BAGHDAD: THE HOUSE OF WISDOM (BAYT AL-HIKMAH) – I

Baghdad 1,200 years ago was the thriving capital of the Muslim civilization. For about 500 years the city boasted the cream of intellectuals and culture. For more than two centuries, it was home to the House of Wisdom, an academy of knowledge that attracted brains from far and wide. From mathematics and astronomy to zoology, the academy was a major centre of research, thought and debate in Muslim Civilization (Sketch: 1001 Inventions).

House of Wisdom (Bayt Al-Hikmah) was seen as one of the leading libraries in Islamic history that appeared during the Golden age of Islam. It was initiated by the Abbasid dynasty. The research historically analyses the civilizational role of Bayt Al-Hikmah that has remarkably adapted the intellectual richness to serve scholars, scientists and worldwide thinkers. The study highlights the development that marked the house of wisdom in the time of the Abbasids. The main objective of this paper is to explore the impact of the house of wisdom on the Islamic libraries, moreover it studies the organizational structure of Bayt al-Hikmah along with library divisions and services that it provided for scholars and readers. The paper shall also deal with funding sources. The study found out that, the house of wisdom has had a very organized management system especially in collecting and book cataloguing, the library had a great interest in debating and scientific circles in various topics and subjects. In addition, some new competing libraries have been influenced by the system of the house of wisdom in Egypt and Andalusia. It preserved the knowledge and heritage of the ancient civilizations and it contributed with a remarkable and an unprecedented discoveries that the western civilization have utilized to thrive. The paper shall follow a historical method which comprises some guidelines by which the authors utilize primary sources to conduct a historical account.

Introduction:
The life of Muslims throughout history was correlated with the establishment of libraries that is when libraries flourish the life of scholars and scientists witness a remarkable progress (Ibn Al-Nafis, Ibn Al-Haytham, Ibn Sina, etc.) thus libraries are not just a tool of activity but rather they represent a depot of intelligence and mental inheritance for all humankind, a researcher who does not grasp the history of libraries and the legacies left by our ancestors would never fully be able to benefit from them. Unlike what some people may believe about the ancient libraries being unable to match the contemporary bookstores, libraries were the meeting place for men of literature, science, cultures, religions, etc.

The history of libraries is a history of human thought for libraries have been the stronghold of thoughts preserving them and passing them from generation to generation. We can say that among the first centers of human civilization intellect was the library of the Mesopotamian peninsula a saying that has been proved correct by different Cuneiform script writings. Which means that libraries are not founded only in our modern time, but excavations of archaeologists have backed the idea that libraries as ancient as writing for it was a very crucial invention in human history and a factor in ancient civilizations’ development.

After the spread of Islamic faith, people were very attentive to gain knowledge and to participate in the life of thoughts, as a result libraries had emerged to reflect the loftiness of the intellectual life during the second, third until the seventh century AH (after hijrah) when libraries started to vanish. Libraries represented new reality for Muslims and new passion towards the human knowledge and education (Mohammad Ali, 1980).

The Abbasids attained their most sparkling period of intellectual and political life soon after the caliphate was establishment. The Caliphate reached its prime during the time reigns of Harun al-Rashid (149-193 AH) and his son al-Ma’mun (170-217 AH). The Abbasid dynasty acquired a halo in popular imagination becoming the most celebrated in the history of Islam due to the unparalleled intellectual awakening that culminated the al-Ma’mun’s patronage. The house of wisdom was one of the leading libraries that distinguished the Abbasid times, it opened its doors for researchers, scholars and leaders. Bayt al-Hikmah was the preferable destination for intellectuals because it offered everything they needed including hall for reading, classrooms, divisions of binding, translating, authoring, map making, etc.

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Objectives and contributions of the present research:

There have been many studies on history of Islamic libraries (Houses of Wisdom) that evolved thanks to Baghdad’s house of wisdom. However there was no research that could show the impact of the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) in Baghdad on formation of other new Islamic libraries. The current study analyses the organizational structure of Bayt al-Hikmah al-Baghdad and its divisions and services that it provided for scholars and readers. The paper shall also deal with the funding sources and governmental endowments that were commonly known at the time of the Abbasids. It also shows the intellectual as well as managerial impacts that Baghdad’s House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) had on the spread of new Islamic libraries within the Muslim peninsula.

The current conducted research has a very original contribution since previous studies on the House of wisdom have only dealt with historical backgrounds of some libraries. The paper contributes in highlighting the extent of creativity for authors that had flourished due to the House of wisdom in which book authoring took a very progressive trend. It also adds new historical and factual contribution to studies on the administrative and managerial aspects and the way they function in the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) that was later assimilated by several libraries in the Muslim world.

Research Methodology:

The current paper shall use a qualitative research based on a historical approach through which the authors analyze and criticize development of the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) and its influence on similar libraries based on credible and primary sources that marked one of the bright ages of Islamic history. The historical approach has determined the research framework of gathering relevant information about the House of Wisdom and its administrative and intellectual impact on emergence of new public and private libraries.

