Desert Carrots: Baghdad’s House of Wisdom

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Toheed Ahmad*


The Byzantine mind at the time was in the grip of theological hair splitting which had not time or use for matters ‘secular’ like philosophy and science. The Byzantines although they were Greek speaking, and were the direct inheritors of Greek culture, had always feared secular Hellenic knowledge as it was thought to be injurious to Christian spirit. There was no space yet in Constantinople for humanism of any kind. Their Emperors had Greeks locked away in dungeons lest they soil the mind of a righteous Christian. Books anyway were scarce and expensive as they did not have recourse to paper and so their texts were written on skins only; the papyrus could not be used outside Egypt as it was susceptible to humidity.

This while the Graeco-Arabic translation movement spread over two centuries had hardly any doctrinal content. No worthwhile opposition to this translation movement is recorded in the writings of scholars of Islam of the period. Although some western scholarship has belatedly tried to imagine a conflict between the scientists and the religious scholars the one big achievement of the movement was to bridge the “western’ divide between reason and faith and thus free the human spirit to create knowledge and power to conquer nature. How this fragrant stream of consciousness went on to fertilize Europe is another story. In the words of Mark Graham, “the Greeks belonged to Islam as much as they belonged to Christendom. It was they who saved the Greeks when the Christians were burning them. It was they who translated them, debated them, commented on them and improved upon their systems. The West belongs as much to Islam, a rich part of its own history that has only begun to be written.” The magic in this examination has been that of the art and science translation in its unparalleled fullness.

The ninth century Baghdad hosted a House of Wisdom, Bayt al Hikma, where the ancient wisdom of Greece, Persia and India was salvaged for humanity. Here books of knowledge – Mathematics, Natural and Moral Sciences, Astronomy, Medicine and Technology, were translated from Greek, Old Persian and Sanskrit, into Arabic. This House symbolizes a movement, which not only produced a startling amount of original work in these fields but also made the so-called European Renaissance possible. This movement was hardly talked about in the world because Europe chose to ignore or to downplay it during the centuries when it was occupied in waging sectarian wars, grabbing colonies and plundering others’ wealth to pave their own thrones, palaces and churches with gold, developing science and technology and creating knowledge. Nobody in the world knew of the role that Baghdad played in preserving knowledge and creating one of the richest periods of civilization in human history. The Muslims themselves were unaware of it, and probably still are, mired as they have been in a slumber of the colonized and the deracinated. After avoiding this inconvenient truth for a thousand years, the West has begun to talk about this House of Wisdom as a world-changing phenomenon.

What exactly was this Bayt al Hikma? Why was it founded and what were the reasons for its extraordinary success?   It has been variously described as a Royal Library, a Translator Centre, a Research and Development Centre, a Think Tank. It was all of these and more at various times till its destruction with the city by Halaku in 1258. The fact that the House of Wisdom does not easily fit into a known category of modern scholarship deepens its mystery, and reflects the poverty of the Western architecture of knowledge (which, sadly, is all that my generation has recourse to). But for the purpose of this article we shall examine the role of Bayt al Hikma as a Translation Centre, where ancient knowledge was systematically translated for study and updation through discussion and experimentation.

According to Dimitri Gutas writing in his seminal book, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (1998), “The Graeco-Arabic translation movement of Baghdad constitutes a truly epoch-making stage, by any standard, in the course of human history. It is equal in significance to, and belongs to the same narrative as, I would claim, that of Pericles’ Athens, the Italian Renaissance, or the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it deserves to be recognized and embedded in our consciousness.” Why did the Abbasid Caliphate, the world’s largest empire of its time, choose to focus on translating Greek language books of the ancients, how were these books obtained, and who translated them? Why could the Christian Byzantine court, with all its wealth and learning, not grow such a translation movement?

