The house of wisdom

23 Mar 2015

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The House of Wisdom

Case Study: Al-Khwarizmi.

Abu Jafar Al-Mansur was taking no chances with his new imperial capital, Baghdad, for this was to be a city like no other. The second Abbasid caliph of the Muslims ordered his architects to mark the layout of the walls of his proposed city, a perfect circle, in keeping with the geometric teachings of the caliph's beloved Euclid, the great Greek mathematician who lived in the fourth and third centuries B.C, and was specialized in geometry (Hayhurst). Twelve years before work began on the capital, al-Mansur's brother Saffah completed the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty, which has risen to power in the Muslim world three decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammed in 632. Saffah, sent his forces under the Abbasid's distinctive black banners to hunt down the remaining members of the House of the Umayyads. The only significant figure to escape alive was Prince Abd al-Rahman, who fled to North Africa before going on to establish Western Caliphate in southern Spain. However, the victory of the Abbasids, who found it politically possible to declare their direct lineage to the Prophet through his paternal uncle Abbas, was less a blood dispute between an aging dynasty and an ambitious pretender that it was an extensive cultural revolution throughout the Islamic lands.

Al-Mansur's young court was virtually surrounded by established centers of Christian, Persian, and pagan learning; on the other hand, he had to go looking for one important element of what might be called Abbasid intellectual policy. At the caliph's invitation, an Indian scholarly delegation skilled in the movements of the starts arrived in Baghdad bearing Hindu scientific texts, an important jumping-off point for early Arab astronomy and mathematics. The Hindu sages understood how to solve equations based on trigonometric sine function and had devised smart ways to predict eclipses. The caliph ordered an official translation of the Hindu material into Arabic, part of an increasingly organized effort to absorb Persian and Indian knowledge. This same approach, accompanied by much original research was soon afterwards applied with the ancient learning of the Greeks (Lyons).

The Umayyads laid the groundwork for scientific inquiry, but much of their early focus was on questions of Islamic law and the practice of medicine, a field in which they, like their successors, relied heavily on Christian physicians from Syria and Persia. The Abbasid caliphs delibrately pushed back these boundaries to make more room for the study of both philosophy and the hard sciences. According to the Arab historian Said al-Andalusi, who died in 1070, much of the credit for this goes to the founder of Baghdad:"There was a surge in spirit and an awakening in intelligence. The first of this dynasty to cultivate science was the second caliph, Abu Jafar al-Mansur. He was, in addition to his profound knowledge of logic and law, very interested in philosophy and observational astronomy; he was fond of both and of the people who worked in these fields" (Lyons). Another chronicler notes that the caliph directed numerous foreign translations into Arabic, including classic works of Hindu, Persian, and Greek scholars, and set the direction for future research. "Once in possession of these books, the public read and studied them avidly". (Lyons)

To host the vast scale of work needed to study, translate, and store the huge volume of Persian and Greek texts, al-Mansur established a royal library modeled after those of the great Persian kings. Working space, administrative support, together with financial support were also required for the small army of scholars who take up these tasks and then build on them in creative and original ways. This was the origin of what became known as Bayt al Hikma or the House of Wisdom - the collective institutional and imperial expression of early Abbasid intellectual ambition and official state policy. Overtime, the House of Wisdom came to comprise a translation bureau, a library and book repository, and an academy of scholars and intellectuals from across the empire. Its overriding function, however, was the safeguarding on invaluable knowledge, a fact reflected in other terms applied at times by arab historians to describe the project, such as the Treasury of the Books of Wisdom or simply the Treasury of Wisdom. Experts affiliated with the imperial institution staffed the caliph's observatory as well and took part in scientific experiments at his command. But the House of Wisdom also played an important role in the cultivation of Abbasid literary works (Lyons).

Large sums of public funds were dedicated to the House of Wisdom and related projects of cultural and intellectual enrichment. Even diplomacy and on occasion war, was harnessed to the drive for greater knowledge. Abbasid delegations to the rival Byzantine court often conveyed requests for copies of valuable Greek texts, successfully securing works by Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, and Euclid; a copy of Ptolemy's astronomical masterpiece soon became famous among the Arabs. The influential ninth-century scholar and translator Hunaun ibn Ishaq provides a taste of the length to which the Arab sages would go to obtain necessary material, in this case a missing medical manuscript: "I myself searched with great zeal in quest of this book over Mesopotamia, all of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, until I came to Alexandria. I found nothing, except about half of it, in Damascus" (Lyons).

The caliphs and their officials were not the only ones behind this campaign. The effort became an integral feature of the Abbasid society itself and was supported enthusiastically by the social and political elite, from high born princes to merchants, bankers, and military officers. Even the concubines of the caliphs were known on occasion to contract with scholars for specialized translations. A former highwayman and childhood friend of Caliph al-Ma'mun, the seventh Abbasid ruler, turned his own facility for astrology into vast political power and wealth; he later fathered three children, known as the Sons of Musa, all of whom did original research in astronomy, mathematics, and engineering and generously funded other scholars and translators.

Scholarships and other intellectual activities became an important means of social advancement, further breaking down what remained of the Arabs' traditional hierarchy. They also encouraged competition for patronage among scholars from different traditions, primarily Arab and Persian, a phenomenon that ensured that high quality scientific and literary work would be carried out for centuries. The most skilled translator could earn huge sums of their work - one was reputed to have been paid the weight of each completed manuscript in gold - or rise to high office on the strength of their intellectual accomplishments. Without this institutional support, the considerable talents of the diverse scholars now under Abbasid rule would never have united into a powerful intellectual movement.

Over the course of 150 years, the Arabs translated all available Greek books of science and philosophy. Arabic replaced Greek as the universal language of scientific inquiry. Higher education became increasingly organized in the early ninth century, and most major Muslim cities featured some type of university. One such institution, al-Azhar mosque complex in Cairo, has been the seat of uninterrupted instruction for more than one thousand years. Scholars traveled great distances to study with the most celebrated masters, dotted throughout the empire. Travel, and the accompanying exposure to new experiences and new ways of thinking, was an important element of a scholar's education in a society that retained great reverence for the spoken word; other than face-to-face, how else could a learned man meet his colleagues and collect and debate their ideas?

No one did more to advance the latest trends and then explain and popularize the results than the mathematician and astronomer Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Born around 783, al-Khwarizmi was able to take full advantage of the social mobility and intellectual meritocracy that characterized early Abbasid scholarly life in Baghdad. Little is known of his exact origins, although his name suggests that he or his family originally came from Khwarazm. Al-Khwarizmi's Muslim faith is made clear by the pious prefaces to some of his works, but his descendants may have been Zoroastrians. Al-Khwarizmi's years of greatest productivity corresponded with the reigns of the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma'mun and his two successors Al-Mu'tasem and Al-Wathiq. As a prominent researcher attached to al-Ma'mun's House of Wisdom, al-Khwarizmi went on to attain rare heights in such disciplines as astronomy, arithmetic, and algebra. He was considered at the head of the institution (Sayili).

Al-Khwarizmi is known to be the author of the zij, a book containing astronomical tables. His first two tables were known as the Sindhind. The zij provided the Muslims with all the tools needed to locate the positions of the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets. The zij was used to a great extent to regulate the five daily prayers and to mark the crescent moon which determines the start of the lunar month. Al-Khwarizmi's Arabic text has been lost, but it survives in 12th century Latin translation. There exists the proof that the so-called Arabic numerals were conveyed to the West. For Muslims, The Book of Addition and Subtraction explained fully a system that was already in some use by the early ninth century, and within a little more than 100 years it had led to the discovery of decimal fractions. Actually, the book was called the Book of Addition and Subtraction to the Hindu Calculations, and this reveals that Muslims were open to many civilizations and they built their knowledge upon older civilizations and scientific discoveries. The Indians were the first to come up with the decimal place system of nine numerals and zero, apparently the system that we use today. Al-Khwarizmi used decimal fractions to find the roots of numbers and later to calculate the value of Pi - the ratio of a circle to its radius, correctly to a notable sixteen decimal places (Brezina).

Nothing could reveal the real power and ability of Al-Khwarizmi more than his short work on algebra. The Book of Restoring and Balancing (Kitab al-jabr wa'l-muqabala) was the perfect guide and also the perfect gift to caliph al-Ma'mun and the Muslim society. The book was considered the simplest and most useful in arithmetic for the day-to-day matters. The book was referred to in cases of inheritance, legacies, trade, law-suits, and dealings among members of the society. Also, the book was consulted where measuring of lands, digging of canals, geometrical computations and other subjects were concerned. To fit with the Islamic rules of islam, Al-Khwarizmi included a simple algebraic operation that solves the inheritance problem for any size assets. Besides, the calculation of the Zakat, the annual religious tax, was included in the guide (Lyons).

South Korea and Taiwan export more manufactured goods in two days than Egypt in a year; 35% of Cairenes live in slums; in Saudi Arabia, up to 30% of people live in poverty. Since 1950 the Arab population has risen from 79m to 327m, but real wages and productivity have barely moved since 1970.

Intellectual life is atrophying. More books are translated into Spanish in a year than have been translated into Arabic in the past 1,000, states the UN's Arab Human Development Report.

The authors trace much of the region's problems back to Arab society's methods of child-rearing ("the authoritarian accompanied by the overprotective") which, they argue, "affects how the child thinks by suppressing questioning, exploration and initiative". All of which perfectly suits the Arab world's leaders and corrupt bureaucratic elites. Should we care? Very much so. Already, poor economic opportunities, endemic corruption, education based on rote learning, state-sponsored Jew hatred, soaring youth populations and unemployment are a recipe for social catastrophe. Add the rise of radical Islam and the growth of Al-Qaeda and the mix becomes something explosive. Paradoxically, the answer to the Arab world's future lies in its past. A millennia ago Arab and Muslim thinkers, writers, scientists and doctors led an intellectual revolution that is still shaping our world. Without the pioneering work of the 9thcentury mathematician known as al-Khwarizmi, for example, there'd probably be no computers. The legacies of Baghdad's House of Wisdom and Al-Andalus prove there are no contradictions between Islam and intellectual innovation, the motor of any dynamic society. The answer to the Arab world's problems, say a growing number of modern Islamic thinkers and scholars, can be found in ijtihad. The word shares a root with jihad, meaning holy war or struggle. Jihad nowadays is often interpreted to mean military struggle in Iraq or Palestine, or even suicide bombing. But jihad also means the spiritual and intellectual struggle for knowledge, for self-enlightenment.

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