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The

Bayt al-Hikma
(House of Wisdom)

By:
Grant J. Brill

For:
Dr. Said Ennahid
HUM 3302 – Islamic Civilization

23 April 2009
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Around 762 CE the Abbasids, after defeating the Persians, established the city of

Baghdad as the new capital for the empire and soon as the pinnacle for Sunni intellectual thought

and innovation. At the heart of this intellectual movement was the Bayt al-Hikma (House of

Wisdom) that was founded by the caliphate of al-Ma’mun (813-833). This institutions’ history

and greatness goes far beyond the Abbasid Dynasty and to a certain extent, it still effects us

today. Therefore this paper’s aim is to introduce the Bayt al-Hikma’s origins and foundations,

identify its prominent scholars and their respective innovations, and to recall its disbandment

under the reign of al-Mutawakkil.

Although the Bayt al-Hikma never existed until the reign of al-Ma’mun, some institutes

that were established during the reign of caliph al-Rashid (786-809) served as precursors to its

formation and have been referred to as Khizanat al-Hikma, a general term also used when

referring to any library of science.1 Under the leadership and support of al-Rashid the Barmakids,

a group of Zoroastrian converts from Buddhism, were allowed to pursue their passion for

translating Greek and Syriac scientific works predominantly from areas of the former Sassanid

Empire as it is where they also trace their origins.2 Endorsed by al-Rashid, the Barmakids

collected and studied works predominantly from the Sassanid Academy of Djundaysabur, also

known as Gundishapur, which is located in present day Iran. The Academy of Djundaysabur was

known for its prestige in Greek medicine and the Barmakids endeavored to bring back and

translate any works they could. Soon Persian scholars and physicians from Djundaysabur began

to travel to Baghdad and take up residence there.3 Recognizing that the study and translation of

foreign works would directly help to advance the empire, al-Rashid encouraged scholars to

1 (al-Hassan and Hill 1986, 11)


2 (“Barmakids.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online n.d.)
3 (“bayt al-hikma.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition 2009)
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study, copy, and translate foreign works. While al-Rashid may have been a key facilitator in this

new intellectual movement it was his son, al-Ma’mun who served as the catalyst for the

movement. Becoming caliph in 813, al-Ma’mun soon involved the state completely in the

collection, translation, and study of foreign works. At the heart of this policy, that was in favor of

the intellectual movement, was the adoption of Mutazilite theology, which is viewed as a “highly

rationalistic system of thought.”4 However, some accounts attribute al-Ma’mun’s ambition

towards collecting Greek texts to a dream he had in which Aristotle appeared and discussed with

him the importance of reason.5 In either case to facilitate state expenditure for the movement the

Bayt al-Hikma was created, based on the model of Djundaysabur, as an epicenter of intellectual

thought. Official missions were sent to Byzantium to collect manuscripts in both Greek and

Syriac. Of these manuscripts, works of Aristotle, Galen and the Hippocrates, Plato, Eucid,

Pythagoras, and others were included. The institution also included a staff of leading scientists

and translators, who for the first time would receive a fixed income in return for scholarly work.

Finally, it incorporated an astronomical observatory in Baghdad and another separate

observatory in Damascus. All of this aided in the transformation of intellectual thought from the

reign of al-Rashid, where during his reign scholarly works had been limited to the translation and

studying of foreign works. Later, under al-Ma’mun the institutional name, Bayt al-Hikma, was

personified as scholars were given ample money, time, and resources to no longer just translate

but interpret, modify, and innovate their own works, which allowed them to become a vanguard

in the scientific world. This achievement was originally made possible by the increase in literacy

and the import of paper from China, but was further enhanced in the eighth century by the

4 (Mackensen S, Background of the History of Moslem Libraries 1935)


5 (Mackensen S, Four Great Libraries of Medieval Baghdad 1932)
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establishment of a paper mill in Baghdad that soon allowed for papyrus and parchment in the

Arab world to be replaced.6

While the Bayt al-Hikma survived the reign of al-Ma’mun (813-833), al-Mu’tasim (833-

