February 5, 2012

The house of wisdom by Jim Al-Khalili

The house of wisdom by Jim Al-Khalili
How Arabic science saved ancient knowledge and gave us the renaissance.

Progress, through reason and rationality, is by definition a good thing; knowledge and enlightenment are always better than ignorance. Throughout this book, I use term ‘Arabic science is that carried out by those who were politically under the rule of the Abbasids whose official languages was Arabic or who felt obliged to write their scientific texts in Arabic, the lingua franca of science in the medieval world. This include the great Persian scientists as part of the broad definition (same like Almagest written by Ptolemy as part of Greek science, even though he is an Egyptian)

Abu Ja far Abdulla Al-Mamun - half Arab and half Persian is the central to the book, for he was destined to become the greatest patron of science in the cavalcade of Islamic rulers, and the person responsible for initiating the world’s most impressive period of scholarship and learning since ancient Greece. He was in fact son of an even more famous caliph - called Al-Rashid (763-809) who pops up frequently as a character in the tales of ‘The thousand and one nights’. He is said to have bought a famous pearl called ‘ Al-Yatima (The Orphan Pearl) for 70,0000 gold dinars. Charlemagne is also believed to have given him what is thought to have been world’s largest emerald.

Al-Ma’mun (768-833) was born the same year that his father became caliph. His mother was a Persian slave who arrived in Bagdad as a prisoner of war. As a forfeit of beating him in the game of chess, Al-Rashid’s Arab wife Zubayda insisted that he slept with the ugliest and dirtiest slave in the kitchen and that bore him his first son, Abdulla whom he gave the title of Al-Mamun(The trustworthy)

Under Al-Mamun’s patronage and the spirit of openness and inclusiveness towards other religion and culture that he fostered, many scholars from all over the empire gravitated towards Bagdad drawn by a vibrant sense of optimism and freedom of expression that epitomized the model of this golden age. This is written in the ‘Book of Animals’ by Al-Jahith.

“Our share of wisdom would have been much reduced and our means of acquiring knowledge weakened, had the ancients (the Greeks) not preserved for us their wonderful wisdom, and their various ways of life, in writing which have revealed what was hidden from us and opened what was closed to us, thereby allowing us to add their plenty to the little we have, and to attain what we could not reach without them”

Al-Ma’mun dreamed that he saw a man and he asked him, “ who are you?’ and he replied, “I am Aristotle’. I was delighted to be with him and asked, “O Philosopher, may I ask you a question,”...”What is good?’. Aristotle replied, “Whatever is good according to intellect”. I asked: “Then what?” He replied, “Whatever is good in the opinion of the masses”.

Al-Ma’mun devoted his rest of his life to following the advice granted him by this vision, and sought everywhere to satisfy his craving for knowledge - whatever he deemed ‘good according to intellect’. Although we shall see that the Abbasid’s thirst for ancient texts from Greece, Persia and India and having them translated to Arabic began before al_Ma’mun, it was he who turned into a personal obsession. And it was during his reign that we see the first true geniuses of Arabic science. There was nothing of any real intellectual consequence had taken place in that part of the world since the decline of the Library of Alexandria hundreds of years before the arrival of Islam.

“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr” - The prophet Muhammad.

With the weakening of the Roman empire at the beginning of the 5th century, Western Europe slipped rapidly into what is now known as the Dark ages, from which it would not emerge for a 1000 years. By the time of the fall of Rome itself, the center of imperial power in Europe had long since moved eastwards to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Its rule covered Anatolia, Greece, Southern Italy, Syria, Egypt, and North African coast with eastern boarder of Iraq & Syria. The official language of the Byzantines was Greek, and official & dominant religion of the Byzantines was Christianity.

To its east, 4 centuries of Persian Sassanid rule produced an empire stretching from Iraq, & Iran through to central Asia. The middle of the 6th century marked the start of nearly 100 years of long and costly wars between the Sassanians and Byzantines over the lands of Iraq & Syria. By the 7th century, highly organized Muslim armies pushed the Byzantines out of Syria & Asia Minor then the Sasanians were defeated and crushed.

Before the arrival of Islam, the only other sovereign power in the region in Yemen and the rest of Arabia was inhabited mostly by nomadic Arab tribes. Two great cities in western Arabia had been trading centers for 100s of years before the arrival of Islam and their names were Macoraba & Yathrib and they were destined to become the two holiest cities in Islam: Mecca & Madina. Mecca housed many shrines and sanctuaries for the worship of several hundred different gods. All these gods had sanctuaries in or near Mecca, including within the Ka’ba itself. Pre-Islamic pagans would make pious visits to Mecca from all over Arabia and even walk around the Ka’ba, giving offerings to their gods.

A century before the birth of Islam one of the most powerful tribes in Arabia, the Quraysh, began to spread its influence in Mecca and it was from one of the less influential clans within this tribe that a 40-year old illiterate merchant named Muhammad announced in the year 610 that the angel Gabriel had appeared before him to reveal the word of God while he was meditating alone in a cave in Mount Hira overlooking the city. According to Islamic history, Muhammad was initially distressed at seeing the vision of angel. When he came down from the mountain he was consoled by his wife Khadija who immediately informed her Christian cousin, Waraqh ibn Nawfal, who immediately informed Muhammad that he had been chose as a new prophet, for God had also sent the angel Gabriel down to Moses two thousand years earlier and it was Gabriel who had told Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. Muhammad declared his mission and his first convert was his wife Khalija herself, followed by members of his family and close companions.

The Arabic word for God, Allah comes from a construction of two words Al-Illah , meaning The God. Arabic speaking Christians and Jews also use the same word Allah to mean God in their religions. Once his mission became clear, Muhammad would order all shrines in Mecca destroyed, but the Ka’ba itself remains to this day, situated within the largest mosque in the world, Al-Mashid al-Haram.


