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Faith and the House of Wisdom: Science and Philosophy in the Arab World

Illustration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Sketch by 1001 Inventions

You catch yourself staring at the wall again and, for the fifth consecutive time, drawing your attention back to the beginning of the parchment. It dawns upon you that this is going to be a very long evening. Slowly rising, you stretch your legs in preparation for the last resort of all students since time immemorial, the dreaded all-nighter bent over the soft candlelight and heavy tomes.

Moving out into the courtyard, you rest your palms on the sandstone walls and peer outwards. Beyond the thin walls of your meager but survivable lodgings lies the vague outline of Baghdad's sandstone skyline. The buildings were barely illuminated by the shimmering night sky, with the pinpricks of light coming from lanterns inside the more ornate buildings giving dimly lit contours to the palatial district. Looking up, you attempt to remember your studies on al-Khwarizmi's Zij al-Sindhind and its descriptions of heavenly moves. In your mind's eye, you trace the movements of the stars and the planetary bodies. Your eyes finally come to rest on the moon; its pale imitations in the wrought bronze of many steeples are nothing compared to the ivory-white beauty of the evening's crescent moon. Your eyes return to Earth, and you stare back at the many treatises stacked haphazardly on each other beside your desk. Morosely, you walk back inside. The one lesson you have not learned in the City of Scholars is that you should not leave everything for the last day.

Scientific Thought in Islam:

While the seemingly unstoppable progress of science and technology is a cornerstone of what we consider "modern civilization," one may only look to the past that the quest for knowledge and a deeper understanding of the natural world has always been a prevailing aspect of many civilizations. To denote a concept of "modernity" would by necessity introduce a dichotomy between the "enlightened" present and a "backward" past. This notion is quite easily dispelled through the simple understanding that any discipline, more science than others, is built on the foundation laid by the labor of our forefathers. From the haphazard advances in metallurgy at the early dawn of humankind's stumble towards settled civilizations to the great strides of the industrial revolution, technological advancement can be understood as a series of gradual improvements made possible through generations of labour. Possibly the best summation of this was put forward by Isaac Newton, who, when asked about how his landmark achievements in the burgeoning field of physics were possible, humbly answered that:

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

A crucial chapter of this odyssey of the human understanding of the natural world, which is deeply underrepresented in contemporary history, is how the contributions of the Arab World during the Islamic Golden Age served as a vital pediment for this macro-historical process. Islam, as a faith, can be said to put a very significant focus on the role of education for one to live a fulfilling and pious life. This can be seen clearly in quotes such as the Sunan Abi Dawud 3643, which states that:

“If anyone pursues a path in search of knowledge, Allah will thenby make easy for him a path to paradise; and he who is made slow by his actions will not be speeded by his genealogy.”

Another quote, the Jami' at-Tirmidhi 2322, illustrates that:

Lo! Indeed the world is cursed. What is in it is cursed, except for remembrance of Allah, what is conducive to that, the knowledgeable person and the learning person.

The Qur'an and hadiths place significant importance on the search for knowledge, irrespective of the knowledge's source. This, combined with the meteoric rise of the early Caliphates and the submission of the Sassanid Empire, would put Islamic leaders in a position to pursue the sciences with a rigor unforeseen until that point in history.

The Silk Road and the Translation Movement:

Visions of the Ancient Silk Road. R. Fresson

In simplicity, the Silk Road was a network of trade routes that linked the Far East with the West. The road is named after one of the most sought-after commodities on the said route, Silk from Ancient China. By necessity of its geographic position, the Islamic Caliphate found itself at the heart of this sprawling network of commercial and philosophical exchange.

The influx of wealth reaped by the Caliphates due to trade tariffs and the movement of skilled artisans and technology would form the main force behind the growing prosperity that led to the apex of the Islamic world's strength and sophistication. Of the scholars who would come to live in the shadow of the Caliphate, one can note that the expansions east into Persia and West into Anatolia led to an influx of Persian Zoroastrian and Greek Orthodox scholars that would contribute their perspectives on the philosophical literature of the time. Another event, the Battle of Talas at the far eastern fringes of the Dar al-Islam, led to the capture of many Chinese prisoners of war. These prisoners would eventually divulge the ancient and revolutionary secret of paper-making.

Statue of Averroes in Cordoba. Source: Sheila Terry. Science Photo Library.

This intellectual cosmopolitanism led to the creation of movements in Islamic academia that actively sought out wisdom external to the Islamic world to (as the name might imply) translate it and transpose it into the Islamic academic consensus. Examples of these texts include the works of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, with the wisdom of these Classical thinkers profoundly influencing the Islamic thought of the era.

