interest in
collecting global, groundbreaking scientific
works. As well as books, they brought
together Muslim scholars to create one of
the greatest intellectual academies in history
called the House of Wisdom. This intellectual
powerhouse, coupled with the prowess of
Baghdad, meant the city was the headquarters
for the Arts, Sciences and Letters, and the role
chemistry, Zoology and yeography
on Persian, Indian and Greek texts
Plate, Hippeerates, Puctid, Pythagoras and
it played in the spread and development of
knowledge in the Arts and Sciences was huge,

‘The House (Academy) of Wisdom was known
by two names according to its development
stages, When it was like a single hall in the
time of Harun al-Rashid it was named Bayt
al-Hikrmah but later, as it grew into a large
instilute/academy, in the time of al-Mamun,
it was named Dar al-Hikmah, and both mean
‘the House of Wisdom: It housed a large
library, ‘the Library of Wisdom’ or Khizanat
al-Hikmah, and this held a huge collection of
diferent scientific subjects in many languages,
making it a scientific academy.

Baghdad in 1932, Eleven centuries earlier, this capital
was the site of the House of Wisdom.

Caliph Mohammad al-Mahdi first began col-
lecting manuscripts when he came across
them during his war expeditions. His son,
Caliph al- Hadi, carried on this work until his
son, Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who reigned
from 786 to 809 CE, tormally built the scien-
tific collection and Academy of Science. Cal-
iph al-Mamun, who reigned for twenty years
from 813, extended the House of Wisdom and
designated a section or wing for each branch
of science, so the place was full to bursting
with scientists or ‘Ulama, art scholars, famous
translators, authors, men of letters, poets, and
professionals in the various arts and crafts.

These medieval brains met every day for trans-
lation, reading, writing, discourse, dialogue
and discussion. The place was a cosmopolitan
melting pot and the languages that were spo-
ken and written included Arabic, the lingua
franca, Farsi, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Greek,
Latin and Sanskrit, which was used to translate
the ancient Indian mathematics manuscripts.

Among the famous translators was Yuhanna
ibn al-Bitrig al-Turjuman, known as ‘the
Translator Jonah, son of the Patriarch. H
was more al home with philosophy than
medicine and translated, from Latin, The Book
of Animals by Aristotle which was in nineteen
chapters, Hunayn ibn Ishaq was also a
renowned translator of the books by the Greek
physician Hippocrates and Galen,

Al-Kindi, the physician, philosopher, math
ematician, geometer, chemist, logician and
astronomer, was chosen by Caliph al-Ma’mun
to be one of the scholars leading the transla-
tion of the work of Aristotle. He had his own
personal library which used to be referred to
as al-Kindiya.

Al-Ma’mun was a forward-thinking caliph
and contacted other world leaders in his
pursuit for knowledge. It is said that he wrote
to the king of Sicily asking him for the entire
contents of the Library of Sicily, which was
rich in philosophical and scientific books. The
king responded positively to the Caliph by
sending him copies from the Sicilian Library.

‘The transportation of books varied. Without
the availability of modern planes, it is also
said that al-Ma’mun used a hundred camels
to carry handwritten books and manuscripts
from Khurasan in Iran to Baghdad.

The Byzantine emperor was also approached
because al-Ma’mun wanted to send some of
his scientists to translate the useful books that
were stored in his empire. The emperor said yes and the scientists
went, and were also charged with bringing back any books of the
Greck intellectuals.

Caliph al-Mamun not only steered the organization of the House
of Wisdom, but also participated with the scientists and scholars

in their discourses and discussions and built an astronomy centre
called Marsad Falaki, [t was run by his personal astronomers, a Jew
named Sanad ibn Ali al-Yahoudi and a Muslim named Yahya ibn
Abi Mansour. It is said that Sanad became a Muslim at the hands of
al-Ma’mun himself.

As well as taking up the reins of the House of Wisdom, al-Mamun
took after his father in establishing many higher institutes,
observatories and factories for textiles. [t is said that the number of
higher institutes during his reign reached 332. They were packed
with students pursuing, various subjects in the arts and sciences.

He also apparently asked a group of wise men to prepare a map of
the world for him which they did. This was known as ‘al-Mamun’s
map, or al-surah al-rma’muniyah, which expanded upon those which
were available during the lifetime of Ptolemy and other Greek

Among the House of Wisdorn’s luminaries of the time were the
Banu Musa brothers, Muhammad, Ahmed and al-Hasan, known
as mathematicians and inventors of trick devices; al-Khwarizmi,
the ‘father’ of algebra; al-Kindi, inventor of decryption and musical
theory; Saeed ibn Haroun al-Katib, a scribe or writer; Hunayn ibn
Ishaq al-‘[badi, physician and translator, and his son Ishaq. These
names appear time and time again throughout this book because
these individuals were researching, discovering and building a vast
edifice of knowledge, based on real experiments, that has provided
a firm bedrock for much of what we know today,

Al-Ma’mun was a visionary of education and some historians have
given him the title of “Ihe Master of Arab Civilization’ because of
what was left behind as cultural heritage in Baghdad. The House
of Wisdom and the splendour of Baghdad made it a pulsating
metropolis, crowded with the great minds of the day.

However, we must distinguish between the Abbasid House of
Wisdom above and the Fatimid House of Wisdom (Dar Al-Hikma),
which was established in Cairo in 1005 by the Caliph Al-Hakim.
This academy lasted 165 years. Other cities in the Eastern provinces
of the Islamic world established several ‘Houses of Science’ (Dar al-
‘Ilm), or more accurately ‘Houses of Knowledge, in the 9″ and 10″
centuries to emulate that of Dar Hikma in Baghdad.

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T S Al-Hassani, Salim. (2007). 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World.

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