Enlightening the world with the House of Wisdom: Does modern science owe its development to 9th-century Baghdad?
Nowadays, political deadlock, conflict, and rising tensions have grasped Iraq, with the country's people facing another series of political disputes that claimed the lives of dozens, just as in the past years' wars, instability, and humanitarian crisis.
However, despite the gloomy shadow of the current developments and the past two decades, Baghdad was, once upon a time, among the richest, most prosperous, and science-friendly cities in the world.
While Europe's dark ages lasted between the 5th and 14th centuries, the Islamic world started witnessing effulgent anthesis with the establishment of the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) in the 8th century in Baghdad.
"The Abbasids, contrary to the Umayyads, not only relied on expansion but also prioritised establishing institutions and culture around the state. As part of their plan, the Abbasids started setting up cities with Baghdad, founded in 756, their symbol of cultural advancement"
Everything started with the replacement of the Umayyad Caliphate (the second one of the four major caliphates following the death of Prophet Muhammad) by the Abbasids in 750.
The most explicit distinction between the Umayyads and Abbasids was the latter's skills in statesmanship and culture.
The Abbasids, contrary to the Umayyads, not only relied on expansion but also prioritised establishing institutions and culture around the state. As part of their plan, the Abbasids started setting up cities with Baghdad, founded in 756, their symbol of cultural advancement.
Taking the ancient Persian Empire as their role model, the Abbasids started forming administrative units in Baghdad and Hizanetul Hikmah, which means a library of wisdom. This first attempt led to the establishment of a grand library built by Caliph Harun Al-Rashid.
"Al Ma'mun converted The Library of Wisdom into the House of Wisdom where prominent scholars, scientists, and polymaths around the world with different faiths dedicated themselves to advance knowledge building"
The Library of Wisdom included manuscripts and books on several subjects in several languages collected by Harun Al-Rashid's father and grandfather.
In the following period, when Harun Al-Rashid's philosopher son, Al Ma'mun – who became the Abbasid Caliph after deposing his brother – came to Baghdad, he converted The Library of Wisdom (Hizanetul Hikmah) into the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) where prominent scholars, scientists, and polymaths around the world with different faiths dedicated themselves to advance knowledge building.
Al Ma'mun was a true intellectual, enthusiastic, and passionate science addict who studied Islamic history, memorised the Quran and mastered Arabic grammar.
He was also a brilliant student, a shining star of his era's philosophy and theology, known as Kalam in Arabic.
Since Kalam carries the feature of the dialectic debate, it paved the way for early Muslim theologians to have their own discussions with the Christian and Jewish ones – and Al Ma'mun, during his reign, sought openness toward other cultures, religions, and beliefs.
As a natural result of his attitude towards 'others', Al Ma'mun encouraged scholars worldwide to visit Baghdad.
The House of Wisdom, as a result of this, became the main hub for intellectuality, driven by its cosmopolitanism that was seen for the first time.
It led to the unprecedented growth and influence of the House of Wisdom with the acquisition of texts from Greece, Persia, and India, swelling with the addition of the Arabic translations of these texts.
The foregone conclusion was the emergence of a shared understanding of science, theology, and philosophy which made the House of Wisdom more than a library but a true treasury of the world.
"The House of Wisdom became the main hub for intellectuality, driven by its cosmopolitanism that was seen for the first time"
Deciding to create a crowded scientific delegation, Al Ma'mun picked up 68 people. The group included the greatest polymaths of his time. The commission studied specific measurements, investigations, and experiments, which resulted in successful scientific findings.
For instance, the length of the Earth's equatorial belt was measured at that time with 500 meters of difference from the current one. Astrological studies on planets and stars were also on the agenda of the team.
Al Khwarizmi, the father of algebra, was on the list of Al Ma'mun's delegation. He studied to find easy methods for financial accounts.
As a result of these efforts, hundreds of formulas were developed by Al Khwarizmi that paved the way for him to be known as the founder of algebra.
"The House of Wisdom allowed Baghdad to become an unparalleled bastion of science"
Al Kindi, on the other hand, revealed cosmological proofs of God, where the Banu Musa brothers made ground-breaking inventions in mechanics.
Furthermore, Jabir Ibn Hayyan sowed the roots of modern chemistry, which, according to the prominent German Historian Max Meyerhof, laid the foundations of chemistry in Europe centuries later.
Being known as 'Geber' in the West, Jabir Ibn Hayyan is credited with inventing techniques and scientific processes like distillation, crystallisation, evaporation and sublimation that are still used in today's world.
These mesmerising inventions and scientific advancements were too numerous to be counted.
The House of Wisdom allowed Baghdad to become an unparalleled bastion of science.
The adventure of Baghdad ended in the middle of the 13th century following the Mongol Siege in which the House of Wisdom was destroyed.
According to many, its legacy and Baghdad's impact can still be felt in today's world.
Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, journalist, and PhD Candidate in International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University. His research focuses on Libya, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict.
Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat