The House of Wisdom
Not many scientific institutions in the West can easily be put in comparison with the Abbassid-era Bayt Ul-Hikma (literally the “House of Wisdom.”) Perhaps one can only think of the comparatively more recent Royal Society of England, or l’Académie royale des sciences initiated by the French عبقــــــري (genius) Colbert, to identify some legitimate parallels.
What is certain, however, is that although one can reasonably be tempted to qualify Bayt Ul-Hikma as a “think tank“, its centuries-long prestige and thorough influence across the world went well beyond the scope of what falls today under the description of a “think tank”, such as “Chatham House” in the UK, or the Council of Foreign Relations, the Heritage Foundation, or the Brookings Institute in the United States.
At the time of its launching, the House of Wisdom served essentially as a public مكتبـــــــــــــــــــــة (library), enjoying a capacity of storage for books and manuscripts almost as impressive as that of the American Library of Congress today!
The complex yet convenient storage classification system followed by the library of the House shared many similarities with the modern “Dewey Decimal System“, which organizes all knowledge into ten main أصنــــــــــــــــــاف (categories.)
Later on, under the Caliph المأمــــــــــــــــــون/ al-Ma’mun, son of the illustrious Harun al-Rashid (of the Arabian Nights fame) whose authority stretched from China in the East to Charlemagne‘s France in the West, the House of Wisdom would know a critical expansion in terms of its mission and functions.
This Baghdad-based institution was to host “حركــــــــــــــة التَّرجمـــــــــــــــــــة” (the “Translation Movement”), namely the major intellectual current which took upon itself the large-scale project of translating into Arabic all the major works ever published in any field or discipline!
To measure its paramount importance in the history of the world, just imagine that without this Arabic Translation movement of the Greek classics, the European Renaissance would simply not have taken place!
Works from اليُونَــــــــــــــــــــان/Greece, such as Plato‘s الجُمهوريـــــــــة (the Republic), translated under the auspices of the House of Wisdom, were to be widely studied and referenced in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and would yield a tremendous influence on thinkers of such high caliber as Al-Fārābī (known in the West as “Alfarabius“—See “Ibn Fadlān: Meet a World-Class International Arab Man of Mystery“) and Ibn Sīnā (Latinized as “Avicenna.“)
Indian works, noted for their excellence in الرِّياضيــــــــــــات (mathematics), were also the subject of a never-seen-before research effort, such as the numerous treaties of the distinguished Indian mathematician Aryabhata.
Those mathematical works on الجبــــــــــــر (Algebra) and التَّحليـــــــــــــل (Analysis) were brought to all new heights under the scholarship of leading scientists such as Al-Khwārizmī (whose name would give us the word “Algorithm” today) and البيرُونِــــــــي/Al-Bīrūnī, the nicknamed “walking encyclopedia” of his age, “father of علم المساحة/geodesy“, whose knowledge of India was so precise and extensive as to be credited as the founder of what is known today as the field of “Indiology.”
Nowadays, students of Arabic or Mathematics would be amused to discover, for example, that the trigonometric functions of sine and cosine were wrongly translated from Arabic to Latin: The function sine, in Arabic, is referred to as “جيـب” (jaib), literally meaning “pocket“, but this Arabic term is in fact a phonetic transcription based on the word “jiva“, introduced by Aryabhata.
As you can easily tell, the Sanscrit term “jiva” is closely related to the Indo-European “viva“, which has the meanings of “being alive” and “breathing.” And indeed, the breathing movement is a periodic phenomenon which can accurately be expressed through the two trigonometric functions of sine (الجيـــــب) and cosine (جيـــــب التمــــام.)
Just as the United States would become the destination of choice for an unprecedented wave of هجــــــــــرة الأدمغـــــــــــة (“brain drain”) of German scientists post-WWII, followed by Soviet Scientists in the midst of the Cold War, scores of scientists and intellectuals persecuted elsewhere (notably among “الرُّوم“, which is the Arabic name for the Byzantine Empire) would receive a warm welcome by Abbassid officials, many of whom would end up occupying prominent positions within Bayt Ul-Hikma.
In other words, to attract the best and the brightest of the world, the Bayt was in effect the perfect “bait.”
Several of these scientists, once “Arabized”, meaning that they would fully embrace Arabic culture and language, would bring with them further in-depth knowledge drawn from their native cultures, such as Ibn Sina, Al-Farabi, and Al-Biruni, whose native tongue was الفارسيــــــــــــــــــة (Farsi.)
One can’t even conceive the possibility of evoking the House of Wisdom without mentioning the name of الكِنْـــــــــــــــــــــــدِي (Al-Kindī.)
Today, either by mistake or jokingly, his name is often pronounced by some Philosophy students as “الكَنَـــــــــــــــــــــــدِي“, making it sound like the Arabic term for a “Canadian“—that is, when the jokes don’t go as far as to refer to him as “John F. al-Kennedy“!
More seriously, whether or not these students are aware of it, Al-Kindi’s surname comes originally from his native tribe called “Kinda” (well, yes, that is also “kinda” remarkable…), a royal Arab dynasty that reigned supreme for many centuries over Yemen, and from which hails the prominent امرؤ القيــــــــــــــــــس/Imru’ al-Qais, widely seen as the “father of Arabic poetry” and, just like Shakespeare in English literature, is viewed by some as something of a myth!
The figure of Al-Kindi is actually very rich and متعدِّدة الجوانـــــــب (multifaceted.)
His leadership at the helm of the House of Wisdom makes him entitled to his own special post here on the Arabic Blog (coming up soon.)
Suffice it to say at this point that, in addition to Al-Kindi, other big names in the hall of fame of Bayt Ul-Hikma include the Banu Musa brothers, whose ingenious mechanical engineering inventions were at that time as impressive as, say, the work of the Lumière brothers some 1000 years later.
Their work of genius, which would indirectly inspire Leonardo da Vinci later, seems to have so far miraculously eluded the tricky “plots” so typically found in Dan Brown‘s novels, or even in those of his “master-in-fiction”, Umberto Eco (who claims that the former is nothing more than a “fictional creature” of his own making!)
- The House of Wisdom continued to flourish until the ascension of the Caliph Al-Mutawakkil, who initiated what amounted to a coup d’état against the intellectual independence of the institution.
Finally, الضربة القاضية (the “coup de grâce“, or the “final blow”) was dealt by the terrifying Mongol invasion unleashed by Genghis Khan and led by his grandson Hulagu, who had the unfortunate task of “Bringing the House Down”—quite literally.
Historians of that time wrote that, for half a year, the waters of نهر دجلة (the Tigris river) turned black from the ink of all the millions of books flung into the river by the invading soldiers.
Centuries later, shortly after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq (an event often compared in the Arab world to the 13th century Mongol invasion, especially with respect to its devastating fallouts on the cultural heritage of the country), a new “House of Wisdom” has reportedly opened its doors.
Needless to say, this new Bayt has yet to show its mettle…
But, in any case, one thing is already sure: It actually takes more than the presence of tanks to launch a *think* tank—a “House of Wisdom”, of all think tanks!
Cartoon by Peter Nicholson