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

Organizational Chart of the House of Wisdom:
Bayt al-Hikmah had its own system but sources have not stated a precise description that bind the system that the house of wisdom used to function.

Information given help us infer that the library of Bayt al-Hikmah was an institution like other institutions of that time, for there have existed terms given to specific people such as Sahib bayt al-hikmah. The term sahib refers to the highest ranking officials of the state, for instance, Sahib al-Bimartsan that stands for the director of the hospital, Sahib al-Arsad or director of astronomical observatories, sahib al-Diwan or director of the ministry cabinet…etc. (Al-‘ish: 1991). The responsible for the house of wisdom was called al-Khazin who administrated its affairs, the importance of the job requires one of the best scholars or intellectuals who had mastered various sciences and showed a distinguished cleverness. (Khalifa Sha’ban, 1997).

After the library was formed and loaded with a huge number of translated and authored books, manuscripts, maps and other books from the Greek, Persian and Indian civilizations, as a result the Abbasids build a big premise with many rooms and halls that contained all the assembled literature that was divided into sections and groups in which every section or group was dedicated to a specific science collection. Each collection was stored in a partitioned shelf. (Ma’ruf, 1983). Books inside the house of wisdom were indexed accordingly the same way as in the modern libraries when there existed a clear cataloguing method of book titles and manuscripts. Some scholars have made their own index for their writings for instance, Al-Bayruni has listed and indexed his own books and books of Mohammad Ibn Zakariyah Al-Razi. Bayt al-Hikmah has had a variety of sections that included: depositing books, book lending, Copying and binding, maps and manuscripts, and finally the section of translating and book authoring. We shall explore now the library sections in details within the coming pages:

  1. The depositing of books: This process during the times of Bayt al-Hikmah was labelled al-Takhlid, it was accomplished in different ways. Authored books were of great value for the library and for the author who had a great honour if his books are deposited in the house of wisdom, translated books were also of no lesser value and they composed the library’s collection, finally, sometimes al-Takhlid is through purchasing books, for example the caliph al-Ma’mun had assigned a group to purchase books from Roman and Greek libraries and add them to his closet of books. Dr Hasan Ahmad Mahmud has commented on the caliphs efforts in purchase process saying that “the Abbasid state held deals to purchase books and they paid high prices for them especially in the time of al-Ma’mun who devoted himself to knowledge and fortune to reach out the intellectual treasury in foreign libraries of Constantinople and Cyprus” (Majid, 2010, p.163).
  2. Book lending: As it has been stated earlier that the house contained a considerable number of rooms and halls. One of the halls was devoted for readers that had some servant who provide help, comfort and other sort of services for those who frequently came to the library. There had been also an external but conditional lending of, in which books were lent for people who value them therefore they have to make a pledge and pay a refundable cost for the lent book in case of damage or loss in order to preserve all book collections within the library.
  3. Copying and binding: this section was related to the translation movement, once the translator finishes the assigned job, the product will be transferred to a writer who were having a distinguished hand writing style. The caliph al-Ma’mun himself was the one who nominated the writers and the writing style. When the written product is ready it would be devolved to other people for binding and decorating. The final copy would be distributed also in other libraries outside of Baghdad to the Tunisian House of Wisdom, and Cairo’s Dar al-Hikmah. (Al-Mas’udi, 1968).
  4. Maps and manuscripts: the library has preserved a big number of geographical maps manuscripts, and astronomical photographs. Bayt al-Hikmah had kept many resources for geographers and astronomers who could benefit from these collections, for instance al-Mas’udi had viewed a photograph named al-Sura al-Ma’muniyyah that has been produced by a number of scholars in the time of al-Ma’mun, it demonstrates the whole world with its stars, planets, land, oceans and urban places of cities and nations. Furthermore there existed another manuscript that pictures the earth with its seas, mountains, valleys…etc. (Ibn al-Nadim, 2002).
  5. Translation and authoring: the Abbasid caliphs have had a great concern in translating and transmitting the legacy of the ancient nations to the Arabic language in order to avail from it and to contribute in the new procedure of the ancient knowledge innovation. This had been one of the main leading tasks and activities for the house of wisdom. Translation movement have focused on some main languages that include: Greek, Indian, Syriac, and Persian languages. This section was subdivided into different assembly based on the subjects of translation and each was assigned to one of the eminent scholars at that time, for instance, the assembly of mathematics and engineering was assigned to Abu Ja’far Ibn Musa Ibn Shakir (183-258 AH)and his brothers, assembly of stars’ movement and philosophy were assigned to Ya’qub al-Kindi (184-259 AH) and to Ibn Farkhan al-Tabari (145-200 AH), and the body of Medicine that was designated to Ibn Ishaq al-Harani (Al-Qifti, 2005).

