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The House of Wisdom (Arabic: بيت الحكمة‎; Bait al-Hikma) was a library and translation institute in Abbassid-era Baghdad, Iraq.[1] It was a key institution in the Translation Movement and considered to have been a major intellectual center of the Islamic Golden Age. The House of Wisdom acted as a society founded by Abbasid caliphs Harun al-Rashid and culminating with his son al-Ma'mun, who reigned from 813-833 CE and is credited with its institution. Based in Baghdad from the 9th to 13th centuries, many of the most learned Muslim scholars were part of this excellent research and educational institute.

The term house of wisdom is a calque of Persian Sassanians' designation for a library. It was modeled on that of the Sassanians, had the purpose of translating books from Persian to Arabic, and also of preservation of translated books.[2]

In the reign of al-Ma'mun, observatories were set up, and The House was an unrivalled center for the study of humanities and for sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, zoology and geography. Drawing on Persian, Indian and Greek texts—including those of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid, Plotinus, Galen, Sushruta, Charaka, Aryabhata, Socrates and Brahmagupta—the scholars accumulated a great collection of world knowledge, and built on it through their own discoveries. Baghdad was known as the world's richest city and centre for intellectual development of the time, and had a population of over a million, the largest in its time.[3] The great scholars of the House of Wisdom included Al-Khawarizmi, the "father" of algebra, which takes its name from his book Kitab al-Jabr.

Contents

Origins

In the Abbasid Empire, many foreign works were translated into Arabic from Persian, large libraries were constructed, and scholars persecuted by the Byzantine Empire were welcomed.[4] There was also an imperial library in Ctesiphon (now Al-Mada'in),[5][6] and works were also translated at the Academy of Gundishapur, during the Muslim conquest of Persia.

In 750, the Abbasid dynasty replaced the Umayyad as the ruling dynasty of the Islamic empire, and in 762, the caliph al-Mansur (reigned 754 - 775) built Baghdad and made it his capital (the previous capital having been Damascus). The Abbasid dynasty had a strong Persian bent,[4] and adopted many practices from the Sassanid empire - among those, that of translating foreign works, except that now works were translated into Arabic. For this purpose, al-Mansur founded a palace library, modeled after the Sassanid Imperial Library.

The House of Wisdom was originally concerned with translating and preserving Persian works, first from Pahlavi (Middle Persian), then from Syriac and eventually Greek and Sanskrit. Works on astrology, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and philosophy were thus translated.

The Barmakids were influential in the ensuing movement of restoring and preserving Persian culture. They are also credited with the founding of the first paper mill in Baghdad. The secret of papermaking had been obtained from Chinese prisoners taken at the Battle of Talas (751). Previously, copyists would used papyrus (which is fragile) or parchment (which is expensive). The introduction of paper thus facilitated the proliferation of books and libraries.

The concept of the library catalog was also introduced in the House of Wisdom and other medieval Islamic libraries, where books were organized into specific genres and categories.[7]

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. This industry was only possible because of the abundance of paper (warraqa).

Under Al-Ma'mun

Under the sponsorship of caliph al-Ma'mun (reigned 813 - 833), it seems that the House of Wisdom took on new functions related to mathematics and astrology. The focus also shifted from Persian to Greek texts.

At that time, the library was directed by the poet and astrologer Sahl ibn-Harun (d. 830); the other scholars associated with the library are Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (780 - 850), the Banu Musa brothers (Mohammed Jafar ibn Musa, Ahmad ibn Musa, and al-Hasan ibn Musa), and Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (801 - 873).

Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809 - 873) was placed in charge of the translation work by the caliph. The most renowned translator was the Sabian Thabit ibn Qurra (826 - 901). Translations of this era were superior to earlier ones, however, soon after, the emphasis on translation work declined, as new ideas became more important.

The House of Wisdom flourished under al-Ma'mun's successors al-Mu'tasim (reign 833 - 842) and al-Wathiq (reign 842 - 847), but declined under the reign of al-Mutawakkil (reign 847 - 861), mainly because Ma'mun, Mu'tasim, and Wathiq followed the sect of Mu'tazili, while al-Mutawakkil followed orthodox Islam. He wanted to stop the spread of Greek philosophy which was one of the main tools in Mu'tazili theology.

The House of Wisdom eventually acquired a reputation as a center of learning, although universities as we know them did not yet exist at this time — transmission of knowledge was done directly from teacher to student, without any institutional surrounding. Madrasahs soon began to develop in the city from the 9th century, and in the 11th century, Nizam al-Mulk founded the Al-Nizamiyya of Baghdad, considered one of the first universities[8] and the "largest university of the Medieval world".[9]

Destruction

Along with all other libraries in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom was destroyed during the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258. It was said that the waters of the Tigris ran black for six months with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river.

Other Houses of Wisdom

Some other places have also been called House of Wisdom:

  • The main library at Hamdard University in Karachi, Pakistan is called 'Bait al Hikmah'. It is the largest library in Pakistan.[1]

Notes

  1. ^ Iraq: The 'Abbasid Caliphate, Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. ^ Josef W. Meri, Jere L. Bacharach, Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, Published by Routledge, 2006, ISBN 0415966906, p. 451.
  3. ^ George Modelski, World Cities: –3000 to 2000, Washington DC: FAROS 2000, 2003. ISBN 2-00309-499-4. See also Evolutionary World Politics Homepage.
  4. ^ a b Wiet. Baghdad
  5. ^ Ctesiphon
  6. ^ Ctesiphon
  7. ^ Micheau, Francoise, "The Scientific Institutions in the Medieval Near East", pp. 988–991   in (Morelon & Rashed 1996, pp. 985-1007)
  8. ^ Al-Ghazali on Repentance
  9. ^ A European Civil Project of a Documentation Center on Islam

References

External links

See also

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