Part III

Dissecting the Myth

Careful and critical examination of the available information provided by the few primary sources that have reached us will undoubtedly clarify many misunderstandings and help to undo the fanciful portrait of the Bayt al-Hikma’s myth as a modern academy. Certain bibliographical and biographical dictionaries written between the tenth to thirteenth centuries have references to the scholarly activities in the early Abbasid period where some belong to the royal library at the Abbasid court in Baghdad. These books provide many examples of caliphal patronage and support to scholars whether or not they were associated with this library during the time of Harun al-Rashid and al-Mamun, and they give clues to the nature of this library.

At the forefront of these references is the Fihrist of al-Nadim (d. 990), the Baghdadi bibliophile, bibliographer, and copyist of manuscripts who compiled the most detailed information on the literary activities and the cultural legacy of the first centuries of Islamic history, and produced his monumental work widely known as al-Fihrist (meaning, the book catalogue) whose draft was completed in 988, almost 200 years after the creation of the said Library.

Among the other sources, we can point to Tabaqat books, that is, biographical dictionaries of al-Nadim’s contemporary, the Andalusian physician Ibn Juhul (d. 994), the Egyptian Ibn al-Qifti (d. 1248), and the Damascene Ibn Abi Usaybia (d. 1270). In addition, the Syriac historian and theologian Ibn al-Ibri, also known as Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286) in his book Tarih Mukhtasar al-Duwal, sheds light on some cases. These sources occasionally offer some more information. Other than these, the later sources do not provide much that is not already known. It is worth mentioning here that these sources were written between 200 and 400 years after the appearance of the Bayt al-Hikma. Al-Nadim’s Fihrist undoubtedly is the most important source because of the short time interval and the fact that he lived in Bagdad and was well connected with scholars, book lovers, and book traders thanks to the business he inherited from his father.

In the Fihrist, there are few clear references to Bayt al-Hikma and its alternative appellations as Khizanat al-Hikme and others. The Fihrist specifies certain names and certain persons who were associated with Bayt al-Hikma with their occupation. First among these is the name of Sâlm who is identified as the Sahib of Bayt al-Hikma.1 The word sahib could be rendered as head, responsible figure, or director. The second one to be qualified as the Sahib/head of Bayt al-Hikma is Sahl Ibn Harun2 during the reign of al-Ma’mun. In different contexts, al-Nadim mentions that Sahl Ibn Harun was in the service of al-Ma’mun and that he was in charge (sahib) of the royal library but here he uses different appellation instead of Bayt al-Hikma, he uses Khizanat al-Hikma.3 Al-Nadim also mentions a position of a Sharik, meaning an associate/companion of the head of Bayt al-Hikma and notes the name of Said Ibn Huraym al-Katib as Sharik of Sahl Ibn Harun in Bayt al-Hikma.4

Among others who held a specific occupation, Allan al-Shu’ubi5 is mentioned by al-Nadim as a copyist who produces copies of books for Harun al-Rashid, al-Ma’mun, and the Barmakides. He also mentions ten names of bookbinders and the first he provides is Ibn Ali Al-Haryish.6 He says “he was book binding at the khizanat al-Hikma of al-Ma’mun”.

The primary sources other than al-Fihrist referred to above add little to what al-Nadim provided in his Fihrist; however, occasionally some supplementary information was added to clarify certain ambiguities. For instance, al-Nadim in his account on al-Fadl Abu Sahl bin Newabakth mentions that he was working in the Repository of Wisdom (Khizanat al-Hikma) for Harun al-Rashid and he would translate Persian books for him. Al-Qifti in his biographical dictionary added that Harun al-Rashid appointed him to be in charge of the “Repository of Books on Wisdom”.

If we scrutinize the array of information and references in the Fihrist, though few, we come to clear examples about the personal involvement of the caliphs and their Viziers with the scholarly activities of Bayt al-Hikma.

Al-Nadim narrates that Harun al-Rashid’s vizier Yahya Khalid bin Barmak was the first person to become interested in Almagest and he asked Abu Hassan and Sâlm to revise and edit a translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest that he was not pleased with, so they brought the experienced translators and both of them examined their work and approved the clearest and most eloquent of their translations.7

This short account gives clear insight into how the Bayt al-Hikma worked and what its head functions were. Meanwhile, it shows also that Bayt al-Hikma’s services were not limited to the caliph.

One of the rare accounts that enlightens the role of the Bayt al-Hikma in scholarly activities is what al-Nadim tells us about the famous mathematician, astronomer, and polymath Mohammed bin Musa al-Khwarizmi’s (d. 850) association with Khizanat al-Hikma.8 He says that al-Khwarizmi was solely devoted to Bayt al-Hikma (Munaqati) during al-Ma’mun’s time.9 This account shows that there were different degrees of the association of scholars with Bayt al-Hikma.

