Part IX

The Impact

The Abbasid palace library that flourished under the reigns of Harun al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun and became known as the House of Wisdom inspired scholars and intellectuals belonging to the retinue of the caliphs to emulate their master and establish similar libraries. By the end of the eighth century acquiring books was easier and cheaper due to the introduction of paper manufacturing in Baghdad after the Battle of Talas (134/751). The Fatimid institute of learning with the similar name of Dar al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), which was established in Cairo almost two centuries after the Abbasid one, has been claimed to be a continuation of al-Ma’mun’s House of Wisdom, despite the nonexistence of historical evidence.1

Two prominent figures, who served long tenures in the Abbasid Court and were associated with Caliph al-Muwakkil, established their own libraries. The first one was Ali b. Yahya al-Munajjim (d. 275/888) son of Yahya b. Abi Mansur who was an astrologer working for al-Ma’mun.2 Ali b. Yahya al-Munajjim was one of the first Abbasid intellectuals to build a library which he called “Khizanat al-Hikma” located in his residence in the vicinity of Baghdad and which was open to all scholars and visitors. Ali b. Yahya al-Munajjim was also one of the clients of the great Nestorian translators of the Greek works on philosophy and medicine, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (d. 260/873) and his son Ishaq b. Hunayn (d. 298/910).3

The second prominent figure was Fath Ibn Haqan (d. 244/861) a descendent of a Turkish royal family.4 He was very close to the Caliph al-Mutawakkil and one of the most famous bibliophiles ever heard of in history. We are even told that he always carried a book with him, hidden under his sleeve, and whenever and wherever he found the slightest occasion, he pulled it out from his sleeve and started reading.5 He himself was an author and poet (in Arabic) and patron of many prominent Arab authors and poets including al-Jahiz and al-Buhteri. His library is referred as Khizanat al-Hikma. Ali bin Yahya al-Munajjim was put in charge of building the collection of this library and he transferred a great number of books there that were part of his own collection, as well as books that he had had copied for Fath Ibn Haqan. We are told that this was the biggest and most organized library ever seen.6

A third example to mention in this context is the library of the three sons of Musa bin Shakir known as the Banu al-Munajjim (sons of astrologer/astronomer): Muhammad, Ahmad, and al-Hasan. They were avid collectors of books on the classical sciences, mainly geometry, applied mechanics, music, and astrology.7 Following al-Ma’mun’s tradition, we are told that they even sent Hunayn Ibn Ishaq to Byzantium to gather works in the disciplines mentioned above and that the latter returned with rare and strange books in the fields of philosophy, geometry, music, arithmetic, and medicine. They also employed translators such as Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, Hubaysh Ibn al-Hasan, Thabit Ibn Qurra, and others to copy and translate, and that they were spending 500 dinars a month for copying, translating, and attendance (mulazama).8

These friends of the arts and sciences had close relations with one another and with the Caliphs al-Ma’mun and al-Mutawakkil.9 In their Khizanat al-Hikma, on a more modest and private scale, they followed the methods and goals pursued by the caliphs in the Bayt al-Hikma.10 The ‘ulum al-’awa’il were among the sciences promoted and pursued in these libraries and this continued even after al-Mutawakkil put an end to the mihna. Significantly enough, the existence of private libraries patterned on the institution of Bayt al-Hikma confirms the fact that although al-Mutawakkil reduced the role of the Mu’tazilis and brought their political power to a halt, he was not “reacting” against the sciences they promoted.

The following account by Yaqut al-Hamawi (d. 1229) sheds light on the functioning of such private libraries.11 He narrates that this great library was placed in the magnificent palace of Ali bin Yahya al-Munajjim and that he used to call his library Khizanat al-Hikma, that is to say the Repository of Wisdom. We are also told that it was open for people from all over and contained rooms where they could stay, access the books, and study different disciplines, and that they were taken care of by the host. Yaqut narrates the story of the astrologer Abu Ma’shar (766–886) who was on his way to the pilgrimage. Abu Ma’shar, having limited knowledge about the stars at the time, and after hearing of the fame of this library he decided to visit it and

he was astonished with the magnificent library and he decided to stay on there, to study and abandon his travel to pilgrimage. He was deeply engaged until he became an atheist and that was his last interest with religion and Islam.12

These private libraries that were patterned on the Bayt al-Hikma (without the latter’s political ulterior motives), and called its emulators by Y. Eche, would have never come into existence had the Abbasid caliphs, and in particular al-Mutawakkil, been opposed to the sciences studied there. The three “emulator” libraries described above, with the exception of the last one, which was simply referred to as the Banu’l-Munajjim’s library, included the word “hikma” in their name: Khizanat al-Hikma. Later, the term “hikma” is replaced by the word “ilm” (knowledge/science) and private libraries are called “Dar al-’Ilm”. We assume that this change in the nomenclature is the result of a transformation in the cultural paradigms and certain sensitivity towards the use of the term “hikma” which was often associated with the Mu’tazila doctrine, Ismaili sect, or other dissenting doctrines considered heterodox and marginal to Sunni Islam.

