Islamic Golden Age: Legacy Written Out Of History

Medieval Europeans felt inferior to the then vastly advanced Muslim world before they outshined and rejected its scientific legacy besides writing Islamic civilization out of their intellectual history

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When Abu Jafar Abdullah al-Mansur, the second Abbasid Empire Caliph, finalised the site Nestorian Christian monks suggested to him for his new capital—Baghdad—a Jew and a Zoroastrian were among the astrologers he turned to for divination. He laid the first ceremonial brick for the city’s foundation only after the astrologers chose the auspicious date for it—July 30, 762.

This openness and acceptance defined the Abbasids, making their period from the eighth to the 11th centuries a high point of the Islamic Golden Age and civilization. Columbia University professor Edward Said, a Palestinian Arab Christian, has called the era ‘as brilliant a period of cultural history’ as Italy’s High Renaissance.

Scholarship, Culture, Trade

Mansur studied Euclid’s geometric teachings and designed Baghdad as a tribute to the Greek mathematician. Rulers like him patronised the best of scientists, philosophers, theologians, poets, artisans, and craftsmen irrespective of their ethnic or religious backgrounds. This helped Baghdad become the preeminent seat of scholarship, culture, and trade.

The Abbasid period coincided with the centrality of Baghdad to global trade and scholarship at the high noon of the Islamic Golden Age. Baghdad drew people from all over the world. Indians, Chinese, and Europeans were drawn to the city when the Abbasid Empire, one of the world’s greatest ever, stretched from modern-day Tunisia to the Indian subcontinent at its peak.

Leading From The Front

The Abbasids built the best hospitals, libraries, palaces, and educational institutions. They led from the front in the pursuit of one of their key interests—knowledge.

Abu Jafar al-Mamun (786-833), the seventh Abbasid Caliph, mastered philosophy, theology, dialectic debate, and argument. He preferred that conquered adversaries surrender to him with books rather than gold.

Mamun built Baghdad’s first astronomical observatory to check the accuracy of the often conflicting Greek, Persian, and Indian astronomical texts. He commissioned mathematicians, astronomers, and geographers to draw a world map and devise a fresh way of measuring the Earth’s circumference. In this sense, argues British theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, Mamun’s ‘true legacy is that he was the first to fund big science.’

Pursuit Of Knowledge

The Arab pursuit of the lost Greek knowledge from Nestorian Christians intensified under the Abbasids. The translation of Indian, Syriac, Persian, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chinese astronomers’ texts accelerated when Arabs acquired the mastery of the paper-making technology from the Chinese captured after the 751 Battle of Talas (near Tashkent).

The technology was effectively used to promote education. Baghdad became synonymous with high-quality paper so much so that Byzantines referred to standard 29 inches by 43 inches paper sheets as Baghdadi sheets.

Abbasids prompted paper use by making it free in schools in the ninth century when over 100 paper-selling shops alone lined Baghdad’s Suq al-warraqin (Stationer’s Market). The market would become a hub of bibliographies and scribes in what is now Mutanabbi Street; a booklover’s paradise as well as a cultural and intellectual hub.

The Umayyad Empire that preceded the Abbasids also used paper effectively in the quest for knowledge by mainly acquiring and translating Greek manuscripts. The process gained momentum under the Abbasids.

In an article in the University of Western Ontario Medical Journal in 2008. Daren Lin noted medieval Islam was as a result ‘responsible for translating and preserving many medical works into Arabic.’ Lin wrote this allowed an international community of scholars to improve on inherited knowledge.

Global Light Of Learning

Academic powerhouse Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) carried the global light of learning in Baghdad for centuries as the centerpiece of the Islamic Golden Age.

Founded as a private collection for the fifth Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid in the late eighth century, Bayt al-Hikma epitomised the ‘vibrant intellectual curiosity and freedom of expression’ that thrived under the Abbasids. It welcomed philosophers, mathematicians, scholars, and doctors with open arms after it was converted into a public academy.

Hunayn ibn Ishaq (830-910), a Christian polymath, was among the leading scholars associated with the academy. Many like him flocked to Baghdad during the Abbasid reign to escape the persecution their Syrian Nestorian denomination faced in the eastern Roman Empire, where they were considered heretical.

Multilingual translators such as Ishaq were in high demand in the Abbasid Empire and were hired to translate manuscripts into Arabic from Greek and Syriac.

Ishaq went on to head Bayt al-Hikma. He translated Galen’s text and Mathematical Treatise of Ptolemy known in Arabic as Al-Megiste (the Great Book), or Almagest. The book is recognised as the great synthesis and ‘the culmination of mathematical astronomy of the ancient Greek world.’ It constituted the basis of the mathematical astronomy carried out during the Islamic Golden Age. Ishaq translated nearly all known Greek medical books into Arabic.

Bayt al-Hikma is believed to have been as big as the present-day British Library in London, the world’s biggest with up to 200 million catalogued items, and Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale. To conjure the great monument thus, wrote writer Adrienne Bernhard, ‘requires a leap of imagination (think the Citadel in Westeros, or the library at Hogwarts).’

Bayt al-Hikma was a centre for humanities and sciences. Mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography, philosophy, literature, and the arts were studied at the academy that seeded the ‘subsequent achievements of this golden age of science, from Uzbekistan in the east to Spain in the west.’

Arabic Translation Movement

Bayt al-Hikma powered ‘an epochal cultural transformation’ as part of the Arabic Translation Movement (ninth to 11th century). The epoch-defining consequence of the movement was that ‘nearly all of the philosophical and scientific works then accessible to the translators were rendered into Arabic, making Islamic civilisation one of the heirs of Graeco-Roman civilisation.’

Arabic translators transformed ancient Greek thought into ‘versatile intellectual tools for investigating nature’, especially medicine, and ensured their works were accessible to the reading public.

Glen M Cooper, an expert on the Islamic Golden Age, studied Arabic and Greek texts to show how the language of Galen’s work was transformed during the translation. He wrote the concepts ‘took up a home in a new linguistic and cultural milieu’ and ‘profoundly affected the development of empirical science.’

Cooper has argued today the West is ultimately the heir of scientific developments that took place in the Arabic/Islamic world.’ He has highlighted Muslim contributions to the flourishing of science during the Islamic Golden Age.

Cooper has argued that Muslims in the heyday of Islam’s Golden Age had an imperial confidence. It enabled them ‘to take whatever they needed from the store of ancient Greek science and philosophy and use it for their own purposes, without regard for original contexts or intentions.’

Forgotten Legacy

Cooper writes medieval Europe felt ‘inferior to the then vastly more advanced Islamic world’. When Europeans became capable of original science, they ‘rejected the Arabic legacy completely, and went so far as to write Islamic civilisation out of their intellectual history’ despite its staggering achievements.

Al-Khalili writes Ibn al-Haytham was the greatest physicist in the 2,000-year span between Archimedes and Newton. Similarly, al-Bīrūni, the Persian polymath, is regarded as the Da Vinci of Islam. Al-Tūsi, a mathematician and astronomer, influenced Copernicus. Ibn Khaldūn is the acknowledged father of social science and economic theory.

But the likes of al-Haytham, al-Bīrūni, Al-Tūsi, and Ibn Khaldūn are unlikely to find their rightful place in the history of science as Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, or Einstein do thanks to the continued traction for Eurocentrism, which posits Europeans as superior to others including in their contribution to civilization.

The racist, orientalist, and Islamophobia scrutiny of the Gulf States over Qatar’s hosting of the region’s first FIFA world cup underlined this in what academic Justin Martin called a combination of ‘just abject ignorance and Orientalist tropes.’

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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