The Bayt Al-Hikmah: A Fabulous Centre of Learning

The House of Wisdom in Baghdad

University education is not new. The Bayt al-Hikmah, a centre of learning and translation, was founded by the Caliph Al-Ma’mun and his father, Harun ar-Rashid in the ninth century C.E. Islam had spread rapidly from the seventh century onwards and the genius of the new Muslim rulers lay in the fact that instead of destroying what they found they built on it and thereby laid the foundations for the flowering of a new synthesis of ancient skills and knowledge with the insights of Islam. Later, in the region of Al-Andalus, this was to lead to an unprecedented progress in the arts and sciences as well as metaphysical philosophy and pave the way for the Renaissance in Europe. The Bayt al-Hikmah was a pivotal mover in this history as it was here that the activity of translating ancient and invaluable documents was begun.

Origins of the Bayt al-Hikmah

The building of the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) was begun by the Abbasid Caliphs under the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid at the beginning of the ninth century. The library was originally founded on the collection of scientific works from his grand father, his father, and himself. His son, Al-Ma’mun, gave the project a new and significant momentum by inviting translators to pursue a project which involved the translating into Arabic of essential texts written in a variety of languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Farsi, and Latin. Al-Ma’mun divided the Bayt al-Hikmah into departments for each of the sciences and scholars from all disciplines met and worked within its walls. It was under Al-Ma’mun that the works of Aristotle were translated which through the Arabic editions were later to become available to European scholars.

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The Terrible End of the Bayt al-Hikmah

In 1258 the brutal invasion of the Islamic heartlands by the Mongols reached the capital of Baghdad. The Caliphate was destroyed and the Bayt al-Hikmah fared no better. The mass destruction of its treasured library reduced the collection to pulp. Baghdad had been the centre of a golden age of Islamic Civilization with far-reaching influence in the arts and sciences. The last Abbasid Caliph was killed under the command of Hulegu and the scholars at the Bayt al-Hikmah also came under the swords of the invaders.

The Heritage of the Bayt al-Hikmah

Scholars of many faiths and cultures worked in Baghdad at the Bayt al-Hikmah and their work was not lost. The translations of the Greek texts, the medical, astronomical, mathematical, and optical discoveries of generations of scholars, informed scientific progress across the Muslim lands, through Al-Andalus and into Europe for centuries.