Academic powerhouse Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) carried the global light of learning in Baghdad for centuries as a centrepiece of the Islamic Golden Age
In January 1258, an estimated 150,000 Mongol soldiers under Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu besieged Baghdad. They entered the city on February 13 of that year and over the next week overwhelmed the Abbasid Empire.
The Mongol ferocity would echo for centuries and remains entrenched in the collective Arab imagination. The Mongols destroyed everything—hospitals, libraries, palaces, educational institutions—that made Baghdad the preeminent seat of scholarship, culture, and trade for five centuries.
Academic powerhouse Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom), which carried the global light of learning in Baghdad as the Islamic Golden Age’s centrepiece, was among the causalities of the pillage.
It was so formidable that the books the Mongols threw from it are believed to have turned the Tigris black with ink. The extent of the knowledge lost forever remains unknown.
Baghdad would take centuries to re-emerge as a city of prominence. In 2016, when I visited the city as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS, it was again remerging from the destruction wrought by terrorism with a glorious and resilient past to take inspiration from.
Bayt al-Hikmah remained an emblem of this past even though it no longer exists in physical form. It, wrote Adrienne Bernhard on bbc.com in December 2020, epitomized the ‘vibrant intellectual curiosity and freedom of expression’ that thrived under the Abbasids.
Founded as a private collection for the fifth Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid in the late eighth century, Bayt al-Hikmah was later converted into a public academy. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars studied at the academy that welcomed philosophers, mathematicians, scholars, and doctors with open arms.
Hunayn ibn Ishaq (830-910), a Christian polymath, was among the scholars who flocked to Baghdad during the Abbasid reign. He sought refuge in Baghdad to escape the persecution his Syrian Nestorian denomination faced in the eastern Roman Empire, where they were considered heretical.
Multilingual translators such as Ishaq, and his teacher, Yahya ibn Masawayh, were in high demand in the Abbasid Empire. They were hired to translate manuscripts into Arabic from Greek and Syriac.
Ishaq went on to head Bayt al-Hikmah, where he translated Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher 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 in the Islamic world.’ Ishaq translated nearly all known Greek medical books into Arabic.
Bayt al-Hikmah 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 Bernhard, ‘requires a leap of imagination (think the Citadel in Westeros, or the library at Hogwarts).’ Bayt al-Hikmah was a centre for humanities and sciences. Mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography, philosophy, literature, and the arts were also studied there.
It seeded, wrote British theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, in The Guardian in September 2010, the ‘subsequent achievements of this golden age of science, from Uzbekistan in the east to Spain in the west.’
Khalili has argued Bayt al-Hikmah ‘was closer to a true academy, not just a repository of translated books.’ He wrote it was as much ‘a window into numerical ideas from the past as it was a site of scientific innovation.’
Bernhard wrote Bayt al-Hikma was the birthplace of ‘our modern-day “Arabic” numerals.’ She noted it helped spread transformative concepts such as ‘zero’:
…The first record of a zero appearing written down was in ancient Mesopotamia to denote nothingness, but it [was] not given meaning until its use in India in the fifth Century from where it eventually spread into the Arab world – although the Mayans are thought to have been using zero several centuries before that…
Bernhard wrote Bayt al-Hikmah ushered in ‘a cultural Renaissance that would entirely alter the course of mathematics.’ The discoveries made there ‘introduced a powerful, abstract mathematical language that would later be adopted by the Islamic empire, Europe, and ultimately, the entire world.’
Islamic science expert Glen M Cooper writes Bayt al-Hikmah powered ‘an epochal cultural transformation’ as part of the Arabic Translation Movement from the ninth to 11th century. The epoch-defining consequence of the movement, Cooper concluded, 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.’
Cooper writes 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. He studied Arabic and Greek texts to show how, for instance, the language of Galen’s work was transformed during the translation. The concepts ‘took up a home in a new linguistic and cultural milieu’ and ‘profoundly affected the development of empirical science.’
And today, Cooper argues, the West is ultimately the heir of those scientific developments that took place then in the Arabic/Islamic world.’ Cooper has argued contributions of Muslim scientists to medicine, and the flourishing of science during the Golden Age of Islamic civilization can be explained, in part, by basic Islamic religious beliefs and practices.
Cooper has argued the Islamic Civilization in its heyday had an imperial confidence. It enabled Muslims ‘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.’
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 Civilization out of their intellectual history’ despite its staggering achievements.
Iraqi genius Ibn al-Haytham, underlined Al-Khalili, was ‘the greatest physicist in the 2,000-year span between Archimedes and Newton, al-Bīrūni, the Persian polymath regarded as the Da Vinci of Islam, al-Tūsi, a mathematician and astronomer who would influence Copernicus, and Ibn Khaldūn, the acknowledged father of social science and economic theory. All these men are no less worthy of mention in the history of science than Aristotle, Galileo, Newton or Einstein.’