Schools of Thought such as the Mu'tazilites, inspired by the arguments of Plato, put forward the groundbreaking notion that the Divine was fundamentally Rational and therefore could be reached through logical and scientific reasoning. This motion caused a significant rift in the Islamic consensus with other Schools of Thought, such as the Ash'ari, finding the notion that the Divine could be understood to be tantamount to heretical. This conflict even touched the highest echelons of Islamic academia. Ibn Rushd (known as Averroes in the West and one of the most prominent Islamic philosophers and scientists of his time) vigorously defended Aristotle's teachings from the fundamentalist of the clergy at the time; arguing for the existence of Natural Laws rather than the existence proceeded from Allah with no recourse to rational patterns.

The House of Wisdom in Baghdad:

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch

As education in the Arab world began to be formalized, institutes started to develop in the more developed parts of the empire that served as mosques, boarding lodges, and libraries, all in a single, convenient building. These compounds, referred to as madrasas, eventually developed into proto universities, with the more prominent ones even providing degrees. This formalization would further galvanize the cross-pollination of ideas and bring together the brightest minds of the empire.

The greatest and most prominent of these would be in Baghdad, the beating heart of the Islamic world at the peak of its power. Built by Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the late 8th Century, it served as the intellectual hub of the Arab world and would come to contain more than 400,000 books and manuscripts as well as employing some of the keenest minds of the empire such as:

  • Al Khwarizmi (founder of Algebra and the quadratic equation),

  • Hunayn ibn Ishaq ("sheikh of the translators," reproduced 116 works and wrote ten treatises on ophthalmology),

  • Al-Kindi (wrote 230 works on astronomy, optics, medicine, chemistry, and math while also founding the modern discipline of cryptography)

  • Ibn Sinna (known in the West as Avicenna, published over 450 works on several topics. His medical masterpiece The Canon of Medicine served as a valuable guide for even Western physicians well into the Late Middle Ages.)

  • And several others, such as Al Zahrawi, the founder of the discipline of surgery, and Al Jazari, whose research into hydro-engineering proved to be both figuratively and literally groundbreaking.

Possibly the most emblematic reflection of the mindset of the time, and one that should dispel the prejudiced views that some may have on Islam today, can be found in the quote of Ibn Khaldun (founded of sociology) that has been preserved throughout the ages:

"Blindly following ancient customs and traditions does not mean that the dead are alive, but that the living are dead."

The End of an Era: the Sack of Baghdad.

Following 500 years of prosperity, Baghdad served as a center for learning and progress in all fields imaginable. This being said, it was a city that had persisted through a period of dominance that allowed it to safely invest in the patronage of artists, artisans, and scholars. This period would come to an abrupt and traumatic end in 1258 with the incursions of the Mongol Ilkhanate, headed by Hulagu Khan, that would demand either the surrender of the city or its annihilation. Unfortunately for the Abbasid Caliphate, the inhabitants of the city, and, one can say, the collective wealth of humankind, the Caliph chose the latter and resisted until the end.

Contemporary accounts describe how the slaughter was so complete when the walls were breached that the city was left completely depopulated. The Tigris and Euphrates were said to have run red with the blood of scientists and philosophers and black with the ink from the books torn apart and thrown into the waters, their leather covers repurposed into sandals. The House of Wisdom was leveled entirely, and its contents lost to the trodden soil of Mesopotamia and the Sands of Time. With it, the Golden Age of Islam was brought to a definite close.

This being said, not all was lost. By the time of the collapse, the Islamic world's literature had proliferated Westwards and was translated into numerous languages of the European states. In this way, the work of many Arab geniuses of the era came to serve humankind and acted as vital stepping stones in the species' march towards a deeper understanding of the Universe.

The Fall of Baghdad by Sune Reinhardt


  1. George Saliba (1994), A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam, pp. 245, 250, 256–57. New York University Press.

  2. King, David A. (1983). The Astronomy of the Mamluks. Isis. 74 (4): 531–55.

  3. Hassan, Ahmad Y (1996). Factors Behind the Decline of Islamic Science After the Sixteenth Century. In Sharifah Shifa Al-Attas (ed.). Islam and the Challenge of Modernity, Proceedings of the Inaugural Symposium on Islam and the Challenge of Modernity: Historical and Contemporary Contexts, Kuala Lumpur, August 1–5, 1994. International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC). pp. 351–99.

  4. Gutas, Dimitri 1998. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early 'Abbāsid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th Centuries). London: Routledge.

  5. Science and technology in Medieval Islam. History of Science Museum.

  6. Groth, Hans, ed. (2012). Population Dynamics in Muslim Countries: Assembling the Jigsaw. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 45.

  7. Rafiabadi, Hamid Naseem, ed. (2007). Challenges to Religions and Islam: A Study of Muslim Movements, Personalities, Issues and Trends, Part 1. Sarup & Sons. p. 1141.

  8. Salam, Abdus (1994). Renaissance of Sciences in Islamic Countries. p. 9.


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