Sunday, March 18, 2018

What was the House of Wisdom?

In an age of explosive productivity in the sciences and literature, one institution stood in the forefront of this era –the Bayt al-Hikma or the House of Wisdom.
Scholars at an Abbasid Library in Baghdad
by Yahya al-Wasiti

Golden Age of Islam

Many considered the time when Baghdad was the center of the Islamic world as the Golden Age of Islam. Indeed in contrast to today’s chaotic and dangerous Baghdad, it once served as the center of the Islamic world and the host of tremendous intellectual and scientific progress and the Abbasid Caliphs oversaw this development from this city which they chose as their capital in 762.

The Abbasid showed great interest in science and the art as previous Islamic rulers did. The Quran and Mohammed himself promoted intellectual activities by stating that the deeper the understanding of nature meant deeper understanding of Allah, thus research became a religious activity. The Umayyads had already supported scientist, theologians, mathematicians, and artist, but the Abbasids took a step further by establishing a center where the best minds of the Islamic world could converge and serve as an incubator for progress.


The Abbasid had a thirst for knowledge and they had the resources to meet it. The riches of the Silk Road and the central location of Baghdad in this route brought to enormous wealth flowing to the coffers of the Caliphate. This gave the Abbasid Caliphs the money to sponsor great academic endeavors. Within the imperial Caliphate, there had been centers of education, such as the city of Gundeshapur which led in the studies of medicine. Some doctors and graduates from the Gundeshapur’s university found service in the Baghdad and in the Abbasid Caliphs.

Chinese were the first to use
paper money
Another factor to the rise of the House of Wisdom and of scholasticism was the introduction of paper. Historians suggested that contacts with the Tang China especially after the Battle of Talas in 751 led to the transfer of the technology of paper making to the Muslims. This allowed the Muslims to have a medium for their writing and a record of their discoveries.

During the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), it was said he had founded the House of Wisdom. It had initially served as a science academy and a book store within the Caliphal palace. But the Bayt al-Hikma found its fullest potential under Harun’s son, Caliph al-Mamun (r. 813-833). Under his patronage, the House of Wisdom developed into an institute dedicated for learning.

Workings of the House

The House of Wisdom had a wide range of activities, though initially it focused in translation. But as institute, it had an administration as well as salaries. It eventually grew to a full scale research center much to the credit of the Caliph al-Mamun and his successors.

Al-Mamun placed an administration for the House of Wisdom. He had a director appointed to oversee the workings of the House. The House had numerous translators, scribes, and clerks helping to operate it. It welcomed various ethnicity and religion to work for the establishment. In fact, al-Mamun appointed Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873), a Nestorian Christian, to serve as the House’s director. But despite the differences, they were all united by their enthusiasm of learning and by the language of Arabic.

Arabic served as the institute’s lingua franca. Muslims knew the language from their prayer and reading of the Quran regardless of their mother tongues. Other religion learned the language, at least the basic, for socializing and business transactions. This helped to create a mood of understanding and allowed cooperation for the House’s success.

The House in its infancy only worked in translation of various classical Greek works. Al-Mamun had fascination of classical learnings of the Greeks and sent missions and embassies to collect works for the House to translate to Arabic. He sent envoys to the Byzantine Empire as well as the Kingdom of Sicily to collect ancient manuscripts. The envoys succeeded and works from the ancient world, like Plato, Hippocrates, Aristotle, found their way to Baghdad awaiting to be translated.
Al-Mamun Sent an Envoy to Byzantine Emperor Theophilos
Later on, the coverage of the works being translated expanded. Persian and Indian works became an interest to the translators and began to be translated. Their translations became the foundation of works of many later scholars throughout the Islamic world.

Translators received salaries from the Caliph. The Caliph paid them in gold based on the weight of the work they had translated. This basis of salary led to stories of Hunayn ibn Ishaq’s greed. Stories suggested that Hunayn ibn Ishaq used heavier paper and asked translators to write in bigger letter to consume more paper.

As the House of Wisdom continued its work, it duties expanded from translation to full scale research. As the House attracted translators and its collection of works expanded, many intellectuals took interest and entered the House and began to use its materials for their studies. Soon enough, academics in the Islamic studies, natural sciences, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and many more began to produce countless works.

In astronomy, Caliph al-Mamun also showed interest in the subject and ordered the construction of an observatory. He had Sanad bin Ali al-Yahudi, who was a Jew, Yahya bin Abi Mansur, and Khalid bin Abdil Malak manage observatory.

In mathematics, the House of Wisdom hosted Mohammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the celebrated father of algebra and whom the Europeans named from the word arithmetic.

In medicine, Hunayn ibn Ishaq and al-Kindi made their names known in the field. Hunayn ibn Ishaq himself translated works of Hippocrates and Galen. He along with other graduates of the Gundeshapur made the House of Wisdom a center of medical studies. On the other hand, al-Kindi worked also in medicine as well as in other fields such as philosophy and mathematics. He became known as father of Arab philosophy and his works inspired later Muslim scholars such as Avicenna.  

Impact and End

The House of Wisdom showed the progressiveness and advancement of the Abbasid Caliphate. Soon, other Islamic state followed the example of Baghdad. House of Wisdoms were set up in the Tunisia under the Aghlabids and in Spain under the Umayyad. In Spain, it brought the Golden Age of Islam to the Cordoba Emirate, which later elevated itself to a Caliphate under Caliph Abdul Rahman III. It continued the learning that Baghdad started as the Abbasid declined and withered as puppets of their Viziers and generals.

Finally, the end of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and that of the Abbasids ended with the coming of the Mongols in 1258. Mongolian leader Hulagu ransacked Baghdad and destroyed the House of Wisdom. The countless works that the House sheltered were thrown to the river Tigris and changed the color of its water to black caused by the ink of the manuscripts.

The destruction of the House of Wisdom signaled the end of the Golden Age of Islamic Civilization. Only time would tell when the Islamic world or the Middle East would once again be in the forefront of scientific and academic development of the world.

See also: 

General Reference:
Cakmak, Cenap. "House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma)." In Islam: A Worldwide Encyclopedia. Edited by Cenap Cakmak. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2017.

Alkhateeb, Firas. Lost Islamic History: Reclaiming Muslim Civilisation From the Past. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 2017.

Tucker, Ernest. The Middle East in Modern World History. New York, New York: Routledge, 2013.

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