The library was not only a place of translating the ancient heritage but it was also the institution when scholars and scientists authored their own books on literature, history, philosophy, linguistics, medicines…etc. Harun al-Rashid (149-193 AH) had appointed Ibn Qarib al-Asma’l (121-216 AH) to author a book on history, the latter had finished his first assigned task in the house of wisdom itself. Abu Zakariyya al-Farra’ (144-206 AH) had also authored one of the earliest publications on Arabic Grammar. In addition to that, Bayt al-Hikmah represented the educational institution for the Abbasids who spent their fortune to appoint scholars and lecturers to teach philosophy, astronomy, history, geography, mathematics, medical sciences, and music…etc. the educational environment in the library had given the opportunity to student to pursue their research on higher education thus, the House of wisdom had become the first Islamic university in history of Islam. (Amin, 1963).

The Funding Resources:
Historical sources have pointed out little knowledge on the extent of financial finding for the house of wisdom, but they almost all agreed that there used to be a limitless support on the funding issue when a large sums of money and gold were spent to fund the library. Consequently it helps us infer that there had been a special budget for the house of wisdom to secure the wages of all its employees including: translators, authors, binders, lecturers, debaters, servants…etc. the budget also compromised other facilities such as habitation, food, book, pens and papers’ purchase and others.

Al-Ma’mun the caliph had allocated a steady resources or endowments (Awqaf) to be spent on the library, in so doing the caliph did not want to expose this institution to any financial shakings or crisis for he knew the harm it could occur to education and to scientific progress in such hard times therefore he secured a lasting funding from caliphs and ministers (Muntasir, 1971).

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As for the disbursed money on the house of wisdom in the time of al-Ma’mun it estimated nearly two hundred thousand Dinars (Durant, 1964), some sources have mentioned that the same caliph had offered to Hunayn ibn Ishaq (194-260 AH) – a famous translator- the weight of what he translated of books in gold as a wage for the latter’s contribution in enriching the house of wisdom with the ancient knowledge translated into Arabic. Ibn al-Nadim has also stated in his book Al-Firistthat some translators like Ibn al-A’sam and Thabit Ibn Qurra (221-288 AH) have a monthly allowance that exceeded five hundred Dinars (Ibn al-Nadim, 2002).

Imaginary drawing of the “House of Wisdom” library (photo: 1001 Inventions).
Impact of House of Wisdom on Islamic Libraries:
The house of wisdom had crucial role to play in linking the Islamic world fronts in east and west and in introducing the heritage in its perfect form to all Muslims in order to preserve it from loss and deterioration. As a result, the library had gained a great fame in the Islamic world for it was the first scientific and educational library that assembled scientists, scholars and translators to study and research. The house of wisdom had become an exemplary model for other Caliphs and princes who tried to simulate and to found new libraries and houses of wisdom that can compete with the one in Baghdad, this contest had attained an intellectual and scientific advancements in every sphere in the Islamic world. Here are some libraries that came to exist because of emulating the example of house of wisdom:

