Al-Nadim’s The Fihrist Al-Furqan Edition Vol: 1
Al-Nadim’s The Fihrist Al-Furqan Edition Vol: 2
Bayard Dodge, The Fihrist of Al-Nadim: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture
Ibn Juljul al-Andalusi, Tabaqat al-’Atibba
Al-Qifti’s Tarih al-Hukama
Rosenfeld, Boris A., Ihsanoglu, Ekmeleddin, Mathematicians, astronomers, and other scholars of Islamic civilization and their works (7th–19th c.), IRCICA Publication
Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd Edition
Encyclopedia of Islam, 3rd Edition
The ninth-century Abbasid palace library known as the House of Wisdom has attracted the attention of generations of scholars from the end of the nineteenth century until today. The transformation of this institution from a palace library into a nineteenth-century modern European academy or fully-fledged modern-day university has had a very interesting journey.
In this book, we shall take up the few accounts in the classical Arabic sources and references in the biographies of the scholars associated with this library and evaluate how they were turned into a myth. Some innocent errors, the shifting of a word’s meaning during translation, the imagination of those dealing with the subject, and also emotional and nationalist aspirations paved the way for the birth of this myth.
The early studies conducted by pioneering orientalists reveal that the first examples of the confusion related to Bayt al-Hikma resulted from the problems of editing Arabic manuscripts or translating specific Arabic words and terms that had no standard equivalents in the European languages. At the turn of the twentieth century Bayt al-Hikma was transformed into an active institution of scientific pursuit including a library and observatory. As will be explained under Part II, a PhD dissertation came to the conclusion that
the “House of Wisdom” appears to have been the university of Baghdad with its distinguished performance, library and observatory … [it] may justly claim the honor of having been the first university of both the medieval and the modern world; for it bore the torch aloft long before Bologna, Paris, Prague, Oxford and Cambridge …
At the turn of the twenty-first century, a new episode in the long history of the creation of this myth was a new claim that Bayt al-Hikma had “roots that go deep in history; that is to say in the heritage of ancient Iraq from the days of the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Assyrians.”
In the last decades, an observed increase of interest among wide segments of western readership for the scientific achievements and accomplishments in the history of Muslim world, as well as the contributions of Muslim scholars and philosophers to the making of the Western civilization, has propelled popular publications addressed to a wide range of readership. These publications aimed to introduce the Abbasid House of Wisdom as a pivot behind the Golden Age of the Islamic civilization that epitomized the splendid glory of the past. However, these new publications were based on previous ones produced by generations of scholars where limited information in few primary sources regarding this palace library turned out, in the hands of Western and Muslim scholars, to be an endless source of inspiration which led to the creation of a myth of an Abbasid academy of sciences similar to European ones and a full-fledged modern university.
The main difficulty in comprehending the nature of the Abbasid palace library, at times referred to as “Khizanat al-Hikma” (Repository of Wisdom) and at others as “Bayt al-Hikma” (House of Wisdom), is how to situate this library within the overall framework of the multifaceted cultural and scientific activities in the era of the two caliphs Harun al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun, generally known as the golden age of the Islamic civilization. What is certain about these activities is that they were, in the main, held under caliphal patronage and their entourage. Indeed, the poets, the literary figures, religious scholars, physicians, astronomers, and astrologers who belonged to different religions and hailed from varied origins exercised their activities under the patronage of the caliph and with his financial support.
Careful and critical examination of the available information provided by the primary sources that have reached us has undoubtedly clarified many misunderstandings and helped to undo the fanciful portrait of the House of Wisdom. As for the claims that all these varied activities used to take place within the House of Wisdom and inside its “specialized departments”, we have clearly shown that this claim has no historical support.
There are certain specific figures as mentioned by the primary sources who were attached to the Palace library and who did work there officially. They, however few, are quite limited in number, but they stand as a proof to the existence of some mode of organized institutional work within the palace library that goes beyond the mere collection and preservation of books and encompasses other activities such as authoring, translating, and copying books.
By researching how the myth of the House of Wisdom was created and disseminated, we endeavored to dissect the fanciful image and tried to construct a real depiction of the ninth century caliphal library, in accordance with the accounts available in primary sources.
This study shows that scholars who were addressing the history of the House of Wisdom overlooked the historical context and that they were reading modern institutions into classical texts, idealizing its structure and functioning in a way that reflected their own emotional aspirations and national ambitions.
This study also dismisses many claims and propositions generated and continued by generations of scholars that became a priori self-evident propositions. It also shows how elitist institutions, if they disregard the sensitivities of the public and harbored heterodox interests, would end up losing their sustainability.
Having proved that the myth which was created no longer stands in the face of reality, one cautionary remark is to admit that the mythical image of the House of Wisdom developed over many years has become well established to the extent that the bare reality stands as an unwelcome stranger while the myth seems a household acquaintance.
This book is the first offspring came through several decades of ongoing research on the development of institutions of learning in Islam which covers the classic period from the eighth to the sixteenth century.
Concerning this book on the history of the Abbasid House of Wisdom, I would like to express my thanks to my former colleague Dr. Yümna Özer from IRCICA for her contribution at the first stages of the project.
I would like to acknowledge with appreciation the kind hospitality of Prof. Hans G. Mayer during my sojourn in Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich in 2003, where I enjoyed thought-provoking discussions with brilliant graduate students of Institut für Geschichte und Kultur des Nahen Orients sowie Turkologie during the hauptseminar: Institutions of Learning in Islam. I also recall the fruitful exchange of views on early Abbasid texts with late Prof. Rainer Degen of the “Institut für Semitistik” of Munich University.
Finally, I must express my gratitude to Oğuz Kaan Pehlivan, whose diligent and studios help made my manuscript find its way to the printer.