The First Renaissance: A look at the Translation Movement and the House of Wisdom (9th century)

Bayt Al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom (Artistic Depiction)

Did you know that the word “algebra” comes from the title of the early 9th century textbook Ilm al-jabr wa l-muqābala “The Science of Restoring and Balancing” written by the Persian mathematician and astronomer al-Khwarizmi?

Far from being an isolated development, this academic work took place during a period of scientific flourishing in the Islamic Golden Age.

What factors led to the development of scholarship and knowledge in 9th century Baghdad? What role did Islam play? What is the legacy of this era? If you want to learn more, read the rest of this article.

Introduction

The story commonly told about science and its development typically starts with studying Greek figures from Antiquity and Ancient Rome, skips over to the European Renaissance followed by the Enlightenment and the four Industrial Revolutions (it is commonly believed that, as of 2021, we are in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution).

A crucial, but overlooked chapter of the history of science spans the five centuries of the revival of science which took place in Baghdad and the neighboring area from the 9th to the 14th century. It is commonly believed that this development was crucial to laying the foundation for the European Renaissance.

While Western Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages (it did so during a period of 1500 years) marked by a demographic, cultural, and economic deterioration after the decline of the Roman Empire, 9th century Baghdad was a hotspot of intellectual activity.

At this place and in those times, many fields at the core of 21st century high school curriculums were created and revived. Optics, Chemistry, Medicine, Surgery, Sociology, Algebra, Trigonometry all experienced a tremendous rebirth of scholarship. Given the importance and legacy of these fields, it is worth investigating the conditions which were propitious to their simultaneous growth.

To better understand this context, we must go back in time and immerse ourselves in 9th century Baghdad. Using an Islamic and Historical lens, this brief article will shed light on how Baghdad became the epicenter of vibrant scholarship and the legacy it left.

The Abbasid Caliphate: A catalyst of renewed interest in Greek Sciences

The Abbasid Caliphate was the third Caliphate to succeed Muslim’s prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It got established in 750. Baghdad became its capital in 762 under the reign of Al Mansur (714–775), considered by many to be the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate. A few generations after, Harun Al Rashid (763–809) took over the leadership of the Abbasid Caliphate from 786 to 809 and oversaw its expansion which led to a consolidation in wealth and power that helped establish Baghdad as the world’s center of intellectual activity in that period. It is there that, for generations, the best scholars from neighboring areas competed in the translation of Greek and Roman work before starting to produce original scholarship.

The genesis of the Translation Movement

The interest in Greek and Ancient Rome scholarship is not unique to the Abbasid Caliphate. There are historical records that neighboring civilizations (in particular the Sassanid Empire) preceding the Abbasid dynasty had taken interest in studying Greek and Syriac texts and translating them into their local languages. More specifically, the Academy of Gondishapur offered training in Medicine, Philosophy, Theology and Science and was the most important medical center of the 6th and 7th century. One of their enduring legacies is shaping the hospital system and training of medical doctors. In addition to training doctors, the Academy also was an important center of research in Mathematics and Astronomy.

The Abbasid Empire took inspiration from this neighboring empire and accelerated the interest in Greek scholarship by making it a well funded enterprise: the Translation Movement. The Translation Movement was an ambitious, international enterprise sustained by the Abbasid Caliphate over two centuries with one goal: collecting all of the world’s knowledge and books from previous civilizations and bringing it under one roof and one language.

In addition to the Caliph, several wealthy patrons contributed to it. For them, it was not only a source of knowledge that improved their businesses, but also a prestigious endeavor that consolidated their social standing. The job of translator was also seen as prestigious and an endeavor one could have a career in and attracted the best talents from all over the surrounding countries.

This dynamic created a positive feedback loop where top scholars were attracted, produced translations, hosted discussions of previous work, became rich and able to sponsor further translations. This fueled demand for more translations as patrons and Caliphs competed to sponsor the enterprise and implement some of the learnings in the areas where it was relevant for them.

Instead of being a specialized activity conducted by a few people, for a brief period of time, many stratas of the society of the time were involved in this effort which became a tradition. At that stage, it became a self-sustaining entity.

While efforts originally focused on translating Greek work, the Translation Movement quickly gave birth to original scholarship. A key institution that helped gather the community of translators and engaged them to pursue original work is the House of Wisdom.