A quick look at the historical and cultural environment in which this movement took root is warranted. Referring to the rapid expansion of the Islamic world in early centuries, Gutas notes, “The historic significance of the Arab conquests can hardly be overestimated. Egypt and the Fertile Crescent were reunited with Persia and India politically, administratively, and most importantly, for the first time since Alexander the Great, and for a period that was to last significantly longer than his brief life time. The great economic and cultural divide that separated the civilized world for a thousand years prior to the rise of Islam, the frontier between the East and the West formed by the two great rivers that created the free flow of raw materials and manufactured goods, agricultural products and luxury items, peoples and services, techniques and skills, and ideas, methods, and modes of thought. The salutary impact of this event was magnified by the fact that it came in the wake of the disastrous Byzantino-Persian wars of 570-630 AD which devastated the area, decimated the local populations, and disrupted trade.”

The Abbasid Revolution put an end to the Umayyad Caliphate and resulted in considerable reduction of the dominant role of Arab tribes and chieftains. The Arab conquests had greatly expanded the Islamic empire but the Umayyad court remained inward looking and chose to exclude the Persians and Central Asians from gaining influence over state matters. Arabic was the sole language of teaching and learning. Nestorian  Christians  and  some  pagan  clans  in  northern  Iraq  were shunned. The Abbasids chose to make their domain inclusive by drawing in all religious minorities, especially the Sasanian Persian aristocracy. This unleashed a creative interaction among diverse people, speaking different  languages,  practicing  different  faiths.  In  the  backdrop  of rising trade relations among various parts of the Islamic regions which engendered prosperity, the removal of barriers of race, language and religion, the human mind was set free to think the highest thoughts and dream the biggest dreams. Another result of the Arab conquests was the introduction of paper-making technology into the Islamic world from China. This greatly facilitated the spread of knowledge as paper quickly came to be widely used during the first years of the Abbasid era.

And  this  while  in  the  tenth  century  Europe,  “The  chaos  and disorder that swept in with the barbarian invasions of Western Roman Empire, beginning in the fourth century had just about destroyed formal education and the perpetuation of classical knowledge. The wonders of classical learning were all but forgotten, or at the best, pushed to the extreme margins of European consciousness. Invaluable texts were lost through inattention, destroyed by the illiterate hordes, or simply rendered unintelligible by the general ignorance of would-be scholars or simply by the lost ability to read Greek. The aristocracy of the Roman Empire read Greek Masters in the original, so there was no need at the time for Latin translations of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the engineering wonders of Archimedes or the geometry of Euclid. The wholesale disappearance of Greek as the language of learning meant centuries of knowledge virtually vanished from the collective mind of Latin-speaking Europe” (Jonathan Lyons in The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, 2009).

In his review of Jonathan Lyons’ fascinating book for Time Online, Ziauddin Sardar writes, “When Baghdad opened its gates as the new capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, the prime cite in the city was occupied by the Royal Library completed around 765 AD. It was built by Caliph al Mansur, who devised a method for measuring the circumference of the earth and was the second in a long line of Abbasid Caliphs who valued thought and learning above all else. The Library was officially called The House of Wisdom. It was a monumental structure, accommodating translators, copyists, scholars, scientists, librarians and the swelling volumes of (Pahlavi) Persian, Sanskrit and Greek texts that floated into Baghdad. Not surprisingly it became the magnet for seekers of knowledge from the Muslim world” (as also from Europe very soon after the end of the First Crusade).

Indeed the second Caliph al-Mansur is credited with initiating the translation movement in Baghdad. The historian al-Mas’udi reports that he was the first caliph to have books translated from foreign languages into Arabic, among them Kalila wa Dimna (a Sanskrit book of animal fables called Panchatantra whose Persian version is known as Anvar Saheli) and Sindhind (an ancient mathematics text written in Sanskrit by Hindu Brahmagupta called “Brahma Sphuta Siddhanta” – Opening of the Universe). Aristotle’s books on logic and other subjects were also translated for him, as also the Almagest of Euclid and other ancient books from classical Greek, Byzantine Greek, Pahlavi and Syriac. In fact while putting down local rebellions against Baghdad rule in the Persian eastern regions where Zoroastrian ideology had deeply permeated, al-Mansur was shrewd enough to adopt a policy of “ideological cooptation, that is, he appropriated as Abbasid the Zoroastrian ideology espoused by the rebel leaders to preempt its appeal and significance. Once Zoroastrian Sasanian cultural attitudes became acceptable in Baghdad right after its foundation, the translation of secular knowledge into Arabic became part of the process.” (Gutas).

