The “Golden Age” of Arab Intellectual Leadership: Baghdad, Center of the Abbasid Caliphate

Baghdad, principal city of the Abbasid Caliphate, was the epicenter of knowledge and learning, a city unrivalled by any other in the Arab world where scholars from all faiths flocked by the thousands.

Baghdad, principal city of the Abbasid Caliphate, was the epicenter of knowledge and learning, a city unrivalled by any other in the Arab world where scholars from all faiths flocked by the thousands.

Ignorance of history has been analogized to a person traveling with neither luggage nor a specific destination. Those who are ignorant of their history, whether good or bad, can certainly go astray and are destined to repeat their mistakes. History is the compass that helps us determine who we are and where are we heading. I vividly remember my history teacher during my high school days saying: “We study history to take lessons from those who were here before us. We study history to know how civilizations rise and fall, what they contributed, why wars were waged, how life was lived, who were the heroes and what they did, and who were the villains. We study history to learn from all of this.”

One student asked him, “If you were offered a ticket to travel back in time, what destination and what era would you choose, sir?” The teacher replied, “If I were offered a ticket to travel back in time, I would opt for different stages and places, but if I had only one choice I would choose Baghdad of the Golden Ages as a destination. Why Baghdad? Baghdad simply because it was the center of the civilization I belong to and feel proud of, even centuries after its collapse.”

Baghdad was indeed a city not like any other city since its founding in 762 by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, up to its collapse in 1300. During this period, the city thrived as the center of religious, political, cultural, scientific, and commercial influence in the Muslim empire and the world as a whole. The strategic location chosen by Al-Mansur for the city on the Tigris River and close to the Euphrates made it the crossroads of trade routes. The meticulous and authentic design as a round city was another great achievement in urban design.  It is said that the design was chosen by the Caliph himself who was profoundly inspired by the geometric legacy of the Greek father of geometry, Euclid. After the approval of the overall plan of the city, the Caliph made a prayer and put the ceremonial stone to launch construction work on the 30 of July 762.

The construction process entailed the mobilization of an army of architects, laborers, masons, brick-makers, blacksmiths, and carpenters, who worked for almost five years to complete the building of the city. The Muslim chronicler Yakubi assumes that the number of workers involved was around 100,000. The Arab historian Khatib al-Baghdadi contends that Baghdad was the first of its kind in terms of its unique circular design. He affirms that no other round city was known in all the regions of the world. The city was fortified with double defensive walls of 30 meters in height, and had four gates that opened and closed under the watchful eye of special guards. Soon after its completion, and counter to the expectations of its founders, Baghdad grew rapidly from a military and administrative center into the largest and most populous city in the world, with a population that exceeded 1.5 million.

This rapid growth was paralleled by the flourishing of a cultural and academic enterprise that would make Baghdad the world’s most famous center of learning. The founding of The House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) by Caliph Harun al-Rashid in 830 was an impetus for the bolstering of cultural activity such as writing, translation, and research. The House of Wisdom was an academic institution founded originally to welcome translators and preserve their works, but it soon became a contact zone where ideas met, grappled, and flourished; a place for cultural, scientific, and philosophical debate and the largest library in the world. Under the stewardship of Caliph Al-Ma’mun, the house had the largest number of translated manuscripts and books from Greek, Latin, Persian, Syriac, Chinese, and Sanskrit.

Every scholar’s dream, Muslim or non-Muslim, was to join Baghdad to be part of al-Ma’moun’s project, especially with the very generous treatment of translators by the Caliph. It was said that if a scholar translated any book from its original language into Arabic, he would be given that book’s weight in gold. Thus, translators, and scholars from all faiths and regions flocked to Baghdad. The translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq, for instance, was Christian, the mathematician Thabit ibn Qurra belonged to the Sabian religion, the Sindhi scientist Sind ibn Ali was born in what is now modern day Pakistan, the mathematician Al-Khwarizmi was from Persia, the Banu Musa brothers were from Persia, Al-Kindi, who is considered today the father of Arab philosophy was from Iraq. This mosaic of cultures and religions coexisting and living together in the House of Wisdom confirms the idea that creativity never sprouts or blossoms in uniform climates.

By the establishment of the House of Wisdom, paper-making industry had already been introduced to Baghdad by Chinese war prisoners around the year 750. Baghdad not only employed Chinese techniques of paper-making but also improved them considerably and built many paper mills in the city. Then the industry was passed on to Damascus, Egypt, and Morocco, through which paper-making would be introduced to Muslim Spain in 950. The use of paper, instead of traditional materials of writing such as leather parchment, was another factor that led to the flourishing of translation, writing, and scrivening.

Medieval Baghdad of the Abbasid Empire played an important role in preserving the intellectual achievement of the Greek civilization through the translation of the Greek literary canon. Greek authors such Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Euclid, Hippocrates, Pythagoras, among many others, were translated and studied at the House of Wisdom.

Scholars of the House of Wisdom also made enormous contributions in the areas of mathematics, alchemy, medicine, philosophy, astronomy, zoology, and geography which would later on make the foundation of the European Renaissance. The influence of Mohamed Bin Musa al-Khwarizmi, for instance, in the area of mathematics is undeniable. He was the founder of what is known today as Algebra which he introduced in his ground-breaking book The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. Al-Khwarizmi was also the one who introduced Arabic numerals which the world still uses today. The concept of “algorithm” which is used today in complex computer calculations is derived from the Latinization of his name.

The beautiful story of Baghdad as a shining center of knowledge, learning and coexistence and its monumental House of Wisdom would come to a tragic halt with the Mongol invasion in 1258 led by Hulagu. The Mongol army wreaked havoc in the city, killed the Abbasid Caliph and his entire family. The invaders perpetrated atrocious massacres against a million Baghdadis, destroyed the House of Wisdom, and threw its books into the Tigris River. It is said that water in the Tigris River remained black for days because of the ink from the huge number of books. The city that had thrived for three hundred years was devastated in only a few days by a horde of bloodthirsty savages. Not only was Baghdad destroyed, but also a huge part of human civilization. Baghdad was to experience foreign aggression again and again later in its history, but like the tenacious Phoenix, it has always arisen from its ashes.