Al-Nadim in different places of his Fihrist gives information about his personal experiences with books related to or supposedly belonging to the library of al-Ma’mun. In the first section of the first chapter, where he writes about the languages of Arabs and foreign people, he makes two clear references to the library of al-Ma’mun. In the first example, he says

I myself have seen a passage in the library of Al-Ma’mun which I have translated of what the commander of the faithful Abd’Allah al-Ma’mun, may Allah honor him, ordered the translators to transcribe. It contained Himyarite script, and I give you an exact reproduction of what was in the transcription …10

In the second example, he says

the Abyssinians have a script like the Himyarite letters going from left to right. They separated each of the words by means of three dots, dotted like triangle between the letter of two words. This is an example of the letters which I copied from the library of Al-Ma’mun …11

After these clear indications of al-Nadim’s visits to the library of al-Ma’mun and his personal examination of the books, he gives us different examples of his precarious experiences. In the same first section of the First Chapter of the Fihrist, he says “there was in the library of al-Ma’mun, something written on hide, in the handwriting of Abd al-Muttalib Ibn Hisham [the grandfather of prophet Mohamad] mentioning the claim of Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hisham of Mecca against so-and-so …”.12 In the second section of First Chapter of his Fihrist, al-Nadim says “I once read a book which fell in my hands, and which was an ancient transcription, apparently from the library of al-Ma’mun. In it the copyist mentions the names and numbers of scripture and revealed books …”.13

It is obvious from the above mentioned four accounts about the personal experiences of al-Nadim with the books belonging to the library of al-Ma’mun that there were books that he saw and took notes inside the library and other ones outside the library where he says “fell in my hands” or “was in the library of al-Ma’mun”. These expressions, when also considered with the statement of Ibn Abi Usaybia that he saw books carrying the sign of al-Ma’mun [library] (see Part VIII), suggest that 400 years after the death of al-Ma’mun, books belonging to his library were changing hands.

A Bayt al-Hikma and Translation Movement

Regarding Bayt al-Hikma’s role in the translation movement that occurred in the Abbasid period, there is a discrepancy between the historical reality as described by the primary sources and the maximalist image portraited by Meyerhof14 and Fück15 who maintained that there was a “translation bureau” where translation from different languages were made, whereas modern historians such as Ira Lapidus further argue that it was a translation school.16

Al-Nadim is silent on this aspect of translation activities but his contemporary, the Andalusian physician Ibn Juljul (944–994) in his dictionary of biographies of physicians and philosophers, mentions three important names (Yuhanna Ibn Masawayh, Yuhanna bin al-Batriq, and Hunayn Ibn Ishaq) who supervised and were entrusted to the translation activities under different Abbasid Caliphs.17 We understand from Ibn Juljul’s accounts that those translations were made under the authority of somebody called Amin ala al-Tarjama (superintendent/secretary of translation) who was to supervise the translations.

In writing the biography of Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, a Nestorian Christian Arab from Hira, Ibn Juljul says that Hunayn Ibn Ishaq studied medicine with Yuhanna Ibn Masawayh in Baghdad; he was probably bilingual in Syriac and Arabic and perfected his Greek. He also tells us that Hunayn was assigned the duties of Amin of translation by al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861) and he was put in charge of conducting translation activities. He was also assigned the best translators and scribes of the time. He himself translated the medical texts of Hippocrates and Galen from Greek into Arabic and wrote some works that were based on Greek sources. Hunayn’s perfection in languages is also praised in his biography.18

In order to clarify the information in the available historical accounts as much as possible, whether the translation was an institutional or rather, an individual process, a careful study of the list of works of Hunayn Ibn Ishaq should shed light on this issue.19 This has been a controversial issue since the famous study of Max Meyerhof published in 1928, which we referred to previously.

The valuable information found in the long bibliographic list of the translations of Galen’s works made by Hunayn Ibn Ishaq and recorded in his epistle to Ali bin Yahya gives significant clues as to how, why, and for whom this important chapter of the translation movement was carried out. The translation activities that he made individually or together with his colleagues and students lasted more than 30 years. Among the frequently mentioned names that placed orders for numerous translations during his productive years are physicians, the Banu Musa brothers, famous intellectual statesmen of the period, and private library owners.20

In listing his numerous translations, Hunayn only notes that some of them were made during the periods of Caliphs al-Ma’mun, al-Mutawakkil, and al-Wathiq (r. 842–847) but does not mention in any case that these translations were ordered by them; for instance, he mentions that he translated certain works to Yahya bin Musawayh during the reign of al-Mutawakkil and to Muhammed bin Musa during the reign of al-Wathiq. We note that the names and identities of the people that placed the orders differ according to their preferred language. If the translation is from Greek to Syriac, it is obvious that the people that placed the orders are the physicians that came from Jundishapur to Baghdad. If the translated works are in Arabic, it is possible to find people of Arabic origin or Arabic-speaking people among those who have placed the orders.