842), and al-Wathiq (842-847), the staff of scholars appears to have fluctuated with each

succession in the caliphate. This likely occurred because the most prominent scholars were

appointed by the caliph and held close relationships to the caliph who often summoned them

personally to embark on new fields of study. The lack of continuity combined with the lack of

information on the specific details on the institution, forces a narrow look on some of the

prominent scholars and their research that emerged from the institution. Its also important to note

here that scholars, then, did not carry specific specializations as they do now. Rather they saw

science as an all encompassing field of study where astronomy, astrology, and medicine for

example were interconnected and thus all studied equally.7 During the reign of al-Ma’mun, the

Bayt al-Hikma was headed by Sahl b. Harun (d. 830) who was appointed director of the

institution by al-Ma’mun. Harun, once a vizier to al-Rashid, was a prominent Persian author,

translator, and poet.8 Though his appointment should signify a central authority within the

institution, authority was also shared with the Banu Musa brothers. In charge of collecting

foreign manuscripts and representatives to the general staff of scientists were the Banu Musa

brothers (Muhammad, Aḥmad, and al-Ḥasan). The Banu Musa brothers personally oversaw

missions to the Byzantine Empire and paid scientists and translators a wage of 500 dinars a

month. Their efforts contributed greatly in the translation of works originally in Greek and

6 (Whitaker 2004)
7 (Hill 1993, 9-10)
8 (“Sahl b. Harun.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition 2009)
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Syriac.9 Their most important work was as advisors to the caliph, as their ingenuity and

innovation were clearly expressed in their Kitāb al-Ḥiyal,10 speculated to be the result of

inspiration from works of Byzantium and Alexandria.11 The Banu Musa brothers also recruited

Thabit b. Qurra (d. 901) from the Sabea religion,12 who impressed Muhamad b. Musa and was

invited to study at the institution. After studying mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy he

succeeded the Banu Musa as the leading mathematician, with an emphasis in astronomy as well

as geometrical algebra,13 and later translated a critical edition to Euclid’s Elements.14 Prior to the

arrival of Qurra, a prominent mathematician, astronomer, and geographer by the name of Al-

Khawarizmi was of prominence during first half of the 9th century.15 While he is still known for

his stylistic approach to solving algebraic linear equations, it was his critical approach to Greek

theoretical mathematics that helped to serve the practical needs of the people that made him well

known in the 9th century.16 Another major mathematical advancement was the introduction of

“Arabic” numerals based on works from India.17 In the Bayt al-Hikma, the field of medicine was

overseen by the physician Masawayh (d. 857), who by virtue of working under al-Rashid became

the prominent physician for the institution until the reign of al-Mutawaikil. An avid translator of

the Greek sciences, Masawayh soon adopted the principles of medical astrology where

discovering a cure or an answer to issues that involved body parts or medical symptoms could be

9 (“Musa, Banu.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition 2009)


10 The Kitāb al-Ḥiyal is comprised of nearly a hundred different small machines that were automated in their
function, eighty of which were trick mechanisms with ingenious ingenuity.
11 (“Musa,Banu.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition 2009)
12 The Sabean religion is an ancient polytheist faith revolving around worship of a supreme god, Il-Mukah,

and the sun goddess, Shamsh. They are also a self proclaimed abrahamic faith, claiming Abraham as their
founder.
13 (“Musa,Banu.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition 2009)
14 (Islam and Islamic History in Arabia and The Middle East: The Legacy n.d.)
15 (“al- Ḵh̲ W Ārazmī (often written al-Ḵh̲uwārizmī), Abū Ḏj̲aʿfar Muḥammad b. Mūsā.” Encyclopaedia of Islam,

Second Edition 2009)


16 (Gandz 1936)
17 (Islam and Islamic History in Arabia and The Middle East: The Legacy n.d.)
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found in studying the stars, an idea that was originally conceived by the Roman scholar Ptolemy.

