The House of Wisdom: Rise and Fall of Islamic Intellectualism and Sciences

Baghdad House of Wisdom
Bagdhad, the round city, illustration.

Multiculturalism, knowledge, inventions, lingual eloquence and spirituality. These are what come to mind when we vision medieval Muslims that rapidly spread across the world within a short matter of time. Baghdad — once a centre of commerce and learning, now a region of the tumultuous political climate and humanitarian crises. What happened to once the greatest achievement of Islamic civilisation and why do we not have any trace of its cognizance and scientific breakthroughs? Where is the House of Wisdom of Baghdad?

The beginning

Bayt Al Hikma, also known as the House of Wisdom, was built by the Abbasid Caliph of the Muslim world, Harun Al Rashid in the late 8th century. The House of Wisdom in Baghdad quickly began to gain traction from across the globe, attracting scholars from the nearby Byzantines, from the Chinese in the East as well as various other ethnicities across and beyond the Muslim world to Baghdad.

The conquest of the Sassanian and Roman empires by the early Rashidun Caliphate led to Muslims contesting an absolute monopoly over the Silk Route which were very unsafe as a result of Romans and Persians frequently being at odds and disrupting trade. The Islamic conquests finally ended major disruptions that destabilised the Silk Route resulting in uninterrupted trade of spices, silk, textiles and most importantly, ancient books from all over Europe and Asia. Works of Greek philosophy that survive today in many cases are retranslation from the Arabic translations that took place in Baghdad.

Invention and Spread of Paper

The primary catalyst to the success of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and the subsequent Islamic golden age, indirectly was found as a result of the Muslim confrontation with the Chinese — most popularly known as the Battle of Talas. After achieving victory, Muslims acquired the recipe for the recently invented paper from the prisoners of war.

Prior to this historical clash, writings were mostly preserved on papyrus, massive rocks, felt, leaves and animal skin. Paper was revolutionary, especially for the time since transportation and preservation of papyrus manuscripts was a laborious task. Paper was lightweight, easy to produce and easy to preserve.

This resulted in immense advancement in all fields of life, ranging from state administration to the preservation of historical records and cheaper making of more durable books about religion, science, philosophy and history.

The translation movement

Harun Al Rashid died, and his son and appointed heir, Al Amin came to power. Al Amin was later ousted by his elder half-brother, Al Mamun who became the next Abbasid Caliph. And thus began the translation movement. Both the brothers, Al Mamun and Al Amin were mentored by the Persian Barmakid dynasty.

The Barmakids were famous for their early support of the Abbasid Caliphate and were renowned for their patronage of Persian sciences that spread into the Arab and Islamic realms.

As a result of being tutored by the Barmakids, Al Mamun grew an immense love for knowledge. He eventually grew an addiction to Greek philosophy and demanded frequent translations of Greek works. This was the first push to the snowball that would eventually establish Baghdad as the centre of the world, putting Constantinople and Damascus to shame.

The House of Wisdom would become a hub for translation of scientific and philosophical works across the world, with frequent retranslations of classics taking place every decade.

Harun al Rashid once sent an Asian elephant and a multiplex water clock to Charlemagne, the Frankish king, to show goodwill. It is said that many in the Carolingian court thought of it as witchcraft due to its complexity.

Baghdad and the Turks

The Abbasids may not have had many accomplishments militarily after, but their stride towards the preservation and creation of knowledge would continue to enlighten the Muslim world for centuries, sparking the most intriguing of discussions and debates, and leading to the most fascinating of theories and inventions.

Even after they were militarily controlled by the Turkish atabegs, Baghdad still remained the centre of commerce. Later down the line, it is Seljuk patronage that led to Islamic orthodoxy establishing itself as the dominant intellectual force in the late 11th century, producing thinkers and scholars among the likes of Al Ghazali.

Nizam al Mulk, the Grand Vizier of the Seljuq empire is renowned as one of the best statesmen in Islamic history, having penned the masterpiece that is read by people even today. Under Melik Shah, Nizam-Al-Mulk drafted the Siasatnama, a set of protocols for empires and governments that covers “the right function of soldiers, police, spies, and finance officials” and provides ethical counsel emphasizing the necessity for justice and religious piety in the ruler.

Nizam al Mulk established the Nizamiyyah schools (evidently derived from his name) which were the first-ever schools that provided higher education and became famous in the East and the West.

Baghdad and the House of Wisdom’s tragic end

The House of Wisdom and Baghdad, for centuries being the centre of knowledge and wisdom, has established itself as an intellectual powerhouse. The Mongols entered the city of Baghdad on February 13, 1258, beginning a week of pillage and destruction.

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