Among the many works personally translated, revised, or edited by Hunayn, there is no information indicating that they were made in the name of the House of Wisdom or any other institution. Yuhanna Ibn Masawayh (d. 243/857),21 who was Hunayn’s teacher, was among the names listed; considering that he was a physician and the founder of the Bimaristan in Baghdad and had need for the translations of Galen’s works in this capacity, it is obvious that the translations made by Hunayn from Greek into Syriac were for the benefit of Masawayh as well as the other physicians that came from Jundishapur. Probably, here we can trace an institutional dimension through the Bimaristan in creating the demand for translation of medical texts.

In fact, it is clear that these translations were made upon professional request and did not have any connection with the House of Wisdom. The orders placed for other translations indicate that they were made for scholars, interested statesmen, and private library owners. Considering that the Banu Musa, according to al-Nadim22 paid approximately 500 dinars a month to several translators including Hunayn, Thabit Ibn Qurra, and others for their services in compiling, translating books, and attendance (mulazama) means that the translation movement at this time was not a monopoly belonging to the caliph and was not limited to the House of Wisdom.

Regarding the places where these translations were made, it did not have to be in a specific place; as with other compilations and writings, it could be anywhere that provided the facility for intellectual work. There is an interesting anecdote among the information given by Hunayn. While working with Salmawayh in correcting the Syriac translation of one of Galen’s works that was badly translated, Hunayn had the Greek text and Salmawayh had the Syriac translation; they compared the two and started to make the corrections according to the original text. Meanwhile, he emphasizes that correcting a bad translation was more difficult than translating the original text; he adds that Salmawayh told him better to translate this work from its Greek original. In giving this explanation, he states that he completed the translation during al-Ma’mun’s military campaign to al-Raqqa; that is, while they were accompanying the army. In addition to these interesting remarks, he says that after completing it, the translation was sent to Baghdad for copying but unfortunately the book was burnt due to the fire erupted in the ship.23

In evaluating the examples and information included in his long bibliography, the main conclusion to be drawn is that there was no “center” or “bureau” of translation as a distinct department of the House of Wisdom which Meyerhof claimed. There is no indication that Hunayn was given an official title or position to administrate and supervise the whole translations. There is also no reference that the title of Amin ala al-Tarjama put forward by Ibn Juljul. More importantly, not all translations made in the early Abbasid period were conducted in the House of Wisdom under royal patronage. There is no supporting information or evidence for this claim. Ibn Juljul’s reference to Hunayn was to the effect that he was entrusted with translations, made translations himself, and helped to supervise and edit the translations made by others. It is obvious that the development of the translation movement, like other literature, compilation, and other creative intellectual pursuits were enhanced by the patronage and encouragement of not only the caliphs but also the individuals, as well as the emergence of demanding readership among the courtly elites and intellectuals, as well as interested professionals of his time.

At any rate, the nonexistence of specific information about the role of the House of Wisdom in the translation movement should not mean that the House of Wisdom did not witness scholars and translators who were engaged in translating texts and contributing to the translation movement.

B Bayt al-Hikma as a University

One of the farfetched assumptions in some modern writings on the Bayt al-Hikma is that it was not only a university24 but also the first Islamic University where medicine was taught25 and had its own endowment.26 A few lines in two primary sources about a specific case of education or the training of three brilliant orphans unbelievably transformed Bayt al-Hikma into a full-fledged modern university with detailed information about education levels, contents, payrolls of its faculty members, and details on academic ceremonies and regalia.27

Al-Qifti in reporting on the death of Musa bin Shakir, one of al-Ma’mun’s astronomers, mentions that the caliph took special interest in his three genius sons Muhammed, Ahmad, and Hasan also known as the Banu Musa al-Munajjim (sons of Musa the astronomer) and closely supervised their education and the way they were brought up. Yahya bin Mansur, one of al-Ma’mun’s prominent astronomers, was ordered to take them under his care. Soon they excelled in mathematics, astronomy, geometry, and mechanics. The words of al-Qifti on this occasion related to Bayt al-Hikma reads as: “… al-Ma’mun put Ishaq Ibn Ibrahim al-Mouslabi in charge of the three young boys and he placed them (athbetahum) with Yahya bin Abi Mansur at Bayt al-Hikma.28 This piece of information which is repeated by Ibn al-Ibri29 in a shorter version does not allow us to draw an explicit conclusion. It only reflects al-Ma’mun’s patronage of the three young sons of Musa out of respect for the memory of their father as well as his appreciation of their talents. It also seems to imply that indeed some teaching took place in Bayt al-Hikma but not in an institutionalized form. Rather the teaching of the Banu Musa seems to have been patterned according to the personalized traditional system of transmission from master to disciple. Furthermore, nowhere else can one find similar statements confirming the possibility of regular, organized teaching in Bayt al-Hikma, let alone a full-fledged modern university.