It is generally agreed that the Bayt al Hikma was modeled on the Royal Library of the Sasanian Empire (226-642) that chiefly contained Persian lore, reports about wars, and epics of love and romance. These books were kept in buildings called the House of Wisdom and hence the naming of Baghdad’s renowned institution.  Gutas goes into details of various sources on the nature and functions of the Bayt al Hikma and concludes that, “It was a library, most likely established as a ‘bureau’ under al-Mansur, part of the Abbasid administration modeled on that of the Sasanians. Its primary function was to house both the activity and the results of translations from Persian into Arabic of Sasanian history and culture. As such there were hired translators capable to perform this function as well as bookbinders for the preservation of books. Under al-Mamun it appears to have gained an additional function related to astronomical and mathematical activities.”

He goes on to make a sweeping statement which is not shared by later authors in the bibliography (given below) that the Bayt al Hikma was “Certainly not a Centre for the translation of Greek works into Arabic; the Graeco-Arabic translation movement was completely unrelated to any of the activities of the Bayt al Hikma.”  “Among the dozens of reports about the translation of Greek works into Arabic that we have, there is not even a single one that mentions the Bayt al Hikma. The Bayt al Hikma was also not an ‘academy’ for teaching the ‘ancient’ sciences as they were being translated. Finally it was not a ‘conference’ centre for the meetings of scholars. What the Bayt al Hikma did for the Graeco-Arabic translation movement, however, is to foster a climate in which it could be both demanded and then conducted successfully. If indeed the Bayt al Hikma was an Abbasid administrative bureau, then it institutionalized the Pahlavi into Arabic translation culture. This means that all the activities implied or suggested by this culture – the Zoroastrian ideology of the recovery of ancient Avestan texts through re-translation Greek works and all that it implied – could be conducted as semi-official activities, or at least as condoned by official policy. The example set by the caliphs and the highest administrators was naturally followed by others of lesser rank, both civil servants and private individuals.” Further research, as it is thrown up by readings of hundreds of thousands of manuscripts stocked away in world libraries shed more light on the phenomenon that the House of Wisdom was.

Jonathan Lyons, a former editor at Reuters and a foreign correspondent whose book is mentioned above is currently pursuing a Ph.D. programme in sociology of religion at George Mason University in Virginia, USA – his thesis is titled “War without End – One Thousand Years of Anti-Islam Discourse.” The translations and the books written in Abbasid Baghdad, for him, would have a decisive influence on Western thinkers beginning with the scholastic theologians of medieval Paris and Bologna and culminating in the revival of Greek learning in the Renaissance. Chief among these influences was the notion that that religion and science, faith and reason could co-exist. This gave Western on the majesty of God.

About his House of Wisdom, he wrote “I am trying to show that the notion these days of a Clash of Civilizations which really took hold after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, is not without serious shortcomings.” William Dalrymple, in his review of the book commented that it is “A wonderful and important book which for the first time presents the Western debt to medieval learning in a clear and accessible manner. The House of Wisdom shows how the melting pot of the Islamic world brought together different systems of thought and sciences, so fusing the learning of ancient India, Persia, Babylonia and the Hellenistic world for the first time, then passing on that knowledge to the hungry medieval West. It is a fascinating book which opens up a whole new world and in the process rolls back centuries of Islamophobic propaganda.” Another reviewer observed, “Jonathan Lyons has written a wide-ranging and highly engaging exploration of the intellectual and scientific glories of the Islamic civilization. At a time when Islamic culture is routinely demonized as backward and barbaric when compared with the advancements of the West. The House of Wisdom reminds us that it wasn’t so very long ago that the shoe was on the other foot.”

