House of Wisdom
- This article is about the medieval Abbasid Library, Baghdad.
- For the ancient Fatimid university see Dar al-Hikmah.
The House of Wisdom (Arabic: بيت الحكمة; Bayt al-Hikma) was a library, translation institute and research center established in Abbasid-era Baghdad, Iraq. It was a key institution in the Translation Movement and is considered to have been a major intellectual hub during the Islamic Golden Age. The House of Wisdom was founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid and culminated under his son al-Ma'mun, who reigned from AD 813–833 and is credited with its institution. Al-Ma'mun is also credited with bringing many well-known scholars to share information ideas and culture in the House of Wisdom. Based in Baghdad from the 9th to 13th centuries, many of the most learned Muslim scholars were part of this research and educational institute. Besides translating books to Arabic and preserving them, scholars associated with the House of Wisdom also made many remarkable original contributions to diverse fields.
During the reign of al-Ma'mun, observatories were set up, and the House was an unrivaled center for the study of humanities and for science in medieval Islam, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, zoology and geography and cartography. Drawing on Greek, Persian and Indian texts, the scholars accumulated a great collection of world knowledge, and built on it through their own discoveries. By the middle of the ninth century, the House of Wisdom was the largest repository of books in the world.
Foundation and origins 
The tradition of Islamic libraries can be traced back to the 7th century. In particular, the Umayyad Caliph Muawiyah I gathered a collection of books in Damascus that were already referred by the name "Bayt al-Hikma" and contained Greek and Christian books about medicine, alchemy and other disciplines. Remarkably, the Umayyads also appropriated paper-making techniques from the Chinese and joined many ancient intellectual centers under their rule; these were fundamental elements that contributed directly to the flourishing of scholarship in the Arab world. Large libraries were constructed, and scholars persecuted by the Byzantine Empire were welcomed. Works were also translated at the Academy of Gundishapur, during the Muslim conquest of Persia.
In 750, the Abbasid dynasty replaced the Umayyad as the ruling dynasty of the Islamic Empire, and, in 762, the caliph al-Mansur (r. 754 – 775) built Baghdad and made it his capital -instead of the old Damascus. Baghdad's location and cosmopolitan population made the perfect location for a stable commercial and intellectual center. The Abbasid dynasty had a strong Persian bent, and adopted many practices from the Sassanian Empire –among those, that of translating foreign works, except that now texts were translated into Arabic. For this purpose, al-Mansur founded a palace library, modeled after the Sassanian Imperial Library, and provided economic and political support to the intellectuals working there. He also invited delegations of scholars from India and other places to share their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy with the young Abbasid court.
In the Abbasid Empire, many foreign works were translated into Arabic from Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian and Syriac. The Translation Movement gained great momentum during the reign of caliph al-Rashid, who, like his predecessor, was personally interested in scholarship and poetry. Originally the texts concerned mainly medicine, mathematics and astronomy; but, other disciplines, especially philosophy, soon followed. Al-Rashid's library, direct predecessor to the House of Wisdom, was also known as Bayt al-Hikma or, as the historian Al-Qifti called it, Khizanat Kutub al-Hikma (Arabic for "Storehouse of the Books of Wisdom").
The concept of the library catalog was introduced in the House of Wisdom and other medieval Islamic libraries, where books were organized into specific genres and categories. In this academy, translators, scientists, scribes, authors, men of letters, writers, authors, copyists and others used to meet every day for the purposes of translation, reading, writing, scribing, discourse, dialogue and discussion. Many manuscripts and books in various scientific subjects, and in different languages were translated in the House of Wisdom.
Under Al-Ma'mun 
Under the sponsorship of caliph al-Ma'mun (r. 813 – 833), economic support of the House of Wisdom and scholarship in general was greatly increased. Moreover, Abbasid society itself came to understand and appreciate the value of knowledge, and support also came from merchants and the military. It was easy for scholars and translators to make a living and an academic life was a symbol of status. Wisdom was so valuable that books and ancient texts were sometimes preferred as war booty instead of other riches. Indeed, Ptolemy's Almagest was claimed as a condition for peace after between the Abbasids and the Byzantine Empire.
The House of Wisdom was much more than an academic center removed from the broader society. Its experts served several functions in Baghdad. Scholars from the Bayt al-Hikma usually doubled as engineers and architects in major construction projects. They kept accurate official calendars and were public servants. They were also frequently medics and consultants.