The inquisition policy and the persecution of the opponents of the createdness of the Qur’an continued during the reigns of four Caliphs al-Ma’mun, al-Mu’tasım, al-Wathiq, and first years of al-Mutawakkil’s reign. The struggle against this policy was led by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (d. 241/855) and come to an end by the decision of al-Mutwakkil in 850. Thus, the supremacy of the Mu’tazilites ended and their political power never recovered.

Private libraries dedicated to the sciences of the ancients continued and engagement with these sciences carried on. Meanwhile, as Prof. Gutas has shown in detail, the inquisition did not affect the translation movement directly or immediately, for it continued to flourish for the rest of the ninth century and throughout the tenth century.13

In the pre-inquisition Abbasid society, there was no such conflict or struggle between different schools of thought. However, the struggle between the proponents and opponents of the createdness of the Qur’an led to the emergence of a sensitivity and polarization among the followers of the two parties. The inquisition galvanized the emergence of the ulema as a real force and cohesive community within Islamic society. It also paved the way for their political role as a pressure group. The abandonment of the inquisition was tantamount to making the Sunni form of Islam the official religion of the caliphate and giving the ulema an assured place in it.14

Western scholars like Goldziher (d. 1921) and G. Makdisi (d. 2002) portrayed this struggle as a fight between rivals and a dichotomy that lasted forever. Aydın Sayılı (d. 1993), in his PhD dissertation on the history of institutions of learning in Islam, quoted Goldziher’s key sentence: “Muslim theologians, therefore, come to consider as desirable only those branches of learning which had grown directly of their religion. Sciences which owed their origin to foreign sources were regarded at least with suspicion”.15 Sayılı built his study of the history of institutions of learning in Islam on this premise as well as on the notion of the deliberate exclusion of the ancient sciences from the madrasa teaching programs.

The supposed antiphilosophical attitude of Muslim scholars constituted the intellectual background of the development of madrasa education in Islam. This “epistemological dichotomy” has also been expressed on the institutional level as G. Makdisi proposes in his study on the historical development of the madrasa entitled “The Rise of Colleges”. He considers that there is a dichotomy in the fields of knowledge and in the institutions of learning in the Islamic world. For Makdisi, there are two sets of antagonistic sciences: the “religious” and the “foreign”. These are upheld by two types of learning institutions, the madrasa, which he calls “college”, exclusively devoted to the teaching of religious sciences, and on the other hand, the private establishments where the study of the secular scientific domains was pursued. The madrasa was conceived by Makdisi as an institution devoted only to the teaching of Islamic law, fiqh and the training of jurists, faqihs. He stretches his theory to “exclude” all subjects other than law and its ancillaries. He states, “the dichotomy in the fields of knowledge was matched by a dichotomy in the institutions of learning”.16 When we look at the works of A. Sayılı and Y. Eche that prepared the grounds for Makdisi’s definite judgment, we find that these studies were based on fundamentally accepted concepts of “exclusion” and “dichotomy”.17

Both Eche and Sayılı belonged to the same generation. The Syrian scholar coming to Paris from de jure independent Syria was aspiring to the Arab awakening, so he wanted to foresee in his national heritage a fully-fledged modern library and an advanced academy of sciences. Meanwhile, Aydın Sayılı who owed his opportunity to study the history of science in Harvard University to Atatürk, the founder of Republic of Turkey, was a true believer and follower of his reforms.