Dr. Dimitri Gutas, who is Professor of Arabic and Graeco-Arabic at Yale University, writes in the introduction to his book that this translation movement “represents an astounding achievement which, independently of its significance for Greek and Arabic philology and history of philosophy and science, can hardly be grasped and accounted for otherwise than as a social phenomenon (the aspect which has been very little investigated.) To elaborate: The Graeco-Arabic translation movement lasted, first of all, well over two centuries; it was no ephemeral phenomenon. Second, it was supported by the entire elite of Abbasid society: caliphs and princes, civil servants and military leaders, merchants and bankers, and scholars and scientists; it was not the pet project of any particular group in the furtherance of their restricted agenda. Third, it was subsidized by an enormous outlay of funds, both public and private; it was no eccentric whim of a Maecenas or the fashionable affectation of a few wealthy patrons seeking to invest in a philanthropic or self-aggrandizing cause. Finally, it was eventually conducted with rigorous scholarly methodology and strict philological exactitude – by the famous Hunain ibn Ishaq (a Nestorian Christian) and his associates

– on the basis of a sustained programme that spanned generations and which reflects, in the final analysis, a social attitude and the public culture of early Abbasid society.” Support for the translation movement cut across all lines of religious, sectarian, ethnic, tribal and linguistic demarcations. The patrons were Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non- Muslims, Sunnis and Shias, merchants and landowners. He goes on to refute the two theories pushed by some scholars, one that this translation movement was the result of the scholarly zeal of a few Syriac-speaking Christians who being fluent in Greek and Arabic decided to translate certain works out of altruistic motives for the improvement of society, and the second which attributes it to the wisdom and open-mindedness of a few ‘enlightened rulers’ who promoted learning for its own sake.

In the rapidly evolving social climate of Baghdad, demand for applied knowledge of the society, and for theoretical knowledge by the scientific and philosophical tradition fuelled the translation movement. Astrology was the field for which there was the most practical need. The practical need for astrological history and horoscopy and other parts of astrology made it predominant in the concerns of the first scholars of the Abbasid court. The advent of al-Mansur’s caliphate saw the manifold increase in translations of astrological treatises. These were initially made from Pahlavi some of which were translations from Greek made during Sasanian times at Gundeshapur in northeastern Iran. Most of the astrologers of the period, in addition to their deep involvement in the translation movement, were also responsible for the composition of independent treatises. The pattern that was set by astrology was to be repeated with all other translated sciences. Political considerations, ideological or theoretical orientations, or practical need would initially occasion translations. Their study and use would result in original Arabic compositions in that particular field, and the development of research on the particular subject, in this way, would further generate the need both for more accurate translations of texts already available and for translations of new texts.

Movement was the requirement for the education of the secretarial class that was to administer the empire inherited by the Abbasids. The administration was modeled on that of the Sasanian and so was the education of this class as far as secular training was concerned. The subjects that these bureaucrats had to master to be able to discharge their duties were essentially practical matters like accounting, surveying, engineering, and time keeping, etc., and it is in connection with these needs that the mathematical sciences – arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, and astronomy – became the focus of the earliest translation activity.

Gutas cites an interesting passage from the introduction of a ninth century text called Education of the Secretaries:

“In addition to my works (which provide linguistic, literary, and religious training), it is indispensable for [the secretary] to study geometrical figures for the measurement of land in order that he can recognize a right, an acute and an obtuse triangle and the heights of triangles, the different sorts of quadrangles, arcs and other circular figures, and perpendicular lines, and in order that he can test his knowledge in practice on the land and not on the [survey-] registers, for theoretical knowledge is nothing like practical experience.