Al-Ma'mun was personally involved in the daily life of the House of Wisdom, regularly visiting its scholars and inquiring about their activities. He would also participate and arbitrate academic debates. Furthermore, he would often organize groups of sages from the Bayt al-Hikma into major research projects to satisfy his own intellectual needs. For example, he commissioned the mapping of the world, the confirmation of data from the Almagest and the deduction of the real size of the Earth (see section on the main activities of the House). He also promoted Egyptology and participated himself in excavations of the pyramids of Giza.
Following his predecessors, al-Ma'mun would send expeditions of scholars from the House of Wisdom to collect texts from foreign lands. In fact, one of the directors of the House was sent to Constantinople with this purpose. During this time, Sahl ibn Harun, a Persian poet and astrologer, was the chief librarian of the Bayt al-Hikma. Christian scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809–873) was placed in charge of the translation work by the caliph. The most renowned translator was the Sabian Thābit ibn Qurra (826–901). Translations of this era were superior to earlier ones, since the new Abbasid scientific tradition required better and better translations, and the emphasis was many times put in incorporating new ideas to the ancient works being translated.
By the second half of the ninth century al-Ma'mum's Bayt al-Hikma was the greatest repository of books in the world and had become one of the greatest hubs of intellectual activity in the Middle Ages, attracting the most brilliant Arab and Persian minds. The House of Wisdom eventually acquired a reputation as a center of learning, although universities as we know them did not yet exist at this time —transmission of knowledge was done directly from teacher to student, without any institutional surrounding. Maktabs soon began to develop in the city from the 9th century on, and in the 11th century, Nizam al-Mulk founded the Al-Nizamiyya of Baghdad, one of the first institutions of higher education in Iran.
Decline and destruction by the Mongols 
The House of Wisdom flourished under al-Ma'mun's successors al-Mu'tasim (r. 833–842) and his son al-Wathiq (r. 842 – 847), but considerably declined under the reign of al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861). Although al Ma'mun, al Mu'tasim, and al Wathiq followed the sect of Mu'tazili, which supported mind-broadness and scientific inquiry, al-Mutawakkil endorsed a more literal interpretation of the Qur'an and Hadith. The caliph was not interested in science and moved away from rationalism, seeing the spread of Greek philosophy as anti-Islamic.
Along with all other libraries in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom was destroyed by the army of Hulagu during the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi rescued about 400,000 manuscripts which he took to Maragheh before the siege.
Although the Mongol invasion is usually considered the sole cause of the sharp end of Arab science, by the second half of the 13th century Baghdad was far from being the only academic center in the Abbasid Empire, so the destruction of the House of Wisdom was not the sole cause of the decay of Arab scholarship.
Main activities 
The House of Wisdom included a society of scientists and academics, a translation department and a library that preserved the knowledge acquired by the Abbasids over the centuries. Furthermore, linked to it were also astronomical observatories and other major experimental endeavors. Indeed, the House of Wisdom was much more than a library, and a considerable amount of original scientific and philosophical work was produced by scholars intellectuals related to the it.
Over a century and a half, Arab scholars translated all scientific and philosophic Greek texts available to them. The translation movement at the House of Wisdom was kick-started by the translation of Aristotle's Topics. By the time of al-Ma'mum, translators had moved on from looking only at Persian astrological texts and Greek works were already in their third translation. Authors translated include: Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid, Plotinus, Galen, Sushruta, Charaka, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta.
Furthermore, new discoveries motivated revised translations that commented corrected or added to the work of ancient authors. In many cases names and terminology were changed -a prime example of this being the title of Ptolemy's Almagest, which is an Arabic modification of the original name of the work: Magale Syntaxis.
Original contributions 
Besides translating and commentating earlier works, scholars at the Bayt al-Hikma produced important original research. For example, famous mathematician al-Khwarizmi worked in al-Ma'mun's House of Wisdom and is famous for his contributions to the development of algebra. In his book Kitab al-Jabr, he also outlines the first algorithms in history. Note that the etymology of both the words "algebra" and "algorithm" can be traced back to al-Khwarizmi. Besides that, this mathematician is responsible for the introduction of the Hindu decimal system to the Arab world, and through them to Europe. There were also important breakthroughs in cryptanalysis by Al-Kindi.