Sayılı adopted two approaches which he called “methods” where he rationalized his arguments on the basis of his commitment to the contemporary republican Turkish experience of modernization, which was based on the assumption of the decline of Islamic Ottoman civilization as well as on taking the European model as an example. The first of these approaches is the assertion that Islam was essentially a nonplastic and stable society and culture, and many of its features were hardly altered until relatively recent attempts of westernization. The distant past could be studied more directly through the recent past, or even, the present. Different mental attitudes, which are not ascertainable through the extant source material, can be grasped with the help of residual evidence. Also, the reactions to the recent attempts at westernization would be helpful in determining the obstacles to the study of the sciences. Secondly, he maintained that arriving at conclusions through rationalization might also be guided by considering the applicability of the same reasoning to Western Europe, which was also a theocentric society. Sayılı, utilizing these approaches in some cases, concluded his long dissertation on the institutionalization of science and learning, which he wrote under the influence of his mentor G. Sarton’s theory of the “Golden Age of Science in Islam” (approximately up to 1000 AD) and the firm belief in the paradigm of the decline of Islamic civilization as it was prevailing in the Turkish republican discourse, by saying:

In short, in Islam the natural, physical and mathematical sciences derived trivial benefit from the school and from other institutions of science and learning. It is obvious, therefore, that their cultivation had to depend on private instruction i.e., learning from private teachers and by self-instruction.18

Through generations of scholars the above-mentioned notions developed by Goldziher, G. Sarton, A. Sayılı, Y. Eche, and G. Makdisi were taken for granted and they have been prevalent. However, recently these notions have begun to be challenged in two aspects. D. Gutas has taken to task the misconception of Goldziher and his assumption that old Islamic orthodoxy was against the sciences of the ancients and has elaborately showed that there was a “rational and even political bias” behind Goldziher’s position.19 The other challenge was raised against the notion of a dichotomy and exclusionist propositions, which was built on a detailed study of different institutions of learning in the Arab, Persian, and Ottoman realms all through the classical age up to the sixteenth century. These studies proposed that there was no dichotomy but integration, no exclusion but gradual inclusion.20


1. For a short introduction to the Fatimid institution and its relation to the Abbasid House of Wisdom, see Part I, endnote 22.

2. For Yahya b. Abi Mansur, AN II, p. 237; Rosenfeld-Ihsanoglu, No. 31.

3. Balty-Gueston, “Le Bayt al-Hikma de Baghdad”, p. 145.

4. O. Pinto, “al-Fath b. Khakan”, EI2, Vol. II, Brill, pp. 837, 838; Hugh Kennedy, When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty, Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006. Kennedy calls him “the greatest bibliophile of his day”.

5. Ibn Khalliqan, Wafayat al-’A’yan wa ‘Anba’ ‘Abna’ al-Zaman, edited by Ihsan Abbas, Vol. 6, Beirut, n.d., pp. 176–178; see also O. Pinto, “al-Fath b. Khakan”, EI2, p. 837; D. Sourdel, Le Vizarat Abbaside, Damas, 1959, pp. 282–286.

6. AN I, pp. 261, 362, 442, 457; Ibn Khalliqan, Wafayat, p. 56; Yaqut, Mu’jam al-Udaba, Vol. 15, p. 157.

7. AN II, pp. 224–226; al-Qifti, pp. 441–443.

8. AN I, p. 361; al-Qifti, pp. 30, 31.

9. Y. Eche, Les Bibliotheques Arabes,p. 41.

10. Ibid., p. 63.

11. Yaqut al-Hamawi, p. 157.

12. AN II, p. 242; also see Rosenfeld-Ihsanoglu, No. 88.

13. D. Gutas, pp. 151–165.

14. Watt, p. 42.

15. I. Goldziher, “Stellung der alten islamischen Orthodoxie zu den antiken Wissenschaften”, Abhandlungen der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Jahrgang 1915, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, No. 8, Berlin, Verlag der Akademie, 1916, quoted by Sayılı dissertation p. 47.

16. George Makdisi, The Rise of College, p. 78.

17. Aydın Sayılı, “The Institutions of Science and Learning in the Muslim World”, Ph.D. Thesis, Harvard University, Department of the History of Science and Learning, 1941; Youssef Eche, Les bibliothèques arabes publiques et semi-publiques en Mésopotamie, en Syrie et en Égypte au Moyen Age, Damascus, Institute Français de Damas, 1967.

18. Sayılı, “The Institutions of Science…”, p. 35.

19. Gutas, pp. 166–175.

20. Our study on these issues has been in progress for long time, see Ihsanoglu, “Institutions of Science Education”, pp. 386–397; Ihsanoglu, Il Ruolo Delle Istituzioni, pp. 110–139; “Institutionalization of Science in the Medreses of Pre-Ottoman and Ottoman Turkey Institutions”, in Turkish Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 244, edited by Irzik G., Güzeldere G., Dordrecht, Springer, 2005; also published in Ihsanoglu, Studies on Ottoman Science and Culture, Variorum Routledge, 2019, p. 69.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!