Drawing of the house of wisdom

The House of Wisdom: One of the Greatest Libraries in History


Adding to the list of names among the greatest libraries of the past, the Bayt al-Hikmah (translated as ‘The House of Wisdom’) was established in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire, around the 8th century by Caliph Harun al-Rashid (reign from 786-809 CE) during the time of the Islamic Golden Age. The center continued to flourish under al-Rashid’s son, al-Ma’mun, who is sometimes attributed as the original founder of the House of Wisdom.

This recognition about who was the original founder of the center can become confusing and further details explaining the order of events might assist in this understanding. Al-Rashid was the one who gathered most of the different books, manuscripts and objects coming from his father and grandfather, and started the collection. Eventually this compilation of different materials became so large that al-Ma’mun had to build an extension to the original building, turning it to a large academy which, then, came to be known as the House of Wisdom. It became one of the greatest centers of medieval wisdom and contributed greatly to the scientific movement which had started in the earlier centuries.

Al Ma'mun sends an envoy to the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos

Al Ma'mun sends an envoy to the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos (Public Domain)

The House of Wisdom was originally created in order to house translators and preserve their works but it soon included additional research activities in the areas of medicine, science and astronomy. Two of the most important Caliphs, al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun, had personal interests in scientific works. This library was remarkably well organized, having separate rooms for copiers, binders, librarians, and an astronomical observatory.

Coming of wealth

Compared to its surroundings, Baghdad was a major center for the spreading knowledge in the areas of Arts, Science and Philosophy. It became a great center not only for wisdom but also for material wealth. In addition, charitable donations were encouraged in Islamic law. This created a path to facilitate the sharing of ideas and wealth necessary in order to invest in the continuous expansion of this institution.

Works and scholars

Different types of specialists worked under the House of Wisdom: translators, scientists, scribes, authors, researchers of different subjects, and writers. Many manuscripts and books of a variety of philosophical and scientific subjects were translated there and held as of great importance for the community. The House of Wisdom was open to both men and women. Students of all ethnicities and faiths were welcomed, and those scholars who were persecuted by the Byzantine Empires were encouraged to study there. Many different languages were spoken in that facility including Arabic, Farsi, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Greek and Latin.

13th-century Arabic translation of Materia Medica

13th-century Arabic translation of Materia Medica (Public Domain)

It should not come as a surprise the implementation of new technological developments since the House of Wisdom was open to a great diversity of cultures and ideas. Brought from China, paper became a new and cheaper material for writing, which was previously done on parchment from the skin of animals, a much more time consuming and expensive process.

Al-Ma-mun, scholar and patron

Al-Ma’mun was a scholar himself and perhaps this influenced his desire of wanting to make the institute the greatest center for knowledge in the world. On Isabella Bengoechea’s words:

Caliph al-Mamun was also himself adept in the branches of knowledge taught at the House of Wisdom, including medicine, philosophy and astrology, and often visited the scholars there to discuss their research. At this time astrology was held in the highest esteem as a science in Arab society. The stars and planets were perceived to influence events on earth and astrology was thus carried out with the greatest attention to detail.

Often, al-Ma’mun would assign handpicked renowned scholars to perform specific translations of works. An example of such was the selection of the famous scholar Abu Yousuf Ya'qoub Al-Kindi, who had an impressive level of qualifications which included being a physician, philosopher, mathematician, geometer, logician, and astronomer, to be the one in charge of translating of the works of Aristotle.

The Byzantine embassy of John the Grammarian to Ma'mun (depicted left) from Theophilos (depicted right)

The Byzantine embassy of John the Grammarian to Ma'mun (depicted left) from Theophilos (depicted right) (Public Domain)

Some records stated that, in order to encourage translators and scholars to add works in Arabic to the library, al-Ma’mun would pay them the equivalent weight of each complete book in gold. Undoubtedly, much knowledge about the past would have been lost if not for the continuous works of translation conducted in the House of Wisdom. Baghdad was a very prosperous and rich city, which allowed Al-Ma’mun to spare no expenses to purchase more works, including those from other countries.

In Subhi Al-Azzawi’s words, “It is said that Al-Ma'moun had heard about the magnificent Sicily Library, so he wrote to the King of Sicily asking him for the entire content of the Sicily Library (which was rich in philosophical and scientific books of the Greeks) to incorporate it in the library of the House of Wisdom. The King on the advice of his bishops (that the contents of these books did no good to the people of the Ancient World) sent the content of the Sicilian Library to the Caliph.”

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were highly respected in the medieval Islamic world. 

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were highly respected in the medieval Islamic world. (Public Domain)

The end of the center of knowledge

Unfortunately, Bayt al-Hikmah felt into the hands of the dark destiny which affected many structures of the past. The institution was completely destroyed by the Mongols in 1258 CE. They brutally killed the Caliph’s court and almost his entire family.

Hulagu Khan's siege of Baghdad (1258)

Hulagu Khan's siege of Baghdad (1258) (Public Domain)

The Caliph was kept alive and forced to watch all the killing and destruction. They killed the scholars and threw all the books into the Tigris river. It is said that the river flowed black and red for days from the ink and blood.

Top image: Drawing of the house of wisdom. Photo Source: (muslimheritage)

By Marina Sohma

Resources:

- Cem Nizamoglu, ’The house of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse’.
http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/house-of-wisdom (accessed Dec 10, 2016)

History of Libraries
http://eduscapes.com/history/early/800.htm (accessed on Dec 9, 2016)

Isabella Bengoechea, ‘Iraq’s Golden Age: The Rise and Fall of the House of Wisdom’
https://theculturetrip.com/middle-east/iraq/articles/iraq-s-golden-age-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-house-of-wisdom/ (accessed Dec 10, 2016)

Mohd Roslan Mohd Nor, ‘The Significance of the Bayt Al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Early Abbasid Caliphate’.
https://www.academia.edu/3019719/The_Significance_of_the_Bayt_A_Hikma_House_of_Wisdom_in_Early_Abbasid_Caliphate_132A._H-218A._H_ (accessed Dec 10, 2016)

Steemit , ‘House of Wisdom: Ride and Fall of the Ancient Library at Baghdad’.
https://steemit.com/history/@getonthetrain/the-house-of-wisdom-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-ancient-library-of-baghdad (accessed on Dec 10, 2016)

Subhi Al-Azzawi, ‘The Abbasids’ House of Wisdom in Baghdad’.

http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/abbasids-house-wisdom-baghdad (accessed Dec 10, 2016)

Comments

Stories like this make me understand just why the belief system of Islam is considered to be ‘ok’ & not a problem to so many Westerners. This shows that the people of that time – these at least- were not extremists & did not hold to the ferocious writings in the Koran that cause the violence of the likes of ISIS nowadays and in other times & places. The problem is always that of the few who take literally every word spelt out in their religious ‘book’ !!!  It still gives us a problem in this age as we try to deal with the kooks who want to blow up everyone who won’t just follow their professed ‘God’ !  Islam has it’s terrible followers too, and we cannot afford to be blind to the writings they follow !!! Thank you for this very good article.

Veronica

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