It is amazing to see how al-Qifti and Ibn al-Ibri’s short, clear, and concise statements were amplified in fancy details without any support of historical evidence. Attallah claims that the education in the Bayt al-Hikma was divided into three stages. The first stage goes from the age of 6 to the age of 14 years and happens outside the institution by learning the Qur’an, writing, reading, grammar, and arithmetic. In the second stage from 14 to 18 the student stays in this surroundings and studies some of the religious sciences like Fıqh and Tafsir with an understanding of the Qur’an. The last stage of Attallah’s concept of study in the Bayt al-Hikma is finally the study in the institution itself, but in two different systems. The first is the system of lectures, the second is the system of conversation and discussion. The student will be taught in the philosophical and the medical sciences, astronomy, natural sciences, geography, and music. Attallah even explains how the teacher organize their classes.30 But this explanation for the work inside the Bayt al-Hikma appears more like a fanciful tale than a description of an Abbasid era institution.

Another point of confusion in the constructed modern image of Bayt al-Hikma is its relation with the two observatories built by al-Ma’mun.31 This is despite the clarifications made by Aydın Sayılı in his book The Observatory in Islam (1960) that the activities of these two institutions, meaning the observatory and Bayt al-Hikma, were sufficiently distinct in nature and the overlapping of personalities with them were slight, if any.32 Sayılı underlines the fact that these first observatories in Islam were independent institutions which were not a part of the Bayt al-Hikma. However, it is still astonishing to read about the supposed great complex of scientific institutions of Bayt al-Hikma.


1. AN I, p. 374; AN II, pp. 142, 215, 326.

2. AN I, p. 25.

3. AN I, p. 373.

4. AN I, p. 373.

5. AN I, p. 326.

6. AN I, p. 24.

7. AN II, p. 215.

8. Rosenfeld-Ihsanoglu, No. 41.

9. AN II, p. 235.

10. AN I, p. 14; Dodge, pp. 9–10.

11. AN I, p. 44, Dodge, p. 36.

12. AN I, p. 13; Dodge, p. 9.

13. AN I, p. 51; Dodge, p. 41.

14. Max Meyerhof, 1930, p. 16 (402).

15. Johann Fück, Arabische Kultur und Islam im Mittelalter: ausgewahlte Schriften, edited by Manfred Fleischhammer, Wiemar, Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1981, p. 306.

16. Ira M. Lapidus, 1988, p. 94.

17. Ibn Juljul, pp. 65, 67, 68, 89.

18. Ibn Juljul, pp. 68, 69.

19. On Hunayn and his works see Rosenfeld-İhsanoğlu, 37

20. Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Über Die Syrischen und Arabischen Galen-übersetzungen, zum Ersten Mal Herausgegeben und uberstat von G. Bergstrasser, Leipzig, 1925, p. 241. For reprint of this long list, see Fuat Sezgin, Arab-Islamic History of Science, Islamic Medicine, Vol. 18, published by the Institute of History of Arabic-Islamic Science, Frankfurt, 2008.

21. For Masawayh, see Rosenfeld, İhsanoğlu, p. 32.

22. AN. II, p. 143.

23. Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Über Die Syrischen…, p. 224.

24. H.U. Rahman, A Chronology of Islamic History, 570–1000 CE, London, Ta-Ha Publishers, 1994, p. 179.

25. Khedr Ahmed Attallah, p. 244.

26. Ibid., 99.

27. Ibid., pp. 140, 141.

28. Al-Qifti, pp. 441, 442. AN. II, pp. 224–226; Rosenfeld-Ihsanoglu, no: 72.

29. Ibn al-Ibri, 1890, p. 364.

30. Khedr Ahmed Attallah, pp. 140, 141.

31. Youssef Eche, 1967, p. 56; Ira M. Lapidus, 1988, p. 94; D. Sourdel, “Bayt al-Hikma”, Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd Edition, 1960, p. 1141.

32. Aydın Sayılı, Observatory in Islam and Its Place in the General History of the Observatory, Ankara, Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1988, pp. 50, 56. Sayılı’s book’s first edition was published in 1960.

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