“The Persians [i.e., the Sasanians] used to say that he who does not know the following would be deficient in his formation as state secretary. He who does not know the principles of irrigation, opening access-canals to waterways and stopping breaches; [measuring] the varying length of days, the revolution of the sun, the rising-points [on the horizon] of stars, and the phases of the moon and its influences; [assessing] the standards of measure; surveying in terms of triangles, quadrangles, and polygons of various angles; constructing arched stone bridges, other kinds of bridges, sweeps with buckets, and noria waterwheels on waterways; the nature of the instruments used by artisans and craftsmen; and the details of accounting.”

It is to be noted that in addition to the very specific kinds of knowledge in all the major mathematical sciences that a secretary ought to acquire,

“This is a very significant statement which goes far in establishing that in the cultivation of the theoretical sciences, a significant amount of attention was directed to their application…Such a statement compels us to see correspondence between the translation and cultivation of the sciences at a theoretical level and the application of some of them by those classes who were professionally engaged in them,” notes Gutas. We can see the importance of this correspondence between translation and the immediate adoption of its product by the failure of successive translation movements in the history of Urdu language. The translation endeavours carried out at Calcutta’s Fort William College were successful because the civil and military bureaucracy and traders of the British Raj used the literature and dictionaries thus produced to learn Urdu to better carry out their jobs. As opposed to this, the translation efforts of Sir Syed’s Scientific Society, the Delhi College, Jamia Osmania and Lahore’s Oriental College science and technology were never applied, either in education or in the society, and amounted to nothing more than paper exercises. Apparently the society had raised no demand for these translations, which were made because a handful of people thought that a civilized society should translate knowledge into its own demotic language. Because of the absence of such a social ownership, Urdu translations remained a dead letter as it were.

Algebra was another mathematical science that developed very early and aimed to address practical needs. For its application to engineering and irrigation problems, it was useful to the secretaries very much like geometry. During early Abbasid period, Islamic law was also developing rapidly and algebra became an essential tool for working out all the intricate details of inheritance laws. In the introduction to his masterwork Algebra, the great al-Khwarzami tells that Caliph al-Mamun “encouraged me to compose a compendious work on algebra, confining it to the fine and important parts of its calculations, such as people constantly require in case of inheritance, legacies, partition, law-suits, and trade, and in all their dealings with one another where surveying, the digging of canals, geometrical computation, and other objects of various sorts and kinds are concerned.” The book is so structured that after an introductory section which is purely mathematical, the rest of the text is devoted to solving various problems of trade transactions, surveying, legacies, marriages, and slave emancipation, with specific representative cases discussed in each area.

According to Michael Hamilton Morgan, al-Khwarzami was summoned by Caliph al-Mamun at the founding of the House of Wisdom in 832 in Baghdad and asked to assist in the search for God in the numeral. “The Central Asian man (al-Khwarzami) sees turbaned mathematician-astronomers working together in rooms using maps, star charts, astrolabes, and other measuring instruments, thinking through problems together, checking each other’s work, poring over translations, and discussing endlessly. For a man who has often done much of his work alone and hardly found thinkers who were his equal, to find such intelligence and competition gathered in one place is both exhilarating and intimidating. But he knows this is an unparalleled opportunity and he will make as much of it as he can.” This is an illustration of how Michael Morgan describes the House of Wisdom as “the world’s first think tank, an example of networking computing, using the networked human brains rather than machines.”

In his search, al-Khwarzami comes across references to Brahmagupta’s Sanskrit text called ‘Opening of the Universe’ which he believed was almost certainly what he was looking for. He got the text translated into Arabic under the title of Sindhind.  (History tells us that the Sanskrit original of Brahmagupta’s book was lost, so was its Arabic translation but a Latin translation of the work done centuries later survived). “The one thing (in the translated text) that stuns and shakes him the most is the Hindu character shaped like a dot, a pin point of blackness like a negative star. The dot is the foundation of an entire vision of mathematics, of science, and the universe. The black dot, which in its basic form means nothingness, is the source from which all higher mathematics can now spring. The nothingness of the dot will grow to become the centre of the source code behind the physical universe..… The zero, he realizes, must be accepted on pure faith. It cannot be proven. And in a terrible irony, which he considers sharing with his patron al- Mamun, he sees that the ultimate value of rationalist mathematics is pure revelation, just as God was revealed, not quantified.” and the invention of the astrolabe, Michael Morgan says that when scholars at Oxford University first saw this device they were fascinated and as they built their own instruments, they incorporated the old Arab script and Arab names of the stars into the design. “Those star names, which will endure until the time of space travel and beyond, will echo the days of the House of Wisdom.. Even as probes continue to move deeper and deeper into space, they will orient themselves on stars named in Arabic by forgotten Muslim astronomers. The very names of the stars will sound of that old desert language of poetry: Vega, Altair, Deneb, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Aldebaran, Fomalhaut, Algeuze, Elfeta, Alferaz, and Mirac.”

Another interesting observation of Michael Morgan Hamilton in his inspiring book “Lost History” is worth citing here. Abbasid “Baghdad will also grow into the world capital of poetry. This will result not only from the city’s wealth, diversity, and inventiveness, it will also come from the fusion of two of the world’s most poetic cultures and languages

– Arabic and Persian. Both have already long held poetry to be the highest forms of literary communication and in Baghdad poetry will fill the role that journalism and fiction will take up 1300 years later. The leading poets of Baghdad will include Bashshar ibn Burd, an eroticist drawing on the sensual tradition of the pre-Islamic Arabia and Persia, ibn Ilyas and Abu Nawas, who troll the dark side of Baghdad, living lives and writing poems drenched in sex and drinking with a touch of blasphemy thrown in; ibn Walid, poet of love and drinking songs; and ibn Ahnaf and ibn Dawud, who rise above the erotic and titillating to write of an exalted kind of romantic love, which experts see as the predecessor to later courtly love and songs of the troubadours” (in Europe).

After mathematical sciences, let’s take a quick look at developments in Philosophy, clearly a discipline for which there was the least amount of practical need. Nevertheless, it could be made socially relevant and it appears that such were the considerations for its development through translation. The first philosopher in Arabic is a-Kindi (died circa 870) who had gathered a circle of scientists and collaborators around him. Al-Kindi was not only a philosopher but a polymath in the translated sciences and wrote on astrology, astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and medicine. The translation movement in early Abbasid Baghdad fostered such a broad and encyclopaedist view that led him to acquire and to develop a research programme whose aim was to acquire and complete the sciences that were transmitted from the ancients. The purpose of this approach, as al-Kindi says in a number of introductions to his essays, was to advance knowledge, not merely repeat it by memorization. Al-Kindi’s goal was to approach mathematical accuracy in his argumentation. He held mathematical or geometrical proof to be of the highest order. He says that in his philosophical writings, “he regularly employs certain proofs where his method is quite clearly derived from the Elements of Euclid.” Such was the influence of the translated scientific literature and the incipient original scholarship in Arabic that this ideal of the unassailable proof was widespread in the ninth century and formed the model of many a discussion in the ‘humanistic’ disciplines. Second, al- Kindi’s originality resides in his attempts to apply this approach to the theological and religious discussions of his time. In order to do so, he tried to gain access to the most ‘scientific’ i.e., methodologically rigorous disciplines in these subjects and accordingly he had several translations of primarily metaphysical Greek texts made for him, foremost among which was Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

That the translation movement enjoyed a very wide support in early Abbasid society in Baghdad is obvious enough through its sheer spread and longevity. “In the second Abbasid century,” Gutas observes, “the translation movement reached its apogee with the work of Hunayn ibn Ishaq (and his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn) and his associates, and generated, because of its success, two very significant developments: first, scholarship in all fields covered by the translated literature became so widespread and so profound in Baghdadi society that commissions for original works on scientific and philosophical subjects composed in Arabic  became  as  current  as  commissions  for  translations  from the Greek; and second, because of the spirit of research and analysis it inculcated different fields of scholarly endeavour unrelated to the translations gained in sophistication, a plethora of ideas was available for ready consumption, and the areas covered by the translation literature were no longer the only ones to impress powerful minds. Intellectual interested  not  only  in  the  transmitted  knowledge  from  the  Greeks but in the main problems posed by this knowledge and in the various ideological challenges to it.”