  1. The Aghlabids House of Wisdom: found by Amir Ibrahim Ibn Mohammad al-Aghlabi (261-289 AH) in Raqqada. Ibrahim was an admirer of knowledge and scholars for he knew the value of education and knowledge and their role in the progress of societies. He had strived to make his library reach out the fame of Baghdad library, wherefore he brought to Aghlabids library a number of precious manuscripts, books and scientific tools. The prince has two annual expeditions to Baghdad to renew his sovereignty to the Abbasid caliphate in doing so he assigned a group of scholars to borrow and purchase books and literary works from Baghdad that they cannot be found elsewhere (Ismail, 1978).
  2. The Andalusian House of Wisdom: it was found by the Umayyad caliph in Andalusia al-Hakam al-Mustansir (302-366 AH) who was often described as the master or scholar (A’lim) of the Umayyad due to his vast knowledge in various sciences categories, he collected the greatest number of books that nobody had collected before (Levi-Provencal: 1994). Therefore he decided to construct a huge building which he called the Dar al-Hikmah (house of wisdom) that followed the example of the Baghdad library in its artistic and organizational features. During the reign of al-Mustansir Cordoba became one of the eminent centres of human civilization characterized by a remarkable progress in sciences, arts, and architecture.
  3. Cairo’s House of Wisdom: the beginning of its founding is related to the time of the Fatimid al-Aziz billah (365-386 AH) who also was a lover of books and he attentively collected a great number of them saying that he would have a hold of a copy of every book whether authored or translated in the house of wisdom in Baghdad. The true founder of the Cairo’s Dar Al-Hikmah was al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (386-411 AH) who always assembled scholars from all arts and sciences and he prepared for them everything they needed in order to facilitate for them searching and authoring. He also gifted students and readers with different presents and supply them with free ink and papers. (Ibn al-Jawzi, 1924).

A huge number of new libraries had emerged in the Arab peninsula and in other territories, however it was clear that all newfound libraries have been trying to compete with the Abbasids House of Wisdom in Baghdad. They tried to simulate, innovate and challenge the reputation that the House of wisdom had in the Muslim world.

The libraries that have flourished following the example of the house of wisdom’s have had their doors open to scholars from all over the world. Libraries have had almost the same kind of translated books that were culled from scholarships of dozen languages. The house wisdom was a center of knowledge and education, it was a rival of the Constantinople’s if it did not exceed it. It was the model for other libraries and similar institutions throughout the soils of Islamic civilization.

The example of the house of wisdom was remarkably followed and its influence appeared when other many public libraries have emerged all the way from Bokhara and Merv, in the heart of Asia, on the route to China through Basra and Damascus, Algiers and Cairo. The famous geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi who had visited Merv in the late 1220s, found more than twelve libraries there opened for public. And the same as the house of wisdom in Baghdad functioned, ten libraries were through endowments (awqaf). He interestingly expressed his admiration for about the lending policies of the libraries there, he noted that libraries in Merv were being liberal enough to lend him more than 200 volumes he could use in his room at the same time. (Al-Hamawi, 1993)
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Libraries of The Nizamiyyah School were somewhat similar to the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) for the former had had many facilities to offer for students, including student’s scholarships and endowment professorship. The Nizamiyyah School libraries and Cairo libraries were reported to have their own binders, administrators, librarians and even guards, they have shared almost all supported by endowments from governments, caliphs and kings.

One of the most remarkable impacts that the House of Wisdom had had on the other libraries is that they have helped scholars and authors creativity to flourish. For instance hundreds of volumes were being written in the time of the Fatimid’s time. The high authoring process was one of the characteristics of the Egyptian renaissance before the coming of the Mongols and the crusaders. The influence of the House of Wisdom went beyond the Arab peninsula when it reached European soils particularly Spain. Cordoba, Seville and Toledo had a great number of libraries basically because many agents had been sent across the countries and seas to buy books and bring them to the Royal library in Cordoba in which it is believed to have contained more than 400.000 volumes, and amazingly it gave employment to over five hundred people. Ultimately Cordoba had become one of the greatest book markets in the western world during the 10th century AD. (Harris, 1984).

