Mutanabbi Street: Arab World’s Over Millennia-Old Cultural, Intellectual Hub

Mutanabbi Street is named after poet Abu al-Tayyib al Mutanabbi, one of the leading lights of the Islamic Golden Age when a spirit of openness fostered the pursuit of knowledge and big science

Mutanabbi Street in its heyday drew dissenters, writers, and artists as a symbol of intellectualism

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Cairo, an Arab saying goes, writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads. For centuries, Mutanabbi Street has played a key role in keeping the culture of reading in Baghdad alive and kicking. A hub for book lovers, a cultural and intellectual hub, the street is named after poet Abu al-Tayyib al Mutanabbi (915–965).

Mutanabbi Street in its heyday drew dissenters, writers, and artists as a symbol of intellectualism in Iraq. It bore scars of civil war in Iraq as the scene of a major attack in March 2007 that left at least 30 people dead. The street and Iraq were springing to life when I visited Baghdad as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS.

Mutanabbi Street has since been renovated and now stays open into the night as the security situation has improved. Censorship has also been easing since the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, offering booksellers more freedom in selling books. Known earlier as Suq al-warraqin, the street dates back to the Abbasid era when it used to be a market for paper-makers, bibliographers, and scribes, who were in much demand when Arabs sought to acquire knowledge from wherever possible. 

Abbasids accelerated the translation of Indian, Syriac, Persian, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chinese texts into Arabic when they acquired the mastery of the paper-making technology from the Chinese captured following the 751 Battle of Talas (near Tashkent). This mastery was used effectively to create a large number of educated people. Baghdad would produce such good quality paper that it became synonymous with the city. Byzantines referred to the standard 29 inches by 43 inches paper sheet as a Baghdadi sheet.

Abbasids prompted paper use by making it free in schools in the ninth century when over 100 paper-selling shops alone lined Suq al-warraqin. 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 at the peak of the Islamic Golden Age.

The Abbasid rulers led from the front in their pursuit of knowledge. Abu Jafar al-Mamun (786-833), the seventh Abbasid Caliph, mastered philosophy, theology, dialectic debate, and argument. He preferred that conquered adversaries surrendered to him with books rather than gold. Mamun built Baghdad’s first astronomical observatory to check the accuracy of the various, often conflicting, Greek, Persian, and Indian astronomical texts. He also commissioned a group of mathematicians, astronomers, and geographers to draw a world map and devise a fresh way of measuring the Earth’s circumference. 

In this sense, wrote British theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili in The Guardian in September 2010, Mamun’s ‘true legacy is that he was the first to fund big science.’ Khalili noted a spirit of openness towards other religions and cultures fostered in what is now Iraq under the patronage of Mamūn, who sent emissaries far and wide to source scientific texts. One of the emissaries, visited Constantinople to obtain Greek texts from Emperor Leo V.

Víctor Pallejà de Bustinza of Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University wrote in National Geographic in 2016 that Jews, Hindus, and scholars from many other traditions, looked to Arabic as a language of science. Bustinza noted great cities in the Muslim world competed to have institutions to attract the best teachers and books. He added Córdoba, which was among these cities at the westernmost limits of the Islamic world in Muslim Spain, was by the 10th century Europe’s biggest and most cultured city, described by some as the Ornament of the World:

Essential volumes in any scientist’s library were preserved in Córdoba. For instance, De materia medica—On Medical Material—the classic treatise of Dioscorides, written at the time of the emperor Nero in the first century AD, was translated into Arabic in Córdoba, on the orders of Caliph ’Abd al-Rahman III.

In Baghdad, polymath Al-Kindi (801-873) fused Aristotle’s philosophy with Islamic theology. He laid out the rules for solving algebraic equations in his book Kitab al-Jebr. The word ‘algebra’ is derived from the book’s title. Turkish philosopher al-Farābi revived Al-Kindi’s ideas in the 10th century. He would pass the baton to Ibn Sīna (980-1037) and Ibn Rushd (1126-98), who influenced many Renaissance thinkers.

Mathematician and astronomer Al-Khwarizmi was the most important scientist of the era. In his Introduction to the History of Science, historian George Sarton called the period between 800 and 850 The Time of al-Khwārizmi. Khwarizmi presented a systematic way of solving quadratic equations for the first time in Baghdad. He introduced the decimal number system.

People such as Italian mathematician Leonardo da Pisa helped transmit it across Europe making him synonymous with mathematics in Europe. Known posthumously as Fibonacci, Pisa travelled to the Middle East in his early 20s. Upon his return to Italy, Pisa published among the first Western works—Liber Abbaci (1202)—to describe the Arabic numeric system. The knowledge of the system was until then limited to a handful of intellectuals. 

Liber Abbaci relied almost wholly on Khwarizmi’s algorithms for the use of numerals for profit margin, money changing, weight conversion, barter, and interest. Those who wish to know the art of calculating, its subtleties and ingenuities, wrote Pisa, ‘must know computing with hand figures, or nine figures and zero.’

Adrienne Bernhard wrote on in December 2020 that Fibonacci’s great genius ‘was not just his creativity as a mathematician’ but ‘his keen understanding of the advantages known to Muslim scientists for centuries: their calculating formulas, their decimal place system, their algebra.’ She added Fibonacci’s ‘transformative influence on modern maths was thus a legacy owed in great part to Al-Khwarizmi’, known as the father of algebra.

Bernhard wrote Pisa and Khwarizmi, separated by nearly four centuries, were connected by Bagdhad’s academy Bayt al-Hikma. Pisa, the most celebrated mathematician of the Middle Ages, writes Bernhard, ‘stood on the shoulder of another pioneering thinker, Al-Khwarizmi, the one whose breakthroughs were made at the iconic Bayt al-Hikma.’

Pisa’s most enduring mathematical contribution, underlined Benhard, is something rarely taught in schools:

That story begins in a palace library [Bayt al-Hikma] nearly a thousand years ago, at a time when most of Western Christendom lay in intellectual darkness. It is a tale that should dismantle our Eurocentric view of mathematics, shine a spotlight on the Islamic world’s scientific achievements, and argue for the continued importance of numerical treasures from long ago.

Khalili wrote the ‘current understanding of the natural world has been due in no small part to the contributions of these great scholars’ like al-Khwārizmi, who also gave his name to algorithms. As algorithms were becoming ubiquitous in our lives and ruling the internet, Khwārizmi’s Baghdad and Iraq began making headlines for all the wrong reasons post-American occupation in 2003.

The Western civilization had also long eclipsed the rest and overtaken them militarily, economically, and politically to hugely reshape the world—both positively as well as negatively. Iraq is perhaps among the places the West has impacted most negatively over the last century beginning with the Sykes-Picot pact, which Britain and France secretly signed to arbitrarily create nation-states on the carcass of the Ottoman Empire and to sow seeds of discord. 

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

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