For a more precise understanding of the dynamics of this society that generated the need and support for the movement, it is necessary to describe closely the significant social groups or strata that sponsored the translation movement. The sponsors came from all ethnic and religious groups: Arabic, Syriac, and Persian speakers, and Muslims, Christians of all sorts, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and pagans. According to Gutas, the four major groupings of sponsors or patrons were: (a) Abbasid caliphs and their families; (b) courtiers; (c) officials of the state and military administration; (d) scholars and scientists.

The success and establishment of the translation movement made intellectuals, in broad terms, out of all members of the ruling elite. While the early Abbasid caliphs counted translation as part of their ideology and foreign policy (for example in their hostile relationship with Byzantium), the rate and vigour of such patronage attenuated with the later caliphs. In a general way it is observed that their activities of patronage correlate positively with the strength of the office of the caliph itself and the real power of its successive holders. Real power, however, began to elude later caliphs. Other than caliphs, princes are frequently mentioned as patrons of scientific and philosophical activity, most famous among whom is Ahmad, the son of Caliph al-Mu’tasim (833-842), who was tutored by the philosopher and scientist al-Kindi himself. Ahmad commissioned many translations of mathematical and astronomical texts. Other members of the immediate families of caliphs who  sponsored  the  translation  movement  and  scientific production were ladies of the court. The mother of Caliph al-Mu’tazz (866-869) commissioned from the great Hunayn himself translation of a book on eight-month embryos.

Among the intimates of the caliphs and their families should be placed the courtiers, individuals of learning, wit and graceful manners who were sought after for their company. Their social function was significant, i.e., to represent the cultural attitudes of the learned elite as appreciated by the rulers and, conversely, the cultural predilections of the rulers as catered to by the state. Courtiers came from different backgrounds and were elevated to their status for different reasons. The chief of Caliph al-Mu’tasim’s guard was Al-Fath ibn Haqan, son of a Turkish soldier. He was raised in court together with al-Mu’tasim’s son, the future caliph al- Mutawakkil (847-861), with whom he became close personal friends. He remained so throughout al-Mutawakkil’s reign and ran a brilliant courtly salon for intellectuals. He gained lasting fame for his devotion to letters, his very rich personal library, and his profound promotion of scientific and literary learning.

The secretaries of the Abbasid administration and related state functionaries constituted one of the most important social groups who patronized and promoted the translations and works based on them. The early Abbasid caliphs relied in this regard on Sasanian models. The Barmakees (a noble Persian family of Buddhist converts originating from the Gandhara region who enjoyed unquestioned supremacy in these posts for the first half century of the Abbasid caliphate, were naturally carriers of Sassanian practice including its culture of translation. They were among the sponsors of the translation movement and of works relating to astronomy and agriculture. They are said to be responsible for the Indian embassy to the court of Caliph al-Mansur, which resulted in the transmission, and translation of the Sindhind. After the fall of the Barmakees, the Abbasid caliphs selected their viziers from among thoroughly Arabized Muslim Persians, the Tahirids. In addition, the caliphs selected high court functionaries from among the Arab and non Arab Christians of Iraq. Despite the new directions from which members of the secretarial classes were recruited they would enthusiastically support the translation movement.