Historical Origins
There has been different opinions on the identity of the founder of the Abbasids’ House of Wisdom. Some records say that the founder of Bayt al-Hikmah was Abu Ja’far al-Mansur (95-135 AH) who collected books on medicines, astronomy, engineering and literatures that have been translated in his reign, moreover some other publications on Hadith (prophetic tradition), history, Qura’nic sciences, al-Mansur has gathered all collections of books in a big room that was the nucleus of the house of wisdom (al-Diyaji, 1975). He was the first caliph who motivated Muslims to study sciences and develop them, he also advised them to translate books from Persian, Greek, and Indian languages. Among the books that al-Mansur initiated their translations were the book of Al-Sind Hind a book on mathematics and a huge collection of Aristotle, Euclid and of Claudius Ptolemy writings. These collections along with the authored publications on Prophetic tradition (Hadith), literature, and history were gathered in one of palace’s big closet that later on was developed becoming the pillar of the house of wisdom (al-Qafti, 1903), we agree upon the above mentioned opinion that Bayt al-Hikmah was founded in the time of the Caliph al-Mansur.

Scholars of a second opinion saw that the house of wisdom was founded in the time of Harun al-Rashid (149-193 AH) as a result of the civilizational and intellectual progress that characterized his caliphate especially during the era of translation movement whose aim was to enrich the Muslim thought with different knowledge and sciences led by a number of Arabs, Persians and Syriac scholars and scientists (Ma’ruf, 1969). When al-Rashid army opened Ankara he personally took hold of the expedition to preserve the libraries there and to transport every valuable collection of books to the centre of the Abbasid Caliphate Baghdad specifically to the house of wisdom. Ibn al-Nadim supported this opinion when he mentioned in his book Al-Fihrist “Abu Sahl al-Fadl Ibn Nubakht was present around the closet (book storing place) of Al-Rashid” (Ibn al-Nadim, 1964, p.255). Also the saying of Yaqut al-Hamawi who could confirm that the house of wisdom existed in the time of Al-Rashid “Al-Warraq used to copy and reproduce in Bayt al-Hikmah during the times of Al-Rashid and Al-Ma’mun”, this would argue for the presence of the house of wisdom at the reign of Al-Rashid. (Al-Hamawi, 1966, p.66)

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The third opinion argue that the Abbasids’ house of wisdom was founded in the time of Al-Ma’mun the caliph (170-217 AH). De Lacy O’Leary (1872-1957 AD) who is a British orientalist has supported the idea that Bayt al-Hikmah was constructed by Al-Ma’mun when he says “the caliph Al-Ma’mun has founded a school he named Bayt al-Hikmah, and he made it an institution that embraces the translation of the Greek books” ( O’Leary: 1973, p.327), the same opinion appears in Max Meyerhof and William James Durant writings. It possible to say that the house of wisdom existed long before Al-Ma’mun but it sparkled during his reign for he was a man of literature, a scientist and a lover of scholars to whom he had given major interest and support for their research, debates and authoring books. (Amin, 1960).

The round city of Baghdad in the 10th century, the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate. Illustration: Jean Soutif/Science Photo Library
The Naming of House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah)
When the Caliphs have had a huge collection of books and a considerable number of translations, maps, manuscripts, etc. they had to construct an appropriate place for these collections, historians have a consent that the caliphs’ most desirable location for the library was the palace itself.

Bayt al-Hikmah of the Abbasids was given different names, according to some sources it was called closet of wisdom a name that was given by historians like Ibn al-Nadim who often used the Bayt al-Hikmah to refer to the same store, another scholars like Ibn Sa’id al-Andalusi and al-Qalaqshandi utilized the term closet of wisdom to refer to the house of wisdom. Haji Khalifa on the other hand gives a different name known as Dar al-Hikmah. The most interesting thing about the naming of house of wisdom is that all labels signify the same meaning that Bayt al-Hikmah was the place of all knowledge and wisdom to be found.

The Location and its Architectural Design
There has not been enough information about the place of house of wisdom, references have spoken about Bayt al-Hikmah fairly but they have not said much about its location. According to the norms the closet of books should be part of the palace just like the Cordoba Place and the palace of the Fatimid caliph Al-‘Aziz Billah (344-386 AH), and palaces of the kings of India and Persia (Ibn Al-Abaar, 1963).

It is believed that the house of wisdom was part of the palace during the time of Al-Rashid (149-193 AH), it was a separate house (Dar) within the palace of caliphs, and some historians said that it was an attached large room from the outside. However when the number of translated and authored books has increased in the reign of Al-Ma’mun (170-218 AD) the house became a large building with a big number of halls and room for translators, authors, scientists, and readers. As a result the library was relocated to Al Rusafa that was the half of Baghdad on the eastern side of the river Tigris and a new Astronomical Observatory has been appended to the new relocated library. (Amin, 1963).

As for the house of wisdom’s architecture. Mahmud Ahmad Derwich has found a suitable architectural planning for Bayt al-Hikmah through his studies on the golden castle constructed by Al-Mansur. The house of wisdom composed of a yard surrounded by halls of two floors from its four sides, it was headed by a penthouse on a row of pillars. In the middle of every side among the four sides of the yard there were halls topped by semi-cylindrical dome of 25 cubit. The main hall leads to a square shape room above it there was a big dome with 80 cubit high, the main hall also has a statue of knight holding a spear that spins with the spear. The ground floor contained a number of divisions for book closets and sections for translating, authoring, copying, binding, reading as well as studying in all subjects of knowledge, sciences and literature, as for the upper floor it was devoted to residents from authors, translators, students and employees. (Ghanima, 1953).

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