Masawayh’s failure, though, was his unwillingness to think critically about his own work, as is

evidenced by the adoption of Christian scholar, Hunayn b. Ishaq (d. 873) as his disciple. As an

apprentice to Masawayh, Ishaq soon incurred the anger of his master when he asked too many

technical questions. After he was banned from the Bayt al-Hikma, Ishaq resolved to learn the

Greek language and came back so fluent and well-versed that amends were made with

Masawayh, and he later went on to translate the medical works of Hippocrates and Galen.18

Perhaps the most influential scholar in terms of advancements in the Bayt al-Hikma was Yaḥya

(d. 817), an astronomer who was appointed by al-Ma’mun to embark on several scientific

endeavors. The most prominent endeavor was the establishment of the astronomical

observatories in Baghdad as well as in Damascus, in 830-2.19 The establishment of these

observatories produced the “Verified Tables” which was the crowning achievement of the

institution’s astronomers. The Verified Tables was the product of the observations conducted in

Baghdad to verify the fundamental elements of the Almagest.20 These observations were then

sent to the observatory in Damascus for confirmation, and the findings were recorded in the

“Verified Tables.” 21

The glory of the Bayt al-Hikma had reached its peak during the reign of al-Ma’mun who

had an invested a vast amount of resources into its existence. The institution was able to retain its

prestige as a center for translation and innovation even under the caliphates of al-Mu’tasim (833-

842) and al-Wathiq (842-847) The al-Mutawakkil Caliphate (847-861) signaled the decline of

18 (“Ishaq, Hunayn.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition 2009)


19 (“Munad̲j̲d̲j̲im , Banu 'l-.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition 2009)
20 Almagest was an astronomical manual written by Ptolemy in 150CE, and served as the basic guide for

Islamic and European astronomers until the 17th century.


21 (Mackensen S, Four Great Libraries of Medieval Baghdad 1932)
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the institution as al-Mutawakkil reinstated orthodox Islam. Since al-Ma’mun, the institute had

been able to adhere to Mutazilite theology and retain its status as a secular university. The idea

that Islam could be reconciled with Greek philosophy was now viewed as heretical in Muslim

dogmatic theology.22 Therefore, al-Mutawakkil’s first action was to stop the incorporation and

translation of Greek works and to once again make the Bayt al-Hikma an Islamic institution. The

Bayt al-Hikma was essentially disbanded, only to be succeeded by a group of scholars under the

leadership of the physician Hunayn b. Ishaq. However, Islamic progression in the sciences was

slow and problematic due to the erratic behavior of al-Mutawakkil.23 Since then it appears that

the physical evidence to support this once flourishing academic center has regrettably been lost

due to the sack of Baghdad during the Mongol invasion in 1258.24

22 (Mackensen S, Background of the History of Moslem Libraries 1935)


23 (“Ishaq, Hunayn.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition 2009)
24 (Mackensen S, Four Great Libraries of Medieval Baghdad 1932)
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BIBLIOGRAPHY

al-Hassan, Ahmad Y, and Donald Hill. IslamicTechnology: An illustrated history. Paris: United Nations
Educational, 1986.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/ (accessed April 22, 2009).

P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, ed. Encyclopaedia
of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online. 2009. http://www.brillonline.nl/ (accessed April 20, 2009).

Gandz, S. "The Sources of Al-Khowarizmi's Algebra." Osiris, 1936: 263-277.

Hill, Donald R. Islamic Science and Engineering. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.

Islam and Islamic History in Arabia and The Middle East: The Legacy.
http://www.islamicity.com/mosque/ihame/Sec12.htm (accessed April 22, 2009).

Mackensen S, Ruth. "Background of the History of Moslem Libraries." The American Journal of
Semitic Languages and Literatures, 1935: 114-125.

Mackensen S, Ruth. "Four Great Libraries of Medieval Baghdad." The Library Quarterly, 1932: 279-
299.

Whitaker, Brian. "Centuries in the House of Wisdom: Iraq's golden age of science, brought us
algebra, optics, windmills and much more." Guardian Science, 2004: 5.

ILLUSTRATIONS

Cover Photo: Funacion de Cultura Islamica. http://www.funci.org/es/2008/02/11/el-surgimiento-


de-la-ciencia-en-la-espana-musulmana/ (accessed April 22, 2009).