The House of Wisdom: From a personal library to a research center

Bayt al-Hikma in Arabic, the House of Wisdom was founded in 8th century Baghdad by Caliph Harun al-Rashid of the Abbasid dynasty. The origin of the institution is tied to Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s thirst for knowledge and appreciation of books from other cultures. Under his leadership, collecting rare scholarly books (often as spoils of war) from neighboring and ancient civilizations became a well funded enterprise.

The House of Wisdom first served as a library to collect all of the world’s books under one roof. While estimates are hard to obtain, it is believed that at its peak, it contained hundreds of thousands of books. The content of these books included mathematics, astronomy and geology.

Beyond book collecting, the House became an intellectual powerhouse of the most powerful empire at that time and served as a basis for translators to read, study the work of previous civilizations and translate it into Arabic. Some of the activities also included academic debates that Al-Ma’mun personally attended, medical consultation and office for architects.

One of the first and most well known directors of the House of Wisdom is Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (790–850). Among his lasting achievements, the word “Algorithm” is credited to be derived from his name. Another of his contributions to the modern world is that the translations of his textbook on Arithmetic introduced the decimal positional number system to the Western world.

Among other famous scholars linked with the House of Wisdom, there is also Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi (800–870), the first philosopher of the Arabic tradition. Later figures also include Ibn Sina (980–1037) widely credited to be the father of early modern medicine. One point worth mentioning is that while Muslim scholars led and did most of the work, they also enabled scholars of other faiths to be involved in their work. For example Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (809–873), who was of Christian faith, was the most productive translator of Greek medical and scientific treatises in his day. These figures show the depth and breadth of activities undertaken over centuries by Islamic scholars. All good things have to come to an end, and the House of Wisdom lasted until 1258 when it was destroyed during the Siege of Baghdad where, over the course of two weeks, Mongol forces captured and sacked the city.

What role did Islam play in the development of the House of Wisdom and what do the achievements of the Islamic Golden Age tell us about the compatibility of Islam and the Pursuit of Science and Technology?

As a Muslim and Scientist, I have a few thoughts on how and why Islam played a central role in the revival of the sciences in 9th century Baghad. The first word revealed to our Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be upon Him) from Allah SWT was “Iqra” which means to Read! To seek knowledge! More specifically, the first 5 verses revealed in the Quran are “Read, ˹O Prophet,˺ in the Name of your Lord Who created — created humans from a clinging clot.Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous, Who taught by the pen — taught humanity what they knew not”

While the explanation of these 5 verses could be a book by itself, central themes in the first 5 verses of the Quran involve the pursuit of knowledge woven into the remembrance that humans are created and live in the world made understandable by Allah through our mind. For Muslims, the acquisition of knowledge and study of the world is not a vain pursuit but a way in which we can on one side grasp the infinite might of the creator of this world, and on the other, obtain practical knowledge to build our societies.

These verses and the prevalence of the Mu’tazilite school of thought in 9th century Baghdad help explain the extraordinary drive which sparked the achievements of this era.

What about women?

One aspect that 21st century readers will likely pay attention to is the role that women played during this era. While their history is less known, there is evidence of a few prominent women also linked with the flourishing of scholarship in this era. For example, Sutayta Al-Mahamali was known in the 10th century for making contributions to the field of arithmetic and law. She was the go-to expert in town to solve problems of inheritance for family and relatives which involved knowledge of jurisprudence, algebra and arithmetic. In addition to solving day-to-day problems she also spent time thinking about methods.

Mariam al-Asṭurlābiyya was known to improve the design of astrolabes which were devices used to precisely establish the positions of the stars and other celestial objects

For a few more profile you can check the first characters of this exposition.

The legacy of the House of Wisdom

The legacy of the four centuries in which scholarship flourished in Baghdad can’t be overstated. The depth and breadth of disciplines developed and ideas helped set in motion the European Renaissance. As all empires, the sun set on the Abbasid Empire at the beginning of the 16th century, and the center of scholarship and power shifted more towards Western Europe and then the US.

Conclusion

I hope that learning about this important and overlooked period of science history piqued your interest. If you want to dive deeper into this fascinating story, the book The House of Wisdom by Jim Al-Khalili does a great job introducing several important figures of this era and their contributions.

Musings of a curious mind …