The House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) had influenced not only similar public libraries, but a new form of libraries that were for personal use and for show. They were called private libraries which sometimes reached a considerable size. One writer has estimated that some private libraries were bigger and richer than public or private, libraries in Western Europe. However it was not the norm for the well-to-do people to leave their libraries open to public or to endow them for users.

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Employees in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad were people of higher intellectual abilities, the same was emulated in every public library across the Muslim world. They often had a staff list that reach sometimes hundreds of copyists, illuminators, binders, translators, and authors. Those whom we can consider librarians were not randomly chosen but they usually were scholars, poets, multilingual and writers who on the other side were well paid by caliphs, rulers or nobles. (Mackensen, 1932).

Many of the Islamic libraries included also not halls for reading and book storing, but they also they contained rooms for meetings and other rooms for discussions and debating that were help sometimes between different libraries and different scholars which implies the competition among libraries for scientific achievements, reputation and glory of the library itself. The Muslim libraries have played a major role in translating and transmitting works of Greek, Persian, Indian and Assyrian physicians and philosophers, works that later became the basic textbooks in European schools of Bologna, Naples and Paris. It is likely that without the Muslim libraries, modern Europe’s scientific and intellectual progress would have been remarkably inhibited.

The End of the House of Wisdom Library:
After the invasion of Baghdad by the Mongols in (656 AH-1258 AD) they wrecked the library’s private and public closets of books, manuscripts, maps, observatories…etc. they burned majority of the collections whilst others were thrown into the Tigris river, some say that the Mongols have built their barns using books instead of clay.

Hulagu has ruined almost all books that have been translated or authored by distinguished scholars and scientists, the works that were used to spread culture and knowledge and wisdom among the Muslims and non-Muslims were gone into dust. As a result the world witnessed the fall of one the preserving libraries of human intellect and human civilization of that time which has had a calamitous impact on the Islamic civilizational heritage.

The legacy of the house of wisdom library was wasted and the west did not find except Arabic sources to obtain the heritage of ancient human civilizations. The invasion of the Mongols and the destruction of the library marked the fall of Baghdad and ultimately the collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate that had left the Muslim world in crisis in the years to come.

Conclusion:
The research paper showed that the Abbasid Dynasty had much to offer for the human civilization of intellectual and scientific progress. Caliphs were giving the translation movement, transmissions, authoring and intellectual achievements a very high level of respect and support that represented key factors to getting hold of the Hellenistic, Indian, and Persian knowledge and wisdom.

The House of Wisdom has played a distinguished role in the history of the Middle Ages for it was a bridge that transmitted the ancient civilizations including the Islamic one to the west, as it was the departure of modern sciences. Historians have a major consent that thanks to the house of wisdom and other similar schools and libraries, the continuity of human civilization was preserved after the fall of Greek and Roman civilizations.

The study has demonstrated that the house of wisdom was the leading library or in other words a leading Islamic university that the Abbasid age required. The paper has explored the impact of the house of wisdom on the Islamic libraries that came to existence as a simulating process of the Baghdad’s library, moreover it studied the organizational structure of Bayt al-Hikmah along with library divisions, sections and services that it provided for scholars and readers.

The research has dealt with funding sources and the budget that the state caliphs dedicated to the library. The study found out that, the house of wisdom has had a very organized administration and affair management system. In addition, new competing libraries have been influenced by the system of the house of wisdom in Baghdad which resulted in the emergence of newfound libraries in Egypt, Maghreb and Andalusia. The Abbasid library had preserved the knowledge and heritage of the ancient civilizations and it passed them to the west with a remarkable contributions, the latter has utilized some of the Abbasid period unprecedented discoveries to flourish and modernize.

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Authors

Adel Abdul-Aziz Algeriani, Prof. Dr. Moderator of Islamic Heritage University Islam Malaysia, Cyberjaya, Selangor, Malaysia.

Mawloud Mohadi, PhD student and a Research Assistant University Islam Malaysia, Cyberjaya, Selangor, Malaysia.

( Source: ResearchGate – An open access article licensed under the Creative Commons)

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