Besides the support of the political and social elite, scientists and scholars of all groups commissioned translations of Greek texts for their practice and research. Physicians were among the most prominent and significant of these patrons, among whom was the great Hunayn and his associates who translated a great number of Galen’s works. Al-Kindi commissioned translations of scientific subjects about which he also wrote original essays. He was particularly keen on learning about Greek philosophy, particularly physics and metaphysics to achieve scientific certainty in the discussions of religious issues.

As we wrap up this brief look at some of the known factors (these may be modified as more factors will emerge as the large number of Arab manuscripts of the period are translated and analyzed) that made the translation movement of the Abbasid caliphs such a resounding success, let’s look at the translation culture of the period. Apparently the translators in the first century of the Baghdad caliphate were scholars of the subjects of the books they translated, not professional translators who specialized in any particular branch of knowledge. After the initial translations of Greek works through the Sasanian Pahlavi intermediaries, when sponsors wanted to have books translated directly from Greek, specialists were not readily available. Though there were enough Greek speakers in Syria and Palestine, there were no Graeco- Arabic translators available. Most of the early translators from Greek were Christian clerics of various denominations, whom the Abbasid patrons could approach in their official capacity. As the demand for Graeco-Arab translations grew because of the needs of the scientists and philosophers, so did the supply and competence of translators. It was the development of Arabic scientific and philosophical tradition that generated the wholesale demand for translations from   Greek (and Syriac and Pahlavi), not that the translations gave rise to science and philosophy in Abbasid Baghdad. Translations improved with time as the translators’ Greek improved and they became professional translators whose ultimate purpose was financial. According to one contemporary account competent translators could earn as much as 500 dinars a month, which at the time was equivalent to 2125 grams of gold, a salary that at today’s gold rates would be unthinkable in Pakistan.

A question that was raised in the beginning remains to be answered, why did the Byzantines, a great centre of Christianity, stay away from this knowledge revolution in their neighbourhood? One reason put forward is that the eighth and the ninth centuries were the ‘dark age’ of Byzantine with very little firsthand information on the period. Second, the Byzantine mind at the time was in the grip of theological hairsplitting which had not time or use for matters ‘secular’ like philosophy and science. The Byzantines although they were Greek speaking, and were the direct inheritors of Greek culture, had always feared secular Hellenic knowledge as it was thought to be injurious to Christian spirit. There was no space yet in Constantinople for humanism of any kind. Their Emperors had Greeks locked away in dungeons lest they soil the mind of a righteous Christian. Books anyway were scarce and expensive as they did not have recourse to paper and so their texts were written on skins only; the papyrus could not be used outside Egypt as it was susceptible to humidity.

This while the Graeco-Arabic translation movement spread over two centuries had hardly any doctrinal content. No worthwhile opposition to this translation movement is recorded in the writings of scholars of Islam of the period. Although some western scholarship has belatedly tried to imagine a conflict between the scientists and the religious scholars the one big achievement of the movement, as noted above, was to bridge the “western’ divide between reason and faith and thus free the human spirit to create knowledge and power to conquer nature. How this fragrant stream of consciousness went on to fertilize Europe is another story. In the words of Mark Graham, “the Greeks belonged to Islam as much as they belonged to Christendom. It was they who saved the Greeks when the Christians were burning them. It was they who translated them, debated them, commented on them and improved upon their systems. The West belongs as much to Islam, a rich part of its own history that has only begun to be written.” The magic in this examination has been that of the art and science translation in its unparalleled fullness.


  1. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries), Dimitri Gutas, Routledge, 1998
  2. How Islam Created the Modern World, Mark Graham, Amana Publications, Beltsville, MD, USA, 2006
  3. Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, George Saliba, MIT Press, Cambridge MT, USA, 2007
  4. Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists, Michael Hamilton Morgan, National Geographic, 2007
  5. The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, Jonathan Lyons, Bloomsbury Press, 2009
  6. Alladin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World, Jonathan Freely, Knopf, 2009
  7. Science and Islam: A History, Eshan Masood, Icon Books, London, 2009