“The significance of the Greco-Arabic translation movement lies in that it demonstrated for the first time in history that scientific and philosophical thought are international, not bound to a specific language or culture” - Dimitiri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arab Culture.

Why did the golden age of Arabic science that blossomed so suddenly during the reign of the early Abbasid caliphs begin? The common view is that the exciting advances made in mathematics, astronomy, physics and engineering, the industrialization of chemistry, the great progress in medicine and the flourishing of philosophy that took place, first in Bagdad and then elsewhere in Islamic empire, all began thanks to the success of a spectacularly massive movement -a process that lasted 200 years - during which much of the wisdom of the earlier civilization of the Greeks, Persians and Indians was translated into Arabic. Then, once a culture of scholarship had taken hold within the Islamic Empire, it quickly became self-sustaining, leading to grand synthesis of scientific knowledge that grew to far outstrip the sum of what had come before.

Al-Fazari, one of the astrologers who advised al-Mansur and the man credited with building the first astrolabe in the Muslim world is also associated with translating several astronomical texts from Sanskrit to Arabic. It has even been claimed that he was the first to translate the Siddhanta, written by the greatest Indian mathematician and astronomer, Brahmangupta (568-668) into Arabic. The Arabic translation of this text is known as Sindhind and along with Ptolemy’s Almagest and Euclid’s Elements,, it was destined to have huge influence on the scholars of Bagdad.

Elephant Clock – an engineering marvel:
When it comes to feats of engineering in the Islamic Empire, I can do no better than to mention its most famous engineer, Ibn Ismail Al-Jazari (1136-1206) and describe his best known invention, Elephant Clock. His six foot high water powered ‘Elephant Clock is on the engineering wonders of the mediaeval world; an object of artistic beauty as well as engineering brilliance. It used Archimedes water principles combined with Indian water-timing devices and was made up of a hollow model of an Indian elephant ridden by two Arabian figures, on a Persian carpet, with Chinese dragons and Egyptian phoenix.

The clock is based on what is called a perforated float, which acts as the actuator and timekeeper for all parts of the clock. Inside the belly of the hollow elephant is a tank of water in which is floating a bowl with a tiny hole in its bottom. The hole has been carefully drilled to allow in water at a precise rate, such that the bowl completely drilled to allow in exactly half an hour. A small chain that can only flex up and down keeps the bowl close to the side do the tank thus allowing it to only move vertically. As the bowl fills, it gradually submerges into the tank and pulls on a string attached to a pulley above the elephant that cause the scribe to slowly rotate, marking out minutes. Once full, the bowl sinks more rapidly, triggering several mechanisms: a separate compartment within the float forces air through a flute, which gives off a sound suggesting the phoenix at the top of the clock that contains a number of metal balls. This channel tilts and releases a ball that rolls down, first onto fan blades that forces the phoenix to rotate, then into the mouth of on the dragons, causing to tip forward. As it does so, its tail rises and pulls on the float in the belly of the elephant. This action raises the float to the surface while tipping and emptying it to allow the whole half-hour process to be repeated. Meanwhile, the ball falls out of the dragon’s mouth onto a plate that moves the elephant driver’s arms as well as striking a cymbal hidden inside the elephant. Once the ball is released from the dragon it pivots back up again ready to receive another ball one hour later (since the two dragons alternate their actions with each ball). Of course, the ball channel would have to be constantly replenished with balls for the clock to continue working.

“The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind” - Khalil Gibran.

“We ought not to be embraced about appreciating the truth and obtaining it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nation’s different from us. Nothing should be dearer to the seeker of truth than the truth itself, and there is no deterioration of the truth, nor belittling either of one who speaks it or conveys it” - Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kinid

“During the most splendid period of Islamic Spain, ignorance was regarded as so disgraceful that those without education concealed the fact as far as possible, just as they would have hidden the commission of a crime” - S.P.Scott. History of the Moorish’s Empire in Europe.

Another gift from the Arabs is coffee - esp. as it was originally banned in Europe as a ‘Muslim drink’. Its use can be tracked down to 9th century Ethiopia where according to legend, an Arab named Khalid observed that his goats became livelier after eating the berries of the coffee plant,
Intrigued, he boiled the berries in water to produce the first cup of coffee. From Ethiopia, the drink spread to Egypt and Yemen, but it was in Arabia that coffee beans were first roasted and brewed as is done today. The story of coffee finally comes in full-circle when in 2007; an agreement was reached after a high profile court battle between the Gov. of Ethiopia, the home of coffee and the coffee giants Starbuck over copyright of trademark names of certain Ethiopian coffee beans.

It is that the golden age came suddenly crashing to an end in 1258 with the Mongols’ destruction of Bagdad during which most of the books in the House of Wisdom were destroyed by Mongolian army of Hulahu. Although accounts differ, many historians estimate that a large fraction of the city’s population, which by then could have numbered close to a million, were massacred by the Mongols within the space of a single week in Feb. of that year. So fierce was the assault that Bagdad never recovered and after five hundred years, Abbasid rule was suddenly over.

One significant factor that played a role was the reluctance of the Muslim world and the Ottoman Empire in particular, to embrace the printing press quickly enough. This is particularly poignant when one considers that the first ever book to be printed in England was the ‘Dictes and Saying of the Philosophers’ in 1477 which was the English translation of an Arabic text. Printing in Arabic type represented the early typesetters with far greater problems than Latin because of the cursive nature of Arabic script and added complication when joining up letters due to different shapes they take according onto their position in a word.

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