Other than that, there were also many original contributions to astronomy and physics. Mohammad Musa might have been the first person in history to point to the universality of the laws of physics. Later on, in the 10th century, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) would perform several physical experiments, mainly in optics -area in which his achievements are still celebrated today.
Mohammad Musa and his brothers Ahmad and Hasan (collectively known as the "Banu Musa brothers") were also remarkable engineers. They are authors of the renowned Book of Ingenious Devices, which describes about one hundred devices and how to use them. Among these was "The Instrument that Plays by Itself", the earliest example of a programmable machine.
In medicine, Hunayn wrote an important treatise on ophthalmology. Other scholars also wrote on smallpox, infections and surgery. Note that these works, would later become standard textbooks of medicine in the Renaissance.
Under al-Mamun's lead science saw for the first time bigger research projects involving large groups of scholars. In order to check Ptolemy's observations, the caliph ordered the construction of the first astronomical observatory in Baghdad (see Observatories section below). The data provided by Ptolemy was meticulously checked and revised by a highly-capable group of geographers, mathematicians and astronomers. Al-Mamun also organized research on the circumference of the Earth and commissioned a geographic project that would result in one of the most detailed world-maps of the time. Some consider these efforts the first examples of state funded research mega-projects.
The creation of the first observatory in the Islamic world was ordered by caliph al-Mamun in 828. The construction was directed by scholars from the House of Wisdom: senior astronomer Yahya ibn abi Mansur and the younger Sanad ibn Ali al-AlYahudi. It was located in al-Shammasiyya and was called Maumtahan Observatory. After the first round of observations of Sun, Moon and the planets, a second observatory on Mount Qasioun, near Damascus, was constructed. The results of this endeavor were compiled in a known as al-Zij al-Mumtahan, which translates as "The Verified Tables".
This is a list of notable people related to the House of Wisdom, most of them are mentioned in the text above. Besides the listed occupation, most of them were also translators:
- Sahl ibn Harun (d. 830), chief librarian;
- Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873), physician;
- Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (801-873), philosopher and polymath;
- Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (780–850), mathematician;
- The Banu Musa brothers, engineers and mathematicians;
- Sind ibn Ali (d. 864), astronomer;
- Abu Uthman, usually known as Al-Jahiz (781-861), writer and biologist;
- Al-Jazari (1136-1206), physicist and engineer.
Lack of evidence 
Since there is no remaining physical evidence of the House of Wisdom, we have no way of knowing exactly what kind of activities were carried out there or how big it was. Some scholars warn against exaggerating the reach and scale of the House of Wisdom and they recommend not thinking of it as a project of the scale of contemporary universities or research institutions 
Other houses of wisdom 
Some other places have also been called House of Wisdom, and should not be confused with Baghdad's Bayt al-Hikma:
- In Cairo, Dar al-Hikmah, the "House of Wisdom", was another name of the House of Knowledge, founded by the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1004.
- There is a research institute in Baghdad called Bayt al-Hikma after the Abbasid-era research center. While the complex includes a 13th century madrasa, it is not the same building as the medieval Bayt al-Hikma. It was damaged during the 2003 invasion of Iraq
See also 
- Round city of Baghdad
- Brethren of Purity
- Dar Al-Hekma
- Dar Al-Hekma College
- Astronomy in medieval Islam
Notes and citations 
- Al-Khalili, Jim (2011), The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, New York: Penguin Press, ISBN 9781594202797
- Lyons, Jonathan (2009), The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, New York: Bloomsbury Press, ISBN 9781596914599
- Meri, Joseph; Bacharach, Jere (2006), Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, ISBN 0415966906
- Hockey, Thomas (2007), The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, New York: Springer, ISBN 9780387304007
- Koetsier, Teun (2001), "On the prehistory of programmable machines: musical automata, looms, calculators", Mechanism and Machine Theory (Elsevier) 36 (5): 589–603, doi:10.1016/S0094-114X(01)00005-2.
- Micheau, Francoise, "The Scientific Institutions in the Medieval Near East", in (Morelon & Rashed 1996, pp. 985–1007)
- Morelon, Régis; Rashed, Roshdi (1996), Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science 3, Routledge, ISBN 0415124107
- George Saliba, 'Islamic science and the making of the European Renaissance',
- Zaimeche, Salah (2002), "A cursory review of Muslim observatories", Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, Manchester